The spectacle presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned. Its sole message is: “What appears is good; what is good appears.” Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1968
Relevance is the exact opposite of countercultural, the unintended consequences are significant. Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians, 2010
In the contemporary moment, the expectations of daily life appear multiplied, with more to keep up with than ever before. And because of instantaneous communication, there is also an increasing awareness of the latest ideas. The growing interconnection creates pressure that we prioritize what is in the news and what looks fashionable, in order to be "relevant." The definition is “closely connected or appropriate to the matter at hand,” with appropriateness being highly subjective. (dictionary.com) The great valor of the cultural intelligencia is being in the know, with shame falling on whatever is obviously irrelevant.
The problem lies in thinking that being relevant is best. Media is the primary source of legitimization – what appears is made good. If media frames something as bad, it is still in the realm of appearances and only given the appearance of a trial, or more so of a false exorcism for an eventual unqualified sanctification alongside the media good. We can think of any number of scandals with notorious fame, that by falling in the media spotlight gain eventual acceptance. So whether media celebrates or crucifies, it certifies something as relevant, and thus more significant than whatever is not in the news.
Some could suggest that media’s sanctifying power has weakened. While in the past, media was the voice of a god to the masses, now we have many media outlets for many points of view and that is the postmodern crisis of meaning. Pluralistic, interactive media however, has not reduced media’s ability to make relevant, but simply increased its territory, making more things accepted. The media pre-approves topics, using the public sphere to normalize issues long before they are legally passed. But more than popularize, media gives things a momentary, iconic status to seem untouchable and unrejectable. Yet, unlike the conventional understanding of sacred as worthy of eternal veneration, the contemporary, secular sacred is admired for its lush ripeness alone.
The fascination for the new was also common to ancient Greece, where “all the Athenians and foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas. “ (Acts 17:21) While it is not known if “relevance” as a concept was debated, there was discussion of the strength of ideas. Today, after decades of political correctness, almost nothing can be de-valued, except what is marginalized by media. Media relevancy is the litmus test of value, save for the Christians. The great laugh on Real Time with Bill Maher is that Christians are irrelevant, blind to the latest accepted truths. Mahr righteously admits his liberal position, implying he represents the informed elite and its valid anti-Christian attitude. The uninformed, American-car driving Christian is his fail-safe closing joke.
Despite criticisms of being disconnected, many Christian churches now open their doors to relevant speakers or support relevant causes. Christian authors produce relevant texts, and Christian websites like this one look relevant. But what the masses seek is not satisfied by Facebook, or by churches that only resemble it. The shared consciousness, which is applauded as the global village, is a mere shadow of what’s possible.
Postmodernity is neither the enemy of handmaiden for Christianity, as pluralism has been ever present. While vanity and illusion take form in the latest sacred, media’s ultimately all-inclusive scope exposes the fault lines of its value system, and leaves only desire for more. We live on demand for the next best thing. We move easily on to the next one, because the last one, the current one, and even the next one are already overdetmined as temporary. This analysis cannot discredit the milieu in which relevance is upheld as a value, in part because this text appears through media, but more so because media is not to blame. Even nature has temporary forms, but valuing futility is an interest of men who exploit media. And while media can be used to correct how we are misinformed, reality is the place for genuine transformation.
The culture industry will continue to flaunt its authority over men, discerning the most recent thing worthy of our attention, but the challenge to Christians is as it has always been, “communicating something authentic and true through their lives that gives pause to those who encounter them,” writes Gabe Lyons. He also quotes an ancient letter to Diognetus about early Christians: “They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require.” These are reminders that amid relevancy, we can raise the bar. Whatever it is that is deemed the latest sacred, is not the ultimate sacred. While we can be content in what we are given today, we should find a righteous discontent with the esteem for what is only relevant. This is not a mandate to never be relevant, but that amid the tyranny of urgent updates on life we should remember, “only one thing is needed.” (Luke 10:42) Keeping our gaze on what is eternally relevant to the living God, shines the greatest light on what is most relevant to all of us, anytime. It is not the news, but under it; not fashion, but the creator; not technology, but the giver of renewal. So rather than critique contemporary life, we can restore our focus on the eternal values that survive it.
Image: Jan Gossaert’s Adam and Eve in Paradise, 1525, adapted as a MacBook skin by artist Michael Xuereb