White Noise in the Moral Vacuum
It should go without saying at this point that the Western World is thoroughly post-Christian, and that goes for America as well as Europe, even if it is still to a lesser degree. One of the most obvious results in this shift is that the “Judeo-Christian” ethic is no longer a guiding light behind our collective moral decision making. It seems that for a few years there was a very clear, loud, and futile protest against this slippage, but it marched forward anyway. Spokepersons of this strain of morality have lost their voice.
There has been a fascinating trend, however, even in mainstream media. I have noticed on several occasions articles or opinion pieces that contain the faint cries for moral clarity, but without any foundation for further conversation. This occurred rather pathetically right after Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance.
I read about it before I saw it, so I had some expectation that she had done something singularly obscene. When I did find the footage on YouTube I have to admit that I was quite confused about the fuss. Confused not because it was crass, but because it certainly didn’t seem to me to be breaking any boundaries not already topped a hundred times by others. It was probably so shocking because of her status as a clean-cut tween icon, but so was Britney, so I’m not sure if that explains as much as it might seem.
In any case, the reviewers and commentators struggle to express their displeasure and distaste without crossing a line of moral judgment, but it is quite apparent that kind of judgment is exactly the one they are attempting to make but on completely traction-less ground. There’s nothing to hold to.
The reaction to Miley’s performance never seemed to get beyond vague distaste or disapproval. What really solidified in my mind the trend I am describing was an interview the BBC published a week ago with John Waters, linked here. I only know Waters’ by reputation, but it is quite a reputation. He has directed a couple of mainstream movies, Hairspray and Cry-Baby, but is most well-known for his gross-out comedies. Among his self-declared titles are “the pope of trash” and “prince of puke.” The article begins with,
When John Waters was a little boy in Baltimore growing up amidst the strict moral values of 1950s America, he fantasised about growing up to run a porn film theatre: “I knew what I wanted to be – the filthiest person alive.”
Okay, so here is a guy with a sick sense of humor and a moderate degree of commercial success. What’s so interesting about Waters? Read the interview. As they talk through a series of different topics, Hollywood comedies, bad taste, internet pornography, in an almost surreal turn we find Waters actually critiquing what has become mainstream. Now, he doesn’t go so far as to make actual statements of morality, but some of his disgust amounts to exactly that. Heterosexual pornography, for example, involves significant mistreatment of women. (On the other hand, homosexual porn does not: “They are both in on it”!) There is something wrong with sex that involves mistreatment. Waters says, “Its not making love, its making hate.” The bulk of his critique comes down to some undefined sense that a line has been crossed somewhere. In the end it can’t be put any clearer. But the mere fact that John Waters is critiquing our culture in this way is remarkable.
Vacuums get filled. On some level, and for reasons I doubt many people understand, there are still moral imperatives ingrained into our thinking. For some reason what Miley Cyrus did was tragic. For Waters, in the end, two-consenting-adults-having-sex doesn’t always equal “love.” But what is filling the vacuum is arguably equally vacuous. We don’t want to see a child transformed into a simulated sex act with a foam finger, but it is next to impossible to articulate why. In the end its just white noise, the result of a collective cringe, a clearing of throat, and a dull murmur of disappointment.
I’m not sure what the concrete solution to this is. I doubt very much that it is a return to the “Moral Majority” type culture war. In many ways the situation quite discouraging. However, somehow that discouragement needs to be transformed into hope by faith and through love for Miley and John and our whole world. We should be encouraged that even though our cultural depravity is quite pronounced there is still a built-in desire for moral clarity. This does not mean that people are basically good: they are the opposite. But it does mean that even in all of our wickedness there is still, somewhere and horribly disfigured, a desire for love and goodness. This is a grace of God. I think that Christians need to have a renewed sense of calling in this regard. Light shines, and though we will encounter significant resistance we can be hopeful that there is still a context, and least within the individual if not in the public forum, in which to talk about ultimate goodness which is only truly found in God’s grace through Jesus Christ.
If people are eager to hear the white noise, what will they do when they hear real music? Maybe most of them will hate it, just like most ended up hating Jesus when they met him. But on the other hand, we must move forward in hope that revival is possible. It is not my intention in any of this to reduce Christianity to a set of moral imperatives. Christianity is more than just sin management, but it certainly isn’t less. 1 John tells us that a big reason people don’t come to the light is because it exposes dark deeds. But, on the other hand, it is also for that same reason that some enter in.