Several years ago I shared on this topic in a Church because I find that Christians tend to have an instinctive suspicion about things dubbed ‘culture’ whereas non-religious folk, especially if they are social scientists, tend to convey an instinctive high regard for things dubbed ‘culture’. But what is culture really?
The specialists will forgive my working definition of culture as “ the time-honoured (enduring), accepted way of life of a people.” Here I am thinking of a broader base of people and the accepted way of life of such over time than what is the lived reality of a sub-culture within a section of society.
I suggest two notions about culture for consideration. Culture is not absolute but relative, not static but dynamic. Our culture then, whoever we are, is simply what is descriptive of us not what is prescriptive for others.
How we respond to culture may be different but all responses deserve examination. One mayrespond with uncritical [or complete] acceptance of culture based on the belief that what has been for a while as culture, is from the people and thus okay.
But is this necessarily true? Even the most open-minded analyst of culture will have to admit that there are some aspects of culture that are not commendable like say survival by stealing (cf. praedial larceny) or corruption, very entrenched in many sections of Jamaica and defended by the Jamaicanism “ah suh de ting set”. Okay? I think not.
Another response (from many Christians) is uncritical [or complete] rejection of culture. Out of ignorance, some argue that all of culture is from ‘the pit of hell’ and must be rejected. It amazes me how easily we speak about aspects of hell without any biblical or other grounding for our ideas. I suspect that some of us confuse what we do not like with what God could not bless in use. Unless we are privy to what the devil likes we should be careful about assigning aspects of culture to him.
As a trained and lettered musician in so-called ‘classical music’ I have had to offer an informed polite corrective/caution to Christians who are too glib in pronouncing on what is ‘not of God’ re music or other art forms. Again, my humourous point is “you cannot equate your taste with God’s taste unless you think you are the 4thmember of the Trinity in which case we have very serious theological problems!”
What I recommend to all re responding to culture is critical engagement of culture. This engagement is by two means 1) by Informed analysis via criteria for evaluation plus progressive maturity in taste and 2) By involvement while examining motive and means, all the while seeking to ascertain all the relevant facts before judging finally. I explain further.
By informed analysis via criteria for evaluation I am suggesting that we ponder the basic point that some aspects of culture are amoral (neither good nor bad in essence), other aspects may be immoral and yet others perfectly wholesome. These are basic criteria for evaluating aspects of culture.
Tunes and rhythms, in my view, are basically amoral though not impotent but songs as such (given the lyrics) can be correctly declared as immoral or wholesome. There is no sinful C sharp or A natural and no sanctified G flat or B. hence no combination of notes forming a tune can be defensibly described in moral terms.
There is no sinful or sanctified beat hence no combination of beats forming a rhythm can be defensibly described in moral terms. Sure you may respond differently to one kind of rhythm as opposed to another but the commentary is properly about your response not about the rhythm itself. Regardless of the stimulus “my response is my responsibility”! Rhythm, because it affects your central nervous system, is powerful but is still, in my view, amoral in essence.
I recall chiding a Seminary group for applauding a visiting Jewish group after they had sung songs about Jerusalem and Israel in Chapel but the said group would have a problem if a group were to sing in chapel a Jamaican patriotic song like ‘One more Jamaican gone abroad’. Maybe I just need Jesus but the fact that Jamaica is not in the Bible does not make a Jamaican patriotic song less spiritual than a song about Jerusalem.
The issue of maturity in taste has to do with the fact that as we gain more knowledge about a particular thing we can better appreciate the nature of that thing though we may still not be inclined to utilize it or love it.
Youth and adults who claim not to like hymns in Church are often very ignorant about the nature of hymns. After even a crash course on the background and musical/lyrical nature of hymns their taste matures a bit though they may still prefer choruses. There is a trickier dimension to maturity in taste and this has to do with “…[learning] to distinguish between the subject matter and the artistry of the work, between its content and its form…” as one specialist puts it. Years ago some of my brethren including a respected clergy colleague took objection to the sculpture in Emancipation Park with one describing it as disgusting. I suspect because the lady’s breasts are not within a brassiere.
Bearing in mind that the lady represents a member of our ‘enslaved’ ancestors (thanks Prof. Shepherd) how likely is it that she would have been wearing a brassiere? So. as I said mischievously to a friend ‘if you have a pardonable partiality to breasts say you find the lady’s breasts disturbing but not disgusting’!
There is great unquestioned artistry/skill behind the sculpture admit that, even if you have a problem with its content, partial nudity.
I don’t care much for classical organ music but I know and appreciate the consummate skill behind Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D minor and the courage (nay the hubris) required to attempt to perform it.
With reference to the involvement component, self-examination especially in Church circles is key for me and one’s motive for involvement can be all of self or genuinely geared toward educating/entertaining or ministering. With certain Christian audiences one needs to educate before or while utilizing the art form while in others it is best to try to inform pure and simple long before even attempting to utilize the art form.
It is never wise to pronounce against a person’s use of a particular cultural element without seeking to gather as much of the available facts as possible. Give people the benefit of the doubt, you rarely if at all lose anything in the process.
Rev. Clinton Chisholm, Academic Dean, Caribbean Graduate School of Theology