Session 2. The Bridge of Popular Culture

 

 God speaks to us any way He can.

 

In 1951 theologian H. Richard Niebuhr published Christ and Culture.[1]  More than five decades later it remains a classic, widely used in seminaries.  In it, Niebuhr explores the ways in which the Christian faith has historically confronted what the apostle John called “the world.”  The relationship between the two—between the lordship of Jesus Christ and the problem of living and working in a fallen world—Niebuhr termed “the enduring problem” of Christianity.  It’s a daunting book, filled with references to ancient church authorities and philosophies, and not for the faint of heart.  But the ideas in it, though at first blush remote, have direct implications for evangelical outreach.  And for that reason I want to spend a couple of pages outlining them. 

Culture Defined   

Culture means more than paintings, sculpture, and classical music.  Bart Simpson is a manifestation of culture.  The Nike flash is another.  So are the Marlboro Man, the Internet, Little League baseball, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rush Limbaugh,  and Judge Judy.  So too are concepts like “the free market,” “rugged individualism,” and “the Third World.”  Niebuhr defines culture as comprising “language, habits, ideas, beliefs, customs, social organization, inherited artifacts, technical processes, and values.”  It is nothing less than the web of meanings in which we are entangled, often without being consciously aware of it.  Or to employ a different metaphor, we are fish.  Culture is the water in which we swim.

Although the very comprehensiveness of culture makes its “essence” difficult to define, Niebuhr describes some of its chief characteristics:

1.  It is social, created, sustained, and transmitted by human groups.

2.  It represents human achievement, particularly in the realm of what it means to be a human being.

3.      It is value-laden.

4.      It is concerned with the temporal and material realization of values.  “The harmony and proportion, the form, order and rhythm, the meanings and ideas that men intuit and trace out as they confront nature, social events, and the world of dreams, these by infinite labor they must paint on wall or canvas, print on paper as systems of philosophy and science, outline in carved stone or cast in bronze, sing in ballad, ode, or symphony.”

5.      Because values change over time, culture is almost as concerned with the conservation of values as with their realization.

6.      Finally:  “Attention must be directed to the pluralism that is characteristic of all culture. . . . The cultures are forever seeking to combine peace with prosperity, justice with order, freedom with welfare, truth with beauty, scientific truth with moral good, technical proficiency with practical wisdom, holiness with life, and all these with the rest.”[2]

Our unchurched friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and family members swim in the same “cultural water,” which is what makes this seemingly arcane subject of such fundamental importance to evangelical outreach.  Even so, churched and unchurched people often regard this “water” in very different ways—ways that can tragically hamper sharing the Gospel.

The Limitations of “Christ Against Culture”

How should Christians relate to the culture in which they are immersed?  Niebuhr discerns five characteristic responses that have occurred repeatedly in the two  millenia of Christian faith.  Explaining these five responses lies beyond the scope of this essay.  For present purposes, it is enough to know that each contains contradictions, so none is fully satisfactory, but the most common tendency among evangelical Christians is what Niebuhr calls “Christ Against Culture.”

The “Christ Against Culture” stance crops up regularly in the New Testament, nowhere more clearly than in First John 2:15-17:

Do not love the world or the things of the world.  If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.  And the world passes away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides for ever. (RSV)

It is precisely this kind of concern that leads many evangelical Christians to avoid mainstream entertainment—films, television shows, rock music, literature, and so on—and to select Christian variants.  By the same token, research has shown that within two years of conversion to Christianity, most believers have dramatically reduced their friendships with non-believers.

Such a “Christ Against Culture” stance is only partial, however, because nearly all evangelical Christians work at mainstream jobs, hold mainstream political ideas (democracy is good, the free market is good, individual rights are good, etc.), observe mainstream holidays in mainstream ways; and for the most part, behave in ways that are scarcely distinguishable from their non-Christian counterparts.  Nevertheless, the stance is enough to make it difficult for evangelical Christians to readily comprehend the world view of the unchurched.  That’s unfortunate, because in an increasingly “post-Christian” era it is unlikely that the unchurched will comprehend the world view of the Christian.

