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Tasting Time

One of the most common arguments and statements one has heard for the last few decades or so, both inside and outside of the church, is the idea of “apples and oranges” or “its all about taste” in regards to culture and the arts.  This is very much tied into the idea of individualism and the almost sacred idea of “choice,” in which one simply makes cultural decisions like partaking of a food buffet.  Related also is the idea of cultural relativism, where every culture is considered “equal.”  Kenneth A. Meyers, in his book “All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture” addresses such assumptions, specifically focusing on the idea, “the medium is the message.”  In other words, the very medium, whether it be a musical idiom, the latest romance novel, or the architecture of a building, inherently conveys a message.   Such a view is highly unpopular in today’s age of modern chauvinism and pluralistic way of thinking, but this view was the most common one in the west (and in other places such as China) for many centuries (see Carson Holloway’s book, All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics, where he traces this idea from Socrates to Nietzsche).

In lieu of a long, formal book review,  I have decided to provide a couple of quotes with some minimal commentary to hopefully convey some of the general ideas of Meyers’ thinking, which I would argue is firmly rooted in a biblical worldview and the classical Christian tradition of the west. To start, here is Meyers writing about how the idea of individual “rights” and “choice” so commonly assumed impact one’s view of culture:

“…the individualism that characterizes the sort of social structure which gave rise to popular culture also characterizes its aesthetic structure.  Just as modern individualism encourages each person to define their own social reality apart from considerations about how the creation is ordered (Should I get married or live with someone? Should I be heterosexual or homosexual? Should I believe in God or be an atheist? Should I be a faithful wife or a lesbian feminist?), so modern individualism encourages people to define their own aesthetic reality apart from considerations about how the creation is ordered (Meyers, 85, italics in the original).”

One may of course assume that divinely ordained institutions such as the family and church would be part of creation considerations.  Meyers mentions how evangelicalism in particular is congenial to this sort of thinking, since in America and England in particular, there is a sort of almost romantic ideal of “democracy,” and since we are supposed to be evangelizing the masses, why not just adopt what is popular at the time and “Christianize” it?  Or better yet, take 2,000 years of church tradition and dress it in popular culture garb in order to be “relevant.” Of course it is never asked if relevance to an inherently anti-Christian worldview is a worthwhile pursuit.  Perhaps in some situations, it would be better to be irrelevant, but I digress.

A second issue Meyers address is the idea of cultural relativism, “that nasty habit all to common in the twentieth century to assume that all values that have some tie with one’s culture are simply created by that culture, that all cultures create different values, and that it is simply egocentric…to prefer one set of values to another (Meyers, 29).”  Meyers borrows from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind in stating that the fact that there are differences about good and bad in different times and places does not prove that none is superior.  Instead it should raise the question of which is right instead of banishing it altogether.  I would argue that this idea is closely tied into modern chauvinism, and that anyone who argues differently is “bigoted” or “ethnocentric.”  Meyers then proceeds to show how absurd this way of thinking is:

“Cultural relativism not only makes it impossible to assert that,  for example, Thomas Jefferson is a more significant thinker than a headhunter from Borneo; it also makes it impossible to claim that Thomas Jefferson is a more significant thinker than Bruce Springsteen.  Cultural relativism cuts in several planes.  It denies the possibility that one society’s culture might be superior to another’s, and it denies the possibility that one form of cultural expression might be superior to another from within the same culture. (Meyers, 29-30).”

Any thoughts or qualms? Meyers’ book is highly recommended by the way…

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3 Comments

  1. composerchris says:

    This reminds me of the hypothetical argument of “is Shakespeare better than comic books?” I tend to think so….

  2. […] a previous post (found here), the idea of aesthetic and cultural relativism was addressed, and what assumptions are behind such […]

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