In another sense, my disagreements with Mr. McCracken are those related to what could be described as tactical or rhetorical decisions ultimately directed towards the same ends. In discussing culture, art or politics, Christians and conservatives have to make proper distinctions. They also recently seem to have been neglecting tactical thinking regarding such subjects as “pop culture”, consumerism, church subculture, the relation of morality to culture, entertainment, the difference between high and low culture, and other closely related corollaries such as the doctrine of general revelation.
It is rhetorical and tactical thinking here that I am interested in. How we choose to formulate our position requires that we use our language carefully. We must keep both history and our immediate audience in mind. Persuasion is an art form. Some forms of persuasion work more effectively than others. Other forms of persuasion work less effectively and yet are perhaps demanded by an adherence to the moral order in which we live.
“It has been well established,” McCracken writes early in his book, “that Christians can find value in exploring secular pop culture.” (pg. 14)
Here’s the problem. I understand where McCracken is coming from because, like him, I was raised in an evangelical world that taught against “the culture” and “the world.” It makes sense that McCracken would want to argue that there is value in culture. But McCracken doesn’t use the term culture. Instead he uses the phrase “pop culture.”
If Christians in our generation mean to be serious about reversing the withdrawal from culture that we have experienced in both the fundamentalist and evangelical movements, then we must first be aware of what culture is and the intellectual history behind the idea. In order to be aware of what culture is, it is important that we do not ignore the philosophical debate that has shaped the meaning of the word over the last three centuries. This debate grows apparent first by glancing at the two different primary definitions of “culture” in our dictionaries.
Worded slightly differently in different dictionaries, if you were peruse the different definitions of “culture,” you would find two main themes.
First, you would find culture defined as “the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic” or “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group” (Merriam-Webster online, 2013).
Secondly, you would also find culture defined as “the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education” or “enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training” (Merriam-Webster online, 2013).
As we will discuss further, McCracken relies upon the theologian, Kevin Vanhoozer, to explain some of his ideas. But Vanhoozer seems to prefer the newer definition to the old. In fact, in the book, Everyday Theology, Vanhoozer even claims that the newer definition of culture is the older one:
“One of the oldest and most influential definitions of culture is that of the first professor of anthropology, Edward Tylor, given in his 1871 work Primitive Culture. According to Tylor, culture is ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capacities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.’ Thus from anthropology we learn that culture is a way of life ...” (Everyday Theology, pg. 24.)
However, Dr. Samuel Johnson defined culture in his 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language as “The act of cultivation; tillage; the art of improvement and melioration.” Noah Webster defined culture in his 1828 Dictionary as “The application of labor or other means to improve good qualities in, or growth; as the culture of the mind; the culture of virtue ... Any labor or means employed for improvement, correction or growth.”
Vanhoozer has Tylor’s “oldest and most influential” definition in 1871, more than an entire century after Dr. Johnson. And then, we must not neglect the very respectable Century Unabridged Dictionary from 1889. Its section on “culture” reads as follows:
“The systematic improvement and refinement of the mind, especially of one’s own. [Not common before the nineteenth century, except with strong consciousness of the metaphor involved, though used in Latin by Cicero.] ... The result of mental cultivation, or the state of being cultivated; refinement or enlightenment; learning and taste; in a broad sense, civilization: as, a man of culture. (‘Rather to the pomp and ostentacion of their wit, then to the culture and profit of theyr mindes.’ - Sir Thomas More, Works, p. 14. ‘The culture and manurance of minds in youth hath such a forcible (though unseen) operation as hardly any length of time or contention of labour can countervail it afterwards.’ - Sir Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning (Original [English ed.], Works, III. 415. ‘O Lord, if thou suffer not thy servant, that we may pray before thee, and thou give us seed unto our heart, and culture to our understanding, that there may come fruit of it, how shall each man live that is corrupt, who beareth the place of a man?’ - 2 Esd. viii. 6. ‘Culture, the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit.’ - M. Arnold, Literature and Dogma, Pref.)”
