Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"The New Evangelical Scandal" same as the Old Evangelical scandal part 5


The new movement to become culture creators is driven largely by the rejection of the evangelical artistic sub-culture. For young evangelicals, Thomas Kinkade, DC Talk, and the Left Behind books and movies are embarrassing lightning rods for criticisms that Christians have abandoned the arts. In this way, Francis Schaeffer circa-1970 has won—young evangelicals are quick to defend artistic engagement as a valid expression of our humanity and Christian faith.

Thankfully, the new movement has promise. Evangelicals would do well to raise the level of their artistic and cultural productions. But young evangelicals’ language about engaging the arts suggests that their new pursuit has little to do with excellence for its own sake—rather, artistic engagement is frequently subsumed under the hope and promise of cultural influence. The popularity of worldview oriented training programs indicates a deepening dissatisfaction for the fragmentation and privatization of Christianity, and a new drive toward excellence in all realms of life. The arts and the classics are to be engaged for the sake of promoting the Christian worldview, and for building Christianity’s reputation to the world.

Here Anderson is very much on the mark. When younger Christians (say, mid 30s and younger) consider the options available in the Christian pop culture ghetto it's no wonder the more appealing options are to stick with "secular" arts. When I was in my 20s I was told by some very well-meaning Christians I should stop reading trashy novels by Kafka, Dostoevsky, Melville, Conrad or the like and read some "good Christian literature" by Frank Peretti or others. I found this prospect beyond any serious consideration but I found it intriguing that there were some Christians who believed firmly that Dostoevsky's novels were trashy.

If Christians abandoned the arts they abandoned them long before DC Talk, Left Behind novels, or Thomas Kinkade appeared. Surely we could agree on that for the sake of discussion. I think that is not just a good place to start but I will get to something Anderson doesn't seem to catch on about that I think has to be said, and I'll say it by the time I get to the end of this long post.

Evangelical Christians are in some circles quick to defend artistic engagement as a valid expression of our humanity and Christian faith. Sort of. To say that Francis Schaeffer circa 1970 has won is a bit strong because Francis is dead, to be overly literal, and because I would argue that Schaeffer's victory is not necessarily one that allows later generations to ride on his coattails. Each generation's engagement with culture or failure is its own defeat. As God said through the prophet it can no longer be said that the father eats sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge.

And on that subject I would say that a common problem I have seen both with "young" evangelicals and "old" evangelicalls is that we have four paths that may be followed, three of which have some significant problems and the fourth merely having problems. We live in a world marred by sin, after all, so there is no path we can walk on this that won't be full of risk or temptation.

The first path is to sanctify our own tastes as "engaging culture" when it is simply us buying what we want but I"m saving that for part six. Since Anderson singles out that risky path I think it's best to save my ruminations on that for later.

The second path is to simply take the fundamentalist route of not engaging any "secular" culture and living in the Christian cultural ghetto. CLearly Anderson doesn't see this is as a good thing but we should be fair in considering that there has constantly been a stream of Christian thought that has asked rhetorically what Athens or Rome have to do with Jerusalem. Since these sorts of people won't go away whether they are Macarthur types or hermits we might simply not that some people really do seem to be called to withdraw from the world's culture. Cultural engagement is not for everyone in terms of what we in the West often define culture. The older you get, the closer you get to death, the more kids you have the less likely it is that "cultural engagement" really matters.

Before we dismiss path two unfairly as categorically we should recognize that the body of Christ is a body. The eye is not an ear, the ear is not a tooth, the tooth is not a toe. We must all consider our own conscience before ourselves but most of all the Lord. There is a lot in culture we need feel no obligation to ever "engage" or "redeem". I admit to having settled on this a long time ago. Despite being in a church for years that is interested in cultural engagement and the like there are all sorts of things I don't care about, bands I don't care if I know about or bands that i just don't really like. I don't care if Radiohead puts out more albums. I don't much care about the spiritual themes in Fight Club or Braveheart or films like that (hints anyone?).

