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    All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Chapter Six

    January 28, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    Chapter Six of All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes is titled Better to Receive and discusses the difference between using culture {which is, according to Myers, what we do, generally speaking, with popular culture} and receiving culture {which would be, again according to Myers, what we do with high culture}. Myers often throws in the concept of folk culture, but he often neglects to explain what we do with it and how it is different than the other two.

    I would say that folk culture is the culture that we neither use nor receive, but rather that which we create, sometimes individually, but mostly collectively. I think I can lay it out simply with music: listening to the radio is popular culture, buying a ticket to the opera is high culture, singing with family and friends around the piano in our living room, is folk culture. This would be only one example, of course.

    Folk culture, by the way, is the culture which will endure regardless of circumstance. We can’t all afford orchestra tickets. In fact, in extreme poverty, the electricity to run the radio might suddenly seem like an excessive expenditure. But the piano or guitar we already own, along with the voices God gave us, and the music we remember or invent? These sorts of things can be timeless.

    Moving ever onward…

    An Experiment in Criticism

    Myers brought up a work by C.S. Lewis with which I am wholly unfamiliar called An Experiment in Criticism. The goal of this book was to define good books and bad books as books which are read in different ways. Myers lists out Lewis’ four distinctions between “literary” and “unliterary” reading, and I thought I’d repeat them here as I found them insightful:

    1. Willingness to read a single work over and over. Lewis says:

      The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers “I’ve read it already” to be a conclusive argument against reading a work.

      We can all agree that some books just aren’t worth reading twice, and Lewis would likely say that this means the book was “bad” in a literary sense.

    2. Making reading a priority. Lewis says that unliterary readers only read when they have absolutely nothing else to do or perhaps have insomnia. Literary readers, on the other hand, are always seeking out space in their lives for reading. My son already does this. The house will get quiet and I will find him somewhere, sometimes in very odd places. He’s found a book lying around, probably carried off by the toddler, and he can’t just put it back on the shelf. He has to read it. He is often desperate for reading time.
    3. Literary readers have profound experiences reading books. They fall in love along with the heroine, they experience the grief and pain of death, and so on. I might note that, if one is a literary reader in this sense, it becomes even more important to make sure one is reading appropriate material. If one reads a book and becomes part of the book, one must take heed not to fall into sin.
    4. Literary readers keep the things they have read present in their minds. I do this to a fault. I can’t get through a conversation without mentioning at least one book I’ve read and I fear this drives a few of my friends crazy, but thankfully they are the forbearing sort.

    It is Lewis who considered the idea that culture can be either used or received. Using culture, he says, does not add to our lives, but rather relieves our lives. Receiving culture means that there is more to our lives because of what we have been given.

    Enjoyment of the Literary

    Have you ever read Russian fiction? Or French, by chance? Such books go on and on. Russians are famous for their character development. By the end of a work, I feel like I’ve lived a whole life {in a good way}. French books, in particular The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, make the reader so aware of their environment. {At least, I think they do, as I’ve read many more Russians than I have French.}) The centerpiece of this book is actually the architecture. It takes some settling-in to read such a work because it moves. so. slowly. It took me a while to get the right attitude. I couldn’t think of it as a plot to be read and disposed with, but rather a trip not only to the past, but to Paris itself. The sights and the sounds came alive. Reading Hunchback is akin to traveling to Paris.

    For the poor. He he.

    I thought of this when Myers wrote:

    Throughout Lewis’ book, he develops the argument that the enjoyment of literature requires the enjoyment of something literary: that is, there is something in the form of the work, in the choice and sound of words, in the rhythm, color, texture, and smell of the prose, in the pacing of the entire structure, in the way the work exists, that grips the better reader. Those who read lesser fiction want action, what Aristotle called spectacle.


    The idea of context, that sometimes things are appropriate at one time, but not at another, is something we are constantly working on around our home because we have small children. Children are born thinking that whatever hits their fancy should happen or be said right here, right now. They do not think contextually. This is just childishness and it can be trained out of them, for their better. But it is interesting to note that children are born authentic. They are exactly who they are, exactly what they feel, regardless of the situation. The interesting thing about childish authenticity is that it not only ignores context, but also company. In other words, it tends to disregard the other souls around them.

