Snarky Saturday (Which It Still Is on the West Coast)

So here I was, opening up my browser with a beautiful view of the Rogue River Valley in southern Oregon overlooking a pear orchard (where I am speaking), with a cup of java, and lo I behold two blog posts that didn’t cause me to wretch (so I wasn’t drunk) but did force me to double down on my objections to transformationalism in its various guises. Turns out both posts were responding to Ross Douthat’s new book, Bad Religion.

The first was Peter Leithart’s defense of worldliness. In an interview with Ken Myers, Douthat talks about worldliness in the church and how “A lot of the most influential theologies in American life today are theologies that take various worldly ends as their primary end.” Leithart agrees that the church should not capitulate to earthly powers. But then he offers a reading of redemptive history in which God identifies with the world in such a way that orthodox Christianity is worldly. Toward the end Leithart concludes:

The great Reformed theologian Karl Barth pushed the point back to the pre-dawn of the world. In his stirring re-envisioning of the Reformed doctrine of election, Barth emphasized that election is not only God’s decision concerning human beings and the world but his decision concerning himself. By election, God chooses what kind of God he will be in relation to the world he creates in freedom. He wills to be God only by being God-for-us and God-with-us. He refuses to be God-without-us or God-without-world.

What Barth says about God’s choice before the beginning is consistent with what Christians believe about the end. Christians don’t expect to leave the world behind when history reaches its consummation. Scripture holds out the promise of a new heavens and a new earth, this world transfigured into the kingdom. Christians hope for the resurrection of the body, this flesh transfigured by the Spirit.

I’ll let the praise of Barth go — ahem, but I sure do which guys like Leithart, when thet go on riffs like this, would try to do justice to remarks by Christ like “my kingdom is not of this world,” or Paul like “flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom.” In fact, the New Testament is rife with an anti-worldiness theme that doesn’t quite dovetail with the remark that Christians do not expect to leave the world behind. Anyone who wants to claim that anti-worldliness is gnostic will have to deal with Paul who was anti-gnostic and otherworldly. So can we at least acknowledge a paradox here? Or do we simply ignore the Bible’s talk of not being conformed to this world (or by implication expect the new heavens and new earth to be like this one)? Whatever the answer, it sure makes sense that neo-Calvinism’s baptism of the world and efforts to make it ours (in the name of Christ, of course) appeals to baby boomers getting over their fundamentalist upbringing. It may make sense, but it is not right.

The other post came from Tim Keller, again in response to Douthat. According to Keller (I haven’t read Douthat’s book yet), the New York Times columnist says that the kind of church that may respond well to the current world’s needs is one that has the following attributes:

First, it would have to be political without being partisan. That is, it would have to equip all its members to be culturally engaged through vocation and civic involvement without identifying corporately with one political party. Second, it would have to be confessional yet ecumenical. That is, the church would have to be fully orthodox within its theological and ecclesiastical tradition yet not narrow and harsh toward other kinds of Christians. It should be especially desirous of cooperation with non-Western Christian leaders and churches. Third, the church would not only have to preach the Word faithfully, but also be committed to beauty and sanctity, the arts, and human rights for all. In this brief section he sounds a lot like Lesslie Newbigin and James Hunter, who have described a church that can have a “missionary encounter with Western culture.”

Again, according to Keller, Douthat mentions Redeemer Big Apple as an example of this kind of church. Maybe. But New York, I understand, is a big city, and Douthat who at least works there may not know all the goings on at Redeemer or what his recommendation involves. At the risk of disagreeing with Douthat and in the hopes of keeping Redeemer honest, his point about ecumenism is a poignant one. A church has to do justice to its own tradition while not being mean or harsh to other Christians.

The problem here is how well Redeemer and Keller honor their own tradition or the churches that share the Reformed heritage. For instance, I recently learned that Keller is starting a Sunday school series to be published by Zondervan. It’s a free country and anyone can publish anything they want is such a land of free milk and democratic honey. But Douthat may want to consider that Redeemer belongs to the Presbyterian Church of America, a denomination that co-owns (with the OPC) Great Commission Publications. And GCP already publishes a Sunday school curriculum that is Reformed, covenantal, and Presbyterian. It may not have the urban bells and cosmopolitan whistles that hipster Presbyterians desire. But it is decent curriculum. To my knowledge, Redeemer has not contacted the publisher to talk about how the material might be improved so that Redeemer can use it (whether they can sell it is another matter). But if Keller and Redeemer wanted to do justice to their tradition and communion, they could show a little of the team player spirit that is supposed to characterize a Presbyterian communion.

Ross Douthat can’t be blamed for not knowing the inner workings of Reformed Protestantism in the United States. Then again, journalists are known to have some awareness of fact checking.

By the way, the idea that churches should equip members to be culturally engaged is remarkable. As it stands, churches have all they can do simply to catechize members and disciple them in the ordinary aspects of church life. To add yet another task to the church is to make ministry well nigh impossible. Not to mention that asking pastors — no offense — whose cultural standards may not be up to part with the grandeur of Western Civilization to school their members on the glories of Shakespeare, Homer, and Percy is borderline laughable. In fact, I don’t know of any church, mainline or sideline, whose cultural instincts I would trust. Thankfully, the Lord doesn’t add cultural engagement to the Great Commission.

