It is the task of marketing departments of all varieties to keep a calculating finger on the pulse of culture, particularly when it comes to consumer trends. The entertainment industry alone has a multi-billion dollar reason to keep their fingers close—which means their research into the entertainment needs of the world is essential. For those of us fascinated with cultural studies, it also means their research into what the public will respond to favorably or unfavorably offers an interesting glimpse into the current cultural landscape.
But even the researchers are getting confused, and especially during the holidays. They find we are sending mixed signals. An article in The New York Times quotes one researcher describing “a curiously widespread contradiction in modern American pop culture—the desperate, self-negating need to be both cynical and sentimental at the same time.”(1) Film historian David Thomson notes of film in general, “One of the main problems in the industry is that young kids do not take the story material seriously. They think it’s mocking.” As a result, “the things we once took very seriously, we half-mock them now.”(2)
By and large, the cultural trend marks a growing distrust and rejection of story and meaning and a general embrace of cynicism. And yet, in recent market research, executives found that audiences of all ages reacted badly to advertising that too sharply dismissed or disrespected the notion or story of Christmas. There is quite measurably a greater desire for storylines with hopeful implications in December. Apparently, we want to joke about life’s meaninglessness, but only 11 months out of the year. The typical cynicism governing the production and marketing of motion pictures is entirely toned down at Christmastime. It seems we want to argue the cake doesn’t exist and eat it too.
I have always appreciated the brave confession of C.S. Lewis that he was once living in a whirl of contradictions. This is a difficult thing even to notice of one’s life, let alone to admit it aloud. Self-deception is always one of the more powerful forces of interpretation; the general human ability to see the lives of others far more critically than our own is another. Yet Lewis observed of himself, “I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.” Our own contradictions often exist glaringly amongst our thoughts, even as they go unnoticed.
Yet there is a promise for those who will seek, for those willing to confront their own contradictions, and it comes near in the Incarnation we celebrate in December—the event remembering God’s willingness to reach humanity by becoming human, exaltating humanity into the life of God. Indeed, this exalted one who knows what it means to be human is continually at work flattening our altars of inconsistency, uncovering our contradictions, urging us into eyesight, and leading us into humanity as God intended. The child we welcome in December remains among us every month thereafter. In the momentous words of a hymn that speaks much to the hope Christmas:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King…
Let men their songs employ…
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
Perhaps we are right to exchange cynicism for hope this Christmas. Might we learn to employ its songs long after the season.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) As quoted in the New York Times, (Dec. 14, 2004).