Last week, alternative media mogul Glenn Beck announced that he was going to focus on “taking back” American culture through the power of nostalgia:
In the future, Glenn Beck’s focus is going to be more on influencing culture and less on politics and news. After all, news is only “what the culture allows,” he said in a recent interview with National Review’s Eliana Johnson.
…“Beck is nostalgic for an America of decades past, and his cultural projects will aim to resurrect and revive it,” Johnson writes. “It’s an America where duty trumped desire and Americans were bound together by a sort of civic religion created by that sense of duty. ‘I want to impact the culture in the way that people see good again,’ [Glenn] says.”
Beck’s goal is admirable, to a fault. The period he seeks to resurrect was one in which concepts like “good” and “duty” were defined by a Biblical religion, not a civic one. Any history student will tell you that Marx had his own take on the American Revolution; you can show someone Frank Capra movies until you’re blue in the face and they’re still going to see Mr. Smith as the ultimate community organizer if that’s their moral outlook.
As Amy Kenyon notes, there are pitfalls to what passes for nostalgia these days:
…the historical meanings and usages associated with nostalgia were finally mangled beyond recognition until its chief purpose became the performance of sentimentalism, the parceling out of discount memory via television, advertising, heritage theme parks, and souvenir markets, all aspects of what we might call the “nostalgia industry.” As such, nostalgia became kitsch, trivial and reactionary: hardly the stuff of a meaningful engagement with the past or the workings of memory.
Simply put: Glenn Beck needs to do more than embrace the facade of America, circa 1940. Beck needs to dig deeper, to America’s Biblical heritage, to understand what re-taking the culture truly means.
It has taken Christians 2,000 years to begin to understand the all-encompassing concept of culture in relation to faith; this isn’t a surprise given the cultural history of the Church. At the birth of the Church the Romans divorced a Biblical faith from its Hebrew culture. By slapping the tenets of the faith onto a pagan culture, they set a precedent that has defined Christianity for centuries as an amorphous faith that conforms to the shape of whatever culture it has inhabited. From ancient Roman traditions like the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox transformed into Christmas and Easter, to South American Indian traditions like Dia de los Muertos transformed into All Saints Day, the Church has ritualized and glorified assimilation. It shouldn’t come as any surprise, then, that Christians like Beck are losing the culture war for America; they’ve been compromising on their own culture for the past 2,000 years.
When God gave the Torah to the Israelites, He was calling a people out of pagan tribalism. What Western civilization takes for granted as an acceptable moral outlook was big news to a people all too familiar with bizarre practices including child sacrifice, bestiality, murder, and adultery among other sordid behaviors. The Israelites didn’t receive God’s Torah as a Dummies’ guidebook for casual reading or as a series of laws to live by or perish. Torah is the guidebook that supports the calling God gave to Abraham to be set apart as a living example of how good a relationship with God can be. The word “Torah” carries with it the implication of hitting the mark. By divorcing a culturally Jewish faith from its Biblical roots, the Church missed the mark.
Fast-forward 2,000 years to folks like Glenn Beck who are only beginning to understand that politics and religion are mere elements of the culture itself. Christianity has always focused on the elements because it is, in and of itself, elemental: the Church was designed to be only one part of an empire, an amorphous idea that conforms to the desires and ideologies of the culture within which it has been planted. Hence the Presbyterian Church, now well-rooted in the culture of the BDS Movement, can release a politically motivated “congregational study guide” on Zionism that “…takes aim at the ideological, moral and historical foundations of Israel, falsely labeling Zionism ‘Jewish supremacism’ and denying Israel’s very right to exist as a modern nation state.”
Beck highlighted Walt Disney as a major influence on his new “take back the culture” campaign. Chris Queen nailed it on the head when he pointed out:
Walt Disney stood for Judeo-Christian and American values that resonate with so many people — values like faith, optimism and freedom — and he wove these values throughout his animated and live-action films, as well as on television and even at Disneyland.
The kind of nostalgia Beck needs isn’t going to be found in the resurrection of 1940s pop culture. It is a values-based longing that goes deeper, to the source of the Greatest Generation’s moral imperative: The Bible. If he can dig back that far, Beck’s nostalgia may achieve the authenticity it so desperately needs in order to succeed:
Nostalgia has a lost history that might be recovered in order to move forward. If it once made us sick; might it sometimes make us better? …We want something larger than ourselves and before ourselves, a chance to contemplate our irrecoverable past times… If our nostalgic longings might be reconceived as memory with its critical healing powers restored, in other words, as the working through of what we have lost, then nostalgia may yet prove a condition worth having.
If Beck and his Christian counterparts want to revive America, they need to start by learning from Rome’s mistakes, lest they get caught fiddling with pop culture nostalgia while the West goes up in flames.