Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Some musings on the immanence of pop Christian culture

Among my many problems with Christian popular music is its (by virtue of its being popular) transitory and "trendy" nature. For example, many would consider the 70's music of the Gaither's "passé" today (I would at least hope so). I think the glory of hymns written before the middle of the 19th century is that they seemingly transcend this phenomenon. The chant form in particular, I think, resonates in a transcultural manner. Popular forms, on the other hand, are not usually able to transcend this barrier.

Every once in a while I will watch TBN on TV, and laugh at the old Michael W. Smith music videos because they are so "out of style" ("they are sooooo 80's," if you know what I mean). I feel the same way towards songs like "He Touched Me," El Shaddai," and "Shine, Jesus, Shine." Of course, this is well illustrated with other, older tunes like "At the Cross" and "Fill my Cup." All these songs have at two things in common: 1) they are not transcendent, and 2) they are popular. They did what they were intended to do; they were crafted to be immediately popular and strike a note with the current trends in popular evangelicalism at that time. So were the tunes of Ira Sankey, J. W. Peterson, even the recordings George Beverly Shae. Who knows how many "contemporary" Christian LPs of the 70's (which were very trendy at the time), donned with bell-bottoms, big hair, and 9-inch collars, are now sitting in Salvation Army bins of no use to timeless Christianity? I am willing, to a certain extent, to take the music of any culture (German, Russian, English, Italian, Romanian, and African) that speaks to this timeless message of the gospel and use it in worship. I am not willing, however, to get caught up in whatever popular American evangelicalism is doing and look back only to be embarrassed fifteen years from now because my worship then was soooooo "2000's."

In reality, this popular aspect of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism closely resembles what American liberalism had always sought to do: amalgamate Christianity to the prevailing culture. Whereas liberalism sought to force Christianity in the shapes of modernism and current philosophical trends (high culture), evangelicalism (broadly speaking) has historically sought to press their Christianity into the molds of the wasteland of popular culture (low culture). Both desired that Christianity would be relevant. But both were subtly deceived; the progeny of this interspecies breeding was a religion that was so quickly out of style that it had to be continuously updated to keep in step with the current "relevance." And in so doing, the new religion was hopelessly irrelevant--unable to really offer any kind of transcendent gospel to the world. And so it continues today.

14 Comments:

Blogger Don said...

Hi Ryan

I am not sure I agree with this thesis entirely, if at all. It seems to me that most of what anyone produces in any age is fluff. There is only so much that is truly excellent, or transcendant, to use your terminology.

For example, I would suspect that Bernard of Clairvaux wrote more than one hymn. Most of us sing only one of his today. John Newton wrote thousands of hymns. We sing four or five today. Charles Wesley wrote many more than we sing today, although perhaps his best are more retained than Newton's or others.

I think we had a discussion about conversation on Joel's blog a while back. (It seems light years away now, but it had to have been in the last year or so, right??) Joel was saying something about only liking the truly valuable conversations. But in order to have truly valuable conversations you have to wade through a lot of fluff, i.e., have a lot of banal conversations. Or write a blog... But even there, banality consumes the majority of our conversation time. Even on Joel's blog. I'm still waiting to score on a hundred post thread there, but when we start heading in that direction, it is usually not one of the more serious topics, is it? At least not as we are marching to #100, anyway. A lot of frivolity is thrown in and is part of the mix.

So back to worship: Will the fundamentalist church still be singing in 50 years the songs we sing today? (Assuming, of course, fundamentalists will be around in 50 more years.) It is likely that we won't. Fundamentalists will still sing the one Bernard, probably, and a few of Newtons and a few more Wesleys, and maybe even one Hamilton (my vote would go to Rejoice in the Lord), but the bulk of the developed music of fundamentalism at that point will be current to its time, in a fundamentalistic sort of way.

Triviality is part of finite existence.

Heaven, on the other hand, is infinite... the songs there will be the best! And in 50 years, I plan on singing them, I don't want to be croaking away in an old folks home at 98!!!

