About the Author
Marvin Olasky (PhD, University of Michigan) is the editor in chief of World magazine, holder of the distinguished chair in journalism and public policy at Patrick Henry College, and senior fellow of the Acton Institute. He was previously a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, a Boston Globe reporter, and a Du Pont Company speechwriter. He is the author of twenty books and more than 3,500 articles. He and his wife, Susan, have four sons.
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OF THE WORLD, BUT NOT IN THE WORLD
A family moves to a new city. The decision to move was made for financial reasons, the father believing there were much greater opportunities for prosperity in the new location. After they arrive, they discover that the cultural surroundings of their new home are fraught with obstacles for their family's spiritual well-being. While the economic opportunities are there, the city turns out to be a moral cesspool. Unwilling or unable to relocate, the family suffers horribly, resulting in the death of the mother, the loss of their home as they flee in terror of physical violence, and, eventually sexual sin between daughters and father.
This could be the outline for a sweeps-week miniseries on one of the networks, but this scenario is actually one of the earliest recorded instances of the effects of a culture on the lives of individuals and families. It is, of course, the story of Lot and his family.
We are not told Lot's thoughts about the culture that destroyed his family. We do not know if he reflected on his earlier decision to move to the cities of the plain, while his Uncle Abram pitched his tents near the great trees of Mamre. While the Genesis account (chapter 19) says very little about Lot's spiritual life, the Apostle Peter tells us that Lot was "a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)" (2 Peter 2:7ff.).
There are many Christians in the twentieth century who sometimes feel as if they have settled in Sodom. A culture that once was dominated by Christian values is now one of the greatest spiritual challenges for American Christians. Once decency and order seemed to characterize the lives of individuals and communities. The institutions they created and the traditions they respected seemed to make American culture more hospitable to Christianity than any culture in history. American society was regarded as a "Christian society."
Earlier generations of Christians were concerned about "worldliness," and whatever that meant, it was seen as an aberration in American culture, not its essence. But today most Christians regard their culture itself as an implacable enemy, a constant threat to their own sanctity and to the stability and faith of their families.
More specifically, what is called "popular culture" has been troubling to parents, teachers, pastors, and counselors for generations. The effects of television, movies, popular music, fiction, fashion, and other aspects of popular culture have been debated intensely, if not always intelligently. Much of the attention has been focused on the content of popular culture, especially material that mocks religion, the family, and "traditional values," and that makes explicit or suggestive sexual appeals.
It has not been uncommon for evangelical Christians to give up trying to come to terms with "secular" popular culture, and to boycott it altogether. But often they have simultaneously endorsed the creation of an extensive parallel popular culture, complete with Christian rock bands and night clubs, Christian soap operas and talk shows, Christian spy and romance novels, and Christian exercise videos. They have thus succeeded in being of the world, but not in the world.
This "Christian" popular culture takes all its cues from its secular counterpart, but sanitizes and customizes it with "Jesus language." In its crassest forms, it has simply substituted "Christian" language and imagery for elements in the original version: stealing the Coca-Cola theme, "It's the real thing," and using it to market Jesus ("He's the Real Thing"), for example. One of the earlier instances of this, in the late 1960s, was the rather tame folk-pop musical by Kurt Kaiser and Ralph Carmichael (the Henri Mancini of Christian music), "Natural High," which not only borrowed musical idioms from popular music, but borrowed the much more sinister physiological metaphor of drug-induced euphoria as well. It was brilliant marketing, right? Jesus is kind of like drugs, without the paraphernalia or sleazy pushers. That should appeal to our troubled youth.
STRIVING TO CONFORM TO THE WORLD
The extent to which the principle of "of the world, but not in the world" operates is illustrated by a "Music Comparison Chart" in the book Contemporary Christian Music, by Paul Baker. In addition to columns that classify the musical style of the artists in question (Techno-pop, Rockabilly/Nostalgic Rock, Reggae, etc.), Baker includes a column headed "Sounds Like...." So we learn, for example, that Scott Wesley Brown sounds like Barry Manilow, or T-Bone Burnett sounds like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and/or Roger McGuinn. Jamie Owens-Collins sounds like Olivia Newton-John and/or Juice Newton (but not, we assume, like Wayne Newton). Noel Paul Stookey sounds like (surprise) Peter, Paul and Mary. "The main thing to remember in using the chart is what it suggests," explains Baker. "If you like (or liked) artist 'A' in secular music, then there's a good chance you'll like some of the music of 'B' in Christian music." A small percentage of artists on Baker's chart are marked with an asterisk, which means that "an artist has developed his or her own recognizable sound, often with no direct parallel among the better known secular artists."
