It Takes a Village to Make a Church: Part II

A Christian Culture?

Culture and community are indeginous to even the most primitive of civilizations. One might say that the aspiration to create and the need to congregate are God-given, and perhaps they are. However, there is nothing to indicate that Tubal-Cain (the first artisan, by biblical account) was particularly “Christian” or virtuous, nor was Babel praised for its forward-thinking collectivism. Passing through culture’s hall of fame, one will find artistic genius clothed with Christian sanctity as easy to find as a needle in a Monet haystack.

We will remark that the greatest contributors to Western culture do not stand in sharp relief with the general religious landscape of their surroundings. Chaucer and Brunelleschi were neither more nor less moral or religious than the general current of their times. The ever-lauded J.S. Bach is but the fruit of the golden age of Lutherianism. Certainly, Beethoven, and Brahms, Austen and Dostoyevsky were neither great profligates nor shining saints. If we continue through the halls of the 19th century we encounter Degas lounging in a brothel, Verdi enters with a courtesan, Dickens is away with an actress, while Hugo strolls along with his mistress. If we were to enter the 20th century, the morally squeamish would hide their eyes from the likes of Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, and Taylor Swift. However, one could remark that the general religious tide of these two centuries was certainly going out rather than coming in.

We can point to no cultural artifact or social custom and inscribe the word, Christian. This is by no means because no Christian has ever produced an element of culture or social custom. Indeed, it could be argued that our modern civilization is a direct result of Christianity and that the rejection of this faith is to jeopardize the very foundations of this civilization. However, as Emil Brunner argues in Christianity & Civilization, civilization can never be equated with the Gospel. To be a Christian is to be one crucified, buried and raised with Christ, whose life is not their own, but Christ’s (cf. Gal. 2:20). To be a Christian is to be one who acknowledges that the “form of this world is passing away” (I Cor. 7:31). To be a Christian, is to recognize that even the greatest achievement of culture, the strongest friendship, the most ardent love, are but “of this world.” To carve “Christian” into anything of this passing world is analogous to sculpting sand on a beach.

At the same time, it is as possible for a soul to be without a body, as it is for a person to be without a culture and community. People, the people who form the ecclesia, will, without exception, work jobs, dine out, take vacations, listen to the radio, read books, invite friends over for tea, go to the movies, provide their kids a good education, participate in cultural holidays, etc., etc. We may speak of Christians being set apart from the world, but the reality is that we are still very much in it. Even in extreme examples, among the Amish let’s say or within a monastery, the activities of daily life might be more limited. But, one may easily observe that there is nothing remarkably “other worldly” about milking cows in an Amish barn or shoveling snow at an Orthodox monastery. What is “Christian” about these activities is the person doing them. This fact will necessarily inform the types of cultural activities in which the person chooses to engage. The Christian, while visiting Amsterdam, is more likely to visit its Rijksmuseum than its De Walletjes. But, choosing the Dutch Master over the Red Light district is not intrinsically more Christian, any upstanding Mohammedan or Hindu would do the same.

Nevertheless, we can never equate a cultural experience with the experience of the Holy Spirit that we are called to acquire as Christians. It is sad that the euphoria experienced at a performance of Mahler 9 or the tears shed at the final act of La Boheme the Christian feels constrained to interpret as a  “religious experience.” It a serious misjudgment to interpret human emotion as a theophany. Much could be added in this regard, but suffice it to say that if we do not confuse the two, allowing each their proper domain, the need to transform the ecclesia into an emotional experience of the same intensity as a Puccini opera or a Bronte novel will be nulled. One will search in vain for any Church Father recommending a path to spiritual vision (theoria) by means of artistic immersion. In their most generous moods, the Church Fathers allow that music and the visual arts may keep us from being distracted by baser passions, and that is all.

We will recall that the phrase, “beauty will save the world,” was coined, not by a saint but by the 19th century romantic, Dostoyevsky. On the other hand, the ecclesia will attend symphony hall, the art gallery, and the pub. There is no need to either prohibit this cultural and social thirst nor try to slap a “Christian” label on these. On the contrary, the ecclesia should recognize in these simple, human, timeless activities the fabric that holds a community together, that grants it a sense of “place.” Persons who share the same work, laugh over the same table, study at the same desk, enjoy the same music, who share friendship, interests, and perspective, are also likely to continue to share the same faith, be they greying elders or blooming youths.

Calculating adherence to a particular religion based upon cold facts or historical or familial precedent cannot have a lasting affect upon our children, attracted as they are by a far more powerful lodestone. Can we expect anything less than widespread mutiny when our children daily form social and cultural connections that possess little or no intersections with the people forming our ecclesia? In other words, unless social and cultural connections overlap with religious ones, our children will seek God elsewhere, among their friends.

Next Up: What our children might stay for (Click here)

Liszt at the Piano, surrounded by the prominent figures of Parisian culture including Dumas, Hugo, Berlioz, and Paganini. Byron and Beethoven are presented as well. Marie d’Agoult reclines on the floor, a married woman with whom Liszt lived with for many years.

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