Part of being a Christian in the Reformed tradition is a belief that religion applies to all parts of life; it is with this background that I approach questions of mass culture and cultural resistance. What might a life of faith have to say about the questions and criticisms raised by cultural critics and movements?
Part of being a Christian in the Reformed tradition is a robust belief that religion applies to all parts of life; it is with this background that I approach questions of mass culture and cultural resistance. What might a life of faith have to say about the questions and criticisms raised by cultural critics and movements?
As I engage the works of critics like Adorno and Debord, my own history in the Christian church and Christian thought brings me to the ideas of Christian practice and Christian community. Specific Christian communities have had a spectrum of ways of engaging with culture and subcultures, and many subcultural movements distance themselves from the church entirely. The central problems that cultural critics and subcultures hope to address, though, seem to be the questions that are also addressed by Christian practice. Critics like Adorno and Debord complain that our time is commodified and linearized. They complain that consumer attitudes and constant media have alienated us from each other, our environment and our own selves. The subcultural modes of dealing with this problem, though, often come up short. Situationist and punk responses, for example, are based in negation and nihilism - they shout against the prevailing cultural ills but they replace it only with more subversion. Heath and Potter offer this critique - that subcultures don't accomplish anything - along with others.
A trend among Christian intelligentsia recently has been to look to Christian Practice as a locus to think about these very problems. It is my contention that religious practice - with a turn toward connecting with the supernatural and with community - is a more productive alternative to many subcultural modes of resistance to the problems of mass culture. Because of my background and beliefs, I focus here on Christian practice, but also because I find many parallels between Christian belief and the progressive ends that many who are interested in cultural change hope to accomplish. I believe that a number of Christian practices have something to say about the way we, as humans, should understand and interact with our environment, our food, our time, our communities, and ourselves. I think these are messages worth evaluating even for those who are not necessarily interested in Christian belief on the whole. One practice that I think illustrates the subversive power of spiritual practice is the practice of Sabbath keeping. Sabbath keeping has the potential to be an enacted call away from the world of the commodity, and toward a world of justice and care for other humans; away from the frenetic pace of 21st century society and toward a more healthy lifestyle. Sabbath keeping can be an intentional practice that reminds observers to pay attention to God, first of all, but also to their place in the world, in their environment and among other people. This kind of intentional mindfulness and interruption could accomplish many of the goals other subcultural groups hoped to accomplish as well. Sabbath keeping also directs us not just away from those things we fear will consume us, but toward something we wish to affirm.
Cultural theorists and angsty teenagers have questioned the benefits of Mass Culture since the early 20th century, when it was just developing into the monolith we experience today. Theorists like Theodor Adorno have developed arguments, rooted in Marxist theory, that mass culture is a tool for hegemony, and that it is not good for the masses, but instead leads to their continued non-engagement with politics or higher thought. Counter-cultural movements are generally traced back to the Dada art movement in early 20th century France, and the subsequent even more avant-garde situationist movement, lead by Guy Debord. Both Adorno and Debord saw a number of problems with the state of mass society, with the way it changed people's relationships with their work, their time, and each other.
Theodor Adorno describes Mass Culture in terms of the Culture Industry. He writes in response to the trends in modernism and the enlightenment, and especially in response to German fascism and Nazism. Adorno is concerned about the growing homogeneity of the masses, and worse, their inability or disinclination to think. Adorno's Marxist background leads him to believe that a proletarian uprising will be the salvation of the masses, but he also sees that the stupefying effects of the culture industry keep that from occurring. Adorno's primary complaint about the Culture Industry, then, is that it keeps people from thought and action; it keeps people from understanding their situation, and alienates them from each other and reality. He writes "they are not bad in themselves but in their diversionary function" (Adorno, 2001, p. 33). As an alternative, he upholds modern art for its complexity and difficulty. Modern art is not easy to understand, and that is why it is beneficial - it forces its audience to think rather than consume. As Cook (1996) explains it, "Following Hegel, Adorno described the use of concepts and, by extension, thinking itself as acts of negation" (80). Adorno sees this kind of high level thinking as a way to transcend the particular, "thought has the capacity to envisage possibilities which have not yet been realized in the object; this capacity makes manifest its freedom with respect to the world of objects" (Cook, 1996, p. 81): this is the freedom which the culture industry threatens. What Adorno values in Modern art, then, and other resistive art and critical practice, is what Cook refers to as the "speculative moment." Adorno sees thought, then, as the primary mode of resistance to a bleak view of the control the Culture Industry has over the people of Western culture (and perhaps the world).
