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Cool vs. Cool Industry

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Each Wednesday night, the staff in our office meets with a group of students called the Cultural Discerners.  These students are responsible for faith and pop culture programming on campus, as well as engaging in study themselves in order to be prepared for discussion and have at least the beginnings of a theology of the relationship between faith and popular culture.

Last night’s meeting a discussion about relevance, with an assignment to check out one of the following resources beforehand:

Kate Bowman Johnston on The Cult of Cool

Relevance discussion on Arts & Faith

Relevance discussion on Andy Whitman’s blog

Kevin Erickson’s ffm 2007 workshop

Adam Smith’s ffm 2007 workshop

We ended up talking mostly about the idea of ‘cool’: who determines what’s cool?  what does that word even mean?  what’s good and bad about it?  what is the difference between cool and the cool industry?

I went home and my thoughts were moving to fast for me to sleep, so I picked up Wendell Berry’s Home Economics, and this particular passage seemed to have a striking connection related to the concept of cool vs. the cool industry, or culture vs. the culture industry.  Berry is talking about the value of community by looking at the practices of an Amish couple, David and Elsie Kline.  There are many theological differences between the practices we teach at Calvin and the practices of the Amish community, but I think this passage provides a helpful understanding of what we were seeking to critique in using the term “industry”:

David once attended a conference on the subject of community.  What is community, the conferees were asking, and how can we have it?  At some point, late in the proceedings, they asked David what community meant to him.  He said that when he and his son were plowing in the spring he could look around him and see seventeen teams at work on the neighboring farms.  He knew those teams and the men driving them, and he knew that if he were hurt or sick, those men and those teams would be at work on his farm.

Conditioned as we all are now by industrial assumptions, we must be careful not to miss or to underestimate the point of David’s reply: It is a practical description of a spiritual condition.  With the Amish, economy is not merely a function of community; the community and the economy are virtually the same.  We might, indeed, call an Amish community a loving economy, for it is based on the love of neighbors, of creatures, and of places.  The community accomplishes the productive work that is necessary to any economy; the economy supports and preserves the land and the people.  The economy cannot prey on the community because it is not alienated from the community; it is the community.  We should notice, too, that David has described the economic helpfulness, the charity, that is natural to the life of a community—and free the members—that has been replaced, among most of the rest of us, by the insurance industry.

Certainly, there are advantages to ‘industry’—widespread availability of art and goods, division of labor, the potential for national and global conversations…  But industry necessitates abstraction and it’s nearly impossible to use any currency of value other than money to determine whether the industry is ‘working’ or not.  The value of love, humility, generosity—these things just don’t register with shareholders as a measure of ‘success’.  This is a stark contrast to the Kingdom of God:

In contrast to the coldhearted bottom line of profit margins and market shares, Paul envisions a community that places something as inefficient and unprofitable as kindness at its heart.  In stark antithesis to the self-assured bravado of the modernist or postmodernist self-constructed ego, this community values meekness—replacing the clenched fist of self-protection with an open hand of welcome and service.  It abandons the arrogance of cybernetic mastery and global economic dominance for the humility of people who recognize that the fruit of creation is received as a gift from the hand of the Creator.  Only in such humility is there the possibility of wisdom that can never be achieved through mere accumulation of information.  The immediate gratification of insatiable desire has no hold on a community that is suffused with patience.  We are here for the long haul, we measure time in terms of eternity, and our hope is for the restoration of all of creation.  And since we know who finally accomplishes such a restoration, we can afford to be patient—waiting in hope. (from Colossians Re-Mixed by Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh)

I don’t necessarily like the idea of an ‘upside down’ Kingdom because it grants the dominant culture ‘right-side up’ status, but the Kingdom of God does indeed seem a significant transformation from today’s status quo.