In the history of the word, it was philosophers who criticized this old definition as elitist. Johann Gottfried Herder and Georg W.F. Hegel both did not like how the word implied universal values, so they argued that culture, instead of being something that is the striving for a higher standard, should just be what people already have. Both Herder and Hegel ended up consciously arguing to use the word “culture” differently so as to only mean a specific collection of characteristics belonging to a distinct social group. In one sense, they succeeded. Other philosophers began using the word in this way and now it is the sense in which we use it most. Now really only our adjective “cultured” still first reminds us of the older sense of the word.
Now, what is important here is that in order to use a phrase like “pop culture,” you have to use the newer definition of the word. And that is exactly what Kevin Vanhoozer does:
“Let us therefore define popular culture as ‘the shared environment, practices, and resources of everyday life,’ that is, the texts and trends that fill and frame our days and nights.” (pg. 28)
All this is a preliminary to thinking coherently about what culture means. Over time the phrase “high culture” has been used in order to distinguish the older definition from the more recent definition. And yet, another way that culture can possess great value, and a legitimate way in which the newer definition was useful to us, is to speak of “folk culture.” Folk culture has also been called “common culture” or even “low culture.” It is what is more popular to everyone, uneducated or educated. But it is specific to a particular community and place. Folk or common culture includes the local traditions, customs, conventions, legends and history of a distinct and local community. It can be agricultural, rural, regional or even national. Great works of art and great beauty has been produced, created and valued within folk culture. But the problem is this. Today, folk cultures are dying. What used to be called folk culture, as local communities have progressively disintegrated, is now being replaced by what we call “pop culture.”
In other words, the phenomenon that we call “pop culture” is uniquely shaped by mass media and mass entertainment. It is the replacing of traditional folk songs uniquely belonging to the customs and ceremonies of a local community with mass commercially produced pop songs that everyone in every local community learns and listens to instead. It is the replacing of local forms of entertainment with electronic media entertainment, uniformly the same for all. It is the replacing of local styles of uniquely crafted cuisine with mass-produced artificially preserved and processed foods. Instead of locally run bakeries, breweries, restaurants, cafes, diners and pubs, it is the emergence of mass corporately run food-chains, where the food that is offered can be the same in every city or every country that you should happen to visit. There is a uniformity to “pop culture” that did not exist in “folk culture.” It makes more and more of us the same in our “personal” tastes, activities and consumption.
In fact, there is even another reason to distrust “pop culture” as distinguished from the older ideas of culture. Where does this line of reasoning take us? (1) “Pop culture” is the product of mass media and mass entertainment. (2) It includes rejection of universal values of the philosophers who changed the meaning of the word. (3) They changed the word to mean merely those collections of beliefs, tastes, customs, conventions and activities held by a group of people as distinguished from another group. This cuts out any implication of higher value from the word’s older meaning. Therefore, (4) “pop culture” is essentially that collection of beliefs, tastes, customs, conventions and activities that happen to be popular with the majority of massed consumers. In other words, “pop culture” loses much of the good still left in the newer definition of the word. Where culture could be understood to mean “folk culture” it was at least still tied to the traditions of local community. “Pop culture” does not even have that. In the world of pop culture, local community dissolves and melds into an indistinct and amorphous mass. Local family customs, regional traditions and community activity is replaced by a mass popularity that cuts across local place, time and tradition.
As distinct from “high culture” or from “folk culture,” pop culture is increasingly engaged with what, at the present moment, attracts the most popular attention. There are many ways to express the phenomenon. Pop culture is the replacing of local musicians with the radio. It is the replacing of local theater with the television. It is currently the replacing of local communal interaction with online social media.
Pop culture reduces high culture to a small educated elite, who intentionally neglect mass media in order to spend the time necessary to do the thinking necessary to educate themselves. Pop culture reduces folk culture to quaint marketing demographics and retro-fashions that have slowly grown more and more similar (and less and less tied to any local place) with each successive generation.
This is why, when McCracken says “it has been well established that Christians can find value in exploring secular pop culture” (pg. 14), his statement is, whether he has thought about it or not, set in the middle of philosophical debate. I fear he is focusing rather single-mindedly upon the meaning of “can find value” rather than in the meaning of “pop culture.”
