I have a selection of podcasts that I listen to when I really can’t sleep. In Our Time is my go-to choice. There’s something soothing about Melvyn Bragg’s conversations with a handful of academics about one or other big subject. I usually get through about 20 minutes before dozing off. And I always wake up having learned something.
Last night I was listening to an episode about the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, and one phrase of his really stuck with me: “a cult of culture”. Levi-Strauss coined it to describe the behaviour of secular Jews like himself, saying something along the lines of “when we lose our faith, we create a cult of culture.”
The phrase stuck with me as it seems to fit the current situation so well. For the first time in 2017, more than half the UK population reported that they had no faith. What has replaced it in our lives and minds? A cult of culture.
Jesus and Moses
City have Jesus
Chelsea have Moses
Arsenal have Mohamed
West Ham have Judas pic.twitter.com/b7TjlQVMnh
— Footy Jokes (@FootballMemesCo) January 22, 2017
There have been many tweets about various religiously-named footballers in the Premiership this year. One recently reminded me of a conversation with Simon Oliveira, the managing director of Doyen Global and the man who leads David Beckham’s communications strategy. Simon pointed out that the direct reach of players like Neymar and Beckham outstrips that of even the most influential media. Sporting culture is perhaps one of the greatest examples of the amplification effects and disintermediation of digital media. Football teams have always had their cultish followings, but this has now been amplified on a grand scale. Don’t believe in a god? Believe in three points on Saturday — or in the lifestyle of your favourite players.
Football and its players aren’t the only cults of course. We live in an age of unprecedented cultural diversity. I don’t mean we are a diverse nation — we always have been. I mean that the choices presented to us in terms of the content we consume are overwhelmingly broad. This has the effect of dividing us into social tribes that are no longer geographically defined: we can find people around the world who share our love for a particular podcast, game, blog, Tumblr etc etc etc. And each tribe has its own totems and shamans: certain actors, writers, and sometimes influencers with no other apparent qualification.
That last part sounds dismissive, but it shouldn’t. I followed two ‘influencers’ (I don’t know what else to call them) onto a plane yesterday, and observed a few minutes of their craft. They had a genuine process and talent for producing a narrative through their chosen apps (Snapchat and Instagram). We may not know what to call it or how to describe it, but it was impressive to watch.
The moral component
I’m no advocate of faith or religion. I struggle to reconcile faith with science, since one preaches constant inquiry and the other explicitly rejects it. I spend my whole working life preaching accelerated adaptation to a fast-changing world. Religion is bound tightly to teachings that are thousands of years old. Though I also advise a measure of conservatism, to challenge change before acting on it, that’s a little too conservative for me.
Religion has often failed to offer useful moral guidance, being guilty of the opposite on many occasions. But at least moral teaching was a core part of its mission. I wonder in our cult of culture, where does the discourse and teaching around morality happen in a way that has the same reach. In a way that overcomes the limitations that families often face. In a way that takes it beyond the classroom.
Is there a room for a moral core in our cult of culture, and do we need it?