Adorno also points out the way the culture industry has taken over our leisure, and dictated what are appropriate activities for "free time" which is carefully bounded from work time. The culture industry labels specific activities as appropriate for leisure, and activities too close to work (and to liberation, in Adorno's view) are not among them. He writes, "organized freedom is compulsory. Woe betide you if you have no hobby, no pastime" (Adorno, 2001, p. 190). These hobbies, he goes on to say, require the suspension of thought and imagination. "The lack of imagination which is cultivated and inculcated by society renders people helpless in their free time" (192) and they are forced to watch television or participate in mindless hobbies and "pseudo-activities" which Adorno says are parodies or imitations of the sort of real productivity they might engage in. They do this rather than engage meaningful art, in Adorno's view, or perhaps also rather than engage in meaningful relationships, in mine.
Adorno is concerned about the state of contemporary society for good reason. His view of the impact of the culture industry is intimately tied up in Marx's understanding of the alienation of the proletariat. In Adorno's understanding, not only are the people alienated by their isolated work, but also by their entertainment. Industry has a hold on not just the work time of the people under capitalism, but also on their leisure time. The very stories and images they chose to interact with are no longer tools of community values and interaction with each other and the divine, but instead an additional isolating force that encourages them to quantify their desires, their gifts, and their lives. Adorno turns, for the answer to these problems, to art. I suggest he overlooks the productive alternatives of spirituality and interpersonal community as a mode of resistance to the isolation and
Debord has a similar approach to Adorno, although his is in many ways more radical, and the art he champions more avant-garde. Debord was interested in enacting resistance and did so with other members of the Situationists International. Debord wanted to politicize the everyday, and to jar the public into awareness. Debord was troubled by the focus on appearances and façade that he saw as inherent in the spectacle. He writes, "Understood on its own terms, the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance" (Debord, 1967, p. 10). He also focuses on Marxist theory and Marx's engagement of the proletariat and focus on their struggle (#81).
Debord also critiques the spectacular arrangement of time as "pseudo-cyclical." He writes, "pseudo-cyclical time is in fact merely the consumable disguise of the time-as-commodity of the production system, and it exhibits the essential traits of that time: homogeneous and exchangeable units and the suppression of any qualitative dimension" (#149). Debord accuses the spectacle of reducing time, like everything else, into only quantity - exchange value. A person's time, then, is only good for what it can earn. Time is money, as it were. All the time we "save" through efficiency, "whether by means of faster transport or by means of powdered soup," says Debord, we spend watching television. Debord, like Adorno, points out that leisure is "presented as a moment of authentic life" that "turns out to be merely a life more authentically spectacular" (#153). The moments we think are time for rest and time to ourselves are actually the times we are most susceptible to the spectacle, because we are so fond of it. It is entirely individual and mass mediated.
Debord even highlights the lack of real community celebration when he says "Those moments when, under the reign of cyclical time, the community would participate in a luxurious expenditure of life, a re strictly unavailable to a society where neither community nor luxury exists" (#154). He gestures toward the commercialization of holidays and of gift-giving, and the publicity of the festivals themselves. In Debord's view, the spectacle sublimates any potentially authentic expression of personhood or community into itself. Even time and the rhythms of our lives are reordered to serve the spectacle's quantity-driven ideology. We spend and save our time in order to purchase leisure time which we also devote to enjoying the spectacle.
Intimately related with the Spectacle's cooptation of time is its deletion of community. Spectacle isolates individuals from each other and their environment, and keeps them in their own mass-mediated individualized world. "The spectacle erases the dividing line between self and world, in that the self, under siege by the presence/absence of the world, is eventually overwhelmed; it likewise erases the dividing line between true and false, repressing all directly lived truth beneath the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organization of appearances" (#219). Debord's italicized emphasis of the term real presence seems to imply that the inauthentic presence of spectacle in our lives has replaced the authentic presence of other people and of spirituality. Real presence is a term often used to discuss the presence of Christ in the eucharist, especially in more liturgical Christian traditions. The real presence, though, in Debord's vision of reality is not any kind of authentic communion with Christ or anyone but just a "real" immediacy of the spectacle which is empty, but masks the possibility of accessing any kind of truth or authentic experience.
