Please, Not Another Christian Think Piece On Culture

Mar 13, 2018

In the current American scene, references to “culture” have become as ubiquitous as references to freedom, diversity, and acceptance. While many Christians are leery of what the secular world thinks those latter three words mean, we are quite ready to accept contemporary definitions of “culture.” For most people, culture is “books and movies and things,” although if you ask a thoughtful person to elaborate on what he meant by “things,” he might say, “Well, magazines and the internet, and news, and fashion, maybe even the kind of artwork Starbucks puts on their cups at Christmas. I suppose most things are cultural. Maybe everything is culture.”

Limited Engagements. Is everything culture? If so, there is little point in Christians talking about “engaging the culture,” because cultural engagement will have been accomplished merely by throwing oneself on the floor. However, even if nothing is entirely outside the reach of “culture,” when we speak of “engaging the culture,” we usually mean secular culture and we mean secular culture where we Christians perceive it to be most powerful. The way the lamps at Crate & Barrel are designed certainly depends on culture (and contributes to it), but those lamps hold little sway over the manner in which people steward their souls. On the other hand, Christians believe that “books and movies and things” (media and publishing in general) holds great sway over people’s souls, and so when Christians speak of “engaging the culture,” they mean maintaining some knowledge of secular culture, offering critiques of secular culture, but, most importantly, rivaling the powerhouses of secular culture with their own books and movies and things. For this reason, I would wager that “engaging the culture” is not much of an interest of rural churches which have no internet presence, very few young married couples in the congregation, and little money. “Engaging the culture” is a great interest of Christian universities and a slogan of churches with fresh websites that advertise “multiple campuses.” Let us admit that we might return a patronizing smile if a sparsely attended Baptist church in a town of 900 had a reader board out front which proudly claimed it was, “Engaging the culture!”

Christ Is Lord, But So What? I am not suggesting that every Christian the world over who writes a book or releases a film thinks he is “engaging the culture.” Conversation about “engaging the culture” are far more likely to cluster around Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas or God’s Not Dead 2, however, when I think of a Christian film which is simply good art, I think of Metropolitan, Damsels in Distress, or The Last Days of Disco, all of which were made by Whit Stillman. Religion is so much a fact of Stillman’s narrative worlds that his characters brush up against it unabashedly, accidentally, as though it were still A.D. 1321.

While not always the case, I often find “engaging the culture” takes place when the author or director is trying to prove that Christ is Lord, not when he is freely acting on that belief. Stillman assumed Christ was Lord years ago and has been making the best romances and the best comedies in Hollywood ever since. Lesser artists tyrannically return every conversation and story back to “Christ is Lord,” as though they simply do not know what the claim means or what it frees them to do.

The Right Side Of Everything. “Engaging the culture” is most apparent when we want the Gospel to have some social purchasing power, for “engaging the culture” often means reporting Twitter stats, page views, ad revenue, and Amazon rankings to the faithful so they know they are part of something bigger. Americans are no less interested in the popularity of Black Panther as the content of the film. Big numbers drive even bigger numbers, and we want to be “in the right theater” for the same reason we want to be “on the right side of history,” and that reason is our desperate insecurity. Gone are the days when the unkempt Cobain sought the laurels of artistic integrity through incoherent mumbling. When I was in high school 20 years ago, musicians and filmmakers were desperate not to be seen as “sell-outs,” though I have not heard one of my students level that criticism against anyone or anything in over a decade.   

In all of this, it should be clear that there is a difference between any old act of cultural engagement and “engaging the culture,” for the latter is a byword, a euphemism, and more a hashtag than a collection of words neutrally assembled from a dictionary. In the same way, there is a difference between saying, “The lives of black people matter,” and saying, in 2018, “Black lives matter.” Just so, “engaging the culture” is a relatively recent turn of phrase. Depending on what translation of St. Augustine’s City of God you search, the word “culture” appears either twice, or once, or not at all. The word appears only once in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, not at all in Rousseau’s Social Contract or in Calvin’s Institutes or in Mere Christianity. The word appears a few times in J.I. Packer’s Knowing God and is all over Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite, Mark Driscoll’s A Call To Resurgence, and Peter Leithart’s Solomon Among the Postmoderns. A preoccupation with culture is by no means particular to Christianity, though. In 2017, Atlanta rap trio Migos scored the 7th best-selling album of the year with Culture, and the group returned in January with Culture II, which is, thus far, the best-selling record of 2018. Suffice to say, a great many kinds of people are quite taken with culture.

