Reformed or Simply American Middle-Class?

The Gospel Allies would have us believe (in their It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia way) that Andy Crouch is channeling Reformed teaching on culture:

Crouch had read “social constructionist” figures like Peter Berger, but “it wasn’t until I started reading Reformed writers that I found really careful theological work that correlated well with cultural sociology. I’ve certainly been influenced by other streams to some extent—Anabaptists like Yoder and Hauerwas and Ellul (who was technically Reformed but temperamentally more Anabaptist, I’d say), as well as Catholic social teaching—but the truth is that among Protestants especially, the Reformed community has nurtured the most careful thinking about the breadth of human cultural activity.”

In 2008, Crouch released Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, which argues that Christians can best affect culture not by withdrawing from it, but by making more of it.

His Reformed bent was immediately apparent.

“Andy Crouch makes the case for cultural discipleship by giving us an exciting overview of the drama of creation, fallenness, and renewal,” Fuller Theological Seminary president emeritus Richard Mouw wrote. Tim Keller wrote that it was “one of the few books taking the discussion about Christianity and culture to a new level,” while LifeWay Christian Resources publisher and TGC blogger Trevin Wax called it “a landmark work that will create a new culture of its own within evangelicalism.”

Here’s a different reading:

To be sure, the advantage of this approach, and the astute recommendation that evangelical Protestants need to develop postures of cultivation and creation in cultural endeavors is its recognition that human beings cannot escape culture (the fundamentalist temptation) and that simply imitating culture (the Jesus Rock temptation) is inferior to creative expressions of worth. In fact, Crouch even ups the ante for his fellow evangelicals when he turns from culture-making as basic to human identity to culture-making as a biblical duty.

In the second section of the book, Crouch decides to take a relatively quick tour of the history of salvation recounted in the Old and New Testaments. Not surprisingly, in a book devoted to not simply the legitimacy but also the necessity of culture, Crouch sees cultural life writ large throughout the pages of holy writ. This strategy can become tedious. Creation in Genesis 1 is culture. Adam and Eve were given the task of creating culture, specifically, agriculture. As a nation, Israel was political culture, while its cultural insights in the religious sphere replaced henotheism with monotheism. Jesus was a cultural figure in his training and work as a carpenter. He died on a cross, a cultural instrument of torture. The apostles took the message of Christianity to cities, arenas of great cultural significance. Pentecost overturned Jewish culture and gave Christianity’s blessing to cultural diversity. Finally, the new heavens and new earth in the last book of the Bible reassert the import of the city and cultural life. According to Crouch, culture is “the furniture of heaven.” [170] He adds, “human beings, in God’s original intention and in their redemptive destination, cannot be separated from the cultural goods they create and cultivate at their best.” [170]

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.” [215] 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.” [216]

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.

The whole not-so-sunny review of Crouch’s Culture Making is here.

Human Flourishing is Flabby

Here’s another reason for thinking that the language of human flourishing (HF) is a cliche on the order of w-w:

“If you care about the flourishing of persons, especially the vulnerable in community, you will care about freedom of religion,” claimed Crouch. He continued to explain why this is so, because religion and the practice thereof, is “one of the deepest forms of human flourishing.” Religion is distinctive to humans, no animals nor all of nature practice religion or seek to find answers about life and God. All humans across history past and present seek to understand life and their situation in it. Further, all humans search for meaning and attempt to attach themselves to something bigger than themselves, constantly searching for significance and fulfillment. Inevitably, we all seek religion and devote worship, even the Atheist, though denying God’s existence, forms a set of beliefs to understand reality and worships something or someone (quite possibly themselves).

Therefore, Crouch explains “being denied religious freedom, being prevented from acting out your deepest commitments in public, is one of the deepest denials of human flourishing.” The test then to know if religious freedom and therefore the common good is being protected, “Is how it protects religious minorities,” claims Crouch.

What does this view of HF say to someone who thinks that blasphemy and idolatry are part of destructive living (DL)? But if you give people freedom to practice any religion, you also permit blasphemy and idolatry. Maybe the resolution is to say that in the interest of genuine devotion to God we also need to allow DL so that government doesn’t become tyrannical. But let’s not kid ourselves that freedom leads to HF. It has costs and benefits that require not chanting “winning” like Charlie Sheen but sobriety and moderation.

Crouch’s view of HF also seems to follow the pack in regarding as impossible or disloyal any effort to leave behind one’s “deepest” commitments when entering public life. But again, it’s a pretty, pretty, pretty good view of public life to think that everyone bringing their deepest commitments to the table will result in HF for everyone. Wasn’t the reason for leaving behind one’s deepest commitments when serving in public life that one’s deepest commitments might be at odds with the common good? After all, if a Calvinist brought his deepest commitments to a policy proposal for building a Roman Catholic parochial school next to First Presbyterian Church, wouldn’t his deepest commitments prompt him to vote no? Where’s your HF now?

After fifty years of culture wars shouting matches, people are still so naive to think that uplifting thoughts will prevail over contested points of view?

If Christians are Divided, Why So Much Talk about Common Good?

