Book Recommendation: "All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes"

Dear Church Family,

In the Men’s Discipleship Group, we are presently reading and discussing the book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture by Ken Myers. As you might expect from the title, Myers raises a warning for Christians as to the deleterious effects of the relatively recent ascendency of popular culture, how our sensibilities and ascetic tastes are often shaped in ways that we don’t even know. This is probably the third or fourth time that I’ve read the book, and each time I do, I’m convicted in new ways. I highly recommend the book. So, herein, is a brief overview of the book, some select quotations from the book, and some particular points that struck me personally. I hope this will encourage you to get and read the book for yourself.

A Definition of ‘Culture’

First, we must begin with a definition of ‘culture.’ I have found that when most people use the word ‘culture,’ they are usually thinking of a concrete entity that is removed from them, like the products of Hollywood and news and television media; however, in one of the best definitions of ‘culture’ that I have ever read, Myers shows that culture is something in which we are immersed, and therefore, it is part of who we are:

What sort of being is a culture? It’s not a person. It’s not even an institution, like the church or the state or the family. It is instead a dynamic pattern, an ever-changing matrix of objects, artifacts, sounds, institutions, philosophies, fashions, enthusiasms, myths, prejudices, relationships, attitudes, tastes, rituals, habits, colors, and loves, all embodied in individual people, in groups and collectives and associations of people (many of whom do not know they are associated), in books, in buildings, in the use of time and space, in wars, in jokes, and in food. (Myers 34)

 

A Summary of the Book

The book is eleven chapters long, and is best summarized by the author himself in the concluding chapter (“Where Do We Go from Here?”):

This book has been an effort to explain the nature of popular culture in relation to other aspects of creation, and especially in relation to the history of American culture and society. Escaping the captivity to popular culture’s ethos requires that we know how that ethos differs from other cultural alternatives, and how it has evolved to reflect other ideas in our culture.

We have come a long way in examining that evolution. We looked at how popular culture emerged in the nineteenth century as a substitute for traditional or folk culture, for people uprooted from those cultures by industrialism. We saw how popular culture’s mass-produced, disposable quality established limits to what it could contain, even as they encouraged greater and greater consumption. We saw how, in the twentieth century, popular culture effectively preempted the place of high culture, as the values of high culture, a legacy of Romanticism, became indistinguishable from those of popular culture. We examined the crucial decade of the 1960s, in which the superficial, antirational, and immediate qualities of popular culture were more and more regarded not merely as means of distraction, but as means of intense and liberating knowledge of the universe. (Myers, 181)

 

The Idiom and Medium of Popular Culture

In our present discussions, we are nearing the end of the book in which Myers dedicates one chapter each to popular culture’s idiom (rock ‘n’ roll) and popular culture’s medium (the television) – the book was written in 1989, so we could probably add the internet and streaming video to this latter category. Full disclosure: this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me, but I enjoy rock ‘n’ roll (mostly of the classic rock genre) and I enjoy television (especially movies). Perhaps that’s why I am convicted by this book; Myer’s insights reveal some of the problems with my own predilections.

You see, Myers doesn’t evaluate the content of rock ‘n’ roll and television (the usual tact of much Christian evaluation of popular culture). Rather, his main purpose is to evaluate how a culture such as ours – in which rock ‘n’ roll and television are predominant – shapes our character, affections, virtues, and sensibilities (our ability to appreciate and respond to the goodness of creation).

One of the things that Myers points out is that the idiom and medium of our popular culture often create in us the sort of character that works against Christian maturity (and promote immaturity, Christian or otherwise). They create in us an inappropriate desire and need to be entertained, the valuing of emotional stimulation rather than intellectual reflection, a tendency to use rather than receive art and information, making evaluations according to individual taste rather than by objective standards, and a preference for the image over verbal communication.

All of these things are detrimental to our spiritual lives as individual Christians. And, that is one of the main concerns of the book: to open our eyes to the often subtle and subversive ways that popular culture changes us. And, one of the things that Myers also points out is how the idiom and medium of popular culture also affects the communal life of churches.