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

12/29/2005 07:29:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

I would make a difference between popular culture and the "forgotten" hymns of Bernard of Clairvaux. I, for one, would be delighted to find one such "forgotten" hymn of Bernard or Wesley or Newton or Watts. This is far different than purposefully trying to forget the trivial offerings of popular culture Christianity. There is a difference in why they are forgotten. The "forgotten" hymn of Bernard, though forgotten, would likely still speak to timeless Christianity; it just may not be as good. The "forgotten" songs of Hamilton and the Gaithers and MWS and J W Peterson and all the rubbish produced by American evangelicalism in the last century, when salvaged by some following Christian generation (if the Lord tarries . . . Maranantha!), will not do so. These trivialities are hopelessly parochial, and in focusing so much on being "relevant," they will be unable to speak to timeless Christianity. They are not simply "not as good," they, in trying to be current, no longer do what they were intended to do, and, oddly enough, when "resurrected" later, are unable to provide an substantial value (generally speaking).

This, in fact, is a quite different question than whether or not we should allow some of our church music to be merely "good" instead of basking in the glow of the Mass in B Minor every Sunday. I realize that we will, by our very nature, sometimes offer worship that is not excellent. But I would not be so bold as to recommend that we consciously "settle" for this kind of thing habitually. That is near sacrilege.

Neither do I mean to say that every gospel song or chorus, springing out of the popular genre, will or should not endure. But their attempt to be relevance greatly hinders their chance to do so; they are unable to offer any kind of profound religion.

In other words, I think we are talking about two different things.

12/29/2005 07:57:00 PM  
Anonymous dissidens said...

There is a difference between trivial and imperfect. There is a difference between good and well-loved. There is a difference between meaningful and oft-sung.

There are many other differences as well. Trying to roll them all into a good/bad binary solution set is what makes fundamentalism's attempt at cultural renovation so comical.

12/30/2005 07:53:00 AM  
Blogger Todd Mitchell said...

It is ironic that the prevailing argument seems to be that by shunning the faddish we trivialize the "perceived needs" of the "seeker," yet the notion of trivializing God is dismissed.

12/30/2005 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Indeed.

12/30/2005 10:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Joel said...

Dissidens strikes with some fine distinctions . . . anybody got anything to say to that? Some people think fine distictions and the philosophical dexterity involved are the bane of theology. Anybody got a word on that?

12/30/2005 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Without fine distinctions you end up writing theologies that resemble the wretched works coming out of Grand Rapids, full of contextualization and contemporary sensitivity and vague religious pinings after who knows what. Or you end up saying regrettable things like, "God is a composite of all his parts."

And I desire to be able to make them. As my response to Don shows, I am still groping after an ability to do so. These days, clear and precise thinking is almost as rare as a tolerance for it, and I wish a few good chaps who seem to have it down would give me some pointers on how to exercise it.

12/30/2005 11:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Joel said...

I was setting you up for a one word answer Ryan. I can't believe you didn't put it through in Greek.

12/30/2005 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Are you asking me to play the homoousios card?

12/30/2005 01:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Joel said...

Way to put it with trepidation! What is wrong with you? You should delete all these comments and then put it with confidence after the one where I ask the question.

12/30/2005 01:10:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Okay, Okay. Everybody reading this conversation between Joel and me should disregard the posts between the one he posted Friday at 11:02 am and the one preceding this one. Then, pick it up here:

Yes, indeed, Joel. There are a number of persons out there who seem repulsed by theological distinctions and Biblical deductions of any kind. They need to find every jot and tittle of their Christian life etched in what has become for many the last and only sure epistemological ground in this post-modern abyss. For all those who play around with this kind of a generalized Christianity refusing to embrace any fine theological thought with the false dreams that the only sure things are those etched explicitly in the Holy Writ, I have, while agreeing in part (and only in part) with their sentiment, one terrible word for their access: homoousios.

12/30/2005 01:55:00 PM  
Blogger lilrabbi said...

