A primer: Christians and popular culture…

Ken Myers-All God's Children

Someone has pointed out that if we didn’t have popular culture we wouldn’t have any culture at all.  Theologian Dr. Robert Banks would probably agree:  “Popular culture has become the environment in which we live, move, and have our being.”


The relationship of Christians to culture is an “enduring problem” according to H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic work Christ and Culture.  This insight is not new of course—it’s as old as the Old Testament. But Niebuhr was writing to provide a history of the different ways Christians have responded to culture.  Writing some sixty years ago, Niebuhr could not envision how much more complicated and challenging his “enduring problem” would become in an era of smart phones, Internet porn, Hannibal Lecter and Wrecking Ball.


“Popular culture as we know it poses a greater problem for Christians than is usually acknowledged,” writes culture commentator Ken Myers.  Speaking specifically of evangelicals, Myers sees their “enduring problem” complicated by a failure to “appreciate the extent of the deep disorder that now characterizes American society.”


In a very helpful article originally published in Findings Journal, “Modernity, Morality, and Common Grace,” Myers provides a brief history of how evangelicals have related to culture.  And he surveys some of that “deep disorder that now characterizes American society.”


Using subheadings not always in the Myers article, here are some of the key points of “Modernity, Morality, and Common Grace.”  This is merely an introduction—please read closely the entire article linked below.  It’s also an introduction to his extended reflections in All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes:  Christians and Popular Culture.


Francis Schaeffer on popular culture


Schaeffer and those who followed closely in his wake (e.g., Os Guinness, Udo Middelman, Jerram Barrs, and many others) made the case that conservative Christians had to honor God as Creator as well as Redeemer; we had to “bow twice,” not just once. Piety, worship, and evangelism were not the sum of Christian life, but simply the Godward aspects of a complete life of body and spirit that also included rich and rewarding horizontal commitments to fellow believers, to fellow citizens, to neighbors and strangers, even to the nonhuman creation. …


Schaeffer’s teaching communicated to a generation of evangelicals (or at least to those within that generation who were paying attention, which may in fact have been a small minority) two important convictions about culture that had been forgotten or denied by their parents. First, cultural forms were rich sources of meaning for understanding the worldviews both of established and dominant institutions and of the various avant-garde movements of the period. In that regard, Schaeffer was extending the traditional concern of Christian apologists (who have tended to focus more narrowly on the state of ideas among philosophers) to include many spheres of cultural expression, including the arts and popular culture. Always the evangelist, Schaeffer was concerned about how many of the presuppositions of modern culture were both false and finally incoherent, incapable of rendering a satisfying account of human experience. The biblical story and the worldview that grew from it were, by contrast, characterized by truth (true truth, in fact) and integrity.


The second message about culture was simpler and less instrumentalist. It was the refreshing and liberating assertion that cultural experiences could be quite simply good things; they were (often) delightful blessings from a loving Creator. Art and music and poetry didn’t have to be “religious” to be worthwhile. In 1978, InterVarsity Press, Schaeffer’s publisher, released a small book by H. R. Rookmaker, Schaeffer’s principal source for thinking about art. The book was called Art Needs No Justification, a conviction many of Schaeffer’s disciples had already embraced. Art was neither evil nor justified only when it served theological or evangelistic ends. Art (and cultural forms more broadly) could be a source of delight and pleasure that didn’t have to justify itself on some spiritual spreadsheet to acquire legitimacy.


The Reformers as the source of Schaeffer’s message


It was from his Calvinist mentors, particularly the Dutch Calvinists who had continued the tradition of Abraham Kuyper, that Schaeffer acquired his underlying theology of culture. When he insisted on the lordship of Christ over all of life, he was reiterating ideas he had learned from Reformed thinkers (although such ideas are also present in different formulations in other theological traditions). “The Christian message begins with the existence of God forever and then with creation,” Schaeffer wrote. “It does not begin with salvation. We must be thankful for salvation but the Christian message is more than that. Man has a value because he is made in the image of God and thus man as man is an important subject for Christian art. Man as man—with his emotions, his feelings, his body, his life—this is an important subject for poetry and novels. I’m not talking here about man’s lostness but about his mannishness.” …


Central to Schaeffer’s method was an emphasis on discerning the worldview implicit in cultural forms. Cultural activity was intrinsically good, but it became corrupted when it was animated by bad ideas about reality. Bad worldviews produced destructive cultural institutions and artifacts.


But as Schaeffer’s disciples began to look more closely at such forms, they soon realized that some people who denied basic Christian doctrines seemed to affirm certain aspects of a Christian worldview. And some people with very distorted worldviews were producing laws and art and social institutions that seemed to be in keeping with a Christian worldview. While there was clearly an antithesis between a systemically ordered view of life and history shaped by Christian presuppositions and a view that commenced from the denial of such presuppositions, in the real world there was not such a neat relationship between personal Christian affirmation and philosophy or practice. To put it simpler, a lot of people who weren’t saved seemed to sound and to act like they were.


Popular Culture as Anti-Culture


To the extent that culture per se is understood as a set of institutions, artifacts, and symbols that transmit values from one generation to another, popular culture as we know it fits Philip Rieff’s description of an anticulture. Where folk cultures are about sustaining a communal legacy, popular culture is about defining a personal lifestyle. Where folk cultural forms establish boundaries and set limits, popular cultural forms pursue liberation for the autonomous individual. While there may well be many popular cultural artifacts that endorse traditional values, such values are still a freely chosen commodity, competing in the marketplace of values with every imaginable alternative. And precisely because popular culture operates on the model of the marketplace (rather than on, say, the model of discipleship), a marketplace committed to a large extent to the necessity of innovation, the purveyor of alternatives will always have an edge on the more conventional fare. …


Popular Culture and Common Grace


Popular culture as we know it poses a greater problem for Christians than is usually acknowledged. In a fallen world, a society can survive and standards of morality be sustained at even a nominal level only if God’s common grace is continually offered to us. But just as there are means of special grace that the Church has always recognized and encouraged, so there are means of common grace that must be kept healthy. There are many who would believe that God’s saving work of grace could occur without the divinely established mechanisms of the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, the nurturing and discipling ministry of elders, the pursuit of personal spiritual disciplines in prayer, fasting, solitude, and service. But even if God’s saving grace can be known apart from the means God has established to communicate that grace (and some theologians would argue that entertaining such a possibility requires violating God’s own nature), it would be faithless and disobedient of us to expect God to work apart from the means He has ordained. Likewise, God’s almighty power might be thought to be capable of sustaining order and a modicum of morality even in a society without laws, without righteous public opinion, and without the cultural mechanisms of restraint in family and community that have been given by God to inform the conscience and encourage virtue. But it is presumptuous of us to dismantle or disable those mechanisms and still expect common grace to preserve us.



Modernity, Morality, and Common Grace” was originally published in Findings Journal.  It is currently available at BreakPoint, a ministry of The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview.  For an extended discussion of Christianity and popular culture, Ken Myers’ All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes:  Christians and Popular Culture is must reading.




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One Response to “A primer: Christians and popular culture…”

  1. “Where folk cultural forms establish boundaries and set limits, popular cultural forms pursue liberation for the autonomous individual.” Maybe Christians are now the counter-cultural icons for autonomous individuals?