Evaluating Culture: High and Low and In Between

October 2nd, 2009

For millennia, people have used art, storytelling, and song to illuminate their dreams, hopes, and fears. The above watercolor was painted by a girl during her senior year of high school. Alli Baker attended a small youth group in Windermere, Florida, and she’s now in college—hoping one day to be a minister.

Another painting, simple but beautiful, shows a horse trotting gracefully from left to right, his black mane flowing and his ochre skin glowing. But the one thing that truly makes the painting amazing is its age. One of our ancient ancestors painted this horse on the wall of a cave in Lascaux, France, between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.

The Lascaux cave paintings were discovered by accident in 1940, and since then new discoveries have been pushing the dates of humanity’s first art ever further backward.

In 1994, explorers in France discovered even more ancient paintings in the previously unknown Chauvet Cave. When scientists subjected these paintings to carbon dating, they were shocked by results showing these pieces of primitive art were created some 35,000 years ago.

One of the paintings at Chauvet looks remarkably contemporary, and it may be the earliest “spray painting” ever made. The ancient artist placed his hand on the rock of the cave and spit pigments onto the wall, leaving a colored outline of his fingers.

Culture Debates

Theologians and philosophers have engaged in lengthy debates about culture, including when it began, where it came from, and what its very existence signifies. But for me, the paintings on the walls of the French caves put the debate in an entirely different perspective. They demonstrate in Technicolor style that culture has been an essential part of the human experience for a very, very long time.

When we debate culture and its role in our world today, we should realize that we’re talking about something that’s been part of the human experience for as long as humans have existed—something that may play as deep and powerful a role in our lives as religion does. In fact, religion and culture shape each other—and along the way shape us, as well.

The creation and dissemination of art have certainly changed over the past 35,000 years. Today we can instantly download electronic images of the Lascaux paintings from the Internet and paste them into a newsletter or Web site we’re producing on our computers.

But our passion for art—for taking the raw material of our lives and expressing it in creative ways—has changed little since the dawn of human life. That’s because culture is at the core of our being.

Culture: Human and Divine

The Genesis account of the days of creation contains some tantalizing insights into the origins of human culture and creativity. In Genesis 1:26, God has already created the cosmos and now turns to the creation of humanity. The frustratingly brief passage gives us an important clue about the causes of culture: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…'”

As the passage indicates, an essential part of being made in the image of God is that we, too, are creative. In fact, you could say we were created to create, and we have been doing so ever since.

Theologically speaking, J. R. R. Tolkien and others have described humans as “subcreators,” because unlike God we don’t create things out of nothing. While that’s true, other Christian thinkers argue that acts of artistic imagination resemble the work of God in that they create new worlds of order out of seeming chaos. In addition, some theologians have argued that among all the world’s major religions, Christianity is uniquely attuned to culture due to the fact that the three persons of the Godhead coexisted in a kind of divine culture prior to the creation.

The existence of human culture, which is the accumulation of everything humans create, has been cited by Christians as evidence of the existence of God and divine creation of the world, while for others it has also been claimed as proof of human evolution. Either way, the conclusion is clear. Culture distinguishes humans from all the other creatures on our planet.

Horses eat and run and reproduce, but they don’t make paintings of themselves on cave walls. People do that. Birds build nests and beavers build lodges, but only people build split-level ranch homes, 50-room mansions, and skyscrapers, and then write about and argue about them in photo-heavy magazines like Architectural Digest and House Beautiful. Animals make sounds, some of them very beautiful, but only people create masterpieces like Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto or Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind.”

Culture is an essential part of what makes humans human, and over the millennia, we’ve created cultures of breathtaking complexity and diversity. On the surface, we many not see much similarity between the Lascaux cave paintings and modern pop culture products like the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, but both represent efforts by humans endowed with God-given creativity to take the raw materials of their existence and spin these into something creative, descriptive, and intriguing.

Today, our creative tendencies express themselves in an incredible number of ways, but those tendencies originated with our creation by God, and they find their greatest fulfillment in works that either explicitly or implicitly acknowledge those origins.

A Cultural Cornucopia

Thirty centuries ago, a Mediterranean epic poet named Homer authored the story of a man named Odysseus who seeks to return to his home and family after a lengthy absence in a deadly war. Along the way, our hero encounters a Cyclops, a group of drugged-out lotus-eaters, a cannibal, residents of Hades, and attractive sirens who try to lure him to his death. Long held to be a classic (which one writer described as any book that remains in print) and a foundational work of Western civilization, Homer’sOdyssey has been studied by scholars and assigned to English students around the world for centuries.

Two filmmakers named Joel and Ethan Coen used aspects of Homer’s story as the basis for their surprising blockbuster 2001 hit, O Brother, Where Art Thou? The movie’s main character was Ulysses Everett McGill (played by George Clooney), an escaped convict and country crooner who, along with the other two members of the Soggy Bottom Boys, routinely breaks into song, including “Man of Constant Sorrow” (which was actually sung by Dan Tyminski of the acclaimed bluegrass band Alison Kraus and Union Station).

T-Bone Burnett created the movie’s soundtrack after searching his huge collection of old vinyl albums for the songs that would best fit the film’s plot and historical context. By choosing “Man of Constant Sorrow,” a song that was first recorded in the 1920s before being revisited by folk artists like Dylan and Joan Baez in the 1960s, Burnett turned a formerly obscure piece of southern subculture into a pop culture phenomenon. The song helped the O Brother soundtrack sell more than three million copies, inspired the “Down from the Mountain” tour featuring many of the movie’s musical artists, and led to soul-searching by many radio station programmers about their widespread neglect of American “roots” music.

