The Boundries of Cultural Engagement

When I was in the ninth grade I wanted to be cool. So, I bought the coolest album I could- Pearl Jam’s Ten. Everyone in high school seemed to love them. They sounded good, and it wasn’t like I had to reflect too hard on the lyrics that you couldn’t catch most of the word too anyway. It was about being cool. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but my Dad (a pastor) decided that we should sit down and listen and read the lyrics together. At first this seemed even cooler, seeing as how my first experience of rock music was the Simon & Garfunkel my Dad recorded off the radio during his college days. But as we read the lyrics of songs like “Evenflow” and “Jeremy” I began to realize that this was disturbing stuff- painful and emotional songs about child abuse. My dad didn’t make me burn the CD’s or throw them out, he merely pointed out that there was a massive disconnect between my own life and experience and the music I was listening to. I came to the realization that I wouldn’t be listening to Pearl Jam anymore (My junior year of college I returned to them with more mature questions). I had to recognize my own limitations.

What I have come to realize is that while a Reformed view allows Christians the freedom to really engage and ask good questions of culture, it also places on us the responsibility of know where the boundaries are. Even before the Fall, God had told Adam and Eve the limits that they were under, not as slaves to God, but so that they could find their identity and flourish in their relationship with God, rather than being deceived by thinking of themselves as god. This has become clearer, or rather more muddled, after the fall, where we now see the world “through a glass darkly.” In a world with real goodness and real evil, we must come to realize what our boundaries are so that we are pursuing faithfulness, rather than running into ruin.

What we need is a community of conversation- a space where we can learn and grow in maturity and discernment. To be human is to be a creature in God’s world, and we flourish most when we live inside the limits that God’s grace provides. Engaging culture is not a free for all in which we celebrate every created thing as art, rather it is a careful process in which we work out our faith with “fear and trembling,” trying to discern the complexities of an originally good creation that we have screwed up by mistaking grace for irresponsible freedom. Engaging culture will involve developing appropriate gestures in response to culture; these gestures then shape our posture toward culture. Andy Crouch (Culture Makers, 2007) lists “condemnation, critique, consumption, and copying” as possible Christian responses to different things in culture. While each of these responses are appropriate for different things, we should not allow one of them to become the dominating response. Rather, within the limits of God’s world we have to become creators and cultivators of culture- to truly be salt and light in the world.

–gpv

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7 Responses to “The Boundries of Cultural Engagement”

  1. Saberjohn Says:

    Dude, your conclusions on the two Pearl Jam songs are totally wrong. Jeremy was about a kid who killd himself in his classroom due to the negligence of his parents, and being bullied by his fellow students. Everflow, is about a homeless person who is looking forward to when he dies and gets to start his life over again. Please, if you are going to insult pop culture, at least know what you are talking about.

  2. chris Says:

    (Saber?)John… I really think you missed the point of Greg’s article.

    Greg was merely pointing out that “Jeremy” and “Everflow” deal with very harsh realities. Realities that might be too intense for a young kid to process. Greg notes though that he came back to these songs with better questions and different focus. He’s not rejecting them all.

    This article is attempting to point out the need for conversations about culture, and frankly, it does a great job of it. It’s not insulting pop culture at all.

  3. Saberjohn Says:

    The thing I was trying to point out is that some things you should either not look into too deeply, or how can a young kid even listen to the song, with all the explicit content on it, you could not even buy the cd. Now in the article this student was in the ninth grade. If you are not mature enough to deal with issues such as killings or as in the case of Evenflow homeless men, I feel as though there is a problem. I am not standing up for pop culture, personally I feel as though an overhaul of it all is really needed but doing a great job of it, come on. Let me first off say that I do not share in your views as a Reformed Presbyterian, and or the views of a Reformed world, I will respect them, but that is as far as things go. But as far as recognizing your own limitations and such, how do you actually know your limits if you have never even exceded them before. I have listened to alot of music, and I have never been adversly affected. I grew up in Aliquippa during the ninetys, in which the main choice in music was rap. ( Rap in the sense of real rap, not hip hop, or gangsta, honest to God rap) I have seen through the words rappers have thrown up and realized that I enjoy that style of music myself, because that what was poplular at the time. Did i try to tolerate it because it was the “cool” thing to do as the student in the article did? No, i actually made my own decision and did not rely on the influcence of a pastor or my own father, I found my own limit, and did not exceed that limit. I can remember the release of albums like Mama Said Knock You Out- LL Cool J or Straight outta Compton-NWA. What this person should have done was that he read into the lyrics himself, and made his own decision, not relying on the suggestions or pressures of others is all.