A Tiring Obsession With Control. It is tempting to say that “culture” simply went by other names in past eras, and that Augustine and Burke and Lewis were all talking of “culture,” but using different terminology. However, I find this claim unsatisfying given the frequency with which “culture” is attached to Enlightened notions of power. When was the last time you heard a Christian intellectual describe our common need to “submit to culture” or “yield to culture”? Never, I wager. Rather, we want to change culture, reform culture, and create culture, all of which are manifestations of power over culture. Culture is a thing we use to leverage control over others, while not being controlled by culture ourselves. Imagine a graduate at a classical Christian high school heading off to college and telling his teachers, “I am looking forward to being ruled by culture.” I doubt many teachers would even bother to ask, “Which culture?” They would simply freak out. Culture is only safe insofar as it performs our commands. “Engaging the culture” is often another way of “changing the world,” that bloody and banal Enlightened goal, although Seattle Pacific University has cut out the hermeneutical middle man and simply adopted the slogan, “Engaging the culture, changing the world.” We raise our children to “change the world” and “make the world a more beautiful place.” Such tasks, even in many classical Christians schools, have largely supplanted working out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

Movements, Not Brands. What does it profit a man if he changes the whole world but loses his own soul? We are loathe to admit this a possibility. Our ideal marriage of culture and piety is, say, a Christian bike shop that sends a toe clip to Kenya every time someone buys a BMX. Such a scheme is now world-changing de rigueur, and while I take no pleasure in speaking so cynically, “changing the world” is often little more than a marketing scheme. The brand is a dead concept. Now, we demand movements. In a bygone era, ketchup was made by a company called Heinz, named after a man called Heinz. Now, the ketchup I buy at Kroger is made by Simple Truth. Simple Truth also makes frozen breakfast burritos. Perhaps “No Power But My Own breakfast burritos” sounded too ambitious at the time it was proposed, but I am sure some world-changer will sell them to my grandchildren.

No Such Thing As Pop Tradition. My increasing skeptical stance toward the word “culture” has grown as I have more regularly witnessed disinterest in “tradition,” even among conservative Christians. Culture now occupies the role which tradition claimed in more stable eras, though “culture” often strikes me as ersatz tradition, or tradition which we are free to push around. A man does not create tradition so much as he receives it, submits to it, yields to it, bequeaths it. Tradition has power over us, does not seek our opinion, and is largely indifferent to our feelings, all of which make tradition a non-starter in our world. Tradition comes from someone else, but culture comes from us. “American tradition” and “American culture” are both meaningful terms, but “pop tradition” is not. Anything which cannot be adapted to “pop” leaves us cold. If culture is “books and movies and things,” tradition is rightly understood as the fountain of culture, but we have made “revolution” into an unqualified good, and blandly speak of this or that hero leading a “food revolution” or a “musical revolution,” blithely indifferent to the fact that revolution betokens blood in the streets. Our desperation to detach tradition from culture is no more apparent than in the term “instant classic,” a fine icon of our impatience to transcend time, while being unwilling that any of our fathers do so. Despite our disgust with the past, we are convinced our children will respect our art, our ideas, our ideologies. We congratulate ourselves on having condemned racism, we look disparagingly at our grandparents, and yet our love of revolution means that no one has put forward a definition of “racism” which lasts more than 25 years. Our grandchildren will condemn us with greater vehemence than we condemn our grandparents.

On many counts, tradition and culture look alike. I would love for my students to open bike shops, start restaurants, craft furniture, write novels, compose symphonies, become nuns, and raise chickens, but I want them to do these things because these are the human things— by which I mean an ancient God can be discerned in them. If these labors have power, it ought to be a divine power which flows through the work itself, is revealed in man, and not a power which is seized and used to manipulate others. Submit yourself to God with your little bike shop, do not use your little bike shop to command the submission of others. Do not use your little bike shop to change the world; use your little bike shop to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.     

