Christians and High Culture

NickImageRead Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

J. Gresham Machen’s essay on “Christianity and Culture” forces its Christian readers to evaluate their relationship to high culture. While Machen surely did not expect every Christian to become a poet, composer, philosopher, or statesman, he did expect Christians to adopt a generally positive attitude toward such activities. He was particularly concerned with the Christian attitude toward scholarship. He argued that Christians should neither subordinate Christianity to culture (liberalism), nor simply ignore or reject culture in favor of Christianity (obscurantism). Rather, he suggested that Christians should engage in the work of consecrating culture to the service of God.

Not surprisingly, Machen’s approach has been rejected by those branches of Christianity that have been most influenced by populism. At best, such Christians see high culture as a distraction. They may even perceive it as an outright threat to the life of faith. Fascination with high culture is thought to exhaust time and effort on education and the arts that might better be spent in winning souls. High culture is presumed to produce arrogance in those who fall under its spell. Worst of all, high culture introduces Christians to corrosive ideas that have the potential to deceive. According to this theory, Christians might better leave such things alone and choose a plain life of humble service to God.

Admittedly, high culture—and especially academic culture—can provide an occasion for arrogance. People who invest years of their lives perfecting their mastery of an art or a learned discipline tend to become a bit testy when critiqued by dilettantes. Furthermore, they sometimes assume that their study grants them authority outside their areas of expertise. Even within those areas their competence may actually be less than they imagine.

Yet avoidance of high culture is not exactly a prophylactic against pride. Ugly as pride of intellect may be, it is not noticeably less sinful than pride of ignorance. Who, after all, is more arrogant: people who believe that they have a right to express an opinion because they have invested years of effort in the study and mastery of their subject, or those who believe that they have a right to express an opinion simply because they occupy space?

As for the objection that one had better spend his time winning souls, it supposes that those who spurn high culture will actually employ a comparable amount of time in witnessing or other spiritual pursuits. The fact is that they rarely do. People who refuse go to the concert hall or the art gallery do not simply go to church. They also go to the ball game. Those who reject education rarely give themselves only to evangelism. They also watch television or go fishing. That is not necessarily a problem: ball games and fishing are enjoyable and legitimate activities, but they are hardly more spiritual than hearing Mozart or looking at a Rembrandt.

More serious is the objection that high culture exposes one to ideas that have the potential to deceive. The point must be granted. The force of this objection, however, relies upon two unspoken assumptions. The first is that Christians must never allow themselves to be exposed to errors. That assumption is patently false. Christians are exposed to persuasive errors when they drive down the highway. They are exposed to errors when they transact business or form friendships with unsaved people. In fact, Scripture itself exposes them to errors. Most Christians would know little about Baal worship or the Galatian heresy if they were not exposed to these things in the Word of God.

The second unspoken assumption is that exposure to error can only weaken an individual, i.e., that one is always worse off for having studied an error. That assumption is also patently false. Clearly the apostle Paul knew the false systems against which he responded. The same is true of all the great teachers of the church. Irenaeus had a detailed and firsthand knowledge of Gnosticism, Athanasius of Arianism, Augustine of Pelagianism, Luther of Romanism, and Machen of liberalism. For a pious person, exposure to error may be a necessary step on the road to becoming a great champion of the faith.

The fundamental problem is not that high culture exposes people to erroneous points of view, but that all humans, including Christians, have depraved hearts that invent idols, whether they are exposed to high culture or not. A more specific problem is that certain kinds of Christians—among them even many Christian leaders—have been poorly equipped to evaluate and respond to error. They have been poorly equipped because they have had teachers who did not understand the errors and who, consequently, could not prepare them for the encounter. These teachers typically spend their time avoiding strongholds or mocking them from afar rather than pulling them down (2 Cor. 10:4-5). Inasmuch as they failed to challenge the strongholds, and inasmuch as they failed to prepare God’s people for the errors that they would confront, these teachers were unfaithful to their calling. That calling absolutely demands participation in the world in which ideas are framed and discussed. Teachers of Christian leaders must not neglect high culture, and in particular they must not neglect academic culture.

The same is true of other aspects of high culture. If they are to accomplish their ministries, Christian churches must employ certain arts. For example, singing and making melody requires the production of poetry and music. Too, if churches are to meet indoors rather than in open air, they will unavoidably deal with architecture. Furthermore, churches often dabble in arts that are not biblically required: they employ images (whether material or projected), and they make use of dramatic presentation.

Given that churches use these arts, they must make a choice. They will either employ the arts carefully and intelligently, or they will use them haphazardly and irresponsibly. Either they will give thought to issues of meaning and propriety, or else, to the degree that they do not, they will give themselves over to the pursuit of appetite. In short, they will either produce good work that amplifies the biblical message and brings glory to God, or else they will produce work that is thoughtless and banal, or perhaps even work that subverts and obscures the biblical message.

Christian churches are obligated to judge whether or how a particular art ought to be employed to express Christian ideals. This judgment will be either well informed or ill informed. The only way for it to be well informed is to have leaders who have actually informed themselves, and that requires participation in high culture.

