Bags of Bran

When Subcultures Win
October 29, 2015, 2:10 pm
Filed under: Bible, Destined to get me in trouble

Recently my friend Michael Riley participated in a panel discussion about whether “styles” of worship music ought to divide people who are otherwise (with respect to doctrine and polity) in substantial agreement. Now, the word “style,” as it is used in these discussions, is a major weasel-word: everyone agrees that “style” is subjective, right? and has no intrinsic meaning? yes?

No. But “style” is useful because it connotes “taste,” which evokes overtones of “liberty,” “ἀδιάφορα,” “you’re a legalist,” and thus befogs and beclouds the entire issue with “stop judging me” and “how can it be wrong when it feels so right?” sentiments. But that is another discussion.

What intrigues me is something that Riley said in the middle of his presentation that drew a sharp retort from another panelist that was engaged in the issue.

The other panelist helpfully, if not entirely accurately, distinguished among high culture and its expressions (think galleries and orchestras); sub-culture and its expressions (think tattoo parlors and nightclubs); and common culture (think all those cultural expressions that have become ubiquitous– Muzak). What he was attempting was something like this: High culture is inaccessible to the average person; sub-culture is untrustworthy; but the music of common culture requires little to no interpretation.

It’s true: we don’t bother to interpret common culture. Whenever we go into a bank, a grocery store, an elevator, a shopping mall, or any public space, in the background (as in a milking parlor on a dairy farm), there will be this innocuous pink noise. Pop music, the expression of common culture relevant to the discussion, is everywhere. And because it is everywhere, it is, he would argue, innocent of all connotation. It merely is. It represents nothing. Therefore, he would conclude, if we put our theological content into such packaging, it will go down easy into the soul, without requiring the listener to work at interpretation.

If I’ve represented the other panelist fairly (and I’ve tried), it sounds like a good idea. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine down, and why make things difficult if they don’t need to be?

But a conservative Christian would never agree that any cultural expression is free from connotation. INTENDED connotation is notoriously difficult to erase, because the people who invested the thing with meaning INTENDED for it to give certain impressions. We might not be tempted to worship the golden calf, but we could understand that we are in the presence of something that was made to be worshiped.

And that was where Riley had to make his stand. He granted that music once used to rebel against all authority was now being employed to sell pickup trucks. Pickup trucks: you know, the icon of middle-of-the-road American values? Yes, we’re now using rock ‘n roll, of all things least likely, to sell emblems of Americana. But the very fact that this might not strike people as ironic points to one of two conclusions: either the rock ‘n roll subculture has indeed lost its original and intended meaning; or the rock ‘n roll subculture won, and the values of the rock ‘n roll subculture have been assimilated into the larger culture. If the latter is true, the culture, in succumbing to the sub-culture, had lurched irretrievably in the direction of anti-Christianity. So there is a new, less-Christian normal, with a new set of less-Christian sensibilities.

At this point, the other panelist was forced to insist abruptly that the expressions that arose from older, rebellious subcultures had lost their original and intended meaning. If he were to admit that there might be any vestige of the original and intended meaning left in the music that he uses to worship God, this would be an admission of blasphemy. Golden calves are pronounced free of their idolatrous connotation because nobody worships golden calves anymore.

But this leaves a vacuum in the argument: in order for cultural expressions to be or become neutral things given enough time, there has to be some positive force, applied over time, by which cultural artifacts and expressions can be cleansed of their rebellious intent in the sight of God. Can anyone look back and dispute that common culture has grown MORE hostile to Christianity at exactly the points when subcultures became mainstream?

It’s easy to say that rebellion is nullified over time: but to what Scriptural principle would one point to support it?



2 Comments so far
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Why would you need a scriptural principle to support what could be true as a general observation? Rebellion is otherwise expressed now would, I think, be his argument. I think you’re saying that the sign and the thing signified are always united. I don’t think you’re always entirely wrong about that, but that you haven’t thought about how signs works enough. You need to think about signs, not Scripture, though thinking about interpreting Scripture Augustine does elaborate on signs (On Christian Doctrine).

Of course, when arguing with someone unscrupulous, that person could say whatever was convenient. But you either believe a sign can point variously (and in differing degrees) depending on its context, or it always means the same exact thing. I don’t think you can say that last.

If things mean intensely (shall we say, or most acutely, or in sharpest focus) only within a system of meaning, mean because they are part of a system of signs, then when the system of meaning is gone or altered, they are weakened or vitiated or co-opted or become irrelevant. Some may even be changed altogether. Don’t you think? Or do you think they exist as signs unattached to anything but their meaning?

Part of the issue here is that what we mean by these things has changed. They don’t shock the way they used to, we don’t perceive them that way. In a way, they have lost some of the range of their (limited to begin with) expression. They can mean other things, mean lesser things, or become so trivial they’re on the way to the garbage.

Rebellion is not nullified, it is the expression which is altered or weakened, or perhaps even nullified in some cases. The question, I think, is, why would a Christian find effete expressions of rebellion the best way of communicating what he feels about God?


Comment by unknowing

Wait, there is another way. Concede neutrality, but say it amounts to being vitiated or neutered. And Riley could pounce on the guy and say: you’re not talking about circumcised expressions, you’re talking about castrated expressions. Then you could find Scripture for what could and could not serve in the temple.


Comment by unknowing

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