In and of the World: How Culture is Transforming Protestants
- Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Traditionalist conservatives have generally employed an argument about the significance and priority of cult to culture when trying to argue for the importance of culture. Russell Kirk, for instance, followed T. S. Eliot's Notes Towards the Definition of Culture in asserting for close links between religion and cultural expression. As Kirk explained in an essay, "Civilization without Religion?," "A culture is a joining together for worship . . . the attempt of people to commune with a transcendent power." And from this common association in acts of religious devotion "human community grows." "Once people are joined in a cult, cooperation in many other things becomes possible," Kirk wrote. "Common defense, irrigation, systematic agriculture, architecture, the visual arts, music, the more intricate crafts, economic production and distribution, courts and government—all these aspects of a culture arise gradually from the cult, the religious tie." Cultural decline occurs then, according to Kirk, as well as Eliot, Christopher Dawson, and Eric Voegelin, when the cult withers. Without the spiritual convictions and practices that created a given culture, the civilization planted on it would inevitably dry up and decay.
This construction of the relationship between cult and culture has generally had more appeal to Roman Catholics (or Roman Catholic leaning Protestants) than to Protestants per se if only because of the attraction of medieval Europe before the Reformation. The reason, of course, has to do with the synthesis of cultural and religious life that Christendom embodied. That construction of the relationship of cult and culture was always a harder sell to Protestants who were willing to accept the trade off of a divided Christendom for a reformed church. In fact, the implication of Protestant teaching on salvation for cultural life was that cultural endeavors at best had a paradoxical relationship to the cult. If human effort and creativity, to put it crassly, did not merit salvation in any way, then Protestants had an easier time than other Christians saying that the best forms of cultural life could not be correlated with the true religion. On Protestant terms, culture may not be independent of the cult but neither was it dependent on the cult. Mozart was definitely better music than Amy Grant but his Jupiter Symphony had no more chance of winning God's favor than her "In My Daddy's Eyes." Consequently, the Protestant stress upon faith alone as opposed to good works threw a wrench not only into the machinery of Christendom, but also into theorizing that tried to find Christianity in any civilization.
That Crouch fails to employ Kirkean arguments about Christianity and culture may stem from his own Protestant identity (he acknowledges that for much of his working life he was a campus minister for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Harvard). But just as likely is the history of twentieth-century evangelicalism and Crouch's need to persuade Christians traditionally ambivalent about culture because of its secular or worldly aspects. Of the five models of relating to culture that H. Richard Niebuhr identified in his classic book, Christ and Culture, twentieth-century conservative Protestants clearly fit the "Christ-against-culture" type. For evangelicals living after the fundamentalist controversy, the historic Protestant view of culture shifted to an avoidance of activities and delights that would distract and tempt believers to infidelity. In other words, the readers Crouch has most in mind were likely disinclined to theorize about culture after the fashion of a Kirk or Eliot. For those suspicious of culture, the cult-culture paradigm would not work, while for those inclined to imitate popular culture to achieve relevance, theorizing about culture was a foreign exercise.
Yet, Crouch gives the sense that older arguments about Christian civilization have less value to his project than others and not simply for theological reasons. Because the understanding of culture in the works of a Kirk or Eliot assumed an elitist perspective on cultural life, Crouch appears to be uninterested in the reflections of a Dawson, Kirk, or Eliot. Culture for Crouch is a common, prosaic endeavor that comes to human beings like swimming to fish. That may be something of an overstatement. But if culture is not the equivalent of the air that human beings breathe, it is for Crouch the natural result of being human. This egalitarian, even anti-hierarchical understanding of culture may explain why Crouch spends as much time talking about food as he does about music, or theorizing about the federal highway system more than about Herman Melville.
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