The best of Fred Hutchison
Life-enhancing culture vs. life-debilitating culture
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
February 14, 2013

Originally published January 19, 2006

The cultural war debate often centers on life and death issues such as abortion and euthanasia, and the question of whether we are living in a culture of life, or a culture of death. However, we seldom talk about whether our aesthetic culture of art, music, poetry, and literature is life-enhancing or life-debilitating.

A life-enhancing culture helps to expand our faculties so we can enjoy the full possibilities of being human. A life-debilitating culture tends to contract and squeeze us into something less than human. When we are not functioning in a fully human manner, we shall fail to use and enjoy the gifts and talents that God gave us.

A life-debilitating culture is dangerous to live in, for it can inject psychological and spiritual poisons into the lives of the unwary and vulnerable. Such poisons can slowly make one spiritually, mentally, and emotionally disordered and sometimes physically sick as well.

One phenomenon we shall consider in this analysis is whether the pathologies of a life-debilitating culture can lead to premature death. I shall provide some data to compare the extended life spans of those who are creatively active in the fine arts with the shortened life spans of those immersed in the life-debilitating culture of rock music.

A culture based upon the creation

Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) proposed the "cosmonomic idea." This idea roughly means "this comes from the cosmos." Dooyeweerd regarded the cosmos as the sum of God's creation. The "cosmonomic idea" points to particular objects and beings and recognizes that each particular aspect of the creation has a harmonious design and meaning. At the core of every created object and creature is meaning. Dooyeweerd argued that reality is created by God, and our experience of this reality is meaning. Therefore, the primary property of all we experience is meaning.

Notice that he does not say that truth and the objective existence of the created world give meaning to experience – as a philosophical realist like myself would say. He says we experience meaning directly, and that experience comprises our whole knowledge of being. This unusual twist of thought makes me a little uncomfortable. Dooyeweerd manages to be neither realist nor idealist, monist nor dualist, nominalist nor platonist, gnostic nor materialist. He rejects existentialism, not because it denies objective reality, but because he insists that we primarily experience meaning and not modes of the will or existence, as existentialists think.

I do not particularly like, nor can I adequately define, Dooyeweerd. However, I cannot find a way around him and still arrive at a plausible theory of Christian aesthetics that satisfactorily addresses the issue of a life-enhancing culture versus a life-debilitating culture. Dooyeweerd's ideas work remarkably well with cultural aesthetics, as we shall see.

Dooyeweerd posited that every object and every aspect of life is designed with laws of its function, which is similar to what the intelligent design scientists are saying. Both Dooyeweerd and the intelligent design community say that things designed are complex, orderly, and irreducible. Dooyeweerd denounces scientific reductionism because it is dehumanizing, and the intelligent design spokesmen claim that reducing a complex biological design is fatal to the bio-organism. Here is one example of why I cannot do without Dooyeweerd, even though he makes me a little uncomfortable.

According to Dooyeweerd, if our functioning aligns with the laws of each aspect of life, the result is healthy, enriched, and fruitful living and a life with meaning. If we go against the laws of creation, a specter of pathology, vitiation, meaninglessness, and despair will haunt our existence. This is yet another indispensable contribution of Dooyeweerd.

Dooyeweerd said that if we split our life into incompatible spheres – such as a public self vs. a private self, sacred vs. secular, religion vs. culture, career vs. family, mind vs. body, the moral vs. the morally neutral – we will live a schizophrenic, debilitated life. Even though each piece of life has its own built-in laws and nature, God designed life to be lived as a whole and not in separate pieces. All the pieces need to be harmonized together. Once again, Dooyeweerd is indispensable. His principle of harmony is a clue to God's design for aesthetic culture.

Beauty and harmony in culture

Art Historian Hans Rookmaaker (1922-1977), a key partner with Francis Schaeffer in the l'Abri ministry, applied the philosophy of Dooyeweerd to aesthetic culture. The aesthetic sphere of life has meaning at its core, according to Dooyeweerd's cosmonomic idea.