Despite the rocky start to the morning, I had a delightful time with the saints here in Medford, contemplating the other world that transcends this one, our reminder of that world on Sundays when we ascend Mt. Zion with all the saints and angels, and enjoying the delightful weather and produce of this world available to the residents and visitors of southern Oregon.

It's Only Culture

At the risk of opening up the Scripture-is-silent can of worms again, I did have a thought recently about how a biblicist might attempt to employ the Bible to define culture. Definitions of culture abound, and Scripture certainly teaches truths about human beings and their relations that imply basic ingredients of human existence. But for an easy definition from a biblical passage I’m left scratching my head. Just to add to the point, none of the catechisms I know come remotely close to describing culture. They certainly discuss virtues that would contribute to a wholesome culture, or vices that would work havoc on culture. But the basic contours of human experience as culture are absent from the catechisms and Scripture.

The reason for bringing this up is the recent post by Patrick Deneen at Front Porch Republic in which he gives one of the better definitions of culture that I have seen in some time. According to Deneen, the basic component of culture is the reality of man as a technological being – “the creature that survives through the tools he creates, one that allow him to carve out a space for survival and even flourishing from the natural world that would otherwise be so hostile and unforgiving.”

Deneen is following Romano Guardini’s book Letters From Lake Como, who argues that “human techne developed alongside nature, seeking to conform itself to nature’s offerings, its rhythms, its cadences, and in cognizance of its place of majesty and governance.” As such, human cultures vary in relation to the diversity of natural settings in which people live. This means that “while every culture has tended to share certain basic features – the celebration of birth, the ceremonial acknowledgement of adulthood, the sanctification of marriage, honor paid to the elderly, and the memorialization of the dead – these practices have varied in accordance with the accumulation of experience and interaction with the world.”

And this understanding of human interaction with and limitation by nature leads to the following definition:

The accumulation of these practices and traditions as a way of life is what we call culture. Culture is among the paramount forms of human technology, perhaps in its purest form the lived collection of memory. Again, Greek myth is instructive: the Muses, who embody the different arts and sciences that we have come to call “culture,” were the daughters of Mnemnosyne, the goddess of Memory. Culture is thus unique to humans, for it is the way that we make the continuous flow of time present to us in spite of its fleeting nature. Culture is the repository of memory of time past, just as it is the promise to the future, an inheritance that is passed on to future generations. Culture assumes that, in order for future generations to survive, the accumulated knowledge of the past must be passed on, and thus, that the conditions of life of the future will be continuous and similar to the conditions of life of the past. Culture innovates, but slowly, carefully, cautiously, with awareness that novelty can endanger as much as it can liberate. Culture, in fact, tends to mistrust the new, the strange, the unique, as temptations that can offer shortcuts or easy solutions that experience shows more often than not to be a Siren’s song.

Whether or not this is an adequate definition — it is one that I would gladly use in class whether at a college or seminary — it is remarkably different from the way neo-Calvinists talk about culture. I came across Deneen after spending more time Henry Van Til’s book, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture. I don’t know, I might be a faux Calvinist. I’m sure I can think of several Old Life readers who would reach quickly for that explanation. Still, Van Til leaves the impression of a very thin account of culture compared to Deneen’s, one that is high on abstraction and philosophy, but low on the humanness and creatureliness of basic human experience. The reason has much to do with the neo-Calvinist mental tick of viewing everything as if it’s a philosophical system or a set of logical propositions.

Here is one example of Van Til’s outlook:

. . . the position here presented is that there is no culture without a presupposition, since man is a religious being. There is no such thing as . . . . the postulate that the scientist must have no presuppositions. In this sense neutrality is altogether impossible; it does not exist. Every man, as cultural agent, whether he be a philosopher or artist, agriculturist or architect, lives by faith, which determines his whole being and mode of life. . . . If a man does not choose the Christian faith that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanseth from all sins, then he must choose an alternative metaphisics, for, “The metaphysical dimension of the mind never remains empty, but must always have a content.” . . . So then it is man as religious being that is called to culture. Faith, therefore, is the religious a priori of man’s whole cultural enterprise, and particularly of his scientific quest. (pp. 171-72)

I don’t object to anything that Van Til writes about the priority of faith or belief for understanding the end of human existence, but he is not writing about culture. Instead he is looking at culture as a means to the end of proving a philosophical point. Philosophy has its place. And Deneen himself is a philosopher – a political rendition. But Van Til reads like the philosophical version of the adage that to a hammer everything looks like a nail. For Van Til, culture looks like an abstraction. And my sense is that anyone who started with his account of culture would have trouble analyzing, critiquing, or even transforming it with any significance.

