First, let me make a confession. I am guilty of being a cultural critic and have participated in the Christian project of attempting to remodel our society through criticism. If this were a sin, I would be the chief of sinners. You do not have to be a genius to see that Western culture, particularly American culture, is coarse and degraded. Christians possess a spirit of discernment. The apostle John told us in his First Letter, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1) If we can test the more subtle spirits (teachers/teachings) within the church then surely we should be able to test the far less subtle spirits outside. In other words, cultural criticism is easy for Christians. It is low-hanging fruit. I have decided to cease using cultural criticism as a demolition tool. In a major remodeling project, one must demo the existing finishes down to the studs. I’ve concluded that the cost of remodeling our society is too high, and it is time for us to move into a new construction phase. Allow me to explain.
For the last year, T. S. Elliot has been mauling me. I am reading his two essays published under the title “Christianity & Culture.” He wrote one essay near the beginning of World War II and the other just after. In the book, Elliot uses his powerful intellect shaped by his deeply held faith to probe the concept of building a Christian culture. I can’t entirely agree with everything in the book. Like all human compositions, it has the possibility of error. This little dispatch will not be a book review. Frankly, I am not equipped to criticize T. S. Elliot. His brilliant mind and breadth of knowledge tower over mine. Also, I intend to do far less criticism of both culture and other Christians going forward. Criticizing is easy. Building is complex, which is why an entire cottage industry of Christians has been built around criticizing culture rather than creating it.
I do not mean the insightful and civilly conducted cultural criticisms of people like Noelle Mering or Carl Trueman. We must do the intellectual work of breaking down destructive ideologies like cultural Marxism and Intersectionality to help Christians understand their errors in the light of Scripture. The cottage industry I am talking about is the red meat, blood in the water, clickbait criticisms that make up conservative and Christian media. Rather than marinate in our own juices and attempt to reclaim institutions that we lost in J. Gresham Machen’s days nearly a century ago, let us begin to build again. Christians built Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. We were unprepared for and did not see the danger of the 18th century Enlightenment, and we paid dearly for that mistake. We got our clocks cleaned. We lost the institutions and culture that we built. Those are facts. The Enlightenment ate us for breakfast. It infected American Christianity too, and we have yet to grapple with how it changed us. In many ways, we have become Enlightenment thinkers ourselves. Perhaps I will write in the future about how modern Christianity is more like a science than a religion. But for now, I want you to take away this idea. We must commence building again and give up on remodeling.
We must build a parallel society. God has delivered us from a “domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.” (Colossians 1:13). A kingdom is a society, and a society is poly-institutional, not mono-institutional. The Church should mother a new society by birthing new institutions. We built a parallel society in the West that was so successful it became the dominant society. To quote the title of Christian author Glen Scrivener’s book, it is “The Air We Breathe.” Subconsciously I think this is why we have such a hard time letting go. But let go we must if we are to build something new.
Do not think of institutions as cold and impersonal. Christian institutions should be warm with the love of Christ and filled with beauty. The Christian God is the God of the Gospel and nature. Our institutions should reflect His love for us and the sublime beauty of the Creation He made for us to enjoy. We are wasting our energy criticizing art when we could be making it. We strategize to take back higher education when we should build new institutions that educate instead of indoctrinating. We focus on taking back the halls of power, but they denied the Lord Jesus as King even in their best expression. The constitutions of the U.S. and Europe are all thoroughly secular. We live in a perpetual state of nostalgia and romanticism, grieving over our loss of power and prestige. We have forgotten that culture comes from the “cult” or worship. Culture arises from belief; when one believes nothing, one builds nothing. Atheism cannot create. It has no cult. Like a parasite, it infects the host until it ultimately kills it.
Christians believe, and so we are capable of building. But before we can build something new, we must stop trying to remodel the old. I was a high-end remodeling contractor before I was a pastor. The first thing a family thinking of remodeling their home had to determine was the cost. Was the house suitable for them to remodel? Would it be cheaper, in the end, to build a new home to their taste rather than remodel their old one? On more than one occasion, after having plans drawn and estimates completed, a couple would look at the bottom line and decide not to remodel their existing home but build a new one. It is time for us to look at the bottom line. The parasite of atheism, like a termite, has eaten out our cultural structures to the point that it is a ruin. This news may be hard to hear, but if viewed correctly, it should be liberating.
Why is it that Protestant Christianity in the West makes such lousy art? Our visual art usually lacks quality and substance. Popular Christian music mimics whatever the current secular sound is at the moment. Why are so many Christian schools churning out students who are no more educated than their secular counterparts? Why do Christian politicians seem so ineffective at every level of government? Why is it that there are practically no Christian think tanks or philosophers? Why has atheist-lite therapeutic psychology replaced (even in the Church) Christian spirituality? Why is it that nearly all the books of consequence examining the problems connected to technology and media are by Darwinian atheists? Why is it that Joe Rogan, Bill Mahr, and Jordan Peterson are more insightful cultural commentators and often make Christian arguments better than Christians? I believe the answer is that we have our best and brightest wasting their strength on a remodel project that is collapsing. They are pouring their creative energies into a black hole. Popular Christian culture is just a subculture of the broader culture in its death throes. It has a parasitic disease too. But, beneath the surface, there are Christian artists, craftsmen, thinkers, and theologians engaged in building something new in small pockets. We should look for them, and when we find them, we should join them and support them with our resources.
Finally, casting off the remodeling project will free us up to make new plans. We will be at liberty to think outside the existing forms. We can recognize where we were wrong and change the room’s shape once we are not limited to the old structure. And we must admit that we were wrong about some things. We could not have been taken down so hard and so thoroughly if we did not have some substantial errors in our thinking. It will cause us to criticize the dominant thinkers that are original to Protestantism. At the very least, we must admit that we may have misunderstood or misused them because they were pre-Enlightenment thinkers, and we are post. Now I’m back to my theory that the Enlightenment infected us. We must be willing to see through new eyes and admit that we have a view that is jaundiced to the point of blindness. Praise be to Christ that Jesus can heal the blind. He can and will give us new eyes if we ask Him to heal us. But like all sick people, we must admit to ourselves that we are sick before seeking help. We won’t make an appointment to see the Great Physician if we think everything is fine. Unlike an earthly physician, Jesus can make all things new. He can also build anew, and build new we must.
In the future I will be using this blog from time to time to highlight new artists, musicians, authors, theologians, entrepreneurs, and other culture generating people and institutions I think may be helpful in shaping Christian thinking for a new society. However, “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52) Meaning, you can also count on this space to highlight the great culture creators of the past too. Truth, beauty, and goodness are incredibly positive and since God is all three and gives us all three let us focus on re-introducing them to a world and society that desperately needs them.
Blessings and may God be with you!