I think we should stop a moment and make sure that we dont' slight path two unfairly. It is possible to not "engage culture" in some activist way but to also recognize there are things you just won't expose yourself to. For instance, I met a few guys at Mars Hill who said they have no problem watching violent films but have big, big problems watching films with sexual content. Then there are more liberal types who have no problem with lots of nudity or sex but dislike violence in films to the point of shrieking as much about violence as other people shriek about sex. There are people who genuinely don't enjoy EITHER loads of violence OR loads of sexual content in films. If you stop and compare "adult entertainment" to childrens' entertainment and watch both CLOSELY you may find that grown-up entertainment and kid entertainment can have common ground on violence and that sexuality or sexual content may not be as unique as sometimes advertised. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking Sin City is worth anyone's time. The comic book was tedious and the movie was tedious, to say nothing of what any number of Christians might find deeply problematic in content. Save yourself the trouble and basically avoid anything with Frank Miller's name on it from the last two decades.

Another matter concerning some values in a version of path 2--as you get older the arts matter less and less and the basic things of living matter more and more. When your doctor tells you you could have a stroke or heart failure or high blood pressure or your body starts to show the signs of mortality and you're not in your twenties any more you begin to realize that those new rock bands aren't going to be that new in the end. I came to that sort of conclusion about culture in my twenties so I don't go out of my way to "engage culture" by paying attention to tons of contemporary movements in the arts. I'm not ignorant of them but the Preacher rightly said there's nothing new under the sun. New country is old rock and old country is older folk music and blues.

But the third path is the one that I find frustrating and that is cultural awareness by osmosis. Essentially this is where Christians let someone else do the heavy lifting for them and this is most frustrating to me because it is the most common and most ssceptible to fads. I met a lot of Christians in the last fifteen years who let Francis Schaeffer engage the culture of forty years ago so they wouldn't have to. There's a variation of this third path that basically looks like path 1. If you pastor or favorite Christian teacher engages culture you're afraid to engage yourself then you let them take the shortcut. This is a sense in which I think Schaeffer has been domesticated by evangelicals who have no interest in actually grappling with the philosophical currents of culture that they could deal with and so fall back on to things that are simpler and easier.

The fourth path is to "engage culture", to think "Christianly" about the culture and arts. This is much tougher to do than to talk about. It is often transformed into one of the other three paths while being called something else. And if you have read this far you will notice what is conspicuously absent from any of these paths regarding culture. No one is necessarily actually IN the arts doing anything. Engaging the arts and participating in the arts are simply not the same and all this is my consideration of the first of two quoted paragraphs by Anderson.

So now I finally get to the second paragraph. Anderson is right, most of the rhetoric about being culture shapers from young evangelicals sounds like just that, rhetoric. There is no indication that culture-shaping is actually taking place. In fact by the time young evangelicals (however we define them) will have risen to the point of being culture-shapers they will arguably be ne3ither young nor (depending on how much they study Scripture and where they land on some of the issues Anderson touches on) even "evangelical".

Now I once talked with a fellow who explained the way Christians engage the art of music, particularly popular music, in the following way. He metaphorically laid out a tree of black American music of all kinds and showed every branch and lim and the trunk of this great musical legacy and then drew a vertical line parallel to the tree. He then explained that "contemporary Christian music" consisted of any given point on the tree minus two decades. The great South Park episode "Christian Rock Hard" reframed the problem in a different way--tae any has-been top 40 song and anywhere it says "baby" you just replace it with "Jesus". Suffice it to say Cartman's album goes platinum, if that weren't a worldly measure of success.

So here we get to what I consider the problem of "engaging culture" and becoming culture creators, the whole enterprise is based on not being two decades behind and staying current. It means catching up to whatever the market has just touched or just left. In this evangelicals are, in my very blunt opinion, hosed. Evangelicals don't seem to demonstrate the sort of robust theology of the created world as a real and literally material good they once had; evangelicals in America also have such a blunted sense of history that their idea of deep roots music might go back to the 1930s or, at best, to 19th century hymns that are famous in American history and popular usage.

