Is popular culture either?

Ken Myers

“If you want to know what water is like, don’t ask the fish.”  This Chinese proverb could aptly be rewritten, “If you want to know about pop culture, don’t ask the Americans.”  For the most part, it’s our world, our taken-for-granted—it’s just the way things are.


We can name the many icons of popular culture, from Donald Duck to Donald Trump.  But we’re less sure how it works.  Or where it comes from.  Or how it might affect the Church.  Or what we should do about it.


In an article entitled “Is Popular Culture Either?” culture commentator Ken Myers provides a provocative and helpful discussion of these two important questions:  Who originates and guides pop culture?  Can the Church co-opt popular culture for the sake of the gospel?


What has changed over the history of American culture is the identity and intent of the elites who wield influence. Over the years various elites have vied for power. Clerical, academic, political, artistic, and mercantile elites (unlike many other nations, we have never had the visible prominence of a military elite) have taken turns in shaping cultural values. Today, the entertainment elite dominates because it governs the field that identifies and exports American culture to the rest of the world, the industry that produces our most successful export: entertainment. In fin-de-siecle America, the keys to the kingdom are in the hands of clowns, acrobats, and their wealthy masters.


Those who defend popular culture summarily dismiss its critics as “elitists,” which is a category as obviously reprehensible as “racist” or “fascist.” But that charge ignores an important fact even as it conceals an essential assumption. The fact is that popular culture is sustained by elites whose guiding hand is not entirely unprejudiced. Since the well-being of these elites is sustained by certain cultural sympathies, they will always amplify certain themes at the cost of others. For example, popular culture is unimaginable without mass-media, which is in turn unimaginable without advertising, which would not survive in a cultural climate that places a premium on modesty, chastity, frugality, simplicity, and contentment. So those virtues will necessarily be alien to popular culture, even if the people wanted them there. Themes of restless desire, the lust for power, the insistence of moral autonomy, and resistance to restraint are common in popular culture precisely because its elites must sustain these sensibilities to stay in business. …


Pop culture-inspired worship services (usually called “contemporary” worship, although such services totally exclude contemporary high culture) are often defended (with the certainty of those who believe they alone occupy the moral high ground) by the assertion that they are simply services that respect the vernacular of “the people.” It is true that many people coming to church on a given Sunday morning (believers and non-believers) do want something more informal, upbeat, and generally more consonant with the popular-culture sensibilities that they live with Monday through Saturday. But they want these things for the same reason that the ghetto kids want a pair of Nikes: because the ambiance of popular culture within which they live promotes and authenticates-or normalizes-certain sensibilities.


And, as suggested earlier, popular culture is not neutral regarding the sensibilities it encourages. Because of the centrality of commercial concerns, popular culture maintains a preferential option for the upbeat, the informal, the new and “interesting.” This is not because these are the virtues that make a better person (let alone a better Christian), but because these are the attributes that produce the best consumers.


This 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.


“Is Popular Culture Either?” was originally published in Modern Reformation—the complete article can be found here.


Ken Myers is the host and producer of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.


For more information on Ken Myers and the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, go here.  Please take time to examine the Journal.  The two best places to start are by clicking on “Listen for Free” and “Sample the Journal” in the left column.

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