Culture Friday: Contradictory cultural ideas

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday, the 24th of May, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today, Culture Friday.

Maybe you’ve had a graduate this year, maybe you’ve purchased graduation gifts.

Speaking for myself, I’ve had three graduates this time around—grad school, college, high school, at the same time, all this year—and I’ve heard my share of commencement speeches.

The ones I heard were quite good.

But allow me to offer a montage of graduation sentiments curated by Time Magazine, under the heading, “Best Commencement Speeches of 2019.” I made some edits, but I didn’t change meaning.

MONTAGE: … you will be in service to life, and you will speak up. You will show up. You will stand up. You will sit in. You will volunteer. You will vote. You will shout out. You will help. And you will radically transform whatever moment you’re in. // When you respect the idea that you are sharing the earth with other humans, and when you lead with your nice foot forward, you’ll win, every time. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but it comes back to you when you need it. // They say everything happens for a reason. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know everything happens, and it’s up to you to maximize the reality of your situation. // Our ambitions, our decisions, our responses, are shaped by what we hold to be true. … Because beliefs are our anchors. … But those anchors should never weigh us down. // Your perspective is unique. It’s important and it counts. Try not to compare it to anyone else. Accept it. Believe in it. Nurture it.

Trevin Wax joins me today for Culture Friday. Trevin’s a pastor, a blogger, and author. His books include This Is Our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel.

Trevin, glad to have you today. Welcome back, good morning.

TREVIN WAX, GUEST: Good morning, Nick. Thanks for having me on.

EICHER: So I heard a good speech at St. Louis University Law School and an excellent one at Grove City College. But I do like to hear what mainstream cultural gatekeepers regard as the best overall, don’t you.

WAX: Yeah, you know, this is the season—I like, Nick, what you’ve said in the past, that when you consider the commencement speeches across the country, you’ve described them as a cultural barometer. To where you can get a sense of what passes for just plain old common-sense wisdom in our day. And I’m always amazed when I’m looking through some of these speeches to find this idea of what we call “expressive individualism,” which you can define in many ways. But I think of that as the kinds of—really this idea that the best thing that you can do is to to look inside yourself, to discover your unique essence—and then express that to the world, no matter what your family says or what your church says or what your society tells you, you need to be yourself, be who you are.

EICHER: Yes, and you’ll “transform whatever moment you’re in, let’s see, “you will win,” “you will maximize the reality of your situation,” “your perspective is unique!”

That’s an interesting idea, Trevin, expressive individualism. Where else do you find it?

WAX: I see it come out in a lot of entertainment. You could trace the philosophical roots of “expressive individualism” back, you know, centuries. But what’s fascinating is that understanding of the world is very prevalent in Hollywood, very prevalent in certain movies and in certain television shows and books. You can see it in many — not all — but many of the more popular Disney movies, for example, where the narrative thrust of the story is: You’ve got one person who’s being opposed or suppressed by the family around them or by the culture or the expectations around them. And they’re able to sort of throw off those expectations and be true to themselves and come to find freedom in that way.

And you also see it in music. There’s quite a few songs — you know, 15 years ago, Christina Agulera had a very famous song that said, you are beautiful, no matter what they say, meaning, it doesn’t matter what other people think of you; it matters what you think of yourself. And you are beautiful as you are. Well, now you have a popular song from Kelly Clarkson, and, Nick, the chorus is I’m broken and it’s beautiful. And this is someone saying, “I’m phenomenal, I’ve got pride that I can roll out in front of me. I don’t need to hold out my hand and receive anything from anyone.”

Sort of a pro-proud, anti-grace, I don’t need anyone, I’m completely self-sufficient, I’m free. But when she looks into her heart, she sees that she’s broken, but she finds the brokenness to be beautiful.

And so we have these competing, could say contradictory, ideas in our culture that on the one hand, you have to pursue the best version of yourself that you can be. And then on the other hand, we’ve got people saying, “I’m good just as I am, deal with it.”

“This is who I am,” or from the song from The Greatest Showman, you know, “This is me!” And everybody should just accept me just as I am, and this is what I’m going to put forth to the world.

And so, that’s a— I think that’s a very wearying way of life, but it is increasingly the dominant narrative for many people in our society.

EICHER: Sure, I wonder, though, isn’t there a kernel of truth here? We are broken people, after all. Not saying we should glory in the brokenness, but isn’t it something of a worldview accomplishment when the brokenness is recognized?

WAX: Absolutely, you see. I think there’s actually kernels of truth in expressive individualism. God has created us as individuals. That’s one of the beautiful things about the Western mindset as opposed to the Eastern mindset. We do have a strong sense of individuality in the West. This is one of the gifts of the West, I think, and this comes from Scripture. You also have, I mean, you have the Apostle Paul when he talks about the church and he talks about being members of one body. We have something to contribute. We have gifts that the rest of the body needs. But notice that scripturally speaking, when we talk about our uniqueness or our individuality, there’s a God-centeredness and an others-focus that comes about from that where what happens in our society is there’s that kernel of truth that we are individuals that have been created uniquely by God in order to bring Him glory, and that is turned into a self-glorification, self-justification direction. And so it’s also true, the Kelly Clarkson song I was talking about. God redeems and restores and uses the parts of our story that come from sin or come from brokenness or come from wounds. It’s true that God does that. But that is on the other side of receiving His grace.

And what that song is making very clear is that to receive something from someone else, to receive grace, to have your hand held out—as she says in the first verse—is to basically admit that you need someone other than yourself. And that’s seen as a negative thing. And I think that’s a very good expression of the human heart in its natural state, that we see the receiving of grace as something weak. As something that would make us less strong, not self-sufficient. And where scripture would teach that, yes, we are broken, but the beauty is in coming to the end of ourselves and reaching out that hand and receiving the grace of God that then transforms us. And then even uses those unique aspects of our brokenness, of our sin, of our past for the greater glory of God and the good of his people.

EICHER: Trevin Wax is Director for Bibles and Reference at LifeWay Christian Resources and a visiting professor at Wheaton College. He is the general editor of The Gospel Project, and serves as a teaching pastor in Middle Tennessee.

John Stonestreet’ll be back next week. It’s Culture Friday. Trevin, thanks so much for being with us today.

WAX: Thank you, Nick.

(Jerilee Bennett/The Gazette via AP) Colorado College graduate Alexander Jobin-Leeds reacts together with commencement speaker Oprah Winfrey to someone in the audience at Colorado College graduation in Colorado Springs, Colo., Sunday, May 19, 2019.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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