One year after the national trauma of 9/11 and one year into the war against terrorism, has "everything changed" in the culture? Well, no. And yes. American culture tried to get back to normal, but it hasn't really been able to. The culture makers in the entertainment industry, academia, and the media have tried to go back to the tried and untrue, but their efforts often seem disconnected from the new national mood.
The objective realities of war, hate, and sudden death could no longer be dismissed as mere "constructions" of the mind or the culture. The overriding values of personal peace and affluence were shaken by insecurity in the face of terrorism and by the punctured balloon of the stock market.
2002 was a year of cultural disconnect. The same-old ways of thinking no longer worked, but people had trouble thinking in any other way. In the words of a poet, the old is dead, but the new is powerless to be born. And yet, from a Christian point of view, this may be a sign of cultural progress.
Multiculturalism and the jihad
It was a bad year for multiculturalists, relativists, and people who insist that all religions are equally valid. And yet, they remained true to their assumptions and did not let the facts get in their way.
The current war on terrorism may be the only conflict in American history in which it is considered insensitive and politically incorrect to criticize the ideology of our enemies. No one said that National Socialism was really a tolerant ideology and that the Germans were essentially peaceful people. But today Americans have become so used to the imperative of multiculturalism that it is the critics of Islam who get in trouble.
When Christian leaders like Franklin Graham criticize Islam, not only does he face fatwas-death sentences-passed against him in Muslim courts, he is denounced with secular fatwas by his own countrymen. When Ann Coulter said that the best response to the terrorist attacks was to invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity, she lost her job as a regular columnist with National Review Online. That's National Review, the conservative journal of record! It was not so much her invade-and-kill suggestions that raised such a hue and cry but rather her belief that Muslims stand in need of the gospel. And yet, just a few months after her near universal vilification, her book Slander!-a funny and well-documented critique of liberal mean-spiritedness-shot up the bestseller lists, becoming one of the year's biggest-selling titles.
The mainstream culture does not know what to do with its Christian heritage. This was the year the Ten Commandments were removed not just from courthouses but from courthouse lawns. It was the year the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance was ruled unconstitutional. And yet, this logical next step in the long march toward a purely secularist state was met with an uproar from the masses of Americans, evidence that the academic legal theories had gone too far for what the true American culture-consisting of actual people-would accept.
A major cultural initiative against Christianity was the argument that since all religions are actually the same, the problem with terrorists is that they insist that they have the only true beliefs. Conservative Christians, therefore, are just as dangerous as conservative Muslims.
This libel, repeated endlessly with variations in the media and the cultural elite, ignores the specific content of the different religious beliefs and points to a level of theological illiteracy that is dangerous in a world where, despite the secularists' best efforts, religious issues just refuse to go away. If conservative Muslims are essentially the same as conservative Christians in their strict morality and opposition to modern values, why are Muslim terrorists specifically targeting churches, Christian schools, and Christian hospitals, assassinating missionaries and in their riots looking for Christians to kill?
In 2002, Australia has had its 9/11 with the attacks in Bali, Russia has had its 9/11 with the Moscow theater attack, and Israel has had its 9/11 practically every day. If the attacks continue through the next year, perhaps Americans will finally wake up to the fact that not all religions are equally valid after all.
We want epics
It was also a confusing year for the entertainment industry. According to Wall Street Journal reporter John Lippman, Hollywood insiders did not really expect the film version of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings to be a success. Its $310 million budget, for all three movies, would be hard to make back. "Hollywood insiders joked that the movies would become the most expensive made-for-cable miniseries ever on TNT, the AOL-owned cable channel where, the joke went, the sequels would be dumped if the first one failed."
And yet, the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, from AOL Time Warner's New Line studio, turned out to have been one of the few successes enjoyed by the multimedia conglomerate. This first movie has earned $860 million from ticket sales alone. This does not count sales of either the first DVD or the DVD with the extra 30 minutes that were cut from the theatrical release (a half hour that does much to flesh out both the characters and the storyline). The one movie has covered the costs of the whole project three times over. And the rest-there are two more movies!-will be pure gravy.
The next installment, The Two Towers, released on Dec. 18, continues the saga of moral heroism, battles against evil, and wonder-filled fantasy grounded in its author's Christian worldview.
The Lord of the Rings movies have clearly resonated with today's cultural mood in ways that the Hollywood establishment is just beginning to understand. A number of the same-old, same-old sex comedies and angst-ridden dramas were spectacular failures, while relatively wholesome, Christian-friendly fare-such as Spider-Man and Signs-were huge hits.
