Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Is That All There Is?

By Drew

Our fearless co-leader Mitchell left a comment last week over at Stella Borealis Catholic Roundtable, a blog he sometimes writes for. In it, he offers his opinion on an article written by Karl Keating, an apologist for Catholic Answers. Since Keating's piece touches on culture, I thought it was only fitting that I take a crack at it myself. (And no, this has nothing to do with trying to earn brownie points with Mitchell.)

Keating's point, I think, is that pop culture, when taken to excess, has the potential to break down man’s ability to reason. A steady diet of Oprah, Dr. Phil, and so much else of what passes for entertainment today has resulted in a populace that feels, rather than thinks. “They aren't given to real thinking,” he says. “They emote. They easily are swayed by appeals to greed and envy. They are interested in bread and circuses. In an earlier post, I referred to “the Oprafied, emotions-on-the-sleeve sentimental mush we seem to crave.” Today we have a president who appears to rely on feelings rather than reason in making policy decisions (the immigration debate, for example). The loss of rational, intellectual thought is one of the defining characteristics of modern society.

Keating talks about the challenges of evangelizing such people – how do you reach unserious people with a serious message? “How do we make them see that their focus on celebrities may amuse them, may entertain them, may occupy their time but undoubtedly has taken them away from really important things?”

There’s no question that trying to engage such people can be frustrating. Keating talks about seeing “people in the checkout line at the supermarket” and wanting to give them a good book to read, rather than the “junk in the racks. Read books that will improve your mind.” It’s hard to argue with him there; look at the magazines in that checkout line he refers to and you’ll read tons of speculation as to which celebrity is a) pregnant, b) engaged, c) separated, d) in rehab, e) dying, f) all of the above. People who are immersed in this kind of lifestyle have virtually lost touch with reality. (I could say the same about the people you see at Star Trek and Star Wars conventions, but that’s another topic.) It’s a superficial lifestyle, and you’d think sooner or later that old line of Peggy Lee’s would come to them: “Is that all there is?”

And so I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with much of what Keating says; yet, like Mitchell, I’m somehow put off by the tone he uses.

Keating says:

It has been more than twenty years now since I gave up television. (Foolishly, I didn't do it as an ongoing Lenten penance and therefore got no spiritual brownie points for it.) But I do remember, years ago, being puzzled when watching a particular game show. I no longer remember which show it was, but I remember one of the regular participants, Orson Bean. I never could figure out who the guy was. So far as I knew, he never had done anything of note. He was on the show because he was a celebrity, and he was a celebrity because he was on the show. It seemed a perfect circle. Perhaps Bean actually had done something interesting in his earlier life, but to me he became the symbol of the vacuity of celebrityism. He was the compleat artificial man.

This seems to be a gratuitous piece of information, one that comes very close to being a boast. (And here, by the way, I want to second what Mitchell implies, that it’s particularly cruel to refer to Orson Bean as the “compleat artificial man.” Orson Bean’s had a very successful career in movies, TV and the stage, as well as writing several books and voicing Bilbo Baggins in the original animated TV version of The Hobbit, and if he primarily became known as a game show personality, there was still much more to him than that. He certainly doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with Paris Hilton.)

Perhaps it’s the way Keating talks about it having been over twenty years that he’s given up television, maybe it’s the willful ignorance he displays about today’s culture. He admits (no, I'd say he almost brags) he had to look up Paris Hilton on Wikipedia to find out who she was. (Perhaps he should have checked out Orson Bean while he was at it.) And while it’s admirable to find someone who isn’t consumed by Paris, I agree with what Mitchell says:

[Here is] my problem with Keating's comments - to withdraw too completely from pop culture is, to a great extent, to lose touch with what is going on in modern society. While I don't watch reality TV, nor most of the most popular series (i.e. The Sopranos), you can bet that I'm aware of them, and it helps me understand more about the people who do watch them.

Don't misunderstand me - I agree that we should spend more time with books and good music than with the mindless boob tube. And yet I don’t think we should be so quick to follow Keating’s trail to his conclusion. As Mitchell says, “while I agree with a good bit of what Keating says, ultimately I think he's setting up a straw man: the idea that it has to be all or nothing?”

There is often a sort of pride among people who say, with great fanfare, that they "don't watch TV." Every time I run into someone like that, I'm reminded of the old cliche, "Ignorance is bliss." Now, I'll be the first one to admit that I'm terribly ignorant when it comes to certain aspects of modern pop culture - music, for instance. I doubt I could successfully identify one group in a hundred on the charts. It's just not a circle I travel in. Yet, you'd have to be travelling in the Arctic Circle to not know who Paris Hilton is. And if you're that out of touch, then how much do you really understand about the society in which you live? There’s a thin line between ignorance (which simply means not knowing something) and stupidity. If you can’t talk the language of the street, so to speak, you’re not going to get very far.

What is called for, IMHO, is not a complete turn-away from pop culture; that kind of elitism can be a dangerous thing. No, what is called for is a discerning character - to find what’s good in the culture and follow it; to discover the bad and reject it; to communicate to people in their own language and, when necessary, elevate it. The educated person will, hopefully, learn that gift of discernment. Granted, it takes strength to be able to do that; but if our learning and intellect and discernment haven’t prepared us for that, then what has it accomplished?

As Captain Kirk memorably said, “Too much of anything…isn’t necessarily a good thing.” That includes ignorance. It is not necessary to condone something to understand it. To isolate yourself from the news will not make it go away - it might, however, make it harder to reach those who happen to live in that world. William F. Buckley, Jr., when asked why he would consent to doing the Playboy interview, replied that he had to go where the sinners were.

Moderation, however, can be a good thing. That, with discernment, can help one manuever the culture without falling prey to it. So let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Pop culture may give us Paris Hilton (and way, way too much of her), but there’s also more to it than that, even if you have to look hard to find it.

Mitchell concludes his remarks as follows:

Can you understand – even enjoy – aspects of pop culture without being consumed by it? I think you can.

I do, too.


  1. Like it or not, popular culture is the mileu we live in. It even permeates the strictest cloister.

    I doubt Keating went to Wikipedia to find out who Paris Hilton is.

  2. Terry,

    I know, that seems somewhat suspect to me as well. And yet he says, "And I know who Paris Hilton is only because I looked her up on Wikipedia, where I learned that she is an actress who cannot act well, a singer who cannot sing well, and a courtroom bawler who cannot even bawl well."

    Now, not being familiar with Keating, it may be that he's just trying to be funny (and actually it kind of is); otherwise, if it isn't true, then I think he might be showing a little pride in that ignorance, which I think is always a danger in situations like that.

    Our alternative is to take him at his word that he looked her up in Wikipedia, and I have no reason to doubt him.

    You're right - the culture is what it is, and we have to learn to deal with it.


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