The really cool conference — though, how cool is Nashville compared to Manhattan — sponsored by Q has generated some discussion about the common good and what stake Christians have in it. Andy Crouch thinks Christians should promote the common good since it will begin rather than end conversations. I’m not sure how defining the good as God will work (though I can imagine how food and sharing a meal might):

the common good allows us to stake out our Christian convictions about what is good for humans—and to dare our neighbors to clarify their own convictions. “In the simplest sense,” Bradley Lewis said, “the common good is God. It is God who satisfies what people need, individually and communally.” Adopting the language of the common good means owning this bedrock Christian belief and proclaiming it to our neighbors. If we are not offering our neighbors the ultimate common good—the knowledge and love of God—we are not taking the idea of the common good seriously.

If Crouch is at all representative of evangelicals, and if born-again Protestants are going to follow Joe Carter in rejecting civil religion, they are going to have to give up identifying the common good with God. Carter is properly worried about how void the word “god” is in “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance:

There is a vast and unbridgeable chasm between America’s civil religion and Christianity. If we claim that “under God” refers only to the Christian, Trinitarian conception of God we are either being unduly intolerant or, more likely, simply kidding ourselves. Do we truly think that the Hindu, Wiccan, or Buddhist is claiming to be under the same deity as we are? We can’t claim, as Paul did on Mars Hill, that the “unknown god” they are worshiping is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They have heard of Jesus — and reject him as God.’

The Pledge is a secular document and the “under god” is referring to the Divinity of our country’s civil religion. Just as the pagan religion of the Roman Empire was able to incorporate other gods and give them familiar names, the civil religion provides an umbrella for all beliefs to submit under one nondescript, fill-in-the-blank term.

So, then, should we give up religion in public life? Of course, not (even if a full-blown use of God in the Trinitarian sense is going to be divisive):

Don’t get me wrong: I think we need to stand firm on allowing religion into the “naked public square.” But we should do so defending our real religious beliefs rather than a toothless imitation. If we pray in the public square, we should have no qualms about using the true name of the God to whom we are praying.

So much for the common (whether it’s good or not).

Not even David Cameron can get away with mentioning an effete Anglicanism without taking a beating (as reported by Tim Keller’s biggest Scottish fan):

One wonders if our Prime Minister, David Cameron will be allowed to say his latest remarks on the British Broadcasting Corporation.

They have certainly caused a furore which has resulted in a letter to The Telegraph signed by 55 of the great and good, who warn of dire consequences in the Prime Minister voicing the unthinkable. Saying Britain is a Christian country has “negative consequences” and encourages sectarianism.

“In his call for more evangelism, Mr Cameron is exclusively tying himself to one faith group, inevitably to the exclusion of others,” opined Elizabeth O’Casey, Policy and Research Office at the National Secular Society. She also warned us that we are moving away from the concept of all of us being “rights-bearing citizens first and foremost, with democratic autonomy and equality, regardless of which faith they happen to have, or not have”.

Britain is apparently in danger of turning from this nice, tolerant secular country into some kind of European Syria, torn apart by sectarian strife. Beware of the Christian Jihad, the Tartan Taleban and the Charismatic suicide bombers!

To this Free Church pastor’s credit, he is not overly edified by Cameron’s vapid Christian affirmation:

I will not comment on Mr Cameron’s politics but I seriously hope they are much better than his theology. He states: “I am not one for doctrinal purity, and I don’t believe it is essential for evangelism about the church’s role in our society or its importance.” But Jesus is for doctrinal purity. It really does matter that he is the Son of God, that he was born of a virgin, that he did miracles, that he rose from the dead, that he is coming back as judge and saviour – all good theological statements.

Even so, if a vague Anglican expression cannot avoid public flack, how much are the folks who gather in Nashville deceiving themselves?

Just to illustrate how difficult it is to square any serious faith with the common good, try changing the words on this recent Chamber-of-Commerce-like missive about religious social goods (which sounds a lot like common good):

Religion Islam, especially communal religion Islam, provides important benefits for everyone in the liberal state—even the non-religious Mulsim. Religion Islam encourages people to associate with and feel responsible for others, to engage with them in common endeavors. Religion Islam promotes altruism and neighborliness, and mitigates social isolation. Religion Islam counteracts the tendencies to apathy and self-centeredness that liberalism seems inevitably to create. . . .

To be sure, religions the varieties of Islam don’t always encourage civic fellowship; to the extent a religion Islam promotes sedition or violence against other citizens, society does not benefit. And perhaps, as Gerald Russello suggests, the non-religious Muslims have come so to distrust religion Islam that they will view its contributions as tainted and objectionable from the start. But in encouraging greater social involvement, religion Islam offers benefits to everyone, believers and non-believers, too. It’s worth reminding skeptics of this when they argue that religion Islam, as such, doesn’t merit legal protection.

Why Christians need to find consolation and support from the political or common realm is a mystery (though years of Christendom provide a partial explanation. Sure, pilgrimage is tough and Christ did tell his followers that the world would hate them. So why not simply rely upon the good words of God’s word, the reminder of belonging to Christ in baptism, and the rib-sticking spiritual food of the Supper rather than constantly looking for the world to think well of us?