In and of the World: How Culture is Transforming Protestants
- Tuesday, April 07, 2009
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."  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." 
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.
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.
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