A passage from Charles Colson’s The Body:  Being Light in Darkness, underscores this point:

Expressions Christians have used for decades, like “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” no longer necessarily connect.  Christians understand them, but few others can relate.  For example, proclaiming that “The Bible says . . .” commanded respect in the 1930s and 1940s, even into the 1960s—when 65 percent of all Americans believed the Bible to be literally true.  Today only 32 percent believe the Bible is true.  The majority find it an interesting collection of ancient legends and stories, but they don’t believe it.  So if you say, “the Bible says,” only one out of three Americans is even ready to listen.

As we discussed earlier, the prevailing world-view denies the existence of absolute truth.  The existential, not the historical, conditions the American view of life.  So when the Christian message, which is essentially historical and propositional, is proclaimed, modern listeners hear what they interpret as simply one person’s preference—another autonomous human’s choice of lifestyle or belief.  If Christianity works for you, that’s great.  But it doesn’t mean much for me.  Thus, even sharing your personal testimony may not be convicting.

I discovered this recently when talking with an acquaintance who happens to be a prominent journalist.  He told me he was intrigued by my commitment to Jesus Christ, and we met for dinner to discuss it further.

I was armed with all sorts of arguments, ready to tell him about my own experiences.  But when I started talking about Christ had done in my life, he cut off.

It is wonderful that you’ve found peace and fulfillment through Jesus, he said in effect.  He told me he had friends in the New Age movement who had found spirituality too; it had worked for them as well as Christ had “worked” for me.

So I shifted gears and began to talk about eternal life.  This man had had some health problems in the past; surely he had done some thinking about his own mortality.

Again he cut me off.  Death was simply the end, he said.  When we die we are just like a tree or an animal:  we return to the dust.  No such thing as an afterlife.

I talked about the Bible.  He put his hand up, palm outward.  “All legends,” he said firmly.

What could I say?  He didn’t care about God’s plan for his life, going into heaven, or what the Bible said.

Perhaps it’s when we’re caught short—when our canned answers don’t work—that God uses us most effectively.  For even as I was fumbling with my fork and my facts, an idea popped into my head.

“Have you seen Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors?” I asked.

He had, and we talked about it for a few minutes.  Then, catching him off guard, I asked, “Are you Judah Rosenthal?”  [Rosenthal is the film’s central character, a man who finds his successful life threatened, resorts to a ruthless solution, and afterward finds himself plagued with shards of guilt from a religious upbringing he rejected in adult life.]

He laughed, but it was a nervous laugh.

“You may think this life is all there is,” I said, “but if so, then there is still an issue at hand—how do you live with yourself while you’re here?  I know you have a conscience.  So how do you deal with that when you know you do wrong?”

He picked at his food and told me that very thing gave him a lot of problems.  Then somehow we moved into a discussion of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace, in which Pierre, the central character, cries out, Why is it that I know what is right but do what is wrong?  That in turn led us to C. S. Lewis’s concept of the natural law ingrained in all of us, and then to the central point of Romans 1:  That we are all imbued with a conscience, run from it though we might, and that conscience itself points to questions that can only be answered outside of ourselves.

I don’t know what’s going to happen to this friend.  My hunch is he’s going to come to Christ, because I believe the Holy Spirit is hounding him.  But I know one thing:  without Woody Allen, Leo Tolstoy, and C. S. Lewis, I wouldn’t have found common ground and language with which to discuss the spiritual realm.

