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Well-entrenched cultural relativism

Consider this astute remark by Kenneth Myers:

downloadThe experience of popular culture is a bit different from that of high culture. Studying the works of J. S. Bach or John Donne systematically will likely afford us a better appreciation of them. But few people argue that a careful, rigorous, painstaking analysis of the compositions of Oingo Boingo will result in an enhanced perception of their records. . . .

One reason aesthetic questions rarely arise in the study of popular culture is that cultural relativism is so well-entrenched; it is generally assumed that questions of taste merely reflect political interests rather than any transcendent order of beauty or propriety. A Christian assessment of popular culture must take social and aesthetic perspectives in view. Culture is not (as many scholars today believe) simply the battleground for a perpetual war of classes, races, and genders. Such battles do occur, but they have much less to do with determining the quality of life in a culture than ideological academics imagine.1

What does this mean for a Christian’s assessment of culture for use in worship?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department 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.

  1. All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes []

36 Responses to Well-entrenched cultural relativism

  1. As it has discussed in class today, that we need to fully understand a culture in order to assess it.
    Since culture is not neutral, that means we cannot judge good or bad culture. I believe that the usability of music is based on culture content. For example, saxophone music is commonly used in African American gospel music; to them, it is not an issue at all to use in worship. However, one or two decades ago, in Asia, saxophone music has been used in immoral events of movies. If saxophone music is used in Asian churches, then it will be inappropriate.

  2. Myers points out an important factor of cultural assessment: social and aesthetic perspectives. Whatever cultural forms we use in worship, they should be the ones which can reflect God’s goodness, beauty, and glory. Philippians 4:8 is a guideline for a Christian’s assessment of culture for use in worship: “Finally, brothers, whatever things are true, whatever things are honorable, whatever things are right, whatever things are pure, whatever things are pleasing, whatever things are commendable, if there is any excellence of character and if anything praiseworthy, think about these things” (LEB). Assessment of culture and aesthetics should correspond to God’s truth and beauty. While aesthetic view, to some degree, differs among social groups, yet this Scriptural guideline for Christian worship aesthetics remains true.

  3. “One reason aesthetic questions rarely arise in the study of popular culture is that cultural relativism is so well-entrenched; it is generally assumed that questions of taste merely reflect political interests rather than any transcendent order of beauty or propriety.”

    I believe the question of taste does not merely reflect political interest but also mass media. I feel the exposure of mass media, especially with advertisements, on a regular basis subconsciously shapes the way we perceive beauty or propriety. I think in terms of worship, we should take a Niebuhr’s first approach, “Christ against culture,” where the music and the way we conduct worship should not be influenced by culture but rather be separated.

  4. Ai-Chin,
    Wow! What an interesting example from Asian culture! Thanks for that insight and example of considering the associated meaning that may be communicated by choice in musical instruments in different cultures. I thought one thing that you said was rather interesting and I think I would disagree, but maybe I misunderstood your intent. You stated: “Since culture is not neutral, that means we cannot judge good or bad culture.” I agree with the first portion of that statement but not the second. I would say rather that “Because culture is not neutral, it is the responsibility of believers to seek to recognize the good and the bad elements in culture.” If culture actually was neutral, then we could not discern good or evil. But since Scripture gives many directives about our behavior, way of life, and essentially “culture”, don’t you agree that we should evalute our behavior against Scripture to discern what is good and what is bad? Maybe this is what you intended to communicate since I know you were referencing our class discussion?

  5. The challenge here is to look deeper into culture. It is the “transcendent order of beauty and property” that needs to be identified. So many people today quickly assume surface issues of culture and fail to acknowledge any transcend beauty. With this said, the music and worship of the local church in a specific culture should reflect values that line up with the beauty and order of Scripture. Worship will be affected by culture. Everything is affected by culture. The one thing that remains constant is identifying the transcendent order of beauty in Scripture. I think it is important that instead of trying to find every little difference between cultures, we should identify the unifying characteristics. This will lead back to identifying the “transcendent order of beauty and property.”

