In the context of human history, the amount of information that bombards people today is inconceivable. It is said that the average person living in the twenty-first century consumes the same amount of external information in a single day as the medieval farmer would in his entire life. Have we taken this cultural shift for granted, or do we consider the effects that this new flood of information may have upon our souls? As Christians called to live “in the world, but not of the world,” are we actively considering what kind of information we invite into our hearts and minds?
Besides the constant flow of words, images, entertainment, and other information which are ubiquitous in the present day, the phenomenon of popular culture also arose from the modern era. Pop culture takes many forms, but appears generally as a conglomeration of the trends, opinions, practices, and tastes most current and appealing to a particular cultural group. The internet heightened the prominence of pop culture in recent decades (we’ve seen this in the emergence of social media and TikTok, to name a few examples), and younger generations are being raised to believe that keeping up with the transient is the norm. Pop culture is a strange and dangerous phenomenon because it not only pervades so much of modern society, but has also become a pernicious intrusion on our attention by encouraging our desire for the newest beliefs, news, and trends.
Pop culture is trivial and ephemeral by nature – it evolves constantly and is born out of nothing but human whims. It consists of the immediately fashionable, humorous, entertaining, or relevant, as is decided by cultural icons or the general public. It is sustained by the blind imitation of those who desire to attribute its fleeting characteristics – immediate trendiness, humor, entertainment, and a sense of being in the know – to themselves. However, ascribing value to things just because they are current is ultimately dissatisfying and unsustainable. It means that we are ever seeking more than what we have now, and that what we love today, we will count as nothing tomorrow. Caring about pop culture is caring about water that is already under the bridge.
There is a time and a place for everything, including pop culture. However, indulging in enticing trivial information too often can damage our mind’s capacity for contemplation. In his essay, “Life without Principle,” Henry David Thoreau writes, “I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality.” When we fill our minds with trivial ideas, trivial thinking is the result.
Contemplating what is eternally good, true, and beautiful leads our thoughts to what is satisfying and sustainable. It is through contemplation and prayer that we can grow spiritually, develop deeper applications of our studies, and learn to model our lives after the Word of God. Contemplation is difficult, however. Like the muscles of an athlete who spends his summer lying on the couch, our mental capacities deteriorate when our thoughts turn to the trivial before the consequential.
Upon what, then, should we think? It is important that we guard ourselves against habits of desiring information that will corrupt our hearts and limit our capacities for producing fruitful thoughts. Philippians 4 tells us that our attentions should be focused upon what is true, honorable, lovely, and commendable. Knowledge is not inherently good; we must gauge carefully whether the information constantly barraging us is edifying, or leads away from wisdom.
Thoreau continues along the same lines, “We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their generation. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” It is fitting that Thoreau uses these terms to characterize information because the lastingness of knowledge is what determines its value to us. The Eternities are the timeless and eternal truths found in Scripture and the thoughts, stories, and art which have lasted through history and nature. They carry us through the joys and hardships of life as they have for people throughout the ages. On the other hand, the Times, or information like pop culture that is relevant only today, is the epitome of being “of the world.” This kind of ephemeral knowledge is swept away as naturally and constantly as the tide upon the shore.
Some may argue that keeping up with the Times helps us relate to those with whom we live. They may also say that Christians may not be taken seriously if we seem unaware of what goes on in the world, and that acquiring this knowledge can’t hurt if we do not let it affect us. However, studying eternal truths will help us relate to our neighbors on a fundamental level because it teaches about the joys and sorrows of the human condition instead of trivial, surface-level concerns. Besides, learning current popular opinions and fashions to understand others today means that we will only have to relearn them tomorrow. As modern philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila wisely put it, “In an age in which the media broadcast countless pieces of foolishness, the educated man is defined not by what he knows, but by what he doesn’t know.” There are numerous ideas which are best left untouched, and many cases in which unawareness points to wise discernment, not ignorance.
As Christians, it is our joy that the responsibility of guarding ourselves from trivial information is far outweighed by the glorious truths which God has promised us. We are not ephemeral beings enslaved to the cares of the world. Rather, we await a joyous eternity – an “eternal weight of glory,” as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4 – and the ideas we allow into our minds have the power to reflect that. For, “the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”