In Debord's view, the hegemony of the spectacle is unavoidable. It infiltrates even our understanding of time and it precludes the possibility of authentic relationships with the environment or other people. With the continued decline of human care for the environment, and with the rise of the "prozac nation" I imagine Debord would be even more certain that this is the case - we use technology and medication to remediate the problems caused by our own isolation from these essential relationships. Debord does not see any tempered or institutional solution for this problem, and would probably mock the possibility that the Christian church could be a remedy to the isolation and inauthenticity caused by the spectacle. Debord found his solution in the opposite direction - in deviance, extreme individualism and avant-garde.Modes of Resistance in the Everyday: Situationists and Punks
Historical counter-cultural movements also recognize these problems and other problems in the cultural situation. They developed specific modes of resistance to revolutionize the everyday. These countercultures and subcultures sought (and still seek) to assert their own autonomy and to jar the general public into awareness of their own seduction by mass culture. These methods varied by movement, but there are some recurring themes and impulses. Some examples of such movements include the Situationists in 1920s France and Punks in 1970s Britain.
Debord's answer to the problem of the Spectacle was détournement. He calls it "a style of negation" (#144) and "the fluid language of anti-ideology" (#208). For Debord, the only way to respond to the problem of the spectacle is through absolute negation. For him this took the form of art that took the everyday and turned it - either to the opposite or to something wholly new: "the reversal of established relationships between concepts and. the diversion (or détournement) of all the attainments of earlier critical efforts" (#206). Pragmatically détournement became the tactics of the situationists, who tried to re-imagine the familiar. This lead them to create performance and art that caused others to perceive their city and familiar images and institutions and their lives in new, sometimes opposite ways. For Debord, resisting the spectacle means being for nothing and counter-everything. Affirming anything, even his own movement, becomes for Debord a form of defeat. Détournement becomes constant subversion, constant undermining of expectations. As a result, being involved in Debord's kind of resistance means that a rebel must never settle for a position, but constantly be undermining things - even the previous rebellious position. As such, Debord's brand of resistance leaves his followers as avant-garde individualists, constantly running counter-culture, counter-establishment, and even counter-each other.
The Punk counterculture, as Dick Hebdige describes it, functions with some of the same assumptions as the situationists. Punks want to subvert expectations and use their bodies, music, and aesthetic to do so. They alienate themselves from the culture in much the way Debord suggests Hebdige writes "In punk alienation assumed an almost tangible quality" (Hebdige, 1979, p. 28). Punk, though, is political in a more specific way than the Situationists. While situationists want to subvert the very culture of the spectacle we live in, punks want to use that subversion to subvert particular material conditions that affect them as individuals. Hebdige argues that subcultures respond to particular conditions in a specific time and place - hence different subcultural styles for different cultures. On Hebdige's read, subcultural rebellion is inherently political - it is drawing attention to political and material conditions in a particular place and time, calling out injustice and demanding a response. For some punks, then, subculture is not just the negation of mass cultural forces for their inherent hegemonic power, but also a demand for justice because of particular inequities within that hegemony. On the other hand, because punk style is also hyper-individualistic, it also makes any kind of discrete political message or stance potentially lost beneath the feedback of continuous negation and individualism (Hebdige, 1979, p. 90). Since punk, and many other subcultures, are so intent on empowering the individual, it becomes difficult to discern exactly what the individual is empowered toward. In fact, as subcultures grow popular they lose their political edge as the aesthetic qualities get adopted apart from the politics. Many writers refer to this as the cultures becoming "co-opted" which seems to assume that the culture industry intentionally redirects subversive aesthetics toward more innocuous ends. Although certainly sometimes this occurs, more often it is just a matter of enthusiastic youth hoping to be "cool" but not particularly interested in class warfare or undermining the spectacle. Ironically, the indicators of anti-consumerism soon become commodified, and you can buy your anti-consumerist persona at your local mall. This is the contradiction Heath and Potter critique in Nation of Rebels.Problems with Resistance: Heath and Potter
Critics of counter-cultural modes of resistance find a number of faults with their methods and ideologies. Heath and Potter (2004) articulate a number of these criticisms. They are of the general opinion that style and everyday choices are not resistant. Since the intense individualism and avant-garde aesthetic of counter-cultural movements lend themselves so easily to being marketed, Heath and Potter suggest they aren't resistant at all, they are another way of serving the system. Capitalism cannot be subverted, they seem to suggest, because it thrives on subversion. They critique cultural rebellion because it seems that "having fun is the ultimate subversion" (Heath & Potter, 2004, p. 64) when real politics and social change is a difficult, time consuming process that involves work and lobbying, not dressing up and deviance. Heath and Potter suggest that deviance as resistance is not productive because it is not sustainable - it does not work toward a positive outcome, but instead just rails against the status quo. They suggest that the key question to ask a resistive movement is "if everybody did that, would the world be a better place?" and find that most countercultures come up short when subjected to this test. They also suggest that counter-cultural distaste for incremental solutions renders them less effective, because they will only settle for radical solutions instead of palatable progress (142). They also critique the wholesale rejection of institutions that could be useful to create or sustain change, including (most applicably for my purposes) historic religions (257). They seem to believe that cultural politics are inferior to real politics, and therefore should be abandoned, because they only distract those interested in social change from the ways to really make change happen. They do not offer a lot of concrete examples of the political change they advocate, although I do think that their essential point is worth listening to - cultural politics are fun, but we should be wary of where the rubber hits the road, and often material change happens through institutions and hard work.
