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In and of the World: How Culture is Transforming Protestants

  • D.G. Hart
  • 2009 4 Apr
  • COMMENTS
In and of the World: How Culture is Transforming Protestants


Throughout most of the twentieth century, evangelical Protestants, the ones to be distinguished from fellow protesters in the mainline denominations, manifested a remnant mentality. This stemmed from a feeling of displacement. Having been part of the large, white, English-speaking Protestant denominations and a generically WASP culture, evangelicals migrated after the fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s to the backwaters of American life. American society had once been but was no longer their home. Evangelical theology and practice reinforced this sense of exile. Beliefs about the imminence of Christ's second coming and prohibitions about all manner of worldly amusements spoke loud and clear that, as one evangelical hymn put it, this place "was not their home" because evangelicals were "just a-passing through."

A different attitude emerged, however, when evangelicals went from being a faithful remnant to a moral majority. Indeed, the culture wars and the politics of identity those battles inspired lured evangelicals out of their isolation into arenas of human achievement markedly distant from the Bible colleges, foreign missions agencies, Christian broadcasting and publishing that had formed the conservative Protestant cultural ghetto.

One aspect remained the same despite the different ways that evangelicals engaged the culture before and after 1975. Although its leaders now found their way on to the cover of Time magazine, the religious right still reflected the remnant mentality of fundamentalists. After all, the point of engaging public life was to remedy the worldliness that was corrupting not simply the mainline churches or even American society, but was also trickling down to the very institutions by which evangelicals reproduced (both physically and spiritually) their way of life. Seldom pointed out, however, is that this political activism stemmed not only from desires to rebuild the walls between the secular society and evangelical hearth and home to keep out the harmful influences of a decadent culture. It also sprang from the social mobility and rising affluence of born-again baby boomers. In this sense, evangelical cultural engagement was simply what suburban, college-educated, white, middle class Americans do. That evangelicals during this time replaced songs like "This World is Not My Home" with "Shine Jesus, Shine" was more than coincidental. If you believe, as the latter song sings, "As we gaze on your kindly brightness/So our faces display your likeness" you might tend to feel comfortable, as they say, in your own skin and the world supporting it.

Andy Crouch's thoughtful and engaging book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (InterVarsity Press), is intended explicitly for evangelicals who no longer regard cultural engagement as something at odds with or forbidden to their religious identity. As he explains at the outset, the book is written for "a Christian community on the threshold of cultural responsibility." [9] His purpose is not simply to point evangelicals away from a culture-warrior posture. Equally problematic is the other side of evangelical cultural life found more in the style sections of newspapers than in stories on electoral politics. Born-again Protestants have an intuitive knack for appropriating various forms of popular culture and turning them into mechanisms for recruiting new converts and attracting the faithful to forms of devotion more contemporary ("hip" comes to mind) than your father's method of following Jesus. The phenomenon of contemporary Christian music and its liturgical equivalent of Praise & Worship worship (redundancy mine) is the clearest example of this kind of cultural appropriation (critics call it cultural syncretism). Crouch observes correctly that evangelical cultural imitation has been wildly successful with college students and young adults, in fact turning many of evangelicalism's biggest and most successful churches into little more than youth ministries for grown ups. The problem with either the antagonistic or imitative approach to culture is that each has a thin account of cultural endeavor and so does not take culture seriously. Crouch is trying to remedy this.

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.

The explicit reason Crouch avoids high culture is that culture itself is larger than any particular cultural tradition. Christian efforts to come to grips with cultural life, Crouch argues, have paid too much attention to only one slice of culture—high, pop, ethnic, or even political. Culture is more varied and more basic than any of these particular expressions. It is the fundamentally human activity of making sense and making something of the world. "Meaning and making go together," Crouch writes, "culture, you could say, is the activity of making meaning." [24] He makes this definitional move because culture, the word, is too abstract. "We don't make Culture, we make omelets," Crouch asserts. "We tell stories. We build hospitals. We pass laws. These specific products of cultivating and creating . . . are what eventually, over time, become part of the framework of the world for future generations." [26] This expansive view of culture, valuable apparently because it avoids abstraction, leads Crouch to describe almost anything human beings touch as culture. Again, the reason stems from human beings as creatures whose natures are essentially cultural. "The beginning of culture and the beginning of humanity are one and the same because culture is what we were made to do." [36]

This is a frustratingly simple definition of culture that seems to reflect the desire of a large slice of contemporary evangelicalism that is fundamentally opposed to hierarchies and norms in evaluating and transmitting culture. For good reasons Crouch wants to go beyond simply analyzing culture for the sake of what it does to children or for whether it is appropriate for Christian consumption. He prefers the postures of cultivating and creating culture to critiquing, copying, or consuming. Crouch does suggest that some forms of culture may have more integrity than others. A cultural endeavor achieves integrity when it is "more whole, more faithful to the world of which it is making something." [55] But the limits of this conception are evident when Crouch puts omelets, highways, and software programming on a par with some of the West's greatest achievements. Is it really possible to suggest Interstate 95 has as much integrity as Thomas Eakins' Gross Clinic? When Crouch ventures his own list of "cultural artifacts" that represent the "glory and honor" of the cultural traditions he knows—Bach's B Minor Mass, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, Arvo Paert's "Spiegel im Spiegel," green-tea crème brûlée, fish tacos, bulgogi, Moby Dick, the Odyssey, the iPod, and the Mini Cooper—it appears that his understanding of culture is well positioned to justify a middle-class baby boomer's tastes, income, and education. But what Crouch thinks about declining cultural standards in the West or how Christians might respond to that problem is not on his radar.

