Article 11: On Popular Culture
This is a series to further explain the articles of “A Conservative Christian Declaration.” .
We affirm that much of popular culture is formulaic and sentimentalized, and that it tends toward banality and narcissism. We affirm that much popular music, through its stereotyped form, lacks the ability to communicate transcendent truth, virtue, and beauty, which are central to worship. We further affirm that the modes of expression which have emerged from eras shaped largely by the secularizing forces of popular culture are often incompatible with ordinate affection.
We deny that a selective rejection of popular culture is tantamount to elitism or a disdain for the average believer. We also deny that there are no contemporary examples of orthopathy, or that orthopathy can be found solely in the past.
The central premises of this article flow naturally from the following principles that have been developed in preceding articles:
- Transcendent truth, goodness, and beauty are real and rooted in the nature and character of God.
- Recognizing, affirming, and delighting in these realities is central to Christian worship.
- One of the primary ways these realities about God are expressed is through meaningful works of the imagination.
- These works of imagination carry more than verbal meaning, because they also foster either ordinate or inordinate affection for God.
If the foregoing are true, then it follows that some works of the imagination are ill-fitted and unworthy to express transcendent realities about God and his truth, goodness, and beauty.
Works of the imagination cannot simply be evaluated according to whenthey were created or who created them. The decision about what is worth using in worship cannot be based upon whether a work is “traditional” or “contemporary” as long as those terms refer simply to time. Rather, whether a work is worthy of being offered in worship must be determined by whether it has the capacity in itself to express God’s values and to nurture right affection for him. In principle, every work of the imagination should be tested on this basis. In practice, however, the process of evaluation can be simplified by grouping kinds of works together on the basis of common characteristics.
One such grouping that we believe is mostly ill-fitted to Christian worship is popular culture. We believe that inherent deficiencies in the imaginative works produced by popular culture disqualify many of them from suitability for worship. As we are using the term, popular culture does not refer primarily either to what is new in time or to what is accessible or “popular” to ordinary people. Instead, we understand popular culture to display the following characteristics:
- It is first of all mass culture, possible only where the means of widespread production and dissemination are available.
- It is or quickly becomes commercial: its primary use is to make money.
- In order to make money, it must appeal to as many people as possible.
- It appeals to the masses by directly appealing to the appetites.
- The direct stimulation and immediate gratification of the appetites are inherently transient.
- This transience ensures that the consumer will never be satisfied, always returning for something more stimulating.
- Consequently, a principal value of popular culture is novelty.
Because popular culture produces works of imagination that tend to reflect its values, they are overwhelmingly suited to consumerist, market-driven capitalism. Their ephemeral nature precludes them from reflecting the weighty, the profound, the transcendent, and the enduring. Exceptions exists, of course—but because of their transient nature, these things are powerless to reflect the permanent. Immediate gratification cannot cultivate profundity. Trivial expressions are incapable of expressing the consequential.
One final clarification: distinctions between the trivial and the consequential, or between the immediate and the enduring, are not equivalent to distinctions between complexity and simplicity. Works of the imagination can be both profound and accessible. The imaginative works produced by popular culture are not objectionable because they are accessible. They are objectionable as implements of worship because of their tendency to foster sensibilities that contradict reverent worship.
About Scott Aniol
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.