What do eating habits, film noir, reptiles, human cloning, Facebook, economics, and poetry have to do with the Christian life? “Everything,” Ken Myers would argue, and does, thoughtfully and audibly, at least every other month. For Myers—the living library behind the Mars Hill Audio Journal—what the church needs today is not more specialists, whether in theology or philosophy or church growth, but more “well-informed generalists” who are interested in understanding all of culture in order to live more faithfully in God’s world.
This endangered species is one of which Myers himself is a prime example. After graduating from college with a degree in film theory, he earned a master’s degree in religion at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Finding few opportunities in the church to pursue his interests, he worked for several years as the arts and humanities editor for National Public Radio, and then for the evangelical Eternity magazine, while writing a book called All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture. In 1993, unable to secure funding to start a major new print magazine, he started Mars Hill Audio instead.
The decision was both strategic and pragmatic: Evangelicals had periodicals, but nothing with the intellectual rigor of Harper’s or The Atlantic. Plus the audio book market was beginning to take off, and there wasn’t much competition for people’s captive listening time—primarily in their cars. Myers knew how to interview people and produce audio content, so it was relatively cheap, too.
Sixteen years later, there’s still nothing quite like the Journal. I’ve been a subscriber since 1994—first on cassette tapes, then on CDs, and now as MP3 downloads. I always figured pastors like me were its primary audience, but it turns out we only make up about 15 percent of its 8,000 subscribers. The rest are regular people: doctors, businesspeople, homeschooling moms, dentists from Asecra dentists and more. Many, Myers says, are technicians: well-educated professionals who don’t deal with ideas for a living. Most are Protestants, but some are Catholic and some are Eastern Orthodox.
What we all share is a hunger for thoughtful reflection on aspects of life that are too-infrequently examined from a Christian perspective, and Myers is our patient tour guide through the city of ideas, connecting the dots between them and pointing us toward their historical antecedents. His interviewees—often scholars, authors, or cultural critics with new books out—are the resident experts on particular neighborhoods, distilling years of reflection into 10 to 15 minutes of high-fiber wisdom. Potential listeners be warned: It’s not for the faint of mind. Keeping a thumb on the rewind button is an essential discipline for keeping up with the conversation.
In an odd but satisfying reversal of roles, I spoke with Myers recently over the phone from his studio north of Charlottesville, Va.
Q. As an essayist and interviewer, you rarely disclose your Calvinist convictions in an overt way. How do they influence your work?
Well, first of all, I believe in God’s sovereignty over all of life, not just over salvation. In the Great Commission Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And if you tally up all the biblical texts that identify God’s sovereignty, especially in the Psalms, or where Christ or the Trinity are depicted in kingly terms, they’re pretty much describing His sovereignty over creation. That’s a theme in Calvin that can get lost in a modern setting because modernity tempts us to compartmentalize our faith. The other reason is that a lot of contemporary Calvinists have formulated their Calvinism [in reference to] Arminians or dispensationalists, and so they tend to think about distinctives in that direction. But as one of my professors at Westminster said, “Calvinism has many points. Arminianism had five points.”
Second, I have a high view of the church. Calvin doesn’t have a lot of room for individualistic Christianity. And I’m convinced that individualism is one of the most corrosive and destructive forces of modernity. The Christian answer to individualism is recovering the centrality of the life of the body of Christ. Our salvation involves us in a covenantal community. Paul says we’re given gifts for building up the body; that seems to me to counter modern individualism. But churches now tend to be configured as providers of religious goods and services, and are often told to think of themselves that way. That’s a commercial model, rather than a communal model.
Third, I believe in common grace. Calvin says, “if any ungodly man has said anything true, we should not reject it, for it also has come from God.” Calvin was a firm believer that not only is God sovereign over the church, but He gives gifts to people who aren’t in the church, and those are gifts that the church can benefit from.
Q. Yet Christians often defend certain cultural resources and practices based on the logic that if God is using them, they must be good.
Well, I don’t think everything that happens is evidence of common grace. I have a high view of the common curse, too. The fact that God can use something doesn’t make it intrinsically valuable. God uses us all the time, and we know how flawed we are. God used Judas to accomplish His purposes. God used Balaam’s ass. So cultural criticism should not be about whether something is potentially useable by God, because of course everything is useable by God. The question is whether the thing is inherently problematic.
Because evangelism drives so much of Christian cultural engagement right now, I think Christian critics are nervous about saying anything critical. Whereas secular critics, they’re not worried about being winsome. I’ve seen that skittishness increase remarkably in the last 30 years, and I think it’s a function of the fact that as our culture gets more post-Christian, the church is just going to look more and more out of sync. I think a lot of Christians are afraid that if we look like we’re too critical of things, then people aren’t going to be attracted to us. The worst thing that can happen to an evangelical scholar is to be mistaken for a fundamentalist.
Here’s the thing I come back to over and over again: Most American evangelical Christians just don’t believe that culture matters. They’re not as knee-jerk suspicious as they were 50 years ago, when cultural things were regarded as important in a bad way. But they don’t believe cultural things can matter in a really good way. The best reason to be critical about cultural phenomena is because they’re bad as culture—not because they’re bad as evangelism, or they’re bad morally—but because they don’t do justice to the kind of thing a cultural artifact can do. Culture isn’t everything, but it’s a valuable thing.