Now there's nothing unusual about entertainers who are reminiscent of other, and better, performers. James Coburn reminds a lot of people of a budget version of Lee Marvin, Julian Lennon sounds like his father, the work of film composer John Williams sounds like Gustav Hoist or Ralph Vaughn Williams or Richard Strauss or whoever. What is disturbing is that Christian performers seem at times to achieve popularity because they sound like "secular" originals who are not quite kosher because they write dirty lyrics or bite the heads off of rodents or exhibit severe gender confusion in their wardrobes. It's disturbing because it seems as if the "good guys" are working very hard to measure up to the standards already set by the "bad guys." And the reason they professionally need to do this is because their potential audience demands it. After all, they're listening to the radio like the rest of their friends, and they really do like certain performers, but they know their parents would just really die if they ever figured out what the lyrics were, so like there's this Christian guy who sounds just like George Michael, only he doesn't say I want your sex, it's I want your soul, and it's really Jesus talking, but it sounds just like George Michael, right? And maybe we can sing it in church.
SELLING SOAP AND JESUS
Overstated? I don't think so. But is it really wrong? After all, there is nothing new about stealing useful cultural forms and artifacts to serve the interests of the gospel. John lifted the idea for his Logos Christology from contemporary philosophy, Paul quoted pagan poets, and Luther borrowed tunes from drinking songs for hymns. A vocalist named Dave Boyer established popularity a decade or two ago because he reminded his fans of Frank Sinatra or Jack Jones or another fifties-style crooner. If we were in a seminary class on missions, we might call this "sounds like" phenomonon an example of contextualization.
But the key word in this business is useful. How useful is it to borrow a cultural form if that form effectively cancels out the content you're using it to communicate? There are many instances of some very dubious borrowings in the history of the Church. As missionaries have taken the gospel to new cultures, it has always been tempting to recast the message of redemption in familiar forms. But some of those forms have been inappropriate as vehicles of holy truth, either because they introduced fatal distortion or misunderstanding, or because they were so intertwined with ungodly practices that their affiliation with the gospel seemed to sanction the very behavior the gospel should have challenged.
More subtly, achieving popularity by "sounding like" establishes a curious pattern for people striving to avoid being conformed to the pattern of this world. The implicit message of such celebrity is that Christians are successful to the extent that they mimic the models established by the world.
Early in the 1980s, the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) experimented with a Christian soap opera. CBN hired directors, writers, and actors who had experience in the secular soaps. The scripts had a typical soapy feel to them, the sets and camera angles were stock daytime fare, the music had the same melodramatic feel to it. What was different was the fact that a few of the characters were Christians, who occasionally spoke of the role their faith played in meeting soap-opera crises.
Shortly after the show began production, I spoke with a number of the people involved with the program, asking whether the conventions of soap operas didn't pose some challenges to presenting a Christian message. After all, it was a television genre that depended on the dramatic equivalent of gossip. None of the actors or production staff had given the possible conflict between form and content a minute's thought. One senior figure on the show said it didn't matter if you were selling soap or Jesus; hey, it's called "show business," right? It's all just a matter of using the right techniques to get people to "buy" the product. If you liked secular soap opera villain "A," you'll love our Christian soap opera villain "B," because she gets saved sometime next season. But meanwhile she's just as nasty as her "secular" counterpart.
What's wrong with this picture? Obviously (or maybe not so obviously; none of the people I talked to experienced what the psychologists call cognitive dissonance) the "of the world, but not in the world" strategy is not an adequate way of dealing with popular culture. The thin Christian veneer in such projects very quickly wears away, and what is underneath determines the response of consumers of such products. Such a strategy is a sad reminder that most of the Christian criticism of popular culture has focused on content while ignoring form. A generation after Marshall McLuhan, the Church still behaves as if the forms of culture, especially the forms of mass media and the role they play in our lives, are value-neutral.
A FAITH FOR THE COMMON MAN
Despite the perennial protests over sex and violence on television, lewd rock lyrics, and pornography sold at convenience stores, evangelical Christians remain relatively oblivious to the problems associated with popular culture. This is in part because American evangelicalism has its roots in populist culture. Nathan O. Hatch has observed that "the genius of evangelicals long has been their firm identification with people. While others may have excelled in defending and elaborating the truth, and in building institutions to weather the storms of time, evangelicals in America have been passionate about communicating a message." Evangelicals have always been partial to (in fact, they may even be defined by their sympathy to) great communicators, from John Wesley and George Whitefield, to Charles G. Finney, Dwight L. Moody, and Billy Sunday, to the greatest communicator of the twentieth century: television.
Popular culture is attractive to many conservative Christians precisely because it is. ... well, popular. It is the people's culture, and the people are whom evangelicals evangelize. With the overarching demand of the Great Commission looming over every evangelical enterprise, it is very easy to go for ratings instead of rationality, quantity rather than quality. Evangelicals have always been anti-elitist. Not for them the distant authority of a Magisterium or the speculative aridity of academic theologians. Give them instead a rousing pulpiteer. As Hatch observes, evangelicals tend to measure "the importance of an issue by its popular reception. By this logic, any position worth its salt will command a significant following. A best seller by definition becomes a 'classic'; to be read is to deserve to be read."
