‘Cultural Engagement’, a Bad Fix for Christian Isolationism

It’s hard now to sort through too much Christian media without hearing moving and grandiloquent […]

Will McDavid / 9.30.14

It’s hard now to sort through too much Christian media without hearing moving and grandiloquent talk  about “cultural engagement.” It’s the trendy thing now, and it seems like the Christian para-academic establishment prepped the ground for an overdue reaction against the isolationism and confrontationalism of now-octogenarian culture warriors. But the talk often seems inversely proportional to the engagement itself. One framework: affirm the good, critique/subvert the bad, discuss redemptive possibilities.[1] (We here tend to omit the latter two.) Talk about talking about culture, and the Evangelical Church is your best conversation partner; talk about a spectacular Game of Thrones battle or Always Sunny joke, and corners of the mouth draw back and maybe a weak smile. [2] Of course, criticism—affirming the good and subverting the bad—is important, and luckily, we have many experts in the field: they teach in English departments, write film reviews in the Times, serve on awards selections committees.


Yet for some reason, we feel the need for Christian film, movie, book criticism (and yes, massive 6×6 in my/our eye(s) on this count). Christianity’s values are not the world’s, but the artists of the world do pretty well for themselves: Portrait of an Artist as massively conflicted affirmation/subversion of artistic autonomy, Inglourious Basterds as brutal condemnation of our corporate violence-spectation fix; good artists always find a way to get at the truth, which is one, unified. Culture, even in its currently ‘secular’ period, does a good job of listening to the voices which testify to that truth; we listen, but often we’re already comparing their words with what we already know to be the right answers. Why?

Call it an issue of control. It’s not limited to the Church—in academia, for example, ‘theory’ people are sometimes quick to read in, slow to lead out—and ideology hijacks exegesis for eisegesis in many places, at many times. The only differences seem to be that (1) Christians can claim higher moral authority, placing ourselves above the author, and (2) we’re a bit more dilettantish; the grad student who’s too busy writing on Faulknerian gender roles to ever feel personally haunted by Quentin’s jump does, at least, spend years and years studying it. But we tend to crave a Christian take on everything, a personal angle, and we want it fast, easy. And a prefabbed complex of ideas provides that for us. It’s a too-familiar story, the need for an authoritative Church take on everything, and it hasn’t served us (, Christendom,) well in the past. And it’s even older, perhaps, than that: the obsession with value-distinctions seems quintessentially human. Jesus remarked on it in Matthew 13:

So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them….”


The checkered history of the Roman Catholic Index of Prohibited Books certainly  pulled up some good wheat—Pascal, Milton, Flaubert, the Reformers—and the commissions which oversaw that sort of thing were full of very, very sharp people. The ‘cultural engagement’ thing smacks of less qualified people making these judgments on a more micro-scale. What should be affirmed about this novel? Subverted?

American Christianity has long reconciled our religion’s low view of human nature and the American Dream (and its offshoots, like self-help) through either a hyper-Arminian focus on free will or a happy distortion of Calvin’s doctrine of regeneration. Such a strong emphasis on regeneration actually makes the low anthropology of Calvin and Luther a liability to the religion: their wills are bound, ours are free; we have criteria for truth, goodness, and thriving which they know nothing of. And yet the Law continues to be preached, in some circles, not as a vehicle for becoming even better than the average person, but as a total condemnation, an affront to our distinctions, especially the religious ones (cf: Pharisees, Sadducees, Judaizers).

Christianity’s insights about life, the world and, therefore, culture, are unique and irreplaceable. And there are real distinctions – the wheat and weeds are two separate plants – but we critics could do to pray less for our distinction-making abilities, and more for our humility. Pray to take ourselves less seriously and keep laughing at South Park, keep trusting that the people who write novels, screenplays, and the like are in their position because they have insights that we don’t. Pray that God can deconstruct our control obsessions enough to quit ravaging the field for weeds, and rest up a bit. If Christianity’s about anything, it’s about our need for a word outside us, beyond us. Talking about cultural engagement is a bad excuse for not doing it, and being a Christian is a much worse excuse for clutching our Christian paradigms so tightly that we fail to hear anything beyond ourselves. We all grasp and grab at our truths—but all Adam lacked was an open palm. Whenever we get to that point of dependence, I suspect there’ll be many surprises on what turns into wheat and what turns into weeds. Until then, I, for one, keep praying for a little less need to chatter on my end—might hear a little more.


[1] Strange that the redemptive talk comes frequently from Reformed folk, who can’t be accused of lack of biblical knowledge or overactive metaphorical imaginations – but there it is, the word is never (biblically) applied to the objects of events, concepts, or artifacts.

[2] The talk about engagement is often impressive, the engagement itself usually nonexistent.