Pop Culture Is Not a Culture After All

by Sep 12, 2014ChurchLife, Culture4 comments

Moshpit2This is the greatest tragedy of all in the church’s careless appropriation of popular culture: that popular culture is not really a culture after all. Historically, cultures have been mechanisms of restraint. Cultural institutions, traditions, and artifacts developed as means of encouraging members of a society to respect its taboos, to obey its laws, and to become the sort of person whose character served the common good by conforming to a view of the good that the society held in common. In theological terms, cultures are thus instruments of common grace that keep people from doing every damned thing (theologically speaking) that they want to. Cultures were also deliberately inter-generational; cultural artifacts were ways of handing down to the coming generation the commitments and beliefs of the passing generation.

But…since Freud, cultures (and specific cultural institutions) have increasingly been seen as instruments of liberation rather than restraint. Since repression is a bad thing, the commonweal can be served (ironically) only if there is no notion of the common good that cultural institutions enforce. Empowering people to be all that they can be, to express all that they feel, and to obtain all that they desire is now seen to be the proper function of cultural institutions.

the always stimulating Ken Myers

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  1. Paul M.

    I’ve read Myers’ piece and I think he’s out of touch with the anthropological and historical literature on culture. For example, the idea that “popular” culture is a recent innovation is simply not true. There was a flourishing medieval popular, or “folk,” culture that simultaneously subverted hierarchy and buttressed social norms. Most of it wasn’t written down, however, so it was mostly “invisible” to scholars (until the social and cultural turn in scholarship during the mid-twentieth century). Here’s a familiar example: take Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” which despite being assigned in every modern English class as capital-L “Literature” was once a deeply subversive vulgar work (literally as it wasn’t written in Latin or French). It skewered ignoble knights, venal priests, and every other level of the medieval social hierarchy. Indeed, it is an example of a wide body of popular culture (poems, songs, etc) that grew during the 14th and 15th centuries as a critique of the corruption of the Catholic Church and the nobility. This mass, transnational popular movement paved the way for the Reformation. It is part of the reason why the lower social orders embraced Reformation theology with such zeal (a scary amount of zeal at the time). As Reformed people, we should be deeply thankful for the role played by medieval popular culture in God’s sovereign work in the Reformation.

    Fast forward to modern American. While popular culture isn’t new, culture has indeed been increasingly democratized, a process that goes hand in hand with the expansion of political rights and the disestablishment of religion. (On my list of histories that every seminarian should read is Nathan Hatch’s “Democratization of American Christianity.”) The masses are getting more of what they want rather than what cultural elites want them to have in politics, religion, music, art, etc.. There are, certainly, ill aspects to that democratization–which Myers fixates on–including relativism, but there are also the not-to-be-downplayed positive aspects; democratizing culture disintegrated the racial hierarchy, gave women open access to cultural production, and gave other poor and marginalized groups voices.

    Myers piece, it seems to me, is really a yearning for the stability, traditionalism, and restraint of pre-modern high culture. He longs for Christendom, as is the fashion in certain conservative circles. And that’s fine, but not when it leads his analysis astray. He conflates high culture with “good” culture, or capital-C “Culture.” He recasts popular culture as “anti-culture.” In other words, high culture is seen as the default from which everything else is a deviation. Popular culture really isn’t anything of value at all.

    I can think of all kinds of reasons why this is a mistake, but I’ll just briefly put one down. There are cultural ramifications to the apostle Paul’s statement in Galatians 3 that in Christ there is “neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” For a time, during the era of Christendom, there was a high culture that did indeed favor restraint, traditionalism, and respect for authorities, a high culture that privileged the interests and culture produced by Jew (figuratively), free, and male. Now, don’t get me wrong, Jews, freepersons, and men have produced some amazing cultural artifacts. It doesn’t take long to see it on a tour of Europe. But it is wrong to denigrate the cultural production of Greeks (figuratively), slaves, and women. We are one body, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, and high and low culture. And yet…it took the church until the last century or two to acknowledge that.

    So yes, criticize the democratic excesses of pop culture, but don’t dismiss its contributions. And don’t pretend that there once existed a superior, holier, kind of culture free from spot or blemish that should be normative for all believers in all social strata in all places and in all times.

  2. Mark Ward

    I knew this would get you involved, Paul! Thanks for spending the time on your thoughtful response. As usual, I’m not so strong on the history—which is why I always appreciate your contributions—but hopefully have something to say on the theology side.

    Here’s what Myers said in All God’s Children, a book I really liked:

    Since it is the purpose of most forms of popular culture to provide exciting distraction, we should not be surprised that over time, television programs, popular music, and other forms become more extreme (and more offensive) in their pursuit of titillation. Folk culture has the capacity to limit extremes, since it is the expression of the values and aspirations of a community. Popular culture, on the other hand, presupposes the absence of community of belief or conviction.” (61)

    Pop culture’s creators do not know it consumers personally because it is mass-mediated. They are not held to account by that kind of relationship—which used to have to exist simply because there was not means of mass mediation. But this comment shows that Myers is fully aware that folk culture exists and has always (?) existed. He’s not saying that high is always better than low; there are times when folk music is the most appropriate accompaniment, folk humor the most apt entertainment. He’s saying that pop culture is a tertium quid, a bastard child of high and low culture.