It is not that I mean to accuse him of the inability to make any distinctions. For he does go to the trouble to distinguish. For instance, he writes that our “pop music culture has seen it all and - in the name of free speech - tolerated most of it.” (pg. 95) And blind or all-embracing tolerance of pop culture is not what McCracken is advocating for. He uses the content of some popular rap music to explain that there are moral grounds to occasionally object to the popular.
“Tyler and Odd Future regularly rap about rape, violence against women, drugs, and murder fantasies; they employ offensive language with nearly every lyric, using the f-word 204 times in the 73 minutes of Tyler’s 2011 album Goblin, for example.” (pgs. 95-96) “On the positive journey toward a wider appreciation of culture, Christians shouldn’t forget that - as Odd Future reminds us - not everything that is artistic, ‘real,’ or forward thinking is good for us. Discernment is necessary.” (pg. 97)
But allowing for the ability to make moral objections does not solve the problems caused by embracing pop culture.
Yes. Discernment is necessary. But we must not be too heavily influenced by the “capture the culture” rhetoric of the evangelical right. This is the unfortunate type of rhetoric that is in love with militaristic flourishes. Thus derives all the talk you’ll hear about “fighting the culture wars,” capturing the culture (as if it were an enemy citadel), or “engaging” the culture (as if one were firing broadsides at the enemy). If you have heard this sort of talk all your life, as I have, then without thinking about it, you’ll find this language slipping into your speech almost surreptitiously. This happens to McCracken and it is no surprise given that he’s been reading Kevin Vanhoozer.
“It is important for Christians to engage culture on its own terms and ‘go the extra hermeneutical mile to make sure they do not simply project their own interests onto cultural texts.’ But it’s also important for Christians not to be ‘helpless victims of popular culture’ but rather to ‘make their own cultural statements out of whatever the culture industries produce,’ something Kevin Vanhoozer eloquently champions ...Vanhoozer advocates an informed Christian cultural literacy in which Christians can locate within pop culture the elements that can be redeemed and taken captive for the cause of Christ.” (pg. 110, emphasis added.)
For instance, looking again at his essay published in Everyday Theology, one first reads that “Christians have increasingly become aware of the need to engage culture as part of Christian mission ...” (pg. 32) But then one finds Vanhoozer saying things like this: “Fortunately, a multilevel approach brings order into the plurality of possible methodological approaches by arranging hierarchically the various levels of complexity that characterize cultural reality.” (pg. 46) Or this: “In addition to the plurality of perspectives and levels, however, the Method is also multidimensional. To be precise, it situates cultural texts and trends in two distinct three-dimensional frameworks.” (pg. 48)
This sort of thing makes me uneasy because I worry that Vanhoozer has influenced McCracken and other Christian believers a little too far. McCracken tries his best to promote one of Vanhoozer’s more postmodernist streaks, but then as a consequence finds himself also being influenced by the French Jesuit cultural theorist, Michel de Certeau. Certeau is a separate essay subject in and of himself, but he is a perfect example of a Christian who attempted to debate the deconstructionists and postmodernists on their own terms, adopting much of their language in order to do so. The problem with adopting the language of the postmodernist is that you will inevitably find yourself in fatal epistemological quicksand. (Certeau, poor fellow, soon found himself trying to argue that “heterologies” were what ultimately explained life as the strategies of structures of power engaged in a war with the tactics of the subjugated so that everyday living is the process of poaching the social territories and power constructs of others. That way madness lies.)
