Our Shrinking Culture

Critics were very hard on the recent film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Roger Ebert, citing the movie's "idiotic dialogue . . . and general lunacy," proclaimed, "What a mess." But what a colleague of mine, who saw the film, found most troubling about his experience was not what happened on screen but in the audience -- something that illustrates our incredible shrinking culture. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is based on a comic book series of the same name. It is set in 1899 in a world where the great characters of nineteenth-century fiction are real. You have Jules Verne's Captain Nemo interacting with H. G. Wells's Invisible Man and Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray. As a result, the film, like the comic, is filled with amusing references and allusions to nineteenth-century literature. At least, it would be amusing if the audience caught the references. In his review, Washington-area film critic Joe Barber wondered if the audience could be expected to be familiar with these books. Judging by the showing my colleague attended, Barber's concerns are correct. Early in the movie, Nemo introduces the others to his first mate who tells them, "Call me Ishmael" -- the first line from Moby Dick. The audience around my colleague had puzzled expressions on their faces. The joke, requiring cultural literacy, flew right past them. Historian E. D. Hirsch would not be surprised. In his great book Cultural Literacy, Hirsch writes that American children, including those from affluent families, are not being taught "the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world." Not only do they not get references to classic literature, but words like carpetbagger, Waterloo, and Alamo mean nothing to them. It shouldn't surprise us then that this "cultural illiteracy" would be reflected in our popular entertainment. Forty years ago, The Music Man featured a song whose lyrics went, "I hope, and I pray, for a Hester to win just one more 'A.'" Most of the audience today would miss the reference to Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and the meaning of the lyrics that, in this case, glorify adultery. To accommodate our illiteracy, this summer's fare is taken from comic books, television shows, video games, and even a theme-park ride. As Thomas Hibbs of Baylor University has noted, movies, like the rest of popular culture, are being dumbed down: They are entirely self-referential. These pop-culture references are increasingly the only shared references in our culture. The participants on VH-1's I Love the Eighties know more about the hairstyles worn by musicians in that decade than they know about the Declaration of Independence or the great books of our history. The problem is not only that this glorifies the trivial and the fleeting, but it deprives us of the moral guidance and wisdom that only knowledge of our own heritage can provide. Thus, Christians should act counterculturally by setting an example of cultural literacy for our neighbors to follow. Call us here at BreakPoint (1-877-3-CALLBP), and we will suggest some good resources. Not only is it a good way to preserve our moral heritage, but it will even enable you to go to the movies and enjoy the jokes.


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary