In the 2012 Introduction to Ken Myers’ book, All God’s Children & Blue Suede Shoes, he discusses some of the propositions his book contains. I was struck by this remark about pop culture, wherein he begins with a quote from the first printing of his book, made in 1989:
“‘Christian concern about popular culture should be as much about the sensibilities it encourages as about its content.’ The convictions behind this claim have become harder to explain with the passage of time, because the sensibilities that I believe to be problematic have now become so dominant as to be imperceptible. ‘Sensibilities’ is for some an elusive concept. Its meaning might be triangulated by introducing other (perhaps equally elusive) phrases: the orientation of the affections, the posture of the soul, the desires of the heart, the characteristic hungers and expectations. The sensibilities I had in mind overlapped with the diagnosis implicit in the title to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. People whose lives are dominated by the sensibilities of popular culture are more insistent that all experiences be fun, they are less interested in sustaining traditions, and they are unfazed by the charge that they aren’t behaving like mature adults.”
I’ve only just now begun to read Myers. I know that I am late to the party, he first published this book in 1989. The themes expressed here are themes we have seen in various forms in recent years by other writers of conservative or fundamentalist Christian persuasions. The importance of the affections (“religious affections” – Jonathan Edwards and others), the sensibilities, the desires of the heart and so on, cannot be minimized in considerations of Christian interaction with culture.
The Culture Wars, when it comes to the church, have often been reduced to the battle over music and/or the style or approach to conducting a worship service. I think Myers is right to say that the sensibilities of popular culture have become so dominant in our culture as to be imperceptible. At least, they are imperceptible to most and probably considered ‘normal.’ I suppose they are normal as far as our world, our culture, is concerned.
I’ve used the word ‘culture’ here several times. It might do well to be reminded of what ‘culture’ means. I’ll give you a definition from Myers:
“A culture is an ecosystem of institutions, practices, artifacts, and beliefs, all interacting and mutually reinforcing.”
When we observe the patterns of modern worship services, what are we observing? Is this Christian culture or not? Is it informed by the sensibilities of the Christian heart, or by the sensibilities of the modern world? I would suggest that rather than being the church “interacting” with culture, what we have these days is the church “reflecting” the dominant culture, the pop-culture of the world. We have a kind of “religious pop façade” that passes for Christianity in some circles, but really does nothing to confront or transform the culture of the world.
It is passing strange to me that it is Christianity that is fighting this battle within the walls of its institutions. I may be missing something, but I am not aware of the worship in American mosques being afflicted with this immersion in pop-culture. Do you know of Buddhists who worship in this way?
According to Wikipedia, “Contemporary worship is a form of Christian worship that emerged with Western evangelical Protestantism in the twentieth century. It was originally confined to the charismatic movement, but is now found to varying degrees in a wide range of churches, including many that do not subscribe to a charismatic theology.” The wiki goes on to say, “Historically, the contemporary worship phenomenon emerged from the Jesus Movement in North America in the 1960s and the ‘Charismatic Renewal Movement’ in Australia and New Zealand during the 1970s and 80s.”
Can anyone deny that the current culture of North America is dominated by pop culture? Can anyone really deny that the changing face of worship in Christian churches involves, if not a capitulation to, then an absorption of contemporary pop culture? If that is correct, and I think it is, it means that the sensibilities, the affections, the values of contemporary Christians are informed by the values of the culture that surrounds us, rather than creating a Christian culture to counteract the surrounding culture.
Contemporary pop culture is sometimes described as a “youth culture.” One doesn’t have to look far to find ample evidence of this. In the opening quote, I emphasized this sentence from Myers: “People whose lives are dominated by the sensibilities of popular culture are more insistent that all experiences be fun, they are less interested in sustaining traditions, and they are unfazed by the charge that they aren’t behaving like mature adults.” Would that sentence be a fair description of the motivations behind a lot of contemporary church culture? No doubt there is a place for fun in any life, but have we forgotten the Biblical injunctions to sobriety?
Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. (1 Thess 5.6)
But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. (1 Thess 5.8)
That the aged men be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience. (Titus 2.2)
That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, (Titus 2.4)
Young men likewise exhort to be sober minded. (Titus 2.6)
Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; (1 Pt 1.13)
But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer. (1 Pt 4.7)
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: (1 Pt 5.8)
The Culture War in our churches is not merely about which kind of music is right or wrong (though that discussion must continually be had). Rather, the Culture War is a battle for the heart, for our spiritual life and for the testimony of Christianity in the world. It is time for us to submit our own thought processes to rigorous examination. How much popular culture dominates the things I value and the choices I make?
Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.
- Ken Myers, All God’s Children & Blue Suede Shoes, 2012 rpt. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1989), v–vi, Emphasis mine. [↩]
- Ken Myers, All God’s Children & Blue Suede Shoes, 2012 rpt. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1989), xi. [↩]
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Contemporary_worship, Accessed 2/14/2016. [↩]
- Ken Myers, All God’s Children & Blue Suede Shoes, 2012 rpt. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 1989), vi. [↩]