The headline on my Twitter feed was from CNN and linked to an article entitled “The Cultural Moments that Defined 2019.” The tweet rang out with this incredible announcement:
From Jennifer Lopez storming Milan Fashion Week in an updated version of her iconic Versace dress to the sale of a $120,000 banana, the year was full of unforgettable moments.
Where to begin with such pablum? One could point to the verbal downgrade of the word “iconic”—now nothing more than a synonym for pop-culture famous. One could also mention the absurdity of modern art whereby a piece of ordinary fruit is sold for a handsome annual salary. But I’d like to focus on the last two words: “unforgettable moments.”
With the exception of the Notre Dame fire, everything in the article (warning: risque images) is utterly and entirely forgettable. Virtually no one will care about Jane Fonda’s red coat years from now or months from now (or seconds from now?). Just like the Instagram post from Phoebe Waller-Bridge will not be etched in our collective memory. In fact, when I first typed the last sentence, I wrote Bridget Walker-Phoebe, because I couldn’t recall the name I read two minutes ago.
The pop culture style moments detailed by CNN mattered almost nil to almost everyone, and their long-term cultural import will likely be less than that. What we have here is pretty much the textbook definition of what will not be remembered.
Trivialities and the Weight of Glory
I’m not a technophobe. I have a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and enough teenagers in the house to keep me conversant with my fair share of pop culture. I’m not quitting social media. Neither do I think it’s all a waste of time.
But honestly, most of it is.
Of course, there are common grace gifts to enjoy in the latest viral videos, memes, and GIFs. And yet, there are more gifts—of common grace and special grace—to be enjoyed in an excellent book, a thoughtful conversation, a long walk, time in silence, time in prayer, and time in the Word. If I’m going to suffer from FOMO, I want it to be the fear of missing out on all the things I could be learning, all the ways I could be growing, or all the ways I could be a bigger blessing to my family, my church, and my friends.
Sommerville’s main point is not that the news is dumb, but that we are dumb for paying so much attention to it. We have become conditioned to think that the really important stuff of life comes to us in a neat 24-hour news cycle. Worse than that, in our mobile-digital age most of us assume that news is happening every second of every minute of every hour of every day, and if we tune out (or turn off our phones) for more than a few hours (minutes?) we will be rendered out of touch and uninformed. That’s dumb.
The solution is not better news, but less of it. The problem is with the nature of news itself. The news is all about information. It’s about what’s trending now. It rarely concerns itself with the big questions of life. It focuses relentlessly on change, which, as Sommerville points out, gives it an inherent bias against conservatism and religious tradition. Our soundbite/twitter/vine/ticker-at-the-bottom-of-the-screen/countdown-clock/special-report culture of news encourage us to miss the forest of wisdom for the triviality of so many trees. As Malcolm Muggeridge once observed: if he had been a journalist in the Holy Land during Jesus’ ministry he probably would have wasted his time digging through Salome’s memoirs.
In terms of pop culture consumption, I’m more attuned to some areas than others. I went to a movie theater exactly zero times in 2019, but I’m sure I pay too much attention to sports. I feel no temptation to binge watch anything, but I can mindlessly thumb through Twitter (is there any other way to look at Twitter?). And don’t ask about email; I stay connected to my inbox like it was kidney dialysis.
I need a digital detox just like most of you. If I’m to get more of the deep stuff, I need to be weaned from most of the trivial stuff.
If you are in the business of making New Year’s resolutions, why not attempt one that saves time instead of depletes it? Give up trying to keep up. Let the pop culture whirlwind pass you by. Be wonderfully ignorant of the world of what’s happening now. Don’t worry, the important news will still get to you. But hopefully most of the other “news” won’t.
It can be scary to detach, even a little bit, from the screams of social media, Netflix, and cable news. But let’s not mistake knowledge for wisdom, or a multimedia platform for kingdom usefulness. There is no way to possibly stay with it, so why bother? Look out the window. Put down the phone. Lose touch with pop culture and reconnect with God. If you get to the end of 2020 and can’t recall any of the big style stories from CNN, don’t fret: in a few minutes no one else with either.