Thursday, April 05, 2007

In Defense of Relevance

"Relevance has been America's greatest vanity." - Sufjan Stevens

It was a bad time and place to be cool. “Relevance” took a critical beatdown at last weekend’s Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College. Reluctant hipster and youth culture favorite Sufjan Stevens went to great pains to distance himself from the prevailing attitudes that have hailed him as a spokesperson for evangelicalism or “Christian music.” In his artist interview, Sufjan launched into a forty-minute diatribe against Christianity as it is practised in many American evangelical churches, and argued that he desires to point to what is irrelevant, which also happens to correspond to what is sacred and eternal. And music/cultural critic Kevin Erickson led a workshop in which he systematically dismantled the zeitgeist of Christian publication Relevant Magazine, claiming that the publication appropriates the “rebel” iconography and language of the ‘60s counterculture while simultaneously presenting the same conservative political and cultural agenda that has dominated evangelical thought for decades.

Me? I’ve never been cool anyway, so I mostly thought that what I heard was fine, in my own smug, unhip way. But frankly, there was a lot of smugness and finger pointing going around on all sides, so let me attempt to frame a response that I hope is non-polemical, and that values both sides of the relevant/irrelevant cultural chasm.

First, the excesses and ridiculousness of much of the evangelical church has been well documented, here on this blog, and in countless other places. It’s not hard to find people – many Christians among them -- who are supremely dissatisfied with what passes for the “evangelical church” these days, particularly as that term has come to be redefined and hijacked by America’s political leaders. Certainly an overreliance on “relevant” language and music, proven (by corporate business standards, that is) marketing techniques, and a consumerist approach that enthrones the worshipper rather than God are legitimate concerns of any church trying to make a go of remaining faithful to Jesus in 21st century America. If, by some miracle, you are a Christian and have managed to escape those tendencies, I recommend that you watch the movie “Saved” to see them in all their inglorious fulness. We wince because the portrayal is so accurate.

So yeah, Sufjan and Kevin have valid points. “Relevance” has been done badly. Relevance may not require a radical dependence on God to transform hearts and minds, and assumes that the culture can and must play a role in that process. And methinks that any publication that calls itself Relevant Magazine doth protest too much. It’s certainly the wrong focus, and it may miss the point entirely.

But what if … and hang with me here … what if we can’t escape the culture? What if the culture is as inescapable as the air we breathe? What if we have no choice but to reflect the culture in all that we do, including our worship? What would that look like? What should that look like? What if we, as Christians in 21st century America, are called to live out eternal truths? What would they look like? Would they look the same as the eternal truths that 7th century Roman Christians lived? Or 11th century Russian Christians? Or 1st century adherents of an obscure Jewish sect? What would change? What wouldn’t change?

Or, to bring it closer to home, or at least Grand Rapids, Michigan, what if Kevin’s do rag was as much a part of the culture that he lives and breathes as the ‘60s rebel iconography that he criticized in Relevant Magazine? What if the inflatable Santas and Supermans that Sufjan tossed offstage Friday night weren’t, you know, actually part of eternal verities, but had more to do with the culture in which he lives? Is it okay to do that sort of thing? As a Christian, evangelical or not? Is it okay to be ironic and kitschy, and thereby entertain the culturally aware masses? Or must one be the victim of one’s own remorseless logic and insist on irrelevance in one’s art, just as one insists on irrelevance in one’s worship and church affiliation?

