I wrote this more than a year ago but just sat on it due to some misgivings about its clarity and value. But whether any particular statement below is right or wrong, the fact is that Internet discussions are mostly driven by extremes, so I don’t think it’s improper (though it may be the conservative version of politically incorrect) to try to encourage slower, more careful thought about such important matters.
Like “society” and “civilization,” this is a general term that refers to a complex interplay of ideas, beliefs, and behaviors shared by many people who by the fact of the sharing exhibit a significant degree of outward (political) unity.
Modifiers attached to the word preserve its general nature while at the same time highlighting particular aspects of it: “Modern culture,” “American culture,” “consumer culture,” “Christian culture,” and the like.
The general nature of the term obviously facilitates easier communication by avoiding the need for complex, time-consuming sub-discussions about the numerous local variations on the theme that exist. But a question I have is whether and to what extent the general term “culture,” even with various modifiers, permits us to get at deep fundamentals more than at surface appearances.
II. “Christian Culture”
This term functions popularly as a catch-all label for Our Side as opposed to Their Side (see III, below). Christian culture is something that once dominated the world, and, depending on who you talk to, there seem to be three broad possibilities. Namely, Christian culture
(1) has just gotten a bit occluded with grime that proper political incrementalism pro Rege can wipe away,
(2) has just about fallen to nothingness and needs to be rebuilt from sola Scriptura scratch, or
(3) has changed form from the papal ecclesiocentricism of the late Middle Ages to a “Two Kingdoms of Christ” model – BUT
(3a) There is presently much dispute over what precisely “Two Kingdoms” means and entails, since much of what goes by that name now does not match what the Protestant Reformers themselves taught.
The question of end dominates here. American Christians are divided on eschatology, and each view contains within it a whole different take on the biblical theme of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation. A variety of takes on “Christian culture” are thus possible, and none are dismissible without substantial argumentation from Scripture, the history of interpretation, and careful enumeration and analysis of many contingent factors that can produce only the relative certainty of prudential judgment rather than the absolutely certainty of geometrical demonstrations.
And so a serious problem presents itself for culture-warring rhetoric: we Christians do not agree among ourselves about what Christian culture even is. How then, do we act as if there is a single agreed-upon set of cultural goals that the culture-war is aiming at? As far as I can tell, the idea that we are all aiming at a single, agreed-upon thing called “Christian culture” stems from the fact that among conservatives, there is consensus on a handful of high profile, high-emotion issues such as abortion, evolution, and the biblical-creational pattern of marriage. But we are all over the map on other important matters of strategic tactics (in ethics, biblicism or natural law; in politics, careful distinguishing of the Two Kingdoms or “American exceptionalism”; in public witness, aggressive pugilism / stigmatization of “Them” or contemplation-based efforts at civil persuasion).
Given these considerations, it seems that much of the ongoing advocacy of “Christian culture” as a clearly discernible side in a great culture war may be more on the level of connotative reasoning (virtue-signaling / emotive prescription) than denotative (an “objective” dictionary description).
This term looms large in apologetics interactions between Christians and the world outside our Faith. Frequently it succeeds in reaching a strictly denotative aim that, as said above, facilitates easier communication.
For instance, if “secular” gets defined as “broadly unconcerned with objective truth” and there is a large group of people who share ideas, beliefs, and practices flowing from that definition, then there really is such a thing as “secular culture.” When everyone, or most everyone, in a given conversation agrees on the denotative meaning of a term, communication is indeed much easier and more productive.
However, language is meant to reflect reality, to properly describe the extra-mental world, to connect the human mind with the external world in a way that points toward wisdom. If the received denotation of a term, and so, all that is based upon it, does not properly reflect the world, it is not good that communication occurs more easily and productively. (The production of falsehood, especially when easily achieved, is surely undesirable.)
Thus, I wonder if at times, perhaps even frequently, such generalizations function as deficiently rigorous boundary markers, or rather, to use the term that is in vogue, just simplistic ways of virtue-signaling. That is, while generalizations do often succeed in strictly denotative aims, do they sometimes achieve little more than shoring up connotative (more subjectively emotive and less rigorously intellectual) aims, and so preserving an unexamined, unhealthy sense of deeper unity and correspondingly unhelpful polemics against others?
Thus, lastly, for now:
Probably few Christians have not heard this term, and there are probably even fewer who do not engage in the activity of culture-warring in some form. For some decades now, it has seemed obligatory, and that sense has only intensified in the few years since the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision.
Indeed, on the cluster of complicated issues regarding sexuality that seem to be consuming the lion’s share of our national ethical-political conversation, it is doubtful that anything seems more blazingly clear than the daily spiritual, ideological, legal, and often personally-relational, war between “Christian culture” and “secular culture.”