  4. greg p veltman Says:

    Saberjohn, glad to see that you “found your own limit.” The questions of discernment you raise are exactly why I thought this article should be written. How do we know what we can take in as Christians, and what might we avoid? It’s not an easy questions to answer, and everyone has their own opinion on the matter. What I was attempting to point out was that this shouldn’t be done alone. Why? Christians are a community and in order to respect and love each other we ought to consider the opinions of the community in which we are a part.

    I like your suggestions that we should read the lyrics for ourselves and discern their meanings and think about them. But that is something that people learn to do, usually from others who are wise mentors. It is my hope that culture.ish. and the conversation it starts can be that kind of learning tool.

  5. Jason Says:

    I feel like the circle is complete–I grew up in Aliquippa listening to Easy E, Digital Underground and De La Soul; then I discovered Pearl Jam’s Ten when it was released and started listening to grunge.

    John, if your initial comment to a post is going to be an attack (take a good look at the last sentence–that’s what it looks like), maybe re-think what you’re going to say and try to say it differently.

  6. Saberjohn Says:

    Dude, first off, it was not ment to be an attack, but more of a quip to sum up the entire idea, second, (saber) was an inside joke about a marine officer, his sword, and his wedding cake. But thirdly, it is in this time at college that we should start to take the ideals of our teachers and mentors and run with them in our own direction, because if we hold to the exact same path that the mentors and such, then we will find that our own mind will have not have developed and we will learn that we only know what the mentor knew. But yea, Eazy E, Dr. Dre, D.O.C, yea, its all there, and I will still listen to it any time when I am not on campus, because I know people here especially, and the saying about Geneva is especially true, that of us living in a bubble on a hill. But, I do have to say, your Culture Ish does provide for interesting debate and the “insight” is definately unique, which i may not allways agree with myself, but it is fun to hear what others have to say. Also Mr. Greg P. Veltman, you are absolutely correct, Christianity is about fellowshiping and being in a community, such as the church is the body of Christ, and seeing a building as a church is an incorrect though, i feel as though to find your own limit, you have to exceed it once or twice to know where to stop. Much as a speed limit is a suggested speed, boundaries can move over time and such, such as for me, when i was younger, i was very concervative in my music, listening to mostly what my father and grandfather listened to, but as soon as i could, I found my own music, my own style. This is what I was suggesting, not to more or less annoy your neighbors with your choices, but to feel them out yourself, then while being a part of the Christian Community help others. I feel as though if you do this for yourself, there is no possibility of relying on your friends to help you through. Point in check is with that of alcohol. If you have never drank before, you have no idea how much you can consume safely. But when you are at a party and you get drunk, after a few times you will know where your limits are, then you have two choices left, call a friend to take you home, or sleep there, either way, you will feel hopeless because you have no control over either situation, and chances are that you will not try that to that extent again. This is what I was trying to say, that it is best to find these things out for your self, then rely on others.

  7. Jason Says:

    The wisdom of other–mentors, others in the community–shouldn’t only be used as a guidepost for our exploration. Everyone discovers things on their own, but only relying on ‘finding your own limit’ can lead to pride (at best) or a lot worse (at…worst?). It also leads into the “never know ’til you try it” mindset, which is asinine. I’ve never tried PCP or self-mutilation, but I know both can’t lead to any good. A big reason why? Community and mentors.

    Tangent: Geneva is often a bubble because the students make it that way. It’s self-perpetuating. Break the trend, embrace the city and go from there.

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