McCracken explains that Vanhoozer “cites French cultural critic Michel de Certeau’s model of ‘poaching’ cultural texts - the idea that an audience can appropriate a text for its own purposes, transforming its meaning to better fit one’s own perspective or goal.” (pg. 110)
Now, the reader’s ability to “transform” the meaning of a text for his “own purposes” is a favorite trope of postmodern philosophy. In order to argue, as both McCracken and Vanhoozer seem to argue, that Christians can do it too, one has to first grant some epistemological ground. There are different schools of thought within Epistemology, and Christianity will not survive in any but one. The school of thought that argues that the meaning of a text can be “poached” or appropriated by a reader, viewer or consumer is to say something about the nature of meaning itself. Later in his book, McCracken writes:
“Michael de Certeau’s essay ‘Reading as Poaching’ is the classic apologia for the empowered consumer. In it, de Certeau suggests that consumers of culture should not think of themselves as doomed to passivity, beholden to whatever telos of meaning (or vision of the good life) the producer intends ... In de Certeau’s view, the reader of cultural texts ‘invents in texts something different from what [the author] ‘intended.’ ... He combines their fragments and creates something unknown in the space organized by their capacity for allowing an indefinite plurality of meanings.’” (pgs. 256-257)
To his credit, at least he also adds:
“There are limits to ‘poaching.’ But where it’s appropriate, sensible, and informed by more than just a desire for a convenient sermon illustration, the savvy Christian consumer should consider how a misdirected cultural liturgy might be redirected toward a Christian telos.” (pg. 257)
So ... while I admire the ends for which McCracken is aiming, but I would caution every thinking Christian to avoid the sort of postmodern epistemology that argues that the reader can make a text with one meaning mean whatever meaning he or she really wishes it meant. A text does not change its meaning merely because the reader wants it to. This is not something new. Today’s postmodernists are making the same outworn arguments about language and meaning that the heretical Nominalists of the Medieval Ages made. The nominalist/postmodernist epistemology, denying that words have the ability to mean things that exist objectively in reality (and therefore that the meaning of a text can change at a reader's whim), falls only before the solid ground of what, in philosophy, is called moderate realism.
Nominalist thinking withered under the cross-examination of Socrates in Plato’s Euthyphro. It disintegrated when subjected to the works of Aristotle (read, for example, his Sophistical Refutations). St. Thomas Aquinas found himself obligated to repeatedly deal it death blows as he found other Medieval theologians attracted to it. But instead of turning this book review into an essay about meaning and universals, I'll just strongly recommend the book, Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, in which Millard J. Erickson, Justin Taylor, D.A. Carson and others make the argument that adopting or “poaching” any of the epistemological ideas of postmodernism leaves any Christian claim to any objective truth groundless.
“A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ.”
With the same spirit that its author writ.”
- Alexander Pope___________________________________________________________________________________________________
Kevin Vanhoozer is more intelligent than I. He’s a theologian who knows his stuff and I’m just a layman. I have found his warnings against “reducing theology into mere cultural anthropology” both important and informative. But whenever he starts trying to appropriate or poach the ideas of a philosopher like Paul Ricoeur, he loses solid ground to stand on.
At one point, Vanhoozer explains that discourse “happens when someone uses some medium to say or show something. Ricoeur analyzes discourse further in terms of ‘a hierarchy of subordinate acts distributed on three levels’ (1) ‘locution,’ or act of saying something, (2) ‘illocution,’ or act of doing something in saying something, and (3) ‘perlocutation,’ or what we do by saying something ...” (44-45) And then: “Understanding cultural discourse demands a thick description of what has been wrought, and this is best accomplished with the aid of those speech act categories (viz., locution, illocution, perlocution) that enable a thick description of the act of discourse.” (Everyday Theology, pg. 46.)
The problem arises because one of the reasons Ricoeur made up all these new definitions in the first place is so that he can have them contradict each other. Eventually you get the sort of thing where Smith the Academic performs the act of lucuting A, in order to illocute B in lucuting A, while also simultaneously perlocutating not A.
One suspects that academics may have a use for that sort of thing. But if you spend too much of your time reading it, something in the brain starts gumming up your ability to express straightforward ideas and then you’ll start writing sentences like “To be precise, it situates cultural texts and trends in two distinct three-dimensional frameworks.”
The argument for trying to make the best of a bad job out of “pop culture” lost me with Herder and Hegel’s arguments against the old definition of culture. From a tactical point of view, perhaps our objectives for working in culture would be best served instead by reviving the old sense of the word and standing on the more traditional ground of Dr. Johnson, Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot’s arguments about the value of culture. When we can still do that, why go to the trouble of “poaching” nonsense and then trying to make it Christian? This is exactly what McCracken warns against in other places in his book.
