The Return of the Gods: Popular Culture and Theological Pessimism

Cain S., P.
October 17, 2013

  Logical Priority Reading Group: Cobb, Kelton (2005)  

The perdurability of religious attitudes and the theology that couches them is best demonstrated in history’s failure at eradicating them. If the recent explosion of debates around the age old theist-atheist divide, and the evolution of the meta-debates about criteria for evaluation of victory on either sides of the divide, are anything to go by then there is no definitive solution to the various disputes in the foreseeable future. Then, given that we cannot put an end to these various contentions right away, I will restrict this very brief essay [pertaining to the first four chapters of Kelton Cobb (2005)] to a discussion of contradictory impulses of the theonomous aspects of popular culture.

The idea of the brutish herd obstructing individual satisfaction is one that is often deployed in artifacts of popular media and culture. The Brad Pitt starrer Fight Club, 1999, referenced in Cobb (2005, p. 10) for its therapeutic awareness of modern nihilism, is one such example. Here, the individual and his sovereign will is pitted against the wage slavery and addictive consumerism advocated by the decent, successful people with whom he has a shared existence. The dénouement of the film, however, is the narrative embodiment of the motto: if you try this in real life you’re screwed.

The take away from such a narrative on a closer look is hardly edifying. For, contrary to the movie’s explicit content the message is that you will never be able to break free from social constraints; look at Brad Pitt in this movie, even he failed: you don’t stand half the chance Edward Norton did. That the film made a huge amount of money in box-offices around the world goes on to show that at least some of its viewers appreciated the premise of the movie: you are owned by what you own. Yet, does this eliminate the irony that they ultimately had to purchase their access, whether through movie tickets or DVDs, to this therapeutic message?

The notion of coming away stronger from the experience of evil and suffering has a long lineage. Nietzsche and Niebuhr, an atheist and a theist respectively, shared this notion; looking further back in time, Homer and Hegel too in their own ways held this view. The revulsion man feels amidst the horrors of brute nature and tyrannous men itself affirms the delicate human sensitivity that recognizes these states of affairs as foist upon him by an indifferent fate. Accordingly, man finds it in himself to reject the arbitrary state of nature as not completely determining how he will act. Such rebellion against nature is evidenced in ethical, legal, and moral systems the world over; even the most primitive societies have notions of what is permissible and what impermissible that are highly idiosyncratic.

It would not, then, be remiss to say that the very ideals of reaching for the good of all mankind, aspiring for justice and truth and beauty, are ideals that emerge from nature only by the rational intervention of man. Yet, this intervention consists in denying the state of nature as unworthy of us, even as wanting severly in certain respects. The theological, or theophanic, realisation that nature is in no need of our human scruples, but it is we who need our wits about us to deal with its various processes and manifestations, cannot then after its emergence in social consciousness be naturalised away neatly. The various ways that society tries to make life better for its denizens is a manifest token of its unnatural, or supernatural, leanings in respect to an ideal way of life.

If my analysis holds water then the modern denial of transcendence in products of popular culture itself stands as a proxy for the theological aspirations of modern subjects. We can find vindication for this thesis in the increasing popularity of posthumanism in the context of political and social consciousness[1], the rise of horror as the new popular genre in movies and books[2], and the recent tendency in jurisprudence to disparage the Natural law tradition[3]. It would, thus, seem that the modern denial of transcendence, and obsession with the finitude of man, is a symptom of the profound but secret desire for the denied object. Popular culture rejects theology only provisionally, and in a piecemeal manner; and what is rejected is often quickly replaced by fabrications just as, or even more, fanciful than the previous ones.

Work Cited

Cobb, Kelton. (2005). The Blackwell Guide to Theology and Popular Culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers. Ch. 1-4.

[1] See Rectenwald, Michael. (2013). < >. Web.

[2] Speaking in relative terms. ‘Why is horror less popular than other genres? “Generally, people anticipate feeling entertained and feeling good when they leave a movie,” explains Fischoff. But while horror films excite and arouse, they “often leave people feeling nervous and unsettled,” despite any catharsis. “This is not a state which leads to fond memories.”’. See < >. Web.

[3] See Whiteley, Patrick J., & Bolt, Robert. (2002).  “Natural Law and the Problem of Certainty: Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons”. Contemporary Literature Vol. 43, No. 4 (Winter, 2002), pp. 760-783. < >. Web.

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