Jonathan D. Fitzgerald talks about faith, pop culture, and the New Sincerity in his new book.
What do “Knocked Up”, Mumford & Sons, Modern Family, and David Foster Wallace all have in common with each other? The answer: they are all a part of what Jonathan D. Fitzgerald, a writer, educator, and editor of Patrol, and others are calling, the “New Sincerity” in his newly released book, “Not Your Mother’s Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better”. So what exactly is the New Sincerity? Believe it or not, you’re probably already aware of it, but maybe haven’t been able to articulate it. “Sincerity and authenticity have become the highest cultural values,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s what unites us. You can see it in popular T.V. shows, movies, it’s in popular books.” He explains this further in his book:
Today, at this unique moment, writers, actors, musicians, and artists elevate authentic expression over manufactured image. This means that they reach back through the decades and choose from a wide array of values, selecting those that most often align with who we are and what we believe at our core. They understand that some situations are inherently better than others, and they’re not embarrassed to suggest that we pursue those. This process puts morality front and center; the New Sincerity compels us to consider not just what we want, but also what is right.
We as a society love things that are honest about who or what they are and are in-tune with the state of things. It’s why we adore Jennifer Lawrence’s normal-ness, why Dashboard Confessional speaks to something so deep in us, and why movies like “Juno” were so good. This shift in culture is also why you’ve probably argued why it’s so important to have shows like “Modern Family” on T.V. with someone who has turned their nose up at the “sin” and the unconventional family structure in the show.
The perfect example of the New Sincerity at work is the hugely popular band Mumford & Sons. As Fitzgerald talks about in his Patrol piece, “Mumford and Sons Reviewers: You’re Doing it Wrong”, they have strong spiritual themes on the album, but unlike sanitized bands of Christian Contemporary music of the past, they don’t stuff their lyrics with a certain number of “Jesus'” and they don’t shy away from questions, feelings of despair, or even a few couple of F-words:
This is a larger movement that recognizes the artificiality of the separation between sacred and secular. (Mumford & Sons) reject that pressure to fragment ourselves depending on our company. Today, I’m a spiritual person. Tomorrow, I’ll be rational. And so on. … It’s okay if you don’t fit neatly into a box; you’re allowed to be more fully yourself.
And people are responding to this new kind of expression, evidence by how well they are selling in both mainstream charts and in faith communities. People resonate with the music and and are relieved they don’t have to pretend they’ve never experienced the questions before that are articulated in the lyrics.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald grew up in Boston in a charismatic Christian community with parents that were “Jesus hippies”. The first church he and his family attended was very conservative, but his parents tended to trust him more than his friend’s parents did their children. So while other kids his age were being banned from The Simpsons and burning Led Zeppelin cds, he was trying to not let on too much that he was seeing less-than-Christian-y movies and reveling in rock and roll. He had to live in the fracture between the sanitized Good Christian Life, and the awesome art that the era of his childhood produced.
Evangelical church culture often dictates that insulation is best. As in: the best way to keep your kids from swearing, having pre-marital sex, leaving church, or making friends with people of other religions is to keep them away from every use of those in media—regardless of whether or not the overall art is good. To make this case, when I was growing up my pastors would use the analogy of brownies and poop. “Say I made a pan of brownies, but I put just a teaspoon of poop in it, would you still eat them?” The obvious answer is no, which is why Focus on the Family’s break down of box office movies (swear word count, number of times smoking and drinking appears, skin shown/sexuality references) steered me and my peers away from almost everything but Finding Nemo and Veggies Tales in theaters.
This leads into the argument that this New Sincere wave in culture is really just us letting our morals slip, but Fitzgerald argues that even though our culture is showing its true colors, we aren’t becoming less moral. “Take ‘Knocked Up’ for instance,” he said. “That movie is what happens when you allow someone to be sincere and aren’t muzzled with a moral agenda. Because when you look at it, it really is kind of a ‘Let’s stay together’ movie. If it hadn’t been for the crassness, it might have been shown in churches.”
“If your main point is to teach something, the art can suffer,” said Jonathan. This harkens back to a John Gardner quote he uses as the crux of the book: “As a general rule, the artist who begins with a doctrine to promulgate, instead of a rabble multitude of ideas and emotions, is beaten before he starts.” Basically, when you stop preaching and you let people be themselves, it comes across as much more sincere and people are able to resonate and communicate on a much healthier level.
When you people create the art their souls ache for, their humanity and hearts emerge, which are messy. This is why the New Sincerity is making some people uncomfortable; because it’s making us come to terms with all sides of ourselves, including some of the scarier ones like doubt, anguish, and a loss of answers.
The fear of mixing the secular threw a whole generation into cultural isolation, which is part of why we’re now seeing an exodus of Millennials from the institutionalized church and an explosion in growth in the “spiritual but not religious” demographic. Today in society we are bringing these two worlds together because after years of singing Jesus-is-my-boyfriend worship tunes and putting on our Good Church Goer personas every Sunday, we long to be in a world where the spiritual is not allergic to the messiness of humanity, but embraces it and is a part of it. As we mend humanity and the sacred back together, we are not losing god and morality like our forefathers always feared we would. As one of my favorite quotes from the book says:
Whereas many predicted the end of belief and the death of God, we are seeing the exact opposite, and we’re seeing it in the most unexpected of places. People are still basing their morals in belief, even if organized religion is no longer the medium through which morality is transmitted.
“Not Your Mother’s Morals”, Fitzgerald’s new book that was released in January is a great, quick read. At 40 pages, it is jam-packed with explorations of art, politics, media and pop culture that show how we’ve moved from being June Cleaver’s society to being one that begs you to just tell it to us like it is—flaws and questions and all.
The book has five major sections, in addition to the introduction that’s titled “Why Listening to the Devil’s Music Didn’t Destroy my Soul” (just that title alone makes me want to buy it a second time). The second section talks about why the New Sincerity is a new morality emerging and how this is actually a good thing. The next section is about rock and roll, comic books, and how our ideas about god creep into our cultural heroes, followed by a section about the family and how “Full House” paved the way for our favorite shows about family life in the 21st century such as “Modern Family” and “Happy Endings”. The last section is about patriotism, politics, and why late-night comedians have risen up as to be the best political commentators.
When I first picked up “Not Your Mother’s Morals”, I let out a sigh of relief. Someone was finally articulating what I was feeling about the culture we live in. I knew something about it was important, but I didn’t know why. Jonathan’s book puts all of the proverbial pieces together into one witty journey that will light up any culture lover’s brain. With Fitzgerald’s Klosterman-like understanding of culture, his deliciously smart and optimistic voice, and his perspective as someone who has lived through a shedding of old religion, I highly recommend this book.
“Not Your Mother’s Morals” is absolutely for: culture lovers, Trivial Pursuit winners, T.V./movie buffs, the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, Oscar tweeters, pop culture bloggers, post-evangelicals, Millennials, religious studies majors, anyone who has a special place in their heart for flannel graphs but groans at tracts (you know who you are), and more.
So, do yourself a favor and go over to Amazon and pick up “Not Your Mother’s Morals” for an unbeatable $3.99 and plunge into a world that takes you from reflections about your favorite T.V. shows growing up all the way up through frank analyses of political misnomers from last summer. Here’s a trailer for the book:
This review is not paid. Opinions are strictly my own.