Diversity, The Synthesizer, and Popular Culture

This is a guest post by Jonnie Russell.

All the talk of diversity in the past few weeks got me thinking about it in the context of popular culture and our consumption of the arts.

Whether it’s the hunger for relevance or the honest desire to deconstruct the secular/ sacred divide, ‘religion in popular culture’ and ‘popular culture in religion’ are sexy topics in Christian institutions and the hipper pulpits.

In my experience the way Christians often engage here is by looking for value similarity: we look for points of value or moral agreement between what we find (or find profoundly lacking) in a given cultural artifact and some ‘Christian’ value. We find things we can get behind, that scratch Christian itches, that we can cohabitate with, that image the divine, or that can be transformed (big time buzz word).  Apart from the (for some dubious) theological commitments these perspectives betray, why does this model seem to fall flat when it comes to our consumptive lives?  Even worse, why is the ‘transformational model’ so often just plain cheesy and trite?popular culture

Just like the economic and social context more generally, I think it is the failure to think systemically.  I think the value-similarity approach needs to be subverted and replaced by more systemic approach. What we need is not transformation but deformation.   Let me sketch what I mean by way of looking at the music industry, the corner of popular culture I’ve spent some time in.

While popular culture is notoriously hard to define, it is invariably a post industrial revolution phenomenon. It developed as mass culture was enabled via urbanization and industrialization. It is essentially hegemonic (the output of a dominant group) and homogenizing (a force that creates uniformity).

In the context of the music industry, it’s a system that’s constantly reading the pulse of folk culture (relatively grassroots cultural movements), taking burgeoning sounds that begin to garner more appeal, distilling and smoothing out their rough edges, and serving them to a broader audience.  It’s a dialectical dance of monitoring, co-opting, and repackaging.  In this way, it actually gets easier for the industry to maintain control the more its outputs (what’s been ‘made mass’) monopolize the creative sources the ever continuing burgeoning movements at the folk level are drawing on.  It’s kind of like Monsanto corn, if you’re familiar with the horrible atrocities its seed monopolizing causes. 

The synthesizer as an artifact of music history provides an interesting example of the process of homogenization.  Originally engineered in the mid 1960’s, the music synthesizer modulates voltage to produce unique synthetic, quite un-acoustic, sounds.  Through oscillation and manipulation, sound waves change shape and produce terrifically unique electronic sounds. Add melodic structures, and electronic music is born.  In the hands of pop music producers, what was (and is) an extremely unique and wildly polymorphous instrument is being used in a much more homogenized way in both tone and melody.  The current surge in popularity of electronic music on pop radio shows this plainly.  The whole genre is passed through a funnel or filter, so to speak, creating a top 40 version—synth music by numbers.

Now the Christian music industry (is there still one?) simply went about mirroring the modes and systems of popular culture music with a Christian veneer.  It built it’s own (less successful) hegemony. The value- similarity approach assumes the system as it stands and goes looking for artists or ideas to get along with and praise in sermon or lecture illustrations. But perhaps what we need is not transformation of values, but a deformation of the hegemonic system itself.

No doubt, the danger of simply repackaging the hipster/indie argument is looming here right? Lord knows we don’t simply need to say, “Buy indie music and support local bands in the same way you go to the farmers market.” By all means do it, but can we say more?

Can we perhaps use Jesus’ radically inclusive table ministry as a model for our consumptive lives, in this case regarding what we purchase and support? Many have shown just how radical Jesus’ table fellowship with marginalized peoples was, and how he embodied a prophetic and inclusive social ethic that disrupted the fundamental social fabric of his context. This is particularly potent in Luke 7 wherein he receives the sinful woman in and among the elites, in a Pharisee’s home.  Here he is not simply forsaking the elites, opting for a different structure of engagement by choosing a different community, but de-centering the elites exclusivity by foisting the presence of the woman in and among them.

He is rupturing the strictures around how a well-run dinner party happens among the elites of his day.  His social economy is shown to be wildly astructural and uncompromising in its inclusion; it is the dissolution of hegemony.

In the context of the hegemonic structure of the music industry, a Christian ethic centered on creating social space for the marginalized, advocating for asystematic diversity, and wild (un-homogenized) aesthetic inclusion should be foundational. Just as a dinner party of only elites will not do, so a docile hegemonic popular culture environment will not do. It needs to be winsomely deformed. (I know I risk sounding manifesto-ish here)

Can advocacy for artistic diversity in and of itself be considered fundamentally Christian even when the value symbiosis doesn’t obtain? Can we think beyond moralizing? Presumably Jesus hadn’t sorted out whether his values perfectly cohered with the woman’s in Luke 7 before he became her advocate.

At the very least the shift from a value-similarity to a system-deforming conception of our consumptive lives might make room for exciting new artistic developments to flourish a bit—the aesthetic analog to biodiversity.  Wild cross pollination makes for good music and Christians should advocate for that.