With regard to the effects of popular culture’s idiom, Myers writes:

Robert Pattison suggests that rock’s threat to religion is that it forces ‘churches to compete [with rock-dominated culture] on the basis of their ability to titillate the instincts of their worshippers,’ thereby making religious leaders ‘entrepreneurs of emotional stimulation. Once God becomes a commodity for self-gratification, his fortunes depend on the vagaries of the emotional marketplace, and his claim to command allegiance on the basis of omnipotence or omniscience vanish in a blaze of solipsism as his priests and shamans pander to the feeling, not the faith, of their customers.’ (Myers, 154)

 

With regard to the effects of popular culture’s medium, Myers writes:

…Christian obedience requires at least some familiarity with certain abstractions, such as sin, forgiveness, love, holiness, and eternity. Once again, such abstractions can be demonstrated in narrative or dramatic form, but dram is no better than images at communicating the essence of what God has revealed in propositions.

Even if all the entertainment on television was inoffensive to Christian ethics and of the highest artistic merit, its form of communication (and form of knowing) encourages the aversion to abstraction, analysis, and reflection that characterizes our culture at all levels. Thinking is often hard work. Television’s surfeit of instant entertainment not only provides relief from such hard work; it offers an attractive, alternative ‘way of knowing’ (as does rock ‘n’ roll) that makes reasoning seem anachronistic, narrow, and unnecessary. (Myers, 170-171)

 

Conclusion

At the end of the book, Myers speaks to how individuals, parents, and church leaders ought to resist the sensibilities of popular culture by fostering a culture of transcendence, “a dynamic cultural life rooted in permanent things.” (Myers, 183) He doesn’t advocate creating cultural Christian ghettos, cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world. Rather, he provides a principle for regulating our relationship to popular culture that is marked by awareness and deliberation: “You can enjoy popular culture without compromising Biblical principles as long as you are not dominated by the sensibility of popular culture, as long as you are not captivated by its idols.” (Myers, 180)

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Introducing Dr. T. David Gordon

Dear Church Family,

I hope everyone has a good Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends as we remember and give thanks to God for all of His many blessings that we enjoy.

Midland Reformed Theological Conference (2018): Dr. T. David Gordon

As we enter into the Thanksgiving weekend, let me take this opportunity to remind you to mark your calendars for our fourth annual Midland Reformed Theological Conference (MRTC) coming up on February 23-24, 2018. Our speaker will be Dr. T. David Gordon, professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College, where since 1999 he has taught courses in religion, Greek, humanities, and media ecology. Dr. Gordon will be speaking on media technology and the Christian, how many of the technological advances (especially, digital media) shape and form us in ways that we don’t often recognize. You can learn more about the upcoming conference online here: http://providencemidland.org/mrtc2018.

Online Interview with Dr. Gordon

In preparation and anticipation of the conference, I want to point you to an online interview with Dr. Gordon that was just published today on the weekly podcast of “The Mortification of Spin.” You may listen to the interview, “Is There Hope for Johnny?” online here (the interview is about 35 minutes long). Dr. Gordon speaks about ‘media ecology’ (a new term and field of discipline for most of us), preaching, and singing in worship. I encourage you to go online and listen to this audio recording to get a little taste of the conference in February.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

A Royal Priesthood, Divinely Identified

Dear Church Family,

When I first entered the military, I enlisted in the Army Reserve right out of high school. Immediately following my initial basic training, I began attending “drills” with my Reserve unit, one weekend a month. Simultaneously, while attending college, I enrolled in R.O.T.C. So, for a couple of years, I sort of had a dual identity in the army. One weekend a month, I was Private Dietsch (an enlisted soldier); at college, I was Cadet Dietsch (an officer-in-training).

Now, because I had a little more military experience than most of my fellow cadets, the instructors made me a squad leader with the rank of cadet staff sergeant. The rank means something only among cadets, but to the untrained eye, it sometimes looks like real staff sergeant rank. Well, one weekend, while operating in my cadet role, we were training at Fort Dix, NJ and sharing a dining facility with the basic trainees. That’s when the dual identities that I had been living caused me to have an identity crisis.

As my fellow cadets and I entered the dining facility, one of the privates who was waiting in line there to get his food hollered, “At ease! Make way!” All of the trainees (the privates) and one cadet (myself) slammed our backs against the walls in the position of parade rest in order to give a clear path to whatever sergeant or officer might be coming into the dining facility.  I stood at the position of parade rest, eyes fixed straight ahead, waiting. No one came. Just then, I heard the voice of one of my fellow cadets whisper in my ear, “It’s for you, man.  Let’s go eat.”

