When it comes to pleasure God seems to be a bit of a fanatic. Upon first glance we often fail to notice just how subtly he has infused our human existence with all kinds of aesthetic, sensual and erotic goodies to discover and enjoy. Seriously what kind of deity are we dealing with here? Surely there were more important and sensible tasks for him to put his mind to when he created the world.
I mean imagine if the earth had been created with a pre-prepared and efficient sewage system? Now that would make sense! Instead God seems to be happy to create constellations as artworks that we can only now just appreciate thanks to the hubble telescope, not very efficient if you ask me. Humans could have been pre-programmed from day one with an ability to understand incredibly complicated mathematical equations; every human could have been a Steven Hawking. Imagine the advances in technology, imagine the infrastructure our cities could have had, the volumes of scientific journals that the average citizen could consume on a daily basis. Instead what does God do? He takes that vital brain power, and devotes millions of neural synapses and enough brain electricity to power a medium size Asian city to human sexuality.
Over the weekend I engaged as I do once a year in the orgy of kitchness and tack that is the Eurovision song contest. If you live in North America and have not seen Eurovision; imagine mixing American Idol with the Euro (the European soccer championships), and then having the the whole thing designed by drag queens from Albania with a penchant for pure grade cocaine.
Often I meet people for appointments all over town. Sometimes it is food courts in middle class suburbs, sometimes is cool cafes in hip parts of town. Recently I have noticed a trend. I was sitting waiting to meet someone in the food court of a tired, middle class, suburban mall, when I looked up and did a scan of the occupants of the foodcourt, there was an extremely high percentage of people who were disabled. I noticed a number of carers as well, helping and feeding their disabled relatives/friends/spouses. A few days after, I was again waiting for someone for an appointment, this time however I was in a hip, inner city yuppy/bohemian cafe zone. The main street was being used as a kind of open air catwalk by impossibly attractive and painfully cool males and females, who were out to mix haute couture with buying their everyday groceries. As I looked through the forest of legs clad in designer jeans, I struggled to see one disabled person. I guess they were picking up an unwritten message that the hip and non disabled were not – “stay away!”.
I have been on planes coming into my city where visitors are encouraged to visit Melbourne’s faux bohemain precincts, such is our culture’s worship of commerce and cool. I bet they will never encourage overseas visitors to go out and drink in the sights of the mall where the disabled people feel comfortable.
The Story of American Music can teach Christian leaders a lot about the importance of developing personal depth in a culture obsessed with image.
Modern music was born out of a collision of cultural influences that occurred on the fringes of American society around a century ago. Slaves, many coming via the Caribbean, used a fusion of traditional African rhythms, the call and response pattern, and Christian hymns to create Spirituals, or Black Gospel music. This music became a way of communicating their suffering and hope for deliverance from slavery. Irish migrants who fled famine and poltical strife in their homeland, and who faced widespread racism upon their arrival in the United States, communicated their sense of cultural dislocation through Irish Ballads. Jewish refugees fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe, brought to America Klezmer music, itself a fusion of Yiddish and Roma (Gypsy) musical cultures, a way of two of Europe’s persecuted minorities to through music, express the pain that centuries of marginalization and misunderstanding brought.
These musical styles smashed up against each other in big cities such as New York and mutated together in the deep South to give birth to Blues and Jazz, which in turn gave birth to Rock and Roll and Hip Hop and almost everything great that came after.
Hell sure ain’t cool these days. The idea of a post-death judgment of our actions here on earth is repugnant to the western 21st century citizen. Suggesting that after we die that we may be held accountable to our actions during this life, will not bring cyber-hugs from your list of facebook friends. The concept that God has set up a system of justice in our universe, and that some people may chose the path of evil and thus renege their place in the coming kingdom, simply does not wash with modern post-modern post-post-modern sensibilities.
Partly this is because we who live our lives within the Western comfort bubble have become distanced from evil. Sure we see it on TV, we read about it in the newspaper, but on the whole it does not touch our real lives in any palpable way.
