Sunday, July 4, 2010

Cultural Betrayal?

I listen to all kinds of music, but usually either classical or rock and pop. Yesterday, as I drove home from an errand, Sibelius' Finlandia came on the satellite radio station. I think I was in high school when I first heard the hymn “This is My Song” (also the hymn “Be Still, My Soul”), based on a melody in Finlandia.  I loved the hymn and wanted to hear the original piece, so I looked for an LP.  But Sibelius’ tone poem had more turbulent, rat-a-tat-tat-tat music, and the melody used in the hymn figured less prominently. The beginning sounded to me like music for a cartoon on which one character was sneaking up upon another. I was expecting a peaceful meditation on that melody, similar to Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia or Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants on “Dives and Lazarus.” To this day, I wish Finlandia had been written as an adagio. I’m also amused at myself for thinking this warhorse should’ve been written in a way personally pleasing to me.

As I thought about ways to turn this silly little observation into a blog post, I happened to read the essay “Cultural Betrayal” in Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas (New York: Scribner, 2007), pp. 283-287. I love Klosterman’s writing and used to follow his columns in the Akron Beacon-Journal. He discussed how prevalent and yet how foolish and even scary is the idea that you can feel “betrayed” by culture. His examples: one of his friends who felt betrayed by the marriage of Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in the last episode of Sex and the City. The friend was adamant. Klosterman also found scary the notion of values “winning,” like the words of another writer who was happy “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was on the radio because the writer’s values were now “winning.” “[W]hat I have slowly come to realize,” writes Klosterman, “is that most people think this way all the time. They don’t merely want to hold their values; they want their values to win. And I suspect this is why people so often feel “betrayed” by art and consumerism, and by the way the world works” (p. 285; emphasis in text).

I found Klosterman’s idea of “cultural betrayal” intriguing--and it definitely explains a lot about human nature! It’s one reason why people debate so vigorously over issues like the suitability of the conclusions of The Sopranos and Lost, or whether certain artists like Liz Phair and Amy Grant let their fans down when their styles change or when they don't "top" a superior album.

We church people definitely fall into this kind of thinking. Sometimes we prefer a certain kind of style of music and, because we like it and find it spiritually helpful, we think everyone should. But lots of hurt feelings and divisions have happened in churches because of that. Similarly, some folks attend certain popular spiritual retreats, and when they return to church they perceive that other people aren’t as pumped up spiritually as they feel. So they start to dismiss other Christians as “not spiritual,” and sometimes they leave the church or demand that their values “win” in that congregation.

It’s too bad we’re this way. When my former pastor took another church position, I bought him a farewell gift, a 10-CD set of 1970s popular hits. Other than prog rock I never enjoyed a lot of 70s music, which reminds me of lonely times. I love 80s music. But I’m happy that he’s happy listening to Average White Band, Donna Summer, Jim Croce, Abba, Pure Prairie League, and Firefall, while in my own car I’m cranking up Mr. Mister, Spandau Ballet, Kate Bush, the Bangles, Bananarama, and the Thompson Twins. I'd hate like crazy if either of our tastes “prevailed.”

And yet... I was so excited when Sophie B. Hawkins began to get significant airplay in the mid 1990s; finally the public appreciated music that I liked!.... Human nature strikes again.

“Cultural betrayal” explains a lot about how some people perceive certain social, political and economic questions, too. That’s a whole ‘nother topic to explore!

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