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?
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