Jonnie Russell was a founding member & guitar player in the band Cold War Kids from 2005-2011 & has a Masters in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary where he focused on philosophical theology. Stephen Keating recently got him to start a twitter account @JBoRussell

How (Not) to Speak about Oppression

This is a guest post by Marika Rose.

If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.
– Jesus

If such persons really knew oppression – knew it existentially in their guts – they would not be confused or disturbed at black rebellion. but would join black people in their fight for freedom and dignity. It is interesting that most people do understand why Jews can hate Germans. Why can they not also understand why black people, who have been deliberately and systematically murdered by the structure of this society, hate white people? The general failure of Americans to make this connection suggests that the primary difficulty is their inability to see black men as men.
– James Cone

The pedagogy of the oppressed cannot be developed or practiced by the oppressors.
– Paolo Freire

There’s a reason why Marx didn’t worry about how the proletariat could get the bourgeoisie on side, why feminists need men like fish need bicycles, and why Malcolm X didn’t spend his time trying to win over white people. But we don’t get to be neutral in the fight for liberation: there is no Switzerland of the class struggle. So what happens when we find ourselves on the wrong side of the quest for justice?

To be white, cis, heterosexual or able bodied (and so on, and so on) is to be in a position of privilege and of power. The world is on our side; the system exists for our benefit and, whether we like it or not, we are complicit in the violence it has done and will continue to do in order to ensure that we continue to benefit. It’s complicated, obviously: intersectionality doesn’t just mean that multiple forms of oppression converge on individual people but also that not very many of us are holding all of the winning cards. But we don’t get to be neutral. If we are white in a racist society, we are, by default, on the side of the oppressors. We benefit from the history of slavery and colonialism; we benefit because we are not subject to the constant undermining and aggression, the conscious and unconscious prejudice and hatred, the structural features which perpetuate racism.

We grow up in a world where most of the people we’re supposed to look up to look, well, like us. We don’t have to worry about what people will think about us if we carry a rucksack on public transport. People don’t constantly expect us to speak on behalf of all white people, and when we talk about race we can probably do so without everybody assuming that we are angry. We benefit in so many ways from our whiteness, and so whether we want those benefits or not, we don’t get to be innocent.

“Not being racist” isn’t a default state that we get to lay claim to as long as we don’t say the wrong things. It’s something to aspire to, and it entails the constant work of unpicking all of the ways in which our very identity is formed by racism. The repeated shame of realising that, for all our best intentions, we will keep getting it wrong, and the painful work of admitting what has happened when we screw it up.

Most difficult of all, I think, it is about the constant struggle to let go of the belief that the way to fix racism is for us to fix it, that the way for the oppressed to be liberated is for us to be the their liberators.

To be privileged is to have power over people that we have no right to. If that bothers us, then we need to work out what it means to let go of that power and to seek to live in solidarity with the people we are oppressing. I don’t know entirely what that looks like, but I am pretty sure that it starts with us listening: to hear from the people we are complicit in oppressing what their experience of the world is, what liberation looks like for them, and how we learn what it means to fight alongside them.

– It means that we allow them to stand in judgement on us: to recognise that we are not the excluded and the marginalised but the excluders and the marginalisers.

– It means that we need to recognise that when Jesus says “Woe to you who are rich” he is talking to us; that when Mary praises the God who casts down the mighty from their seats of power it is we who need to be unseated.

– To recognise that the hope of the gospel is also the hope that justice will be done, that what is wrong in the world will be righted; and to recognise that for us that hope ought to be terrifying because we are what is wrong with the world.

– It is to recognise that if it is dirt which is holy, we have to stop washing our hands.

Marika Rose is a PhD student at Durham University and is writing her
thesis on Žižek and apophatic theology. You can follow her

Faith-Works: What’s the differance?

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesians 2.8-9

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead. –James 2.26

Ah, the old faith versus works debate. Paul vs. James: cage fight! Who wins?

To be honest, it has been a while since I have given this one any thought. Once you realize that the various documents of the Scriptures were written with/regards/to/from various communities with differing problems and emphases, making them all fit together exactly isn’t so important. And yet, what if this particular “problem” shouldn’t be?

In his new book Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul, Ted Jennings offers a fresh reading of Romans, bringing together insights from ancient political thinkers and contemporary philosophers. In the introduction, he explains some of the choices that he had to make in translating the text.

