Leithart to High Schoolers

I just got done reading an EXCELLENT bit by Peter Leithart. He was speaking to some Juniors and graduating Seniors in High School. Here are some snippets from his post that are a small glimmer of the gold in his work:

1 John 2:15 is relevant here. It tells us not to love the world. What does he mean? He’s not talking about the products of human culture as such. He’s not saying that we should not delight in cheeseburgers and cars and Bach cantatas and cell phones. These too, in themselves, are gifts of God that we should receive with thanksgiving. Though made by human beings, they are still ultimately from God, and not to be rejected.

He’s not talking about the products of culture per se: Godly people throughout the Bible use musical instruments and plows and domesticated animals and other forms of ancient technology. Paul travels by boat, and I have no doubt he would have flown to Rome if he had lived in our day. What John means by “world” is something more subtle and pervasive than the things that technology and human creativity provides, something more subtle and pervasive even than the practices of a society. He’s talking about the way the things of human culture are organized and used, and particularly about the desires that produce these things and practices and the desires that these things and practices evoke. John’s claim that the world is made up not only of “things” (TA EN TO KOSMO, v. 15) but of desires is a rich insight. He doesn’t limit the world merely to the artifacts that are evident in the world, nor to the institutions and practices of the world. The plural reference in verse 15 covers these multiple manifestations of the world, but at the heart of what John calls the world, the source from which the world flows, is desire.

To put it more sociologically, (sinful) human culture – its institutions, practices, products – are all embodiments of evil desire or boastfulness. John hints that we should evaluate the world not only on the basis of what’s done or what things it contains, but on the basis of desire. And desire has a multiple relationship with culture: Desires are the “contents” of culture – culture is made up of embodied dreams, aspirations, lusts; on the other hand, the world is the source of desire, evoking certain kinds of desire. John’s sociology thus encourages us to ask what desires are embodied in roads, buildings, automobiles, iPods, coffee, customs, schools, and so on. John encourages us to seek to penetrate below the surface of cultural life to the desires that are provoking and provoked by the world.

Branding covers everything from the clothes we wear, and the music we listen to, to the soft drinks we prefer, to literal brands that we place on our bodies – tattoos and piercings and various forms of cosmetic surgery. By these markings, we are identifying ourselves, and particularly identifying ourselves with a particular community. In her book, Branded, Alissa Quart describes her own experience: “I knew that Beatrice owned Tropicana (thanks to the chipper synergic advertising jingle tagline of the period ‘By Beatrice!’), that when I wore Converse high tops and listened to Joy Division I was branding myself, putting myself on the ark punk nostalgic ‘college rock’ side of adolescent style. I considered myself in a style war against the ‘normal’ girls, who wore Zazu-colored hair and blue jelly shoes, their Polo by Ralph Lauren logos standing proud and emblematic on their cotton shirts. . . . I carefully scissored the labels off my Levi’s and Guess jeans. I believed the shadowy tell-tale rectangles that remained were an aesthetic of renunciation that would speak for me.”

Quart notices particularly that marketers are targeting younger kids more intensely than ever, in the hope that they can “brand” them in perpetuity. A baby dressed in Baby Gap will be at Old Navy for decades to come. Teen magazines that emerged in the late 1990s – teen versions of People, Vogue, and Elle Girl – are part of this effort: “Today’s teen magazines must have celebrities on their covers, one month Jennifer Lopez, the next James King. The magazines now all push pricey clothes, such as the costumery of Stuart Weitzman, Christian Dior, and DKNY. Teen Vogue details the costly label-fixated clothing tastes of the stars: Liv Tyler in a Jane Mayle dress, Keith Richards’s teen daughter in Frankie B. jeans, Scarlet Johansson squeezed into a ‘Technicolor Dolce’ dress (in deference to the brand Dolce & Gabbana). These magazines construct an unaffordable but palpable world of yearning for girls. We are all too familiar with the negative effects of model body on girls’ self-images, but these new magazines do something new: They help to solidify feelings of economic and taste inadequacy in girls. By introducing very young teens to female celebrity and the dressmakers who help create it, these magazines underline that girls are not complete or competitive if they don’t wear label dresses at their junior high school dances.”


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