CULTURAL CONTINUITY,
NOT CULTURAL TYRANNY

Question & Answer with Ken Myers


There is so much talk today about preserving "our culture" or erosion of "the culture." What is behind this anxious wave of concern?

A.    Culture, at its best, has an intergenerational quality about it. And it is only in the tentieth century with the cultivation of mass media technologies and travel technologies that culture became something that was increasingly individualized rather than received. Suddenly, it was capable of being segmented demographically. And so for commercial reasons and for technical reasons, more and more cultural experiences became the private property of individuals rather than the shared legacy of families and communities.

     Ken Myers hosts and produces the highly acclaimed Mars Hill Audio Journal, an audio magazine seeking "to assist Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of modern culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement." The author of "All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes," Myers is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary. He formerly was a producer for National Public Radio. His thoughtful Mars Hill interviews of top authors have become an invaluable tool for many believers devoted to living their faith in the public square.

      I think we ought to pay attention to the fact that most of our cultural experiences today are generationally segregated. That is, most cultural experiences that people have are targeted demographically to reach a particular age group. Now, historically, cultural artifacts have been mechanisms of transmission of convictions and values from one generation to the next. So a song or a folk story or even a dance - whatever - those cultural forms were mechanisms whereby grandchildren would learn from grandpa.

      I don't think God created us to be that atomized or isolated from our elders. In fact, I'm thinking more and more that we really need to address the cultural consequences of the Fifth Commandment - the commandment to honor our father and mother. Isn't it presupposed in that commandment that there would be continuity from generation to generation - that cultural continuity from generation to generation would be the norm?


How has this broader generational shift affected the local church culture?


A.       Consider the very idea of ministry to a demographically segregated group - "youth' or "young adults" or "Gen-Xers" - rather than ministering to families who have children. It is a relatively novel idea to evangelize children by segregating them from the rest of the body. Some parachurch youth ministries especially must be careful here; by segmenting children from their parents to give them the gospel, are they communicating something anti-generational: You don't need your parents to grow in Christ? Kids do not usually give the benefit of the doubt to their parents' ways in the first place. In the past they did out of necessity. There wasn't any choice. But now they have a choice. I think that, in a sense, what has happened is that the Church has basically said, "There's no way we can fight this. To fight it would be so much extra work. It would be better for us to just give up our children to the popular culture, youth culture, or institutions of youth culture. And then we'll try to do damage control along the way."


If this is true, how can we get back on line regardign a proper idea of culture and generational continuity?

A.       Culture as a common-grace institution must once again be taken seriously Cultural institutions are, in God's economy, ways for us to experience in a kind of pre-Fall sense, good community centered around a common vision. I'm speculating, obviously, but if humanity had not fallen, I believe we still would have had cultural institutions. It is a God-ordained mechanism. My hunch is that these cultural institutions would be honoring to fathers and mothers and would have a sense of continuity from generation to generation. I want to ask: Is there something in our created nature that makes it normal for families and communities to experience an intergenerational sense of cultural unity and makes it abnormal - and, in fact, distorted - for us to accept the idea of being segregated generations?

      Culture stems from the fact that God created a good creation. And even though we fell, God, by his common grace extends to all creation life-promoting and life-enhancing gifts including music and art and beauty and oxygen. Culture is what we make of this creation. Culture is, literally, when we take the stuff of creation and make institutions and we make art and we make music. And the best culture, then, develops over sustained periods of time - not haphazardly.

How might this flesh out for those of us today who hope to be faithful to a Reformed tradition?


A.       I like to think that we can apprehend creation either in an analytic spirit or in a poetic spirit, and we ought to do both. We have to do both. We have to apprehend the world around us in an analytic, or scientific, mode in order to live our lives. We have to figure out when the sun is going to come up tomorrow and when I should plant and when I should water and I when should harvest. All those things require a level of analysis. We also, however; are given so many examples in Scripture of God being apprehended not only analytically; but also poetically; We don't just do theology" we sing His praises.

      Puritanism particularly recognized that there was a systematic plan of God in dealing with sin in the world and with humanity. This plan could be understood and articulated, not in a series of unrelated soundbite-like insights, but systematically. God's work and His Word had a kind of order and pattern that could be understood in its pattern form.

      We must be careful, however, not to impose theology today as if it were the pattern of, for instance, a software manual. I think that the pattern is sometimes more like that of an epic poem. And I think that the mistake that Reformed people can make is to try to read it as if it were a software manual rather than an epic poem.

      Reformed people nave to recover a sense of how we poetically respond to God and His creation. So we respond in delight and not just in understanding. We respond in a way that goes beyond mere analysis.

      We need imagination to apprehend reality; C. S. Lewis even said that we need myths. He said that is the great function of myth and imagination: We, in a sense, can imaginatively apprehend the love of a father for a son, whether it be in poetry or film or story. When Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son, he put it in a story form that went beyond listing the propositions of fraternal and paternal duties and responsibilities.

It can be intimidating - even frightening - to think of our present traditions and culture as being open to change rather than protected by strong boundaries.

A.       But I think we must realize that sometimes we can receive those traditions - those legacies - in a narrower way than they actually exist in history. When you're the recipient of a tradition, you tend to focus on what is most distinctive about that tradition. Yet every tradition is broader than its distinctives. A true tradition resists stereotyping. For instance, the great writer and influence on C. S. Lewis, George McDonald, was an 18th century Scotsman. Yet he wasn't a rationalist - at all. He wasn't Reformed. He very much, however, was a part of the mix that produced what we now cherish as the Scottish Christian tradition. We Reformed believers need to appreciate that all traditions are greater and richer than their chief distinctives.

Are some cultures better than other cultures?

 

A.       I think there are some cultures that are better, but I think it is a little more helpful to say that some forms of cultural expression - or some cultural traditions - are superior to others, rather than whole cultures. After all, there are some things that people hold on to that really are not so great about a certain culture. For instance, have you ever eaten Scottish food? I mean, there might be food that a certain culture produces that may not be the best food, but it is still ours. This culture is ours and so we love it, even though we recognize it has its unlovely moments at times.

How do we discern the best of a culture, or a tradition, without robbing it of its fulness?



A.       We must be very careful not to romanticize or sentimentalize any tradition or culture. We make our biggest mistakes when we attempt to retrieve a whole culture or tradition that we deem to be, in a sense, "lost." Instead, we would be better off realizing that we are, this very moment, a part of a living tradition. This makes a big difference.

      Instead of trying to recreate completely something from the past, we strive to graft the best of its fruits into our current, ever-growing living tradition. When we try absolutely to recreate a tradition, that can be really dangerous. Those in charge of such a task tend to edit the whole enterprise according to their own prejudices and then they become tyrants as they try to preserve that.



Reformed Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 2/3
© 2001 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.

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Last updated 12-8-2001.