My neighbourhood is currently seeing an influx of Punjabi migrants from India, most of whom are middle to upper class Sikh people. As a result the bigger churches in my area don’t look as large, when compared to the local Sikh Gurdwara (temple) which now is home to over 1000 worshippers. Of course this has meant that it has become quite normal to see older Sikh men walking around in their traditional turbans and women in their saris. However I have watched with fascination how the younger members of the Sikh community seem to be expressing their culture and faith. Instead of turbans and saris, the Punjabi youthtend to show their commitment to faith by giant car stickers featuring a strange synthesis of traditional Sikh symbols and hip hop slang such as ‘Punjabi’s on da rize!’.
This mash-up of traditional Indian with western youth culture is symbolic of the emergence of a new kind of young person that is appearing on the Indian sub-continent. Half of India’s one billion people are under twenty five. Whilst many of these youth live in abject poverty, the growing middle class is being spied with envy by youth marketers who are keen to get their hands on their estimated $10.5 billion dollars in disposable income.
Bart’s bare Butt
I am looking at a young man’s car parked close to mine. On the dashboard of the car is a plastic figurine, it is Bart Simpson, he is pulling down his pants, and ‘mooning’ the world. Normally I would not stop and think about this, but this time I am shocked. I am not shocked out of a sense of oversensitive Christian piety, I have grown up with the Simpsons, and when it comes to butts I am the owner of one myself which has provided me with great support during my life. I am shocked however because I think of all the passionate, stubborn, activist, wildly revolutionary young people of history, who have fought to change the world, to bring down corrupt governments, overturn oppressive laws and regimes, who have given their lives on battlefields to improve the world. Sometimes they were right, sometimes they were misguided, but they believed in something. Of all the slogans, of all the messages that this young man could have sent the world, he chose this one. Bart’s nihilistic, plastic moon, exposes more than just are bare butt, it exposes our total lack of cultural depth, and reveals to us just how superflat our culture has become. When it comes to discussing the big issues of life, we have lost our voice.
Firstly a couple of things need to be noted. Male participation in the church in the West is on a massive decline. The second thing to remember is that this opinion from women that men are ‘dropping of the radar’ is not just held by women inside the church. I recently watched an interview with a demographics expert who discovered that this is one of the main questions that women are asking about our culture. It seems that we are in a crisis of masculinity.
For me this is a huge issue to which little time and effort has been given. However some clues can be found in the various models of masculinity that are communicated to young men through the new media environment. Here some of the main models that I have observed of heterosexual masculinity that young men are being exposed to and imitating at the moment. You have heard of metrosexuals; now meet some of the other models of masculinity that young men are being exposed to.
Rageasexuals are a group of young males who can be defined by a sense of disconnection and rage that they feel about their place in society. The feel powerless as males and thus find it necessary to participate in activities and interests which communicate a raw sense of rage and discontent. Often these young men can be found in economically marginalized areas. The music industry has recognized the massive audience of retrosexuals and heavily market metal and hardcore rap to this market. Social status and meaning for the Rageasexuals comes from their ability to emphasize to others through their clothes, consumer choices and behavior their role as outsiders.
This group has come of age during a hyper proliferation of pornography in our society. From the non stop rotation of ‘booty’ music videos on MTV, to the rise of post-feminist backlash mags like FHM, to the domination of graphic sexual imagery on the internet. For this group life is a sexual supermarket, women are products who offer the consumer hedonistic experiences. The Hypersexual’s hero’s are Hugh Hefner founder of playboy magazine and musicians such as snoop doggy dog, who’s videos are filled with semi-naked girls dancing and drug consumption, despite the fact that in real life Snoop is a tee-totaling little league football coach, happily married with children. For the Hypersexual the hyperreal sex of porn videos is normal, girls who don’t act like pornstars are strange and your social standing is based on your level of sexual conquest. For the Hypersexual, commitment to a partner is no longer a necessary part of human life when sex is available free of responsibility.
