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Choosing Vinyl in a Digital Age

There’s a term that has gained wide traction over the last number of years to describe our unique cultural moment. Disenchantment. It’s a term used mainly by philosophers and historians and theologians to describe the fact that faith feels different in the twenty first century west than at most other parts of Christian history and even human history, more generally.

Faith no longer feels as obvious as it once did. God was once more of a given, a fact of life. There was more social support for belief because everyone had it and everyone supported the institutions that formed and reinforced it. It would have been hard to find someone in medieval Europe, for example, who didn’t believe in God. The idea would have been almost literally unthinkable. Very simply put: It’s easier to believe when everyone else does.

It is likely not news to you that we no longer live in a world where belief in a transcendent God is obvious or assumed.

The Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, Globalization, the Age of the Internet… Over the last few centuries, as human knowledge and technological capacities have expanded, as cultures and religions have come into much closer contact with one another, the world has grown ever less mysterious, ever less “enchanted.” Belief in God, where it remains, is much more individualistic, more selective, more of a “do it yourself” assemblage of whatever beliefs “work for me.” It is no longer a given. No longer just a fact of life. It’s an optional extra, for many people. Something that might be useful in helping with mental health or dealing with stress. Or not.

This is the disenchanted world that we live in in the twenty-first century. And yet all is not well in these disenchanted times.

Sometimes the story of our cultural trajectory in the west is told as a story of liberation from the shackles of superstitions and oppressions of religion. It is told as the story of emancipation, of freedom. There may be a sliver of truth to this. Certain forms of religion were oppressive and we do well to move beyond them.

But if religion and Christianity were just bad news, full stop—something that human beings believed when they didn’t know better and would inevitably grow out of—we might expect to see certain things in a world where its influence is fading. We might expect to see a flowering of culture, of wellness and health and vitality and equality and tolerance and community and flourishing once the shackles of religion were shed.

It is likely also not news to you that while there are glimpses of this goodness here and there, overall, this is not, in fact, what we see in the post-Christian west.

What we in fact see are…

… skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety and addictions of all kinds.

… an ever-widening gap between rich and poor.

… weakening commitments to institutions of all kinds.

… an explosion of shallow and vulgar forms of entertainment.

… divisive and polarizing public discourse.

… an unhealthy dependence upon technology.

… and people hiving off into endless categories of identity and fighting for territory.

We also see despair. We see people adrift, struggling with meaninglessness and isolation and loneliness. We see people lacking a coherent vision of either the past or the future within which to anchor their lives, lacking a compelling a hope to guide their action in the present.

This is particularly true among the young. Last week, Ross Douthat wrote an article for The New York Times about the phenomenon of young people saying that they don’t want to have children because they fear raising them in the world they are inheriting. The specific reason for this addressed in his article was the threat posed by climate change, but in my conversations with young adults it could also be racial injustice or the economy or a lack of good employment options or the ugliness of the world of social media or a difficulty in forming meaningful stable relationships with people that have shared values. It’s not uncommon to hear people south of thirty complain that the world is too messed up to bring children into.

This, despite the fact that in many ways there has never been a time in history where more people enjoyed more rights, where the standard of living in places like Canada is higher than ever, where until very recently life expectancy was longer than it had ever been (it’s gone down in places like Canada mainly due to things like suicide and drug-related deaths), where technology has brought pretty much anything the human mind could dream up to our doorsteps and screen pretty much on demand.

Something else is going on in our despairing moment. Douthat argues that while there are many reasons for the phenomenon of young people not wanting to have children, one that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention is religious in nature.

Explanations for the recent surge in teenage misery that focus on the effects of social media, the impact of the pandemic, overprotective parenting and other factors all make a lot of sense.

But religious shifts belong in that conversation, too, especially since depression and anxiety appear sharpest among the most liberal younger Americans. If some of the passions of progressivism have their origins in spiritual impulses and aspirations, the absence of ultimate religious hope may darken the shadows of despair over young-progressive souls.

This is our cultural moment. Our defaults have changed. Our horizons have shrunk. Our cultural despair is profoundly religious in nature, whether we recognize it or not.

I recently read an article about Jack White, “one of the few undisputed rock gods of the twenty-first century.” His band, the White Stripes, are famous for their raw, stripped down approach to music. White has a strong preference for vinyl over digital when it comes to recording. He founded his own studio (Third Man Records) and has even employed an audio engineer in a white lab coat (who awesomely calls himself “Dr. Groove”). White is seen as something of an antique, a “nostalgist” in the music world.

