Cultural Antennae

April 22nd, 2019

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Today is Earth Day, a day we focus on the environment. We might also focus on Rachel Carson. She was the environment’s cultural antennae.

Insects have antennae. They’re the long, thin sensory appendages on an insect’s head. Antennae “get there first.” The sciences have cultural antennae, imaginative types who “get there first.” They sense what is coming. Rachel Carson was one of them.

Scientists had long studied the impact of industrial development on the environment. Carson, a researcher at Johns Hopkins, imagined what the future looked like. Her 1962 book, Silent Spring, depicted a world devoid of birds’ songs filling the springtime air.

Silent Spring became a New York Times bestseller, selling more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries. Readers began to imagine the links between the planet, pollution, and public health. But Carson got there first. She was our cultural antennae.

The general public caught up a few years later. First there was Earthrise, the iconic photo of Earth shot by the crew of Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. A month later, a massive oil spill soiled the beaches off Santa Barbara, California. Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, witnessed the ravages of the oil spill. He came up with an idea—a national day to focus on the environment. Earth Day struck a chord.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans demonstrated against the deterioration of the environment. By the end of 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency had been created. The Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts passed. These achievements owe much to Rachel Carson’s cultural antennae.

Societies also have cultural antennae. C. S. Lewis comes to mind. In 1938, he had a conversation with his Inklings friend J. R. R. Tolkien. Both agreed there was at that time “too little of what we really like in stories.” They decided to write a little science fiction. Tolkien never finished his book. Lewis did.

Lewis wrote Out of the Silent Planet. Readers take a voyage to another world to give them another perspective on H. G. Wells’ notion of our world. Wells felt science ought to take control of the Darwinian process so that we reach divinity. Lewis saw this as a new version of the serpent’s temptation to Eve: “You shall become as gods.” Writing in 1938, he correctly predicted that this master race mentality could easily justify all manner of atrocities against “inferior” members of the human species. Lewis was our cultural antennae, one year ahead of the times. World War II broke out in 1939.

Out of the Silent Planet is the first in Lewis’ science fiction trilogy. After his trilogy, he never returned to science fiction. He did write more fantasy literature, such as The Chronicles of Narnia. Here, Lewis once again is our cultural antennae.

In the Chronicles books, readers get another perspective on Max Weber, the German sociologist and economist. In his 1905 book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber wrote, “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.” Weber was referring to the Enlightenment and how it “dis-enchanted” the Western world.

Lewis recognized this. He saw how the modern world embraced the Enlightenment. But unlike Weber, Lewis didn’t believe in fate. In the Chronicles book, he seeks to “re-enchant” the world. Many see the Chronicles’ seven books reflecting the seven heavens of medieval cosmology.[1] They depict an enchanted universe, the medieval cosmology of spheres depicting God’s love.[2]

Lewis’s writings have been my cultural antennae. In 1954, he said we have to reframe the faith in a post-Christian world. I launched Clapham Institute almost 20 years ago with this aim – to reframe the faith. Today we seek to equip churches that recognize we’re in a post-Christian world. The faith is an outsider, an exile. Read Lewis’ The Discarded Image and see why. The church discarded her enchanted medieval cosmology. The result is people today seek spirituality but not religion.

Welcome to 2019.

CNN notes there are now as many Americans who claim no religion as there are evangelicals and Catholics. They long for spirituality. They don’t find it in most Western churches. “No Religion” people are spiritual but not religious. It is estimated they will be the largest group outright in four to six years. They’re mostly millennials and Gen Z. I think Lewis anticipated this. He was our cultural antennae. He got there first.

Who are today’s cultural antennae? Fantasy films for starters. They depict enchanted multi-dimensional universes. The Matrix (1999) was one of the first. It’s no coincidence that cultural analysts began to note the emergence of religious nones at the same time. Today’s cultural antennae include the Marvel series, Game of Thrones, and so on. Spider-Man: into the Spider-Verse is our most recent example.

Next week I’ll tell you why.

 

[1] Michael Ward, Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis (Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] C. S. Lewis: The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge University Press, 1964).

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2 Responses to “Cultural Antennae”

  1. hsl says:

    Excellent commentary. Hope you will develop the need for Christians to heed Carson’s “antenna” on environmental concerns separately too. Looking forward to next week’s completion of this theme.

    By the way, are you doing a GOT cliffhanger here? 🙂

  2. SRM says:

    CS Lewis, who authored my all time favorite book Till We Have Faces, gave me a sense of wonder. Wendell Berry, another environmental antennae, gave me a sense of stewardship regarding the earth. I recently watched the Spiderman movie with my kiddos and could see Kingdom all over it and the last Marvel movie(the only one I have seen in a decade) wrecked me. Can’t wait to see how you unpack some of this in your next post!

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