I am the father of two children who still (for at least the next day or so) measure their lives in numbers that fall in the “teens.” My son turns 20 on Monday. Be that as it may, I still qualify as the father of teenagers. They certainly hear plenty from me about God, about the faith, about Church, and I give thanks that they take it seriously and are committed Christians.
They are also committed teenagers. They do not necessarily despise their culture, though they may utter some criticisms occasionally. But the music that emanates from their various electronic devices is not all “Christian” by any stretch. Our house is Christian, but it has not been stripped of all references to popular culture.
Friday night I attended a rock concert at the local college (University of Tennessee) along with my wife, my son and his fiancee, and my 16 year-old daughter and a friend. The group we had come to hear was the group “Cake.” I have no idea how well known they are, though many in the crowd of thousands seemed to be singing along with the songs, so I suppose they cannot be that obscure.
I am actually the first in my family to have heard them – back in the 90’s – and brought home a CD of theirs with the song, “How Can You Afford Your Rock and Roll Lifestyle?” I thought it was worth listening to. Towards the end of the song, you hear,”Excess ain’t rebellion/ you’re just buyin’ what their sellin'”. I thought this was insightful. Most youthful indulgence in our culture, much of it disguised as “rebellion,” is really something else altogether. Large corporations have for years dominated the music business, marketing angst, rebellion, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, with the fiction that they were only publishing or selling what the younger generation wanted.
This, of course, is not true. They not only sell to the anger of youth; they help create the market in the first place.
Thus it was that I found myself at a rock concert on Friday night. The music was good, the crowd enthusiastic. The biting insight of the lyrics remained, but something felt hollow and empty. Perhaps I should not have expectations of rock concerts, but anything that packs in youth by the thousands is worth pondering.
What I realized is that the band and its music offered a sort of “sardonic” view of life. There was acute ridicule of certain aspects of modern culture. An insider’s nod that said, “We all know better.” But, of course, it’s not true. We do not all know better. Poets for many generations have been astute observers of the public scene, frequently pointing out the hypocrisy and foibles of popular culture. There is nothing new here. However, neither is there anything suggested as an alternative.
Indeed, for a band that could write: “Excess ain’t rebellion/ you’re just buyin’ what they’re sellin’, (which for some odd reason was dropped from the lyrics of the song that once contained the phrase), it seemed strange to hear complaints from the bandstand through the evening that the University had declared the campus to be “dry” that weekend, i.e. no alchohol. This was a popular complaint with the crowd.
Christianity, rightly preached, also recognizes the futility of popular culture, though much of modern American Christianity is as insipid as the culture it critiques.
But where rock and roll offers something sardonic, the Church offers something ironic.
It does not ridicule culture in order to make itself seem wise – it ridicules what the world would call wisdom and exalts what the world would call foolishness. The Cross is the great irony of Christianity. An instrument of torture, the very symbol of Roman might, becomes through Christ, the symbol of God’s compassion and love and His victory over sin and death.
There is a form of wisdom required to be sardonic. You have to be able to see through some things and deconstruct them from some other point of view. But if the deconstruction is just for the fun of declaring that the emperor has no clothes, then it is simple rebellion as much as anything.
But the wisdom of the Cross requires the ability to die to self. To see not only the emptiness of the world and its fashions, but also the fullness of God and His coming Kingdom.
At one point the bandleader railed against the authorities of the school, with a few choice epithets, and to great applause. “What’s all this about a dry campus?” he shouted. “What do they think we are, Christians?” The crowed roared its approval. I felt out of place.
What do they think we are, Christians? Probably most of the campus would identify itself as Christian in some manner. After all, this is America. But there was no irony, no willingness that night, to embrace the foolishness of the Cross. Just another crowd with exams coming next week and ready to have some fun.
Our world today stands in as much need of irony as the world has ever needed. The rich need to hear the irony of God’s poverty. The powerful need to know the irony of God’s weakness. And I need to remember that the poets of this world are not the same thing as the prophets of the world to come.
They’re just salesmen in need of a Savior.