Sabbath keeping, I suggest, and religious practice, is another alternative mode of resistance that can make sense as an alternative for, or in tandem with some of the modes presented by these other thinkers. Sabbath keeping also provides a productive mode of resistance that answers some of the critiques Heath and Potter raise. It is communal and positive and does aim for real social change (rest for everyone - not just those who can afford it). If everyone started keeping Sabbath, it would make a marked difference in the commodified culture we live in.Christianity and Culture
Discussion of how Christians and the church do and should interact with mass culture is obviously broad enough to merit an entire career's worth of research, but I hope here to highlight a few key positions in order to frame the relevance of the recent movement to return to Christian Practice. Different interpretations of the Bible have lead different Christian groups throughout history to sometimes opposite ideas of how to relate to mass culture. For some Christians, Paul's call to be "in the world but not of it" means that Christians are to set themselves entirely apart from the culture at large. Extreme examples of this understanding include Mennonite separatists, like the Amish and Hutterites, and the monastic tradition. At the opposite pole, some Christians engage culture wholeheartedly. In the Middle Ages, the hegemony of the Catholic Church in Europe meant that the primary cultural expressions were in service of the church already, and Christians in power have found ways to impose Christian beliefs and values on culture (sometimes with misguided or questionable motives, take Charlemagne for example). Of course, most Christians are somewhere in between these poles. Most try to negotiate their engagement of culture, doing their best to embrace the beneficial qualities and eschew the harmful ones, with varying degrees of success. They want to embrace the Augustinian notion that all truth is God's truth, but also the biblical mandate to set themselves apart from the evils of the world.
Richard Niebuhr (1951) describes five typical postures Christians tend to take in negotiating the relationship between Christ and culture. He describes a position of opposition, where "whatever may be the customs of the society in which the Christian lives, and whatever the human achievement it conserves, Christ is seen as opposed to them" (p 40). The second position he identifies is agreement, where Jesus is understood as the culmination and greatest achievement of culture, as well as a conserver of the social heritage. The other three positions negotiate somewhere between these two poles. The "Christ above culture" position emphasizes Christ who "enters into life from above with gifts which human aspiration has not envisioned" (41). The fourth position sees Christ and culture in paradox - Christians live in tension between the logic of Christ and the logic of society. The final posture posits Christ as the transformer of culture, following Augustine and Calvin. In this view, humans are understood as fallen or sinful, and human culture, therefore, reflects that. They are also, though, created by God, and redeemed by Christ's sacrifice, and constantly in the process of redemption through the work of Christ through his church. Niebuhr's typology is helpful because it typifies many of the historical and contemporary positions on this complex issue. The relationship of the church to culture is obviously important because it influences the way that Christians shape their lives (or purport to shape their lives) and the way they interact with others, and hope to influence, evangelize, and minister to others within culture.
Many Christians are not interested in this view of Christian interaction with everyday culture. One interesting example of this is David Dark (2002), who suggests Apocalyptic art as the ideal Christian Cultural output. His idea of Apocalyptic is very similar to Adorno and Debord's idea of the "speculative moment" or of jarring the public to awareness. Dark applauds these jarring moments of "unmasking the old and inaugurating the new" (20) in contemporary examples, like Radiohead, the Simpsons and the Coen brothers films. He compares the kind of negation these satirical works create to the apocalyptic writings of biblical prophets. His conception of redemptive art, though, is strikingly similar to Debord's ideas of waking people up. Dark's examples are far less radical than the Situationists; it is more focused on irony than on absurdist shock, and his tempered impulse is reframed as part of God's work of redemption. However, the basic impulse is similar - we need to be shocked out of our stupor. For Debord this shock is beneficial in and of itself. For Dark it points to the greater shock and hope of Grace, redemption and a New Jerusalem.