The Riskasexual has abandoned any sense of common sense and maturity to pursue a life of reckless abandon and risky, dangerous behavior. The MTV series Jackass portrays the Riskasexual subculture par excellence. In a youth culture which places huge importance on experience and shock, the Riskasexual seeks activities which combine both, giving the participant an adrenaline rush. Injuries become proud battle scars, and the video camera becomes the method of recording for posterity dangerous stunts. It is interesting that in the MTV promotional advertisement for Jackass that MTV picked the Trent Reznor penned tune ‘Hurt’ performed by Johnny Cash which says ‘I hurt myself today to see if I still feel, I focus on the pain the only thing that’s real’ . In the subjective world of postmodernity where truth is relative, the Riskasexual finds meaning in the primacy of sensation and experience. The dark side of the Riskasexual phenomenon that Jackass and the world of extreme sports does not show is the sheer volume of young men killed by risky behaviors such as driving at high speeds, drug use and suicide.
The Emosexual is a young man who has come of age in a post-Spice Girl’s age of ‘girl power’ where many girls have learnt to use their sexuality as a form of sexual power and quite often take the role of sexual aggressor. This trend can be observed by Gen Y films ‘Garden State’ and ‘Elizabethtown’ where the plot centers around a depressed, emotionally disconnected male lead character who’s life is transformed by a emotionally strong, spontaneous and life embracing female. Thus the female for the Emosexual is not an object of sexual desire but rather represents a way of recovering from depression and becoming emotionally whole. In contrast to the voracious sexual desire of the Hypersexual the Emosexual is almost asexual. The spiritual grandfather of the Emosexuals is former Smiths lead singer and celibate Morrissey who’s melancholic songs of male shyness and emotional brokenness paved the way for the posturing of many of today’s Indie and Emo frontmen.
WHAT 21st CENTURY JAPAN TEACHES US ABOUT CONTEMPORARY FAITH
Any serious discussion of the big issues of human existence such as God, meaning, life and death are seemingly off the list of acceptable discussion points in the conversational life of the hip 21st century person. This makes having and sharing faith a difficult proposition for the believer. Understanding the Japanese concept of superflat is key in understanding the context we find ourselves discussing our faith.
TOYS FOR ADULTS
Because my office is located in neighbourhood with a large Asian migrant presence, there are several Japanese animation stores within short walking distance. One of these is located beneath my office. It’s windows are filled with what could be accurately described as toys and figurines from various Japanese Manga comics, Anime movies and TV series. You would think that such a stores predominant clientele would be children. However these stores are child free zones. Almost always the stores are filled with mostly men and some women in their late twenties and early thirties who browse the latest arrivals with a quiet intensity.
As I stop to look into the window of the store I am greeted with a sea of strange plastic creatures looking back at me. Strange super cute cats and dogs, monsters that look like Godzilla’s long lost cousin, futuristic Robots, sexualized School girls with giant eyes, and of course the obligatory Astro-boy figures. As I walk by each day these characters stare at me with their almost creepy smiles and giant eyes. These characters are part of the strange form that Japanese culture has taken since World War Two. The Japanese artist Takashi Murakami has labelled this culture Superflat.
Superflat is world obsessed with cartoons and animation. A culture in which obsessed animation fans (Otaku) live a kind of arrested adolescence into their adulthood; which worships the idea of cute (Kawaii) to the point where even police and the military are portrayed in recruitment advertisements as cute deformed characters. A culture in which more and more young people choose a form of social suicide (Hikikomori) in which they lock themselves in their room only communicating with the outside world through the internet. (Social scientist Tamaki Saito estimates that up to one million Japanese young people now live in such self imposed isolation.) A world where more and young people are shunning human relationships; instead choosing to have romantic and sexual relationships with specially designed computer programs featuring their favourite Anime or Manga characters. The reason that Murakami has labelled Japanese popular youth culture superflat, is because it lacks any kind of depth. It’s visually stimulating but spiritually shallow. Japanese young people are presented with a abundance of consumer choices and technological advancements but they are experiencing what Murakami calls “empty happiness”, a sort of cute, cuddly and naïve hell. In a lecture describing the superflat phenomenon the Japanese cultural critic Hiroki Azuma says of Japanese culture “our society is little by little losing the value of “Depth”, the value of something behind the visible or perceptible things we are confronted with in our daily lives” Japanese young people are craving spiritual depth, answers to the big questions of life, but instead they walk out their door and are confronted with a super cute, super loud, super stimulating, super bright, but ultimately superflat world.
