catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 12 :: 2008.06.13 — 2008.06.27


Dumbing down discernment?

Editor’s note: James K.A. Smith and Kevin Corcoran are colleagues in the philosophy department at Calvin College.  The following pieces were written for Uncompressed, a student-led campus publication on cultural discernment.  They generally get along with one another very well.


Part 1: James K.A. Smith on the hegemony of the popular

Eschewing the dualism that has plagued American fundamentalism, the Reformed tradition has emphasized that the work of culture-making—the human unfolding of creational potential—is not only a necessary task, but a good one. It has therefore sought to encourage not only cultural discernment and engagement, but genuine cultural production. And one of the most important spheres of cultural engagement, discernment, and production has been in the realm of the arts. Here at Calvin this finds significant, and perhaps primary, expression through engagement with music and film.

But the Reformed tradition, as heir to the Protestant Reformation, has also been a leveling tradition. There is a kind of anti-clericalism and anti-elitism in the Reformed tradition’s DNA. Indeed, the Reformation spawned a sense that God was equally available to everyone and thus there were no privileged channels of access, no special “orders” of “religious;” rather, God was as present and available to you and me as any priest or confessor. 

This leveling tendency or egalitarian streak has been translated into Reformed thinking about the arts: one of the common themes of Reformed “aesthetics” (philosophical reflection on the nature of art) has been a persistent interest in questioning the distinction between “high” culture and “low” culture. Or perhaps to put it otherwise, the tradition of Reformed aesthetics (as seen in the work of Cal Seerveld or Nicholas Wolterstorff) has persistently sought to revalue the artistic and creative expressions that bubble up in “popular” culture, valuing the handiwork of artisans and the lyrical expressions of minstrels and troubadours of every sort. 

On the one hand, I think this is right on the money and an important aspect of Reformed thinking about culture in general, and the arts in particular. But I wonder if this line of thinking has run amok in our contemporary climate. In voices like Seerveld and Wolterstorff, the valuing of “low” culture (though they wouldn’t be fans of that phrase) was never to the neglect of the expressions of “high” culture. If Seerveld and Wolterstorff invited us to take seriously the work of folk crafts and popular music, they certainly weren’t encouraging us to ignore the artistic expressions of symphonies and opera. While this Reformed “leveling” made us attentive to the genius embedded in the music of Thom Yorke or the films of Wes Anderson, it was never meant to distract us from the symphonies of Rachmaninov or the rich, textured novels of Evelyn Waugh. 

But I fear that, in our contemporary context, the Reformed valuing of “popular” culture has come at the expense of “high” culture. We can cite reams of Seinfeld dialogue, but not a line of Hopkins. As teachers, we pepper our lectures with U2 or Coldplay lyrics in hopes of hooking the imagination of our students, but invocations of dialogue from Oscar Wilde plays fall on deaf ears. We can discourse on “redemptive” themes in The Simpsons (for goodness’ sake!), but have no familiarity with the landscapes of transcendence in Graham Greene novels. 

I fear that the leveling tendency of Reformed aesthetics has brought about a “dumbing down” of discernment and cultural engagement. And that, without question, is a loss. We’ve spent so much time valuing popular culture, it has come at the expense of the riches of “high” culture. We’ve devoted so much ink and energy to convincing students that God shows up in the frames of American Beauty or the lyrics of Johnny Cash that they’ve stopped looking for him in the genius of Bach’s motets or the romance of Rossetti’s poetry. 

This hit home for me as I’ve been working on a new book called Desiring the Kingdom. The book will lay out a vision of the human person—and thus discipleship—governed by the dynamics of love and desire. Imagination is a central aspect of who we are as “desiring agents,” and so I want to expound this by drawing on visions of the human person as expressed in the arts—especially imaginative construals of love. And here’s where the poverty of popular culture’s hegemony hits home. Whereas I want to draw on the wells of imaginative wisdom embedded in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, those references won’t land with a student readership that considers the Sundance Channel “highbrow.” Because we’ve settled for the thinness of popular culture as the lingua franca of cultural capital, I’m stuck working with Moulin Rouge and the lyrics of Radiohead. Not that these aren’t interesting, provocative sources; but they don’t offer near the revelations found in those novels. 

And so I fear that the Reformed emphasis on valuing popular culture has transmuted into a dumbing-down of discernment. What if we marshaled our energetic passion for culture and began to channel more of that towards an appreciation of “high” culture? What if we spent a little less time watching movies and a little more time reading poetry and literature? What if we traded some of our iPod space devoted to Sufjan and carved out some room for Vivaldi? Wouldn’t that be counter-cultural and resist the sound-bite-ization of a commercialized culture? What if the church could be an agent of and invitation to “high” culture? Might it be the case that sometimes, redemption is redemption from the hegemony of popular culture?


