Should Christians do the ‘Harlem Shake’?
I suppose we all heard of ‘Harlem Shake’. Now that some Christians are doing it, people start to wonder if it is wrong for Christians to follow suit. They are especially concerned with the fact that Christians seem to copy the meme without thinking much about the origin of the dance and why they are doing it. Shellnutt points out that this a phenomenon called ‘the Commodification of Culture’:
The “Harlem Shake,” like most memes, has become a commodity, so easily replicated that we use it for our own ends and move on. We happily hijack the setup, then post our versions on YouTube for views, laughs, and “relevancy.” We have no real engagement with the phenomenon outside of copying and clicking.
This commodification of culture—an impulse discussed by Vincent Miller in his book Consuming Religion—allows us to ignore the context where things originally gained meaning. As we dance the “Harlem Shake,” we don’t need to know how to do the hip-hop dance move of the same name. We don’t need to know anything about Baauer, the musician who created this song-heard-round-the-Internet. We don’t need to understand this underground genre of music called “trap.” We don’t even need to think about the lyrics of the short song, which proclaim “Con los terroristas!” (With the terrorists!) through the skittish beats.
I would add, that the ‘Commodification of Culture’ is the hallmark of postmodernity. If there is any (possible) definition of postmodern culture, ‘Commodification of Culture’ has to be a part of it. I have posted earlier on Arbuckle’s definition of postmodern culture:
…a pattern of meanings encased in a network of symbols, myths, narratives and rituals, created by individuals and subdivisions, as they struggle to respond to the competitive pressures of power and limited resources in a rapidly globalizing and fragmented world, and instructing its adherents about what is considered to be the correct way to feel, think and behave.
Imagine in a perfectly ‘modern’ world, where everything needs to be done with a reason, which in turn is nested within a system of beliefs. People will think twice before mimicking the act. Everything must go through the scrutiny of reasoning and strict rationalisation. Questions like, ‘Why should I do it?’ ‘What is it?’ ‘How to do it properly?’ must be answered and the whole logic must adhere to the system of beliefs (meta narrative) before the idea was allowed to be translated into action.
However, that age has passed. Now people pick and choose any cultural elements which make sense to them and incorporate them into their lives and actions. One of the postmodern characteristics is the tendency to ask ‘what use is it?’ instead of ‘what is it?’ or ‘why is it so?’. For this reason, as long as ‘Harlem Shake’ serves a certain needs – be it the need to be relevant or the need to have fun, people will embrace it without much consideration.
Thus, Shellnutt calls for Christian to be careful:
Regardless of what the ramifications are for this particular song, Christians—whose faith relies on the context of its own teachings and symbols—generally need to take interest in where cultural phenomena come from and what they mean.
The same impulse that has us thoughtlessly clicking and sharing viral videos trains us to disconnect the thing in front of us with the story behind it. Our lives as Christians are all about the story of the Gospel, and we don’t want our traditions distanced from that story…by us or anyone else.
I think she brings out a very important point – that there is now a danger of Christians unknowingly detaching their acts with the Gospel story. If we consider why some of the Christians are following this trend, we might find that most of them will tell us that they ‘didn’t think too much’, or even respond by asking, ‘wasn’t it fun?’ They just do it because they are postmoderns – not that they know it. In a modern world everything that we do is linked to a set of belief or meta-narrative. In the postmodern world we mix what we like to do and form our own stories. That means, although they are Christians, they are from ‘planet postmodern’. They are susceptible to distancing their acts from the Gospel story, and subsequently having the tendency to form their own story. One of my earlier post explored this issue, which manifests itself in an increase of eclectic taste for spirituality.
So should Christians do the ‘Harlem Shake’? I think that’s a wrong question to ask and fall short of tackling the heart of the matter. Instead, we should be asking, ‘how do we help Christians today to hold on to the Gospel story, since they are, as Newbigin put it, the hermeneutic of the Gospel?’ Judging the phenomenon is pointless because the interpretation of the phenomenon has been made difficult amidst the cultural chaos of the day. In the past people are settled within a certain cultural tradition. The world as we knew it was a cultural mosaic. Today we are increasingly facing a force which tends to take various cultural elements of others to form a new self-made subculture, crossing geographical and traditional cultural boundaries. Meanwhile, the under-threat traditional cultures are reacting against the tide, resulting in a cultural landscape which is often hostile but certainly fluid, fragmented and mixed. As a result we are now living in a cultural kaleidoscope. So it is hard to pin a phenomenon down and properly classify it today, let alone criticise it.
Furthermore, soon there will be another meme around the corner – will people go on examining every little bit of its origin before they adopt it? The postmodern Christians will not care nor they have the aptitude to do so. It is against their nature. They will just go for it. So instead of criticising them or the phenomena, should we not consider how to engage them and help them to live for Christ even under such influence? The real danger, as Shellnutt points out, is not with the phenomena nor is with the threat of the present cultural norm which has the subtlety to detach our acts from our faith. It is with Christians leaders and thinkers who disregard the need to contextulise their approach of teaching or ways to engage with the postmodern generation, thinking that the modernist approach would make sense to the postmoderns. Perhaps we should refer to Paul’s Areopagus experience, where he expertly contextualise his approach as he persuaded the pluralistic Athenians, while holding on to the Gospel story. Some may listen while others not, but contextualisation is no more an option for Christian mission in today’s world.
 Arbuckle, G.A. (2010) Culture, Inculturation, and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique (Liturgical Press), 1-16, 17; ritual – the ‘stylized or repetitive symbolic use of bodily movement and gesture within a social context, to express and articulate meaning’, Arbuckle, G.A. (1990) Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for the Pastoral Worker (London: Geofrey Chapman), 96, citing Bocock, R. (1974) Ritual in Industrial Society: A Sociological Analysis of Ritualism in Modern England (London: George Allen & Unwin), 35-59.