And Yet We Mean Well. My intent is not to villainize those who “engage the culture,” nor do I intend to stop using the word “culture” myself. The term makes for excellent short hand, and when teachers at a school discuss how “the school culture has been slipping lately,” I know exactly what they mean. What is more, “engaging the culture” has become such a common expression, it is often used with the best of intentions but little forethought. Nonetheless, I discourage its usage. In the same way, a great many parents have said to me, “My son just needs to figure out who he is and what he believes,” which sounds a lot like syncretizing Christianity with atheist materialism, but probably just means, “My son needs to mature.” So, too, “I want my son to really engage the culture” often means nothing more than, “I want my son to practice his Christian convictions in public,” or, “I want my son to write a book,” both of which are unimpeachable desires. At the same time, I would prefer teachers not say, “The school culture is slipping,” but rather, “Our sloth in policing the dress code is spreading, and we are encouraging more brazen disrespect among the simple-minded sophomores; the ones with untucked shirts come to class late now, and so do those with tucked shirts.” The tendency of speaking about “school culture” as though it were the stock market, inexplicably rising and falling, is something just short of superstition.     

You Are Not Stuck In Traffic, You Are Traffic. Teachers often speak of “school culture” as a thing they stand outside of, and, in like fashion, “engaging the culture” presumes “the culture” is a thing which is small enough to see from an exterior point of view, a claim I find dubious. A soldier can “engage the enemy” precisely because he himself is not the enemy. The enemy comes from another nation, speaks another language, worships another god, confesses another creed, perpetuates other traditions. The American Christian who sets out to “engage the culture” presupposes he can simply alienate himself from secular society and speak to it as an outsider. Despite the fact that he eats the same food as the unbeliever, loves the same movies as the unbeliever, wears the same clothes as the unbeliever, he assumes “the culture” is something other than himself. The fact is, most Christians have precious few tools with which to “engage.” Of course, some might retort that this is precisely what has led Christians to write their own obviously-Christian books and direct their own obviously-Christian movies.

I am not content, however, that books and movies and things are what change people or “drive culture.” We might say “Das Kapital changed culture,” provided we clarify the claim with, “Having a dynamic teacher in college teach Das Kapital to several thousand students over a period of twenty years changed culture.” A book will often color the private atmosphere of a man’s soul, but a book— by itself— rarely changes the outward shape of a man’s life. Most ideas do not have consequences. For this cause, I rarely send my students home to read a text, for I know it will have negligible power that way. Rather, I stand at the front of class and read the book in a very loud voice while pacing around, coming physically near each student as often as possible. Arguments rarely persuade me. People often persuade me. I have read a great many very fine books on asceticism and piety and self-renunciation, and I am still a very terrible person. I have met people who have read Boethius and Augustine and Lewis and Capon and Burke and seen The Tree of Life and said they liked it, but are still lost in the spirit of our age. I cannot help but thinking that many of those who are most interested in engaging the culture really ought to be battling the zeitgeist instead, and the thing which the zeitgeist hates the most is renunciation and disengagement. 

My Cold Dead Fingers. American Christians have a deep respect for secular design, secular style, and secular power structures. It is all well and good to say that we are merely “reclaiming” style and design, or “refining” them and “reforming” them, but we would do well to remember that the Middle Ages began around the time Theodosius I ended the Olympic games and shuttered theaters. In his biography of St. Francis, Chesterton speaks of the Middle Ages as a long period of purgation, wherein a great many things which had been deeply tainted by paganism simply had to be set aside so that they might be cleansed of their demonic associations. To be frank, the Christians of our day are simply too much in love with the culture we claim to be engaging to allow anyone to take the NFL or DC Comics films away from us. The modest departures from books and films and things commended by Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option were widely regarded with amazement.