Some versions of Christianity object to the Lord’s people involving themselves in the pursuits of high culture. These objections are without force. Furthermore, Christians have serious reasons for demanding that at least some of their leaders breathe the air of high culture.

None of this means that every Christian is obligated to become an artist or a scholar. What it does mean is that every Christian is obligated to understand the value of such pursuits and to encourage rather than discourage those who are most interested in them. Ultimately, what is at stake is not some form of cultural snobbishness or elitism, but the integrity of Christian faith and practice.

The Starre.
George Herbert (1593-1633)

Bright spark, shot from a brighter place,
     Where beams surround my Saviours face,
              Canst thou be any where
                   So well as there?

Yet, if thou wilt from thence depart,
     Take a bad lodging in my heart;
              For thou canst make a debter,
                   And make it better.

First with thy fire-work burn to dust
     Folly, and worse then folly, lust:
              Then with thy light refine,
                   And make it shine.

So disengag’d from sinne and sicknesse,
     Touch it with thy celestiall quicknesse,
              That it may hang and move
                   After thy love.

Then with our trinitie of light,
     Motion, and heat, let’s take our flight
              Unto the place where thou
                   Before didst bow.

Get me a standing there, and place
     Among the beams, which crown the face
              Of him, who dy’d to part
                   Sinne and my heart:

That so among the rest I may
     Glitter, and curle, and winde as they:
              That winding is their fashion
                   Of adoration.

Sure thou wilt joy, by gaining me
     To flie home like a laden bee
              Unto that hive of beams
                   And garland-streams.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Especially appreciated this...

Kevin wrote:
The fundamental problem is not that high culture exposes people to erroneous points of view, but that all humans, including Christians, have depraved hearts that invent idols, whether they are exposed to high culture or not.

This has me curious...

Kevin wrote:
Given that churches use these arts, they must make a choice. They will either employ the arts carefully and intelligently, or they will use them haphazardly and irresponsibly. Either they will give thought to issues of meaning and propriety, or else, to the degree that they do not, they will give themselves over to the pursuit of appetite.

Can't quite put my finger on what my question is, but this one gave me pause. Maybe it's just that the concept is too briefly expressed here to be entirely sure what you mean. How much "giving thought to" is really necessary? How much care and intelligence? My impression is that if we go back centuries, many of the unlearned and unskilled practiced "low art" that today's culture critics now see as having been pretty good stuff. So I wonder if all the "either...or" options here really exhaust the possibilities.

But I'm convinced that taking high culture more seriously would be a very positive thing across the board.

JobK's picture

Obviously, Machen's view on what constitutes high culture, or meritorious culture with redeeming qualities, would have been quite different from the view of a 1st century early church Christian, and particularly if said Christian did not come from the Roman elite upper classes. When one considers that the early church was comprised mostly of laborers, slaves and noncitizens in an area of the world that we now call the Middle East (i.e. Judea and Samaria), Asia (Turkey) and the third world (north Africa) what role did pursuing high culture have amongst a people who were primarily concerned with acquiring daily food, clothing and shelter, and at times surviving outbreaks of state oppression and persecution?

As it was then, so is it now. Today, most Christians live outside the relatively safe, affluent confines of the west, and as a result they are not only estranged from high culture, but are primarily concerned with dealing with poverty, disease, warfare and oppression/persecution. So, how is the call to better themselves by taking on the pursuits of people who A) are more affluent than they and Cool whose culture is foreign to theirs relevant to their experience? How does it strengthen their faith or comfort them in their affliction?

No, I am not taking some argument from emergents or new evangelicals, either. They use the "relevant" arguments as an excuse for abandoning Biblical truth because they do not wish to suffer the persecution associated with standing for it. But as the New Testament nowhere tells us to indulge in high cultural pursuits, why add to the burden of Christians meeting in illegal house churches in China, on the run from jihadists in Iraq, and facing repression elsewhere by encouraging them to acquire and listen to Mozart? And while I have nothing against a strong liberal arts education, I would encourage one of the many Christian men living in our ghettos, public housing projects, poverty-stricken rural areas etc. to learn a trade so that he can better himself as quickly and with as much economic stability as possible (I would imagine that far fewer diesel mechanics were affected by the recent economic downturn than folks with master's degrees in French literature).

As Christianity is supposed to be universal in its scope and not just by and for westerners with some means at their disposal, we shouldn't be dabbling in such provincial issues. Instructing Christians to refrain from sinfully defiling their minds and bodies with debasing, profane and vulgar pursuits is enough. The Bible already contains these commands in many places, and the problem is not the lack of high culture, but the failure to teach and adhere to these commands (ironically often done in the name of "relevance" in these times).

