REMEMBER THE GOLDEN AGE--
FROM FUTURE SHOCK TO FUTURE SCHLOCK
The definition of Future Shock (Toffler) -- The cultural condition of rapid erosion of collective intelligence.
The definition of Future Schlock -- That which represents a massive class of mediocre, confused, indecisive and psychologically uprooted people.
Henry Commager’s work, The American Empire, spoke of the empire of reason in 18th and 19th century America. He observed the decline in our valuation of intelligence, in the use of language, and in the disciplines of logic and reason. He describes this demise as the American Empire of Schlock.
America is one of the few countries in the world founded by intellectuals, men of wide learning of extraordinary rhetorical powers, of deep faith and reason, though there were modes of anti-intellectualism; (e.g. the U.S. experimenting in mass education that is today the envy of the world). The Land-Grant Act of 1862 made possible our great state universities and it is to America that scholars and writers have fled when freedom of the intellect became impossible in their own nations. Perhaps the decline of intelligent discourse in America will not leak to the barbarism that flourished in Germany from 1930 to 1940. But this is not a cause for complacency let alone celebration. We do not need a ministry of propaganda issuing proclamations to silence criticism.
The most advanced civilized nation in Western civilization since the Greeks banished intelligence was Germany. Hitler’s Germany banished intelligence (Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Karl Jaspers, Thomas Mann). This group submitted to the primitive superstition (Konrad Lorenz, Werner Heisenberg, Martin Heidegger, Gerardt Hauptmann). On May 10, 1933, a bonfire in Berlin burned the books of Marcel Proust, Andre Gede, Emile Zola, Jack London and Upton Sinclair. Joseph Goebels became the Minister of Propaganda in 1936 (Jacque Ellul’s Propaganda was a critique of advertisement and the demise of true truth.
C.S. Lewis’ book, Pilgrim’s Regress, marvelously focuses on these cultural indicators. Alan Roxbourgh, in his book, Reaching A New Generation, states that in “playing on John Bunyan’s famous allegory, Lewis examines the intellectual history of Europe. In the story a straight road runs through the center of a country. This is orthodox Christianity. But it is possible to explore the territory to the north and south of this road. The north represents realism, rationalism, systematization and the exclusive use of reason, while moving south one would move further and further into feeling, experience, mysticism and naturalism.” (Alan J. Roxbourgh, Reaching A New Generation/Strategies For Tomorrow’s Church (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1993)
Lewis described it this way:
The Northerners are men of rigid systems whether skeptical or dogmatic, Aristocrats, Stoics, Pharisees, Rigorists, signed and sealed members of highly organized ‘Parties.’ The Southerners are by their very nature less definable; boneless souls whose doors stand open day and night to almost every visitant, . . .the smudging of all frontiers, the relaxation of resistances, dreams, opium, darkness, death, and the return to the womb. Every feeling is justified by the mere fact that it is felt: for a Northerner, every feeling on the same ground is suspect. An arrogant and hasty selectiveness on some narrow a priori basis cuts him off from the sources of life. . . . I take our own age to be predominantly Northern (C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress (Glasgow, U.K.: Collins/Fount, 1990)
MEDIA--MIRRORS OF POSTMODERN CULTURE
Two recent movies mirror our postmodern malaise as examples of achieving stupidity. One is “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” This is about a tribal people who live in the Kalahari Desert on the plains of South Africa and what happens to their culture when it is invaded by an empty Coca Cola bottle tossed from the window of a small airplane passing overhead. This bottle is contrived to be a gift from the gods, having never seen glass or a bottle before. They were charmed by the intriguing music they heard when they blew into it. For the tribe, the bottle became an irresistible preoccupation displacing activities one thought essential. Also, the tribe noted that the bottle was the only one of its kind.
The possession of the bottle produced jealousy, greed and violence, destroying the harmony that had characterized their culture for a thousand years. People began to love the bottle more than one another and are saved when one of the leaders returns the bottle to the gods by throwing it off the top of a mountain. What was the relevance of this film for people in Chicago, Honolulu, Los Angeles or New York or the people of the Kalahari Desert? The film raised two questions: (1) How does technology change a culture? and (2) Is it always desirable for a culture to accommodate itself to the demands of new technology? (American technological progress) Coke bottles are not so alluring that they are worth admitting envy, egotism, and greed to a serene culture.