Apparently, one of the privates saw my rank – and although he probably didn’t quite recognize it – decided to play it safe and assume I outranked him. Also, I assumed that I was still a private, and not a cadet officer-in-training. I acted according to who I assumed myself to be, rather than who I really was according to the rank that had been bestowed upon me.

Priests to our God

I find that many Christians have a similar identity crisis in their spiritual lives. They act like sinners, rather than the saints whom God has justified. They act like orphans, rather than the adopted sons and daughters of God. They act like outsiders, rather than the holy priests that God has called them to be.

In our continuing sermon series in the book of Exodus, this past Sunday we looked at Exodus 29:1-46, God’s instructions for the ordination and consecration of priests who served in the tabernacle of the old covenant. That may seem extremely distant and far removed from our context as new covenant Christians living in the twenty-first century; however, it actually has a direct correlation to understanding our proper identity as God’s redeemed people.

You see, in the New Testament, the high priests of the old covenant are seen to be foreshadows of Christ (e.g., Hebrews 4:14-16; 9:6-12): Jesus is like the high priests of the old covenant, but He is so much better. When it comes to the general priesthood of the old covenant, however, the New Testament describes them as foreshadows of all of God’s people in the new covenant. Christians are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5), a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), a kingdom and priests to our God (Revelation 5:10).

Washed and Anointed to Make Sacrifices

More specifically, we find a direct correlation between the ordination and consecration of the priests of the old covenant and all believers in the new covenant. In their ordination as priests, those who served in the tabernacle were washed and cleansed (Exodus 29:4) and anointed for service (Exodus 29:7) so that they would be able to make daily sacrifices (Exodus 29:38-41). With this idea of how the washing and anointing of the priests prepared them to fulfill their duties of daily sacrifices, consider the Apostle Paul’s description of the new birth in his letter to Titus:

4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared,  5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,  6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,  7 so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

 

The priests of the old covenant were washed and anointed for service; likewise, in verse 5 of this passage, the Word of God describes how God saved us by washing us (“the washing of regeneration”) and anointing us (“renewing by the Holy Spirit”).

But what about the sacrifices? Well, the Lord doesn’t save us in order that we might offer up lambs on an altar to him like the priests in the old covenant did. As the once-for-all sacrifice for our sins (Hebrews 7:27; 9:12; 10:10), Jesus has paid it all; no more sacrifices for the atonement of our sin is needed. At the same time, the Lord does wash us and anoint us to perform a sacrifice of a different kind: good works.

Consider the next verse in the third chapter of Titus. Having just explained the gracious work of God in saving us “by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit,” Paul reminds Titus to speak confidently concerning these things, “so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds” (Titus 3:8). He says, “Our people must also learn to engage in good deeds to meet pressing needs, so that they will not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14).

Conclusion

You hear a lot of people talking today about the concept of “self-identifying” – determining one’s identity according to whatever one desires to be (usually related to gender or sexuality). Well, “self-identifying” is a silly concept as it denies that God has created us and given us an identity apart from our own desires. What’s more, for the Christian, we do not “self-identify” because we have been “divinely-identified” by the Lord Jesus Christ. He has declared and identified us to be a spiritual house for a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5), a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), a kingdom and priests to our God (Revelation 5:10).

If He has saved you by the washing of regeneration and the renewing by the Holy Spirit, then that’s who you are. Therefore, be who you are! Don’t stand against the wall, waiting for someone to come along and give you orders. He has already told you what to do. The Lord has washed and anointed you so that you might learn to engage in good deeds, to live out the job-description given to you in the Ten Commandments. If you have been born again, then you are a member of God’s royal priesthood, washed and anointed for holy service to Him.

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch

Reformation 500

Dear Church Family,

Yesterday was the official date of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In our Sunday morning worship services throughout the month of October, we looked at several of the distinctive marks of the reform that Martin Luther brought to the Church. So, I thought I would take this opportunity to review some of those things that we talked about.

Justification by faith alone

The central theme of Martin Luther’s reformation was one of doctrine: a clear understanding and teaching of the gospel. Specifically, that man is justified by faith alone in Christ alone. While agonizing over his own sin, and through his study of the Scriptures, Luther finally came to realize this truth. One text that was critical to his breakthrough is from the first chapter of the book of Romans:

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” (Romans 1:16-17)

 

Thus arriving at the biblical conclusion that we are justified by faith as God imputes Christ’s righteousness to His people, Luther declared that Christians are simul iustus et peccator (“simultaneously righteous and a sinner”). We confess that we are still sinners (1 John 1:8-2:2), yet we are also declared righteous by faith in Christ.