What is particularly striking about the differences between Van Til and Deneen is that on Deneen’s view of culture a Christian could conceivably recognize his own stake in the contemporary setting and how he might attempt to preserve or engage his own culture. After all, he is a human being and he relates to nature in his day-to-day existence much like his neighbors, whether they are Christian or not. On Van Til’s view, however, the Christian will likely flee all those cultural expressions that do not spring from the proper faith-motive. On this view, the Christian participates in culture not as a human being created in the image of God but as a regenerate saint, set apart from the unregenerate.

Not to beat a dead horse, but the Calvinistic philosophical approach to culture has an amazing irony attached to it. The one group of Reformed Protestants for whom world-and-life view thinking is pronounced are the same ones who are bound not by philosophical abstractions or answers to the Heidelberg Catechism. No, what binds Dutch-American Calvinists together is the shared human experience of being Dutch immigrants to a foreign land and creating sub-cultures that appropriate the Old World’s ways for life in the New. To be sure, the church was an important part of that cultural adaptation. But seeing how communions like the CRC have fared, what looks more typical of Dutch-American Calvinism after World War II is the importance of the human as opposed to the spiritual part of being Dutch Reformed. In other words, it is the Dutchness, not the Calvinism, that binds most neo-Calvinists together.

And that is why Dutch bingo lives.

Obsessive Cultural Disorder — Over Thinking Culture

Okay, I guess H. Richard Niebuhr was not a pietist, but I am struck by how much attention Protestants give to culture – whether to imbibe, whether to avoid, or how to engage properly. All of this compulsiveness feels like fundamentalists who are spooked by the world and their surroundings and can’t live comfortably in their skin.

Hesitation and self-awareness about culture is unnatural if culture is as basic to human existence as walking upright (if no physical impairments prevent it). We are cultural beings even when we withdraw from culture – hence the phenomenon of Christian rock bands, Christian novels, and Christian radio stations. We are also worldly beings because our bodies are part of the substance of the created order. To live as a human being, even a hermit, is to be in the world and part of a culture – even a culture of one.

What provoked this way too underdeveloped of an idea was an article (via Justin Taylor, via Martin Downes) from the British Evangelical Magazine by Ted Turnau.

Turnau’s main points, below, look less weighty if we insert the word, “language,” for every time he uses “popular culture.” In fact, this is a natural substitution because language is one of the building blocks of culture. For ethnic groups in America who want to preserve their culture, language retention is usually one of the most important battles between first and second generation immigrant communities. And the hierarchy of high, low, and middle-brow culture also lines up with people who know and use language: linguists are high-brow language users, people who know some grammar are middle-brow, and vulgar language might correspond to low or pop culture.

But every human being uses language (with rare exceptions). So why aren’t we so worked up about how to use words? Why no books about Christ and Language (Logos and Words)? Why can’t we simply use it, be careful with it (avoid vulgarity), and learn how it works and how to excel in using it (study more Shakespeare)? In other words, is language threatening? Is it any less “culture” than movies, education, or painting? Can’t we just use it without having to think so much about IT?

To that end, here are Turnau’s main points with my added wrinkle of the thought experiment proposed here. I think it works but I’m sure Rabbi Bret will detect some viral strain of infidelity.

Whatever else popular culture language is, it is not trivial, because it is an expression of faith and worship.

Not all popular culture language is equally meaningful.

Not every piece of popular culture language is appropriate for engagement.

Popular culture Language works by creating imaginative landscapes for us to inhabit.

When thinking about a piece of popular culture language, it pays to know the tricks of the trade.

Every piece of popular culture language is a complicated mixture of grace and idolatry.

Think carefully about how to undermine the idol, and how the gospel applies to the piece of popular culture language you’re sharing with friends.

Look for occasions where you can experience popular culture language together with friends and family (both Christian and non-Christian).

By the way, I am uncomfortable with the formulation that every piece of pop culture is an expression of faith and worship. The reason is that I don’t think we would say the same for language. Language, like culture, is part and parcel of being created in the image of God. It’s not a function or effect of redemption.

Dual Citizens

Dual Citizensby Jason Stellman

For too long I struggled to recommend reading on the subject of living the Christian life as “resident aliens.” Often I was reduced to directing readers to liberal Methodists (such as Hauerwas and Willimon) as the best embodiment of Christian convictions. At last I can point to practice that is firmly grounded in Reformed theology. Dual Citizens is written by someone who loves the world: its movies, its music, and its authors. But this is a rightly ordered love because it is a penultimate love. Here is a robust pilgrim theology that marches on to Zion while avoiding the pitfalls of asceticism and legalism. By putting earthly kingdoms in their proper place, Pastor Stellman demonstrates how rightly to use the present world even as one eagerly awaits the next. John R. Muether

The subject of Christ and culture have never been as popular among conservative Protestants in the United States as it is today, and the topic has never needed as much attention from the perspective of the church. It gets that attention in this important book by Jason Stellman. Dual Citizens will certainly upset those used to thinking of Christ as mainly the transformer of culture. But for genuine wisdom not only on the culture wars, but on the culture, ways, and habits of the church, Stellman’s discussion is the place to go. D. G. Hart