“Relevance” is a synonym for “connection.” And connection ought to be a worthy goal of the body of Christ – connection with God, connection with one another within the church, connection with the wider world in acts of service and compassion. Clearly Christians can and do disagree on what constitutes bad, better, and best ways of connecting. But I would like to submit that “irrelevance” is nowhere near the top of the list, and that people and churches who are irrelevant find themselves operating ineffectively and in isolation. That doesn’t mean that anything goes, or that we shouldn’t critically examine what elements of the culture we do and do not incorporate into our Christian lives. But it does mean that, short of retreating to caves, we can and must interact with the culture in which we live. We don’t have to label ourselves as such, and it would probably be best if we didn’t, but that certainly entails being relevant.


mommy zabs said...

interesting post andy. i think you are right on that any side that is really taking sides on this sort of thing... doesn't make sense. (i think that is what you are saying?) Really I think we need to be who God made us to be (as cliche as that sounds) and obviously some culture will be reflected into that. The point is being relevant naturally to those whom God has given us to minister to. But I think that is kinda the point you are making? maybe.
let's just ditch the world relevant :)

John McCollum said...

Interesting conversation. I'm not sure I have an answer for your questions, but the discussion is one that interests me.

I DO think that being relevant is much better than being IRrelevant, but I'm not sure our choice is between the two.

My problem with 'relevance' as I've (sometimes) seen it is that it's often a pathetic, hollow-ringing surface treatment, like a youth pastor growing a goatee or an anti-immigrant politician speaking a little español to try to come across as hip or de la gente.

Do I think you're relevant? Yes. And you would cease being so if you tried to act, dress and talk like a 19 year old, because it's not authentic, it's not a true expression of your own cultural context and life stage/life experience.

Interestingly, I once spoke at a conference, where I was given the topic, "How to be relevant while still maintaining your holiness." I started my talk by saying that I think the title is silly and even a little dangerous if it reflects a belief that holiness and relevance are on two opposite ends of a spectrum, and that we need to find some balance between the two.

It's this framework wherein we urge people to be relevant BUT holy, or relevant BUT Christian that proves that we've already lost the battle to be truly either.

Or something like that.

Andy Whitman said...

Elizabeth, yes, you've got it. Let's be relevant, but let's ditch the "relevant" label, and, to a large extent, the whole focus on relevance. It's the wrong focus.

John, I agree that "relevant" often has superficial and silly meanings. I also agree that "relevance" and "holiness" are certainly not opposite ends of a spectrum. I would like to suggest, though, that "holiness" had better incorporate "relevance" (in the non-silly sense of simply being able to relate to the people around you), and that holiness without relevance looks a like the life of a hermit. It's probably worthwhile for the hermit, but not for anybody else.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Kevin's "workshop" in Grand Rapids: While the magazine does seem to have quite a few faults, the overly snarky dismantling of the publication seemed a bit much. The criticism of the editor's wife was the low point, in my opinion. I think a more gracious treatment would have been more helpful.

I agree with your thoughts on "connection," too. The fact that many evangelical churches have become consumerist does not negate the duty of the church to be engaged with the culture. How can a monastic community fulfill the Great Commission? And, as you said, we're in the culture no matter what. The question is not whether we interact, but how we interact.

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Anonymous said...

Funny...that Sufjan had a front-page feature in Relevant last year I believe. Obviously, there is no good definiton of relevance. I would say it's more about being who you are (and not trying to be something your not)...perhaps. I will say, starting over at 31 makes you wonder how revelant you are. I feel like I have the mind of a 20 year-old but the body of...well...something much older. I like what I like. And plenty of that is most people will tell you that it is not "cool" to like most punk or metal after the age of 25 (and that may be generous)...we are supposed to move on to liking only indie-pop or jazz. But I say screw that. I may be getting gray hair and odd looks from teenagers as I drive up beside them with music blaring, but isn't that part of the fun?
As for Relevant..I find it to occasionally be a decent read, but a lot of it offends me, by implying that this crap is supposed to whats cool and that by liking it you are indeed, relevant. Whatever.

Holy Moly! said...

Hey Joel, I think I should defend myself just a bit. I'll plead guilty to a bit of snarkiness, but my workshop didn't criticize Maya Strang, who I have not met, but is, by all accounts, a really nice lady. She's not just the editor's wife, but the company's operations manager, and I think an examination of her theological convictions is fair game. I did reveal my findings about her ascribing to charismatic beliefs about Satanic influence, and the faith healing and prophecy that happens in her church, projected that her husband likely shares these sort of theological convictions, and noted that such perspectives are entirely absent from the magazine. I then advanced some theories about the possible reasons why.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough, thanks for responding. It could be I was listening too cynically, but perhaps the criticism was more implied in the references to her cheerleading and the photo used in the presentation. I did find your analysis intriguing.b

Andy Whitman said...

