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Don Draper and the Ruins of Culture

By December 24, 2011 No Comments

For the past few years my wife and I have indulged in the pleasure of good television.  It all started with The Soprano’s, which began a string of television series that became our evening respite.  Around 9:30, after the kids are long in bed and our work is finished, I hit the couch, she hits the recliner, and we reacquaint ourselves with our flawed TV friends.  About a month ago we finished the 4th season of Mad Men – a series set in the advertising world of the early 1960’s.  While there are multiple layers to the creative show, as I watched I couldn’t help but think that the cultural world being re-presented was that of my grandparents.

By the time I really got to know them they were old – ancient as far as I was concerned.  There was also a sense that the world they inhabited, their way of thinking, their culture, was something to be overcome.  After all, my grandparents didn’t care about computers or heavy metal music.  They laughed at the cultural content of my world as much as I laughed at theirs.  There seems to be a time when a person’s cultural clock stops – when you no longer care to keep up with the technology or fashion.  For my grandparents, it seems their cultural clock was stuck in Don Draper time.  Of course now it’s all back in fashion – that’s the beauty of postmodernity.  Hold on to your stuff, because in about 15 – 20 years it will be back.  (My son has more Star Wars action figures than all of his friends because my mother was wise enough to keep the stuff they gave me.  His cousin is envious…)

Last week we celebrated Christmas with my side of the family.  One morning my dad received a package in the mail – a shoebox full of old pictures from his childhood.  I’m amazed at the power of old pictures – there we sat entranced.  Some pictures were polaroids, some were black and white, most were way off center (There’s an ongoing joke about the Lief inability to take a good picture… someone’s head is always cut off) – but all of them evoked some form of emotion, the most common being laughter.  There was a picture of my grandpa and grandma building an outhouse… an outhouse!  There were black and white photos of my grandparents sitting around a table with cigarettes perched atop their fingers, pictures of my dad as a kid, as a teenager, even pictures of my dad getting on the bus to go to Vietnam – all dressed up in uniform.  I picked up a picture of my grandpa as a young husband and father standing next to his family on the front step dressed in a hat and overcoat – Don Draper style.  My dad laughed, “Looks like a mob boss doesn’t he.”  Yes he did… my grandpa – Tony Soprano and Don Draper all wrapped into one.

Funny, but for some reason I feel watching Mad Men has given me a glimpse into the world of my grandparents – providing a bit of context for old memories and photos.  These old pictures capture them in the midst of constructing an identity – setting trajectories for their kids and grandkids.  And they left cultural ruins… markers of a life lived.  My grandpa died 2 years ago and this thanksgiving my parents brought over some of his leftover stuff to see if we wanted any of it.  I ended up claiming some stylish Don Draper cufflinks and grandpa’s wedding ring.  The ring fits perfectly so I wear it.  My parents have always commented that I’m a lot like him – mostly in non-complimentary ways.  But I’m thankful for the cultural ruins he left behind – they inspire me to leave some of my own for my kids and future grandkids.  I wonder – when will my cultural clock stop?  My wife would argue that it already has…

I end with a quote from Stanley Hauerwas, who cusses like my grandpa, which is why I like him.  He writes,

“For Christians, particularly in the modernities of our time, must find the means to create space in the world if we are to serve the world in which we find ourselves.  Such a space if produced with joy hopefully will become a resource for the imagination for Christians who face quite different challenges than those that produced the ruins we now inhabit… But any ruin, be it a building, book, or painting requires memory.  That memory, moreover, must be governed by the story that is the Christ.  The peculiar challenge before us – that is, the Christians of modernity – is whether we have the resources to have our memories so determined.”                                                    From  “The Gospel and Cultural Formations”

Happy Christmas Eve!

Jason Lief

Jason Lief teaches Practical Theology at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. He served as editor of Reformed Journal for many years and was one of the original bloggers on the RJ blog. You can find more of his writing at

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