Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Ken Myers on Popular Culture: A Review of A Modern Classic

[This originally appeared in The Christian Scholars Review some time ago. I have taught from Myer's book every year since I arrived at Denver Seminary in 1993. I have updated the biographic reference to Myers.]

All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture. Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1989. xvi + 213 pp., including index. ISBN 0-89107-538-0. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis.

This book does not fit easily into any set category, and therein lies much of its significance and strength. It concerns at once, theological, aesthetic, historical, and sociological issues relevant to a Christian critique of modernity. Myers, formerly editor of This World and Genesis, and presently host of Mars Hill Audio (www.marshillaudio.com), breaks new ground by developing a Christian perspective on American popular culture. The genius of the book is its analysis of popular culture, not primarily according to its content (what is presented), but according to its style or form (how it is presented).

Any non-comatose Christian can discern that the lyrics of popular rock music or the "plots" of situation comedies don't exude Christian principles. Myers' concern is that popular culture shapes not only our cognition but, more subtly and insidiously, our sensibilities. As Robert Coles notes in his Harvard Diary: "The constraints of culture are often invisible; they coerce us, but we don't think of them in connection with our ideas, our values, our inclinations, our likes and dislikes."

Myers takes his task seriously. He says, "I believe that the challenge of living with popular culture may well be as serious for modern Christians as persecution and plagues were for Christians of earlier centuries." The sobriety lies in our predilection for idolatry: "Idols and myths can take the form of moods and sensibilities as well as stone and creed, and there are many disturbing signs that many contemporary Christians have made the limited and limiting sensibility of popular culture their own." Adopting neither an ascetic nor libertine perspective toward modern popular culture, Myers analyzes what is distinctive about popular culture, assesses its displacement of high culture, argues for a deeper awareness of its pervasive effects, and advocates greater appreciation for traditional high culture.

Before the cultural assaults of the 1960s, Myers argues, popular culture honored and imitated high culture. Thus Walt Disney's "Fantasia" was set to classical--not pop or folk--music. Since the 1960s, popular culture has dominated our sensibilities, usually covertly. The essence of popular culture is instant gratification, intellectual impatience, ahistorical immediacy, and the incessant pursuit of novelty. The gimmick prevails over the artistic as enduring aesthetic norms are set aside in favor of immediate sensations and pleasurable stimulation.

High culture, on the contrary, has traditionally been marked by abiding aesthetic norms. The art of high culture, whether in literature, music, or elsewhere, demands careful attention and the cultivation of certain sensibilities for its enjoyment. Whereas one is immediately gripped by the booming bass and pulsating beat of rock and roll music, the appreciation of an organ piece by Bach is more of an acquired taste, and one that is ultimately--though not immediately--more rewarding and even ennobling. He writes, "Great art reveals something about human nature because it is forced to conform to created reality." In this way, high culture is better suited to communicate the profundities of both biblical and general revelation. Because it can delve no deeper than instantaneous titillation, popular culture is ill equipped to bear the message of transcendence or holiness.

Nevertheless, Myers' finds that modern Christians thoughtlessly adopt popular culture as a bearer of the gospel without considering whether the medium is worthy of the message. Television, which Myers' rightly regards as popular culture's dominating medium, is unblinkingly esteemed as a ready means to Christian ends. Yet the very nature of the medium itself, whatever its content might be, "encourages the aversion to abstraction, analysis, and reflection" because of its dependency on fleeting visual images over written words. Here Myers makes good use of the penetrating criticisms of television--and image-oriented culture in general--made by Jacques Ellul and Neil Postman.

But Myers is not arguing for cultural snobbery or aesthetic moralism. Although he argues for the virtues of high culture, he distinguishes moral goodness from aesthetic goodness and realizes that the moral landscape is populated by both uncultured saints and cultured pagans. Still, Myers maintains that the disciplined attending to reality required by high culture may spill over into the moral virtues. The proclivities of popular culture, while sometimes harmless, have no such potential. However, Myers doesn't praise high culture in toto. He cites the decline and even nihilism of much of contemporary high culture as one reason for the ascendency of popular culture. As modernism made high culture increasingly esoteric, enigmatic, and irritating to the uninitiated, it became less accessible and appealing, thus giving opportunity for the domination of popular culture.

Because of its interdisciplinary range, thorough documentation, 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 would make a fine text for sociology, aesthetics, and evangelism courses at the college and graduate levels.


Tim Berglund said...

It would not be too strong a statement to say that this book changed my life, at least in some small part. It gave me some of the tools I needed to be able to exegete the culture in which I find myself. I can now think about culture--and pop culture in particular--in ways I previously could not.

It did not, interestingly, make me any happier.

stc said...

This may seem like a trivial question, but I wonder what you think of the Beatles. Undoubtedly they fit into the category of pop music; and yet I believe they possessed real genius — hence the enduring appeal of their songs. Would you throw their music out with the rest of pop culture?

DanO said...

I wonder to what extent the distinction between pop culture and high culture still exists today. James B. Twitchell in his book Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld, argues that pop culture has become high culture. Interestingly enough Twitchell sees this as a good thing.

Thanks for the post, I'll be looking for Myer's book.


Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

Neither Myers not I "throw out" all of popular culture. That is not the point, and is simplistic. We do retain the difference between high, folk, and popular culture as axiological. And Myers focuses on the developement of pop culture in the modern world, so don't tell me that Shakespeare was pop culture. That is not what Myer's is addressing.

stc said...

Thanks for the clarification. I didn't mean to put words in your mouth — I honestly thought you had your face set against all pop culture.

Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D. said...

My face is only set against most of pop culture!