The issue of populism in the Evangelical ethos raises a concern for the need to differentiate between pop culture as folk culture and pop culture as mass culture. At its best, Evangelicalism seeks to preserve and foster folk culture and the critics of Evangelical piety need to recognize this strength, because it is through the ongoing propagation of folk culture that the disenchanting effects of modernity will be overcome ultimately. I say this knowing full well that the strong temptation within Evangelicalism is to traffic in the forms of mass culture, and it has succumbed to that temptation on more than one occasion.
By folk culture I mean to highlight what T. S. Eliot and Christopher Dawson understood to be 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. Thus the songs, stories, festivals, and artistic expressions of the people in their particularity are at the roots of any folk culture. Folk culture is also the critical ground from which so much of the distinctive Evangelical contributions to life spring, including its tradition of hymn writing, preaching as story telling, the continuous use of testimony and biography from Edwards’ Life of David Brainerd to Amanda Berry Smith, and a variety of musical forms like gospel, blues, and even Jazz if one considers that the Wesleyan wing of evangelicalism has always encompassed African-American life in a way that the other wings have not. One cannot think of Evangelicalism apart from populism, and many criticisms of Evangelicalism by its loyal sons and daughters stem from their unease with populism.
Folk culture, however, is not the same as mass culture. While folk culture refers to the forms of culture through stories, art, and music that define a region and express its value, mass culture refers to what Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School called the “culture industry,” a line of thought he developed over the course of thirty years (1939-1969). 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. For Adorno, this results in a colonization of the mind on the part of a culture industry. It counts as a form of domination that seeks either to assimilate folk culture or remove its authors from competition.
One could say that mass culture is parasitic on folk culture, because it requires the creativity of the people to survive, although today business machines like Hollywood prefer to create their own cultural icons that they then thrust upon a global public. Another member of the Frankfurt School, Herbert Marcuse was even more pronounced in his indictment of this “pattern of one-dimensional thought and behavior” as a totalizing empiricism that fuses ideology into the means of production. Despite the fact that the Frankfurt School applied Freudian and Marxist ideas to formulate their analysis of mass culture, I find their indictments still valuable. In his recent book, George Marsden has chronicled the concern with mass culture as part of the anxiety of the 1950s.
By juxtaposing the concerns of Dawson and Eliot to the cultural criticism of the Frankfurt School and other social critics like Neil Postman, one can begin to see an emerging critique of the forms of modernity during the first half of the twentieth century. These concerns are also prevalent in Lewis’s and Tolkien’s analyses of “men without chests” and the creation of a disenchanted world devoid of poetic myths that stem from and preserve folk culture.
What were their fundamental concerns? A push toward a scientific sovereignty in which the empirical world was the only world, a mechanization of life through the emerging structures of technology and mass industry, a cultivation of persons along the lines of immediate gratification and fulfillment of base impulses, and the use of mass culture by dictatorial regimes to shape a people.
The criticisms of mass culture and other forms of modernity are where the similarity between the Frankfurt School and what one could call the Anglo-Catholic School of Eliot, Dawson, Tolkien, and Lewis end (although Lewis was not strictly speaking Anglo-Catholic his medieval sensibilities put him in touch with key features of it). The latter sought to formulate a response to the predicament of modern humanity based on a deeper investigation and transmission of patristic and medieval Christianity whereas the former saw the “authoritarian” structures of Christendom as part of the problem.
Central to the Anglo-Catholic School was the dynamic between folk culture and Christianity in the formation of the person. This was at the heart of Christendom, not some monolithic church-state entity that oppressed people. I see this perspective as also being a central feature of Evangelicalism, especially in its revivalist wing. It also strikes me that Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture misses these connections in part because Niebuhr is caught up in an American narrative of the fracturing of mainline Protestantism. Sociologists such as Peter Berger have repeatedly emphasized how the global Pentecostal and charismatic movements have become adept at navigating the forms of modernity without succumbing to disenchantment. This is because by emphasizing the Spirit’s role in creation and redemption evangelical revivalism and its offshoot of the Pentecostal and charismatic movement have advanced a program that both democratizes Christianity and inculturates it in a way that preserves and fosters folk culture. Festivals, musical forms, and other features of folk culture are not denounced as antiquated features of authoritarianism that seek to destroy autonomy, which seems to be what the Frankfurt School thought about folk culture.
One of the important contributions of Christopher Lasch is his criticism of the Frankfurt School’s solutions to modern life. These solutions have been taken up into certain theoretical accounts in which the ideas of gender and family promoted by folk culture become part of the problem and therefore need to be destroyed. Since religion was a powerful rationale supporting folk culture it has become part of the problem for the Frankfurt School and its modern disciples. Lasch’s criticisms reveal the deep suspicion of “the common man” behind the Frankfurt School’s analyses and the impact this had on historians like Richard Hofstadter. The rise of McCarthyism, according to Lasch, confirmed in the minds of many liberal critics like Hofstadter that mass movements mask ingrained hatred of the other and therefore control must be taken from the people and the folk cultures they foster.
One of the problems I have with Mark Noll’s analysis of the Evangelical Mind is an uncritical embrace of Richard Hofstadter’s ideas about populist movements. Noll blames the populist culture of Evangelicalism as antithetical to the life of the mind when it is this emphasis on folk culture that mounted a serious resistance to disenchantment. As Alvin Plantinga has recently reiterated, citing Calvin’s sensus divinitatis, religious experience more than theist argument may be the most important ground of belief. By embracing Hofstadter Noll has fed into a line of criticism that devalues folk culture in the service of a more elite high culture facilitated by an intellectual class. In The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch called such an approach the “politics of the civilized minority.”
In my more cynical moments I tend to view the so-called doctrinal critique of Evangelicalism by certain detractors who shall remain nameless as an impatience with folk culture and folk religion in all of its messiness. It is this messiness, however, that one finds in the religious populism of early and medieval Christianity through movements like the Bendictines, the Cistercians, the canons regular, the Franciscans, the Beguines, and other forms of religious life that bubbled up from the bottom. It’s this messiness that is still prevalent in the first and second great awakenings and remains with us in all of the revivals since that have formed the heart, not the periphery, of Evangelicalism as a renewal movement within Protestantism. And it is in the context of this messiness that links between folk culture and Christianity are forged in ways that bend wayward desires toward the good by creating lovers of God, lovers of creation, and lovers of humanity. Maybe Evangelicals should take a cue from Pope Francis whose Latino roots seem to help him understand the power of the people of God when the Spirit of God unleashes their creativity. Maybe Evangelical scholars should stop treating folk culture as though it’s commensurate with mass culture.