Recent years have also seen a trend in American Evangelicalism toward a return to spiritual practice. The protestant church is historically belief-heavy and practice-light. This stems from its genesis, during the enlightenment. Martin Luther and the others who followed him are concerned about the Catholic church's veer toward works-righteousness. Luther's staunch emphasis on salvation through faith alone was a necessary corrective in his time. It brought the beliefs of the Christian Church into an idiom that could resonate with a culture infused with enlightenment idealism. Just as Descartes was creating philosophy in a way that valorized the mind over the body, so Protestantism emphasized a Christian faith that is something you assent to in your mind (or believe in your heart, as some put it) rather than something you enact with your body. This is of course consistent with Paul's explanations about salvation being a product of grace and not our own righteousness, which is one of the key distinctions between Christianity and Judaism. Of course, the historic protestant church doesn't believe that what we do with our bodies doesn't matter. Certain behaviors are outlawed as sinful in every protestant tradition. In fact, most of us have heard of churches discouraging their parishioners from activities such as premarital sex, pornography, drinking, gambling, and even in some cases things like dancing, card-playing and tv-watching. It is easy to dismiss many of these rules as an extension of Cartesian dualism - a fear of all things bodily. Into this culture and this history, however, there are a number of voices calling for a more nuanced understanding of how our bodies and our actions can be faithfulness, not just by avoiding clearly labeled sinful behavior, but in shaping our everyday lives in a Godly way.
As many critics have noted, the historical moment of the enlightenment is passing. As a result, the cultural atmosphere where this belief-centered Protestantism made sense is waning. It has taken evangelical discourse longer than the academy and many other groups to deal with this purported cultural shift, but in recent years there has been a flurry of writing and discussion, primarily associated with the Emerging Church movement about how to adapt evangelical Christianity to a postmodern mode of thought instead of a modern one (Grenz, 1996; McLaren, 2001). One incarnation of this adaptation to a culture that is increasingly frustrated with modern idealism and with the Christian Church's reflection of it has been a renewed interest in spiritual practice. Of course, spiritual practice as a response to the frustrations of the spectacle has been going on for decades, and it seems that Christianity is just now catching up. Christians are realizing that the Christian tradition has its own alternatives to Yoga and Kabbalah and eastern meditation techniques that are resonant with the beliefs and values of Christianity. Many prominent members of the Christian intelligentsia have begun to pay attention to these traditions. These Christians are interested in finding ways to deal with the relationships that the culture industry/spectacle isolates us from, and finding new incarnations of historical religious practices as one such way to reshape meaningful relationships with the environment, community, ourselves, with time, our bodies, and with God directly. These writers all also point out that these other relationships themselves are ways to shape a relationship with God. This kind of thinking applies to a variety of practices that can be considered part of the Christian life, including corporate worship and more pragmatic choices about things like money, food, and time.Spiritual Practice
Sabbath keeping is one of the oldest and most obvious forms of Judeo-Christian Practice. It is, in fact, the fourth commandment. The particular practices involved in Sabbath observation have varied across space and time, and even the day on which Sabbath is observed (most Christians observe the Sabbath on Sunday, to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, traditional Sabbath observance is on Saturday). Sabbath observance is among the practices advised in Leviticus, along with other patterns of rest and work, such as the year of Jubilee. As such, keeping Sabbath is a good place to start when one is talking about the practices that inform a Christian life, because it is one of the most universal ones. Other practices that influence our engagement with the everyday are a part of many Christian traditions as well. The catholic practice of Confession, for example, or the many prayer, service and lifestyle practices of the monastic tradition shape the way Christians understand the role of religion in their life. Other common practices include fasting, meditation, and chastity. These practices are undertaken primarily as a mode of interacting with daily life and culture in a Godly way. In the preface to a book on Christian practices Dorothy Bass writes, "we want to know what Christian faith has to do with our work, with friendship and marriage, with the way we raise our children, with public and political life, with how we spend our money" (Bass, 1998, p. x). For ancient Israel it was a way to set themselves apart from the surrounding nations, mosaic law gave them specific ways to shape their lives - their relationships, their laws, and even their diets. Just as Muslim prayer infiltrates their entire lives with reminders of who they are and what they believe, so do Christian Practices orient the entire lives of adherents toward their faith. Religious practice is both a reminder of identity and a material action. Sabbath keeping stands out in this way because it has material consequences - it takes a risk, and it takes trust, and it affects the people who practice, and those they encounter.