There seems to be a hunger in the culture for epics. Filmmakers are currently working on projects that, with the new special effects technology, promise to rival those of Cecil B. DeMille. Upcoming films will feature the Trojan war, the exploits of Alexander the Great, the invasion of Hannibal, and the last stand at Thermopylae. These are not only accounts of heroism in the face of war, but they depict the titanic clash of cultures. As such, these may prove particularly relevant to our new cultural situation.
Going to the classics of ancient Greece and Rome for subject matter is significant, not just because of the unaccountably ignored treasury of great material, but because it reflects the time-honored tendency in Western civilization in times of crisis and need for cultural renewal to go back to its sources. Maybe in the process this could include going back to the Bible. Mel Gibson is working on a new film version of the life of Jesus, in Latin and Aramaic.
Pop goes the economy
If movies are showing some signs of responding to a new cultural mood-and are having a good year financially-other legs of the pop culture are struggling.
Television embraced "family" values. But the problem was, the families were the Osbournes and the Sopranos. Ironically, while these hit shows exploited the celebrity of the heavy-metal rock star and the sex, violence, and lawlessness of the mafiosi, the specific nature of their appeal, arguably, was that they really were about families.
The drug-addled Ozzy Osbourne turns out to have problems with his own rebellious teenagers. Tony Soprano may whack his enemies, but his issues with his own wife and kids are not so easily dealt with. The family relationships in both shows become strangely absorbing. The appeal of the Osbournes was not merely voyeurism-an attempt at imitation based on single-girl gold-digger Anna Nicole Smith was a failure-but rather a twisted recognition in the culture of the centrality of family. Even the successful reality shows-such as The Bachelor-while being unspeakably vulgar and tasteless often pointed to the true fantasy that has not died out in American culture, despite all of the efforts to kill it: getting married and living happily ever after.
Faced with the competition of cable and satellite technology, broadcast television suffered greatly from the slumping economy. Like the Democrats who resolved to deal with their failure in the midterm election by going even further to the left, broadcast TV decided to deal with their reduced audience by going even further in depicting sex, violence, and bad language-as if those "solutions" were not what caused them to alienate their audiences in the first place.
Another technological blow to the television industry was TiVo, and other programmable DVD recording systems. These enable viewers to record all of the shows they want to watch-not just single programs as with old-style VCRs but the whole week of TV-watching-so that they can be viewed at their leisure. The ability to watch programs commercial free has panicked advertisers, but the best use of this technology has been to allow families once and for all to control exactly what shows their kids are watching.
The music industry too has been in a slump. Again, the industry is blaming technology. Though the industry has killed Napster, as in fighting the Hydra-cut off one head and two more appear-music-sharing over the Internet persists. But could the real problem be with their product? Is there anything more to be done that has not already been done in the genres of rock 'n' roll, rap, and their derivatives? Can't they come up with a fresh sound?
O Brother, Where Art Thou? was one of the bestselling albums of the year, and the "Down from the Mountain" spinoff concert tour was one of the hottest tickets, and yet the bluegrass, traditional country, and alternative country that make up the "Americana" playlists still can seldom be found on commercial radio. But Americana has become the No. 1 format for Internet radio.
The liberals strike back, weakly
In the meantime, the cultural mavens kept trying to foist their tired solutions on a culture that has outgrown them.
In the academic world, a brave effort has been underway to dust off the old peace symbols of the Vietnam era. Old-style demonstrations against war with Iraq have been orchestrated, to substantial coverage from the media. The rhetoric against American neo-colonialism and oppression against the Third World can be heard again on college campuses.
But the reality is, 60 percent of college students support President Bush in his war against terrorism and his efforts against Iraq. That is just about the same as his level of support among the general public.
The left is trying to reconstitute itself and is congratulating itself on its purity. And yet, leftists are in the uncomfortable position of having to demonstrate in support of a culture and an ideology that enslaves women, that kills homosexuals, that rejects tolerance, that forbids freedom.
Marxists always predicted that capitalism would collapse due to its inner contradictions. This may be what is happening today to the leftists. 2002 was a year of cultural transition. But as postmodernism falls apart, it is not yet clear what will take its place. It may be that Christianity will get branded as a terrorist religion, like that of the radical Muslims, in which case things will go from bad to worse, as secularism is either intensified or is sanctified into a new Interfaith religion. Or the culture may recover at least some of its heritage. At any rate, we are approaching a cultural moment that may be ripe for Christian influence.