Old Opium Meets the New

Old Opium Meets the New


Well, who would have thought that it would be Pope Benedict XVI who provided one of the strangest `only in America, folks' moments of recent years.  Yet it is undoubtedly true that he has done so.  Benedict is, of course, a pope whose medieval predilections, whether theological, liturgical, or merely sartorial, are well known.  Indeed, some of the more eye-catching outfits he has worn since assuming his current role look like things that any Borgia Pope would have been happy to have donned for an official engagement.  And yet, when preparing to address a crowd of 20,000 young people in the US in April, this most medieval of church monarchs was preceded on stage by Ms Kelly Clarkson, chanteuse. For those fortunate enough to be completely ignorant of the identity of Ms Clarkson, she was launched on her path to fame by the TV reality series, American Idol, a competition where viewers are allowed to phone in and select the winner of a national talent competition for aspiring singers.


Support bands are, of course, an established tradition in the world of popular entertainment.  Some 18 months ago, I took my boys to see The Who (or what is left of them) in Philadelphia.  To my great delight, The Pretenders (fronted by the ever-dynamic Chrissie H) were the support band.  Twenty odd years ago, I saw U2 at Wembley; their support was provided by Lou Reed and by The Pogues.  Quite breathtaking, I remember; and thankfully before Bono began to believe his own messianic publicity.  So why, I ask myself, could the Pope not do better than a former American Idol winner when looking for a warm-up act/support band for the American leg of his world tour?


In fact, of course, it made perfect sense.  For here I saw the old opium of the people, religion, appropriating the new opium of the people, bland commercialized pop culture.  It was Karl Marx, of course, who famously dismissed religion in such terms.  By promising the poor, the needy, the suffering and the oppressed, that their reward would be in heaven, religion functioned as one almighty con-trick perpetrated by the ruling class on those whom they wished to keep in a state of subservience.   Don't try to better your lot by rebellion, so the story went, for in doing so you'll forfeit the reward which your suffering and subservience is actually earning for you in heaven.  Thus, the class conflict was defused by the oppressed believing a lie.  He even went to so far in Das Kapital to name and shame Thomas Chalmers for the charitable works he did in Glasgow as these were simply one more way of numbing the pain of the oppressed and keeping them wanting to change their lot in life.


I have over the years found Marx helpful in this matter, not because I agree with his analysis but because he has helped me to see that culture is never value neutral but is always part of a wider agenda.  Of course, in terms of detail his analysis is tendentious - I think it is now clear that class struggle and the movement of capital is not the dynamic of history -- and religion of the old kind is remarkably passé. Yet the critical spirit he represents is useful.  For example, a modern day Marx, faced with our increasingly secular world where promises of the afterlife are not as tempting as those of a more material kind, would argue that there are numerous other `opiums' which distract people from the reality of their condition, material and spiritual.  Take, for example, the proliferation of lotteries and gambling.  These play in part to the idea that anyone can get rich, that our financial hardships can be relieved by the purchase of a cheap, winning ticket.  In fact, if you buy a lottery ticket, your chances of winning are only slightly greater than mine; and mine are zero, because I never purchase them.  Even in a casino, the chances are small.  Meyer Lansky, the Jewish gangster and casino owner (and, I believe, original for Hyman Roth in The Godfather II), warned his own friends never to gamble as the odds were always with the banker; black jack, he said, was the best bet, with a 16% chance of winning!  Yet people still gamble; people still believe the dream; people still think happiness can be achieved by the roll of a dice.  And if you can gamble a day's wages in the casino with the chance of millions, you won't be using that time and money to change the world.


Another opium contender might be the obsession of society at large with sport.  Now I love sport. I really love sport. I run, I bike, I go to the gym far more than is decent for a middle aged balding guy who should simply accept the ageing process and sit at home on a cold morning in January.  And I love to watch rugby on the TV.  Yet for me, physical exercise serves to keep me feeling physically and mentally sharp in the midst of a stressful job; the spectating provides a few moments of occasional relaxation at the weekend. They are instrumental to helping me do the more important things of life in a better way.   For many, though, sport has become an integral part of their identity, and, more often than not, it is watching sport, not actual participation, which does this.  The success or failure of a team becomes the vicarious success or failure of the supporter. In other words, sport becomes a means of finding authenticity and value.  Other areas of life can be neglected, malfunction, or simply go to the dogs; but as long as `the team' is doing well, all is OK with the world.  Indeed, in good `opium' fashion, we can be enduring all kinds of garbage being dropped on us; but the `team' gives us hope - albeit specious and illusory - of fulfillment and happiness.


