Church and Pop Culture: 1 Definitions
Developing a Christian Worldview in a Pagan Nation
Ethics 111 – 3 Credit Hours
1994, Jefferis Kent Peterson
(Licenses to use and distribute this course in other educational facilities are available.)
Definitions and Introduction
Definition of Culture: Webster’s defines culture as “2: the act of developing intellectual and moral faculties esp. by education . . .4: enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training,” but our working definition will be much broader. Certainly the development of art museums and the existence of libraries are marks of culture, but so is a generally accepted view of the world. The Hindus see time as cyclical and as endlessly repeating itself – going nowhere. We in the Western world see time as linear – heading towards a point in time: for Christians it is the return of Christ; for Americans in general it may be the inevitable march of history towards freedom and scientific progress; for Communists, it is the inevitable progress of the working class towards a world-wide, classless society. All these understandings of history are worldviews which differentiate our cultures from each other. So our definition of culture includes things we believe to be true or real.
Definition of Pop Culture:
Popular culture is distinguished from culture in general by its accessibility. The word “popular” comes from the Latin word “populace,” meaning “people;” i.e.., something that is available to everybody regardless of race, class, income, etc. Examples of our pop culture would include MacDonald’s, the Super Bowl, or sports in general, automobiles, rock concerts, record albums, tapes, VHS video recorders. One mark of pop culture is that it is inexpensive, so that everyone can afford it. One item on our list that may not yet be part of pop culture, but is becoming so is the Super Bowl. Although not everyone can afford to go to the Super Bowl, everyone can watch it on TV. The key is not always affordability, but availability. Thus, pop culture is different than Folk Culture and Elite Culture which we shall define in a minute.
Elements of Pop Culture:
1] mentally accessible – cannot be above an 8 grader’s level of education. Soap operas are an example of an entertainment medium that tries hard not to tax anybody’s mental faculties.
2] physically accessible – it must be as close as your nearest T.V., radio, drug store, shopping center, etc.
3] financially accessible – everyone can afford a MacDonald’s’ burger.
4] value accessible – it cannot be deeply challenging or prophetic to common values or cultural consensus. It must be as mild and flavorless as a Mac hamburger. It cannot challenge the taste buds or one’s morals or one’s mind. It cannot be hot Mexican food or deeply religious. It cannot challenge one’s basic beliefs or ideas. Football is a perfect example of pop culture that does not challenge anyone’s basic, American Ideals. In fact it reaffirms them. Values like competition, winning, being the best (Super Bowl) are all, deeply held American values.
5] Transient: the products of pop culture are made for mass, immediate consumption, like hamburgers and record albums and new rock groups. The appeal of pop is usually short lived, faddish, and not very original. Music groups that make it big today, for the most part will not be remembered tomorrow. Hula hoops, frisbees, yo-yo’s, the Beatles – are examples of pop culture; some however have staying power – frisbee’s and MacDonald’s.
Just for Contrast:
Traditionally, every society has always had two well defined cultures: Folk and Elite. It was not until the Reformation, especially with Calvin, with its belief in the equal value of all men and women before God, and not until the growth of the middle class during the Industrial Revolution, which put money into the hands of the many, that the rise of pop culture could take place.
Folk Culture, like pop culture, is of the people, but the difference is that it is not as accessible to all. Folk traditions are
(1) long lived, dating back centuries in many cases,
(2) they have many local variations (of music melodies, stories, tall tales, etc.),
(3) they are anonymous, and
(4) they have simple forms (fiddle playing vs. concert violinist). But because they are products of isolated groups of people, like the Appalachian hill people, the culture is not readily available to all.