Evangelicals have been working to catch up when cultural creators have other things to do. The first and foremost thing is that if you set out to matter as a culture shaper that's a pretty good sign you're not going to be one except by the measures of whatever the evangelical equivalent of socialist realism is. Ersatz pap.

I agree with Anderson that it seems young evangelicals want to be culture shapers but mainly so as to have influence in the culture more than to influence culture as a secondary result. Anderson doesn't go quite far enough, I think. Where the old evangelicals tried to fight the culture war by protesting the culture they didn't like young evangelicals seemed poised to co-opt the culture they do like so as to find ways to integrate evangelical elements into that culutre so as to seem cooler and more relevant. It can be very easy to put the cart before the horse.

A bunch of Christians who start a band and go out touring bars in Seattle to create goodwill on behalf of a church will only generate so much good will as they are a truly decent band. They will also only generate, at most, respect or fondness for them. A lot of evangelicals want imputation to happen. Jesus can impute His righteousness to us or take our sin upon Himself ... but taht doesn't mean that we can make Christianity "cool" to Gentiles or Jews as Paul lays out the contrast. Christ is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. If evangelicals want to be culture shapers to make life easier and evangelicalism and by extension the Christian faith more acceptable to the world that is more a fool's errand than proclaiming the good news of Christ.

Anderson sees a lack of real courage or principle in speaking against kitsch in the "Christian" arts. I agree. I would also say that it does not take real courage or principle to make this observation either. It is quite a bit tougher to labor to become even a non-entity in the arts. We must remember that no matter what level of artistic excellence we may obtain as a goal unto itself or as a path to making evangelical Christianity more respectable God owes us nothing.

If we as Christians are going to devote ourselves to the arts we must do so with no expectation of a material reward not because a jmaterial reward is bad but because God does not owe any of us a living at the arts or any cultural influence. While I am more skeptical than possibly anyone I have ever met about the premise that art should be made for the sake of art I also admit that there is a paradox at work here, a need for balance. The person who places content before the joy of simply playing with things for the sake of developing technique and a renewed understanding and deeper understanding of how things work and what is possible will never get anywhere as an artist. He or she will be doomed to a self-repeating, insular, and reflexive approach to the arts that has no room for expansion.

Ironically those who attempt to break all the rules and defy history are just as prone to making art that doesn't seem to last as those who take the other blind alley of going by intuition and instinct alone, relying on inspiration without any consideration of craft and discipline and who fail to grasp that the best art engages the entire person and also stretches the entire person. Art is not a quest for truth with a capital 'T' for a Christian but an artist who fails to truly observe the world is not going to be able to grasp the need for the Truth because lesser truths than Christ Himself are part of what you have to apprehend to appreciate Him.

Here I come back to my own experience as a Christian and observing Christians' eagerness to "engage culture" and be "culture shapers". My experience is very particular as I have spent at least eight years or possibly nine in and at and around Mars Hill. Even though many could describe me as a 'younger evangelical" about a third of my life, nonetheless, has been in this particular Christian and cultural setting. Mark Driscoll has talked about how Christians can get "upstream" and take positions in society to "shape culture". Part of me likes this idea because who doesn't want to have a position from which to positively influence culture. I am a composer and a sorta nearly competent musician and certainly I hope to compose music that I hope will be a benefit and a source of challenge and joy to musicians and to a musical community. To be more blunt, sure I'd love to have my music performed and published and to have a little legacy that could go on after I'm dead. In fact if it were possible one day that I might actually get any music published and maybe even garner a footnote in some obscure monograph on classical guitar music that would be pretty cool.

But that's the thing, evangelical Christians talking about culture shaping this and upstream that need to remember--Who really changes and directs things in the end. And we should remember that the stakes we're playing for at our best and most significant amount to footnotes in history that will be forgotten. As the Preacher put it, there is no remembrance of the things that have gone before. If Mars Hill impacts the city for Jesus today in some big way inside of twenty years people will start forgetting the church ever existed even if it is still around that long. In twenty years I can see people reading some books by Piper and Wright and Peterson and Stott and I don't see anyone picking up Driscoll books. Of course I started of talking about the arts and young evangelicals but because my experience of both has been at Mars Hill I speak from my own experience. I believe the stated goal is more admirable than the actual execution, most of which is hamstrung by simple realities.