When I was ministering in a downtown urban church a number of Japanese backpackers started attending our services, asking me all kinds of questions about Christianity in broken English. I began to notice a pattern in their spiritual questioning, a common theme in their existential dilemma. They had grown up in the Japanese post-war economic miracle; they lived in mega cities, which provided them with a kind of constant sensory overload. After High School or University they would decide to go on an adventure, they would come to Australia, hire a car and drive out into the utter desolation of the Australian outback desert, where one can drive for days and see nothing. Deprived of stimulation, outside of their superflat world, they would have a spiritual and existential breakdown. By the time they arrived on our church’s doorstep, the superflat distraction was de-toxed out of their system and the big questions of life, God, human existence and death were now at the forefront of their mind.
A CUTE ESCAPE
Interestingly when I later spoke in Tokyo at a ministry conference, almost all of the Japanese young people I met had come to faith while working or studying overseas. It was almost like the superflat culture of Japan disabled their ability to question reality with any depth. Takashi Murakami blames the superflat culture upon the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan at the end of the war, this event has plunged Japan into a kind of post-traumatic stress reaction, in which any serious topic is to be avoided and instead a culture of denial and distraction has grown up. “Japanese are seeking a spiritual peace and an escape from brutal reality through cute things,“ notes Tomoyuki Sugiyama the author of Cool Japan.
THE SUPERFLAT WEST
However superflat culture does not just exist in Japan. In many ways Western culture has become just as superflat. Sure we may not have the garish, cuteness of 21st century Tokyo, but in the West our world view has been flattened. Often I find this flatness as I am forced to introduce myself to people who are not Christians, everything normally goes well until they ask me what I do for a Job, to which I reply “I am a speaker and writer who explores popular culture from a Christian perspective” Most people through politeness then attempt to engage me in conversation about my work, but almost always they are lost, unable to engage in anyway intelligently about issues of faith. I remember one guy, he was intelligent and university educated; we had been chatting about various social and political issues, he then asked me what I did, as I explained, he just froze, his mouth was grabbing for words, but nothing came out, his eyes darted as he searched for some way to continue the conversation but he had no language or ability to discuss spiritual issues. He just stood there mouth ajar, looking lost in more ways than one. As a culture our spiritual muscles have atrophied due to lack of use. We are offered a culture that is a million miles wide in terms of opportunities, freedoms and consumer choice, yet that is spiritually an inch deep. Our spiritual voice is being strangled.
Our culture is spiritually superflat because of three main reasons that I can discern. Firstly, in our culture any serious discussion about the big spiritual and existential issues of life are off the agenda in the public sphere. Secondly, western culture is a spiritually flat culture in which, our need for mystery, transcendence, revelation, and a sense of the other is repressed. And thirdly our culture is a culture in which everything in life is viewed through a lens of suspicion. The combination of these factors present us with never before experienced missional challenges, they also behind the reason so many Christian young adults are choosing to leave active faith. But more on all of that next time……
 Saitō, Tamaki. ( 1998 ) Shakaiteki Hikikomori (Social Withdrawal). Tokyo: PHP kenkyuujyo.
 originally lectured at the MOCA gallery at the Pacific design Center, West Hollywood, on 5 April 2001 http://www.hirokiazuma.com/en/texts/superflat_en2.html
 Quoted in the Washington Post Wednesday, June 14, 2006 online edition http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/14/AR2006061401122.html