Back in 1968, in The God Who Is There, Francis Schaeffer wrote that the problem with communicating Christianity to a new generation was centered on a new view of truth, one detached from an objective, knowable reality. Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, author of the new ebook Not Your Mother’s Morals, writes from the perspective of this “new generation.” As such, the “morals” he hails are byproducts of cultural relativism, where “what is right is not set in stone” and “certain situations call for certain kinds of right” (location 712). Thus, “Changing Pop Culture for the Better” (the book’s subtitle) has less to do with “what is right” (which, after all, is “not set in stone”), than it has to do with what is “better.” Which, in the author’s mind, appears to be anything other than your mother’s morals.
Not Your Mother’s Morals is, in essence, part of the current wave of anti-evangelical bromides. Interestingly enough, Fitzgerald’s book is less of a critique of conservative Christian culture than it is the unfurling of a postmodernistic banner on the pop cultural landscape. But, as we’ll see, the attempt to meld a postmodern view of truth with religion is inherently slippery.
The springboard of Fitzgerald’s book is his belief that a “New Sincerity” has emerged. Thanks to the collapsing of organized religious (see obligatory references to the “Nones” and the “spiritual but not religious”), “a new morality [is] taking shape” (97). What does this new morality look like? Strangely enough, or not, it’s old school liberalism. Fitzgerald writes,
“Look to the places where claims of morality are made the loudest, and often most convincingly, and you will find that they are not typically voiced by the traditional sources of moral indignation: religious organizations. Rather, the issues at the forefront of contemporary moral consideration are the environment, marriage equality, access to health care, and the responsibilities of wealthy countries to their counterparts in the developing world, to name a few.” (226)
Notice, these new cultural legislators are not “the traditional sources of moral indignation: religious organizations.” And what are the “contemporary moral considerations” these non-traditional legislators stand for? Oh, things like “the environment, marriage equality, access to health care,” etc. You know, the Democratic platform.
So how does this new breed of “moralist” manage to influence culture without the “moral indignation” of its predecessor?
“Rather than offering a strict moral code to live by, popular culture today provides more of a moral posture”(116)
This “moral posture” — which, I’m assuming, must be tethered to a “moral code” of some sort — is what the New Sincerity is all about. But how does one go about emphasizing “moral posture” above “moral code”?
“Our fashionable idea, I believe, is the ‘New Sincerity,’ in which an emphasis on being sincere and authentic creates a space for frank discussion of morality in popular culture.” (151, bold mine)
Apparently, a “moral posture” is more about attitude than, say, morals. Sincerity and authenticity are a morality all their own. Sort of. So it doesn’t matter what one believes as long as they are… “sincere and authentic.” This “emphasis on being sincere and authentic” was, at least in Fitzgerald’s mind, blazed by Progressives. Hooray! In the shirking of their mother’s morals and organized religion’s shrill “moral indignation,” postmodern Christians are “changing pop culture for the better.”
And pop culture is the vehicle for which these morals (or moral posturing) are being imparted.
“What I’m arguing here isn’t necessarily that authenticity and sincerity are high moral values in and of themselves, but rather that their emergence in popular culture has created opportunities to discuss moral questions openly and honestly. If an artist can, without fear of recourse, explore issues of faith and family, environmentalism and politics, and come to definite conclusions about the morality or immorality of these things, then there is inherent value in authenticity.” (252)
And here’s where we bump into the Achilles Heel of “postmodern morals.” Without an agreed upon set of moral and logical “rules,” how is it possible to “come to definite conclusions about… morality or immorality”? And how can one arrive at “definite conclusions” about morality or immorality without being, um, definite?
Nevertheless, Fitzgerald proceeds to identify some of these sincere, authentic, spokespersons of the New Sincerity. Like Lady Gaga, who “has made it cool to be different, to be unique, to be one’s self” (266), director Judd Apatow, and agnostic, ex-Christian indie musician, David Bazan. Even a “rising atheist star” (409) like Chris Stedman is cited as part of this New Sincerity. And, rather predictably, Fitzgerald traces the pinnacle of this new morality to the election of Barack Obama. The “apex of the influence of popular culture’s New Sincerity movement on politics” was Barack Obama’s “Hope and Change” campaign. (645)
Admittedly, I was bit confused about the author’s intentions for this book. If it’s about how comics, indie music, television, and film all play a part in shaping or reflecting our cultural psyche, I’m right there. Fitzgerald writes,
“…stories are the greatest means for imparting morality from one generation to the next” (100).
Agreed. Rigid codes of conduct and finger-wagging moralism does little to influence culture long-term. It’s not sermons but stories that imbed themselves in our cultural psyche. But what I found myself asking as I read Not Your Mother’s Morals is not, How can Christians speak more into pop culture?, but What morals are we supposed to speak into pop culture? This, I’m afraid, is the real divide.
“It doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable to think that one day, decades from now when we’re considering whether it is ethical for a cloned human to marry a cyborg, gay families will be considered traditional.” (463)
May I be frank? The author seems to believe it is immoral to NOT consider gay families “traditional.” Or to NOT be an environmentalist. Or to NOT subscribe to universal health care. This is the crux of the tale. Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is making moral observations while touting moral malleability and eschewing “moral indignation.”
”The New Sincerity taps into the part of us that wants to do the right thing, while simultaneously acknowledging that what is right is not set in stone — certain situations call for certain kinds of right.” (712)
The obvious question is, How can you want to do “the right thing” while “simultaneously acknowledging that what is right is not set in stone”? At the least, what you consider “right” is always up for debate. And what you consider “right” may not be what I consider “right,” making any moral decision permissible. Which leads me to wonder why these “new morals” are any better than the old morals. Or more compelling. On what grounds should I capitulate to the “new morals” seeing that they’re simply byproducts of cultural relativism? I mean, tomorrow this “new morality” may be defunct. Furthermore, how can I reach “definite conclusions” about the morals Fitzgerald celebrates when those morals are transient? Like building a house on sand, it’s ultimately nonsensical.
This is postmodern illogic at its best.
Fitzgerald is a fine writer and I’ll give him points for providing a new spin on what’s becoming a tired franchise. The real flaw of Not Your Mother’s Morals is not in its charting of a “new morality” pervading pop culture. Liberalism has always found root among pop cultural celebrities. This is nothing new or revelatory. No. It’s the author’s inability to persuade about the rightness of the new morality that strips the book of gravity. It’s little more than a passing ode to relativism.
Alas, if this is the New Sincerity, I want nothing of it. Sincerely.