Rookmaaker proclaimed the meaning of culture to be beauty and harmony. Musical composers, artists, poets, writers, and architects should be inspired by the beauty of creation that reflects the beauty of the Creator. Such beauty lifts us out of ourselves as we marvel at the beauty of nature and the beauty conveyed in the inspired creations of the masters of the fine arts.

Aesthetic creations should be harmonious so that one is given an intuitive understanding of the harmony of human life. Of course, the harmony that God designed for man was shattered by man's fall into sin. Mere culture cannot heal souls shattered by the fall. Only Christ can do this. However, a harmonious symphony, painting, or poem can give one an intuitive sense of what beauty and wholeness can be, and this insight can impart hope and a sense of meaning to the human heart.

A culture of beauty and harmony has meaning and is life-enhancing. Such a culture is complimentary to Christianity. It would not be unreasonable to call the art and music that conforms to God's laws of beauty and harmony Christian art and Christian music. It would be unreasonable to call music that defies the principles of beauty and harmony Christian music even if it has Christian lyrics.

In contrast to a life-affirming culture, a culture of ugliness and disharmony is futile and life-debilitating. Rookmaaker made this point in his book, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture. Rookmaaker concluded that the modern counterculture of atonal music and abstract impressionistic art is a culture of death, and he came to this shocking realization prior to the legalization of abortion.

Long life in the fine arts

It stands to reason that one who is immersed in a culture of beauty and harmony will be happier, healthier, and live longer than a denizen of the haunts of ugliness and disharmony. A friend of mine named Derek DeCambra, Director of the Christian Arts in New York, and a director of sacred dramas, has a lot to say about the life-debilitating influences one can find in the arts community. Derek is multi-talented individual who sang in opera and acted and danced on the Broadway stage in his youth. He withdrew from Broadway after he found Christ, even though his career showed great promise. He told me that some of his friends in the arts community fell into destructive temptations and died young. Derek believes that he might have died young if he had not received Christ and left the environment of temptation. He strongly agrees that high culture is life- affirming, but in spite this positive influence, some people in the performing arts are drawn into circles of riotous living and wickedness, which is life-destroying.

Derek is now in his late 70's and is still directing performances of sacred and historical dramas and musical ensembles. He was the best friend and regular co-worker in Christian ministries with Jerome Hines, opera star and author of I am the Way, an opera about Christ. Hines, who had the spiritual victory to live a clean life as a celebrity in the performing arts, kept singing in starring roles in opera until his late seventies, in contrast to most opera stars whose voices burn out when they are in their fifties or sixties. I suspect that the long life of Derek and Jerome has partly to do with distancing themselves from subcultures of temptation and partly to do with their lifelong creative involvement in the fine arts of beauty and harmony. Of all the male singing voices I have heard, Derek's beautiful tenor and Jerome's majestic bass voice had the most powerful spiritual and aesthetic effect upon me. Speaking in the lingo of Dooyeweerd, I experienced meaning as I listened to them.

The life expectancy of celebrities

On New Year's Eve 2005, a roster of all the famous people who died that year was published in the newspaper. Four famous people in the fine arts died in 2005, including a symphony orchestra conductor, an artist, an architect, and a poet. The average age at death of these four people was 91. Five celebrity rock musicians died in 2005, and their average age of death was 60. Wow! The celebrities on the list in the fine arts lived 50% longer than the celebrities in rock music! In contrast to the rock musicians, the five celebrity musicians in genres other than rock lived to be an average of 80 years old, one-third longer than rock musicians. Seven singers other than rock singers lived to be 79, almost one third longer than rock musicians.

This intriguing sample of famous people raises basic questions.

Are the fine arts life-affirming, leading to a long life, while rock music is life-debilitating, leading to an early death? Does rock have life-debilitating qualities that are absent from other forms of popular music? Do the fine arts have life- affirming qualities missing from the genres of popular of music other than rock and rap? For examples, jazz, country, and ethnic musicians – along with crooners, cabaret singers, western singers, and blues singers – seem to have ordinary life spans, but not the prolonged life spans of classical musicians, poets, artists, and architects.