Lutherans, Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox will no doubt recognize that patronage systems get you great art because you can AFFORD the great art. Evangelicals young and old have wanted to impact culture without actually immersing themselves in culture. I don't mean contemporary culture I mean the arts as a historical entity.

As Fearsome Comrade over on the BHT might put it, evangelicals want someone like Bach to just show up and compose organ preludes and sacred cantatas for free. This is not a NEW scandal where evangelicalism is concerned. In fact the existence of that curious acronym and the genres it represents, CCM, speaks of this continuing stream. We are back to Christian rock hard.

I have no real optimism that the young evangelicals are going to go any directions other than those paths trod by previous evangelicals. Now it isn't as though there isn't a rich tradition of evangelical Protestant music, least of all in the United States. Mahalia Jackson, to pick a thoroughly non-random example, exemplifies the best qualities of uniquely American music, uniquely American art, and a uniquely American approach to Christianly approaching the arts that has had a vast influence on popular culture in the last half century.

Of course I would also have to say that a lot of the influence is more readily seen in how badly her legacy is appropriated and imitated by lesser artists! ANd it would be reasonable to point out that in order to understand Mahalia's legacy we need to see who she turned to. As Bob Dylan put it, go further back. Find the roots of the stuff you like and see where the tree grew from. Find the roots of that. This leads to a progression and I followed Dylan's advice. I liked 1980s rock and pop and I went back to listen to what influenced them, which is how I got to Dylan to begin with, and then from Dylan I went back to the things that inspired him and that led backwards both to white and black American popular and folk music. From the white music it was several steps back to "classical" music (I also listened to Pinkfloyd if this helps explain the journey) and eventually I stopped moving back in time studying music around Mauchaut. That was as far back as I could go before hitting theoretical treatises by Aristoxenus and PLatonic discourse on the way music was advised to be used by the state to avoid girly men.

Now when people on the other side of the TIber say Protestants have no sense of history I half-way agree. AMERICAN Protestants (evangelical or otherwise) often seem to have no sense of the historical moment. It is too much to keep track of the pop cultures of today and stay "relevant" and "engage culture" and become culture shapers now. There is a place for that I guess but I long ago figured out that I don't care about staying current. The history of the avant garde in Western art music is that people go back to move forward or they go east or west in the present rather than attempting to dismantle the present or even anticipate the next big thing.

All of this I have said boils down to a grim observation on my part, the young evangelicals are going ot be as irrelevant to shaping the culture as their predecessors have been because they have too small a view of the culture into which they want to inject their own legacy and this as much for themselves as for any devotion to the Gospel. Even the best efforts suffer from this temptation. The desire to be culture shapers is a mutation of the old culture war impulse. Instead of trying to win the culture war by beating them the "yong" evangelicals want to win the culture war by joining them.

Did Christ send us out to "redeem culture", though? Hasn't Christ called us to love God and our neighbor? Can we do that and not be in positions to be "upstream" or "shape culture"? Certainly we can. I am not so sure the coming evangelical collapse that iMonk predicts is going to come. I agree that Mars Hill will probably survive that coming collapse if it happens. It will be hurt, a lot, but I think the church is well-placed to make the mission of the church less about Driscoll's personality and more about a body of believers demonstrating the love of Christ, a point that Driscoll by now must know he's rather weak on. Fortunately he seems to have leaders in place who actually know something about conveying the love of Christ to the flock.

But over the years I have seen Mars Hill exemplify what Anderson has complained about, a penchant for wanting to "engage culture" and move upstream to become culture shapers without any clear indication that artistic excellence for its own sake is at work. Many Christians want to place the respectability of the faith at the front when it can at best be merely a by-product. You can think that you are on a mission to make Christianity more acceptable and cool and that is not the mission. Foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews ... no one can make that cool. You can't make the scandal of the Cross of Christ cool. God the Son hanging on the cross is not cool.

