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Is "Popular Culture" Either?

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Popular culture is not neutral regarding the sensibilities it encourages. Because of the centrality of commercial concerns, popular culture maintains a preferential option for the upbeat, the informal, the new and "interesting.

"Popular culture" is a slippery and deceptive term for a massive and unwieldy reality. As in other controversies, many arguments about popular culture are frustrating because there is no prior agreement on exactly what is being talked about.

Sometimes "popular culture" is used to denote any cultural activity not produced and sanctioned by "elite" cultural institutions. But that really doesn't clarify things, since the term "elite" has a number of meanings. In referring to "elite" cultural institutions, do we mean those institutions supported by a small group of people or those controlled by a small group of people? As it turns out, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for example, serves a much smaller audience than does, say, CBS television. In that sense the Orchestra might be seen as a more elite institution than CBS. But the programming decisions for what appears on CBS are made by a very small elite, compared to the overall number of people working for CBS. The programming decisions at the Chicago Symphony are made by a much larger percentage of orchestra employees.

One might argue that the TV executives are more responsive to market forces than are the symphony orchestra board. And in that sense, CBS may be less of an elite institution. But the important thing to remember is that the artifacts of popular culture are neither created by nor controlled by the populace; they are as much the product of elites as are the artifacts of so-called "high culture." Popular culture is trickle-down culture, consumed by the populace, but not initiated by them. "Baywatch" may be enormously popular, but David Hasselhof and Pamela Anderson are still in a small and amazingly influential elite.

Popular culture seems more democratic than high culture (and hence, in America, "better") because pop culture elites do not treat the masses with disdain or paternalism. The works of popular culture make no effort to "elevate" or "improve," the way high cultural institutions often do. "Popular" is a horizontal and affable adjective, whereas "high" is proudly hierarchical. "Popular" presents cultural life as egalitarian and natural, where "high" suggests standards, norms, and difficult striving. In fact, there is abundant evidence that the makers of popular culture, far from beckoning to the "lesser breeds without the law" from their superior pinnacle, are actually an anti-elite, coaxing those of us with scruples and a sense of decorum to slide down to their level. In an inverted mimicry of the pretentious artist-prophets of high culture, pop culture celebrities are also an avant-garde, a small band of brave pioneers, blazing new trails for the great unwashed to follow.

And follow they do. I recently heard an interview with members of a Los Angeles gang, who were asked by a pastor working with them why they felt the necessity to acquire certain brands of athletic shoes. These kids knew immediately that the desire for these talismanic accessories was engendered by TV commercials. This is how popular culture works: the programs the kids were watching, the commercials they saw, the shoes they bought, and the social bonding within which these shoes were culturally significant to them. All of these elements are in some sense the stuff of popular culture. But none of it was generated at a popular level. Leave a bunch of inner-city kids alone for ten or fifteen years and it is unlikely that they will, ex nihilo, evolve a desire for Japanese-made cross trainers with pneumatic bladders.

For the most part, popular culture rarely comes from the people. It comes from elites more decisively than does high culture. In the past, high culture has relied much more often on elements appropriated from folk culture (e.g., folk tunes in classical music, folk legends in literature, folk masks in Picasso). Popular culture is endorsed by large masses of people and hence is regarded as being "of the people" more than high culture.

There are exceptions. You could make the case that rap music originated in urban folk culture, and was promoted to popular cultural status (with the help of elites at record companies and radio stations). But generally, popular culture is no less elitist in origins than "high culture." Cultural life always tends to be influenced disproportionately by elites, whether prophets, priests, potentates, poets, professors, or publicity managers.

What has changed over the history of American culture is the identity and intent of the elites who wield influence. Over the years various elites have vied for power. Clerical, academic, political, artistic, and mercantile elites (unlike many other nations, we have never had the visible prominence of a military elite) have taken turns in shaping cultural values. Today, the entertainment elite dominates because it governs the field that identifies and exports American culture to the rest of the world, the industry that produces our most successful export: entertainment. In fin-de-siecle America, the keys to the kingdom are in the hands of clowns, acrobats, and their wealthy masters.

