The Comedy of Cultural Deformity

You can judge the health of a civilization by the culture it creates and consumes.

At the height of Roman corruption, the Empire created and consumed a culture of death and decadence. The bloodlust of the games and the bodily lusts of sexual deviancy led Rome down the rutted road of long decline and prolonged decay. By the time Rome fell to the barbarian hordes she had already committed spiritual suicide.

What Rome forgot, and perhaps we’ve never known, is the truth that culture is a better indicator of a civilization’s spiritual condition than are public opinion polls asking about our belief in God. Culture is what people make in the world, to make sense of the world. If we go back to the beginning of culture, to the creation of culture, we discover that God made the natural world and gave it meaning—He called it good.

But then God made man and woman in His image and called it very good. When God placed Adam and Eve in the garden they were to cultivate God’s good creation into something very good. To take grapes and make wine. To take wheat and make bread.

This is the meaning of culture—to bring about human flourishing by doing as God did, by making the good into the very good.

I thought about this as I watched the 85th Annual Oscars. The award ceremonies for musicians and moviemakers provides an undiluted jolt of what these cultural shapers value most. A sort of cultural Red Bull. And if the millions of viewers of the Grammys and Oscars is any indication, then these shows also tell us something about what the people value. So, as a cultural event, what did the Oscars say about human flourishing in American today?

The answer to that question depends on where you stand on the cultural divide, but the selection of Seth MacFarlane to host the 2013 Oscars told you how Hollywood answers that question. Creator of television’s The Family Guy and director of the movie Ted, MacFarlane is best known for his juvenile and sophomoric humor—that is to say, humor filled with body parts and body functions. And his bits for the Oscars didn’t deviate, though many thought them deviant. Here’s a sampling:

  • The opening song and dance number celebrated topless celebrities in the movies. In “We Saw Your Boobs,” MacFarlane at one point sang about Jodie Foster’s breasts in The Accused—a movie loosely based on a real life gang rape.

  • While introducing Django Unchained, MacFarlane said, “This is the story of a man fighting to get back his woman, who’s been subjected to unthinkable violence. Or as Chris Brown and Rihanna call it, a ‘date movie.’”

  • Referencing Daniel Day-Lewis, who won for Best Actor for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, MacFarlane said: “Daniel Day-Lewis, your process fascinates me. You were totally 100 percent in character as Lincoln during the movie. If you bumped into [African American] Don Cheadle on the studio lot, did you try to free him?” And, in what even the audience deemed distasteful and disrespectful, MacFarlane said, “I always thought the actor who got most in Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth.”

  • During one of the award presentations, Ted—the stuffed bear in MacFarlane’s movie of the same name—asked where the after show orgy was being held.

  • In making a jab at George Clooney, MacFarlane used 9 year old nominee Quvenzhané Wallis: “To give you an idea of how young she is, it’ll be sixteen years before she’s too old for George Clooney.”

MacFarlane’s performance, the celebrities who laughed, as well as the viewing public who took to social media calling MacFarlane “edgy,” “funny as hell,” and scolded critics to “lighten up,” raises important questions about our civilization, our culture, and human flourishing.

In a culture that is sexually confused on so many fronts, is it funny to turn what was morally clear regarding violence toward women and the sexualization of our children into fodder for crass comedy? When everything is a joke, and nothing is sacred and nothing is honored, can anything really be funny? And are we ever going to get to the point where the excuse for envelope pushing because it’s comedy is no longer acceptable?

Civilizations are known by the stories they tell. The story the Oscars told was not one of human flourishing, but of human coarseness; of narcissistic nihilism; of radical individualism divorced from common decency; of long decline and prolonged decay. The cultural shapers of our day, Seth MacFarlane included, have a unique power to point out what we ought to praise, to admire, to emulate. How much better our culture and civilization if more folks exercised that authority by eschewing anything that wasn’t good, true, or beautiful.

Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz tweeted during the Oscars: “Has anyone told the Oscars [sic] people that there are families watching their show with their kids?”

Families were watching . . . and wondering: What do the Oscars say about the civilization our children were living in?

They are living in a moral minefield.

“Our culture is walking through a maze of land mines,” Ravi Zacharias wrote, “and the heaviest burden is when we send our children on ahead.”

Human flourishing cannot long endure in a culture hellbent on self-detonation. It will become maimed and disfigured in the shrapnel riddled spirits of our children.

But in the comedy of cultural deformity everything is funny, even the spiritual condition of our misshaped civilization.


I invite you to follow me on Twitter @derrickjeter.

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