Does rock music violate the laws of aesthetics as described by Rookmaaker? Since Rookmaaker wrote "Modern Art and the Death of a Culture," could another author write "Rock Music and the Death of a Culture?" Before we try to answer these questions, let us see if we can squeeze more insights from the tabulation of 2005 celebrity deaths.

Of nine non-journalistic celebrity writers who died in 2005, the average age was 77. If we throw out Andrea Dworkin, an angry and depressed ultra-radical feminist who died at 58, the average life-span for writers rises to 80. Whew. I feared that writers like me would tend to die young because of the obsessive and sometimes grinding nature of writing. Apparently, the life-affirming creative challenge of writing offsets the negative factors. In contrast to the writers, seven celebrity journalists died at an average age of 76. Perhaps journalism is slightly more stressful and slightly less creative than other kinds of writing.

Nine celebrity actresses lived to an average age of 83 years, but fourteen actors died at 72, on average. Acting seems to be significantly more life-enhancing for women than for men. Male movie stars like Kirk Douglas, Victor McLaughlin, Clark Gable, Error Flynn, and Harrison Ford have scoffed at acting as a scam and not a real job for a real man. Douglas has called it fantasy for a child, but insisted he loves it because he's essentially a child. My father had a chance meeting with Victor McLaughlin during the 1950's, and McLaughlin noticed my father's involvement with movie cameras for recording aerial gunnery tests for the military. McLaughlin suggested to my father that if he ever went to Hollywood, he should get a "real job" behind the cameras and avoid the nonsense in front of the cameras.

Women seldom think this way about acting. One does not hear actresses calling acting a fake job, a scam, a child's game, or nonsense, because they tend to see acting as a rewarding personal experience. Even when limited to the dinky roles of late middle age, women find creative ways to have fun with the experience. The old reruns of the Golden Girls on TV reveal older women having fun with the goofy dialog that mediocre gag writers foisted on them and with the silly stereotypical roles for which they have been cast, or miscast. The gals somehow transcended the rotten material assigned to them and made it a positive experience. This is the feminine secret of life.

The three celebrity film producers and directors who died in 2005 averaged 82 years of life. Don't believe the rumor that movie moguls are not having fun. Five entertainers other than actors and musicians averaged 70 years of age at death. They were a mixed lot of eccentric personalities.

Small samples and anecdotal evidence

Some folks might argue that the sample sizes I reported above are too small to be meaningful. They might dismiss my quick and dirty tabulation of the life span of celebrities as mere anecdotal evidence. They would not be entirely wrong.

As one who taught a class on statistical sampling to auditors, I freely admit the sample sizes in my tabulation of celebrity deaths are useless to an actuary or a pollster. However, can an auditor draw conclusions about a population that he is testing if he draws a small sample? It depends upon his goal. Suppose the auditor wanted to predict whether or not the errors in a large population are less than 5%. A small sample would be worthless.

Auditors sometimes do an "accept-reject" test with miniscule samples to find out if a process is in operation or not, or if it is working as claimed. Sometimes auditors use a sample of five to see whether they have zero errors or 100% errors, so as to accept or reject the attribute they are testing.

An auditor can also draw some useful general conclusions about a large population based upon a small sample with a very high error rate. A 50% error rate or a 50% deviation from what was expected is useful information, in spite of a small sample. Very high error rates and very high rates of unexpected deviation magnify the significance of small samples. According to the small sample of the deaths of people in the fine arts and rock stars, people in the fine arts lived 50% longer. That is an extremely high deviation and therefore has significance in spite of the small sample size. A reasonable man would tentatively conclude that, on the whole, people in the fine arts live materially longer lives than rock stars.

The more normal life spans of writers, journalists, non-rock musicians, non-rock singers, actors, actresses, and movie moguls contrast sharply with the very long life spans of people in the fine arts and the short life spans of those in rock music. People in most professions have normal life spans, but people in the fine arts and rock music stand out dramatically from the crowd.