The reading of this text that I propose here breaks with this tradition of reading Paul. The reading begins by restoring terms like “law” and “justice” to their basic political significance. So dominant has the apolitical reading of Romans become that it will be necessary to introduce a number of unfamiliar translations into this reading. In part this is neces- sary to help the reader encounter a text with fresh eyes not blinkered by the tradition. A strategy of defamiliarizing is almost always necessary to allow a fresh encounter with the text. But in this case it is even more important if the text is to be liberated from its cloying confinement in the cult like enclave of traditional religious reading. Much of this is simple substitution warranted by the text itself: Judean rather than Jewish, messiah rather than Christ, justice rather than righteousness, fidelity or loyalty rather than faith, generosity or favor rather than grace, Joshua rather than Jesus, and so on.

So next time you’re reading your Bible, try translating “faith” as fidelity. It works!

Human Trafficking – Carlos J. Correa Bernier

Carlos J. Correa Bernier is Director of the Romero Center. He sits down with Deacon Stephen Keating to talk about human trafficking and issues related to the border. Go to www.theromerocenter.org for more information and to connect with their many programs and resources.

Centro Romero,located in San Ysidro, California, less than 20 minutes from the Mexican border city of Tijuana, is one of the Centers for Education and Social Transformation, a concept created at the Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ  in 2005. The Daniel F. Romero Center for Border Ministries was envisioned as a Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ.

Stephen Keating blogged about his experience this summer (Hell On Earth: A Sex Trafficking Survivor’s Story) and it continues to daily be the most searched for blog of the year. He is on twitter as @stephenmk 

This episode is sponsored by Slave Free Earth – they are asking the deacons to join them in ending human trafficking and specifically sex slavery. Go to SlaveFreeEarth.com and join the 7 Community. Pledge to:

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Send us the confirmation email of your joining and we will give you a shout out on the podcast – send up a question with that email and we will respond to it on the next TNT podcast.

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Todd Akin, Abortion, Rape, and Power

As you have probably heard, Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri recently made some dangerous and hateful remarks about rape. You can read his comments here. What could possibly cause a man (sigh) to say that “legitimate rape” does not lead to pregnancy?  Ostensibly, he was trying to make a point about the ethics of abortion. However, something deeper is going on here.

A short detour into my own experience: Growing up I was taught that, while conservative economic policies were obviously biblically based, the most important political issue was abortion. A candidate’s stance as “pro-life” trumped all other political issues. Anything bad that happened in America was probably God’s judgment for our “culture of death” that allowed abortion to continue. I remember attending rallies where I would hold a sign with blue letters that read “Abortion Kills Children.” “This is genocide! It’s as simple as A.B.C.” As cars passed, I peered around my sign and into their windows, hoping that the message would penetrate the women driving by. The distrust of women was deeply ingrained.

In college, other conservative beliefs started to fall away, but this one was persistent. One time a buddy and I were driving by a rally like the ones I had attended as a boy.

A Priest was holding the same blue sign and we stopped and argued with him. We told him “of course abortion is wrong, but your tactics are all wrong! Shaming women isn’t going to help.” At some point I realized that the shame was not a poor tactic, easily discardable, with which to reach the goal of reduced abortions; it is a core aspect of the ethics of “pro-life.”

Shame is a means of maintaining control, which brings us back to the topic at hand. Why would Akin imply that if a woman gets pregnant from a rape that it wasn’t a “legitimate rape?” Because his his belief system ordains that the power to define rape should be in the hands of men. In other words, it’s all about power. His latest statement arguing that women lie about being raped, makes this crystal clear. But these are not consciously held beliefs and no matter what people like Jon Stewart say, Akin doesn’t “secretly hate women.” Having grown up in the pro-life movement, I can assure you that telling someone that they hate women only solidifies their previously held beliefs, further insulating them from ever having to confront the consequences of those beliefs.

As Adam Kotsko points out, there is an underlying logic:

if we view [conservative ideologies] in terms of strategy, they all make perfect sense. Taken together, they serve to blame the victims, assert that the powerful are powerful for moral reasons, and then claim that the role of government is to endorse and reinforce the morally-discovered power structure rather than futilely try to disrupt it. The arguments might clash on a superficial level, but their effects are perfectly coherent and rational once the goal is granted.

I hardly need to point to the Jewish prophetic tradition’s scathing critique of this type of thinking (if you need a refresher, read A Theology of Liberation). The powerful do not want to give up their power and certainly don’t want to think about the consequences of their power. And as long as we keep arguing at the level of consciously held beliefs, rape will keep getting legitimated and the oppressed will keep losing.

New Podcasts App for iOS

This post is for all of the iPhone and iPad users out there. Apple has created a new app for iOS that is creatively titled “Podcasts.” Here’s the link to download the app. There’s some cool new features and a great looking interface that cribs from a classic design by Dieter Rams. All the podcasts that you already sync to your device will automatically show up in the new app once you download it and sync. Also, if you haven’t already, leave a 5-star review for Homebrewed and TNT (thanks!).

While I’m at it, here are some other podcasts that Tripp and I regularly listen to:

I’m always looking for more audio, so please use the comments to tell us what your favorite podcasts are!