Its a good thing I always start reading at the latest comment and work my way backwards.

12/31/2005 08:59:00 PM  
Blogger Don said...

Hi Ryan

I have been busy for the last few days, so I am late getting back to this. A few comments:

You said:
The "forgotten" hymn of Bernard, though forgotten, would likely still speak to timeless Christianity; it just may not be as good. The "forgotten" songs of Hamilton and the Gaithers and MWS and J W Peterson and all the rubbish produced by American evangelicalism in the last century, when salvaged by some following Christian generation (if the Lord tarries . . . Maranantha!), will not do so.

That would be an interesting project, finding forgotten works of Bernard, Wesley, Newton, etc. I think you can find the whole Olney hymnal online, so Newton is not so hard to find. And I suspect that you are right that these forgotten works are of a different sort than a lot of the modern fluff. However, I would not be surprised to find something less than satisfactory among all of these old dudes. They were all unglorified at the point of their contributions, so it is entirely possible that they contributed some fluff also.

You also said:
I realize that we will, by our very nature, sometimes offer worship that is not excellent. But I would not be so bold as to recommend that we consciously "settle" for this kind of thing habitually.

Well, we can't have mountaintops without any valley's, eh?

But what is excellent? There may be some rather ordinary worship experiences that are "good and acceptable and perfect" (Rm 12.2) while not being elevated like Wesley's best hymns, don't you think? Wouldn't that be excellent also?

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

1/01/2006 04:16:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Don, are you talking about worship "experiences" or worship "expressions"? I, for one, am not prone to settling for either, though I know that they happen. Let's not kid ourselves. Our worship is not about our best efforts or what we can do. Our worship is attributing worth to one true God. If we start playing around with "lowest common demoninators" of what he finds acceptable, we are sure to get it wrong. Poor is never excellent, and when we finally get to the throne room, we will see just how often we got it wrong both in spirit and in truth.

1/02/2006 11:05:00 AM  

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Immoderate: Some musings on the immanence of pop Christian culture

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Some musings on the immanence of pop Christian culture

Among my many problems with Christian popular music is its (by virtue of its being popular) transitory and "trendy" nature. For example, many would consider the 70's music of the Gaither's "passé" today (I would at least hope so). I think the glory of hymns written before the middle of the 19th century is that they seemingly transcend this phenomenon. The chant form in particular, I think, resonates in a transcultural manner. Popular forms, on the other hand, are not usually able to transcend this barrier.

Every once in a while I will watch TBN on TV, and laugh at the old Michael W. Smith music videos because they are so "out of style" ("they are sooooo 80's," if you know what I mean). I feel the same way towards songs like "He Touched Me," El Shaddai," and "Shine, Jesus, Shine." Of course, this is well illustrated with other, older tunes like "At the Cross" and "Fill my Cup." All these songs have at two things in common: 1) they are not transcendent, and 2) they are popular. They did what they were intended to do; they were crafted to be immediately popular and strike a note with the current trends in popular evangelicalism at that time. So were the tunes of Ira Sankey, J. W. Peterson, even the recordings George Beverly Shae. Who knows how many "contemporary" Christian LPs of the 70's (which were very trendy at the time), donned with bell-bottoms, big hair, and 9-inch collars, are now sitting in Salvation Army bins of no use to timeless Christianity? I am willing, to a certain extent, to take the music of any culture (German, Russian, English, Italian, Romanian, and African) that speaks to this timeless message of the gospel and use it in worship. I am not willing, however, to get caught up in whatever popular American evangelicalism is doing and look back only to be embarrassed fifteen years from now because my worship then was soooooo "2000's."

In reality, this popular aspect of American fundamentalism and evangelicalism closely resembles what American liberalism had always sought to do: amalgamate Christianity to the prevailing culture. Whereas liberalism sought to force Christianity in the shapes of modernism and current philosophical trends (high culture), evangelicalism (broadly speaking) has historically sought to press their Christianity into the molds of the wasteland of popular culture (low culture). Both desired that Christianity would be relevant. But both were subtly deceived; the progeny of this interspecies breeding was a religion that was so quickly out of style that it had to be continuously updated to keep in step with the current "relevance." And in so doing, the new religion was hopelessly irrelevant--unable to really offer any kind of transcendent gospel to the world. And so it continues today.