    And I’m not enough of a master of Myers’ writing to cite a passage demonstrating that he believes high culture to be fallen, but I just can’t believe he thinks otherwise—even though that’s the most common criticism I hear of him. His theology is too Kuyperian to think that.

    Of course, the obvious reason I’m posting this is that first line in which he criticizes the church’s “careless appropriation of popular culture.” Do you agree with that, Paul? Indeed, I visited New Spring not long ago—my bones shook with the music, and I was treated to nothing if not a folksy homily (I will say that there was, thankfully, more substance than I anticipated in the message, but it came with a lot of comedic asides that I felt undermined Titus 2:7’s demand that elders teach with “dignity”). What do you think is wrong, if anything, with New Spring’s appropriation of “Highway to Hell,” et al., Paul?

  3. Bill Lowry

    Are we saying there is a difference between folk culture, high culture and pop culture? Most of the Aesthetes that I have read do not equate folk culture and pop culture. (For example, Roger Scruton, Josef Pieper, etc.) They have put forth the contention that pop culture is driven by popularity (and thus, the wallet), and made possible by technological advances such as the printing press (particularly the steam powered press in the 1800s and electronic media today). They also accuse pop culture as not being serious because it is driven by “popular vote.” There are some who claim that pop culture is driving out folk culture. So, again, is there a difference between the three? That may help in defining the issues. If I understand what Chaucer was doing it was mocking a folk culture that had rotted, not producing an icon of medieval pop culture.

  4. Paul M.

    Ah, I wasn’t familiar with Myers until this post (so thanks, Mark!), so I wasn’t aware that he, rightly, differentiates between folk culture and popular culture. In his article, it sounded like he thought of popular culture and high culture as a constant dichotomy.

    There are significant differences between folk and popular culture–here’s a nice powerpoint summary we would’ve seen if we’d gone to Miami Beach High School (http://miamibeachhigh.schoolwires.com/cms/lib07/FL01000126/Centricity/Domain/247/chapter_4culture1.pdf)–but they also have a filial relationship. Modern popular cultures are the product of various folk cultures that, through historical accident, came to globalized prominence. It’s like language in the same sense that linguistic diversity has narrowed in the past few centuries and a handful of languages have become predominant (English, French, Spanish, Mandarin, etc…) but those dominant languages are the descendants of pre-existing, local languages. I don’t know if Myers does this, but I have heard folks draw too large a distinction between folk and popular culture, ie using them as ways of distinguishing all the “good” folk traditions from the “bad” popular ones. I am uncomfortable with that quote from “All God’s Children,” although I haven’t read the book, because it strikes me as drawing to sharp a distinction. I’ll put it in arithmetic terms: popular culture has a larger largest common denominator than folk culture; the “folk” it is representing is wider. However, it still serves the same functions within the (now larger) community, both subverting the social hierarchy and buttressing social norms.

    Think of this process in other terms: has globalization destroyed the social community, even the very fabric of the Habermasian civic sphere? Yes, and some, like Robert Putnam, worried that we were beginning to “bowl alone,” that nothing was replacing that void. But what Putnam and many cultural critics missed is that the internet fomented a process of cultural creative-destruction. Old communal forms, like the lower-middle-class bowling leagues of the 1950s were going, but they were being replaced by Facebook communities, online gaming guilds, and hundreds of other new social communities. In that remaking, there has been a “flattening” affect, to channel Thomas Friedman, which has empowered peripheral cultural producers at the expense of the older, dominant producers. It’s been a cataclysm, for sure, and not unlike earlier periods of cultural upheaval.

    Notably, we saw the same kind of cultural upheaval triggered by a technological invention during the Reformation era. Because of Gutenberg’s printing press, German and other languages became less regional and more standardized. In fact, German/Germany began to be thought of as a national community for the first time (before then you were defined by region or regional dialect as Saxon, Rhenish, Bavarian, etc.) as a result of the flattening of language and culture. This “flattened” culture empowered non-elite groups (the nascent medieval bourgeoisie), new institutions (Protestant denominations), and odd nations (Scotland and Switzerland!), drastically changing the religious, cultural, and political face of Europe. In other words, this process of the democratization of cultural production has happened before; it is just that then we called it “folk” and now we call it “popular.” It’s a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one.

    That’s all pie in the sky. What about New Spring and its ilk? I don’t think it’s worth wasting time worrying about their engagement with culture. As long as they preach the Word and administer the sacraments rightly, everything else will sort itself out in the long run. After all, in the long run, we’re all dead. That’s my same response to friends who worry about how out of touch traditional church services are. Do they preach the Word and administer the sacraments rightly? That is what gives life to the dead, hope to the hopeless, and rest for the weary, not whether or not they use piano or guitar, drums or organ, or choir or worship band. The worship wars, for both “sides,” have been a time-wasting, decades-long cul-de-sac for the American church.