From Culture War Burnout to Cultural Faithfulness

kuyper-75The question of Christianity and cultural faithfulness has been one of my most passionate and personal questions; it’s also one of the more contentious questions facing the American Church today. The more you read, the more complicated the question becomes. As a friend of mine says often, “Everything is complicated and everything is connected.” How do we evaluate the “Christian heritage” of this country in light of all the profound affronts to human dignity? Can we put the Culture Wars behind us, while still faithfully participating in culture? These questions have continued to haunt me throughout my Christian discipleship.

My Christian conversion happened during high school, at a time when I was deeply invested in the music and arts scene. Very quickly, I had to wrestle with the implications of being a Christian and being involved in the arts. Like most guys in my position, I readily applied all of the tools of discipleship at my disposal – the alternative Christian culture provided by LifeWay Books. I quit the band and started a new one, bought new music, which conveniently sounded like my older stuff, and tried to convert all my friends to this subculture. At the same time, I was haunted by a sense of abandoning a culture that I had legitimately loved and in which I had found community. One of my former band mates asked if he could have all of my NOFX CDs, under the rationale that since I was a Christian I couldn’t listen to them anymore. Looking back, I see my role in teaching him that Christians can’t participate in “secular culture,” as I had quit the band because of my convictions. (Thankfully I kept my CDs.)

I kept up the fight through my first two years of college, but the scene was growing tired. I realized that so much of the “Christian art” I was imbibing wasn’t all that good. There was better art made by non-religious types; “Christian art” was too derivative and preachy. As well, U.S. history complicated the lauded narrative that being a “white, middle-class Republican” was akin to being a faithful Christian.[1] It was all too easy to slip into my generational mentality of being very pessimistic about our past, and by the time I finished college, I was ready to retire from the Culture War.

I needed a way to reconcile my desire for cultural change with my disenchantment with the Christian Cultural Complex. I didn’t want to lose the characteristics of Christian orthodoxy, as some of my friends had by moving towards the extreme elements of the Emergent Movement. Rather, I remained convinced that Christian orthodoxy could fuel a robust and contagious Christian orthopraxy – so, where was the redemptive handshake between the Kingdom and the Culture?

Sometime in seminary, I read James Davison Hunter. At first, To Change the World was a breath of fresh air. Here was a political theology that wasn’t so bloody political! We didn’t have to fight the culture war any more – what the world needed was faithful presence. What the world really needed was good artists, good workers, and good neighbors – everything I wanted the Church to be! It wasn’t in the halls of Congress where this redemptive handshake occurred, it was in the local school and local market, and this localism appealed to my latent hipster sensibilities. With Hunter, I had the critique of the Culture War my battle-weary hands and heart desperately desired.

But there lingered a sense of haunting. I shared Hunter’s distaste for the Christian cultural movements of the 20th century, but I couldn’t shake the redemptive possibility of politics. I heard mentors critique this method as being too white and privileged – after all, the Voting Rights Act did not come about through a Christian moratorium on politics. I read Al Wolters, James Smith, and David Koyzis, and I found a more satisfying narrative of Christian cultural engagement that answered the haunting of withdrawal. But, is it substantial enough to temper both of my generational tendencies in viewing the past and future?

What I mean is that I’m skeptical of positive appraisals of the past, while simultaneously being optimistic about the future. On the one hand, I’m very reluctant to say that the 1950’s were any more “Christian” than today – there was no Golden Age, rather Paul’s saying applies everywhere and all the time: “the days are evil.” Yet on the other, I do hope for a better future. So, is there inherently a problem with saying that there may have been a better past? How do we honestly and exactingly evaluate our heritage without tarring the whole thing? What hope is there for a retired culture warrior like me, who looks the evils of the day in the face and wants to say that we can do better than this? What resources are there for us to not only lament abortion, police brutality, and a host of other problems, but also actually work toward healing these atrocities?

“Everything is complicated and everything is connected.” If the problems come from history and theology, then perhaps the answers do, too. If we look at history through the neo-Calvinist “institution/organism” paradigm, then our blind spots show up clearly. Sure, the 1950’s had prayer in school (an institutional policy). But the 1950’s also had Jim Crow (another institutional policy). Maybe church attendance was more rigorous (a success of the organism). But this was also the era of lynchings (a failure of the organism).[2] The reason the 1950’s weren’t a Golden Age is not because there can’t be any such thing, but simply because history shows us that it wasn’t. If the perspectives of minorities are taken seriously, then we must grapple with the failure of the Church in the 1950’s to provide a consistent, universal ethic for human life. In fact, we need to grapple with our failure to do this throughout most of American history – for instance, the State answered the question of slavery in the Civil War, but the Church didn’t answer the question of race. Looking at the past with our eyes wide open allows us to soberly evaluate our blind spots as well as our strengths.

But there is a way forward. Kuyper’s emphasis on the antithesis keeps us humble, recognizing that there will always be spiritual warfare in this age against the powers of darkness. Simultaneously, Kuyper’s emphasis on common grace allows us to participate in the public sphere with hopefulness that, by our faithfully sowing seeds of righteousness, we can reap a harvest of flourishing for the common good. To quote Dr. Vincent Bacote, “Ultimately this is a vision of a society where change occurs because Christians participate in the realm of common grace, and, as a result, the world gets better.”[3]

There may never be a Golden Age (I’m an amillennialist, after all), but this does not mean that we cannot look for cultural renewal in this life. Because we acknowledge the presence of sin, we can view our past with honesty, as a mixed bag of good and bad. But because we know God is at work, we can hope for more. Our hymnal teaches us that “not with swords’ loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums, but with deeds of love and mercy, the Heavenly Kingdom comes.” These deeds of love and mercy are powerful, and they include all sorts of cultural participation, even politics. Ours is a long march forward; our enlistment in the Church Militant is for the entirety of this age. This complicates things – we need to be concerned with all injustices everywhere; yet it also relieves the pressure – we’ll never figure it all out. We can take comfort that the Church Militant will also be the Church Triumphant, not because of our work, but because of Christ’s victory. “Everything is complicated and everything is connected.” Let’s suit up and get to work.

—————

[1] Derek Webb was in many respects the artist of my revolution.

[2] This also reflects a failure of the institution, as there wasn’t intervention or discipline from either Church or State.

[3] Vincent Bacote, “Beyond ‘Faithful Presence’” Abraham Kuyper’s Legacy for Common Grace and Cultural Development,” Journal of Markets & Morality 16, no. 1 (2013): 195–205. (accessible at http://www.marketsandmorality.com/index.php/mandm/article/viewFile/868/798)

About Billy Boyce

Billy is a pastor in Arlington, Virginia. His work and life aim to see Christ's Gospel embodied in the community of the Church for the sake of the world and the glory of God.

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