Not Your Grandfather’s Christian Culture. Of course, Christianity has a history of what might plausibly be called “cultural engagement” which dates all the way back to late antiquity. As R.A. Markus describes in The End of Ancient Christianity, the advent of Christian culture came far later than we might suppose. From the Ascension to the Edict of Milan, the average Christian thought of himself as the temporary resident of a tenuously poised world. Even sophisticated Christian theologians of the 2nd and 3rd century thought the world would soon pass away. Consequently, a bunker mentality was pervasive. Prior to Constantine, we do not see a profusion of distinctively Christian architecture, art, hymnody, or liturgy. Christians sang Psalms and worshipped in graveyards, but were not robustly churning out books and movies and things. However, after the Edict of Milan, Christians become increasingly comfortable with the idea that the Earth might be around for a while, and during the 4th and 5th century, we witness an explosion of “Christian culture.” This culture, though, was born in a time of some opposition. Markus estimates that less than 1 in 5 Romans was Christian in 312 AD, but that better than 3 in 4 Romans was baptized by the time Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the empire at the end of the 4th century. During the Milan honeymoon, Christianity’s star rose and Jupiter fell out of favor. The old shrines to the gods were vandalized and never repaired. The state cut off funding for animal sacrifices to the great pagan deities. Christianity became popular, for it was the emperor’s religion and a pathway to material success.

And yet, to claim that the rise of “Christian culture” during the 4th century was in any way comparable to current issues of “engaging the culture” is specious, for the Christian culture which emerged in the 300s centered around that thing which absolutely terrifies modern Christians: asceticism.

In 280 AD, baptism was a social liability, and yet, by 380 AD, it was a social asset. Enrolling on the list of catechumens no longer meant harassment, theft, and embarrassment, but a potential promotion to the senate. When Christians of the 4th century recognized how easy (and how cosmopolitan) it was to be saved, they fretted over the cheapness of their salvation and devised more difficult paths to glory for themselves. I am, by no means, suggesting that Christianity changed in its dogma or character after Constantine (as is a fashionable claim among pacifists) but simply that the outward forms of Christian piety and worship enjoyed considered intellectual attention, and that the former demands for martyrdom were transferred to a nuanced schedule of fasts and feasts. In the 4th century, the rise of Christian culture had nothing to do with “books and movies and things,” and everything to do with the organized liturgies of the Church. The calendar quickly filled with saints’ days, and commemorations of Old Testament events, events from the life of Mary, events from the life of Christ, the commemoration of local martyrs, and a demand rose for new hymns and new prayers to accompany all of these additional hours spent restlessly standing in the church nave. If Christian culture conquered pagan culture in the 4th century, it did not do so with God’s Not Dead 2, but with Lent, the Feast of Pentecost and the commemoration of Saints Gervasius and Protasius. The great “cultural moments” of late antiquity were the triumphant parades of martyrs’ bones through the streets as they were unearthed from their dishonorable burial places outside city limits and relocated into the very heart of cathedral altars. Suppliants lined the streets to witness the miraculous healing of the sick who stretched out leprous hands to touch holy relics, and received the sudden and blessed restoration of their flesh. Such stories are a dime a dozen in the 4th century and 5th century, and if you would like to read about them, the longest chapter in St. Augustine’s City of God (XXII.8) recounts but a few.

Constantine Coda. There is, perhaps, something both a little embarrassing and a little relieving about recognizing that “the triumph of Christian culture” has always had far more to do with everyone standing for an hour at a sleepy vespers service (after a long day of work) than with the local Christian coffee house sponsoring a movie festival wherein great craft beer is served and a portion of the proceeds goes to thus-and-such. While I have nothing against the latter, and would probably be pleased to attend just such a thing, it is something I want to do and find easy to do, and not really the kind of thing I need God’s help to do. On the other hand, I find vespers a dreadful bore and depend entirely on divine grace to say to the family, “Alright, let’s go to church,” after a hastily thrown-together dinner at 4:45 PM. I attend the service not to change the world, but for my own salvation, which is by no means a foregone conclusion.

When Christians consider “engaging the culture,” perhaps the most potent story to recall is that of Constantine’s conversion, for no single event in the Christian era has granted a more immediate, more splendid, or more widespread boon for the Church. Constantine’s conversion did not come on the long end of the Christian witness, and neither was Constantine mulling over some Christian crossover hit on Top 40 radio when it all became clear to him. There was no long, ponderous conversation about the limits of Platonic philosophy at a Thirsty Theology Thursday meeting at a local brewpub. Rather, Constantine had a vision— a mystical encounter with God which transcended culture, society, even community.

If Christians were in any way responsible for this encounter, it was only by way of prayer. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century of unanswered, ineffective prayer.     

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs. 

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