Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Pop Culture

I was doing some research for a post I’m writing about Christianity and culture when I discovered this article by Douglas Wilson. It deserves a post of its own.

Wilson bases his discussion of pop culture on the framework supplied by
Ken Myers of
  • high culture,
  • folk culture and
  • pop culture.
High culture and folk culture transmit “permanent things” from place to place and time to time. Pop culture, in contrast, focuses on the temporary. Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame.

Rebellion against God can be expressed in each of these forms of culture. But pop culture presents the greatest threat to the average person.

High culture can express rebellion against God at a high level, but it is not the greatest threat to us, because when the avant-garde goes stupid virtually no one else pays any serious attention.

Rebellious high culture only presents a problem to really smart intellectualoids—the only ones in the world actually vulnerable to the really stupid idea, as modern architecture shows us.
Pop culture, however, it more closely connected to the desires and aspirations of the average person. For this reason, it is much more dangerous.

Wilson lists three principles:

  1. Pop culture is not sinful in itself just because it is pop culture.
  2. When sin is expressed in pop culture, the fault lies in the human heart not in the particular medium in which it is expressed.
  3. All human actions have a moral component and a direction.
This third point requires some explanation. An action is either right or wrong. This is the moral component. But there is another factor that must be taken into account. Each action moves us toward greater or lesser maturity. Wilson argues that “cultural issues are always maturity issues.”

Often we ask, “Is this wrong?” If the answer is that it is not wrong, then we conclude that it is OK. But just because something is not morally wrong doesn’t mean that it is good. There must be a second question, “Does this lead to maturity?” I would ask the question like this: “Does this lead me toward becoming the person God created me to be?”

To this point Wilson and I are on the same page.

Then he gives an example of a young man with purple hair. He says that the issue is not the color of the hair but what the purple hair means. He asserts that purple hair means rebellion.

I would argue that purple hair often means rebellion but it can also mean something else entirely. It could mean “I don’t buy in to the cultural definition of beauty.” It might mean “I am one of you.” Or perhaps it could mean “I am a walking object lesson that obedience to God does not equal conformity with society.”

Wilson says, “A constant diet of pop culture is only legitimate if you don’t want to grow up.” Then he adds, “Pop culture represents a full-scale revolt against cultural maturity.”

He starts off with several insightful observations. But then he twists them to justify a traditionalist position that discounts all pop culture as worthless.

Pop culture, as a category, means things that are transitory. But the things that are now folk culture and high culture were once pop culture. Some of the things that are currently pop culture will eventually be promoted to folk culture and even high culture.

He says, “This critique is aimed at the direction of the whole enterprise.” Then he argues that the rock culture is “in high rebellion against the God of heaven.” Even if individual songs might have redeemable qualities, the overall meaning of rock music is antithetical to Christianity. Therefore, in his opinion, the whole enterprise should be avoided.

He maintains that there is nothing in pop culture that will be handed down to future generations.

High culture, he argues, places demands upon the consumer. It takes more “effort” to listen to Bach than the Beetles. He says, “More than one rock guitarist is an impressive virtuoso, but the fingerboard display makes no demands on the hearer, other than a willingness to be blown over. The listener to classical music is impressively engaged; the devotee of such rock music is left, with a ringing in his ears, right where he started.”

I suspect that Wilson has never learned to play the guitar.

Just because a guitar solo only sounds like so much noise to him does not mean that listeners cannot be engaged at a level similar to hearing Bach’s “Minuet in D minor.”

Wilson argues that the ultimate sin of pop culture is that it displaces true culture by catering to the undisciplined. “In a biblical culture, a man expects his great-grandchildren to read what he has read, sing what he has sung, listen to what he has listened to. In an evanescent culture, like the one that surrounds us, a man expects to have all his ‘cultural’ experiences buried with him.”

I suspect that there were people making the same arguments about opera in the 18th and 19th centuries. I’m sure that at the premier of Roméo et Juliette in Paris on April 27th, 1867, someone was saying, “Why do we need a pop culture treatment of this classic by Shakespeare? In 150 years, no one will remember Gounod’s vapid tunes. The masses are seduced by this nonce art form called opera.”