Finally, allow me to say that as Machen's high culture conceits included being an ardent supporter and promoter of segregation, and not just supporting the law of the land in society http://bradley.chattablogs.com/archives/2010/07/why-didnt-they.html but also in the church , thereby making it not only a questionable social/legal practice but also a false, heretical and destructive doctrine, one must "consider the source" when it comes to this line of argument and decide precisely how much vanity and leaven comes along with it. And that is why my first mention of the early church is relevant. The early church was not segregated and it did not suffer those who spread false doctrines promoting this wicked ecclesiastical practice. As the "high culture" of Machen included and promoted this error even among the very churches, pardon me for proposing that the culture of the early church was superior on koinonia and other things of major importance.

Solo Christo, Soli Deo Gloria, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura
http://healtheland.wordpress.com

GregH's picture

Great post on this JobK. Perhaps the most level headed rational argument against this high culture perspective I have heard in quite a while.

Charlie's picture

Job, I don't know that Machen or Bauder were arguing for any of the things you attribute to them. When did Machen ever blame Chinese Christians for not listening to enough Mozart?

Arguing from the experience of persecuted Chinese Christians, or ancient persecuted Roman Christians, to contemporary Americans is just as illegitimate as the reverse. I would tell a persecuted Christian that his responsibility is to survive. After that, worship, witness, and train your family as you are able.

What about, though, the people to whom Machen is actually speaking, affluent Americans who stand in a particular cultural tradition? Considering that all American churches are going to have some sort of culture, and that culture influences the way we think and act, isn't it natural to seek to inculcate a good culture rather than a poor one? I also note that Machen, at least as presented here, is not particularly concerned to point out exactly which poets, composers, and philosophers one should read. He's making the much broader argument that some Christians need to participate in the activities that create and shape culture. Furthermore, all Christians, even ones that do not create culture in that sense, can benefit from the pursuits of those who do. Bauder's point is that we can't benefit from them unless we acknowledge them as good and useful.

My Blog: http://dearreaderblog.com

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Mike Harding's picture

Dr. Bauder,

Thank you for the excellent article. Well-needed and hopefully well-received!

Pastor Harding

Pastor Mike Harding

SDHaynie's picture

This is the best short treatment of this subject I have read in a long time...brought back memories of what I count to be the best longer treatment of this theme, Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, by Franky Schaeffer. I think it has been updated...now the subtitle is Contemporary Christians and the Arts...but I haven't read the update. However, I can highly recommend the original edition to everyone...but be ready to have your feelings/opinions/presuppositions bruised...Schaeffer doesn't pull any punches.
Thanks again for a great post on a needed subject.

Shawn Haynie

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Charlie wrote:
Machen, at least as presented here, is not particularly concerned to point out exactly which poets, composers, and philosophers one should read. He's making the much broader argument that some Christians need to participate in the activities that create and shape culture. Furthermore, all Christians, even ones that do not create culture in that sense, can benefit from the pursuits of those who do. Bauder's point is that we can't benefit from them unless we acknowledge them as good and useful.

Yeah, I think Jobk & GregH missed the point here. There is Chinese high culture, Middle Eastern high culture and Western high culture, etc. In some cases, you have to go back a good bit further to find it, but living where we do, the western tradition is our heritage. Plus all cultures are not equal and some have given much more weight to Christian ideas in their ideological mix.
I don't know if Machen's essay says much about what defines "high" culture, but you can see in Kevin's here that we're talking about art forms/forms of expression that involve dedicating most of your life to mastering and advancing--with the accomplishments of those who came before as your starting point. So a major distinction is whether the form is an advancement or a deconstruction and whether there is a high level of discipline. But other distinctions include having shown an ability to endure across centuries (rather than merely decades, though very little of today's art even manages that).

RPittman's picture

Dr. Bauder plays his hand close to the chest. Without risk, it is had to attribute a position to Bauder unless he specifically and clearly states it. Although his presentation of Machen seems positive enough, I wonder how it correlates to something he suggested elsewhere. In another article, Bauder mused on whether the theatre was compatible with Christianity because so many Christians in history were opposed to it. Is there something in the thing itself that mitigates against Christianity? How would Bauder relate the theatre, considering that it usually considered a part of high culture, to Machen's ideas?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Kevin did a series on theater as an art form in '07. The final part is http://sharperiron.org/2007/01/16/fundamentalists-and-theater-act-five-c... ]here and includes links to the preceding four parts.

I suspect that taking exception to one particular art form does not destroy Machen's argument about high culture in general.

Edit: It seems he doesn't really argue against theater though....

KB wrote:
Perhaps you have noticed that this series of essays has offered no direct argument either for or against theater. Of course, I have a bias, and I doubt that any careful reader can fail to have noticed it. Still, the point of the essays has not been to argue the merits of theater one way or the other. The purpose of the essays is to get us to the point at which we can begin a meaningful discussion.

In attempting to prepare the way for that discussion, I have tried to take four steps. The first essay attempted to outline the history of our recent and significant shift in attitude toward the theater. The second summarized my own background in the theatrical arts so readers might understand how existential this issue can become and how personal it is for me. The third essay urged that we must understand how theater works, paying close attention both to our own experiences of theater and to the long conversation about the nature of theatrical communication. The last essay added that seeking to understand the prohibition of theater throughout the Christian past is the best way of compensating for our own myopic situation.

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