I woke up this morning thinking, “Not enough people are mad at me.” Hence, this post.
Actually, my sincere hope is to encourage, not more rage but more reflection on all sides of the fundamentalism-and-culture issue. I’m going to argue that the two perspectives that are most passionate and opposite on this question are both wasting an important opportunity. First, some framing.
Fundamentalism and cultural conservatism
The central question is basically this: how should Christians evaluate heavily culture-entwined matters such as music styles (chiefly in worship), entertainment, clothing, etc.? To nuance the question a little more: how should churches, ministries, and individuals connected with fundamentalism and its heritage view these cultural issues?
Two nearly-opposite sets of answers to this question have become prominent among leaders and ministries of fundamentalist lineage. My guess is that most people are really somewhere between these two attitudes, mixing points from each. But the two near-opposite views seem to have the most passionate and articulate advocates.
At one end of the question, we have the Kevin Bauder, Scott Aniol, David DeBruyn, et. al. axis. At the other end, representatives are more scattered (and more numerous), but recent high-visibility proponents include Matt Olson of Northland International University and pastor Bob Bixby.
At the risk of catastrophic failure in the first 300 words, I’ll attempt to fairly summarize the differences in these two perspectives at least well enough to talk about them clearly. Because we’ve already got more than enough overstatement in the mix(!), I’ll consciously aim to err on the side of understatement.
Let’s call the Bauder-Aniol point of view “cultural conservatism,” and simplify it as the idea that everything cultural is full of meaning and that the meaning is heavily influenced by where we are in history as a society—both in the history of ideas and in the history of cultural changes associated with those ideas. In short, nothing cultural is neutral, everything must be scrutinized for fitness for use by Christians, and that scrutnity should be biased in favor of the not-recent past. To say it another way, we ought to look at cultural change with a regard for the past that increases (to a point) as we look further back. I think I can fairly say that this view sees changes in culture in the West as being mostly negative since the middle ages.
The cultural conservatives are often about as unimpressed with 19th century “Second Great Awakening” music as they are with most of today’s “CCM.” It’s a lonely place to be, because it means most of what’s being created now is junk and much of what we (and our grandparents) grew up singing in church is junk, too.
Full disclosure: I’m mostly in the Bauder-Aniol-DeBruyn bailiwick. Though I would often argue the case differently (sometimes very differently), I consider myself a cultural conservative.
The perspective I’ve identified here with Olson and Bixby has many, many representatives. And I’m sure that “anti-conservatism” is not what they would choose to call their point of view. I apologize for that. It’s my intention to represent this perspective fairly and accurately—I just don’t yet have a better handle to attach to it.
This view rejects the idea that there is a superior cultural ideal at some point in the history of the West. It associates the cultural reactions of 20th century fundamentalism with legalism and tends to see the “standards” and “rules” of that era (and the surviving present forms) as often arbitrary and ill-conceived, at best, and as a ruse for unethical exercise of power and oppression by fundamentalist leaders, at worst.
In this view, the meaning of musical styles (and clothing styles, forms of entertainment, etc.) either never amounts to much to begin with or very quickly fades into irrelevance. Since the Christian faith and the church cross millennia and know no ethnic boundaries, the range of acceptable cultural forms for Christian worship is very broad and continually changing. Further—and this is an important point—the time has come to put many (most?) of the cultural stands of movement fundamentalism in the rear view mirror (post haste!).
Why the debate is going nowhere
Just looking at the ideas at stake, it should be pretty clear why the culture debate is not a trivial one. If everything cultural is packed with meaning—and not necessarily meaning we are conscious of—and if that meaning matters to God, we have much sober thinking to do about every bit of the culture we accept and use.
If, on the other hand, cultural meaning dissipates quickly into irrelevance (or doesn’t exist in the first place) and if tradition-favoring fundamentalists merely use these matters to impose their personal preferences on people, it’s possible that the “rules” not only dishonor the God we claim but that these traditions also cripple the joyful, heartfelt and free expressions of worship God wants from His people.
These are not abstract questions that should only interest academics or “overly contentious people.”
And that means all who love the Bible and want to live for the glory of God in these chaotic times are facing in important opportunity. More in line with the scope of this essay, we who are of fundamentalist heritage have an important opportunity.
But as far as I can tell, both sides are mostly botching it. There is almost no real engagement.
On one hand, Olson (and many others—let’s be fair) is saying rules and do’s and dont’s have no relationship to spirituality or sanctification and that to believe they do is legalism. And Bixby (and, again, he’s hardly alone) is saying that the cultural conservatives are basically arrogant, condescending snobs who are heaping guilt and shame on the “the average fundamentalist,” who, by the way, is a mindless, conforming robot.
On the other hand, the case for cultural conservatism has often included a “You’re too ignorant to understand; take my word for it” subtext. Though I can’t supply examples, I’m pretty sure I haven’t imagined that (I say this as one who is very sympathetic with their position). Proponents of cultural conservativism have also shown a tendency to be brittle in response to passionate opposition.
So in different ways (by insult or by non-engagement), both sides have shown a tendency to preach only to their own choirs (or praise bands, as the case may be).
The passion is good
Let’s be clear, though: these matters are too important to consider in a completely passionless way. We’re not debating infra- vs. super-lapsarianism. (Okay, that debate’s been pretty passionate too—aren’t they all?!) So I’m not faulting either side for getting hot and bothered at times. There would be something really twisted about examining these ideas with yawns and drooping eyelids.
But that means both sides of the question should expect that the other will, at times, commit the errors that always attend passionate disagreement. We humans just can’t be worked up as we should without also being worked up in ways we shouldn’t and lapsing into overstatement, bile-dumping, walking off in a huff, etc. It isn’t good, but it is normal. Rather than judge one another by unrealistic standards, we should quickly recognize how prone we all are to “gettin’ ugly,” and open the forbearance valve wide and hard.
At the same time, realizing how sensitive and close-to-heart these matters are (and how much historical baggage is attached), we should accept the need for extraordinary self-restraint (vs. extraordinary effort to restrain the other guy—i.e., shut him up). The debate calls for understanding and persuasion, not reaction and coercion.
For my part, I’m fully prepared to grant that just about everybody on both sides (and the points between) of the “cultural fundamentalism” question is keenly interested in doing what honors God and best serves His people.
So what is this opportunity we’re wasting? For the sake of brevity, perhaps it’s best to put it in terms of what could happen if enough believers put their minds and hearts to it.
I already hear snickers at my naïve idealism. But this isn’t really “idealism.” Idealism confuses what ought to be with what really is. Pursuing what truly could eventually be is something else.
What could eventually be—an articulate group of leaders on each side of the question could:
- separate the debate from the meta-debate
- identify the real the points of agreement and disagreement
- have the real debate
These points require more expansion than this post permits. A few clarifying observations, though: on both sides of the culture question (and several of the positions between), argument has occurred in a manner that obscures rather than clarifies the real points of disagreement. They have poured all sorts of meta-debate into the mix, making what’s really at issue nearly impossible to identify or engage.
It’s tragic. These matters are so important. It’s also tragic because a healthy debate exposes and highlights real differences so that those trying to make a wise, godly decision are better informed. We need a healthy debate about culture and meaning.
I hope to give more attention to meta-debate and points of agreement in a future post.