And thinking "Christianly" about the arts doesn't ensure that we will make art that lasts, or make art that "engages culture", whatever that means. The older I get (which is not to say I'm really al that old) the more I believe that it is better to love your neighbor and create from that impulse than to aspire to "shape culture" or "redeem culture". The simplest reason for this is that if you go into the arts with that kind of motive you're doing it for love of you, for love of your own legacy, for the love of the idea that looking back thirty years from now you can tell yourself,"God used me to change the culture to something more fitting His will."

Now this is all just me rambling on my own pointless opinions, I know, but when i consider the artists who have dramatically shaped the culture in a field that I like, music, I don't see a whole lot of evangelical Christians from America. I see Orthodox, Anglicans, Catholics, and in the popular Gospel traditions lots of Baptists from America. If we defined the evangelical tradition more broadly than Anderson does we could include Luther and Bach.

I cosnider it very good, by the way, that Mars Hill has finally gotten around to CCLI stuff and incorporating established hymns into the music. The music in the first four to five years could often be horrible. I'm not sugar-coating my opinion here, most of the Mars Hill music that was most popular was terrible because it was not suited to congregational singing but fit naturally in the vocal range of some guy who, like Geddy Lee, I'm not entirely sure actually got through puberty.

The rock concert vibe has pervaded at Mars Hill. Congregational singing is great and it is great that more and more Mars Hill has shifted toward an approach to song that gets closer to being singable for, again I won't sugar coat things, the musically illiterate. I don't mean people who have no "taste" in music I simply mean people who aren't thinking of themselves as career or hobbyist musicians and so couldn't be expected to follow along with tunes.

And CCLI is a relief to see because I now no longer have to worry that one of the fastest growing megachurches in evangelical Protestant could get the pants sued off them for copyright infringement. Ten years ago pastors at Mars Hill were blathering about how copyright was passe and that open copyright was the wave of the future. Thank God they came to their senses about that. Seattle, you know, we have this superiority complex where we think we're smarter and more progressive than others but lack the competence to do anything in an organized or efficient manner that isn't related to computers or coffee. Mars Hill is no exception and maybe isn't even so awesome about computers or coffee. But the Lord is kind, right?

My overall response to Anderson is that he's right about this problem he sees. The solution will be to both redefine what evangelicalism is so that it isn't ANDERSON's definition of the term and also be to advise evangelicals to search high and low into artistic legacies that seem completely outside their traditions. There is no evangelical Protestant American artistic work particularly worth celebrating. The reason so many evangelicals co-opt Lewis or Bonhoeffer even though by strict definitions of terms neither is all that good a candidate is because these two men offered a legacy in literature and in political thought and applied life that so eclipse the actual evangelical model we have to co-opt them as patron saints precisely because if we didn't, we'd have nobody.

In some sense that is true about Francis Schaeffer, too, a lot of people wouldn't dream of being as environmentalist as Schaeffer was and many evangelicals want to champion Schaeffer circa 1980 to his death rather than Schaeffer circa 1960-1980. We love having poster boys of relevancy and cultural engagement so that we don't have to do it ourselves. What happened with Schaeffer could, conceivably, happen even with Driscoll. That would be terrible both because Driscoll is never going to be a Scheaffer and because it's not fair of Christians to expect fallible men with tempers like Driscoll or Schaeffer to do for us what we could seek the Lord ourselves for help with.

As for the pursuit of art as an excellence in itself, 90 percent of everything is crap, so the old saying goes. Evangelicals need to increase their invovlement in the arts as artists first who happen to be evangelicals rather than attempting to Veggie Tale their way into cultural relevance. We know where that path will lead. Evangelicals should go work for Pixar or EMI because they love the work as its own joy from the Lord (per Ecclesiastes) not because they want to be culture shapers. We too often forget, especially as American evangelicals, that the apostles did not turn the world upside down because that was their plan. They proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ and the Spirit's work in their proclamation turned the world upside down. Evangelicals have so often put the cart before the horse they should stop wondering why, decades after the start of the culture war and decades longer after Schaeffer warned us that we were living in a "post-Christian society" why that horse hasn't seemed to push the cart where we wanted it to be.

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