R. Wesley Hurd points out, “It is a difficult to see through one's own cultural habits and preferences; it is difficult to admit that one's own cultural comfort zone is irrelevant to the gospel's universal truth.”

He reminds us, “As believers, we must understand the gospel well enough to dis-enculturate it from our own religious culture in order to be able to offer it with clarity to our generation.”

Wilson seems to think that there is a “Christian culture” that encourages spiritual maturity and that is friendly to the gospel.

But, as Hurd points out, “We are often not aware of the ideas and beliefs that lie hidden from us under the cover of our own Christian culture.”

Leslie Pollard from Loma Linda University makes a powerful statement: “Those who in light of the Bible cannot articulate a biblical critique of their culture of origin’s cherished and transmitted values are not qualified to objectively evaluate another culture.”

In other words,
if you cannot see how your own culture stands against the truth of the gospel, you have no business telling other cultures that they are unbiblical.

Pollard says, “Almost without exception, culturally incompetent persons assume that their culture of origin is superior to the culture under their microscope. Once the subject of culture is raised, many well-meaning believers immediately move to condemn what they view as culturally unacceptable in someone else’s cultural group.”

(Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek
explains in this lecture how even the design of toilets reflects deep cultural assumptions.)

Pastor Rod

“Helping you become the person God created you to be”


daniel the smith said...

I just read the article you linked. I have to hand it to him for asking the right question ("what does it mean" instead of the more usual claim that the action in question is "wrong"), but I'm surprised at how bad his answer is.

Purple hair "means" rebellion? Where can I get the culture dictionary that tells me that? It says to me that he doesn't actually understand pop culture. Rebellion has to have an object; one can't just rebel against nothing.

What does purple hair rebel against? Societal norms? No, there aren't any, anymore. God's law? No, I would say, and he would seem to agree. Traditionalism? Perhaps, but seeing as traditionalism is pretty much a bad thing, is it really rebellion?

Oh, and I don't see what the Sex Pistols had to do with that, or why they would call me an empurpled ignoramus for disagreeing with him. 10 points off for mentioning a 30 year old band and making it sound like you think it's part of pop culture.

P.S. I'm the guy that visited your church a couple weeks ago. I'm still thinking about it, which is unusual and in this case, good.

Pastor Rod said...


Thanks for your comments.

I assumed that he was making a reference to a specific song by the Sex Pistols, but I don't know any of their music.

When I first decided to do a post about the article, I thought it would be a positive review of what he wrote.

But all of a sudden the thoughtful, insightful author from the beginning of the article was replaced by a traditionalist who was rationalizing to justify the position he already held.

God Bless,


Anonymous said...

I have purple hair. An old lady at church just told me that I shouldn't because it was 'not as God made me'. I am rather upset.

I feel slightly ashamed that I immediately came home and did a google search for 'jesus and purple hair'; for some reason I feel the need to justify myself. But it would be on my mind otherwise.

Personally, my (Christian) parents are completely supportive of any colour I decide to dye my hair, so it's not rebellion on that level. And as a student living in a student town pretty much everyone takes quirks of appearance as normal.

Having purple hair is transient; it's going to grow out. Really it is not so much different than wearing a brightly coloured coat; last season I may have been wearing a brown one, so what?

You may wonder at this point (or you may not, but such a point occurred to me, so I will answer myself), why then we see a lot less people around with purple hair than with brightly coloured coats. Well, to be honest having purple hair takes a heck of a lot of effort (to keep maintained in the colour) and most people who express interest in dying their hair to me turn out to have not enough commitment. And they have also seemed to lack the courage; perhaps what you said about challenging pre-existing beauty conceptions has something to do with this. Personally such a point never really occurred to me because I happen to really like this colour.

I apologise for using this space for not so much as responding to your article, but writing what I wanted; I had meant to stick more to the point. Sorry.

Pastor Rod said...


Welcome. I don't think that the color of one's hair has much to do with one's spiritual condition. Only you know the reason why you chose to make it purple.

I think that asking whether it is right or wrong is the wrong question. What is important is that God produces the character of Jesus Christ in our hearts and wills.

If you follow the Dallas Willard tags, you will find several helpful quotations from him.

God bless,