PROBLEM: Should conservatives or Christians simply advocate for the good that can be found in “pop culture” without addressing what it is, as distinguished from “culture” or “folk culture”? No. There is no need to give ground on this merely because some “folk” or “high” culture can be found mixed inside the mass of “pop” culture. Neither is there a need to begin adopting postmodernist cultural interpretation. For anyone interested in restoring the strength of local community or in debunking postmodernist assumptions, these are distinctions worth making.
Joseph Devlin, apparently with a Screwtapian smile, wrote that “For instance, you may not want to call a spade a spade. You may prefer to call it a spatulous device for abrading the surface of the soil.” Plutarch thought otherwise. Ten skafen skafen legontas.
This brings us next to the distinction between high and low culture.
There is another importance difference between the older and newer senses of the word culture.
“In his book Art Needs No Justification, Hans Rookmaaker suggests that the division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art ultimately causes all art to suffer:
‘High art has shunned all practical demands, such as decoration, entertainment or in fact any role that might smack of involvement in real life. Yet this type of art inevitably attracts almost everybody who has some talent ... But inevitably the ‘low’ arts have suffered also. They become the ‘popular’ arts, sometimes called ‘commercial.’ It is art in the service of Mammon. As all genuinely talented people tend to shun this field, its quality has deteriorated, and too often what is produced lacks all imagination or quality.’
I agree with Rookmaaker that this division has unfortunately produced a needlessly simplistic binary, pitting the ‘commercial’ against the ‘artistic,’ as if something cannot ever be both.” (pg. 173)
But McCracken doesn’t explain how he imagines this division between “high” and “low” to have occurred. Even his Rookmaaker quote does not really criticize the distinction itself. Instead, it explains one reason why “high” art attracts those who are interested in producing quality and why “low” arts do not. After reading McCracken, I cannot imagine how the act of distinguishing between “high art” and “low art” is supposed to have caused this. Instead, they just seem to be the names we use to label them. Pitting the commercial against the artistic is useful for the very reason that serious artists often avoid careers devoted to making, oh say, commercials. One doubts they avoid doing so because someone somewhere one day decided to label commercials as “low art.”
No. It’s not that something can never be both commercialized and artistic at the same time. The point is what being commercialized can often do to a work of art. Commercialization is something that really happens to art, and it rarely ever helps improve quality. Taking McCracken’s music example, the list of highly talented and innovative musical artists who have had their careers wasted by commercialization is long and tragic. Even Elvis Presley was convinced later in his life that he had sold out by allowing his career to be controlled by movie roles and songs written for him by other people. Commercialization, far too often, means the loss of quality or musical integrity for the sake of mass production and catering to popular demand.
You can see this in popular bands whose music, according to many serious music critics, deteriorated in direct corrolation to their commercialization. (See Genesis, Jefferson Airplane, Kings of Leon, Kiss, Metallica and Nickelback.) Most recently, I’d argue that you can also see this in Rap and Hip Hop. Unlike American blues and jazz, which kept much of its integrity without its best artists changing their style for the sake of marketing statistics, American Hip Hop may be one of the musical genres that has suffered the most from mass commercialization. The Black Eyed Peas, Lil Wayne, OutKast, Puff Daddy, Run-D.M.C. and Snoop Dog are all gifted artists with real talent. Arguably, all of their music at the beginning of their careers is so much better than their music now because they allowed commercialization to change their music. (The same phenomenon has also happened, even more recently, to Indie Rock.) That commercialization has really affected the quality of music is not even really in question.
This doesn’t always happen with everyone. Jermaine Cole (J. Cole), Lauryn Hill, Nasir Jones (Nas) and Kanye West have all conspicuously refused to change their music so that it would sell better. Others like Bobby McFerrin have refused multiple product endorsements. The Doors refused to allow their music to be used for commercial advertising. Pearl Jam refused to make music videos and set a ceiling for their ticket prices. Mark Hollis and his English rock band, Talk Talk, kept the sound they wanted when pressured to change and probably threw away commercial success because of it. Other musicians like Barbara Dane and Christy Paige have rejected different forms of commercialized success in order to try to preserve their freedom to create quality music outside of popular demand.
