18 February 2014

Dale Coulter, American Pentecostals and Their High-Cultured Dispisers: Part 1

Regent University School of Divinity colleague Dale Coulter has an extensive post here titled "Evangelicals, Pop Culture, and Mass Culture." Coulter makes several arguments but the first is that the problem with unnamed "doctrinalists," who are forever pointing out perceived theological errors within the revivalist wing of Christianity, is their mistaking popular cultural for mass culture and rejecting both in favor of high culture. Coulter agrees that contemporary forms of mass culture are largely inconsistent with faithful Christian living but firmly rejects the notion that the same is true of popular culture.

Coulter does a nice job of tracing the high culture/popular culture/mass culture distinction through the Frankfurt School as refined by the late Christopher Lasch, one of my favorite social critics of the late 20th century. In brief, folk culture is "the interrelated nature of family, region, and religion as elements that give rise to cultural forms. Folk culture stems from the people of a particular region and the familial and religious bonds that form the central threads of that region." Folk culture, in other words, springs from the non-commercial bottom up.

By contrast, mass culture is largely a product of the 20th century advances in communications technology, beginning with the wax cylinder and the radio and progressing through television to internet streaming. In mass culture, "the forms of culture become products of an industrialized machine in a culture industry and thus commodities with economic ends in mind. Culture ceases to bubble up in its myriad forms from below and becomes imposed on society from above through big business, mass marketing, and governments." Mass culture sucks the life from popular culture and makes us pay to get it back.

Coulter doesn't take the time to define high culture but it's reasonably clear that he finds it less than congenial to the revivalist tradition of American Christianity because "elite high culture [is] facilitated by an intellectual class. ... [and] the 'politics of the civilized minority.'” While Coulture believes that high culture suffers less from the commodifying effects of mass culture than does popular culture, its elite status makes it less than endearing to the spirit of American revivalism. Conversely, Coulter argues, the perceived déclassé attitudes and behaviors of Pentecostal Americans imbued with the spirit of revival so offend the high culture conservative Protestant elites that they feel compelled to turn all their theological prowess to demonstrating why such folks simply must be wrong in what they believe about experiencing the presence of God.

Perhaps it's only tinges of high culture in me but I don't buy it. And by "it" I don't mean the high/popular/mass culture distinction; that's basically correct. I simply don't believe that the theologians of orthodox Reformed persuasion maintain doctrines like the penal substitutionary view of the atonement and even a strong cessationist take on the sign gifts of the Holy Spirit because they are high culture snobs. That some may be among the cultured elite may be true (and I'm confident many are not) but correlation does not equal causation. Coulter may be correct, that his bête noire,  Mark Noll, a historian with Reformed theological distinctives, confuses popular culture with mass culture and thus mistakenly aims his attacks on the revivalist tradition as the source of anti-intellectualism in America. Yet I'm confident he's wrong to discount theological criticisms of his tradition on the grounds of class-based bias.

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