By Joe Boyd
Popular culture shows us who we are. It’s a mirror that reflects what we are becoming. So what do we make of Fallon’s rise in the wake of Letterman’s departure?
Regardless of how we feel about it, popular culture is a dynamic force that shapes the lives of most Americans. Music, sports, and entertainment are power players that inform the worldview of millions of people both inside and outside the church. It’s simply the reality of the world we live in.
The job of the Christian, in my opinion, is to know the culture while understanding that the kingdom of God is its own culture, often countercultural to the “normal” way of things. Pop culture tends to elevate the individual above all else, for instance. The kingdom of God calls us to serve people within a community. Pop culture is often an escape from reality. The kingdom is hyperreal, giving us access to God through Jesus.
That said, it’s an easy trap for the follower of Jesus to believe pop culture is somehow evil. I don’t believe that. It is beautiful, and like all beautiful things, it is also broken. As we look forward to the redemption of all things, we see that kingdom is coming and will come to popular culture as well.
This is the first monthly article I will write for CHRISTIAN STANDARD under the banner “Culture Watch.” I won’t be writing watchdog type articles telling you what types of entertainment I think a good Christian should support or avoid. Rather, I’d like to look at culture to see what it is showing us about who we are. Art always serves as a mirror to society, reflecting back to us what we are becoming. Sometimes the reflection is troubling. Sometimes it is encouraging. But it’s always accurate.
Look at Late Night
Take, for instance, the current face of late night television. I’m 42 years old, which means I am (barely) old enough to remember watching Johnny Carson as a kid on summer nights. Johnny was an institution, like so many others of that era.
When I was a bit older, though, I found the first late night host I genuinely loved. It was David Letterman. He was an early baby boomer who us Gen Xers couldn’t help but enjoy. He typified all that we were becoming: sardonic, cynical, and anti-institutional. He did ridiculous things because he could get away with it.
Eventually, he would move to CBS and the coveted 11:30 p.m. time slot. And we all followed. Jay Leno was for our parents and grandparents. He could cater to them with his plastic fake version of Carson all night long. We had Dave. He was like us.
A few weeks ago, Dave retired. For me, it was a bit of a shock. Not that it was time for Dave to go, but that it made me stop to realize I had already abandoned Dave. I didn’t mean to. He just got . . . old. So did I. Dave didn’t just get physically older, but his whole cynical outlook seemed overdone.
Enter Jimmy. Jimmy Fallon is somehow the opposite of Dave, while also being nothing like Leno. Here’s the thing I think is worth our time to consider. What Dave was to my generation, Jimmy is to the next generation. He’s the Gen Xer ahead of his time. He’s full of millennial attitude and outlook. And unlike Dave and Jay, he is appealing to all generations. My parents love him more than they love me, and I’m an only child. My kids love him too.
Looking for Joy
Jimmy is a brilliant comedic actor and musician. But that isn’t why we really love him. He’s an average interviewer, but we let it slide, because he has something the culture is begging for—he’s infectiously positive. His talent and good looks—and Lorne Michaels—got him in the door. But his joy is why he works.
Here’s something we can learn from Jimmy’s rise and Dave’s retirement: That old negative, snarky, biting persona is played out. What people want more than anything today is legitimate joy. Not pretend happiness, but people with real, unbridled joy. That’s what Jimmy has. I hope he never loses it.
And that’s the message to the church. Who should be more joyful than us? Nobody. It turns out the very thing we should be known for is the very thing the culture wants. That’s what the mirror shows us.
Joe Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, Cincinnati, Ohio.