14 Comments:

Blogger Don said...

Hi Ryan

I am not sure I agree with this thesis entirely, if at all. It seems to me that most of what anyone produces in any age is fluff. There is only so much that is truly excellent, or transcendant, to use your terminology.

For example, I would suspect that Bernard of Clairvaux wrote more than one hymn. Most of us sing only one of his today. John Newton wrote thousands of hymns. We sing four or five today. Charles Wesley wrote many more than we sing today, although perhaps his best are more retained than Newton's or others.

I think we had a discussion about conversation on Joel's blog a while back. (It seems light years away now, but it had to have been in the last year or so, right??) Joel was saying something about only liking the truly valuable conversations. But in order to have truly valuable conversations you have to wade through a lot of fluff, i.e., have a lot of banal conversations. Or write a blog... But even there, banality consumes the majority of our conversation time. Even on Joel's blog. I'm still waiting to score on a hundred post thread there, but when we start heading in that direction, it is usually not one of the more serious topics, is it? At least not as we are marching to #100, anyway. A lot of frivolity is thrown in and is part of the mix.

So back to worship: Will the fundamentalist church still be singing in 50 years the songs we sing today? (Assuming, of course, fundamentalists will be around in 50 more years.) It is likely that we won't. Fundamentalists will still sing the one Bernard, probably, and a few of Newtons and a few more Wesleys, and maybe even one Hamilton (my vote would go to Rejoice in the Lord), but the bulk of the developed music of fundamentalism at that point will be current to its time, in a fundamentalistic sort of way.

Triviality is part of finite existence.

Heaven, on the other hand, is infinite... the songs there will be the best! And in 50 years, I plan on singing them, I don't want to be croaking away in an old folks home at 98!!!

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

12/29/2005 07:29:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

I would make a difference between popular culture and the "forgotten" hymns of Bernard of Clairvaux. I, for one, would be delighted to find one such "forgotten" hymn of Bernard or Wesley or Newton or Watts. This is far different than purposefully trying to forget the trivial offerings of popular culture Christianity. There is a difference in why they are forgotten. The "forgotten" hymn of Bernard, though forgotten, would likely still speak to timeless Christianity; it just may not be as good. The "forgotten" songs of Hamilton and the Gaithers and MWS and J W Peterson and all the rubbish produced by American evangelicalism in the last century, when salvaged by some following Christian generation (if the Lord tarries . . . Maranantha!), will not do so. These trivialities are hopelessly parochial, and in focusing so much on being "relevant," they will be unable to speak to timeless Christianity. They are not simply "not as good," they, in trying to be current, no longer do what they were intended to do, and, oddly enough, when "resurrected" later, are unable to provide an substantial value (generally speaking).

This, in fact, is a quite different question than whether or not we should allow some of our church music to be merely "good" instead of basking in the glow of the Mass in B Minor every Sunday. I realize that we will, by our very nature, sometimes offer worship that is not excellent. But I would not be so bold as to recommend that we consciously "settle" for this kind of thing habitually. That is near sacrilege.

Neither do I mean to say that every gospel song or chorus, springing out of the popular genre, will or should not endure. But their attempt to be relevance greatly hinders their chance to do so; they are unable to offer any kind of profound religion.

In other words, I think we are talking about two different things.

12/29/2005 07:57:00 PM  
Anonymous dissidens said...

There is a difference between trivial and imperfect. There is a difference between good and well-loved. There is a difference between meaningful and oft-sung.

There are many other differences as well. Trying to roll them all into a good/bad binary solution set is what makes fundamentalism's attempt at cultural renovation so comical.

12/30/2005 07:53:00 AM  
Blogger Todd Mitchell said...