Working at a place like NPR, or just being involved in the arts, you work with people who aren’t sympathetic to the majority view. So when, in the interest of evangelism, Christians give the status quo the benefit of the doubt, they alienate people who are critical of the status quo. Many nonbelievers who are already countercultural think, “Ah yes, evangelicalism—that’s just the way American commercial culture gets religion.”
Q. Evangelicals today are often preoccupied with novelty: new strategies, new ministry models, new insights for successful Christian living. How do you assess this preoccupation?
C.S. Lewis said one of the distinctive aspects of the modern mind is the assumption that newer things are always better. We’ve become preoccupied with things we don’t have, rather than the nurturing and stewarding the things we do have.
My favorite example of this is the shift since the 1970s toward informality in public. People used to wear coats and ties to go to a baseball game, and now they wear a ball cap at church. We’ve moved away from formality toward informality in almost every area—language, dance, food, worship, music—and I’m convinced that it’s largely a symptom of a suspicion of authority. You don’t want to submit to a set of standards and proprieties that you didn’t freely choose yourself. So if the move toward informality expresses a widespread suspicion of authority, then why would that be a good, up-to-the-minute trend to endorse?
Wendell Berry says we need to attend to the intrinsic meaning of things: “What is needed is work of durable value; the time or age of it matters only after the value of it has been established.” So it’s the value of the thing itself, not whether or not it’s contemporary. Of course it’s good to be aware of the shape of what is contemporary, but that’s no reason to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Q. You talk regularly about the need for Christians to reckon with the “givenness” of creation. In what ways do you see the average American Christian failing to take these realities seriously enough?
We are embodied creatures, which means that our lives take a particular form. Look at Solomon’s reflecting on the shape of creation in the last few verses of 1 Kings 4: He spoke of trees, and also of beasts, birds, reptiles, and fish. That’s the trajectory of his wisdom. The metaphors in biblical wisdom literature presuppose a continuity between the shape of creation and the shape of our spiritual lives. So, trees can be usefully likened to a righteous man, as in Psalm 1, because God designed trees that way.
We don’t always draw the right conclusions from creation, any more than Christians always draw the right conclusions from Scripture. But the fact that we can misread creation doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to read it. Most of the battles in church history are battles because people have read the Bible wrong, but we don’t say therefore people shouldn’t read their Bibles. So we ought to be as deliberate in exegeting general revelation as we are in exegeting Scripture. Both Psalm 19 and Romans 1 insist that there are things about God that can be known from the things He has made. And throughout church history, creation has been seen as a kind of epiphany, as a revelation.
As one example, why have Christians embraced cremation in the last 20 or 30 years without apparently a lot of thought? The early church was profoundly concerned about burial and not adopting cremation because of their theology of the body. The question is not how God will regenerate cremated bodies, but how do we honor our dead? If you live in a town with a graveyard, or if you go to a church that has a graveyard outside, you are much more likely to be aware of your own history and the history of your community. I think cremation is one of the ways we deny the past, and we deny the significance of the body. But there’s a bigger problem, that we deny our attachment to those who had bodies before we did.
Q. You’ve had a lot of connections with the PCA over the years, including your brother Tom, a PCA pastor. As a member of a church in the Anglican Communion in America, how do you assess the PCA in regard to culture?
My work is really about producing thoughtful Christian faithfulness. If you start to think carefully about how you eat, how you spend time, how you think about place, all those things, some people may think you’re trying to achieve salvation by works. So my sense is that people with that kind of tendency–not just in the PCA–accept conventional ways of living from secular culture because they regard the effort to think thoughtfully and live deliberately as a kind of semi-Pelagianism [A view that man is partially depraved and capable, by his own free will, of cooperating in God’s work of grace]. And the idea that living deliberately is semi-Pelagian just baffles me. Because when you don’t, you end up living in accordance with a very post-Christian, and in significant ways, anti-Christian culture.
It seems to me that a large number of PCA pastors are really committed to theological rigor, and they want to nurture people’s enthusiasm about theology, as if that were the end of discipleship. But theology is a means more than an end. Orthodoxy serves to inform how we live, and God cares how we live. So if all of our theologizing never challenges the cultural conventions that we have uncritically assimilated from the world around us, then our theology isn’t doing what it should.
At the same time there are some in the PCA who, for the sake of evangelism, want to accommodate contemporary culture in significant ways, as long as no biblical law is broken. My sense is that a lot of those people don’t realize the meaning of the cultural changes they’re endorsing. They tend to think that culture’s just a matter of meaningless, arbitrary style. So basically what matters is getting people saved, but there doesn’t seem to be a vision of Christian discipleship that would include challenging how people live from the bottom up.
I’m convinced that one of the reasons the church has been culturally inert is because we don’t have a lot of laymen who are interested in the whole big ecosystem of culture and all its interrelated aspects. Culture is the way our humanity in all of its forms and expressions is lived out, so understanding culture is necessarily interdisciplinary. You can’t do it in a piecemeal way.