For what it's worth, I think Joel has a good point, Kevin. Your questions about Maya Strang and her role at Relevant are valid ones, but in my opinion your argument suffers because of the perceived cheap shot at her by portraying her in a cheerleading uniform. Surely there are pictures of Maya where she doesn't come across as a Bimbo for Christ. If there are, I'd suggest using them in future presentations.

Holy Moly! said...

Ah, I do see what you mean about that attempt at levity being interpreted as a cheap shot given the context of a largely critical study. I guess my thought process was that anyone who puts on a cheerleader outfit today probably has a good sense of humor about it- as Sufjan could tell you, cheerleading is inherently funny. Plus it was the first thing that came up when I googled "maya strang"

But yeah, it does seem a little mean now. As penance, I pledge to provide Mrs. Strang and Relevant Media Group with the most embarassing photo of myself I can find and release it to them for whatever purposes they deem suitable. I am completely serious.

Anonymous said...


The problem with all the "relevance" talk, it seems to me, is that it assumes churches must be like the culture, at least in exteriors, to be accesible to the culture.

I'm not sure that's true. If the church simply lives out its calling to hospitality, generosity, and love, she would find these things are ALWAYS relevant because they lie at the bottom of the longing human heart. Trying to make your worship service hip is a pretty lame project when it requires neglecting eternal virtues Christians are called to practice.

A year ago, when those Amish girls were murdered in Pennsylvania, the whole world was stunned by the magnanimity the Amish showed to the murder's family. The love of the Amish witnessed to the truth of the gospel in a way all the gadget-enhanced worship fads of recent decades do not. In that instance at least, America's least hip people were, for the moment, its most relevant Christians.

Andy Whitman said...

Dean, I would argue that there's a difference between being "relevant" and "hip." A focus on being "hip" is always misguided and is, frankly, irrelevant to the Christian faith. But one can be relevant merely by being culturally aware, and by exhibiting those qualities -- generosity, hospitality, and love -- that help to make that cultural awareness winsome.

Is it more important to be generous, hospitable and loving than to be culturally aware? Sure it is. Without those things any cultural engagement, or any lack of cultural engagement, is irrelevant at best, and deeply offensive at worst. But this isn't a zero-sum game. It's possible to be generous, loving, and culturally aware. The sad fact is that the Amish, regardless of their other virtues, have no impact on our culture unless or until something like a great tragedy unwittingly brings them into our consciousness. Did they respond well to a great tragedy. Yes, they did. But I'm not really a fan of the Amish model of Christianity, precisely because it takes a separatist approach to the faith. I think it's better to be culturally engaged. One can do that without resorting to the pathetic attempts at "hipness" that mar some parts of the contemporary Church.

nate said...

interesting post. great discussion, thank you all.

i think we've clearly identified the tension in which the church lives. as i read somewhere, "in the world, but not of the world."

linking these two sides of the spectrum is our confession about the First Article of the Apostles Creed. God has created us, made us his creatures, and placed us in the world he created. we can't not interact with, and embody the world in which we live, the world in which He still works and sustains.

as we live in this world, let's simply keep doing what he has put us here to do, serve our neighbor in the vocations God has given us.

Tyler said...

One thing I'd like to throw in here is that Cameron Strang has clarified on a number of occassions that the magazine's name is referring to that belief that God is always "relevant," which (I believe) is a response to the common idea that God has nothing to do with the 21st Century. While the Bible and the life of Christ may feel distant and "irrelevant" to our daily lives, God is still very much "relevant." Cameron claims that the name has nothing to do with claiming that we/they/whomever are "relevant."

