Book Review by Erik Benson
A prerequisite (oft overlooked) to “cultural engagement” is a careful reflection upon one’s own cultural context. After all, this will have obvious effects upon one’s engagement with the culture (or cultures) in question. Andrew Beaujon’s Body Piercing Saved My Life offers a useful study of evangelical culture through its examination of contemporary “Christian” music. As a catalyst for self-reflection, this study is useful for a number of reasons.
One, music is a relatively “accessible” facet of Christian culture. Whereas theological or philosophical facets of Christian culture appeal to a limited audience, music appeals to a broader audience, as practically all have experienced it. This broader accessibility, in turn, provides a broader basis for collective self-reflection. In sum, anyone can read this work a readily grasp some implications regarding evangelicalism.
Two, while “accessible,” the topic has its complexities; thus, it encourages complex (as opposed to simplistic) thinking about evangelical culture.
Three, as a self-identified outsider vis-à-vis evangelicalism, Beaujon offers the evangelical reader a different perspective from which to see both the virtues and foibles of his or her culture. While an outsider, and a somewhat jaded one at that, Beaujon takes his subject seriously, and treats it fairly; this is neither a “fluff piece” nor “hatchet job,” either in terms of scope or insights.
He examines a broad swath of the phenomenon that is contemporary Christian music, from artists to festivals, churches to production companies. As an outsider, he discovers he has much to learn about the music. For example, one of the most compelling segments of the study involves his discovery of and coming to grips with the “praise music” genre in churches. The lesson of this episode for evangelicals is evident: what is the “norm” to those “inside” the culture is often quite foreign to those on the outside. This has obvious implications for self-reflection and “cultural engagement.” One must be self-aware, recognize unique cultural presuppositions, and be able to account for them while endeavoring to engage those of a different culture.
Beaujon’s work offers many such points for consideration. Of course, the work is not without flaws. For one thing, as an outsider, Beaujon’s perspective has its limitations. In covering a myriad of “Christian” performers, he includes a number whose inclusion in evangelical circles could be subject to question; in fact, a number of them avow they are not. He struggles to grasp who is “in” contemporary Christian music. Yet this serves a purpose, for it raises a question: what is “Christian?” This is useful not only when categorizing musical acts, but for reflecting on all facets of Christian culture. The fact that Beaujon comes up with no neat pigeonhole suggests that one may not exist. For the evangelical thinker, this means that as he or she should not expect self-reflection to provide simple answers, nor cultural engagement to be a simple matter.