Elite Culture, by contrast is
(1) usually patronized by the aristocracy (in the old days by the church and by royal courts, and now just by the wealthy), and
(2) because the products of the artisans cost so much, they are only available to the very wealthy or moderately wealthy. Because there is so much investment involved, and the patrons want it done well,
(3) the artisans are not Sunday painters, but usually they have learned their craft through years of sustained training. And because those who judge the works of art, music, etc., are themselves the products of higher education who have studied anesthetics, philosophy, etc.;
(4) the products are created for a critical audience. Examples of elite art may be the works of Leonardo Da Vinci or some avant-guard New York pop artist. And
(5), the art is created for posterity. Historically works of music – Bach, Mozart, etc. – have survived centuries of taste. This is in sharp contrast to flash-in-the-pan musical sensations of the present.
Why Study Popular Culture?
1] As followers of Jesus, we are called to order our lives according to the will of God. Rather than being conformed to the moral and social tablets standards of this world, we are to be reformed in the image of Christ and to be representatives of his righteousness.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God; this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
2] But because we live in the world, we are in some measure conformed to the culture in which we live. We are unconsciously shaped by our society and we unconsciously adopt some of its values. Not all these values are bad, some of them are rather good; but many of them are in absolute conflict with the Gospel.
Take for example society’s attitude towards war; war is generally accepted by nations as a way of resolving conflicts, especially if it is in self defense. But often nations use force and violence to take what was not theirs by right. Examples: Russia and Afghanistan; Nazi Germany and Europe; the U.S. and American Indian wars – a legacy of broken treaties by our government; U.S. war against Colombia(?) to establish Panama so we could build a canal; and finally our support for counter-revolutionaries in Nicaragua. Without saying whether Nicaragua is bad or good, is it really Christian to support terrorists who kill women and children? Were we really funding “Freedom Fighters” or were the Contras a type of terrorist like the PLO or the IRA? The churches have historically supported our nation in times of war, but perhaps in these instances our support has been a little too uncritical.
3] Since we see that our attitudes and that of the church may not always conform to the will of God, it is necessary for the church to take a careful look at the culture in which it finds itself and decide whether the values of our nation, society, culture, and town, really represent godly values or values of convenience and self interest. Remember, the judgment begins with the church, not with the world. So we had better seek righteousness.
4] So the question we must ask ourselves as we begin this study is: have we substituted worldly standards for God’s standards? Is our witness true to the gospel or have we conformed to the world? Society should be able to recognize Christians by their values and lifestyles. In a way, we should be an offense; we should make the world and our society feel a little uncomfortable with its standards and behavior. We should be a thorn in the flesh to its popular morality and casual standards. If we are not, then it probably means that we have conformed a little too much to the world and not enough to Jesus Christ:
Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin. As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do – living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation, and they heap abuse on you. (1Peter 4:1-4, NIV). Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2Timothy 3:12, NRSV).
5] This is not to say that all culture is bad. It is not. Our culture may be neutral, an enemy, or a friend of the gospel depending upon the situation and the values it holds. If society’s values are contrary to the gospel, then we had better not adopt those values; as a church we should stand against them. Our society believes abortion to be okay, and many in the church believe it to be okay; but in this case, has the church adopted worldly standards and conformed to the world in a devilish way? On the other hand, the churches regularly participate in sports such as softball and basketball; is there anything in this competition that is in conflict with the gospel?
6] Finally, another important reason we study our culture is that we need to communicate the gospel in terms people can understand. When Paul preached, he used slang and the common language of the day; he didn’t always use proper grammar or aristocratic speech. When you talk to teenagers about Jesus, you also ought to know what punk music is, who Michael Jackson is, and what video games are.
However, there is one great danger in using pop language to communicate the gospel, the words we use may not have the same meaning: If we talk about “love,” the popular definition of love may be what is shown on “The Young and the Restless” while the Christian understanding of love is very different indeed.
Assignment: briefly identity 3 contemporary items or events that fit the definition of folk, elite, and popular culture. Explain very briefly why these items fit those categories.
Read the book review of The Emerging Order, by Jeremy Rifkin and the explanation of the concept of Peter Berger’s “Sacred Canopy.”
Nelson: pp. 15-29TV:
pp. 1-31Myers: pp. 1-52