Tuesday, March 29, 2011

In Which He Tries to Talk about Pop Culture Without Mentioning Johnny Cash

Except in the header, of course.

File this under "common grace." No theology here.

My contention is simple: what happens in high culture eventually filters down into folk culture.

Folk culture is a valuable thing. It is reflective of real life, and dictated by the democratic forces of what people actually like and consume. Through much of human history, folk culture celebrated, highlighted and explained the joys and sorrows of life in an uncertain world. Folk culture provides us with many artifacts that aid us in understanding people --we might call these "art".

For purposes of discussion, here's a simple definition of art: art is something that either celebrates beauty for its own sake (like a Beethoven Symphony) or has something important to say about life (like The Diary of Anne Frank).

Both Jacques Barzun and Nancy Pearcey have used art (among other things) to trace the declension of the culture of the Western World. I want to take their thoughts a bit further. Barzun starts with the Renaissance and ends in the decadence among the thinking classes of the West (much lamented in Paul Johnson's Intellectuals, as well). What he says is certainly true, but very few people, myself included, are out there reading Derrida or Foucault or James Joyce.

Ideas do have consequences, though, and what happens among the chattering classes filters down to where we live. High art in the mid twentieth century showed the moral devastation wrought by existentialism and nihilism: unwatchable plays, un-listenable atonalism in music, unreadable novels and art that celebrated the meaningless, random and inconsequential. If you enjoy any of the finer things, scan your shelves and see how much you have among your cd collections by Philip Glass or Arnold Schonberg. If you had to take a music appreciation class in college, you probably had the misfortune of hearing atonal music. By any standard, it is not beautiful or meaningful. Indeed, it was intended to be just the opposite. This sad course was followed by many among the artistic classes, be it in visual arts, literature, and so on.

At the same time, folk culture was morphing into popular culture. Early on in this transition, pop culture took what was good in the folk culture, elevated it and made it accessible to the masses. I would argue pop culture began about the time of the mass production of the phonograph and exploded with the advent of radio --ordinary people could have, in their homes, enjoyable and engaging folk art produced by others on a scale never before realized. Motion pictures brought drama before audiences that may never have seen such before.

The early efforts have their own particular beauty (think Chaplin), but quality only improved with techonology. The restraints of censorship (as silly as some of it was) actually seemed to serve the purpose of developing art, since what was base and low brow had to be avoided.

Lucille Ball and Dick Van Dyke, among others, were able to elevate the old physical comedy of the Vaudeville circuit and put it into American living rooms. It was a celebration both of meaning (the value of family and laughter) and beauty and poignance. Playhouse 90, The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie were simple, elegant popularization of drama for household audiences. Again, they meant something, and were often profound.

Norman Lear elevated the sitcom to moral art form. We may not like or agree with much of what he said, but in terms of sheer artistry, using humor to disarm and critique through such figures as Archie Bunker and George Jefferson. George Jefferson was a work of pure genius --he was no caricature, and not an entirely sympathetic character. Yet, he was a black man who made it, while his bigoted white neighbor stayed lower middle class. Lear had no saccharine, and few made the points as made as well as he made them.

Music, too, went through similar iterations. There has, of course, always been the product of the marketing machine. One wonders what the attractions of Connie Stevens ever was, for instance, beyond marketable beauty. Yet, alongside that were artifacts of real meaning and real beauty. This remained true in popular music through the 70's. A few examples:

The ink is black, the page is white, together we learn to read and write...and now a child can understand that this is the law of all the land --Three Dog Night

Down in the Delta where I was born, all we raised was cotton, potatoes and corn. Pickin that cotton till our fingers hurt, draggin' that sack through that Delta dirt. --Charley Pride

Even the negative experiences of life are art form, because they bespeak stark reality:

I'd smoked my mind the night before
With cigarettes and songs I'd been picking.
But I lit my first and watched a small kid
Playing with a can that he was kicking.
Then I walked across the street
And caught the Sunday smell of someone frying chicken.
And Lord, it took me back to something that I'd lost
Somewhere, somehow along the way.

On a Sunday morning sidewalk,
I'm wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
'Cause there's something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone.

Alright, so I broke my Johnny Cash vow, though the lyrics, like so many other meaningful ones, were written by Kris Kristofferson. Or consider these by Jim Steinman's "Paradise By The Dashboard Light," one of the best rock songs ever written, about the misery induced by promiscuity....

(The girl stops the advances of the boy):

Stop right there!I gotta know right now! Before we go any further!
Do you love me? Will you love me forever? Do you need me?
Will you never leave me? Will you make me so happy for the rest of my life?
Will you take me away and will you make me your wife?

The boy responds:

Let me sleep on it....I'll give you an answer in the morning.

She demurs, and he advances:

I couldn't take it any longer Lord I was crazed
And when the feeling came upon me Like a tidal wave
I started swearing to my god and on my mother's grave
That I would love you to the end of time
I swore that I would love you to the end of time!

