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)
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