catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 4 :: 2010.02.19 — 2010.03.04


Put your whole self in

During the first few weeks of the shared job my husband and I began in the fall of 2006, I was given one of those get-to-know-you surveys to complete — you know: favorite color, favorite time of day, something no one knows about you.  Those kinds of surveys tend to frustrate me because, in addition to problematic questions (something no one knows about me — do I really want to confess that here?), they attempt to sum up a person according to her likes and dislikes.  It feels a bit like putting a cartoon version of myself out there for everyone to judge.

These complaints are really very minor.  I don’t protest and sometimes, I actually kind of enjoy filling them out.  One of my answers to this particular survey, however, still haunts me.  The question was, “What is one of your guilty pleasures?”  I think my supervisor’s answer of “big donuts” was much more fitting (and memorable) than mine: “having a glass of wine while leisurely cooking dinner.”  After the bulletin board with all of our office answers had been up for a few months, the truth hit me: I’m a liar.

Since then, I’ve given some more thought to the idea of guilty pleasures.  Wine and leisure and cooking are all good gifts that ought to give me pleasure, especially when combined, and I don’t actually feel guilty about any of them.  In fact, I feel grateful, so I can only assume that there were some other voices that seduced me when I was filling out that survey —voices saying that taking more time than necessary to do a task and then fueling that leisure with alcohol was a waste.  Couldn’t I think of a better way to spend my time and money?  In the end, I don’t think those voices are very loud or powerful in my life, but I do think my lapse is symptomatic of a larger issue. 

While I believe guilt has a purpose, I think it’s often applied too liberally.  The ethno-religious culture I grew up in does guilt really well.  We are, after all, totally depraved, right?  However, I would say the extent to which guilt infests our choices may have become a culturally conditioned idol, so that some of us feel guilty for not feeling guilty more often.  The things we feel guilty about, legitimately or not, become further removed from communal engagement as we begin to hoard our own private stashes of guilty pleasures.  In some areas of life — food, drugs, sex — we see this type of behavior leading to diagnosable disorders and addictions.  But misapplied guilt is not just a clinical problem, it’s a theological problem as well.

I see this pattern playing out on the college campus where I work, particularly related to popular art.  Guilt over the time spent with such pleasures as soap operas, Disney films and top-40 pop music creates divided people.  Even as they gather weekly around dorm televisions to slurp up Grey’s Anatomy, the only aspects of culture they tend to bring to the table for collective examination are those which have been baptized by an elusive group of gatekeepers as worth discussing in a Christian academic setting.  Such tendencies can serve to reinforce the dualism of sacred and secular culture in a new way.  We worship cultural artifacts that have been okayed by the social groups that claim our loyalties, while the rest become perceived as irrelevant to our faith or neutral at best, and downright evil and expendable at worst.  Therefore, Grey’s Anatomy can only be comfortably consumed, and perhaps discussed, within the safe space of the dorm room.  My concern is that this dualism severely stunts a comprehensive vision for the body of Christ pointing to and working out the Kingdom of God in all things.  If we feel we cannot bring our whole selves to a conversation, then some parts of our selves, our lives and our culture never see the light of collective Holy Spirt-ed discernment.

I’m not suggesting that every Christian needs to analyze every aspect of popular culture-that would be impossible-or even that we need to spend equal amounts of time discussing The Bachelor and The Wire.  Everyone makes necessary choices that inform limitations. That said, something is missing when individuals within those groups feel the need to hide a certain segment of their pleasures out of guilt.  There needs to be space for engaging all of our pleasures in community because pleasure is an aspect of human experience that can point us to God.  The body of Christ needs members who have been given the gift to take pleasure in King Lear as much as it needs members who have been given the gift to take pleasure in Survivor.  Some culture-philes might even take pleasure in both, but at the very least we ought to be able to engage each other in conversation, submitting to the experience of others when ours is lacking and watching for the in-breaking of the Kingdom in all things. 

“Really?” you might wonder.  “Even the music of someone like Lady Gaga is worth discussing in Christian circles?”  Yes!  Lady Gaga comes from somewhere — she’s shaped by certain spirits of our age, just like we are — and she wants to change us, even if her program for changing her listeners is unarticulated or even overtly denied.  In case you think I’m nuts, I’ll let David Dark, a greater cultural critic and theologian than myself, speak:

In the case of media, engagement is a necessity.  If we don’t talk about what we’re watching and hearing and taking in, we’re really only addicts, taking in information without response.  When we surrender our attention without thinking critically (not necessarily negatively), the victory of a death dealing matrix over our lives is nearly complete.  Unless we talk back and talk about what passes before us, we’re pretty well finished, and the daily becomes a repulsive burden.  Authenticity implies engagement.  And as ever, it’s easy to get started once two or more are gathered.  It could be that no film, music, literature or television is so patently bad that it can yield no worthwhile conversation.  Assuming that there’s no point in discussing something is probably good news for the Matrix.

Now, I’m not saying (and Dark isn’t either) that we need to rip apart everything we listen to and watch until it’s simply no fun anymore. We’re graciously invited into truth-seeking work that is important and often liberating and delightful, especially when the faithful response is to laugh and dance and sing.  When we see more clearly together, we might actually come to welcome some of the ways Lady Gaga seeks to change us.

My survey answer about guilty pleasures was taken down from the ever-changing bulletin board long ago, but I did recently place a more permanent sign on our office door: POP CULTURE CONFESSION BOOTH.  Already, naming a space free of guilt has created a space full of conversation where we can seek to both know and be fully known — even, and perhaps especially, if we just watched Evil Dead 2…and liked it.  If we can practice seeing one another’s most cotton candy cultural preferences and loving each other anyway, then maybe, just maybe, we can learn to see the more bitter parts of each other as well in the fullness of unconditional love.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus