Culling, Cultural Consumption, and the Myth of Eternal Boredom

I just happened upon “The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going to Miss Almost Everything”  by Linda Holmes. It struck me as Lenten in tone, in the sense of learning to choose one good thing over another and learning to live in the balance of healthy grief and letting go.

It also fits with what I try to articulate in my book about approaching cultural goods and literacy as a Christian. I’ll pull in some significant quotes, but it’s worth reading here in its entirety.

there are really only two responses if you want to feel like you’re well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender.

Culling is the choosing you do for yourself. It’s the sorting of what’s worth your time and what’s not worth your time. It’s saying, “I deem Keeping Up With The Kardashians a poor use of my time, and therefore, I choose not to watch it.” It’s saying, “I read the last Jonathan Franzen book and fell asleep six times, so I’m not going to read this one.”

Surrender, on the other hand, is the realization that you do not have time for everything that would be worth the time you invested in it if you had the time, and that this fact doesn’t have to threaten your sense that you are well-read…. It is the recognition that well-read is not a destination; there is nowhere to get to, and if you assume there is somewhere to get to, you’d have to live a thousand years to even think about getting there, and by the time you got there, there would be a thousand years to catch up on.

I carry around with me distinct memories of conversations with wonderfully engaged people who decided Christianity was not for them because they deemed heaven boring. If it literally consists of throwing down a single crown then standing around forever in a white robe, I’d have to agree. I think we’ll be free to come and go from the throneroom. I think the new heaven and the new earth will include all the best of the current heaven and earth – anything made with lasting value. The nations will bring their treasures, and we’ll wander the stacks in the Library at Alexandria and the galleries of the Hermitage, hit homers at Wrigley Field, do a little restoration work then catch some improv at the Globe Theatre, kick back at a Chinese movie palace, have falafel with Tolstoy, and meditate in the stone garden of Ryoanji.

I could see Ryoanji becoming one of Augustine’s favorite thinking spots.

Best of all we’ll have the freedom and time to enjoy these places and artifacts in perfect relationship with others and to make more wonders together. And when they inspire us to the classic prayer “Wow,” we’ll know we’re heard and by Whom. Any time someone applauds our efforts, we’ll head back to the throneroom with that spiffy new crown, pausing to play pick-up games of frisbee with it along the way to give others credit where due, toss it in the pile, and sing a spell. The ancient Greeks envisioned a placid eternity without novelty. Jesus comes to make all things new.

What I’ve observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. And they want to cull as aggressively as they can. After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you’d otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, “All genre fiction is trash.” You have just massively reduced your effective surrender load, because you’ve thrown out so much at once.

The same goes for throwing out foreign films, documentaries, classical music, fantasy novels, soap operas, humor, or westerns. I see people culling by category, broadly and aggressively: television is not important, popular fiction is not important, blockbuster movies are not important. Don’t talk about rap; it’s not important. Don’t talk about anyone famous; it isn’t important. And by the way, don’t tell me it is important, because that would mean I’m ignoring something important, and that’s … uncomfortable. That’s surrender.

It’s an effort, I think, to make the world smaller and easier to manage, to make the awareness of what we’re missing less painful.

This sort of aggressive culling heightens culture war tensions in the unspoken name of self-protection; we cannot categorically dismiss hip hop or sci-fi or romantic comedy without communicating categorical dismissal of those who identify culturally with the genre. Pretty much anything you can’t be bothered with has changed another person’s life, and the larger that mental category, the truer that statement becomes. This is why I believe that Christians need to learn this balance of being discriminating without being discriminatory. We follow a Savior who came to break down the dividing walls of Jew and Greek, male and female, and so on. Adopting this vocabulary of culling and surrender would be preferable to us slamming entire swaths of culture because we heard somewhere they fail to edify. We could claim our preferences for Pixar over Saw franchises as personal choice rather than holy writ and ascribe our inabilities to enter and understand the worlds of Persian poetry, Japanese anime, and Grey’s Anatomy to our limited human resources of time and attention rather than defensively portraying them as unworthy of them. We can make choices and lament our limitations without making the world artificially small and manageable.

If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.

We’re human. We are always missing relatively everything. Let’s not pretend otherwise. We can celebrate that there is so much to miss, enjoy what we’ve been given, and look forward to more.

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26 thoughts on “Culling, Cultural Consumption, and the Myth of Eternal Boredom

  1. Big sympathy with this. And well written, Jenn. Culling and surrendering: a wide awake moment to moment practice. It helps to define us to others, and sometimes even to ourselves in a world that’s now a global ‘village’. Thanks for this.

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  2. I like the way your articulate things that are profoundly human and make me look at people and at myself in an entirely new way. Thank you Jenn! Have a Blessed Lent and a Blessed Easter!

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  3. Well said. Why do you suppose Christians have the propensity to create rules and situations where people can easily be labeled “the other?” Which is distinctly *not* what Jesus said. The assumption is always, “because you are different, I am better.”
    Sometimes I despair for my faith, and then I remember that Jesus got frustrated with his followers in exactly the same way. “No, you idiots, don’t call down fire on them because they are different!” Sigh.. Thanks for the post, and congrats on the FP!