    I think of my son who wanted to tell me jokes at the same time that Si was trying to tell me that my uncle had died that day. My son was only being childish. He didn’t understand. But such understanding must be trained. It is part of coming out of ourselves and into the larger world.

    Myers discusses church music. He offers the example of a “very earnest soloist [who] sings a piece of music that is exceedingly trite, clichéd, maudlin, and pretentious.” He then uses Philippians 4:8 as a mark which has been missed and says that while the text of the song was generally true {though sentimental}, the music “was not true, noble, lovely, or admirable.” And then he admits that if a person thought about such things aloud, they would likely be regarded as an arrogant elitist.

    You say the music was not true, noble, or admirable; they say it was a “blessing” for them. But is their “blessing” purely a subjective matter? For popular culture enthusiasts, if it feels good, it is good.

    That last sentence sets the stage for this:

    The subjectivism of popular culture renders null and void any concept of propriety. In social behavior, propriety refers to actions that are appropriate or fitting to the circumstances. At root, the word refers to the true nature of things, their properties. Today how we behave in the presence of others is often said to be a wholly subjective matter. There is no true nature of things: all significance is defined by the self. Therefore, any action in any setting is justified, as long as it is “authentic.”

    I think a healthy dose of Scripture solves some of this problem. As part of our Circle Time each day, we learn about having proper manners. This has been instructive, even for me! We are using George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation as a starting place. I’m choosing individual, timeless manners, translating them into contemporary English, and then adding a verse to go with them. Last week’s manner is a good example of what I mentioned above, which is the childishness associated with raw authenticity. We learned that we should make sure the time is proper before saying what we wish to say. We used Proverbs 25:11 as our foundation: “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” If we root our behaviors in God’s permanent word instead of the shifting sands of culture, we are wise.

    This is not to say that it is wrong to ever be authentic. However, it is my belief that the idea of “being authentic” is increasingly an excuse for bad behavior. Being true and honest is always a virtue, Biblically speaking, and doing so at a fitting time is as beautiful as those apples of gold. It’s all about context or, as Myers says, the properties of the setting in which we find ourselves.

    To extend this idea to the Internet, as Cindy is asking us to do, I would say that there are certain things about the Internet that encourage this ill-mannered behavior. If you have ever read a blog where a scuffle went on in the comments {and I might add that I delight that my readers have proven themselves time and again to be perfectly capable of decent and civilized conversation and I am so grateful and inspired by you all}, you will often see written words that obviously were not fully considered before the commenter pressed enter. You might see unkind things spoken in haste. And so on. I think the speed of the Internet, by its very nature, encourages a certain level of thoughtlessness and carelessness, and so feelings are often hurt more on the Internet than in real life! It’s not that we should avoid the Internet, but perhaps that we should walk away before making a hasty comment, and only come back when we have fully thought things through. I have found that when I do this, I am far less likely to say anything at all on someone else’s blog. And sometimes the less we say, the better it is, even for our own character.

    Unfortunately, the speed at which blogging travels, the desire for new material daily, or even hourly, deters thorough conversation. It is hard to think something through to its end when we are obligated to move on to the next subject so quickly. Lately, I have considered the pace of Afterthoughts, and whether it would be beneficial for my own soul {and others} to slow it down a little.

    Something to Chew On

    I’ll circle back to the very beginning and repeat what I thought was a fascinating question raised by Myers:

    Now, if every meal you ever ate was from a fast-food joint, would that affect your outlook on the meaning of meals? If there was never any elegance or grace, any ritual or decorum as part of your meals, if all the food that you ever consumed was delivered to you by a person in a funny-looking hat, and was wrapped in cardboard or styrofoam, would that affect your impressions of the Biblical metaphor of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb?

    I have my own thoughts on this, but I would love to hear what you all think first.

    Check out the rest of the AGC&BSS book club entries over at Dominion Family.

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  • Reply Mystie January 30, 2009 at 12:19 am

    “the desire for new material daily, or even hourly, deters thorough conversation.”

    And that hearkens back to chapter 4, and the quest for novelty.

  • Reply Dana January 28, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    I picked up on the litury focus, too, but didnt spend too much time on that last question. Somewhat tongue in check the bread at an Episcopal communion is rather icky, but I understand what Myers means by the question.

    Guess it goes back to those attitudes and habits of the heart.

    Way too much to talk about!

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