As I continue to re-read All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes I’m repeatedly reminded that it is an unusually good survey of the many matters that have to be considered when thinking about popular culture and our relationship with it. Myers has done a good job of assembling and organizing the material, and if I’m occasionally disappointed that a particular important matter is mentioned only in passing, well, I’m grateful that he at least brought it up so I can pursue it on my own.
Related to that, I’ve decided that I must have first read this book much longer than seven years ago, because I keep running across references to other good books that I also read longer ago, books that I don’t recall seeing mentioned anywhere else. Two in particular I highly recommend: Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts Into Air, a collection of lengthy essays about the experience of modernity; and Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, a history of images that focuses on the social changes that came about as a result of the easy availability of mass-produced images. Both are on my short list of books that had me excited as I read them because I was encountering ideas I had never even considered before.
Although I have no quibble with the content of Myers’s presentation so far, I am finding myself increasingly disturbed by one of his assumptions, namely that it is possible and maybe even advisable for Christians to partake of popular culture, as long as they do so intelligently and sparingly and with full awareness of the dangers it poses. Put another way, popular culture is problematic only because it is inferior to high or folk culture, having the potential to distract us from those better things, dangerous only in its tendency to crowd out more edifying things.
But is this true? I think that Myers isn’t sufficiently cynical about the origin and purpose of popular culture. Popular culture is not something that has always existed alongside high and folk culture, and its origins are not mysterious. In fact, it is a perversion of high and folk culture, one that was invented specifically to separate people from their money. As with industrial food, I think we should worry less about its particular effects on us and more about the near impossibility of living a modern life that is untouched by it. Bad food and bad culture are problematic in themselves, but it is much more problematic that modern society is critically dependent on their existence, i.e. if we all chose lives in which we fed and entertained ourselves—or, more generally, we all chose lives in which we consumed more or less what we ourselves produced.
It may be that there is a level at which it is possible to partake of popular culture without risking damage to our souls. But I don’t think that it’s possible to draw the line intelligently while at the same time living a life which is suffused with popular culture. Many powerful forces have a vested financial interest in having us draw that line wrongly; many institutions benefit from us fooling ourselves into thinking that we can guard ourselves from the dangers it poses.