  6. According to the class discussion, culture could be defined as the way of life or the behavior of people.Thus, behavior is not neutral and religion could be considered as one of the most important source to produce certain behavior. I believe that religion is transcendental in nature and every culture should be related to some transcendent order of beauty. I agree with Kenneth Myers that “a Christian assessment of popular culture must take social and aesthetic perspectives in view.” Therefore, when we think about the worship culture, we should not only consider the social values of art, but also the transcendent values of the worship practices.

  7. I like where Katy and Brandon are going here. It is our responsibility as Christians to assess culture and transfer that assessment into our performance practices. We have to dig deep into history, origins, associations, and more before we can understand something completely.

    We have to know the culture surrounding us before we can add practices to our worship experience. Correct me if I have misrepresented either of you, but just wanted to take your thoughts and run.

  8. I believe whatever cultural forms we use in worship, they should reflect God’s goodness, beauty, and glory. When we think about the worship culture, we should think about the transcendent value of the worship practice. I like what Ben says here: “it is our responsibility as Christians to assess culture and transfer that assessment into our performance practices. We have to dig deep into history, origins, associations, and more before we can understand something completely.” We need to understand the surrounding culture first and then we might able to have some thoughtful decisions to make regarding worship practice. Whatever we do, it should reflect His glory.

  9. Myers brings up a good point and something that many people are guilty of. Rarely do we consider both social and aesthetic perspectives when we evaluate culture around us. Before we render a judgment on a particular cultural aspect for our time, we need to first make sure we understand the aspect in its totality. I think it easy to simply dismiss things as being matter of taste for some and having no transcendent beauty or order or anything that will stand the test of time.

  10. First it seems to make clear what the higher and transcendent order of beauty or prepriety is. That should have proper reason based on the Scripture. It sounds like that all poular culture tends to be lower culture. This approahing can have danger that leads to be blinded by self rightousness.
    Well… When Jesus came to the earth, His culture and life looked like lower and humble to Pharisees. If we do not set up what the higher culture and transcendent order of beauty that the Scriptures are telling, it would become merely another Paraisee’ s perspective of these days.

  11. I agree with Wendy’s opinion that “whatever cultural forms we use in worship, they should be the ones which can reflect God’s goodness, beauty, and glory.”
    Also, I think culture has a strong influence on Christians’ worship. The indiscriminate use of cultures is dangerous. However, if Christians know and study exactly about cultures and apply these cultures to God-focused worship, worship will have strong powers to glorify the name of God.

  12. Culture is something inescapable because it affects every aspect of our life. We are living in it! Myers indeed made an astute remark! In order to assess whether pop or whatever culture that surrounds us, both social and aesthetic aspects should be given into consideration. Not everyone wants to offend other’s culture when someone has to evaluate it. In my personal opinion, this is partly due to the cultural relativism as well. For Christians, to assess pop culture with the intention of making use of it in worship, we should definitely seek for transcendent order of beauty. This can only be done with the help of Scripture guidance for Christian worship. I agree with Brandon’s statement that instead of focusing on all the differences of among respective cultures, we should identify the unifying characteristics that will lead us to transcendent order of beauty.

  13. Religion shapes culture, so every aspect of one’s life will be affected. Their worship practice will demonstrate the change that the Holy Spirit has done in their lives. What they worship will change, how they worship will change (in spirit and truth), and who they worship will change. We must understand that in sharing the gospel, it will ask someone to change their culture because they are a new creation, by God’s grace.

  14. I believe that human culture is distorted after Adam’s fallen. Thus, every culture contains both God-like and distorted elements at the same time. Those are combined together in every human culture. Since no one is perfect before God, it is not right to judge any culture if it is good or bad at once. Based on the Scripture, believers must consider the content of each culture if it is harmful to sustain as one’s belief life first. After, they are to asses if it is fine to accept. There is no absolute good and bad in human culture, on the other hand, every thing is distorted before God since it comes from human beings, sinful nature. It is human responsibility to assess rightly based on the Scripture and try to be balanced.

