This is the second day of Christmas, and also the day of St. Stephen, proto-martyr. Never mind that the traditional twelve days of Christmas have been tossed into a cocked hat by our venerable betters in cone hats who decided that Epiphany, January 6, is to be observed on the nearest Sunday. This year it is Sunday, January 8. Consider this an opportunity to observe the twelve days of Christmas + 2.
Is “culture war” the right phrase, and, if not, what phrase better captures the reality? I expect the debates will go on until the cows come home. (I’ve always liked that image, although from my limited boyhood experience on the farm, I don’t recall that the cows ever came home on their own initiative.) One argument is that we’re not in a culture war because there is no common culture to fight about. What once was an identifiable American culture is now balkanized, and has been for a long time. We are all living in subculures now. Ross Douthat, whose day job is with the Atlantic , has been guest blogging for Andrew Sullivan and he has this to say:
[A]merica has a lowbrow culture that’s still pretty religious, but whose religiosity tends to be, well, lowbrow—a lowest-common-denominator mix of self-help spirituality and New Age mush. And the highbrow culture, meanwhile, isn’t religious at all: it’s not anti-religion, exactly, but it definitely considers religious belief an oddity and an anachronism, and orthodox Christian belief dangerously close to fanaticism. Which is one of the reasons that most religiosity in America is so lowbrow—because the highly intelligent people who might elevate the level of religious discourse have their faith leeched out of them by their immersion in the highbrow, in its assumptions and its prejudices. And the people who complain about this—about how we don’t have any more Reinhold Niebuhrs, and isn’t it a tragedy?—tend to be exactly the people who in an earlier era would have been the Niebuhrs, but who now partake of what Richard John Neuhaus once called ‘the pleasures of regretful unbelief.’
What we need, then—and by “we” I mean Christians, though I obviously think there would be benefits to non-Christians as well—is a more highbrow Christianity, and one that doesn’t prostrate itself on the altar of political correctness, as token highbrow Catholics like Garry Wills are wont to do. Perhaps ‘culture war’ is the wrong word to use in this context, since we don’t necessarily need more Christians making the case against same-sex marriage, or pushing all their chips into the battle over courthouse displays in Alabama. We need more Christians writing good novels and essays and doctoral theses, and television shows and movies and music—all of which might inter alia make the case for a Christian understanding of, say, sexuality, but which would be primarily works of art and intellect and not polemics, creating a cultural space rather than just a political movement.
We can’t expect any favors: The doors of highbrow American culture have been closed against that sort of thing for decades now, and you can’t expect the New Yorker or the New York Times to just throw them open - why should they? They’re content with the world they’ve made, in which Philip Pullman is a hero, C.S. Lewis is a sad “prisoner” of his religious belief, science is always under assault from fundamentalism and monotheism is an easy whipping boy for all of history’s ills. Christians keep insisting that this world has it all wrong, of course, but it’s not enough to say it—we need to show them.
Suggesting how we might show them, Douthat links to Amazon books and the remarkable volumes by Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity and The Victory of Reason , in which Stark relates how Christianity showed them (meaning the world) before and might show them again.
Douthat is right, of course, but there is more to be said on this. (When isn’t there?) Lowbrow, anti-intellectual, and downright vulgar Christianity in the public square is an embarrassment. But, in defending the constitutional rights of religion in public, one has no choice but to defend what shows up to be defended. In coming to the aid of those suffering from anti-religious discrimination, I have often wished for a better quality of victim. You don’t always get to choose your battles, or your allies.
I confess to having little patience with Christians of fastidious taste who don’t want to be associated with “them.” So much do they want to distinguish themselves from “them” that they usually end up on the other side. The deeper cultural, historical, and theological reality is that “they” are us. Not all their causes are ours. But their cause (if not always their way) of witnessing to the lordship of Christ in the face of a sub-pagan highbrow culture is ours.
And yes, some potential Reinhold Niebuhrs have gone over to the dark side. But there are today Christian thinkers of the quality of Niebuhr. Some of them, I would like to think, appear in the pages of F IRST T HINGS . But, unlike sixty years ago, the gatekeepers of the high culture today are virulently hostile to explicitly Christian thinkers. Back then, association with Niebuhr provided Christian cover for non-Christians and anti-Christians aspiring to places of influence in what was taken to be a Christian society. That is a significant part of what Arthur Schlesinger and others meant when they claimed membership in “Atheists for Niebuhr.”
Please note that this is intended as an addendum to, and not a disagreement with, the observations of Ross Douthat. He is clearly right in saying that the great task for Christians in the years ahead is to show them.
In addition to which :
Is F IRST T HINGS breaking even yet? Of course not. Almost no serious magazine of ideas breaks even, never mind turning a profit. F IRST T HINGS is a lean operation that survives on income from subscriptions and advertising—and, very importantly, from the annual appeal to subscribers that is now in the mail. Please be generous. If you have questions about how you can support F IRST T HINGS , please get in touch through the “Contact Us” button above. Thank you.