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From the March, 2001 issue of Touchstone


Cultural Borderlines by David Mills

Cultural Borderlines

One night in the music section of Borders Bookstore, wanting to know what people enjoyed these days, I put on the earphones and listened to a CD advertised as the best of what was once called “heavy metal” and is now, I think, called “grunge” music. I listened to several tracks and suddenly thought, “My dad was right. It does all sound alike.”

I have had many conversations with friends who insisted that Christians must “engage the culture” but who almost always confused this pastoral and prophetic enterprise with liking its productions, and who were offended by any statement of the superiority of high to popular culture. They were dreadfully afraid of “elitism” and insisted that the people who thought Mozart’s music better than grunge, and better for you than grunge, do not care about the people who like such things.

There is a reason for preferring Mozart and Tallis and Chopin to Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails, or even to interesting folk singers like Bruce Cockburn. There is a reason we do not “engage the culture” by writing often and respectfully of movies and rock music and television shows. There is a reason we believe “the culture” is to be engaged but not, except on occasion, praised or encouraged or promoted.

To engage any culture you must distinguish between good and bad and articulate principles by which you can tell the difference. You have, as the expression says, to draw the line somewhere. The critic who grumbles against “elitism” is not admitting his own inevitable elitism.

Wherever you draw the line, you will want to be above it and not below it. Everyone is an elitist in the things he knows and cares about. I grew up in a New England college town, and the kids in my circle, all left-wing, all egalitarian, all feeling a (mostly theoretical) respect for the poor and the working classes, applauded the arcane and disdained what most people, the poor and working classes included, really liked. One listened to “progressive rock,” not Top 40 hits. One English band popular among the sophisticated included a guitarist who used to play with balls of twine and otherwise make interesting but not melodious sounds. A desire for melody was in itself a sign of unsophistication.

This has not changed. Ask the sort of person who still reads Rolling Stone or the Christian who raves about Bruce Cockburn’s music what he thinks of the songs of Barry Manilow or Britney Spears—called “Brittany Spaniel” at our house—at least by me—and he will give you the same answer as Dr. Hutchens or I, though probably in less polite language.

The critical canon by which such people distinguish good from bad is often exceedingly obscure—as it has to be, since much of the stuff sounds alike—but a canon they have, a canon that rewards, as far as they can judge, sophistication, complexity, insight, fidelity to the craft, and artistic and moral seriousness, a canon that condemns the merely and intentionally pleasing, no matter how popular. They will praise the work of an obscure grunge band who play to please themselves and condemn the latest mass-produced boy band and high-breasted starlet with a sweet, high voice, who play to make money.

And right, of course, they are. Every man is an elitist: the question to be answered is simply what one ought to be elitist about. Why would we join what Dr. Hutchens calls the Great Conversation and “engage the culture” mainly (but not, let me stress, invariably) by criticizing its products? Why do the Hutchens and Mills families never watch television? Why are Palestrina and Bach and Mozart to be heard on our stereos? (Though my fourteen-year-old daughter’s tastes are, shall I say, immature.) Why do we roll our eyes at the latest Christian paean to Bob Dylan or the breathless review that treats a folk singer as if he were T. S. Eliot or John Donne? Why will we say that grunge music, feted for its expression of the cultural alienation of today’s young people, is, though revealing something about their world and giving one a deep sadness for the singers, still mind-rotting rubbish?

The very simple reason is that we are all looking, and have been looking since our childhood, for something serious, deep, wise, ordered, beautiful, something that will last, something with the solemnity of a life lived before God and before good men, something the knowledge of which will give us some insight into things eternal. Life is short and the work demanded of us hard. If we are to run the race set for us, we need the best teachers we can find.

In the classics we are able to learn from the great men. That is the reason we spend our money and time on great and not popular things. We learn something we need to know from Mozart, and Jane Austen, and Michelangelo, and Chaucer, and Bach, and Dante. (What we learn is not always, or even mostly, propositional.)

Men who know they are small, artistically, intellectually, spiritually, will stand as close as they can to those engaged in the Great Conversation and listen intently, like a child hiding behind the sofa to hear the grown-ups discuss the affairs of the world. A great blessing is that the longer you listen the more pure pleasure the Conversation gives you, much as the man who has learned a little about wine will never again drink the sugary stuff he knocked down as a college student, because it no longer tastes good to him.

And this produces what the undiscerning perceive as snobbery. The undiscerning are themselves snobs, of course, in thinking themselves superior because they are interested in popular culture—though one would want to ask, delicately, if they are not simply rationalizing laziness, listening to Rage Against the Machine or the Beatles requiring less of you than listening to Bach. What they see as snobbery is really humility. The inevitable result of living with Mozart and Austen and Dante is that every other artist looks very small, and some—those most ignorant of the Great Conversation and those who know it and hate it—almost disappear from sight.

As someone has noted, no one will ever say on his deathbed, “I wish I’d watched more television.” Or even, I think, “I wish I’d listened to that Bruce Cockburn album again.” And only a man who has closed his eyes to the light will want to listen, as he lies dying, to a grunge band claiming that life has no meaning.

But a man might say, “I wish I’d listened to Bach’s B-minor Mass one more time,” because in the B-minor Mass is dimly reflected something of the life of eternity, something that heard with the ears of a Christian could have helped him be a better man, a man better prepared to meet the God who created him, and created Bach, and created (we remember) the alienated men and women who screech out those songs that all sound alike.

David Mills, for the editors

David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.

“Cultural Borderlines” first appeared in the March 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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