  15. I agree with Myers that “A Christian assessment of popular culture must take social and aesthetic perspectives in view.” The statement reminds me that Faulkner mentioned the church nowadays sets no trend for the development of music, but follows the surrounding cultures. I think it is necessary for Christians and church leaders to critically evaluate popular culture from different perspectives before bringing the elements of it in the church and worship.

  16. Kenneth Myers says “A Christian assessment of popular culture must take social and aesthetic perspectives in view.” I agree with Ai-chin’s opinion that we cannot judge good or bad culture because culture is not the war of specific issues. When the Christian assessment of popular culture is used in worship, worship could be refelected by social and aesthetic perspectives. When worship is used in the Christia assessment, Christians should indentify what we use in worship because culture reflects the life of people.

  17. I agree that “a Christian assessment of popular culture must take social and aesthetic perspectives in view”, because our shape of the life are exposed by the social and aesthetic perspectives in view. Therefore, fully being aware of the culture is helps to use a Christian’s assessment of culture in worship. However, I strongly believe that being in the center of God is the most important than any other. Rome 8: 28 tells us “all things work together for good to those who love God.” God leads us as his way in our heart toward God.

  18. When we say ‘Christian assessment of popular culture must take social and aesthetic perspectives in view’, it means that we should evaluate if the culture that we use in worship has the order of the beauty and propriety. The truth of God shows what is good and bad. It reveals God’s faithfulness and the perfection. Therefore, the culture that we use should be able to reveal this nature of God. When we treat a popular culture, we must distinguish if it really is helpful to understand God’s word or if we are just adopting that culture in order to advertise something.

  19. The opening two sentences of the second paragraph in the excerpt represent a thought process that Christians should attempt when discussing worship and culture. First, worship must be much deeper than someone’s “taste” or personal preferences. Worship should be doctrinally sound, should be edifying, and should have God at the center. Culture should not have a watering-down effect on our worship in order for the church to better serve a people’s presences. Secondly, our worship must be socially interactive. Worship, however, must still speak honestly with the culture.

  20. We have to consider the ascetics within a worship service if there is intrinsic beauty in all creation. A particular taste in music is not a good enough justification to use a particular style of music. I believe many scholars today have not acknowledged that music can be separate from the cultural ideology. Certain styles of music may not be suitable for worship for several reasons that are beyond the scope of this posting. One reason is the accessibility of the music to the congregation weather this be because of range, complex rhythms, or some other factor.

  21. “Culture is not (as many scholars today believe) simply the battleground for a perpetual war of classes, races, and genders. Such battles do occur, but they have much less to do with determining the quality of life in a culture than ideological academics imagine.” – Myers

    Today, people focus so much on the battles at hand that they overlook the truth of what culture is. If the social and aesthetic content is fully examined, these battles can be seen as a simple piece of the whole, but not the whole itself. Complete in-depth examination must be carried out.

  22. Well said John! It is true that culture should not have watering-down effect on worship just because of we have the intention of better serving different groups of people. However, like you said, we still need to be socially interactive and culturally sensitive. Of course, the term culture is not a biblical one, and we know by the scripture that there won’t be any distinctions of cultural expressions in heaven, but we are still in this world and have to deal with people from different culture backgrounds. Let’s face the reality! Should we advocate for the universality nature of church simply by disregarding the cultural distinctions among different groups of people from nations? Just a thought.

  23. Sometimes when we judge the surrounding cultures without really know them. What a shame! Culture affects our daily life, but as John mentioned, culture should not have a watering-down effect on our worship. Worship should not based on one’s taste and preference, it should based on the biblical truth. Certain styles of music might not suitable for congregational worship.

  24. As for the use of worship, I agree that it is necessary to assess the aesthetic aspect of the culture. It is not an easy task since aesthetics is quite abstract. People have different views of aesthetics as it is related to “taste”. And taste is developed or will be continually shaping as we are experiencing, growing and learning things in life. Everyone may have different views on aesthetics. So how to assess if a culture, say popular culture, reflects the “transcendent order of beauty” in worship would be another controversial topic to discuss.

