Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Changing culture one choice at a time (Myers)

I'd heard good things about Ken Myers' All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes and so I recently picked up a copy. From what I've read so far this would be near the top of my list of recommended books on the subject of Christian engagement with popular culture. Some of you will be familiar with Myers from his excellent Mars Hill Audio program. On a personal note: pray for Myers as he recovers from a life-threatening heart attack (updates here).

I appreciate that Myers insists there are permanent standards established by God by which Christians can evaluate culture. In other words, we shouldn't be afraid to say that one cultural institution or artifact is superior to another because it better reflects the truth and beauty inherent in those standards. This abstract thing we call "culture" is the result of human creativity, and since humans are divine image-bearers, the results of our creativity have the potential to reflect that. Or not.

I also appreciate Myers' call to "cultural humility." This saves us from the error of thinking we can affect huge changes in culture. "Cultural engineering doesn't work," Myers flatly states. Any "take back the culture" movement is bound to fail because culture "is the result of billions of separate choices by millions of people." (p. 32)

This realization is helpful in saving us from the misconception that degradations of popular culture are the result of grand conspiracies. A great example is television. You don't have to look very hard to see the deleterious effects that TV has had on our society, but as Myers writes, "When television was invented, it wasn't because some malevolent engineers wanted to open a Pandora's box for society." (p. 32) Instead, it arose naturally out of man's desire to create new technological and cultural artifacts, as did later inventions that make the early days of TV seem quaint. We can simply boycott the medium of television (which I suppose would mean boycotting the internet too, since most of what you can watch on TV -- and far worse -- you can watch on a computer monitor), or we can seek to engage it with Spirit-renewed minds.

All this isn't to say we have no ability to improve the cultural context in which we live. If you're like me you see many things in our contemporary American pop culture that you'd like to change, and that lead one to believe we're in a period of cultural decline. As Christians how do we go about affecting positive change? Of being salt and light? Myers writes that cultural change happens one choice at a time.

Many of the decisions we make about our involvement in popular culture are not really questions about 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 titillation? (p. 31)

There is much wisdom in those paragraphs. Myers goes on to quote T.S. Eliot: "We should look for the improvement of society, as we seek our own individual improvement, in relatively minute particulars." This "piecemeal" approach may not seem glamorous, but it reflects the reality of the way things are in a fallen, yet being renewed, world.

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