The other day, I was listening to an episode of the Bill Simmons podcast** that he did with Chuck Klosterman. If you’re unfamiliar with Klosterman, he’s an author of mostly essays, (formerly) an ethics column in the New York Times, and music reporting. He’s done lots of other things and I’m probably not giving you an accurate picture of him. He’s a weird, creative guy who talks about lots of things and is certainly portrayed as very “cool.” Simmons is a former ESPN employee that has made his living talking/writing sports and pop culture. They occasionally appear on Simmons’ podcast together and have wide-ranging conversations about lots of things. They’re usually some mixture of fascinating and annoying.
This most recent episode was typically wide-ranging. Two men who like to talk and opine talking with and at and also to each other to varying degrees of success. As Simmons has gotten older, one of his oft-repeated tropes is his observation about the nature and speed of the way media has shifted. For example, we don’t go to the movies as much. We’re on our phones a lot more. The Internet can tell us and bring us everything. More and more people prefer watching sports at home on their nice TVs rather than live. In this instance, they were remarking on the existence of Netflix and the like that has created a culture of binge-watching on demand and has removed cultural conversations about common pieces of cultural artifacts. How often do people gather around the proverbial water cooler and talk about the latest episode of any show? Or any movie? Very rarely. Why? Because there’s so many options and we can watch those things when we want. This was referred to as the ebbing away of “monoculture.”
We’ve lost these cultural landmarks in entertainment that provide widespread points of connection between people.
Now, this is, to some degree, a good thing. There are more avenues for new producers of creative content to have their voices heard. People with money have avenues of placing more bets on younger talent that may have otherwise taken years to be seen/heard. Also, “monoculture” has the disadvantage of being heavily “mono.” We have seen that recently in the #OscarsSoWhite conversation relatively recently. Entertainment has suffered from a lack of people making things that weren’t entirely shepherded along by white males. We’re better off when we have more stories being told by more people.
But we are losing something in this lack of large touchpoints, cultural tentpoles around which big sections of culture can gather and have conversation. As they were discussing this, I immediately thought of one of the lasting tentpoles in society: politics. We still have large discussions online, in print, and in person, about politics. Eventually, Klosterman and Simmons made the same observation.
As I realized that this was true, how much of our corporate dialogue is driven towards this particular tentpole, I felt sick to my stomach. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but politics is a bit of a mess right now. “It has been for years!” or “It always will be!” you may cry. But come on. The President of the United States retweeted British fascists who have a reputation for racism and links with violence in their country. He probably did it out of ignorance because it helps spread the bigotry that will pass along some of his political objectives. And he probably won’t say “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I didn’t know.” because those are not words this President will ever utter. Or he has to say, “I know they’re evil fascists and I don’t care.” And he won’t do that. He’ll just stay silent. Because he can. Because his party is thriving on people getting offended and the people in his party who are offended don’t want to lose their jobs.
I mean… it’s a mess. And that was yesterday. Not even all of the mess from this week.
But it’s true. Our culture has declining options in regards to tentpoles around which we can all gather and have common conversations. I’d say sports is still relatively on that list. But sports and politics? That’s pretty much it. And guess what is invading our sports arenas? Politics.
This is not a post to say that people should stop paying attention to politics. Politics is an important thing that deserves our attention. As a member of this Republic, it’s actually my duty to pay attention and to care. You and I should care and be involved. I’ve contacted my representatives more times this year than ever before. And I aim to keep doing that even when we don’t have a President who regularly tweets nonsense. Our system does well when citizens are engaged.
What I am saying is that if we abandon the place of tentpoles to politics alone, our common culture will continue to collapse. We need something to continue to provide big, wide spaces for people to find points of contact with our neighbors.
We need artists to continue to make good art.
We need writers to find compelling stories and make us pay attention.
We need city and town governments to keep literal central gathering spaces and to put things in those spaces that will gather us there.
And this is even more a conviction that I felt as I listened to that podcast that the Church has an opportunity to provide for the general flourishing of our society by being what a fracturing entertainment industry cannot and a better version of what our politics is becoming. The Christian claim is that there is an available society-within-society that provides pillars around which it is good for people to gather.
I’m saying that churches have the opportunity to provide places to circle around discuss justice and beauty. And not just discuss those things but to be instruments of those things. People, I think, are hungry to have those stories told and enacted. And the Church should absolutely be encouraging and facilitating those stories, those conversations. We believe them more deeply than we believe in politics or sports or entertainment. At least, I hope we do.
And ultimately, Christians claim (or should claim) that the ultimate tentpole around which to gather is not a cause or commodity or politician, but around Jesus. I think we’re seeing fracturing not from bad desires, but from insufficient desires, if I could very loosely quote CS Lewis. Culture was meant to be built around worthwhile compelling things and, more specifically, around the most compelling Person in the universe.
Now, that is an increasingly eye-rolling proposition in our culture which has lost the enchantment it once held. But that’s besides the point! We can at least ask the question to our neighbors, “Are we really better off if the only things we gather around are politics and sports? Is that all we are going to leave our children?” I hope not! I hope that, whether or not people buy our suggestion that culture ultimately hungering to worship the infinitely good God of heaven and earth, they can at least buy that we must build better societal structures. We must purposefully turn towards better conversation pieces than the latest madness in Washington.
Christians, this is our responsibility. If you’d like to hunker down and wait for the end to arrive, well… I have some bad news for you. I don’t think you’re allowed to do that. I think you should take Jeremiah’s admonition in chapter 29 of his book (before the famous coffee-cup verse) and settle in for a while. Plant gardens. Work for the good of the city.
This is our task. We believe that God made people to be agents of His reign in this messy garden of a world, to build cities that last and are lastingly good. We can’t abandon our cultures to the twisted realms of sports and politics. Sure, we can send our athletes and our politicians there (those exist still, right?). But we also need to plant some common gardens that are life-giving and bring flourishing apart from those things.
And we better get our own houses in order. Are our churches full of vibrant society gathered around Jesus? Is he compelling enough that we share our tables, our conversations, our lives around who we say he is? If he cannot hold up the tent over the heads of black and white, rich and poor, then we have a problem. We do not believe what we think we believe.
But I think Jesus actually is good enough to hold up our dreams, our longings for society. And I think he can show us that even what we think we thirst for is too small a thing. He has for us life that is even better than we dream of or find anywhere else.
**Disclaimer: This is not a Christian podcast. If you are expecting a Christian podcast with people who talk like Christians, you will be offended. You have been forewarned.