What does this tell us?  Well, first of all, it does not mean that must all run out to the video store and rent Crimes and Misdemeanors or slog through War and Peace.  But it does mean that to evangelize today we must address the human condition at its point of felt need—conscience, guilt, dealing with others, finding a purpose for staying alive.  Talking about the abundant life or life everlasting or Bible promises often just won’t do it.[3]

Fortunately, the “Christ Against Culture” stance is not the only one available to Christians.  Another classic response to the “eternal problem” is what Niebuhr terms “Christ the Transformer of Culture.”  In my view, it is the most helpful one for Christians seeking, as Colson puts it, to “address the human condition at its point of felt need.”  An adherent to this perspective “finds room for affirmative and ordered response on the part of created man to the creative, ordering work of God; even though the creature may go about his work unwillingly as he tills the ground, cultivates his mind, and organizes his society, and though he may administer perversely the order given him with his existence.”[4]

John 1:1-5 makes the point eloquently:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God, all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.  In him was life, and the light was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (RSV; emphasis supplied)

Simply put, God made all of us:  the Christian and the unchurched, the accountant and the rock star, the professor and the junkie, the soccer mom and the screenwriter.  Because He made us, He abides in us until the day we die.  Because He abides in us, so too does His goodness, and though we may try to throttle or ignore or extinguish it, His goodness and mercy continually manifest themselves.  We are spirit, we find no rest save in Him, at some level our spirits forever seek him, and this yearning is reflected in our cultural productions.

The Films

I can do no better than to direct you to HollywoodJesus.com, which explores "pop culture from a spiritual point of view."  It's outstanding.

The Songs

One of the most striking demonstrations of this may be found by taking seriously the frequency with which spiritual themes—especially Christian themes—appear in popular music. Following are the lyrics from several compact discs. I didn’t have to search far to find them. They’re merely CDs which I happen to own. I’ve limited the number of songs to twelve, though I could easily multiply that number several times over. The lyrics fall into three, sometimes overlapping categories: those in which the Christian motif is obvious and affirming; those which reflect Christian values; and those which reflect what might be called a wrestling with God at the point of felt need. 

First on the list is Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” from his maiden solo album in 1977.  I have so far been unable to discover what prompted Gabriel to write the song, but it is impossible to miss several Christian elements:  an encounter with the supernatural, who promises to take the singer “home;” a sense of disillusionment with and alienation from the world; a clear choice whether or not to follow this supernatural voice; and of course the obvious reference to Christ’s first miracle.  All in all, the song is a modern retelling of Paul’s Damascus Experience.

Peter Gabriel, “Solsbury Hill”

Climbing up on Solsbury Hill
I could see the city light
Wind was blowing, time stood still
Eagle flew out of the night
He was something to observe
Came in close, I heard a voice
Standing stretching every nerve
Had to listen had no choice
I did not believe the information
I just had to trust imagination
My heart going boom boom boom
“Son,” he said, “Grab your things, I’ve come to take you home.”

To keepin’ silence I resigned
My friends would think I was a nut
Turning water into wine
Open doors would soon be shut
So I went from day to day
Tho’ my life was in a rut
‘Till I thought of what I’d say
Which connection I should cut
I was feeling part of the scenery
I walked right out of the machinery
My heart going  boom boom boom
“Hey,” he said, “grab your things, I’ve come to take you home.”

When illusion spin her net
I’m never where I want to be
And liberty she pirouette
When I think that I am free
Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes, but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me
Today I don’t need a replacement
I’ll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart going boom boom boom
“Hey,” I said, “You can keep my things, they’ve come to take me home.”

The second example comes from one of two prominent singles from Mr. Mister’s 1985 album, Welcome to the Real World.  The title, “Kyrie Eleison”—“Lord, have mercy”—says it all.  Less obvious is the fact that the group began its career as studio musicians working for bands like Motley Crue and Twisted Sister.  They disliked the experience and, in fact, walked out on the Twisted Sister gig.  “They were singing those lyrics about Satan, ‘Burn in hell with the devil’ and all that,” recalls lead singer Richard Page.  “I had problems singing those lyrics about Satanism. I don’t need money that badly. I don’t need to sing junk like that. I had nightmares about it. People who write songs like that are just looking at dollar signs. They don’t think about the effect on kids. Kids who are 12 and 13 take it seriously because it’s what their heroes are singing. Meanwhile these guys are laughing about this stuff. They don't take it  seriously. Kids think they do but they don't.”