To be sure, the advantage of this approach, and the astute recommendation that evangelical Protestants need to develop postures of cultivation and creation in cultural endeavors is its recognition that human beings cannot escape culture (the fundamentalist temptation) and that simply imitating culture (the Jesus Rock temptation) is inferior to creative expressions of worth. In fact, Crouch even ups the ante for his fellow evangelicals when he turns from culture-making as basic to human identity to culture-making as a biblical duty.

In the second section of the book, Crouch decides to take a relatively quick tour of the history of salvation recounted in the Old and New Testaments. Not surprisingly, in a book devoted to not simply the legitimacy but also the necessity of culture, Crouch sees cultural life writ large throughout the pages of holy writ. This strategy can become tedious. Creation in Genesis 1 is culture. Adam and Eve were given the task of creating culture, specifically, agriculture. As a nation, Israel was political culture, while its cultural insights in the religious sphere replaced henotheism with monotheism. Jesus was a cultural figure in his training and work as a carpenter. He died on a cross, a cultural instrument of torture. The apostles took the message of Christianity to cities, arenas of great cultural significance. Pentecost overturned Jewish culture and gave Christianity's blessing to cultural diversity. Finally, the new heavens and new earth in the last book of the Bible reassert the import of the city and cultural life. According to Crouch, culture is "the furniture of heaven." [170] He adds, "human beings, in God's original intention and in their redemptive destination, cannot be separated from the cultural goods they create and cultivate at their best." [170]

As inspiring as such a cultural reading of the Bible may be for evangelicals like Crouch, it loses some of its loftiness when in the next paragraph the author adds a few of his favorite things, such as fish tacos, the iPod, and Moby Dick. The impression Crouch creates is that without a biblical justification, evangelical Protestants would be powerless to recognize the value of cultural activities. It is as if being human is not good enough for cultural life; so culture needs the lift of redemption and the approval of God to lose either its worldly reputation or become the object of devotion. Indeed, confusion about the relationship between creation and salvation haunts Crouch's argument. The muddle might have been avoided had Crouch interacted carefully with Christian teaching (whether Protestant or Roman Catholic but especially Augustinian) on the relationship between nature and grace. As it stands, Crouch interacts with Niebuhr's Christ and Culture not to discover analytic categories for reflecting on the relationship between cult and culture but mainly to find Niebuhr's implicit endorsement of cultural transformation deficient for the aim of evangelical cultural engagement.

The reason for Niebuhr's deficiency becomes clear in the third and final section of the book where Crouch provides a number of worthwhile insights into the work of culture engagement. To avoid the culture-war propensity, Crouch steers clear of the word transformation, preferring "culture making" to "changing the culture." Here he addresses topics such as unintended consequences, economies of scale, power, wealth, and consumption. These cautions are intended to direct evangelicals away from imposition or conquest. Instead, he recommends that their cultural posture be one of introducing the fundamental realities of human beings as culture makers wherever they go. He offers the example of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport. There travelers may find a high modern oasis of an atrium with rocking chairs across from a food court. As opposed to the dehumanization of air travel, this space introduces smiles and relaxed conversations "where good news whispers just a bit more audibly." [215] Crouch believes that this human touch is at the heart of culture and is needed in exurbs, cities, and suburbs. It is also at the heart of being Christian because "our calling is to join [God] in what he is already doing—to make visible what, in exodus and resurrection, he has already done." [216]

Examples such as Crouch's reflections on Charlotte's airport and omelets leave the impression that the new evangelical cultural engagement is no thicker than baby boomers' parents' ideal of a cultural remnant preserving the faith once delivered. To be sure, rocking chairs in airports can buoy the spirits of weary travelers and a fluffy omelet may hit the spot on a leisurely Saturday morning (if, of course, the eater's cardiologist approves). But unclear is whether attention to small rays of uplift that shine through either the most unpleasant form of human transportation or food preparation is sufficient for confronting the cultural decay that affects the West. Crouch's book does signal a hopeful development, which is that the evangelical pursuit of culture warfare was and is a dead end. Had evangelicals been reading the likes of Kirk or Dawson, though, they would have known that the ballot box and the White House were poor vehicles, even if sometimes necessary conditions, for a healthy culture. Less encouraging is the motive behind Crouch's apparent fatigue with the culture war. He does not simply find the warrior mindset defective but seems to be mainly comfortable with the cultural goods available to middle-class, urban-friendly, suburban Americans. Evangelicals like Crouch have found a home in the modern world; they are no longer a-passing through.

If this is a fair reading of Crouch's sensibility, then the legacy of the Religious Right is indeed ironic. By leaving the religious ghetto to right the mainstream society, the likes of a Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson undermined older taboos that had nurtured among evangelicals a sense of being resident aliens, pilgrims on a journey to a different homeland, enduring hardships now for untold future comforts. In effect, the politics of the Religious Right turned evangelicals from otherworldly saints into this-worldly citizens. The indication being, perhaps, that this transformation of born-again Protestants is no better for cultural life in North America than it is for the Christian religion.

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D.G. Hart is Director of Academic Projects and Faculty Development at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Hart is an essayist and the author of numerous books, including Deconstructing Evangelicalism: Conservative Protestantism in the Age of Billy Graham (2005), Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (2003), Recovering Mother Kirk: A Case for Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition (2003), and A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (2006).

This review originally appeared at First Principles Journal. Republished here with permission.