The relationship between Christianity and Culture (especially the arts) has been a topic of great interest on Quadrivium here lately. Beginning with a post on Christianity and Culture (that linked to this blog) and continuing with posts on a North Carolinian art museum, the value of fantasy literature, and the validity of “Christian” art. Sadly, as the last post demonstrates, modern evangelical Christianity is woefully out of touch with the art and culture of society.
Why are Christians this way? Well, we do know that they have not always been. For centuries, the Christian faith informed and inspired some of the greatest artistic achievments ever to be accomplished. Yet, in the past couple of centuries, the church has endured a self-imposed isolation from culture. There are signs of change, however, and I believe that as the church continues to understand what caused these problems, she will eventually remedy them.
Allow me to share a few reaons why I think that Christians have ignored culture and the arts for so long.
A Fundamentalist Overreaction to Liberalism- The late 19th and early 20th centuries gave rise to a bitter battle in Western universities (especially American) between two theological factions: Liberal and Conservatives. The latter group came to be known as fundamentalists (taken from a series of conservative theologial articles). While liberal theologians eventually triumphed in the battle for the university, fundamentalists were tenacious defenders of orthodox Chrisitianity. However, because fundamentalism was a reactionary movement, it unfortunately went the way of most such movments: it overreacted to the opposing ideology. Since liberal theology placed a strong emphasis on the so-called “social gospel” (that is, the responsibility of Christians to engage, improve, and create culture), by the mid-20th century, fundamentalism had almost completely isolated itself from the culture. Christians were taught to keep themselves separated from the world, and things like art, film, literature, and the theater were considered to be “worldly”. Evangelicalism – fundamentalism’s younger sister -was born around this time and sought to correct these problems in the church (evangelicals are sometimes known as “fundamentalists with PHDs”). While some progress has been made, the damage done to the idea of cultural involvement within the church was severe. We have a long way to go.
An Overemphasis on the Apocalypse- The 19th and 20th centuries also saw the emergence of “rapture fever” in the church. Prophecy conferences and “End-Times” analysis became one of the most popular forms of theological study for the church at large (to the neglect of many other theological studies). Ministers would stand (and still do) before their congregations or tv audience with the past week’s newspaper for their text and proclaim fulfilled Bible prophecies as their sermon. Popular authors began to set dates for Christ’s return and their was an overall sense of impending doom. Now, while the church had her eyes on the sky, she forgot the culture at large. Why become bogged down in cultural involvement if Jesus is going to come back in the next five minutes? Besides, it’s so much more fun to wildly speculate about what Daniel and John were talking about, then seriously engage the culture on an academic level.
The Emergence of the Christian Subculture – America is a country driven by consumerism, and the church has incredibly exploited this fact in the past fifty years. Consequently, Christianity has been polished and packaged in a multitude of ways. Now there are “Christian” films, books, paintings, musical groups, clothes, bumper stickers, department stores, plush toys, ad infinitum. As a matter of fact, there is no need for the average Christian to encounter his culture because he has all that he needs within his own “safe” subculture. Hence, we have really bad movies and books that are produced and then marketed by slapping the “Evangelical Approved” label on them. Christians devour these products and become more culturally inept in the process.
I’m sure that there are many more things that can be said about this matter than just the few problems that I have pointed out. What I am interested in is if their are any good answers to these problems. What can Christians do to change this?