 

Mr. Mister, “Kyrie”

The wind blows hard against this mountainside
Across the sea into my soul
It reaches into where I cannot hide
Setting my feet upon the road
My heart is old, it holds my memories
My body burns a gem-like flame
Somewhere between the soul and soft machine
Is where I find myself again

 Chorus:
Kyrie eleison
Down the road that I must travel
Kyrie eleison
Through the darkness of the night
Kyrie eleison
Where I’m going will you follow
Kyrie eleison
On a highway in the light

When I was young I thought of growing old
Of what my life would mean to me
Would I have followed down my chosen road
Or only wished what I could be

“‘Paper in Fire,’” reports singer/songwriter John Mellencamp, “was written based on various passages in the Bible, most of them from Ecclesiastes.”  [The line “And the days of vanity / Went on forever” is a dead giveaway.]  “It’s about truth and consequences, and what happens when a man gets what he’s looking for in life—whether or not it’s what he expected.”

 

John Mellencamp, “Paper in Fire”

She had a  dream
And boy it was a good one
So she chased after her dream
With much desire
But when she got too close
To her expectations
Well the dream burned up
Like paper in fire 

Chorus:
Paper in fire
Stinkin’ up the ashtrays
Paper in fire
Smokin’ up the alleyways
Who’s to say the way
A man should spend his days
Do you let them smolder
Like paper in fire

He wanted love
With no involvement
So he chased the wind
That’s all his silly life required
And the days of vanity
Went on forever
And he saw his days burn up
Like paper in fire

Chorus

There is a good life
Right across the green field
And each generation
Stares at it from afar
But we keep no check
On our appetites
So the green fields turn to brown
Like paper in fire

Chorus

Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen have comprised U2 for nearly twenty-five years.  Their background is Irish Catholic; Christian themes regularly inform their music. Their first major hit, for example, was “Pride (In the Name of Love),” a tribute to Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” the biggest hit from their biggest album, The Joshua Tree, is about nothing less than Bono’s continuing quest for a fully satisfactory relationship with Christ.  “I believe in the Kingdom Come / When all the colours bleed into one / Bleed into one / But yes I’m still running /You broke the bonds and / Loosed the chains / Carried the cross and all my shame / All the shame / You know I believe it / But I still haven't found what I’m looking for.”

It is as raw and honest a testimony of faith as one could wish.  But out of everything U2 has performed, perhaps nothing surpasses “When Love Comes to Town” as an unbridled evocation of Christian faith.  Recorded on the group’s 1988 Rattle and Hum live album, it features the backing vocals and guitar work of blues great B. B. King. 

  

U2, “When Love Comes To Town”                                        

I was a sailor, I was lost at sea
I was under the waves
Before love rescued me
I was a fighter, I could turn on a thread
Now I stand accused of the things I’ve said

Love comes to town I’m gonna jump that train
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town

I used to make love under a red sunset
I was making promises I was soon to forget
She was pale as the lace of her wedding gown
But I left her standing before love came to town

I ran into a juke joint when I heard a guitar scream
The notes were turning blue, I was dazing in a dream
As the music played I saw my life turn around
That was the day before love came to town

When love comes to town I’m gonna jump that train
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town

I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I’ve seen love conquer the great divide

When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that train
When love comes to town I’m gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town

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[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (1951; rpt. New York:  Harper Torchbooks, 1975).

[2] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 29-39.

[3] Charles Colson with Ellen Santilli Vaughan, The Body:  Being Light in Darkness (Dallas:  Word, 1992), 330-332.

[4] Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, 192.