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Fashion is arbitrary

Reflecting on the demise of Crystal Cathedral, Harriet Baber wrote in the Guardian this stinging indictment of American evangelicalism:

Of course we don’t expect popular entertainments to last. Fashion is arbitrary. There was no particular reason why hip-hop replaced disco or why the 1970s favoured earth tones while the 1990s featured violet and teal. We look in vain for some underlying social circumstance to explain why at a particular time and in a particular place popular culture takes the form it does: fashions change because they are fashions and so have nothing to recommend them but their relative novelty.

Fashion dominates the world of evangelical Christianity and its therapeutic penumbra.

She continues:

Was this all religion was: Cheerful platitudes and advice for successful living? Recipes for doing well in this world and the next? A pleasant place to pass an hour or two: an uplifting programme, brunch in the Welcoming Center and a stroll through the grounds?

I thought religion was a window into heaven, into another world of power, glory and intensity, to the contemplation of divine beauty. When I got religion, I never imagined this flat, dull evangelicalism.

We may object to some of Baber’s categorizations of evangelicalism (to be sure, some seem more like straw men), but she has a real point for us to consider. Are the trappings of popular culture the best vehicles for our worship and the transmission of our faith?

I believe with Baber that popular entertainment dominates the vain fashions of American evangelicalism, and that such a embracing posture toward popular culture betrays distinctly anti-Christian “values.” The arbitrary waves of popular culture often communicate a whole host of mores opposed to Christian sensibility, but their ‘relative novelty’ and necessary brevity itself is diametrically opposed to what Christianity is all about. The American evangelical addiction to popular culture is a real problem. We purport to espouse the True, Eternal, and lasting Good in Jesus Christ. We believe that God is the relevant only in his eternity.

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While there are no ahistorical or eternal cultural forms (in the sense that no culture ever dropped from the sky), cultures communicate–even in their relative “staying power”–and the very transitoriness of popular culture shows its arbitrariness and vanity. The faith we confess is not popular or fashionable but other-worldly, revealed, and lasting–“once for all delivered for the saints”–as one fellow so aptly put it. To be sure, traditional Western cultural motifs have communicated and continue to communicate Christian affections on a whole of host of non-discursive levels. But, even so, these artifacts and broad tradition communicates a kind of permanence in the (broadly speaking) continuity it has a maintained. On the other hand, American evangelicalism’s enslavement to fashion in all its ephemeral vanity surely betrays a radical conflict with the faith it confesses. Bach preludes continue to inspire; not so for “Through It All.”

One of the virtues of conservatism is, however it (sometimes unwittingly) stands within this unfortunate tradition of addiction to popular fashions, that it is working to slowly rid itself of these trends while simultaneously attempting to proclaim the gospel clearly in the vernacular. The Christian faith does not have to be a place of popular idioms, we believe; indeed, it cannot be, if it desires truly lasting ‘relevance’ and vitality.

——–

HT: Todd Pruitt at 1517

Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too.

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Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

3 Responses to Fashion is arbitrary

  1. I agree that fashion is arbitrary in the sense that they "have nothing [substantive] to recommend them but their relative novelty," but I don't know if I could go so far as to agree that they are unrelated to social trends or personal philosophies.
    Anyway, I heartily agree with the point that we ought to cultivated expressions of faith/praise that transend trend.
    Thanks for this.

  2. Thank you for the comment, David.

    I would agree that popular trends and fashions are in some way related to social settings and philosophies. Still, there is a seeming arbitrariness of fashion that must in some way be accounted for.

    It's worth considering how these two factors relate. I don't have the answers right now, but I'm glad you raised the problem.

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