Culture v. Culture

One of the more important Christian works of the 20th century was H. Richard Niebuhr‘s “Christ and Culture.”  This book has sparked dialogue and is often revisited by theologians who take the principles outlined and attempt to modernize or (at the very least) apply them to our age.  In the end, we recognize the tension that exists between that which is holy and that which is… well, everything from “secular” to decidedly “unholy.”

So, what happens when secular culture faces a dilemma of one of its gods set against culture?

Let me explain…

I ran across this interview today.  In it, Malcolm Jamal Warner talks about how the accusations against Bill Cosby have caused some (such as Ebony magazine) to become critical of Bill Cosby’s most famous show:  The Cosby Show.

You remember the Cosby Show, right?  The 1980s sitcom about Dr. Heathcliff “Combustible” Huxtable… the gynecologist/obstetrician married to Claire (Hanks) Huxtable–lawyer extraordinaire.  The Huxtables had five children (interesting to note that oldest daughter Sondra Huxtable did not appear until after the pilot) who had their ups and downs; their talents and their areas that needed some work.

For decades, the Huxtables were held up as a sort of virtue.  This is what families (not just African-American families) should aspire to be!  In essence, the Huxtable family–and most specifically Cliff Huxtable himself–became a god of pop culture.  In Genesis chapter 3, we learn that in the Garden of Eden, Satan tempted Eve by claiming that by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she would become like God.  In pop culture in the 1980s and early 90s, Americans were told that they should WANT their families to be like the Huxtables.

You will notice that I used the name “Cliff Huxtable” in the previous paragraph.  It is important to note that distinction between Bill Cosby the actor and Cliff Huxtable the character.  Somewhere in the last 30 years the lines have been blurred and people started to confuse the actor with his character (in more ways than one.)  Maybe that has something to do with the show’s title… I don’t really know.

And so now we have pop culture turning against itself.  Do we separate the man Bill Cosby from the character Cliff Huxtable?  Are we “allowed” to watch The Cosby Show (or The Bill Cosby Show, or Fat Albert, or Leonard Part 6–although I don’t know why anyone would want to revisit Leonard Part 6) or are those characters subjected to the scrap heap along with the accused Cosby?  Which idol does pop culture reject and to which one does it cling in the race to see who can be more outraged?

Oops!  There it is.  There is the idol uncovered, tucked away.  That idol is rage.

Pop culture notoriously builds up icons (images, idols) only to tear them down again.  These icons come in many forms:  individuals (such as musicians, athletes, politicians, etc.); sports teams; and even characters.  Of course no one likes a winner who stays on top–we love the “rags to riches” stories.  And by definition, we need people to start in “rags” before they achieve the “riches.”

And that is how rage fits into all of this.  Let’s take a team for example.  When I was a kid, the New England Patriots were not very good.  Many years, they were just plain bad.  When the Patriots won Super Bowl 36, most everyone (except for Rams fans) were happy.  But if you ask football fans today if they appreciate the greatness of the New England Patriots, most will not.  There is anger–rage–against the team’s success.  The saying, “They hate us because they ain’t us” comes to mind.  It is a jealous rage–that team is successful and my team is not–that causes some curious behavior.

Does that sound familiar?  Remember Genesis 3… “you will be like God…”  Jealousy and a desire to be that which we are not led to sin.  Those who reject the Gospel continue with this rage and continue to unwittingly feed it–building up idols only to tear them down again.  The jealous rage itself is the idol to which they are beholden.  It is the master of their hearts and minds.

Thanks be to God that through Jesus, we have reconciliation with the Father!  Romans 8:1-8 clearly explains the difference between the two mindsets:  those who have freedom and peace and those who remain subservient to the jealous rage.

So… going back to the question… what does pop culture do?  It will reject one created idol (Bill Cosby and his work) because the void left in rejecting God is never satisfied.  The rage must continue the cycle of building up idols so that they can be crushed.  Malcolm Jamal Warner may fight against this, but in the end, rage will win.  Who will be next?

Warner’s comments about the harm that Ebony magazine is doing to the ideal struck a chord with me.  Is a fictitious family that has been set against a backdrop of pre-determined storylines and conclusions really an ideal for which we aim?  How absurd!  His comments should serve as a reminder to all–Christian and non-Christian alike–that idolatry (or “hero worship” to put it in more benign-sounding terms) never ends well.

Thank You, Lord, for showing us the TRUE ideal.  Thank You for providing an example that will never tarnish or be scandalized.

But MOST importantly… thank You for being my Savior–for rescuing me from sin and death.


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