I’m not qualified to weigh in on the vinyl vs digital debate when it comes to sound quality. I know that many people like vinyl just because they like being the sorts of people who like vinyl. But as I read the article, it occurred to me that perhaps there’s a metaphor to be mined here. Those who choose vinyl in 2022 do so in a digital world. They do so knowing full well that they could easily open an app on their phones instead of dropping the needle into the record. They’re choosing a different way of engaging, of listening, of experiencing music. But there’s no going back to a world where vinyl was the only option.

In the same way, those of us who still believe, at least in some form, in an enchanted world where God is alive and active do so in a world of science and factories and vaccines and driverless cars and Facebook and Amazon and global travel and easy information and a plurality of beliefs. We’re consciously choosing a different way of engaging, of listening, of experiencing reality. But there’s no going back to a world where belief was the only option.

It’s a limited metaphor, as all metaphors are. But finding a way back to vinyl in a digital world might be the path to salvation in our culture of despair.

Feature image source.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jimmy the Kid #

    Sometimes the story of our cultural trajectory in the west is told as a story of liberation from the shackles of superstitions and oppressions of religion. It is told as the story of emancipation, of freedom. There may be a sliver of truth to this…….
    I believe there is much more than a “sliver” of truth to this statement…….today the Christian church in the US seems to be focused on abortion, homosexuality, pro Trump etc…in my view, we are lost unless we can move away from “religion” and instead focus on our relationship with Jesus, and doing what He had told us to do (feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take care of widows and orphans, etc)… if we as Christians had this as our focus, man I think we could make such a positive difference in the world….

    June 17, 2022
    • Christians can disagree and make different political choices but if in so doing they affirm the right to kill unborn children in the womb, advocate for transgender ideology and look to advance homosexuality as both personhood and culture, they malign the Gospels.

      If you cannot see that those who would take offense to the above paragraph seek nothing less than the destruction of Christian faith, you are blind to the reality around you.

      Neither is it helpful to infer false binaries.

      Everyone I have ever engaged with in the Pro Life and traditional marriage camps is just as active, if not more so, in, ” feeding the hungry and clothing the naked”.

      I have not found this to be true among those who affirm abortion and (insert latest acronym here) same sex lifestyle and transgenderism.

      As for a “focus” that you seem to question, Jimmy. It is also true that Jesus explicitly reminds us that if we do not confront those who live in and advocate for sin, the sin is as much ours as it is theirs.

      June 18, 2022
    • I agree that some parts of the church (particularly the evangelical church in American) have gotten their priorities wrong, sometimes badly so. This doesn’t change the reality that, a) secular humanism has massive unacknowledged debts to Christianity that it barely recognizes (i.e., pretty much its entire ethical framework); and, b) the decline of Christianity and organized religion has not been good for the world (i.e, everything I mention in the middle of the post).

      June 20, 2022
      • Ryan, do you mean to say that the focus on abortion and confrontation
        with homosexual politics is an example of the church getting things wrong…”sometimes badly so”?

        June 20, 2022
      • I’m thinking of the obsession with power and politics more generally.

        June 20, 2022
  2. Chris #

    I’d take the metaphor back further in time. Faith is like music before there was recorded music at all, when music had to be made by a living voice or someone playing an instrument. This is how music was for most of human history. I am certainly fine with recorded music (digital or vinyl), but recorded music is, after all, artificial. It is not a living thing. Live music is a living thing, as is faith.

    June 18, 2022
    • I like this very much, Chris.

      June 20, 2022
  3. #

    As a bit of a sidebar: I recently read Andy Root’s book _The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being_. (I recommend it!) A few months before stumbling upon this book, I’d been wondering how half a century of no-fault divorce has left innumerable grown children without stable families. And I wondered whether this might be a significant contributing factor to the omnipresence of anxiety among young adults (and more). Root argues that divorce shakes children (of every age) to their core—ontologically—so that they become uncertain of their very being. If true, I think there’s a topic here that I’m not hearing people address.

    June 18, 2022
    • I think this is absolutely true and worthy of much deeper reflection. There are strong disincentives in the broader culture to make this connection, but I think it’s impossible to overstate the significance of the breakdown of families in the mental health of young people. Thanks for making me aware of the book.

      June 20, 2022

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