Yet there is one modern opium of the masses which stands above all the others - indeed, which subsumes and consumes these others, in its comprehensive reach, its easy accessibility, its banal content, and its ruthless emasculation of anything radical or prophetic.  It is television.  Here, in an endless diet of thrills, spills, and drama, we can live out our lives through the rapid-fire series of images we see played out before our eyes. Your life may be boring and dull, but you can watch television and get some specious, voyeuristic thrill or satisfaction out of watching the lives of others.  What else could explain the success of the various Big Brother franchises, where the boring lives of a bunch of freaky inadequates becomes compulsive viewing for millions?  Is it simply the pharisaic buzz of `Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men' we get when watching these weirdos strut their stuff; or does the act of watching them have a strangely comforting and soporific effect on our own senses?  Probably a bit of both.  And TV's ability to juxtapose the serious with the stupid, and to reduce even the most complex discussions to a few simplistic sound bites shows just how difficult it is to convey anything either subtle or truly challenging.  When TV becomes more than an occasional distraction, it becomes a soporific medium designed to dull the senses of its willing victims.


Of course, the need to be a commercial success and to have mass appeal virtually guarantees that TV will always tend to the lowest, blandest common cultural denominator.  If something is radical and shocking, it will probably boost viewing figures for a short time; but then it rapidly ceases to be radical and shocking as it is slowly accommodated to the market place so that it can be sold to as many as possible; if there is no such accommodation, it will die the death of an unmarketable product.  Homosexuality is the obvious example: how disturbing and anarchic is the homosexual impulse!  Yet how comfy and middle class it has become in an era where virtually every interior designer on the TV is obviously queer.  These people don't smash up society; they redecorate it with the help of some tasteful purchases from Pier 1 Imports.


This brings us to the bland aesthetics of the pop musicians of American Idol.  Dare I say it?  When a TV audience gets to choose the pop star, the result is scarcely going to be a Woody Guthrie or a Bob Dylan.  Bland is going to rule the day. So, when Pope Benedict has Kelly Clarkson fronting him as his support band, he is co-opted by the blandness of the TV world and arguably jeopardizes any critical or prophetic edge he might have had. Indeed, this is just a microcosm of the whole visit: the whole thing was one huge TV event involving pilgrimages from one pop culture site and content to the next.  But of course, the Pope is only doing what Rome has done best through the years: adapting to the current cultural context.  In times past, Rome would have replaced the god who looked after the village well with a patron saint, and thus Christianised villages without really challenging the underlying pagan values.  Today, Pope Benedict speaks to young people after they have been `warmed up' - or should it be `put to sleep' by one the blandest and least threatening phenomenon of recent cultural history.   In the words of Led Zeppelin (now that would have been a support band worth having) the singer changes, but the song remains the same.  And every time the really prophetic possibility of proclaiming Christ is lost in the soporific clouds of opium smoke in the surrounding culture.  


It is a fine line between cultural contextualisation and cultural syncretism.  Rome has consistently blurred that boundary over the years and, to be honest, proved remarkably successful at it, from the substitution of the pagan pantheon with patron saints, to the triumph of Jesuit moral probabilism in seventeenth century France, to hob-nobbing with Muslim leaders, to the co-opting of American Idol for the latest world tour.    Yet the problem is no less for us Protestants.  Indeed, it should be greater, because orthodox Protestantism has traditionally been less willing on paper to allow a blurring of the boundary between the God of the Bible and the world around us; but, in our drive to be successful, there is still a constant temptation to judge our success by the criteria of the wider culture, to adopt the methods of the wider culture, and to co-opt the movers and shakers of the wider culture.   We may not appear on stage with Ms Clarkson, but that's probably because we haven't been invited, not because we are acting out of principle.  And we have our own celebrity culture, our own conference groupies, our own ambitions to seize the modern media for Christ.  In so doing, we surely underestimate the power of the modern media to consume and subvert all that touches it.