Voices

Art that edifies

Culture warriors need to elevate their tastes

Issue: "The plots thicken," Jan. 12, 2008

Contrary to common assumptions, "cultural issues" are not about politics. Nor are cultural issues primarily about morality. Political and moral problems are symptoms of a culture gone awry. But culture itself has to do with an underlying social infrastructure-the realm of the family, education, and the arts.

The arts-considered broadly to include not only music, stories, and visual design but other "artifacts" such as scientific inventions and the information media-are a key battleground in the culture war. But in these battles, many Christians are fighting on the wrong side.

Part of our cultural problem is that art has been reduced to an "entertainment industry." The most successful formula is to give consumers jolts of pleasure that will stimulate them out of their boredom. It is much easier to entertain consumers with images of sex and violence than to edify an audience with works of meaning and beauty.

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This commercial approach defines what we call "pop culture." Sadly, pop culture is the only kind of culture many Americans have. They have forgotten "folk culture," with its traditional values and historical heritage. And they no longer have the attention span for "high culture."

Experts like Neil Postman and Kenneth Myers have shown that the "entertain-me" mindset of pop culture now governs education, politics, morality, and even the church. Teachers try to entertain their students rather than educate them. Politicians craft their image like movie stars. And pastors turn worship into entertainment and downplay theology in favor of good feelings.

So it becomes imperative for Christian culture warriors to elevate their tastes. This entails balancing one's cultural diet. Instead of gorging on pop-culture junk food, try the wholesome home-cooking of the folk culture and the gourmet cuisine of the high culture. Turn off the TV and recover the folk-culture tradition of telling each other stories. Or discover the high-culture pleasures of reading a good book.

A crash course in aesthetic discernment is a column for the next issue, but there is no better guide for cultivating genuine culture than Philippians 4:8: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-think about such things." This text refers not just to morality, as it is often taken, but also to quality: to what is "excellent."

The "whatevers"-unlike the bored complaint of pop-culture addicts-open up the realm of cultural experience to Christians.

If you have a question or comment for Gene Edward Veith, send it to gveith@worldmag.com.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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