The second film was produced by Mel Brooks in 1967, (recently made into a popular Broadway stage play), called “The Producer.” This comedy was at the center a painful joke. An unscrupulous theatrical producer has figured out how to produce a play that is a failure. If it is a failure there will be no profits to disperse and the producer can walk away with thousands of dollars that can never be claimed. Brooks took the most tragic and grotesque story of our century, that of the dictator, Adolf Hitler, and made it into a musical, “Springtime for Hitler.” The opening song began with the words, “Springtime for Hitler and Germany, Winter for Poland and France.” “Springtime” is a spoof on Hitler as was Charlie Chaplin’s play, “The Great Dictator.” The play is a denial of Hitler in song and dance as if to say, it was all in fun! The outcome of the play is predictable. The audiences loved the play and the producer ends up in jail.
Long before a movie actor would become president of the United States, Brooks was making a kind of prophecy about producers of American culture who would turn our history, politics, religion, commerce and education into a form of entertainment and as a result we would become a trivial people, incapable of coping with complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty, and perhaps even reality. We will become a people amused into stupidity. (Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death)
PROPHETS OF DISORDER
(Control by Fear or Entertainment)
The prophetic voice of Aldous Huxley’s, Brave New World (1932) was ahead of its time when the modern monuments to intellectual stupidity were taking shape (e.g. Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy, Communism in Russia). Huxley was not concerned in his book with crude forms of intellectual suicide. He says America’s threat to intelligent and humane creativity of our culture would not come from Big Brother or gulags and concentration camps.
Tyranny lurking in a Coca Cola bottle could be ruined not by what we fear and hate but of what we welcome and love, by what we construe to be a “gift from the gods.” In 1952, Huxley wrote The Brave New World Revisited.. By then George Orwell had written his book 1984. (Compare the difference between Huxley and Orwell’s books. In Orwell, people are controlled by “inflicting pain.” In Huxley, people are controlled by “inflicting pleasure.”) A coke bottle falling in our midst is a corporation of dazzling technologies. Television is the principle instrument of this disaster as it commands the center of our culture (see my paper, “The Shaping of Consumers in Our Age of Ease”). Political campaigns are now conducted in the form of TV commercials (e.g. The 1994 elections and media). Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Jerry Falwell are performers who exploit TV’s visual power (e.g., at most Christmas pageants, the Wisemen come to the stable in Bethlehem with the shepherds; this is revisionist history for the sake of entertainment in postmodern culture; (see especially Andreas Huyssen’s book, After the Great Divide: Modernism in Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 179); also, his book Technological Imagination in Postmodernism and Z.K. Wandell’s Representation and Difference; Postmodernism is constantly presented in Catalog Documenta in “New Left Review” journal and Jeurgen Habermas’s article, “Modernism versus Postmodernism” in the journal, “New German Critique” 22 Winter, 1978, pp. 3-14)
But American frivolization of public discourse is not accomplished on TV. Deuteronomy’s second commandment is no critic of visual arts. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, nor any likeness of anything that is in heaven above.” Forms of communications are neither good nor bad in themselves. They become good or bad by depending on the relationship to other symbols and on the functions they are made to serve with a “Social Order.” (The TV series, Peter, the Great, defended its historical inaccuracies in the drama, stating that it is alright that the audience learns an untruth just as long as it is entertaining.)
When a culture becomes overloaded with a picture; when logic and rhetoric lose their binding authority; when historical truth becomes irrelevant; when the spoken or written word is distrusted or make demands on our attentions that we are incapable of giving; when our politics, history, education, religion, public information and commerce are expressed largely in visual imagery rather than in words, their culture is in serious jeopardy. (Neil Postman, Conscientious Objections (Vintage Books, p. 173).
Postman’s book is not an attack on technological entertainment as characteristic producers of culture. There is no mountain top from which we can return! There are two ways the spirit of culture can be degraded; (1) The Orwellian world becomes a prison and (2) Huxleyian culture become a burlesque. Huxley teaches us that in the age of technological advance spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling countenance than from one whose face exudes suspicion and hate. Orwell’s prophecy, Big Brother, does not watch us by his choice; we watch him by our choice.
When a culture becomes distracted by trivia; when political and social life are redefined as a perpetual round of entertainment; when public conversation becomes a form of baby talk; when a people become in short, an audience (cf. Seeker friendly audiences, resurgent pragmatism in church and culture and their public business a vaudeville act); then--Huxley argued, a nation finds itself at risk and cultural death is a close possibility.
This reflects our postmodern cultural malaise. There are at least three models of cultural response: (1) Athenians, (2) Visigoths, and (3) Christian Worldview.