Generally, we use the phrase, high culture, to refer to the older ideas of culture and the phrase, low culture, to refer to that which is based on popularity rather than quality.
McCracken offers what he argues is a different way of thinking about this distinction:
“I’d like to reimagine ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture not in terms of their old stereotypes ... but in terms of how high or low something takes us in the upward path toward sublime epiphany. In this way, high and low would look more like this:
High culture: That which reaches for greater heights of transcendence and truth, seeking to reveal - often in pleasurable and entertaining fashion - beauty and goodness honestly and with excellence. Pays attention to craft, believes in meaning, and exudes humility.
Low culture: That which hovers closer to the base or surface, incurious and uninterested in truly wrestling with truth or achieving the sublime/transcendent. It is indulgent and undisciplined, more interested in esoteric obfuscation than true discovery.
In this new understanding, a work of art could be considered high culture even if viewed by millions on YouTube each week.” (pg. 174)
What is unclear is why McCracken thinks that this way of putting it is new. Anything that is a part of old “high” culture - Mozart, Rembrandt, Dostoevsky, Bernini, Tarkovsky - would not cease to be what it is if it were viewed on YouTube by millions. That’s not the problem. The problem is that sort of thing is simply not viewed on YouTube by millions. Prioritizing high quality and that which is of high value is already commonly advocated for by those who have argued for high culture (Arnold, Eliot, Scruton). Prioritizing self-indulgence and gratification is what has already been referred to as “low culture.” No respectable critic or student of aesthetics really argues to popularity is a standard of value. On the contrary, in order to advocate for the unpopular against the popular, one has to reject mere popularity as a measuring standard. And once one does that, one could never argue against something merely because it was popular. Turning the logical fallacy, argumentum ad populum, upside down does not make it cease to be a fallacy.
McCracken attempts to apply another distinction in pop culture’s favor with the help of Hans Urs von Balthasar. He writes: “One of the tensions that has long informed Christian critique of culture is that of God’s immanence vs. transcendence. Is God present here, in all things, infusing even culture with his goodness (‘God in all’)? Or is he distant from the fallen things below, a ‘wholly other’ Being whose character does not manifest in the cultural works of sinful, estranged humanity (‘God above all’)?” (pgs. 97-98)
But are there really respectable Christian theologians who have argued that God is “wholly other” and completely outside of culture? McCracken suggests that “Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, for example, favored the ‘transcendent’ view and thus rejected most popular culture as being a thoroughly secular impediment to spiritual growth.” (pg. 98)
Yet it is difficult to understand how Tillich’s writing could be described as “rejection” of culture. After all, he is the theologian who wrote: “Religion as ultimate concern is the meaning-giving substance of culture, and culture is the totality of forms in which the basic concern of religion expresses itself. In abbreviation: religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion. Such a consideration definitely prevents the establishment of a dualism of religion and culture.” (Theology of Culture, pg. 42.) Speaking of how the church influenced education in the past, Tillich also wrote: “The reality into which generation after generation were inducted was the Christian Church, or more precisely, the ‘corpus Christianum,’ the ‘body Christian,’ which embraced religion, politics, and culture. The soul of this body, namely, the spirit of medieval Christianity, was present and exercised educational functions on every level of man’s individual and social life.” (Theology of Culture, pg. 148) This is the same theologian who argued against being unaware of other culture outside one’s own immediate experience, something that he attacked as “intellectual and spiritual provincialism.” (Theology of Culture, pgs. 159-176.)
At the same time, McCracken contrasts Tillich with the rich theology of Balthasar, claiming that on “the ‘immanent’ side, an example might be Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who had a more positive view of human creativity and culture and felt that it could stir up a yearning in humans for God.” (pg. 98) Whether this contradicts Tillich is doubtful. I still need to read more of Balthasar myself, but from what I have read of Balthasar’s writing on culture, there has never been any reason to equate what he meant by “culture” with what is, today, now called Pop.