Writing in the February 9, 2018 TLS, Julius Krein says:
…the culture wars, in a critical sense, were never real. The Right did not “lose” and the Left did not “win.” The true winners were Goldman Sachs, Amazon and Facebook, and their victory was inevitable. What was disputed all along were merely the terms under which a neoliberal political economy would be legitimated.
I just ordered, and look forward to reading, Jeff Ventrella’s new book Church and Culture. The synopsis says:
Full-orbed response to a proposed statement on the church’s responsibility in culture by Sovereign Grace Ministries — and a valuable resource in elucidating a Faith that champions a comprehensive Gospel amid a church culture that all too often reduces the Gospel to personal salvation.
Sovereign Grace reflects a typical Annabaptist take on culture, so it’s good to see it called out in a public way.
Last year I linked an article that referred to the essay “The Inner Ring” by C.S. Lewis. It is an address where Lewis describes the mentality of always wanting to be in the in crowd. I think it should be read once a year at least. This desire produces groveling and bowing to the gods of whatever age we live in. Some excerpts:
All this is rather obvious. I wonder whether you will say the same of my next step, which is this. I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. This desire, in one of its forms, has indeed had ample justice done to it in literature. I mean, in the form of snobbery. Victorian fiction is full of characters who are hag-ridden by the desire to get inside that particular Ring which is, or was, called Society. But it must be clearly understood that “Society,” in that sense of the word, is merely one of a hundred Rings, and snobbery therefore only one form of the longing to be inside.
My main purpose in this address is simply to convince you that this desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action. It is one of the factors which go to make up the world as we know it—this whole pell-mell of struggle, competition, confusion, graft, disappointment and advertisement, and if it is one of the permanent mainsprings then you may be quite sure of this. Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life, from the first day on which you enter your profession until the day when you are too old to care. That will be the natural thing—the life that will come to you of its own accord. Any other kind of life, if you lead it, will be the result of conscious and continuous effort. If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an “inner ringer.” I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in—one way or the other you will be that kind of man.
Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavor to enter the new one
This chapter is a conclusion of the argument up to this point. Hunter warns against elitism and says that all of God’s people must be involved in this world-changing vocation. We all stand equal before God. But too often, “the populism that is inherent to authentic Christian witness is often transformed into an oppressive egalitarianism that will suffer no distinctions between higher and lower or better and worse.” And so there is a tension between ministering in cultural powerful areas and not becoming elitist.
Further, Christian might actually find themselves in positions of power [I should hope so!]. Hunter wants no part of Christians using political power towards “faith-based ends.” One wonders what ends he does want Christians using political power for? Fixing the sewer system? If he is merely critiquing the shallow thinking and foolish sell-outs that characterize much political thinking on the Right, he is fine by me. If he is saying that Christian rulers are an oxymoron (as I suspect he is) then we part company. I can concur with him that saving America isn’t our calling or goal. Not that America anyway. But our Savior taught us:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Baptized nations will serve Jesus as King. Rome was the first to do so. Many others followed. All nations are under the rule of Jesus now, whether or not they like it. This does not mean we should “seize power”, indeed, we are not ready to. But Hunter’s turn towards quietism is wrong. He advocates faithful presence – healthy networks of Christians in every field. Amen to that! He wants “an alternative culture”, Amen to that! But don’t cut politics out of that culture, or we are simply asking for future disasters.
Hunter examines the “cultural economy of American Christianity.” He traces the obliteration of the WASP establishment in the 60’s to the current position of evangelicalism at the margins of our elite institutions. I would note here that George W. Bush was ostensibly an evangelical and he had a pretty significant position at the center of the elites! And yet he failed to do much of anything, or even try, other than to offer platitudes about “the Almighty.”
Hunter examines giving and the large foundations that support intellectual pursuits. Most Christian giving is in small amounts and to things such as para-church organizations that fail to support Christian scholarship (in his analysis).
He points out that many of the newer institutions and periodicals that have evolved are in response to or are parallel to their elite counterparts. Catholics are doing a somewhat better job with places such as Ave Maria and Christendom College (no mention of New St. Andrews here). Evangelicals have created an ecosystem of cable networks like TBN (debatably evangelical), publishing houses and music all of which apes the world and rarely if ever influences the central places of production. Our books don’t get reviewed by the New York Review of Books for instance.
Furthermore, there are Christians here and there in the main institutions of our day, but they are not connected to larger networks of influence and don’t reflect a unified Church outlook on life. Again I don’t see any reference to Opus Dei in this chapter and I’d be interested to see what Hunter thinks of their work. The bottom line to Hunter is:
In terms of the cultural economy…Christians in America today have institutional strength and vitality exactly in the lower and peripheral areas of cultural production.
