Identifying Impact Points in Culture
- 2007 22 Nov
Below the fold is the related essay I submitted for the “Bloggers’ Toolkit” booklet that was given to the conference attendees.
Identifying Impact Points in Culture
The title of this lecture can be a bit misleading. “Identifying impact points in culture” has connotations of a spotter scoping the battlefields of the “Culture War” in order to call in artillery fire. But the term “impact points” refers merely to areas in which Christians can impinge or influence the production, consumption, or redemption of cultural artifacts.
Despite the dominance of warfare metaphors by many Christians, culture is not about conflict but rather about creation. Our primary responsibility as culturally concerned Christians is not to critique culture (although that is an essential task) or to consume culture (an unavoidable part of being human) but to be creators of culture.
A (Very) Brief Theology of Culture
Most of us are familiar with the story in the first chapter of Genesis about how God created man and woman. What we often overlook is the next two things that immediately follow: God blesses mankind and puts them to work.
God blessed them, then said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
In the Reformed tradition, this command is often referred to as the “cultural mandate.” As Nancy Pearcey explains in Total Truth:
In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The first phrase, “Be fruitful and multiply,” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations – nothing less.
Crops, bridges, computers, and music are all examples of cultural artifacts. Artifacts are any man-made things created from artifice (human skill). The range of what is classified under this term is almost endless. Artifacts include everything from stone arrowheads to skyscrapers to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Culture, therefore, is simply a collection of various artifacts within a particular grouping of peoples.
In his illuminating book Plowing in Hope, David Bruce Hegeman observes,
Culture is the concretization – the rendering in some permanent form – of mankind’s culturative acts, commonly manifested in man-made objects, structures, texts, etc. Such artifacts stand apart from but (ideally) work in harmony with God’s natural creation or “nature.”
For our purposes, we’ll only be focusing on artifacts associated with new media – blog posts, social networking sites, YouTube videos, etc. Each of these various new media artifacts are mediums through which messages are carried. The questions we need to examine are: What types of messages should Christian media carry, how should these artifacts be developed, and where should they be delivered?
Three Points of Impact
There are three broad “impact points” where Christians can use new media artifacts:
• Folk Culture – artifacts created by a group that shares common ties, such as ethnicity, geography or religion (e.g., fairy tales).
• Popular Culture – artifacts which attempt to appeal to a broad range of groups in a pluralistic society (e.g., romance novels).
• Haute Culture – artifacts which are expressively rich and intentionally created to be elevated – whether aesthetically or intellectually – above common human works (e.g., Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past)
While all artifacts can be classified in one of these three categories, the lines of demarcation are fluid. Many musical styles originate in folk culture before crossing over to the realm of popular culture. Reggae music, for example, is a genre rooted in the musical styles of Africa and the Caribbean, but in the 1960s and ‘70s, musicians like Bob Marley helped broaden the genre’s appeal to a broader audience. Literature is another type of artifact that can straddle cultural lines. Novels like Don Quixote and Huckleberry Finn can appeal to both haute and popular cultures at the same time. Likewise, the Bible spans all three categories simultaneously. The same is true of new media artifacts, though they tend to fall in one of the three distinct categories.
Christian bloggers are adding artifacts to folk culture when they debate about theology, discuss concerns about their denominations, or share experiences about what it is like growing up as a child of Korean-born parents. We engage popular culture when we discuss political opinions, critique movies or music, and eat at McDonalds. Unfortunately, it is difficult to provide examples of haute culture, since it is all but nonexistent in the blogosphere. However, as the medium matures, we should expect to find Christians producing new media artifacts that are worthy of being passed along to succeeding generations.
Currently, the vast majority of new media artifacts by Christians are reactive: commenting on politics, reviewing pop cultural phenomena, sharing links to sermons and news articles. All of these are worthy and enrich the world of new media. All of us are will likely engage in such tasks, while a select few might be called to create reactive content almost exclusively. The vast majority of us, however, should be creating original cultural artifacts. We are called to be creators of culture, not merely commentators.
Throughout the community of Christian bloggers and podcasters, we should be deeply engaged in all impact areas, not each person is called to every medium.
Some theological bloggers should never write about politics. Some art podcasters may never feel led to discuss systematic theology. Some movie review bloggers should have a narrow focus and never veer from their particular medium. Such decisions, however, require discernment and a humble recognition of our abilities, skills, talents, and our calling as producers of culture.
While there are obvious forms that should never be used (i.e., pornographic blogs, snarky gossip blogs, podcasts that cover profane topics), most every aspects of culture is open to someone within the Christian community. There is little in culture that cannot be corrupted, so we cannot wall ourselves off from human sin. Still, as Albert Wolters cautions in Creation Regained,
A certain culture phenomenon may be so terribly and thoroughly distorted in a given historical setting that it is a matter of Christian wisdom to avoid it altogether.
In his book on art and the Bible, the late Francis Schaeffer provided four standards of judgment for the Christian artists, each of which is relevant to those of us who create media artifacts:
(1) Technical excellence – In all our work we should be striving to implement the highest technical excellence that that we can achieve. This requires not only that we consistently hold ourselves to a standard of excellence but that we continually work on improving the skill sets that are related to our chosen medium (i.e., bloggers should work on improving their writing).
(2) Validity – Validity requires that we are honest to ourselves and to our worldview. We shouldn’t change or modify our content just to be accepted by the broader culture.
(3) Content – Our work should reflect our worldview and must be seen ultimately in terms of Scripture.
(4) The integration of content and vehicle – The form of new media we choose will have an effect on how and what messages can be communicated. We must be deliberate in matching the content to the proper vehicle.
Jesus Christ is Lord over all of creation. Jesus’ lordship extends through every area and aspect of life including the creation of new media artifacts. As the theologian and former Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper once claimed, “No single piece of our mental world is to be sealed off from the rest and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” As Christians, we must ensure that our work and our interactions in these new media are God-centered, reality-bounded, and love-impelled.