Can we then conclude that the fine arts are life-enhancing and that rock music is life-debilitating? The consistent answer I am getting to the question from my friends is that rock musicians die young because they use drugs. If drug addiction is a means of escaping inner emptiness or pain, does this not imply that rock music causes emptiness and pain? Or perhaps the culture in which rock is found causes emptiness and pain. The long lives of those in the fine arts implies that they are free from self-destructive behavior such as alcoholism and drug addiction. This also implies that they do not need such escapism because they are enjoying a life-affirming culture.

From this analysis, I think an unbiased, reasonable person will conclude that rock music tends to accompany a life-debilitating culture and the fine arts tend to accompany a life-enhancing culture. Unfortunately, I have not yet established a tight causality. Does a constant diet of rock music necessarily lead to debilitation and pathology? Perhaps rock music and drugs are both means of deadening the inner pain that has other causes. Is creative work in the fine arts life-enhancing? Perhaps people pursue the fine arts because they are already inwardly healthy.

Causation is one of the most difficult things to prove, and requires mountains of research. All I can do in this piece is to make a hypothesis about the fine arts and rock music, and analyze it with the principles of the philosophy of Dooyeweerd and Rookmaaker. If the philosophy agrees with what the small samples seem to be telling us, then I have a reasonable case to argue, even though I do not presume to offer proof.

Rock music and Rookmaaker

Does rock music violate Rookmaaker's principles of aesthetics? Yes. Most rock music is neither beautiful nor particularly harmonious. Just as Tina Turner sang, "What's love got to do with it?", we can say of rock music, what's beauty got to do with it? With the exception of Linda Ronstadt, I've seldom heard a rock star with a beautiful voice who sings on key. Most of them grunt and scream. The rock stars dress to be ugly, clearly exhibiting their defiance of beauty.

The sound-scrambling roar or wail of the electric guitars tends to drown out the wretched melodies and the mind-numbingly simple repetitive harmonies. What's harmony got to do with it? Not a lot, but it is better than nothing. Atonal music has no melody and no tonal harmony at all. Rock at least has correct notes to hit, even though they are regularly missed or ignored by the musical carelessness and indifference of some rock musicians. Bad musicianship and a lousy voice are no impediment to becoming a rock star. Why then care about musical discipline or singing on key?

Rock music defiantly tramples upon Rookmaaker's aesthetic principle of beauty and harmony. If Rookmaaker is correct, rock musicians are dwelling in a culture of death, their music is a music of death, and logically, they die young.

By contrast, classical music has an elegant design, complex structure, and sense of wholeness. These qualities correspond to Dooyeweerd's cosmonomic idea. Every bar, every passage, and every movement of classical music typically contains an irreducible complexity and fidelity to the laws of tonal harmony. A symphony of four movements by Beethoven leaves one with the sense of a complete whole. The effect is to draw one up out of himself, so he can view the created cosmos with new perspective.

Rhythm gone mad

Rock music is dominated by a driving off-beat rhythm. God created rhythm, and therefore rhythm is good, if used according to the design of creation. No musical harmony is possible without a common rhythm that guides the various instruments to play their notes at the same time. When classical musicians momentary depart from a tight rhythm to make an expressive point, they can stay together because they have been trained in rhythm and harmony. No choral music and no dancing would be possible without rhythm.

However, rhythm was designed to support the music and the voices, and not vice versa. The melody line expresses beauty, and the instrumental or vocal harmonies also have a message about the harmony and order of the creation. When the melody and harmony are reduced to being supporting minor players and rhythm becomes the star of the show, the natural order – as described by Rookmaaker – is subverted. Rock arranges the elements of music upside down, so it is an anti-music, a music of rebellion.

Melody and harmony disappear entirely in rap music, leaving only the rock beat and a harsh, droning, shouting human voice. A monotonous, cacophonic, dismal rant oppresses rather than uplifts. What kind of jaded, desensitized, empty souls would prefer rap to Mozart?

