Why Ke$ha gets St. Augustine Right (Cultural Capital pt. 2)

A while ago we took a look at James’ call to believers – if you are a believer in Jesus Christ you don’t show favoritism. Period.

This discussion led us to think a little bit about “cultural capital.” Which are those things that we “exchange” or “reveal” in order to get some sort of cultural good i.e. favor, prestige, status, friends, followers, gifts.

We concluded by asking some questions:

So what contributes to what counts as cultural capital within any one particular culture? How do people come to learn what is worth something and what isn’t? Is it simply because somebody told us once that some thing is valuable and some other thing is not?

Today we take up this subject – how do we come to believe that something is “cultural capital” and something is not?

The answer is that we learn what is culturally valuable in a non-cognitive manner. Let me explain….

Human persons are defined by love (a very Augustinian thought) – as desiring agents and liturgical animals whose primary mode of intending the world is love which in turn shapes the imagination.

The things we grow to love and desire are shaped and directed by material embodied practices. These practices are fundamentally religious, but not necessarily spiritual. We might call these “liturgical acts.” These acts in turn shape our vision for what the good life is all about.

Our vision for the good life (the eudaimonistic life) is shaped and directed by aesthetic principles found in stories, legends, myths, novels and films rather than principles.

What are these acts? These acts usually revolve around participating in actions which stir our affections. The are the sort of acts which usually stir our affections are acts which participate in some sort of aesthetic stimulation.

Okay…. Maybe this is getting a bit complicated – what I’m trying to say is that: we are shaped to consider certain things valuable and other things as value-less through non-cognitive means. In other words, we aren’t explicitly taught to value certain things, we are shaped to value certain things.

Think for a second how we know we ought to value some sort of fashionable outfit – for instance “hipster style clothes.” Did anybody ever say “Hey this is what is in right now, you need to wear this…” I’m pretty sure that no one has ever said that. Instead what happens is that you get bombarded by images, which are usually aesthetically pleasing, and eventually you come to believe that you want that sort of outfit.

Some Coachella Hipster looking so "cool."
Some Coachella Hipsters looking so “cool.”


Or consider how everybody “knows” that they should have an IPad… Apple’s advertisements for IPad’s have never straight out said “hey this is a good tablet, you should buy it.” Instead, they rely upon knowing that humans are driven by aesthetic principles in order to convince people to buy their product. Consider Apple’s latest IPad campaign. Not once does say that this is a better tablet, rather the commercial tells a story that draws us in, it shows us that the Ipad can help us to live a good and valuable life. We are drawn to that. As this sort of story is repeated over and over, this belief is reinforced – without every saying a single word.



Apple does not rely upon making cognitive claims in order to sell the product instead Apple relies upon the non-cogntive functions of the human mind to convince you that life is better with their product.

Why does all this matter to our past conversation about “cultural capital” in Christian circles? It matters for two reasons:

First it matters because as Christians we need to realize that much of what we believe is actually caught not taught. The action of “catching” most often happens (or always happens) in the context of community. It is within a community that we learn what is valuable and what is acceptable, or what it is worthless and unacceptable. Sometimes we are right about these sort of things but other times we aren’t. For instance, in Christian circles we tend to value people who speak “Christianese.” Where the heck did we learn that speaking Christianese is a worthwhile thing to do? Why don’t we speak normal English? Is it because early on somebody taught us – hey you need to speak a certain way to be a part of this community – I don’t think so. Rather, its because we have been shaped by a community that includes a certain vocabulary and to be a part of that community requires one to speak a certain way. We just “pick up” on those things.

The church is always at risk of embracing anti-Kingdom cultural patterns

Second, it matters because the church is always at risk of embracing anti-Kingdom cultural patterns. Some are obvious but most are subtle. It’s the subtle ones that are more likely to non-cognitively shape us than some of the more obvious ones. Think some of the music we listen to. For just a second think about Ke$ha’s music…

We’re gonna die young
We’re gonna die young
Let’s make the most of tonight, like we are gonna die young
(Die Young Lyrics)

Or this other Ke$ha song:

I dont wanna I go to sleep,
I wanna stay up all night,
I wanna just screw around.
I dont wanna think about,
Whats gonna be after this,
I wanna just live right now.
(C’Mon Lyrics)

But Ke$ha is on to something that we Christians tend to forget, namely (as Augustine says) that 1) human persons are defined by love. And 2) that we learn what to love by means of acts which participate in some sort of aesthetic stimulation. Ke$sha taps into the power of non-cognitive affection stirring in all of her songs. She tells stories (by means of songs) that tap into our basest human desires….

Will any Christian explicitly affirm Ke$ha’s message – live today without reference to the future? Absolutely not. Its anti-Christian, Christians are called to live in light of new creation, because what happens in our embodied life now matters for our embodied life in the future.

However, we live in a culture where Christians live with exactly the sort of attitude Ke$sha sings about. Now most Christians aren’t going to live like Ke$ha (thank God), however they will live with a similar attitude. Most Christians will functionally live as though there is no after life – as though what matters the most is life in the present. Why do Christians live this way, even though Scripture teaches otherwise and sermons preach a contrary message? Its because we are shaped more by non-cognitive means than by cognitive (propositional) truths. Culture around us is full of stories, songs, movies, films, that portray a message contrary to the Christian worldview – these messages shape us in subtle but profound ways.

That brings us back to where we started. Why do we value certain things, i.e. why do we assign cultural capital, to certain things? Its because we are bombarded with stories, songs, film, t.v. shows that slowly lead us to believe that those sort of things are culturally valuable.

In other words – we are story shaped creatures – and the world is doing a better job of story-telling that the church is.

Our vision for the good life is shaped and directed by aesthetic principles found in stories, legends, myths, novels and films rather than propositions.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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