I can really get behind this idea, and I think it's a valid point. However, the company used to give out stickers that read "I AM RELEVANT." They've also published books called I Am Relevant, The Journey Towards Relevance and The Relevant Nation.

I'd love to believe that the name is about proclaiming that God still matters. Unfortunately, the facts don't seem to support that.

ryan lott said...

sufjan's point in saying that "a magazine called 'Relevant' is inherently irrelevant by virtue of its self-consciousness," is perhaps this: the strongest (if often quietest) voices that reshape and define culture are those that are counter-cultural. it is not the pursuit of relevance that makes those voices audible, but rather their ability to communicate a transcendent truth from without, rather than from within (a point sufjan touched on in response to a personal question about the "purpose" of his music).

the irony of it is that the pursuit of relevance always seems to result in a strained, seemingly disingenuous integration of outward expressions. a sub-culture that merely dresses up in the garments of the greater culture of which it is part, runs the risk of muting its own particular cultural contribution. and a subculture that has nothing to bring to the table of itself is an irrelevant player. thus, sufjan's statement.

but the pursuit of honesty is never out of fashion. so, as a creator, i don't think so much of relevance as honesty. after all, relevance is entirely subjective. i have plenty inside of me that's not worth exporting to the outside world. but what is of worth is at least going to stem from genuine personal experience. this is what i have to bring to the table, what is relevant. so when we all sit and eat together, somebody brings the bread and somebody else brings the wine. not as fun with too much bread and no wine.

Holy Moly! said...

Leif makes a good point regarding "I AM RELEVANT", which was also on a t-shirt. It's a sly little pun and a direct attempt at making brand identification very personal.

or consider the following creed printed in 2005 on the magazine's "Last Word" page.

We Break Stereotypes
We Challenge Status Quo
We Enact Change
We Seek God
We Live Life
We Impact The World
I Break Stereotypes
I Challenge Status Quo
I Enact Change
I Seek God
I Live Life
I Impact The World

The message here doesn't seem to be that God is relevant, as Cameron claims.

Andy Whitman said...

Ryan wrote:

"the irony of it is that the pursuit of relevance always seems to result in a strained, seemingly disingenuous integration of outward expressions. a sub-culture that merely dresses up in the garments of the greater culture of which it is part, runs the risk of muting its own particular cultural contribution. and a subculture that has nothing to bring to the table of itself is an irrelevant player. thus, sufjan's statement."

I don't think the "disingenuous integration of outward expressions" that you fear is inevitable, although I'd certainly agree with you that "relevant" often seems forced and contrived.

So let's make it unforced and non-contrived. Let's have it be a natural extension of our lives.

Jesus used farming parables to speak to an agrarian society. When visiting Athens, the apostle Paul quoted an Athenian poet. This was not forced or contrived "relevance", but in both cases these examples spoke to the prevailing cultures. And that's all I'm suggesting.

Indeed, I am fairly convinced that the apostle Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 9 cannot be understood apart from the notion of "relevance." Those words are:

"Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

That sounds a lot like accommodating oneself to the surrounding culture to me.

And that's continued throughout Church history, from the ecclesiastical decision on the date on which Christians celebrate Christmas to the increasing importance given Mary the mother of Jesus in light of the surrounding pagan fertility religions, right on up through the "demonic" practice of incorporating secular music into the worship service. I'm referring here to Martin Luther, of course. Let's not even talk about the scandal of electric guitars. :-)

So I'd argue that the quest for relevance is everywhere. It cannot be avoided. It comes from interacting with other human beings, inside and outside the Church. And although it can be and certainly has been misused, the concept of "relevance" is not inherently evil. It is, in fact, inherently necessary to good relationships.

By the way, Ryan, I didn't see Rob after we talked at the conference, so I don't have your CD. But I'd love to hear it. Send me an email message at whitmana (at) hotmail (dot) com, and I'll reply with my snail mail address.

ryan lott said...

yeah, you got me, andy. your thoughts are challenging. i gotta chew on it!