Pop Goes the Culture
One man’s quest to preserve and defend the good, the true, and the beautiful
Jan 14, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 17 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Ken Myers grew up in a conservative Christian household in Beltsville, Maryland, during the 1960s. When he was in tenth grade, two important things happened to him.
His high school music teacher introduced him to the music of Bach, taking eight months to teach Myers and the rest of the boys’ choir how to sing the motet Jesu, meine Freude. And he fell upon a copy of the Saturday Review.
Saturday Review is pretty much forgotten today. (A number of people still remember Bach.) The magazine began in the 1920s and flourished in the postwar years. Its writers ranged widely over the arts, from music and literature to painting and drama, cultivating a readership of strivers—professional and college educated, if not brainy by nature—who were eager for self-improvement and a kind of intellectual diversion that was sophisticated and accessible. The magazine was edited by a windy polymath named Norman Cousins, a model of the kind of well-meaning and high-minded public intellectual they don’t seem to make anymore.
“Everyone else in high school was discovering recreational drugs,” Myers told me not long ago. “I was discovering Norman Cousins.”
He has no regrets, apparently. Those two early revelations—Bach and Norman Cousins—go a long way toward explaining Myers’s life work: the Mars Hill Audio Journal, which he writes, edits, and records at his home and studio in rural Virginia. The Journal celebrates its twentieth birthday this year. It’s become indispensable to an audience of the kind that Cousins sought and encouraged and that often goes ignored nowadays. The Journal isn’t identical to Saturday Review, of course. It arrives every two months, not every week, and it arrives not on paper but on a pair of handsomely packaged CDs—nearly two hours of essays and interviews to be listened to at leisure. (MP3 downloads are available too.) Another difference is that Myers is an orthodox Christian, and it shows.
The Journal demonstrates how closely the interests and worries of a conservative Christian intellectual overlap those of any curious traditionalist or cultural conservative, believing or non. Myers’s own curiosity is inexhaustible. On the website’s topic index—choosing a letter at random—you’ll find under “M” segments on Mondrian (Piet) and Moore (Michael), memory and money, Mendelssohn and Marsalis, masculinity and materialism. I popped in Issue 102 the other day and heard Myers’s pleasant tenor saying, by way of preface: “Is creation meaningful, and if it is, is its meaning perceptible?” This rousing intro opened a series of ruminations and interviews with a variety of scholars and writers. A brief explanation of the split between nominalism and realism in the Middle Ages led to a discussion of Jacques Maritain’s relationship with avant garde painters and musicians in 1920s Paris, then moved through the Fibonacci sequence and the mathematical value of Bach fugues as examples of inherent order, topped off with a tribute to the paintings of Makoto Fujimura by the philosopher Thomas Hibbs. The pace is unhurried, the discussions pretty easily comprehensible. Imagine NPR if NPR were as intelligent as NPR programmers think it is.
Or better: Imagine NPR as it once was, from its founding in the early seventies into the early eighties, when the fateful decision was made to transform an eclectic and discursive ragbag of cultural programming into the fabulously wealthy, grimly professional all-news-almost-all-the-time media colossus we know today. Myers worked at NPR off and on for nearly a decade, spending several years as arts editor for Morning Edition before layoffs from the new regime gutted arts coverage in 1983.
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.