Worship as Christian discipleship

In contrast to the Roman Catholic view of the Mass, Luther came to see worship as a means of growing in grace, essential to Christian discipleship (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:18-21). There are three emphases in Luther’s reform of worship that were a result of this shift.

First, Luther rightly recognized that worship is a benificium (“a gift” from God), rather than a sacrificium (a “sacrificial work” on man’s part). He came to see that the Mass and other rites of the church were presumptive works of man who sought to “wrest heaven from God…just as though He must serve us and were our debtor, and we His liege lords” (Luther’s Large Catechism, I, 22).

Second, while the Mass centered on the sacraments, Luther sought to make the preaching of the Word central in worship and the means by which God saved: “For neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or believe on Him, and obtain Him for our Lord, unless it were offered to us and granted to our hearts by the Holy Ghost through the preaching of the Gospel” (Luther’s Large Catechism, II, 38).

Third, Luther sought to bring the whole of the congregation into participation in worship. In addition to translating the New Testament into German, Luther also wrote many hymns. Where once the service was conducted entirely in Latin (and mostly by the priest), Luther wrote hymns in the common tongue of the people that were meant to be sung by all. He included the singing of Psalms and hymns in the arsenal of spiritual warfare: For, as Luther wrote, “Undoubtedly, you will not start a stronger incense or other fumigation against the devil than by being engaged upon God’s commandments and words, and speaking, singing, or thinking of them. For this is indeed the true holy water and holy sign from which he flees, and by which he may be driven away” (Luther’s Larger Catechism, Introduction, 10).

A Theology of the Cross

In protest against the selling of indulgencies and other abuses of the Church, Luther published his ninety-five theses on October 31, 1517; however, it wasn’t until several months later at the Heidelberg Disputation on April 26, 1518, that Luther gave a more full expression to his understanding of a “theology of the cross” as compared to a “theology of glory”:

19. That person does not deserve to be called a theologian who looks upon the invisible things of God as though they were clearly perceptible in those things which have actually happened (Rom. 1:20; cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25),
20. he deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.
21. A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.
22. That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.

 

Jesus spoke of how He, as the Christ and Son of Man, must suffer many things, be rejected by men, killed, and then after three days rise again. Here, Jesus was articulating what Luther might have called a “theology of the cross.” Yet, the Apostle Peter had bought into a “theology of glory,” rebuking Jesus for speaking in such a way. In response, our Lord rebuked Peter saying, “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests but on man’s” (Mark 8:27-38).

So, with the Apostle Paul, Luther argued that God’s power is perfected in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10); therefore, we ought not to look to man’s interests (any form or worldly wisdom or power), but to God’s interests (the foolishness of the gospel). Ministers of the gospel – and all believers – are to boast in nothing else but the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 6:14; 1 Corinthians 1:21-25).

Conclusion

In a recent article, written for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Michael Horton argues that modern evangelicalism is more a product of the Radical Anabaptist movement (which has its roots in medieval mysticism) then it is of the Reformation. In the conclusion of his article, Horton asks:

So what exactly are we celebrating in this year of the Reformation’s five hundredth anniversary? Are we rejoicing in the reformation of the church’s doctrine and worship, away from human-centered religion to a faith centered on the Triune God and the gospel of his saving grace in Christ alone, received through faith alone, communicated through the word and the sacraments alone? Or are we celebrating the Radical enthusiasm that our culture mistakes as the Reformation: the autonomous self, individualism, free will, and inner experience and reason?

 

I tend to agree with Horton’s conclusions (I encourage you to read the entire article online here). As heirs of the Protestant Reformation, we have many things to be grateful for. And, it behooves us to remember what the Reformation was really all about by returning to the teachings of the magisterial Reformers like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. It’s why it’s so important to be a part of a confessional church that adheres to a Reformed confession (in our case, the Westminster Confession of Faith) as a summary of the doctrines that are taught in the Scriptures. As Horton encourages us, “Now that we have tried Radical Protestantism for several centuries, the best way of celebrating the Reformation would be to give it a chance again to be heard.”

The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch