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Cultural year in review

Culture | 1998 turns out to have been a lot like 1898

Issue: "Veggie Mania," Dec. 12, 1998

"Baptized members of evangelical churches now hold the political power in this country," observes John Armstrong. "Make no mistake about it, the church has won the world in our generation." In an article titled "Aren't You Glad the Nation is Led by Evangelicals?" in the newsletter of his Reformation and Revival Ministries, Mr. Armstrong points out that President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and the political leadership of both parties are members of evangelical churches. The question, of course, is, why does this make so little difference? Put differently, why-in a society in which 80 percent of the population claims to be Christian-does Christianity have so little impact? Surveying the state of the culture in 1998 makes it a fair question: Has the church won the world, or has the world won the church? Sin has its consequences, both eternally and temporally. But God, of course, is sovereign. Good news will eventually trump bad. And although a year of cultural decline, 1998 was also the year of the Lord. The Immoral Majority
In 1998 the masses of Americans, including many who describe themselves as Christian, fully embraced postmodernist relativism. The president of the United States was caught in a sex and perjury scandal. Even most members of the mainstream media, who seemed to have abandoned moral and intellectual absolutes years ago, were outraged. But America shrugged. The president, like a postmodernist professor, constructed multiple plausibility structures, invoked the impossibility of objective interpretation, and deconstructed the English language (that depends on what you mean by alone; that depends on what the definition of is is). And many Americans, in opinion polls and in the 1998 election, seemed to buy it. The world turned upside down: Bill Clinton retained his popularity, Ken Starr was demonized. A recent study showed that most of the American middle class holds to a fairly moral standard of behavior for themselves-but they refuse to "make value judgments" or "impose their moral beliefs" on anyone else. Americans seem to be abandoning what nearly all cultures practice: the use of social approval or disapproval-in effect, positive peer pressure-to ensure good behavior. As yet, Americans hold to more or less traditional moral principles by habit, as their own personal "values." But this change in worldview, which sees morality as sheerly a matter of private choice instead of a transcendent absolute law, is monumental. What if moral principles are, like religion, to be banished from the public square? If no higher law can be invoked above the laws of the state, will it be possible to criticize our government at all? And will the new toleration extend to those like conservative Christians who will be branded "intolerant" for holding to moral absolutes? In the years ahead, unless there is a shift back to a traditional way of thinking about moral issues, the consequences will begin to manifest themselves in ever starker terms. Fin de SiÈcle Decadence
Exactly one hundred years ago, in 1898, on the verge of the 20th century, many artists and other members of the cultural elite, particularly in France, responded to the "fin de siècle" ("the end of the century") by adopting what they themselves hailed as "decadence." The self-styled "decadents" cultivated a languid sensuality, experimentation with perversity, and art that purposefully violated traditional canons of morality and taste. The founder of the movement, Paul Verlaine, left his wife and child for a homosexual affair with fellow poet Arthur Rimbaud, whom he later shot (not fatally) in a jealous rage. Charles Baudelaire wrote The Flowers of Evil and was convicted of obscenity and blasphemy. End-of-the-century decadence is back in vogue, from the high culture to the pop culture. As art museums solemnly display works of homoerotica and sado-masochism, the music industry sells teenagers death, mayhem, crime, and demonism with death-rockers like Marilyn Manson and real-life criminals who perform gangster rap. Hollywood in 1998 searched for taboos to break. Mass-market movies hurdled the male-frontal-nudity barrier (Boogie Nights, for one), the bodily fluids barrier (Something about Mary), the scatology barrier (BASEketball), and the child-molester barrier (Lolita about a young girl and Happiness about little boys). TV also plunged to new nadirs. Wit, irony, and satiric humor made Seinfeld's morally shallow characters amusing, but the networks followed their much-hyped conclusion by merely cramming their schedules with sitcoms about morally shallow characters. Two programs deserve particular criticism: South Park, of cable channel Comedy Central, is an "adults only" cartoon show depicting children; despite or perhaps because of its MA rating, South Park has become a favorite of children. And 60 Minutes, the pride and joy of CBS, ran a snuff film starring Dr. Kevorkian, who is shown killing a sick, helpless man for a national audience. Cultural inroads
But if Hollywood struck rock bottom, there is nowhere else to go but up. And there are some encouraging signs in the TV and movie worlds. Chief among them is that the television audience for the major networks is down as much as 9 percent from last year. Post-Seinfeld, NBC is down 15 percent. Not a single new program in the 1998 season can be called a success. Part of the reason seems to be the networks' strategy of aiming almost exclusively for 18 to 34-year-old urbanites, who supposedly find moral shallowness most appealing but who represent the mother lode for advertisers. College students and yuppies turn out to be too busy to watch all that much TV. Ironically, Touched by an Angel-which for all of its sometimes questionable theology appeals to cultural conservatives-remains one of the top-rated shows on television. Yet, for some reason, it has been little imitated. Ratings on the more specialized cable networks, on the other hand, are up 10 percent. (Biggest winners on cable are pro-wrestling and "reality-based" programming such as When Good Pets Go Bad-shows that appeal primarily to young blue-collar men.) The big four free-TV broadcasters staked their hopes on the new vivid-as-life HDTV technology, which began small-scale operations this year. But satellites, fiber-optic cable, and the Internet are giving viewers, for better or worse, exactly what they want to see. While Fox took over the Family Channel, once owned by Pat Robertson, another venture that promised to deliver Christian, family-friendly programming arrived on the scene: PAX-TV. By grabbing bandwidth from local home-shopping networks, PAX has made its way into nearly every major market, as a free-TV network that can insinuate itself onto cable through the local networks' must-carry provisions. So far, PAX's programming is limited mostly to re-reruns of Touched by an Angel, Father Dowling Mysteries, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (cancelled this year despite decent ratings and a strong fan base because it didn't appeal to the yuppie demographic). But PAX provides a market niche that creative Christians might fill. And on the movie front, a major Hollywood studio, DreamWorks-owned by Stephen Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg-actually consulted with Christians and other cultural conservatives in the making of its animated epic about the young Moses, The Prince of Egypt. DreamWorks is now courting the very people who are boycotting archrival Disney. This suggests that Christians, if only through buying power, can still have an influence on the culture-if Christians exert that influence. Education opening
Another cultural opening for Christians is in the field of education. As public-school performance and safety continue to decline, nearly everyone admits that private, religious schools do a much better job academically. Policymakers, from political conservatives to inner-city black activists, have urged programs that would allow state and federal subsidies so that poor families could afford to send their children to a private school. This year, the Supreme Court ruled that Wisconsin's school choice program, which is unique in allowing tax money to go to religious schools, is constitutional. Christian schools would do well to be leery of dependence upon tax dollars, which almost always bring regulations and governmental control. (Wisconsin's program, for example, requires that choice students be permitted to opt out of religious instruction. This could be a serious problem, particularly for schools that integrate the faith into their whole curriculum. So far, however, no choice students in Wisconsin have said no to religion.) Nevertheless, the official recognition of the superiority of Christian schools is an important symbolic admission. In other education news, a study showed that across the board, students spend less time watching TV and more time doing homework. The bad news is that this increased average time schoolchildren spend on homework per night is still only 22 minutes. If Christians, in their schools or at home, can out-educate the secularists, winning the culture war may be just a matter of time.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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