Scoring Culture

On my way to work today, I listened to a number of tracks from movie scores by John Williams, arguably the greatest film score composer alive today. After the third or fourth “main theme,” I realized why I don’t listen to this all the time. While Williams writes legendary film scores, the genre just doesn’t satisfy my musical sensibilities. See, I was trained in music performance and composition and grew up playing Mozart and Beethoven piano sonatas. Because of this, I feel like most film scores are to classical music what movie adaptations are to the books on which they are based—violent and vulgar parodies.

As I drove, ruminating on this analogy with the Jurassic Park theme assaulting my senses, I realized that the analogy also enlightens my perspective on much popular evangelicalism today.

My thesis is this: many forms of twenty-first century American evangelicalism are to classic Christianity what films scores are to classical music—violent and vulgar parodies. Movie scores are “incidental,” describing musically and thematically the ever-changing images projected on a screen. Similarly, contemporary evangelicalism reflects the ever-changing cultural values and pursuits in their superficial doctrinal and practical “norms.” To enhance the cinematic action, movie scores incorporate an eclectic variety of musical instruments, tempos, styles, and themes to fit the film without any unifying theory, structure, or progression. In the same way, many evangelicals assemble a mishmash of media and methods to appeal to the masses without an over-arching theology or structure.

I admit that my perspective has been skewed by my intense exposure to ancient Christianity. And my historical awareness of the dangers of conforming Christian practice to the prevailing cultural philosophies, values, and norms has made me leery of constant changes in evangelicalism under the guise of “incarnational ministry.” Adopting from and adapting to the cultural chaos is not the same as incarnational ministry. The fact is, God became fully human, but Jesus never really “fit in.” Paul became all things to all people, but he was beaten by Jews and beheaded by Gentiles. The ancient Christian apologists and theologians drew from philosophical concepts and rhetoric to explain the faith to a pagan culture, but that same culture rejected and killed them. Only when the Christians began to coddle up to secular authorities did they reap positive—if not genuine—responses from both the powerful and the powerless. The result was a corrupt mega-church rich in worldly goods but in desperate need of spiritual reformation.

I fear that evangelicalism today is heading in the same direction as liberal theology of yesteryear. Like the Schleiermachers and Bultmanns of centuries past, seeker-sensitive churches drive their pegs into the shifting sands of the popular cultural landscape with their emphasis on felt needs. Trying to be everything to everyone, they often become nothing to nobody. Church growth gurus plug business strategies, corporate structures, and bottom-line philosophies that increase numbers and revenue but devalue narrow-way discipleship. Trendy thirty-something congregations appeal to the glitz and glamour of entertainment-oriented eye candy or create a cozy, comfortable coffee-house environment, but often fail to drive home the essential truths of the Christian faith—the glory of the Triune God, the gracious incarnation of the Son, the new life that comes through His death and resurrection.

To avoid the liberal slide, evangelicals today need to reevaluate their relationship to popular culture. Many evangelical leaders today are infactuated with popularity, respectability, luxury, comfort, fame, and fortune. Evangelicals need to seriously rethink the essence of the Christian faith, then conform its forms and structures to match the central message. The way we represent Christianity must in some way reflect the heart of the Christian faith. Only by a careful and intentional reflection on history, theology, Scripture, and culture can we hope to arrive at genuine expressions of Christianity. Leaping from the latest marketing strategy or communications fad just doesn’t cut it.

In short, I believe evangelicalism should stop writing their music to conform to the reeling images of popular culture and return to the symphonic theory of the classics.

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