Christian writers are very careful to separate Practices like this from salvation. Salvation is gotten through acts of God, not people. Human practice, then, has a different function. It is an act of devotion and faithfulness that attempts to redeem fallen relationships (even though that can never be completed before the apocalypse). Lauren Winner makes that distinction particularly clear by comparing Christian Practice to Jewish Practice. She says that Christians can learn about practice from Jews because "action sits at the center of Judaism. Practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity" (Winner, 2003, p. ix). It's important to make this distinction - that although practice is a part of what many Christians call Spiritual Formation, it is not part of salvation. This distinction also makes these kinds of practices available for non-Christian communities to adapt or adopt for their other benefits.
Sabbath observance takes a number of different forms. The original commandment focuses on resting from labor - "Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work-you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it" (NRSV). The commandment makes it clear that the Sabbath is to be a day without work, and that doesn't mean the wealthier Israelites could pawn their work off on somebody else - you also couldn't cause others to work. Not even animals. The commandment in itself explicitly protects the lower classes, immigrants, and non-human parts of creation. Rabbinical law has made the codes for Sabbath more specific. Lauren Winner delineates some of those Sabbath laws and says "what all this boils down to (and boiling is another thing you cannot do on Shabbat) is do not create. Do not create a casserole or a Valentine card or a symphony or a pot of coffee. Do not create anything at all, for one of the things the Sabbath reprises is God's rest after He finished creating" (Winner, 2003, p. 6). The Sabbath requires a break from the toil of everyday, and a break for everyone. Even God rested after the work of creation, so surely we are not so important that we cannot take a moment away.
Dorothy Bass emphasizes the part of the Sabbath that takes a break from the capitalist's world of quantity. She considers the way time has become a quantified part of the economy (in a manner reminiscent of Debord): "the flat pages of a datebook can become a template not simply for organizing time but also for visualizing what time is: a sequence of little boxes, each waiting to be filled. As the owner of this time, I imagine, my role is to look down on these boxes from above and determine what goes where" (Bass, 2000, p. 1). She also mentions the economic metaphors we use to speak about time - "using," "saving," "wasting," we even say that "time is money." Bass offers Sabbath as a greater practice of viewing time less as a resource and more as a gift. She refers often to Psalm 118: "this is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it" (NRSV). She also points to ways of stepping away from the consumer practices the spectacle/culture industry encourages in us. Not only to refrain from buying on Sabbath, but even from browsing or planning to buy, and perhaps, instead, to be mindful of those who cannot afford the luxuries we purchase (Bass, 2000, p. 64).
A number of authors also connect these Sabbath laws with other laws that God gives the Israelites to govern cycles of work and rest, and make, once again, explicit connections to care for the earth and for the poor. Only a few chapters later in Exodus, God instructs the Israelites that "for six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard" (Exodus 23:10-11, NRSV). This practice not only encourages Israelites to give their land a break from enthusiastic tilling and harvesting every seven years (a sound environmental and agricultural practice) but also to leave the fruits of the land for the poor who do not have their own. This is also often related to the Year of Jubilee, which has been used recently by social justice advocates.
Themes of social justice and the subversion of social hierarchies, of course, are not restricted to the old testament. The life of Christ, in and of itself, subverts cultural expectations for a violent messiah who would lead Israel to a military victory. Jesus, instead, chastises the leaders of the day and preaches radical pacifism. The idea of Christ's death as the ultimate victory can be read as a subversion even more unexpected than those of the Situationists. The early church created a community that subverted greed and selfishness through a community of sharing and evangelism. Portions of Paul's letters are sometimes openly subversive, both to the Jewish understanding of religion and to the hedonistic culture of the Greeks. "Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds," Paul famously tells the Roman Christians, "so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Romans 12:2 NRSV). This, too, sounds like the situationists - could Détournement be aiming for the same kind of transformation that Paul finds through the person of Christ? The book of Revelation, too, has deeply subversive implications. As David Dark explains it, "as the early christian's category-defying, gathering community challenges and relativizes the ultimacies of Roman power, John's text gives literary testimony to their alternative cultural vision and its destiny as the culture that, through suffering, will ultimately overcome" (Dark, 2002, p. 23). He elsewhere explains apocalyptic literature as a message that reminds us the powers of this world are temporary. This, too, sounds like a counter-cultural cry that reminds hegemony that its power over us will not last forever, and even hurries its end. Sabbath-keeping, and other Christian practices, come out of this early church - highly subversive, without political or economic power, intent on changing things through the model of Jesus - humility and service. They also come out of this Jewish tradition where God calls his people to care for each other, for the poor and for the earth.