  25. All of life is to be worship. An attempt at answering the question, “What does this mean for a Christian’s assessment of culture for use in worship?” I believe Christians should judge whether or not “the object” (where “the object” can represent any cultural expression like dance, instruments, etc.) to be used or added in worship/life truly reflect God’s value (as found in Scripture) or worldly value, (which could potentially lead to sin).

  26. I think this means very little for a Christian’s assessment of culture. We judge the behaviors of a social group or society (culture) based on the principles and norms of Scripture – Kenneth Myer’s statements have no affect on that. However, they do make it clear that we will face opposition on our assessments of culture whatever they may be. This is because all assessments are suspect in modern Western society – they are assumed to be politically motivated and/or bigoted (though, in modern society’s defense, Christians can definitely be bigoted). But, the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world and vice versa.

  27. Worship culture includes the art form itself and the use of certain art forms. I believe that God is the creator of everything. The beauty of music, for instance, is part of God’s creation. When we judge a worship culture, we should take the intrinsic artistic values into account. On the other hand, worship culture involve peoples’ use of different art forms. Therefore, before making any assessment of worship culture, one need to consider the aesthetics issues as well as the cultural issues.

  28. I do agree with the majority of views represented here. There needs to be an understanding of culture, but our worship practices should not lose its potency.

  29. Our aesthetic views are shaped mostly by our upbringing in specific social surroundings, and almost unconsciously, we bring those aesthetic perspectives into our Christian community and worship practice. So it is necessary that we have our aesthetic assessment filtered by biblical truth of God’s transcendent beauty: what are those views that are mere social inheritance and do not reflect the beauty of God? I think it would be meaningful to start a conversation like this with fellow believers who participate in the ministry of music and worship arts at church, and then, hopefully, we will be able to progress to the deeper level to critically evaluate the cultures that influence our worship practice.

  30. After I looked at all the comments above, I started thinking what should we consider first between biblical perspective and human cultural aspect. In case of human culture, of course, it started from human himself. God did not create culture. However, as Wendy mentioned above, I think we should consider of the aesthetic assessment on human culture with biblical perspective. Without the upright standard of assessment, the assessment finally ends up with wrong result since humans are distorted. It was very great opportunity to contemplate on the right assessment of human culture. I have never thought about it before but now I recognize the importance of it.

  31. I have the same idea with Grace. Before bringing the elements of culture in worship and church, Christians and church leaders need to critically evaluate popular culture from different perspectives.
    Needless to say, worship must have God at the center. Therefore, Christians must discriminate popular culture cautiously, whether popular culture is really proper to apply to our worship, especially the words of God.

  32. I agree Bora’s opinion. Christians need to correctly and seriously discriminate about the popular culture whether is able to accept them and bring to worship.
    These day, movie “Noah” releases on the screen. I thought this might be the Christian movie. But that is not. Just that movie used with the motif of the bible, and it is twisted to make confuse the original scripture story to the audience. It is important for the Christian to stand with the reflection based on the bible.

  33. just like it was shared in the class, I agree with the fact that culture is a behavior, therefore, if one lives by the scripture, one is shaped by the scripture to live out that culture. There are various aspects of aesthetic music in life. However, it is through proper worship by following the scripture that determines the true worship and true culture (the way of life).

  34. To add what Jared said above, the assessment of culture is getting harder in modern Western society, because the appreciation of human behavior(culture) is getting more important to people. Sometimes people see culture as a holy production of human being like what we see in the Olympic games, the capability of human being is elevated by breaking records. Even in Performing Arts or in Fine Arts, their product is getting more personal, individual and relative. Artists don’t want to be judged and they just express their feelings and they call it’s an art.

    So considering all theses modern movements, Christians should understand what culture does in our social lives. It’s hard to define what is a Christian culture in a sentence, but there is such a behavior that reflects biblical values. Therefore, the reflection of culture should be distinguished by Christians in order to use it in a appropriate way.

  35. As Jesus did not ignore culture when he was on the earth, culture should be considered … however culture should not domain worship. Culture is worthy when it is used properly in worship.

  36. Music is created by God; human use music both in good and bad ways. While assessing worship music we need not only asses the culture of that music but we also need to asses this background of a particular worship song that we are going to use.

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