Part 2: Kevin Corcoran responds to James Smith

Let me begin with a confession. I love my colleague Jamie Smith. I like to think of myself as among his biggest fans. I admire his vision for an educated church and the diligence with which he applies himself to the task of making philosophy matter to the non-specialist. What I have to say below by way of disagreement, therefore, I say as a friend who shares with Jamie many of his animating passions.

I begin with a question. What do Arcade Fire, The Simpsons and (say) Mars Hill all have in common? Answer: All are loved by countless Calvin students and systematically sneered at by more than a few Calvin faculty. How do I know this? I’ve experienced the sneers and jeers at close proximity. I have even heard it said among my colleagues that our students’ love for such music, such television and such worship just shows the degree to which theirs is a shallow, emotional and as yet immature faith.

In fairness to Jamie he has neither said nor suggested in his essay anything of the sort. However, I fear that in his enthusiasm to champion so-called “high” culture he runs the risk of playing right into the hands of the culturally arrogant. The claim of Jamie’s that gives me pause is this:

Because we’ve settled for the thinness of popular culture as the lingua franca of cultural capital, I’m stuck working with Moulin Rouge and the lyrics of Radiohead.  Not that these aren’t interesting, provocative sources; but they don’t offer near the revelations found in those novels [i.e., Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins].

First, I disagree that popular culture is revelationally “thin.” The lyrics of Arcade Fire, U2 and other popular artists are laced with cultural commentary and insight into the human condition that hardly qualifies as “thin.” For example, there are these stirring words from U2:

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
One life
But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other

Or these from Arcade Fire:

Don't wanna hear the noises on TV,
Don't want the salesmen coming after me,
Don't wanna live in my father's house no more.
Don't want it faster, I don’t want it free,
Don't wanna show you what they done to me,
Don't wanna live in my father's house no more

Ditto for The Simpsons and American Beauty. Thin? I say as thick and substantial as Love in the Ruins or Brideshead Revisited. Second, we would do well to remember that the classical music to which Jamie refers as “high” culture was, in its own day, considered popular, and I suspect that if the category had existed in the lexicon of the day, the high-brow police would have described it as “thin.” In short, I just don’t buy the claim that popular culture “does not offer near the revelation” found in such “high” cultural sources as Brideshead Revisited and Love in the Ruins

Perhaps Jamie’s essay was offered more in the spirit of lament, a lament that many students no longer bother to read such authors as Gerard Manley Hopkins and Walker Percy. That would be lamentable, but even that I’m not sure is true. I just spent three weeks with students in England, and I was delighted to learn of the breadth of their literary interests and the seriousness of their musical tastes.

At the end of the day I’m a Marxist (of the “brothers” sort not the Karl variety): I don’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member. What that means in the context of this discussion is that I have very little tolerance for academicians. We tend to be arrogant s.o.b’s who look down our cultured noses at the masses who bathe themselves in the tepid waters of popular culture. We think that when it comes to churches, for example, places like Mars Hill can’t be offering anything substantive. I mean, just look at it—it meets in a converted mall, draws thousands upon thousands on any given Sunday, and offers a sort of rock n’ roll, concert-like worship experience. It’s as “thin” as the popular culture it and similar churches are trying to reach.

Jesus said you would know them by their fruit. Mars Hill excels when it comes to producing good fruit and works. And those good works, that fruit, grow out of a commitment to a thorough and deeply Reformed vision. I think our students go there because they sense the gospel is lived there. And it’s a deep, mature faith they aim to cultivate and live. Same with the music they listen to and the literature they read. Judging from my conversations with them, they hear in it echoes of authentic living, honest doubts expressed and the complexities that characterize their own lives and times given eloquent expression. That the music our students listen to, the literature they read or the churches they attend are popular doesn’t mean that what’s offered there is thin and insubstantial. I’m inclined to give our students more credit than that.

My biggest concern with Jamie’s essay is that it unwittingly perpetuates the myth shared among the educated elite here at Calvin that if it’s popular it’s also thin and insubstantial. That’s not true. Well, not always true. So, I say three cheers for Arcade Fire, three cheers for The Simpsons and three cheers for Mars Hill. And, if you haven’t already, read Percy and Hopkins. Because if you love Arcade Fire, for example, you’re likely to love Hopkins and Percy, too. And you’ll love them for the same reasons you love the music you listen to. Plus, there’s this bonus: you’ll permit Jamie to use such literary references in his book without his having to fear that such references will fall on deaf ears.

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