Those who defend popular culture summarily dismiss its critics as "elitists," which is a category as obviously reprehensible as "racist" or "fascist." But that charge ignores an important fact even as it conceals an essential assumption. The fact is that popular culture is sustained by elites whose guiding hand is not entirely unprejudiced. Since the well-being of these elites is sustained by certain cultural sympathies, they will always amplify certain themes at the cost of others. For example, popular culture is unimaginable without mass-media, which is in turn unimaginable without advertising, which would not survive in a cultural climate that places a premium on modesty, chastity, frugality, simplicity, and contentment. So those virtues will necessarily be alien to popular culture, even if the people wanted them there. Themes of restless desire, the lust for power, the insistence of moral autonomy, and resistance to restraint are common in popular culture precisely because its elites must sustain these sensibilities to stay in business.

The assumption that undergirds the charge of elitism is an anti-hierarchical egalitarianism, the notion that justice and goodness cannot be possible as long as hierarchies of authority remain. The Bible clearly assumes hierarchies of authority in social life in all forms. The preferred biblical metaphor for leadership in the church, for example, is that of shepherd, which sounds pretty "elitist" to me. "Pastors" are to be a sacrificial elite to be sure, but an elite nonetheless. The presupposition of biblical teaching is that any right-minded sheep should turn to a shepherd for help whenever encountering the sort of trouble sheep are likely to get into. Shepherds aren't perfect, to be sure; there are some things they might learn from observing sheep, and they need shepherding themselves. But they are clearly an elite, like it or not.

As Nathan Hatch has shown in The Democratization of American Christianity, Americans generally haven't liked it. So they have preferred those churches and polities that minimize or deny the authority of pastors. In fact, among Protestants, it seems assumed that the church government that governs least governs best. To the extent that shared Christian life is dominated by the same "populist" dynamics that drive popular culture, there are no shepherds, only sheep (or, in a misunderstanding of the Reformation principle, evangelicals seem to affirm the shepherdhood of all believers).

Yet, there are hidden elites in this realm as well; some sheep, it seems, have gotten stronger and louder than the rest. While the American Church generally rejects ecclesiastical authority, it is quite evidently susceptible to the leadership of affable celebrities, men and women with the same entertaining, anti-paternalistic manner as their counterparts at CBS. Some of them are celebrity speakers, some are writers (or skilled celebrities who manage teams of ghost-writers working for them), increasingly more are simply entertainers.

Just as the secular culture has moved from accepting manners and mores from recognized elites to embracing the "lifestyles" concocted by unacknowledged "populist-elites," so the church in America has moved from submitting to the divinely ordained leadership of preacher-shepherds to the commercially driven leadership of charismatic storytellers, minstrels, and chanteuses. These crypto-shepherds, in turn, generally ape their secular counterparts, learning the technology of celebrity from the real masters. So it should not be surprising that Disney, David Letterman, and MTV are seen by Christian leaders, even pastors, as models for the art of "reaching people."

Pop culture-inspired worship services (usually called "contemporary" worship, although such services totally exclude contemporary high culture) are often defended (with the certainty of those who believe they alone occupy the moral high ground) by the assertion that they are simply services that respect the vernacular of "the people." It is true that many people coming to church on a given Sunday morning (believers and non-believers) do want something more informal, upbeat, and generally more consonant with the popular-culture sensibilities that they live with Monday through Saturday. But they want these things for the same reason that the ghetto kids want a pair of Nikes: because the ambiance of popular culture within which they live promotes and authenticates-or normalizes-certain sensibilities.

And, as suggested earlier, popular culture is not neutral regarding the sensibilities it encourages. Because of the centrality of commercial concerns, popular culture maintains a preferential option for the upbeat, the informal, the new and "interesting." This is not because these are the virtues that make a better person (let alone a better Christian), but because these are the attributes that produce the best consumers.

This is the greatest tragedy of all in the church's careless appropriation of popular culture: that popular culture is not really a culture after all. Historically, cultures have been mechanisms of restraint. Cultural institutions, traditions, and artifacts developed as means of encouraging members of a society to respect its taboos, to obey its laws, and to become the sort of person whose character served the common good by conforming to a view of the good that the society held in common. In theological terms, cultures are thus instruments of common grace that keep people from doing every damned thing (theologically speaking) that they want to. Cultures were also deliberately inter-generational; cultural artifacts were ways of handing down to the coming generation the commitments and beliefs of the passing generation.

