This year’s reading assignment from Cindy Rollins is All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes by Ken Myers. I first read Myers’s book seven years ago, about ten years after the bout of reading (starting with Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death) that led us to toss out the television and eventually disconnect from nearly all media. If I had known about it, I certainly would have read it along with the others. Instead, it was the occasion for a reflective walk back through certain matters that we had already decided, but with the added benefit of a Christian viewpoint; not much else has been written about popular culture and Christians until fairly recently.
Reading the book again at this late date, the topic itself seems distant and almost quaint. I’m now a good way towards the position my children find themselves in, namely hardly able to relate to popular culture in any way. Ten years ago I was certain that the books on popular culture that had been so important in shaping my own thinking would be a key part of their curriculum; now I find myself asking them only to give Neil Postman’s trilogy a quick read, as much because he is a model writer as for what he had to say in those books. Having them read the rest would be like asking them to do a detailed study of a planet they’ve never visited, to convince them that it is a place they would never want to visit.
That said, I do think that All God’s Children is valuable, primarily because of its Christian take. The reasons Myers gives for approaching popular culture with caution are far from the only reasons, but they are good ones, and because they are Christian reasons they may have the power to reach Christians who are unfamiliar with or have even rejected the rest. So this time I’m reading the book with an eye out for parts of Myers’s critique that I think are unique to him. I will also try to apply his critique where I can to the internet, which barely existed at the time he wrote this book.
In the introduction Myers notes the reason that American evangelicalism is particularly vulnerable to popular culture:
Despite the perennial protests over sex and violence on television, lewd rock lyrics, and pornography sold at convenience stores, evangelical Christians remain relatively oblivious to the problems associated with popular culture. This is in part because American evangelicalism has its roots in populist culture. … Popular culture is attractive to many conservative Christians precisely because it is, well, popular.
American evangelicals are naturally anti-elitist, partly because of the anti-hierarchical stand their religion takes and partly because they are Americans. Conversely, they are likely to give an unthinking pass to anything that has the imprimatur of popular acceptance. Thus they embrace popular culture without suspicion.
Chapter 1 begins with a crucial question: Should a Christian pay any attention at all to culture, popular or otherwise? He offers an answer first given by C.S. Lewis, namely that it is impossible to avoid culture altogether and unwise to try, so in fact we need to pay very close attention to culture, to make sure that the culture we adopt is not harmful to us.
You are not, in fact, going to read nothing, either in the Church or on the front line; if you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions you will fall into sensual satisfactions.
I appreciated Myers’s warning to keep in mind that questions of how to relate to popular culture are often not questions of good and evil:
When I decide not to read a certain book, I am not necessarily saying that to read it would be a sin. It is much more likely that I believe it to be imprudent to take the time to read that book at this time in my life. To paraphrase Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 10 (which is, as we shall see, a very significant passage for our thinking about culture), something may be permissible, but it may not be very beneficial or constructive.
Each of us arises every morning with, in the providence of God, a number of duties, dilemmas, opportunities, and confusions that stem from living in a particular culture at a particular time. Our decisions about what sort of involvement with popular culture is prudent does not occur in isolation. Just as a critic cannot understand a song or a novel or a movie outside of its cultural context, so we cannot anticipate or evaluate the effect popular culture has on our lives without looking at that context. Do I want to read that book because everyone else is reading it, or because of some intrinsic merit it has? Am I turning on the television because there is something I want to watch, or because I am addicted to distracting tittilation?
This question becomes even more pressing when the internet is considered, since I think the internet both offers greater blessings and presents greater dangers than television ever did.
I also appreciated Myers’s warning that we think twice about becoming cultural warriors.
Cultural engineering doesn’t work. We can do very little to encourage or discourage cultural trends or fads. We can do something, however. As Eliot noted, “we can combat the intellectual errors and the emotional prejudices which stand in the way” of cultural change. That is, we can call attention to the folly or absurdity or outright sin that certain cultural phenomena encourage or facilitate.
Fair warning, though: I have seen a number of projects (and even participated in a couple) which began as sincere attempts to engage in the sort of combat Eliot describes, but soon degenerated into self-satisfied hooting and catcalling at a culture which they failed to understand and which paid them absolutely no mind. Pointing out folly or absurdity without becoming foolish or absurd ourselves is no easy task.