A. Greece (Athens) are not origins but accomplishments:
1. Invented political democracy
2. Invented philosophy
3. Invented logic
4. Invented Rhetoric
5. Close to science (cf. Newton, Einstein, et.al., chaos physics, non linear physics)
6. Democratus - atomic theory of matter
7. Composed and sang songs of unsurpassing beauty
8. Wrote and performed plays
9. Invented the Olympics
10. Valued excellence
11. Believed in reason
12. Believed in beauty
13. Believed in moderation
14. Invented the word and idea we call ecology
B. The Visigoths - the period known as The Dark Ages 1200 years ago (now known as Germany). It took Europe almost a thousand years to recover from this period. The Greeks ushered in the enlightenment period (Renaissance). Both survive but differ in how they/we conduct us. The world reflects the ways of the Athenians--the world reflects the way of the Visigoths:
1. To a Visigoth, the quest for knowledge is useless; it can help you make money or gain power over people.
2. To an Athenian, they cherish language; it strives for grace and precision (man’s most priceless gift).
3. To a Visigoth, one word is as good as another; one sentence is indistinguishable from another. The Visigoth language aspires to nothing higher than the cliché.
4. Athenians place great value on tradition, social restraint and continuity.
5. To an Athenian bad manners are acts of violence against the social order.
6. Modern Visigoths care little about any of this.
7. Visigoths think of themselves as the center of the universe (cf. Our narcissistic postmodern omnipotent self.
8. Tradition is useless--good manners are an affectation and a burden, history is merely what is in yesterday’s newspaper (cf. Loss of “community of memory”).
9. Athenians are concerned about public affairs and improvement of public behavior. Indeed the Greek “idiots” (modern Visigoths) are interested only in their own affairs and have no sense of the meaning of community.
10. An Athenian esteemed the discipline skill and tastes that are required to produce enduring art.
11. To a Visigoth, that is no measure of artistic excellence except popularity. Multitude is good; no other standard is respected or even acknowledged by the Visigoth.
Our postmodern culture is one side or the other. Why are there more Visigoths than Athenians? There are many closet Visigoths. Visigoths would scrawl obscenities on the wall. Choose you this day whom you will serve--the faithful God, the Athenians, the Visigoths? The Christian worldview alone can address the strengths of both the Athenians and the Visigoths.
Christian Worldview: Visigoth Worldview:
1. Personal/rational creator God is the 1. Humanism: Loss of God.
origin of the cosmos. 2. Secularism: Loss of Shame.
2. Man rebelled against the holiness of 3. Pluralism: Loss of True Truth
God which resulted in fragmentation of 4. Narcissism: Loss of Meaning (purpose)
all relationship. 5 . No True Truth/objectivity.
a. Fragmentation of God and
men in our postmodern cultural
loss of transcendence.
b. Fragmentation in man and others.
c. Fragmentation of the self.
d Fragmentation of God and nature,
God and history, God and social structure
C. The Foolishness of The Gospel to the Athenians and the Visigoths.
If we are to be faithful to the Gospel of Christ in our culture which is dominated by the above alternatives, we must prepare for our cross cultural communication challenge.
“Lesslie Newbigin explains, in his work Foolishness to the Greeks, that missionary communication must take place--(1) in the language of the receptor culture, accepting ‘at least provisionally, the way of understanding things that is embodied in that language.’ (2) the missionary communication will call radically into question that culture’s understanding of reality, with an appropriate call for repentance, in the sense of ‘a U-turn of the mind;’(3) missionary communicators know that when the receptor(s) discover faith and experience conversion, this is supremely to be attributed to a miracle, the work of God, and not primarily to the missionary’s great theology or communication competency. Newbigin adds that effective missionary communication always involves finding the path between two dangers:” (George Hunter, How To Reach Secular People (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1992), p. 80)
(All postmodern cultural/epistemological relativism of Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology, etc., rejects the above suggestions, but cultural/epistemological relativism has no rational ground for the critiquing of alternative systems. The 19th century developments in science attacked the Judaeo-Christian position for being irrational and superstitious while postmodernism attacks Christianity for being too rational.)
On the one hand, he may simply fail to communicate: he uses the words of the language, but in such a way that he sounds like a foreigner; his message is heard as the babbling of a man who really has nothing to say. Or, on the other hand, he may so far succeed in talking the language of his hearers that he is accepted all too easily as a familiar character--a moralist calling for greater purity of conduct or a guru offering a path to the salvation that all human beings want. His message is simply absorbed into the existing worldview and heard as a call to be more pious or better behaved. In the attempt to be “relevant” one may fall into syncretism, and in the effort to avoid syncretism one may become irrelevant. (Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness To The Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1986), p. 129).
James D. Strauss, Emeritus
Lincoln Christian Seminary
Lincoln, IL 62656