As the cannons continuously fire up and down each side’s line, threatening shell-shock for all but the most battle-hardened, there seems little time, and even less interest, in closely examining terminology, implications, and practices. Few seem to want to try to untangle denotations from connotations, to refine public understanding of the relationship of the terms to the realities they are trying to describe, to more clearly identify the shape, scope, and even the location of the battle lines. Memes and tweets and YouTube clips of Extreme Horror Stories frantically carpet-bomb each side, and for many on both sides, any wavering from the posture of Constant, Total War is tantamount to treason.
To me, however, “culture war” is an intriguing term if one stops to think about its component parts and ask a few unconventional questions. Thus:
- Have we defined “secular” correctly when we treat it as unequivocally antithetical to “Christian”? Etymologically, “secular” just means “of this age,” or “of this world.” But isn’t every age and isn’t this world Christ’s? Over the course of Christian history through the Middle Ages, “secular” came to mean “not church-y,” and though prior to the Reformation this was treated as a deficient thing, the Reformation recognized the goodness of created norms in the “not church-y,” and so dispensed with mere cynicism about “the world.” So I want to ask, shouldn’t we take care in our view of “secularism” to distinguish what is good in it, and not merely engage in a Constant, Total War against it?
- If a culture is a complex interplay of ideas, beliefs, and behaviors shared by many people who by the fact of the sharing exhibit a significant degree of outward (political) unity, BUT if there is also a war focusing on culture, we need to ask how many cultures exist in America – that is, how many combatants are there in the war?
- If there is in America only one culture, what is the place of Christians in it? If there is only one culture at stake in the culture war, we have to ask at what points do we, as a part of that one culture, agree with those whom we otherwise portray as slavering, anti-God, despicably immoral idolators? Are there deeper structures of thought, ethics, politics, and economics on which we share the same assumptions as “Them,” and if there are, what are we talking about when we say we are at war with them? It is an uncomfortable question, but one necessitated by asserting that there is only one culture involved in the culture war.
- As some, such as Alastair Roberts, argue, what if we Christians are complicit in all the deeper matters of culture that have led to our present sexuality crisis. If so, whom are we fighting in the “culture war,” what are we fighting over, and to what end?
- Moreover, if there is only one culture at work, then we are fighting a civil war over competing definitions of that culture. And as with the word “secular,” it seems unlikely that a simplistic Black Hat / White Hat view of what the culture ought to look like properly describes the real situation. Perhaps it is no accident, in this light, that many conservative Christians readily identify with the “Great Lost Cause” interpretation of the Civil War proper, in which little bad can rightly be said of the South and little good of the North. A kind of political Manichaenism, maybe?
- Finally, if it is a civil war, then we are not fighting Orcs, but errant neighbors and fellow citizens – and shouldn’t that crucial fact help determine how we fight, what strategic goals we pursue and by what means, and what our long term understanding of victory is?
- On the other hand, if we are dealing in America with more than one culture, we must ask to which one Christians belong, and what it is that unifies “our” culture as over against “theirs.”
- This is an extremely complicated question that flows straight into weighty matters of external political organization and integrity. For if there are actually different cultures at work in the culture war, on the definition of “culture” noted earlier, there are different political orders manifesting themselves. If our culture is, to borrow a slogan from the abortion debate, a “culture of life,” and theirs is a “culture of death,” two different governments are required to express the very different lifestyles inherent in those terms. Yet few Christian culture warriors are calling for, say, the overthrow of the United States government or, less extremely, secession from it. Rather, even the most devoted culture warriors continue to canvass for Approved Politicians and to vote in elections, as if the goal is really only to capture common external political machinery for the next cycle or three, and as if victory is really only just getting to gloat for a while because the opponents have been legally forced to submit. But on the principle “What fellowship has light with darkness, the kingdom of God with the kingdom of Belial,” it seems fairly un-Christian to try to maintain the cyclical, politically external mash-up of two entirely different cultures, the culture of life and the culture of death. There seems a serious inconsistency in this take on the culture war.
- But this raises the further problem that in many Evangelical and Reformed circles, the institutional church is held to be a “parallel culture,” a “counter-polis,” which is often described as if it were a self-contained locus of “true civilization” outside of which is mere darkness and barbarism. This view makes it very clear whom we are fighting and to what end, but it also puts us in a very problematic position relative to those we call our adversaries. For very obviously, the institutional church doesn’t provide electricity, groceries, running water, trash disposal, safe and usable roads, postal service, or any of a dozen or score other services that seem quite indispensable to civic life as we know it. Very obviously, the institutional church concerns itself with nothing more than aspects of life held to be “spiritual,” that is, not civic-political. And so, very obviously, the institutional church is not able to provide us with everything we need for “true civilization.” We must still in hundreds of of ways continuously rub shoulders with “Them” – and that has rather pronounced effect on how exactly we can characterize the culture war we say we are fighting. Specifically, it takes us back to the possibility that really, there is only one culture involved in the war, and to all the questions listed above under that point.