But, as University of Pennsylvania scholar Philip Rieff has pointed out, since Freud, cultures (and specific cultural institutions) have increasingly been seen as instruments of liberation rather than restraint. Since repression is a bad thing, the commonweal can be served (ironically) only if there is no notion of the common good that cultural institutions enforce. Empowering people to be all that they can be, to express all that they feel, and to obtain all that they desire is now seen to be the proper function of cultural institutions. I believe this assumption explains why high cultural institutions caved so quickly to the sensibilities of popular culture in the last thirty years. High culture had many defects, but total relativism was not one of them. High culture could only survive in the context of standards and norms of some kind. But a fully democratized and highly commercial popular culture admits no standards. If the customer is always right, and if every social interaction is one in which I am best understood as a consumer, then everyone is always right everywhere.

As to the inter-generational structure of cultures, it should be obvious that the commercial aspects of popular culture demolish the possibility of inter-generational concerns. Just watch a Saturday morning's worth of TV commercials, and see how many products are sold by making the appeal (tacitly or explicitly) that your parents (or adults in general, but especially adults in positions of authority) won't like you to have this product. The idea of a youth culture is really a commercial invention; it is sustained by the desire to sell more and more products to younger and younger people by causing them to understand themselves as a separate race.

So popular culture takes on the attributes of a kind of anti-culture, a system that rejects the task of restraint and normative character formation in favor of liberation and self-expression. Culture is not a legacy that is transmitted and received, it is a commodity that is consumed. Under this regime, children are not to be molded by participation in shared traditions, they are stimulated to "be themselves" and to buy themselves into being.

This is a very abbreviated glance at a very complex issue, but if the outlines of it are generally sound, it should cause some concern among Christians who want to exploit or co-opt popular culture for the sake of the gospel. As I have argued elsewhere, individual artifacts within the system of popular culture may be delightful and innocently entertaining. But the Church cannot condone the social dynamics or the existential sensibilities of popular culture. They are too distorting or too inadequate to perform the sorts of social and personal tasks that culture has, in the providence of God, the function of performing.

Two places to begin are suggested by the deficiencies in popular culture described above. The Church can be a community that displays loving and redemptive authority, thereby offering an alternative to the dubious populism promoted outside. Several cultural critics have argued that one of the major crises of modern society is the crisis of authority. The Church does not love its neighbors (or her Lord) if she mimics populist or egalitarian manners and thereby adds momentum to the debilitating suspicion of authority that afflicts our age.

Secondly, the Church can insist on its identity as an inter-generational community. It can do this structurally, by refusing to segment congregations by age, and temperamentally, by recovering a biblical respect for maturity and rejecting popular culture"s infantilism, thereby offering to children a goal of growing up. Popular culture exalts perpetual adolescence. Rock critic Lawrence Grossberg recently described the way this fixated state is perpetuated in the music of youth culture:

In privileging youth, rock transforms a temporary and transitional identity into a culture of transitions. Youth itself is transformed from a matter of age into an ambiguous matter of attitude, defined by its rejection of boredom and its celebration of movement, change, energy: that is, fun. And this celebration is lived out in and inscribed upon the body-in dance, sex, drugs, fashion, style and even the music itself. (1)
By contrast, in the view of biblical personhood, adulthood is a desirable telos. Paul regularly talks about perfection and completeness and maturity as aims for disciples.

Instead of adopting the ways of popular culture, the Church should show the world a more excellent way. Instead of retooling Sunday to render it in synch with Monday through Saturday, the Church, in its proclamation and in its making of disciples, should offer a counter-cultural model of living obedience, seeking to transform what believers and unbelievers experience during the week by what happens to them and around them on Sunday.



1 [ Back ] Lawrence Grossberg, "Is Anybody Listening? Does Anybody Really Care?: On the State of Rock," in Microphone Fiends: Youth Music and Youth Culture, ed. by Andrew Ross and Tricia Rose (New York: Routledge, 1994), 51.

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Kenneth A. Myers (MA, Westminster Theological Seminary) is a founder of Mars Hill Audio and a writer/editor.

Issue: "The Effects of Popular Culture on Religion" Jan./Feb. 1997 Vol. 6 No. 1 Page number(s): 9-12

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