He says that Christians are not present where the greatest influence over our culture exists. Now, in our age I don’t know how possible it is for believers to be present in those places of power. Someone who is really sharp and outspoken about Jesus might never get hired to review books by a magazine steeped in hostility to God and the Church. In the past, despite great evil, their was often a veneer of politeness and respect towards religion that allowed for Christians to move in certain social circles that are now closed to them. Perhaps Hunter agrees with this, but in this chapter I got the impression that it is the fault of believers for not being where they should be and being connected to networks, when in fact I think they largely cannot penetrate these places. On the “thick networks” issue he is no doubt correct, but this points to much larger issues with the church and our divisions. I don’t expect these issues to be worked out for decades or centuries as I think the Protestant age is over and now things will stay in upheaval until a new order is established, which will take time.
Rick Hogaboam, Scott Kistler and I will be reading To Change the World by James Davison Hunter and posting our thoughts about it as we go along. Hopefully we will interact with each other too. I come at Hunter’s book as a postmillenial, Magisterial Anglican and a post-Reconstructionist along the lines of Peter Leithart and James Jordan. Of course those labels may not mean much to most people, but I put them out there to say the obvious which is that I am not neutral on the subjects Hunter will discuss, I pretty much have my mind made up already.
In Chapter 1, Hunter outlines the Creation mandate of Genesis 2.15: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” He says that humans as part of our very nature are inclined to build churches, institutions, families and in short, worlds. This rings of Tolkien’s phrase that we are sub-creators. This perspective on Genesis 2.15 is indeed central to the mission and thinking of many modern Christian institutions and thinkers.
Just how central it is becomes obvious as Hunter takes a quick run through Protestant and Catholic mission statements that span groups from liberal to conservative. From the ELCA to Focus on the Family, churches and para-church ministries say that they want to “impact culture” or bring about a revolution of justice. Indeed, one has only to subscribe to certain Christian magazines engaged in the culture war (as I do) to be inundated with appeals for money in order to fund these organizations who believe that they can turn the tide in our culture.
Hunter’s quick summation concludes with this reflection:
I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology. In brief, the model on which various strategies are based not only does not work, but it cannot work.
Doug Wilson has been posting his running commentary on the book, available here.
There is an interview with Hunter here.
I wanted to point out this compelling post at What’s Wrong with the World: Liberals: Guardians of Tradition? Jeff Culbreath writes:
As the father of five very musical children, I find myself in the company of classical musicians and teachers with some regularity. One would be hard pressed to find a more reflexively liberal demographic than that of classical musicians. Their brand of liberalism, though fairly radical, is genteel and seldom confrontational. In a superficial way, I actually enjoy the company of these people and can usually find enough common ground to have an interesting conversation. Indeed I am more socially “comfortable” around them than I am around most people in the great middle class. Yes, this does seem to be a class phenomenon. We have similar levels of education. We think about the same kinds of things – they on one side, me on the other. They read books. They have decent manners. They don’t mind putting on a coat and tie, or a long skirt.
And they are liberals. Let me clear: these are people who adhere to an evil, destructive ideology that is responsible for plunging our civilization into barbarism. On the other hand – and this is what confuses me – they seem to be the only people interested in preserving the treasures of western civilization, apart from a few cranky Catholics and other traditionalist malcontents of negligible influence. America’s “conservatives” – at least our middle class conservatives – couldn’t care less about classical music, literature, philosophy, or the arts. Make no mistake: if we turned culture completely over to them, we would lose the best of our cultural patrimony. I don’t like admitting this, but reality is what it is.
I used to chalk this up to the desecrating impulse of liberalism. For example, anyone paying attention to America’s big cities is familiar with the phenomenon of sodomite hordes buying and restoring beautiful Victorian homes in the oldest neighborhoods, as if to defy and defeat the values of those who built them. Similarly, modernist desecrators proudly possess all the grandest old churches – buildings designed specifically and exclusively for traditional liturgy and piety. Local historical societies are most often dominated by liberals: that way they can dispense local history to local citizens through their own ideological interpretations.
I have to say that this strikes me as exactly correct. Outside of a few pockets of resistance such as New St. Andrews in Moscow, Idaho and various Catholic groups, most Christians do not care one whit about our cultural heritage, other than to play it lip service. “Conservative” in America is generally as enslaved to the prevailing wasteland of modern culture as is liberalism in America [me included]. And most folks I know who are into preserving our history ARE liberals, for whatever odd reason. I believe this points out the flawed assumptions that lie beneath much of our thinking. These assumptions are not examined much at the popular level and will probably not change.