Christians & Popular Culture

By Kenneth A. Myers

A Book Review by John Ed Robertson, September 8, 2001

This book left me with mixed feelings. On one hand, it is an excellent critique of contemporary popular culture and a solemn warning against its insidious effects. On the other hand, it is short on practical suggestions for resisting what amounts to a tidal wave. In addition, many people will undoubtedly be alienated because much of his criticism of popular culture will strike them as snobbish elitism. One suspects that Myers may well have experienced this, because he writes:

"The American spirit of egalitarianism is suspicious of anyone who asserts that their taste is objectively superior to those of the ‘masses’. No loyal American wants to be a snob. Try telling someone from the Barry Manilow School of Liturgy that something is schlock and they will regard you as an arrogant elitist."

Myers’ basic argument seems to be that popular culture is a form of junk food for the mind and soul that stealthily saps our moral, intellectual and spiritual energy in such a way that we are totally unaware of it. Whereas most evangelicals are primarily concerned about the content of popular culture, he is much more concerned about its form With respect to television, for example, he writes:

"Even if all programming reflected a Christian worldview, but television was as pervasive as it is today, I believe it would still pose serious problems for Christians."

Why does he say this? It is because he believes that popular culture encourages a self-centered perspective, whereas high culture encourages a transcendent perspective, and Biblical faith involves belief in a transcendent God. He asserts that popular culture’s forms are not capable of sustaining the Christian conviction of a holy, judging God who demands repentance and promises the joy of obedience. The transcendent reality of God Himself and the experience of fellowship with Him in Christ are the source of meaning. He states: "Our God is too small, because our culture is too small."

He believes that evangelicals have embraced popular culture because evangelicalism has populist roots. In fact, the church has a virtually uncritical attitude toward the form of popular culture. The evangelical reaction to popular culture focuses on content (e.g. sex and violence), whereas he is more concerned about form.

He deplores this loss of a sense of transcendent absolutes and dignity, and notes that even many atheists and agnostics regret it as well. To summarize his criticism of popular culture:

"But the erosion of character, the spoiling of innocent pleasures and the cheapening of life itself that often accompanies modern popular culture can occur so subtly that we believe nothing has happened. Popular culture’s greatest influence is in the way it shapes how we think and feel more than what we think and feel and how we think and feel about thinking and feeling. Popular culture contains the tacit message that you can choose, you are the master of your fate, you are the final arbiter in setting your standards, etc. The invitation to moral autonomy is like a bribe offered by popular culture."

At one point, he likens high culture to gourmet cooking, folk culture to traditional home cooking and popular culture to fast food. This is ironic, because much of his argumentation reminded me of the French horrified reaction to the invasion of France by American fast food (McDonald’s, etc.) This in turn reminded me of the reaction of my French neighbor (a real intellectual, one of the most intelligent people I have ever met) to the privatization of French public television.

Prior to 1985, all French television channels were public, supported by a tax levied on the owners of TV sets. With the advent of private channels, my neighbor fretted that the quality of television programming would deteriorate, because it would be subject to market forces. I innocently suggested, But if the programs deteriorate, no one will watch them. He replied, in so many words: You don’t understand. That is the whole problem. The worse they are, the more people will watch them!

Ken Myers has a lot in common with my French neighbor. To the basic question, If popular culture is so bad, why do so many people like it? they would answer, Because it is so bad. Or as someone once said, You will never go broke underestimating the taste of the American people! This reveals a thinly veiled contempt for the masses, who need a cultural elite to tell them what is good for them culturally. He writes:

A society that cultivates commonness, that is suspicious of genius, that has more esteem for the entrepreneur who caters to the tastes of the many than the visionary who challenges the spirits of the few such a society is always in danger of defining worth in terms of immediate demand rather than eternal significance.

But this presents a dilemma. There is no denying that popular culture is well, popular. If the masses cultivate commonness, are suspicious of genius, and esteem the entrepreneur who caters to the taste of the many, what can be done? It is tempting to advocate that a cultural elite be given the task of deciding what kind of culture the masses need. This was the policy of French television prior to 1985, although one could question how well it worked in view of the fact that one of the most popular programs of the early 80’s was Dallas! In any event, it is difficult to imagine the implementation of this solution in America, especially in view of the fact that the cultural elite are such rabid supporters of the liberty of expression. On the other hand, there is little evidence that they would turn down the power to be the arbiters of taste if they were offered it. Nevertheless, it is a moot point, because market forces would eventually dominate in favor of what appealed to the largest audiences.

So Myers’ basic argument rests on the premise that high culture has a transcendent perspective, whereas popular culture encourages a self-centered perspective. Unfortunately, he presents little in the way of objective evidence for this assertion, or even any objective criteria for distinguishing between high culture and popular culture. The table below makes value judgments on high culture and popular culture, but how does one know which is which? We are still left with subjective evaluation. As Myers himself puts it, We are not talking about batting averages.

Focuses on the new Focuses on the timeless
Discourages reflection Encourages reflection
Pursued casually to kill time Pursued with deliberation
Gives us what we want, tells us what we already know Offers us what we could not have imagined
Relies on instant accessibility; encourages impatience Requires training; encourages patience
Emphasizes information and trivia Emphasizes knowledge and wisdom
Encourages quantitative concerns Encourages qualitative concerns
Celebrates fame Celebrates ability
Appeals to sentimentality Appeals to appropriate, proportioned emotions
Content and form governed by requirements of the marketContent and form governed by requirements of created order
Formulas are the substanceFormulas are the tools
Relies on spectacle, tending to violence and prurience Relies on formal dynamics and the power of symbols (including language)

Aesthetic power in reminding of something else Aesthetic power in intrinsic attributes
Individualistic Communal
Leaves us where it found us Transforms sensibilities
Incapable of deep or sustained attention Capable of repeated, careful attention
Lacks ambiguity Allusive, suggests the transcendent
No discontinuity between life and art Relies on secondary world conventions
Reflects the desires of the self Encourages understanding of others
Tends toward relativism Tends toward submission to standards
Used Received

These value judgements are the basic weakness of Myers’ book, in my opinion. On one hand, he is spitting into the wind” by trying to convince people to eat the spinach of high culture in place of the pizza and ice cream of popular culture. But more significantly, his contempt for the culture of the vast majority of the American people will certainly not help us to reach them with the Gospel. At one point, he acknowledges this by writing:

"The church must be content with being leaven within a common culture. It is not in the interest of the spreading of the Gospel that God’s people be a sequestered ethnic group any longer."