It is ironic that the prevailing argument seems to be that by shunning the faddish we trivialize the "perceived needs" of the "seeker," yet the notion of trivializing God is dismissed.

12/30/2005 10:31:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Indeed.

12/30/2005 10:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Joel said...

Dissidens strikes with some fine distinctions . . . anybody got anything to say to that? Some people think fine distictions and the philosophical dexterity involved are the bane of theology. Anybody got a word on that?

12/30/2005 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Without fine distinctions you end up writing theologies that resemble the wretched works coming out of Grand Rapids, full of contextualization and contemporary sensitivity and vague religious pinings after who knows what. Or you end up saying regrettable things like, "God is a composite of all his parts."

And I desire to be able to make them. As my response to Don shows, I am still groping after an ability to do so. These days, clear and precise thinking is almost as rare as a tolerance for it, and I wish a few good chaps who seem to have it down would give me some pointers on how to exercise it.

12/30/2005 11:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Joel said...

I was setting you up for a one word answer Ryan. I can't believe you didn't put it through in Greek.

12/30/2005 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Are you asking me to play the homoousios card?

12/30/2005 01:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Joel said...

Way to put it with trepidation! What is wrong with you? You should delete all these comments and then put it with confidence after the one where I ask the question.

12/30/2005 01:10:00 PM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Okay, Okay. Everybody reading this conversation between Joel and me should disregard the posts between the one he posted Friday at 11:02 am and the one preceding this one. Then, pick it up here:

Yes, indeed, Joel. There are a number of persons out there who seem repulsed by theological distinctions and Biblical deductions of any kind. They need to find every jot and tittle of their Christian life etched in what has become for many the last and only sure epistemological ground in this post-modern abyss. For all those who play around with this kind of a generalized Christianity refusing to embrace any fine theological thought with the false dreams that the only sure things are those etched explicitly in the Holy Writ, I have, while agreeing in part (and only in part) with their sentiment, one terrible word for their access: homoousios.

12/30/2005 01:55:00 PM  
Blogger lilrabbi said...

Its a good thing I always start reading at the latest comment and work my way backwards.

12/31/2005 08:59:00 PM  
Blogger Don said...

Hi Ryan

I have been busy for the last few days, so I am late getting back to this. A few comments:

You said:
The "forgotten" hymn of Bernard, though forgotten, would likely still speak to timeless Christianity; it just may not be as good. The "forgotten" songs of Hamilton and the Gaithers and MWS and J W Peterson and all the rubbish produced by American evangelicalism in the last century, when salvaged by some following Christian generation (if the Lord tarries . . . Maranantha!), will not do so.

That would be an interesting project, finding forgotten works of Bernard, Wesley, Newton, etc. I think you can find the whole Olney hymnal online, so Newton is not so hard to find. And I suspect that you are right that these forgotten works are of a different sort than a lot of the modern fluff. However, I would not be surprised to find something less than satisfactory among all of these old dudes. They were all unglorified at the point of their contributions, so it is entirely possible that they contributed some fluff also.

You also said:
I realize that we will, by our very nature, sometimes offer worship that is not excellent. But I would not be so bold as to recommend that we consciously "settle" for this kind of thing habitually.

Well, we can't have mountaintops without any valley's, eh?

But what is excellent? There may be some rather ordinary worship experiences that are "good and acceptable and perfect" (Rm 12.2) while not being elevated like Wesley's best hymns, don't you think? Wouldn't that be excellent also?

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

1/01/2006 04:16:00 AM  
Blogger Ryan Martin said...

Don, are you talking about worship "experiences" or worship "expressions"? I, for one, am not prone to settling for either, though I know that they happen. Let's not kid ourselves. Our worship is not about our best efforts or what we can do. Our worship is attributing worth to one true God. If we start playing around with "lowest common demoninators" of what he finds acceptable, we are sure to get it wrong. Poor is never excellent, and when we finally get to the throne room, we will see just how often we got it wrong both in spirit and in truth.

1/02/2006 11:05:00 AM  

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