This model of Christian life is sometimes hard to find beneath all the trappings of contemporary Christianity. Especially in American culture, Christian piety often gets tangled up with cultural assimilation and patriotism (Hart, 1977). It is easy in both Christian and Jewish communities for practice to become mere legalism. When practice becomes personal piety at the expense of the community or of others, it goes against the spirit of the thing (Winner, 2003, p. 89). Keeping Sabbath at the expense of justice is a practice Jesus explicitly rebukes (Mark 2:18-28). One constant element of Sabbath keeping, across sects and denominations, is corporate worship. Worship functions as a time for renewing relationships - between individuals and God but also between the community and God, and among the individuals in the community. Corporate
Spiritual Practice as Resistance
The resistive qualities of Sabbath keeping as a practice make it a viable alternative or supplement to other forms of resistance. Sabbath keeping resists some of the same problems that Debord and Adorno diagnose with a mediated culture. Most obviously, Sabbath keeping changes the way we view time. Sabbath Keeping helps to resist the problem Adorno identified of "free time" activities being sanctioned or even dictated by the culture industry, and those activities then adding to the culture industry's hegemonic force; it creates time that is explicitly separate from those powers and those activities. In some cases, separate from the market economy altogether - no money changes hands on the Sabbath. But even at a minimum, Sabbath creates the time for corporate worship. Those who attend worship dedicate at least an hour to time spent outside the power of the culture industry, focused on God and on their community. Of course, worship services are often subject to the influence of the culture industry as well, and the concerns of the everyday are always on our minds. But this time reserved for worship allows at least the potential for resistance, and for a time apart from the influences of the culture industry.
Debord's observation that time, like everything else, is reduced to quantity and commodity, can also be potentially answered through the practice of Sabbath keeping. As Dorothy Bass argues, true rest is inherently counter to the frenetic, time-saving culture of the spectacle, and of capitalism. An entire day away from the labor of work, and away from causing others to labor as well, is counter-cultural, and forces us to rethink our perceptions of time. If time is only what it costs, or what it can earn, then one day out of seven for spiritual and community reconnection makes no sense at all - it is counter-cultural in an almost dada-esque way. Except that this practice returns to something ancient, instead of creating something new. Sabbath keeping turns us toward an older cultural view of time, before enlightenment efficiency and capitalist economies created our current dysfunction. Of course, these earlier times certainly had their own social problems, and Sabbath keeping did not cure all social ills then and will not now either. But it is, perhaps, a step back toward mindfulness, and away from the fast pace that typifies our historical moment more than the others.
Barbara Brown Taylor also emphasizes the role Sabbath plays in resisting larger oppressive social structures:
In its community form, Sabbath is not only about rest but also about resistance. Each time it appears in Torah, the commandment limits the exploitation of others as well as the exhaustion of the self. When you stop working, so do your children, your animals and your employees, even if they do not believe in your God. You believe in your God, so they get the day off. By interrupting our economically sanctioned social order every week, Sabbath suspends our subtle and not so subtle ways of dominating one another on a regular basis. The lion is restrained from making a profit on the lamb, who may still choose to lie down for a Sabbath nap alone but is free from the fear of waking up as lamb chops on this one day at least. (Taylor, 2005)
The directive to not only avoid labor, but also to avoid causing others to labor, undermines the exploitation that is a part of our economic system (as Marx argues). It does not overthrow it completely, and Marx and perhaps Debord would suggest that something like a Sabbath is just a steam valve to stave off a complete revolution. Their point would be well taken. However, Heath and Potter's critique here becomes salient. A once-a-week reprieve is significantly better than no reprieve at all, and practices that make all of us mindful of the plight of the oppressed are an improvement over ambivalence.
Tying resistance to spirituality offers particular benefits, but also dangers, to those looking to change the influence mass culture has on our society. One of its clearest benefits is that Sabbath resistance doesn't just turn us away from the problems of mass culture, but toward something positive in its place. The constant negation of Debord and punks is radical and exciting, but in the end it leaves us only with nihilism. Spiritual practice, on the other hand, decries the problems of culture, but also affirms something. It affirms trying to maintain a right relationship with God (or the divine more generally) and it affirms other right relationships too - with the environment, with other people, and with oneself. Another advantage of spiritual practice instead of avant-garde resistance is that it affirms community over individualism, without losing sight of the individual. The practice of hospitality, in conjuncture with the practice of Sabbath, invites others to become a part of the resistant religious lifestyle, rather than alienating them. Ideally, Christian community hopes to include and accept everyone, even though it doesn't always accomplish this. Also, the value of community, in itself, is a type of resistance. The culture industry alienates us from each other and forces us, instead, to interact with commodities. Sabbath keeping and religious community, instead, invites us to rebuild the community that has been lost, and find meaning in authentic interpersonal relationships instead of culture industry relics manufactured in order to manipulate us. Community is the only tenable alternative to individual isolation. Sabbath creates a space to construct and nurture community intentionally and on a weekly basis. Worship that encourages congregants to interact with each other and to participate in the acts of worship, then, are more effective to this end. By bolstering community, Sabbath fights the isolation that is integral to the success of the hegemonic culture industry.