Q. Another interest of yours is the recovery of certain cultural practices, especially in regard to worship liturgy and the traditions of our faith. How do you evaluate the PCA’s relationship to our historic Reformed tradition?
The PCA tends to be more concerned with doctrinal statements than with liturgical practices. That does give the impression that the church is more like a philosophy club than a worshiping community.
On the one hand you have the kind of utilitarian approach that says, whatever cultural things happen, we’re going to use them for the sake of evangelism. And then on the other hand you have this kind of suspicion toward new things, which may be based on the assumption that if we allow new things in practices, then next thing you know we’re going to allow new things in theology. But on both sides there seems to be an absence of cultural discernment.
There often is the necessity of recovering certain patterns of life, not because some earlier period had it all right, but because there are ways of living which are more fitting for our understanding of who we are.
To the extent that there are still worship wars in the PCA, part of it is because they’re trying to answer questions purely on the basis of the theology of worship and not on the basis of the sociology of worship and how aesthetic experiences in the last two centuries have evolved. So for instance, for most of Western history it was explicitly believed and assumed that musical forms weren’t simply expressions of personal preference.
The organ, for example, was not brought into the church because it was a popular instrument among the masses, but because its capacities as an instrument were thought to express something about cosmic reality. And that was believed until the eighteenth century, sometime around the Enlightenment, when the Christian account of reality began to be publicly challenged in the west. For similar reasons, the assumption that aesthetic form has a kind of objectivity about it was also challenged.
The PCA is united by its recovery of the Westminster standards, but a lot has happened in Presbyterian theology, and not all of it bad, between the seventeenth century and the twenty-first. In Reformed and Presbyterian circles, there has been a development of theologically informed, philosophical reflection on culture. The Standards define our theology, but they don’t exhaust the possibilities of a Christian philosophy.
The traditions of the church are not something to be thrown away lightly. I would argue that that’s a Reformed view. It recognizes that God is working not only immediately, but through Word, sacraments and discipline – the marks of the church.
Both sides need to recognize that Word and Spirit work together. If all the scriptures are all law, and all we’re concerned about is whether things are lawful or unlawful, whether it be cultural or whatever, then the scriptures are all we need. But if in fact we believe that wisdom is also part of our vocation, then the repository of the Spirit’s work in the church over time is something we also need to reflect on. And the Reformers were doing that. Calvin was not at all ashamed to ransack all sorts of wisdom from Augustine and other patristic sources.
I wanted to write an essay years ago called “What Happened to Tradition in the Reformed Tradition?” Too many Reformed people believe that we can safely ignore, not just the theological conclusions, but the practices, of earlier eras of the church. If we believe that the Spirit continues to lead the church, and will continue to, then we don’t just look to the first century church to find wisdom about how we ought to live.
One of my favorite subjects lately has been the relationship between the fifth commandment and youth culture. The fifth commandment seems to me to presuppose that human societies flourish most when there is intergenerational continuity and unity. So the very idea of youth culture is an attack on the assumptions about reality that are embedded in the fifth commandment.
We are not limited in our reflection to simple deduction from scripture; we must integrate our deductive work from scripture with our inductive reflection on creation, which I think is what wisdom requires.
Liturgical negligence comes from the assumption that it’s just a formal consideration, and the church can be concerned about content. I think historically churches have thought that the maintenance of certain forms served not just the interests of orthodoxy but the interests of holy living.
Q. It seems ironic that you often commend older perspectives and practices, but you use a very new technological format.
The real irony is that the spoken word is more primitive than the printed word. So this is a technology that enables the recovery of a more primitive experience. I just did an interview about this with Craig Gay, who argues that hearing is the sense that the Scriptures focus on most. It’s the word heard. So there’s a sense in which the spoken word is more fundamental to our humanity.
In addition, the conversational format is a subtle way of challenging people to think about issues they probably wouldn’t read an article about. If they were browsing through a magazine, they might flip right by, whereas conversation can be more friendly, less off-putting.
I remember a conversation I had with one of my subscribers, who had a kind of high-energy, inside-the-Beltway job. And she said, “I really was interested in that interview with so-and-so, but I needed the bullet points; I needed to know what were the action items.” And I said the best action item would be to emulate Mary and ponder these things in your heart. I said I have no idea what you ought to do about it, but I think if you meditate on it long enough, if you try to acquire an understanding of it over time, it will be useful.
We tend to think we learn things so that we can take control, so we can step out and do something, rather than learning it and just living with it. But the people I know who behave really wisely are not that calculating. I think they’re kind of intuitive; they make decisions more from a kind of grounding in thoughtfulness.
One of our goals is to highlight the work of people who have thought really hard about a lot of complicated things and developed that thinking in a form people can engage in on their own time.
To learn more, go to www.marshillaudio.org, where you can download a sample issue of the Journal, browse essays, order back issues or longer interviews, and subscribe to their free podcast, Audition.
Walter Henegar is the pastor of Atlanta Westside Presbyterian Church.