Unfortunately, embracing his critique of popular culture could easily lead to becoming a sequestered ethnic group, because people will sense the smug superiority with which we view them and their cultural tastes.

Having said that, I must admit that I think that his critique of popular culture is right on. Furthermore, his analysis of the way evangelicalism has embraced popular culture is extremely accurate. Simply put, his argument is that popular culture is a culture of diversion or distraction, the purpose of which is to help us avoid serious reflection about the ultimate questions of life’s meaning and purpose. He cites Montaigne as a father of popular culture, because he was an advocate of diversion as a way of escaping the cosmic isolation produced by the despair resulting from religious doubt. He writes:

Montaigne probably would have been the first in his neighborhood with a satellite dish to pick up zillions of television stations. A century later, Blaise Pascal saw the effects of the restlessness that had developed in the intervening years, as religion exerted less and less influence in people’s lives. Pascal lamented (in his Pensées) the way people frittered their lives away with relatively trivial pursuits.

Myers believes that the 1960’s were the decade during which popular culture overwhelmed traditional and high culture. The two most important cultural facts of the 60’s were the inability to distinguish between art and entertainment and the growth of the counterculture. Critical standards had to blur if what the counterculture did was to be called art and morality followed, so that old moral values gave way so that the new standards could be virtuous. What is surprising about the 60’s is how seriously relatively intelligent people took its pretensions.

The overtaking of high culture by popular culture was greatly accelerated by the advent of pop art which took popular culture out of the realm of escapism and treated it with the seriousness of art. He writes:

High culture, with its disciplines, standards and convictions about truth, about objective reality, about the dignity of man, surrendered to popular culture and adopted its ways. Since the 1960’s, the aesthetics of popular culture have effectively displaced those of high culture. As serious artists became less and less confident that there were any higher or permanent values they could represent in their work, popular culture’s pursuit of ephemeral fun came to dominate high culture as well.

He concludes: Hell had been waiting in the wings for over a century; it finally broke loose in the 1960’s.

Myers devotes a chapter each to what he considers to be popular culture’s idiom (rock and roll) and popular culture’s medium (television). He strongly denounces the effects of both of these. With respect to rock ‘n’ roll, for example:

It was rock ‘n’ roll that spearheaded the successful assault on the ramparts of civilization. The denigration of reason and the elevation of instinct is characteristic of rock’s primitive character.

He finds the roots of rock and roll in Romanticism, which was a reaction to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. The new music rocks the whole body and penetrates the soul Rock has the thick, hot blood of Romanticism in its veins.

Romanticism exalts the primitive state, because it believes that man is born innocent and becomes corrupted through exposure to culture. He quotes Robert Pattison: The myth of rock involves the assumption that music influenced by blacks is necessarily more natural, more organic, because blacks are more primitive. Even though he is quoting someone else, one can only wonder if Myers realizes how this statement is not only elitist, but blatantly racist as well. In any event, his argument is that the rock myth needs the moral argument that the impulses prompted by the music are pure and noble because they were the product of some more enlightened culture. It involves a call to pre-rational spontaneity.

He doesn’t have much better things to say about television, which is the accepted medium for just about everything, our single most significant shared reality. Ignoring TV would be the modern-day equivalent of monasticism. The image has replaced the word as the dominant means of communication and Television discourages reflection, tells us what we already know, relies on instant accessibility, reminds us of something else and reflects the desires of the self.

Myers believes that, since evangelicalism promotes a culture of sentiment rather that a culture of reasoned reflection, it is not surprising that popular culture has been so dominant (if not quite as vulgar) within evangelical circles as in the society at large. Nevertheless, he believes that you can enjoy popular culture without compromising Biblical principles as long as you are dominated by the sensibility of popular culture, as long as you are not captivated by its idols. So what does he recommend that Christians do in response to popular culture? The first thing we must do, and I’m afraid that it is done all too little, is to come up with some principles for interpreting and applying the Scriptures to this huge abstraction called culture. He concludes

"The challenge for evangelical leaders is to be able to stand back and ask to what extent their movement and their churches have embraced certain cultural forms for the sake of expediency, just as the 14th century church introduced a flood of image-based piety. These leaders need to become more sensitive to the way forms communicate values. This could lead to some radical changes, but so did the Reformation."

But even the flood of image-based piety to which he refers, though problematic, had been introduced to teach the Bible to people who could not read and write. One of the most beautiful aspects of the Gospel is its accessibility to everyone: For you see your calling brethren, that not many wise, not many noble, not many mighty are called Unless you become as a little child, you shall not enter the kingdom of Heaven Undoubtedly we do need to think about how forms communicate values, but we also need to think about how to keep the Gospel accessible to all. Myers does acknowledge: We are not only allowed, but commanded to go to the lost. We are not called to create a holy culture but to go into every culture with the Gospel. This means that popular culture is a reality we have to take into account. True, we should not be captivated by it, but neither can we afford to ignore it or despise it. Rather, we should seek to focus on communicating the Gospel and let the Gospel redeem it.