Although I believe Sabbath keeping is a worthwhile alternative or supplement to other types of resistance, it is open to criticism. First, Sabbath keeping is an incremental solution. It is not total rejection, like situationists or punks hope to achieve. It even has the potential to excuse wholesale affirmation of the other 6 days a week. However, its very incrementalism makes it a tenable form of resistance for the masses. Society can only sustain so many avant-garde artists, but it can sustain a considerable amount more of spiritual practitioners. Of course, exceptions and adjustments may have to be made for those who care for the sick and elderly, for police and firefighters, but the concept of Sabbath keeping is less about dogmatic adherence than it is about the principles behind it. And in spite of these exceptions, Sabbath keeping is a type of resistance more palatable to everyday citizens, who are interested in making things better, but not in the kind of radicalism Debord and others espouse.
Another potential criticism of resistant Sabbath keeping is that a hegemonic church would be just as bad as, if not worse than a hegemonic culture industry. As is evidenced throughout church history, when the church acquires a lot of cultural power, it becomes corrupt. However, one factor that helps minimize this danger is the focus on individual local communities, and the diffuse power within the Christian church. Although the Pope and the leaders of the Christian right still wield a lot of power, there are plenty of independent, progressive church communities who practice their faith apart from larger centralized bodies of church power. More Sabbath keeping and other Christian practice in these contexts would, if anything, take rhetorical power away from these centralized sources of religious authority. There is also a visceral reaction, especially among those who see themselves as counter-cultural, that the church represents "the man" in a lot of ways, and the church is really the historic source of oppression that was replaced by the culture industry. Bringing back the original controlling force seems a suspicious way to solve our current problems. Much of the controlling power of the mideval church, however, was tied up in its hierarchical structure and its lack of competitors. A post-reformation church will find it hard to have the control it once had. In addition, more thoughtful, careful, ethical practitioners will help to keep those who would twist the values of religion toward their own ends in check.
Finally, the value of individualism within Christian practice is subsumed to the value of service and community. This might make situationsts, punks, and average Americans a little bit nervous. It is important to emphasize the importance, within Sabbath keeping, of also taking time for oneself, to be quiet, to really rest, and to know oneself. This sort of individualism is not perhaps as exciting as a brightly colored wardrobe or a Mohawk, but still highlights the value of the individual. Subsuming that value within the value of community and serving others, though, does even more work toward undermining the isolation of the culture industry. Rather than alienating oneself further, like punks try to do, church members learn to love and embrace and live together with others, even if they are people they don't really understand or even like. This intentional connection with and service to others also leads us toward being more compassionate, to understanding the plight of those in bad economic or social conditions, and trying to do something about it. Not only that, but community creates a ready-made action group to work as a whole toward these ends.Conclusion
Guy Debord and Johnny Rotten would probably find Sabbath keeping and other Christian practice a poor, partial solution to what they saw as a hopeless problem. As thoughtful citizens, however, we can consider Sabbath keeping as a possibility, an option and an alternative to disaffected nihilism or helpless apathy. Although individual and even community practice does not create the political and systemic changes to what lies at the root of many of our society's problems, it is a start, and it is a way to build communities who are mindful of the negative effects our culture has, because they try to stop those effects one day a week. Abraham Heschel writes "the essence of the world to come is Sabbath eternal, and the seventh day in time is an example of eternity" (Heschel, 1951, p. 74). The Sabbath looks ahead with hope toward a time when everything is redeemed, and attempts to create here and now a moment of peace, harmony, and holiness within our imperfect world. Even for those who are not certain of the eternity Christians and Jews hope for, this kind of tempered optimism and embodied hope seems a good beginning. We know that our world will never be perfect, but what if we try to get closer, just once a week? Will not that hope and mercy and love spill over into the other days? Will not it refresh us all?
Bethany Keeley is a graduate student at the University of Georgia. This paper was written for a course taught by Dr. Christine Harold.
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