Culture Is Not Only Valuable For Christians, It Is Indispensable
C.S. Lewis' “Christianity and Culture” revisited
“At that point, a thought occurred to me. What if not only modern secular people, but also modern Christians were in need of that benefit of culture? Of getting a helping hand to break out of their tiny cave?”
In his essay “Christianity and Culture”1, C.S. Lewis ponders the significance of culture, by which he understands “intellectual and aesthetic activity”, for Christians. Taking a relatively mundane viewpoint on what it means for Christians (mainly a source of livelihood and pleasure), he winds up highlighting its role as a trailblazer for the Christian Gospel. I will reflect on his thoughts and take them as a starting point to go beyond them, offering three ways in which culture is indispensable for Christians, too.
Culture as schoolmaster and a way out of a tiny, windowless universe
Lewis holds that culture can be a “schoolmaster” for unbelievers to bring them to faith: by presenting people with the best ‘sub-Christian’ values it can awaken their thirst for the higher, Christian values: “[T]o the man coming up from below, the ideal of knighthood may prove a schoolmaster to the ideal of martyrdom.” But secondly, culture can break through the complacency of modern man who is trapped in the narrowness of his disenchanted worldview:
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The difficulty of converting an uneducated man nowadays lies in his complacency. Popularized science, the conventions or 'unconventions’, of his immediate circle, party programmes, etc., enclose him in a tiny windowless universe which he mistakes for the only possible universe. There are no distant horizons, no mysteries. He thinks everything has been settled. A cultured person, on the other hand, is almost compelled to be aware that reality is very odd and that the ultimate truth, whatever it may be, must have the characteristics of strangeness - must be something that would seem remote and fantastic to the uncultured. Thus some obstacles to faith have been removed already.
This is in line with the biblical account: in his sermon to the Athenians in Acts 17, the apostle Paul uses the pitches in the Greeks’ own culture to draw on them for the presentation of the Gospel: their notion of an “unknown God”, or the realization of one Greek poet that we all “live and have our being” in God. The ancient Greeks, however, did believe in an “enchanted” universe and had a real sense of guilt, as Lewis points out in several places in other essays. So if culture helped those people who were more prepared to receive the Gospel, then a fortiori (post-)modern naturalistically influenced people need some cultural “jump start”.
At that point, a thought occurred to me. What if nowadays not only secular people, but also Christians were in need of that benefit of culture? Of getting a helping hand to break out of their tiny cave? At first sight, this may seem preposterous. After all, Christians believe in the supernatural; how could they end up in a “tiny windowless universe”? But even belief in the supernatural can become an ideology, a mere proposition, without any substantial connection to reality. Is that not often the case in Christian churches? And, yes, I don’t just mean “dead” territorial-membership churches, but also free protestant churches where membership is a matter of volitional commitment. You may say “But, leaving aside all their differences regarding miracles and the agency of the Holy Spirit, those churches all have in common the belief in the efficacy of prayer”. Fair enough. And yet, consider how Lewis characterizes modern man: “There are no distant horizons, no mysteries. He thinks everything has been settled.” Is that not the implicit (surely not the explicit) stance of large swathes of evangelical Christianity nowadays? To put it slogan-like, if “the answer to every question is ‘Jesus’”, how is Christianity in this regard not just another thoroughly modern, albeit religious (as opposed to non-religious), movement?
I spent the early years of my Christian walk in some Brethren-ish churches who, all their assertions to the contrary, had such an “everything is settled” mindset. It did not do me any good. What helped me grow, though, was culture: not least in the form of Lewis’s books. Yes, those books did give me a tremendous amount of pleasure; but I daresay they also made me a better man. Dear Jack, you may have underestimated the value of good, Christianly inspired culture!
Filling the boundaries with life
There is a second way in which I think culture is of tremendous importance for Christians.
Imagine a soccer match. It takes place on a field that has lines which mark the boundaries within which playing is allowed. Of course, it is important for any soccer player to know those lines and respect them. But obviously they give them only the most minimal information on how to play soccer well. The heart and soul of soccer is what happens between the lines. And that must be figured out in other ways: basically by a combination of directives external to the players (the instructions of the coach, or their mutual communication), or internal to them (their instinct and talent).
I see the biblical commands in much the same way. They form the frame of how to live a good life; how to fill that frame with life must be discovered in other ways, ways of course that respect the boundaries of the frame. A move in soccer which made a player wait in the off to receive the ball and consecutively flank it into the six-yard box wouldn’t be any good, would it? I believe the failure to conceptualize the role of Scripture in this way is an evil that haunts many churches which ascribe a central role to the Bible for church life (a per se commendable approach).
This concept of Scripture can explain why Lewis’s observation that the NT is “cold” to culture need not stand in the way of a high value of culture for Christians. It is “cold” because it takes it for granted that people will pursue cultural activities anyway, and it comments on those only insofar as they threaten spiritual growth (take for example Paul’s injunctions about “philosophy” in Colossians 2).
No culture-free space
A last reason I want to give why culture is indispensable for Christians is that there is no culture-free space. Wherever humans dwell together, some kind of culture – intellectual and aesthetic activity – will arise, even in churches. The question then is only whether it is a culture conducive or harmful to spiritual and moral growth.
Christians do themselves a disservice by denying that churches have “culture” in any sense comparable to that of secular culture. Culture as understood by Lewis – “intellectual and aesthetic activity” – undeniably takes place in churches, with the emphasis sometimes more on the former, sometimes more on the latter aspect. But a culture declared as non-existing is not accessible to scrutiny, for it is clearly pointless to scrutinize a non-existing thing. However, the thing falsely declared to not exist will unfold its very existential influence all the same, albeit unnoticed. Culture is something that surrounds people like the air they breathe, and so they inhale it at every step and it will shape their being.
Ignoring culture is particularly noxious for Christians. Here’s why: Christians have the tendency to believe that whatever happens in church is somehow effectuated by God. One moment’s reflection shows that it isn’t, but in order to distinguish what is from God and what is just “doctrines of men”, one must first have a notion of there being such a thing as a coherent intellectual-aesthetic world created by people in church. Without this basic realization, no Christian can ever know what was merely man-made culture, and what was the Spirit and Word of God. The consequence is confusion: sometimes human culture (e.g. traditions) are taken to be divinely inspired, and sometimes God’s Word is relativized as merely human opinion.
I am aware that discussions about what is just tradition and what is biblical truth take place in nearly all churches. But I am afraid that that will never be enough as long as the idea persists that one can have something like a “Bible only” faith. Culture is there anyway, so better embrace and shape it for the good of all.
C.S. Lewis, “Christianity and Culture Pt. I”, in: Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces, Harper Collins, 2000
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