When it comes to functioning in any society, there are certain texts and narratives that are shared by a large portion of that community; if you are ‘outside of the loop,’ so to speak, you may miss references, feel left out, or generally function as an outsider. I’ve occasionally mocked (jokingly, I assure you) people who haven’t seen certain films that are staples for our culture: Star Wars, for instance; some of the James Bond films (particularly the Sean Connery era, though I hardly think you need to see them all to feel caught up); and, of course, Indiana Jones.
Oh, wait. I’ve never mocked anyone for that last one, because up until a few days ago, I’d never seen any of the Indiana Jones films.
Well, when I was visiting my extended family for the Fourth of July, they discovered this particular cultural ‘sin’ of mine, and decided it was time to fix it. And so, we pulled out the VHS copy of the first Indiana Jones movie, and fired it up. I was familiar with a good number of the scenes already, either from parodies, references, or jokes about the series, so there weren’t too many surprises. Except the Nazis. Somehow, in all of the years I’ve heard people talk about these movies, I had no idea that it was Indiana vs. the Nazis. This simultaneously made the movie way cooler and, well, a little cliche, at least from the perspective of someone thirty years later. As a gamer, especially, it feels like Nazis have been done to death (and, at least once, raised as zombies).
Regardless of that small issue, I enjoyed the film. The movie was what originally sparked the need for a PG-13 rating, though it was never itself re-rated. Events in the film felt predictable, though I suspect they weren’t so when the film was released; such is the nature of viewing something over thirty years after it debuted.
But now I share something with the majority of Americans my age or my parents’ age: I’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was already pretty knowledgeable about certain film series (Star Wars and the 007 series come to mind, among others), but this was an obvious gap. In the way our culture expects me to be, I was lacking.
Of course a culturally shared experience or narrative is not always one worth seeking out. Some are plainly sinful, though I doubt watching Raiders qualifies. But this sort of expectation is true in nearly any cultural staple: if you want to be a film buff you have to see movies like Citizen Kane, though you could probably get away with only getting references to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and The Matrix; if you want to be a gaming buff, I suggest doing your time with classic games, though if you can tell Mario from Sonic you’re probably fine (just don’t confuse Zelda and Link, or you’ll find that people are quite mean); for television you should know the difference between Homer Simpson and Seinfeld; and if you want to be well read or educated, you should probably grasp basic references to Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, and at least one work by Dickens. These selections will vary by culture, of course, so don’t take them to be universal. The expectation is that you are familiar with these works, at least to a certain degree (perhaps television and film are higher on the ‘you should know this’ list, for many people).
What I find fascinating is that certain groups expect certain things as basic knowledge or experience. This is likely no surprise to many, but the idea interests me for a few reasons. First, I found that it doesn’t actually matter which piece of cultural knowledge you have, so long as you have enough of it to get by. I could survive without having seen Raiders pretty easily, and people rarely knew the difference, unless I mentioned it. Likewise, I knew multiple mostly-well-adjusted individuals who had never seen a Star Wars movie until college. But they could keep up with other culturally relevant artifacts, and so there was still a connection.
As groups get more specific, the expectations usually increase. I should be able to make a reference to Halo or League of Legends in my apartment and get reactions, much like I can allude to The Divine Comedy or The Republic with my friends from college or my current graduate school peers. When ‘groups’ become defined more intimately, the references become far less universal; “Remember that thing that happened to us last year and how awesome it was?” It might be a ‘sin’ in the group to forget significant events in your history.
I’ve used the term ‘sin’ rather broadly here; what I’m describing is probably more accurately termed a faux pas. But I think the correlation is related; if a faux pas is anything outside of the societal norm or expectation, a sin is anything outside of God’s will or expectation. If God’s desires are as it should be, then sin is anything that is not how it should be. God’s offense at our sin is far greater than any faux pas, though.