Well, my weekend is made: Andy Ferguson has just written a profile of Ken Myers, the host, writer, and producer of the indispensable Mars Hill Audio Journal. Excerpts:
In its original conception, Myers reminded me, “NPR really was an institution devoted to preserving cultural treasures. By the time I left, that vision had vanished, a victim of multiculturalism, postculturalism, autoculturalism, and other fancies.” Myers fondly recalls bygone NPR series like “A Sense of Place: Sound Portraits of Twentieth Century Humanists”—a dozen documentaries on longhairs like James Joyce, Igor Stravinsky, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
“ ‘A Sense of Place’ would be unimaginable at NPR today,” Myers says. Today at NPR, as elsewhere,culture means pop culture. With occasional gestures toward jazz, NPR music is the rock music of aging children; the visual arts begin and end with movies and TV, though stage plays will sometimes rouse attention if their themes are sufficiently progressive. This falling off isn’t the fault of the programmers alone, needless to say. In its decline NPR has tumbled in tandem with the tastes of its target audience—affluent white people with meaningless college degrees who weren’t educated into an appreciation for richer music and art and who, accordingly, find the whole cultural-patrimony thing intimidating, hence vaguely off-putting, and finally a snooze.
One of Myers’s recurring themes is the ways in which the dumbing down of the general culture has infected American Christianity and conservatism. These are two spheres where we might expect the work of “preserving cultural treasures” to be taken up. Yet wander into a Mass or worship service in any suburban Catholic or Protestant church and you’ll hear “praise songs” that might have been lifted from Sesame Street or, if the service is High Church, the soundtrack of Phantom of the Opera. It’s hard to believe this is the same religion that inspired Bach and Palestrina, whose choral works are no more familiar to the average pastor or parishioner than the chants at a Kikuyu circumcision ceremony. The liturgy, what’s left of it, is either pedestrian or absurd. (The Shepherd who used to maketh you to lie down in green pastures will now, if you’re a Catholic, “in verdant pastures give you repose.”) Among clergy no less than the laity, a desire for beauty and reflection is deemed prissy and dull.
“I’ve always thought that beautiful art was a great apologetic resource,” Myers says. Beauty is the chief attribute of God, said Jonathan (not Bob) Edwards. “Beauty points to a Creator.” Yet the church, Myers says, “capitulates more and more to the culture of entertainment.”
“It’s a way of keeping market share. But they’re digging their own grave. There’s a short-term benefit, but in the long term the kinds of cultural resources they need to be faithful to the Gospel won’t be there.”
Steeped in journalism of this sort, Myers didn’t see why an orthodox religious believer couldn’t edit an intellectually wide-ranging magazine and attract a similarly minded readership.
“I had Christian friends on Capitol Hill,” he says, “and when they came home from work in the evening, they’d watch MacNeil/Lehrer,” the earlier incarnation of today’s hyphenless NewsHour. “It would never occur to them to get their news from The 700 Club. They would read the Atlantic, never one of the Christian magazines. I thought, why does the secular culture have Harper’s and the Wilson Quarterly and MacNeil/Lehrer, and all that Christians have are these kinds of pop-entertainment, jokey, show-biz cultural outlets?”
Read the whole thing. If you are an intellectually-oriented, small-o orthodox Christian, or any kind of cultural traditionalist, you simply have to subscribe to the Journal. It’s the kind of thing that, when you find out exists, you can’t believe you went so long without knowing that something this smart, searching, and consistently provocative was available. Though the program is a series of interviews with scholars and intellectuals (not all of them Christian, or even religious), and not at all an altar-call show, a friend of mine once told me that the intelligence of MHAJ brought him back to the practice of Christianity, and is one of the chief sources of his ongoing spiritual formation. Listen to one full episode of the Journal, and if you’re like me, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it.
If you’ve never subscribed, you can sample an issue of the Journal here. If you are a subscriber, why not consider buying a gift subscription for a friend? I just bought an MP3 subscription for our pastor. Hey, it’s Russian Orthodox Christmas on Monday…
UPDATE: From a reader and longtime Journal subscriber, in the comboxes:
I came to the realization that for what I count as my ongoing education and formation I owe more to Myers and his Journal than I do to any of the three institutions of higher ed that I have attended and am now presently attending. This is not so much to disparage these institutions as it is to praise what Myers accomplishes in his Journal. (And consider the value when we compare costs!)
As I was going through those old volumes, again and again I realized that some author the had been influential in my own thinking or some idea that had been particularly striking or stimulating, to say nothing of the cultivation of a sensibility that would be difficult to articulate — more often than not these where first encountered in a Mars Hill interview.