You may not have noticed , but the previous four paragraphs contain a variety of value-loaded words that subdivide this vast thing we call culture into various smaller sub-compartments. Terms like classic, Western civilization, scholars, film, folk, southern subculture, and pop culture indicate that culture is made of many smaller elements.

For many people, classic works like Homer’s Odyssey represent the highest of human culture, while twangy tunes like “Man of Constant Sorrow” remain relegated to a lower shelf. We see these “high” and “low” judgments everywhere. For example, many hail operas like Verdi’s Joan of Arc as highbrow and cultivating while considering Britney Spears as lowbrow and pandering. Both are music, and both are products of God-given creativity. But one is regarded as “art” while the other is viewed as little more than sensationalism or “product.”

Where did such high/low distinctions come from, and how can we address them as we talk and argue together about how to apply our faith to matters of culture?

Locating High and Low

Can we worship God just as faithfully through high-decibel rock praise choruses as through Gregorian chant? Can we teach Christianity just as effectively through sermons based on the lingo of advertising or self-help books as through sermons based on the rhetorical principles of Plato and Aristotle? So many of the debates we have among ourselves over such issues are really debates about culture and how we apply the unchangeable, foundational principles of our faith to ever-changing cultural conditions.

At the root of many such debates are questions of evaluation and judgment. Is Beethoven “better” than the Beatles? Is Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel “higher” than the comic strips in today’s newspapers or the “shock art” produced by a person who crawls across a floor covered with cut glass and declares his bloodied clothing his masterpiece?

Kenneth A. Myers, creator and host of the renowned Mars Hill Audio Journal(marshillaudio.org), waded into these turbulent waters with his 1989 book,All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture(Crossway). In a chapter entitled “Accounting for Taste,” Myers argued for the existence of an absolute hierarchy of cultural quality, asking: “When I say I ‘like’ Bach, and you say you ‘like’ Bon Jovi, are we really using the same verb?”

His answer was, “No.”

But Calvin College’s William Romanowski took a different approach to the battles between high and low in his 1996 book, Pop Culture Wars: Religion & the Role of Entertainment in American Life (InterVarsity).

One of his case studies examined William Shakespeare, the poet and playwright who is now widely regarded as creating some of the greatest works ever written in the English language (and whose use of that language helped set the stage for the creation of the King James version of the Bible). In our day, says Romanowski, Shakespeare is assigned to the “high” culture category, but that’s not the way many of his contemporaries understood his often violent and bawdy plays. “While Shakespeare has become an icon of highbrow culture,” writes Romanowski, “In his own day he was considered not a literary genius but a public dramatist, with a reputation lower than that of some of his peers.”

In his heart of hearts, Shakespeare may have been trying to create art, but in order to have his plays performed, he had to succeed at the “box office,” which meant that he had to attract sufficient numbers of theatergoers, with their tastes for adventure, intrigue, and romance. The Academy-Award-winning 1998 film Shakespeare in Love depicts these market pressures well, in addition to the moral condemnations leveled by Elizabethan clergymen, most of whom felt certain that Shakespeare’s plays were damaging to public morals and did everything in their power to close down his productions.

Discerning High and Low Today

Are there any valid or universally applicable criteria for declaring a particular creative work “good” or “bad,” or are all such aesthetic judgments nothing more than indications of the various ways different people react to a work?

If the answer to this question was simple, humans wouldn’t have spent much of the last 30 centuries arguing about it. But there’s one practical step we can take to make our discussions about culture more productive.

For example, was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ a great movie? Millions of people thought so, making it the highest grossing independent film in cinema history. But critics generally didn’t think so, and the film was basically overlooked at this year’s Oscars.

In his profound little pamphlet entitled Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer suggested that we evaluate creative works on two separate levels: the theological and the aesthetic.

For example, those who evaluate movies according to Schaeffer’s plan would be right in declaring the film Monster, which depicts the downward spiral of a female prostitute-turned-serial killer named Aileen Wuornos (played by actress Charlize Theron), a “good” work cinematically, even though it gives viewers a disturbing look at a destructive and “bad” person. On the other hand, just about everyone agrees that Left Behind: The Movie was an abysmal film, even though it was most likely well-intended and based on one interpretation of the biblical teaching about the end times.

Separating a work’s aesthetic dimensions from its theological aspects allows us to evaluate each separately and make an informed decision about the artistic quality of a work. But such an approach still doesn’t answer the question of whether the music of Verdi is higher than that of Britney Spears. Evaluating cultural works proves a much more complicated task than determining whether or not you like them. Some people like movies with loud car chases, while others prefer romantic movies that cause smitten viewers to reach for multiple boxes of Kleenex. Evaluating an adventure movie isn’t the same thing as critiquing a romantic film, but each can be evaluated using some of the same criteria:

  • Is it well-written? Does the dialogue sound like something real people would say, or does it sound like a Hollywood writer cranked it out on a bad afternoon?
  • Is it well-acted, and are the characters fully-dimensioned? Or are they cardboard “good guys” and “bad guys” who do little more than embody their predetermined roles?
  • And overall, does the film say something insightful and true about the human condition? Or does it merely repackage a series of tired clichés and try to hide these behind top-drawer actors and lavish sets?

All cultural products ultimately spring from our God-given creativity, but that doesn’t mean that all cultural products are created equal. Learning to distinguish the good from the bad is an ongoing process that requires us to act as informed critics rather than mere consumers. But still, even if we devote a lifetime to evaluating culture, this doesn’t mean that we’ll arrive at conclusions that are absolutely and universally true.

As with many other things, we need to call them as we see them while simultaneously extending grace and understanding to people who may call them differently, or who may see a rose where we only see thorns.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.