A recent headline proclaimed, “Potential Senate candidate Kid Rock fires back at Eminem for his anti-President Trump rap.” For someone who grew up in the 1990s, when unsavory rock/rap “artists” like Kid Rock and Eminem dominated the airwaves and Donald Trump was running casinos, this was terrifying to read.
How did we get here and what does the church have to learn from this cultural turn?
In his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” Neil Postman said that America’s obsession with television fundamentally changed the character of the nation’s discourse. The public had lost interest in long, nuanced debates like the ones Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, then presidential candidates, had in the 1800s.
In a famous survey following the televised Nixon-Kennedy debates, those who listened on radio thought Nixon won, while those who watched on television thought that the younger, made-for-TV Kennedy was the winner.
The real winner was television. The television form, not necessarily its content, won the battle for our collective attention and ushered in a new set of rules, a new grammar for cultural expression. The shift was clear: America wanted to be entertained and institutions that failed to do so would become irrelevant.
The popular celebrations of the 1950s television era were shows like American Bandstand with the charismatic high priest of pop culture, Dick Clark, leading young devotees in the worship of their musical idols.
The teenagers of the ’50s and ’60s who spent Monday through Friday dancing with Dick Clark may have felt let down on a pre-Vatican II Sunday where the smells and bells were far less exciting than the Four Seasons and the Four Tops.
Over the next half century, the entertainment industry cut into the church’s capacity to communicate the Gospel by establishing itself as the new cultural authority, swapping Scripture for screenplays and saints for celebrities.
Now, as we begin to look at television through the rearview mirror and head deeper into the internet era where all previous media (print, radio, TV, film) have found a new home on the digital screen, another surprising shift is occurring. If the television appealed most to our imagination and acted as an extension of it, the internet is extending a different interior sense, our memory.
IBM’s old slogan was “Think” and Apple’s was “Think different.” But computers don’t think, they remember. This ability to extend our individual and cultural memory to devices and then to retrieve and review it in detail is an astonishing development.
If the television meant we were “amusing ourselves to death,” what is the internet doing? Perhaps it’s an opportunity to remember ourselves, to collect all the fragments of culture that were exploded in the television era and piece them back together in a coherent whole.
One example of this rediscovery is in the liturgy. I am struck by the renewed interest in the Tridentine Mass among some young Catholics. It certainly isn’t a bout of nostalgia since none of them was born in the pre-Vatican II era.
What it could be is a rediscovery of part of who we are as Catholics, something that is partly romantic but also deeply historical. A good memory gives us access to our history and tradition in ways that may deepen our commitments and even attract renewed commitment among the young.
The allure of old things to the young should not strike us as strange in this environment. The great minds of the Renaissance relished their newfound access to the vast stores of knowledge unlocked by the printing press and the proliferation of ancient texts. That access led to new breakthroughs and incredible achievements in the arts and sciences.
The church is sitting on a treasure trove of memory that is waiting to be rediscovered and experienced anew.
So let’s skip the tired debates about old versus new and take up the really productive work of trying to better understand the symbolic environment we live in, how it is informed by the past and the present, and how it is shaped by the media we use to communicate, and to seek communion.
Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.