Staub assigns roles traditionally fulfilled by religion and education—that of preacher and teacher—to popular culture. “Popular culture systematically preaches and teaches, informing its audience about which issues matter most, fulfilling an educational role once occupied by schools and a spiritual role once filled by religion.” (16) People today know Beyonce better than Moses. They’ve memorized the lyrics of Eminem but haven’t a clue about the poetry of David. They sing along with Lady Gaga but don’t know how to pray with Jesus, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”. Who are the teachers? Who are the preachers? Who are the influencers of this culture? They are our celebrities. Would you trust them to watch your kids?
Popular culture wields such power and influence because of the inherent power of Story, and the best storytellers live and work in Hollywood, where stories are told not for enrichment or education, but for money. “Told well, truthful, wise stories can provide insight, understanding, and illumination for a path to a richer life for all who hear, understand, and embrace them; misguided stories, however, can lead an entire population astray. People who believe they know the truth need to realize that cultural influence requires more than knowing the story; it requires telling it thoughtfully and artistically. Never has there been a greater need for wise, gifted storytellers who understand the story we are in and can communicate a better way gracefully and truthfully.” (18) Cultures become corrupt when they tell their stories for money instead of for the passing on of wisdom and communal identity.
Popular culture is, inherently, identity-forming. The stories and rituals of a culture provide meaning and identity for individuals within the community. Relationships within the community formed character in younger generations. “In the past, we imitated individuals who embodied our core values and whom we respected because we had observed their application of those values in everyday life. Today, our identities are often formed more superficially by adopting outward appearances and behaviors without regard for the internal values held by the originator, who, to us, is disembodied. Thus, people whom we do not know and cannot observe closely are influencing our life choices.” (20) No longer are our character and identity shaped by parents, teachers or pastors. All authority has been called into question. Now we wear masks, pretending to belong to the tribe of our favorite celebrity, never thinking that it is they who wield the most power and authority over us, dictating that we become shallow, mindless, soulless consumers of the products they sell to prop up their pop empires. They don’t care about you. They don’t know you. They don’t want to talk to you. To them, you are one of the faceless, nameless masses they control with a word and a rhythm. They tell you to rebel against authority. Perhaps it is time to ask where the power truly lies in this culture.
Indeed, the question must be asked: “What is the future of a society in which our identities are shaped by a multitude of impersonal, uncaring, commercially motivated forces instead of by people who know and love us?” (20) The answer, to borrow from Tolkien, is that we become Gollum. When our identities are shaped by an uncaring force we become less than human, slowly wasting away into the soulless, superficial depths of the kiddy pool until we drown because of the atrophy of our intellectual, spiritual, and moral strength and that apathy that overwhelms when popular culture has removed from us our will to change and grow.