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    • I wonder if the Christian fear of “the other” stems in part from the fact that much of the Bible was written by and for persecuted outsiders; Christians do seem especially prone to perceive ourselves as persecuted and to respond to difference defensively. I don’t think we have a corner on that market, though; it seems to be a human propensity. We all tend to build protective walls and inner circles. Whole cultures define themselves by what and who they are not. It’s a survival technique, and really, truly breaking down our mental categories of “us” and “them” is risky behavior. But I, too, believe that Christ calls us lay down our lives in this way. On one level it seems like it should be easier for Christians; if we believe that Jesus broke down the divide between God and humanity, it should make our own differences seem more surmountable. On another level, it’s a call to deep vulnerability, so I wonder if the temptation is even greater to establish boundaries of who’s in and who’s out, to establish a secure community in which to practice extending ourselves to others. That has more to do with feeling faithful than with being faithful, though, huh?
      Thanks for starting the conversation, Melanie.

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      • I think that *you* started the conversation!
        “A call to deep vulnerability…” well, you can’t get more vulnerable than dying on a cross, can you? That’s who we’re following. Yikes.
        I have to say, I’ve had as much experience getting hurt within churches as I have outside. People are messed up wherever they are! But I suppose that Christians do at least have a common understanding of grace and forgiveness and the option to be transformed. At least that’s the theory.

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  4. It’s tribalism at work. Humans need to feel a part of a group, and need to justify their place in that group. That can lead to people labeling “us” v. “them” and saying the others are not nearly as good as those in the ‘in’ group. We do it with all sorts of things, from music to religion to tv shows.

    I used to go to a church that was extremely bad about doing that kind of thing. They openly made fun of other religions, and were absolutely dismissive of their views. I’ve since ‘fallen away’ and joined a bunch that they would call idolators (I’m Buddhist). However, I believe that my current perspective is closer to that of Christ, who as you said came to cleave away divisions. Buddhism emphasizes the fact that we inter-are. These divisions are nothing but illusions created in our minds by our faulty notions and perceptions. It is very liberating to dissolve those faulty constructs. I only wish my old church family would realize that.

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    • “Inter-are” – that’s lovely, and, I think, very Biblical, as well. Salvation/ Wholeness isn’t as solitary an affair as some of our Christian lingo makes it out to be. I found this:

      “Interrelationship” by Thich Nhat Hanh

      You are me, and I am you.
      Isn’t it obvious that we “inter-are”?
      You cultivate the flower in yourself,
      so that I will be beautiful.
      I transform the garbage in myself,
      so that you will not have to suffer.

      I support you;
      you support me.
      I am in this world to offer you peace;
      you are in this world to bring me joy.

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      • I love Thich Nhat Hanh 🙂 I am reading The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings now. It is actually amazing how much Christianity and Buddhism have in common. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book called Living Buddha, Living Christ that illustrates some of the commonalities. It’s a good read!

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      • Never fails. Any time I write something I’ll be turned on to something else to read. Even if I’m writing about how we’ll never get to read everything we want. 😉 You’re not the first person to mention that book to me, though, so that moves things up the priority list dramatically.

        Open question: How do you all choose what to read/ listen to/ watch next?

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  5. I’ve struggled with this as well. It all seems so overwhelming. But in the light of eternity, we can be confident that there will be time. When my kids were small, I was often frustrated that I missed much of the sermons because I was so busy keeping them occupied and quiet. Finally I realized that God was aware of this, and that I would hear what God wanted me to hear.

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  6. what a beautifully written and thought-provoking post! i was very drawn to Lent this year, though it is not normally in my tradition, and have benefited greatly from this experience of chosen surrender. thanks for so much nourishing food for thought.

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  7. I don’t believe Heaven will be boring at all. There will be the Lamb and God, the Father enthroned before us, and we surrounding them. It will not be about us, it will be about THEM. We will be worshiping and praising THEM, and we’ll see the angels doing the same thing. An eternity of no pain or crying or death. All stress gone because of what Jesus did for us on the cross.

    On the other hand, those outside of Heaven, those outside of Christ, will have the opposite in store. No singing, no joy, no Lamb of God or God,the Father to worship, no angels…but instead, an eternity of pain, crying, and the eternal second death.
    Which place is for you? Connie
    http://kingjesusblog.wordpress.com/

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  8. I used to wonder about heaven being boring too. Now I know that we will be so overwhelmingly happy and that is not boring! So whatever is in store for us it will be fantastic. I love to travel and sometimes I despair of the thought that I will not see all the world’s fabulous sights but then I think about how there will be an eternity to explore. It rocks me to the core to think about heaven!

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  9. “We’re human. We are always missing relatively everything. Let’s not pretend otherwise. We can celebrate that there is so much to miss, enjoy what we’ve been given, and look forward to more.”

    I love this. I’ve often thought the same.

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  10. Reblogged this on wisperin9shad0s and commented:
    I’m ignoring the Christian perspective on this post to get to the real point: being human means that we don’t have the time/energy resources to experience everything, learn everything and live all the lives that we wanted to live — but we should make the best of what we choose for ourselves anyway!

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  11. About Andrew’s mentioning Thich Nhat Hanh ( before I ‘returned’ to Christianity I was a practising zen buddhist): I remembered that amongst other experiences and influences, listening to the tape (it was that long ago!) “Touching the Earth”, reading his words on a 6th prostration that he added to the traditional 5, “In gratitude and compassion, I bow down to my ancient spiritual roots”, I found the right attitude to take towards my own ‘spiritual roots’ and so have the right attitude, I feel, to the spiritual roots and lives of others. The 6th Prostration was added so that Westerners could integrate it into their contemporary lives.
    http://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=five+prostrations+thich+nhat+hanh&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8

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  12. I like your thinking for the most part, and agree with it, except for the bits about Jesus, heaven and what-not. Like everyone else, you interpret Christianity to your own liking; in your case, a very benign reading. In other cases, some of which are exhibited in these responses, pretty malicious. To me, religions are like Rorschach tests, one always finds what one is hoping to find. May I agree with your sentiments all the same?

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