According to St. Augustine's doctrine of evil, every thing God created was good, but evil subverts and undercuts the natural order of the good things of God's creation. By emphasizing the rhythm and drowning out the melody and harmony, rock is a subversion of the order of nature, and therefore is governed by an evil principle.

The music of primitivism

Rock music is the music of primitivism. One rock group named themselves The End of Western Civilization. Indeed, can a civilization long be sustained when it plays the music of barbarism?

One aspect of primitivism is simplicity. One can play rock with no lessons, a modicum of practice, and virtually no talent. Children of the ages of 8–12 are playing in junior rock bands to the delight of their silly mothers. The simple music can be easily mastered by beginners and some of the kids play better than the bleary-eyed adult rockers.

In rock music, there is no growth to better things, but one permanently wallows in childish primitivism. Middle-aged rockers are not a whit better than they were in their teens. Is it any wonder that these people get bored and burned out and take drugs and commit suicide? Rock music is a trap, because it does not develop, but leads to repetitive, monotonous circles. A friend of mine in college was surprised to find that every campus bar was much the same and every rock band was much the same. Rock musicians are phony rebels because they are interchangeable and dime-a-dozen.

In contrast, classical music never exhausts its potential for one to learn, grow, develop, get inspired, and soar to higher vistas of appreciation and creative expression. That is why classical music can keep one entranced for a lifetime, and why people in the fine arts tend to have long lives.

The music of death

Rock music does not lift a person out of themselves as does classical music and all the fine arts. Rock is the music of pure self-assertion. Every movement of dance to the pounding assertive rhythms of rock expresses self-assertion. People go out on the dance floor not to dance in the classical sense, but to assert their lowest impulses, like primitive tribes dancing around the fire. Rock music drives one into one's self, making one less than he might have been – rather than lifting him up out of himself and enlarging his experience of life. The self-absorbed life leads to mental depression that can lead to drugs and suicide.

By chance, a depressed ex-rock musician and I heard some strains of a magnificent symphony on the radio in the office. We were both transfixed. He said, "An experience like this makes the idea of suicide impossible." Suicidal rockers! Come out of your cult of death, and experience the life-enhancing radiance of great music!

The music of sex

The motto of the Woodstock generation was sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Woodstock was the beginning of the sexual revolution and the sexual revolution was the beginning of the culture war. Now, four decades after Woodstock, both the sexual revolution and rock music are still going strong.

The body beat of rock music is used by strippers because it is the primitive rhythm of sex. No stripper has ever performed to classical music. Bumps and grinds go with the beat of rock music.

I once accurately reported to a pastor that as the church band played eardrum-shattering "Christian rock," some of the younger women did little bumps and grinds. The pastor denied it, was outraged with me, and asked me to leave. Does rock music cast a spell on the mind so that one cannot see what is right before one's eyes? I suspect so.

The deceptive nature of rock music is akin to the seductive lies of sexual promiscuity. Rock has a message built within the music, and that message is unbridled sex. Rock and the sexual revolution are joined at the hip. They rose together, and if they decline, I suspect they will decline together.


Christian conservatives who are fighting the culture war should seek a life-enhancing culture. The most beautiful and harmonious music should be played in the home, and the music of primitivism and ugliness should be shunned. This is not an easy challenge because rock music is increasingly pervasive on television, in the stores, and in many deceived churches. Life-affirming music, art, literature, and poetry should be enjoyed on a regular basis.

In is not enough to fight the darkness. To be victors in the culture war, we must walk in the light, including the spiritual, intellectual, and aesthetic light. It is self-deception to think we can walk in the spiritual and intellectual light while entering the aesthetic darkness, ugliness, and disharmony of rock music. As Dooyeweerd might remind us, to be split between light and darkness is itself a life-debilitating practice.

Therefore, let us walk in the light in every part of life, including aesthetic culture. In this manner, we can be the forerunners of a new culture of beauty and harmony. At the same time, we can individually grow and flourish as we enjoy a fuller life. Live a long life as you enjoy the beauty and harmony of God's creation!

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31