So now I'm praying for the end of time
To hurry up and arrive...praying for the end of time so I can end my time with you.

It was long ago and it was far away, and it was so much better than it is today.

More examples could be multiplied. The question is not whether pop culture used to produce forgettable junk. It always has. The question is rather whether it is producing anything of lasting value now. I contend that it is not. There is little profundity left in pop culture --not in television, not in popular music regardless of genre. There is, thankfully, a bit left in the movies, which lend themselves better to saying profound things. Movies like The King's Speech prove the point --there is still an audience for good stuff. Yet, the purveyors of pop culture, who produce via focus group and the lowest common denominator, do not seem much interested in profundity and beauty even when they sell. The reason why is: existentialism and nihilism are the cultural currency. Nobody listens to Schonberg, but millions will listen to Katy Perry. And, that is a crying shame.

Christians ought to see this vacuum as a great opportunity to advance. Our God does all things well. He speaks profound things about himself and all his creation. He celebrates beauty for its own sake, and so should we. We should engage in arts high and folk, and encourage and celebrate those who do. To the existential despair of much of art (which is a crying out for God), we can present the very God who alone gives meaning, purpose and moral beauty.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Another "Me" Generation in the Church, or Why Don Miller Thinks You Care What He Ate For Breakfast Eight Years Ago....

Okay, I confess that I liked Don Miller's Blue Like Jazz. Currently, I am enjoying my colleague Jim Belcher's book Deep Church. Both of them could be broadly classed as the concerns of "emerging" Christianity (though not "Emergent" Christianity, an important distinction for those who are paying attention). I resonate with many of their concerns, and I agree with Jim Belcher that the Emergings are asking many of the right questions, particularly about the church as real community, against the modernistic assumptions of the "church growth" movement of the 70's-90's, and about concern for ministry to the poor contra the consumerism and materialism that have been baptized too often by the church. Belcher's use of Lewis's image of "deep church," I find very helpful, and a more generous orthodoxy than the counterfeit of it offered by Emergent gurus Rob Bell and Brian Maclaren.

My concern is somewhat tangential to the books themselves, and it is a concern because I see it in myself and others, and that is this --much of emerging Christianity seems obsessively concerned with self. Blue Like Jazz is a personal narrative of a journey of faith. I resonated with it, but I was left thinking, "There has to be something more than this." Deep Church is a picture of what the authentic church can be, but it is filled with extended personal narratives. Now, personal illustration is helpful --it can humanize what we are teaching, and put us in the pew as a fellow-struggler. Destructively, it can become "I am so deep. Be like me." Shades of the Colossian problem.

From my own experiences in the miry clay, I can say that, when I have felt bereft of God's presence, I have turned for help and solace to more subjective, heart-oriented writers like Tozer. From my vantage point now, though I love Tozer, I see the seductive danger of some of what he says --a questing for deep personal experience. The truth is --when I am trapped in the bottom of the wet well, I don't need to drive myself deeper into self-analysis, I need my eyes lifted up to see the great objective realities of the Christian faith. The fact that justification is something accomplished in real space and time, apart from me, means it is independent from how I feel about it. There is great security in that --the same security a child feels when he is at odds with his parent. Deep down, he knows his dad is still his dad, even though he is being punished. He knows that love is unconditional and irrevocable. The manger, the cross, the empty tomb, and my own justification are outside of myself, and they lift me out of myself.

There is always a tension between the objective realities of the Christian faith and my subjective appropriation of those realities. There is dead orthodoxy. There are those who presume upon the promises, and have no heart reality. Many who believe the facts will be lost at the last. Ryle was right and Tozer was right and Lloyd-Jones was right and Piper is right. One can fall off on both sides. The caution here is to get outside of ourselves and our own experiences. If we are bereft of joy and the light of God's face, the answer is not introspection. The answer is extro-spection --gazing upon the glories of all God has done for us in Christ. The answer is not doing more with Martha, but listening more with Mary. The answer is not shame over what we are leaving undone, but rejoicing in what God has done. The clouds will lift, comfort will come, and kingdom productivity will follow.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Things I Want to Blog About When I Find the Time

1.) The spiritually abusive church. Why is it some pastors respond to criticism with abuse? What about the passive-aggressive pastor? What does this say about the church, as a whole? How do we recognize its signs? How do we respond in such situations? What do we do for its victims?

2.) America's great contribution to the world was meaningful folk (or pop) culture. American culture stopped producing meaningful artifacts about the time that Johnny Cash died. Why? How did we go from Sinatra, Cash and Norman Lear to Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Two and Half Men? I contend that it is because what happened in high art about 1950 (dada-ism, Jackson Pollock, Schoenberg and Brecht, etc) has now filtered down into folk art --meaninglessness.

3.) Why all the talk about Hell all of a sudden? Why does Rob Bell raise questions and never answer them? Where does he buy those hip glasses?

4.) Depression. Massive topic, needs some more Christian light shed on it, I think.

Thoughts? Other things you might like to see addressed?