The problems with such an attitude were anticipated by Alexis de Tocqueville, who warned of a "tyranny of the majority" in the young democracy, in which truth, goodness, and beauty would be determined by vote. 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 we are getting ahead of ourselves. We have not heard enough evidence to call for the jury's verdict. Many readers may think I have rushed to judge popular culture too quickly and too harshly. But most would agree that popular culture has some intrinsic problems associated with it. If this is so, such problems will be evident whether they are part of the parallel Christian culture or the original secular version. It could even be that the sanitized clone is even more problematic, since it is assumed to be safe. (After all, "Christian" popular culture influences thousands of church services every Sunday morning. How could anything be wrong with it?) But any criticism of popular culture cannot afford to criticize only the secular variety. Since the forms and the way they are used are virtually identical, any valuable analysis will apply equally well to Johnny Carson and to Pat Robertson, to Linda Ronstadt and to Amy Grant.
Since "Christian" pop culture is something of a parasite on earlier forms, our principal attention will be given to the host. This will require that we understand the roots and the history of popular culture, its relationship to what are sometimes called "high culture" and "folk culture," and its entwining with a number of social and historical phenomena. It will also require that we understand the Biblical and theological criteria for obedient cultural life before God. Popular culture is not a simple, homogenous abstraction that allows for simple application of Biblical principles. Its challenges and temptations do not confront us like the proverbial harlot whose seductions are clearly to sin, straightforward and simple. It has many dimensions and contours and hidden agendas that require some historical and experiential perspective before we can evaluate it fairly and, having understood it, conduct ourselves in its presence with wisdom.CHAPTER 2
WHAT IS CULTURE, THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF IT?
FIDDLING ON THE BRINK OF HELL
In a sermon given in 1939 at Oxford, C. S. Lewis raised the question: What are all of us doing here studying philosophy or medieval literature, while Europe is at war? "Why should we — indeed how can we — continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives and liberties of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?"
Lewis went on to argue that the Christian faces precisely that question even during peacetime. "To a Christian," he observed, "the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell."
Lewis then posed the question of the worth of Christians taking an interest in culture, particularly the academic study of culture. "Every Christian who comes to a university must at all times face a question compared with which the questions raised by war are relatively unimportant. He must ask himself how it is right, or even psychologically possible, for creatures who are every moment advancing either to heaven or hell, to spend any fraction of the little time allowed them in this world on such comparative trivialities as literature or art, mathematics or biology."
Lewis's reply was that the ideal of suspending all cultural activity for the sake of evangelism or the pursuit of holiness was impossible, "If you attempted," he argued, "to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better." This is precisely what many religious people do, which is one of the reasons we have such bad music and ugly architecture in Christian settings. Lewis went on:
You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or on the [front] line: if you don't read good books you will read bad ones. If you don't go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.
We cannot afford to be indifferent about culture any more than we can afford to be indifferent about the toxicity of the water we drink or the air we breathe. Even if we believe that the church is a kind of eschatological parenthesis in the history of redemption, we are still faced with real choices about how we spend our time and resources so as best to love God with all our being and love our neighbor.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "All God's Children & Blue Suede Shoes"
Copyright © 1989 Kenneth A. Myers.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 Of the World, But Not in the World,
2 What Is Culture, That Thou Art Mindful of It?,
3 Would You Take Jesus to See This Planet?,
4 Popular Culture and the Restless Ones,
5 Accounting for Taste,
6 Better to Receive,
7 Before the Revolution,
8 Where Have All the Standards Gone?,
9 Popular Culture's Idiom: Rock Around the Clock,
10 Popular Culture's Medium: The Entertainment Appliance,
11 Where Do We Go from Here?,
What People are Saying About This
“A magnificent and timely book. Fresh, witty, informative, trenchant, and eminently sane, Ken Myers's book is a must for thoughtful evangelicals... I only hope there are enough of them left to read it.”
—Os Guinness, cofounder, The Trinity Forum; author, The Call
“In All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes Ken Myers looks at the entire phenomenon of popular culture–its roots, assumptions, practices, and effects. The result is a provocative book that shows how our thought, communication, and living have all been affected by popular culture's omnipresence. It should make us take a hard look at what we've accepted as harmless entertainment.”
—Ted Prescott, Sculptor, former president of Christians in the Visual Arts
“Ken Myers has made an excellent contribution here, dealing not only with the roots of popular culture in social history and philosophy but also with its ultimate impact on character.”
—Dick Keyes, L'Abri Fellowship
“This book is a modern classic on discerning culture from a Christian perspective. Because of its interdisciplinary range, engaging style, and sophisticated analysis, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes is a needed antidote to worldliness, especially in its less detectable and socially acceptable forms. It makes a fine text for sociology, aesthetics, and evangelism courses at the college and graduate levels.”
—Doug Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary; author, Christian Apologetics