catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 12 :: 2006.06.16 — 2006.06.30


The man ain't got no culture

“You say Dylan, he thinks you mean Dylan Thomas.
The man ain’t got no-o-o-o culture!”


My college boyfriend purchased the entire works of Simon and Garfunkel in a “boxed set” of LPs, which he painstakingly transferred to cassette recordings. He then packed those cassettes for a twenty hour road trip from Colorado to Indiana, and somewhere in Kansas, I had already memorized this quote. The man ain’t got no culture.

The year was 1983, and while I liked Simon and Garfunkel, the dictates of my chosen sub-culture raised questions about Secular Music. When you said Dylan, I thought you might need to know that he became a Christian in Larry Norman’s kitchen, which is where every American on the West Coast became a Christian, as hearsay would have it. I sang along heartily, having no clue what a culture is, what a sub-culture is, or that I was a part of either.

I still sing that song in my head literally every time the word “culture” comes up in conversation. As Bruce Cockburn would say, isn’t that what culture is all about? As unquestionably natural as the air I breathe, and as invisible, and as necessary.

Now what I have written makes me self-conscious about all those cultural markers, and how many readers I might be shutting out because I am speaking in a familiar tone about singer-songwriters meaningful to me, and perhaps only to me. I’d love to sit you down with my turntable (it’s in the attic, somewhere) and play through that list, but I’d likely get carried away in a nostalgic swoon, or get distracted by my current infatuation with all things Dylan. (Bob.) Larry Norman was an icon of 1970s Jesus People sub-culture. Bruce Cockburn is a brilliant song-writer with a salty-real faith and a lot of questions. I’m sure I’ve read Dylan Thomas, but I don’t remember a thing. I’m sure I’ll read him more sensitively next time.

The Christian college I attended may have defined “culture” somewhere along the line, and I know we discussed world views. I believe the definition focused on “us” vs. “them, the World.” But the first effective introduction occurred in a graduate-level course on Pop Culture, taught by my illustrious employer the Coalition for Christian Outreach, a college ministry group with a Reformational bent. Pop Culture class critiqued unquestioned assumptions we hold as Americans, and illuminated those values, imbedded in music, television, movies. I had always considered myself counter-cultural. So I was stunned, seeing myself anew as a product of my national culture. I began to examine my own faith carefully, to see how much seemed true to the gospel as I knew it, and how much was merely cultural trappings. I’m still asking that question, twenty years later.

A second intent of Pop Culture class was to open our eyes and ears to see and hear how other people make sense of the world—this understanding was meant with an ear towards evangelistic conversation, or conversation that turns people’s hearts toward God. Still, I learned to respectfully assume that another culture’s ways make perfect sense to those who live within it, instead of wasting energy feeling superior (my downfall as a Christian). This “ear” for culture prepared me to work with international students, later, and to live in different corners of the United States, where people think differently than I do—and virtually everyone thinks differently than I do, so this education is an aid for living every day in the kingdom of God. This “respect” is remarkably freeing: I can hold a dialogue, knowing the Holy Spirit moves people, not my brilliant capabilities to convince. In turn, the Holy Spirit moves me, too, toward compassion. “The World” is the place that I live, and not an enemy if I go with God.

And the third, unintentional, feature of Pop Culture class? It was just a blast, more fun than education ought to be. Learning why Dylan is a master, even though he often brays like a donkey—and how the folk movement of the mid-sixties is related to the Jesus People of the seventies and how the social justice underpinnings (and romanticism) of each relate to the world today… well, what’s more fun than that? History has a great soundtrack. 

In some ways, I chose my sub-culture, Christianity, because it felt safe and homey to me, and it made sense to me in a way my family and hometown did not. How strange, then, that my own sub-culture would introduce me to the very “world” I was avoiding. From a safe vantage point, I could put away fear of all-things-not-Christian, and see the intricate beauty and joy of the whole world, all of it created by God and quite fascinating.

The funny thing, now, thinking about that poor man who ain’t got no culture, is how many cultures I see myself a part of, the strange circles I travel and how it all fits together: parenting culture, school counter-culture, church culture, New England culture, and of course, American Pop Culture. I’m still enjoying the fruits of that epiphany, from within a tiny niche of a Christian sub-culture, the bright-young-and-energetic sub-culture of campus ministry.

If there was a fourth intention to the Pop Culture class, it might have been to love the world as God loves it, with a hint of merriness and a light touch, sometimes. I’ve studied Intercultural Relations as a formal discipline, with a more formal definition of culture. There is a time for careful analysis—to study high culture, low culture, culture groups and intercultural conflicts. There is a time to study how we are “salt and light” to change and preserve the cultures in which we live. And there is a time to look at ourselves and our lives, turn up the music and dance. Jesus healed so many people, but his first recorded miracle was turning water to wine, for a wedding feast. I bet there was dancing.

I read in Paste magazine (my favorite pop-culture rag) that Paul Simon just issued a new CD—he’s sixty-four, and no doubt he’s got some culture, along the way. I’m not convinced I “got culture,” but I’m listening to Dylan, Bob Dylan, more than ever, intrigued by the lyrics, the harmonica, and guitar melodies for months on end. I’m not sure if I prefer the serious songs or the truly absurd ones ("Leopard-Skin Pill Box Hat" is pretty irresistible.) I listen to thoughtful Christians making music, too, like Bruce Cockburn and so many other cutting-edge musicians. Who knows, I might even read Dylan Thomas, just so I can get me some more culture, real soon.

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