Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Cultural Christianity

Three weeks in Greece has caused me to reconsider the benefit of cultural, material Christianity. Protestantism, specifically the Calvinist form, is based largely on its despisal. Thinking Luther had not gone far enough in freeing the ship of faith from centuries of accumulated cultural barnacles, second generation Reformers (whose leading light was Calvin) sought to finish the job, scrubbing the hull almost right through the wood.

Do you find yourself, like so many young Protestants, on the Canterbury Trail? Despite the gridlocked disputation and theological apoplexy and of the Episcopal Church, are you growing in appreciation of its time-tested liturgy? Calvin, in a section entitled "Their Mysteries are Mockeries," offers these not exactly measured reflections on the love of ceremony:
So today not only the untutored crowd but any man who is greatly puffed up with worldly wisdom is marvelously captivated by ceremonial pomp. Indeed, hypocrites and lightheaded women think that nothing more beautiful or better can be imagined. But those who more deeply investigate and, according to the rule of piety, more truly weigh the value of so many and such ceremonies, understand first that they are trifles because they have no usefulness; secondly, that the are tricks because they delude the eyes of the spectators with empty pomp (Bk. IV chp. X pt. 12, p. 1190).
Do you find yourself, like so many young Protestants, considering with fondness the physicality of the Church, appreciating art and architecture that is not generically modern but historically and specifically Christian? Said Calvin,
we need not see the church with the eyes or touch it with the hands. Rather it belongs to the realm of faith"(Bk. IV chp. I pt. 3 p. 1014).
Do you find yourself becoming increasingly sacramental in your sensibilities, not to replace a living faith but to enhance it? Once again, here's Calvin, this time regarding the "false sacrament" of confirmation:
We see the oil - the gross and greasy liquid - nothing else... Those who call oil 'the oil of salvation' forswear the salvation which is in Christ; they deny Christ, and they have no part in God's Kingdom... For all these weak elements which decay with use have nothing to do with God's Kingdom, which is spiritual and will never decay (Bk. IV chp. XIX pt. 5 and 7, p. 1453-55).
For contrast, compare the sentiment of Eastern Christianity. "I do not worship matter," says John of Damascus in a quote I never tire of citing,
I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God (Apologia pt. 1).
Whereas the latter John's ideas nurtured centuries of churches, frescoes, mosaics and icons, the former John's stripping of cultural Christianity has proven capable of turning churches into strip clubs. As I pointed out last year (surely you recall), the textbook case of Calvin's iconoclasm, the Oudekerk of Amsterdam, is now in the heart of the red light district.

Fast forward from the 16th to the 21st centuries, where the heirs of Calvin have had the chance to accumulate more than a few cultural barnacles of their own. But the Calvinist instinct endures. The rite of passage of a young Protestant (at least where I went to school) is the despising of whatever cultural Protestantism we were infected with as impressionable teenagers. The evangelical intelligentsia, or what I might playfully call "Books & Culture-culture," is fueled to a significant extent by highbrow rejection of Protestant cultural Christianity. Despise it (without losing faith completely), and you're in. Neuhaus expressed the phenomenon anecdotally:
An agnostic friend who taught at an Ivy League university for years underwent a born-again experience under Baptist auspices. For his sabbatical year, he decided to accept an invitation to teach at an evangelical college. He discovered, he tells me, that the most self-consciously sophisticated of this evangelical colleagues were the most boringly parochial. They were touchingly eager to convince him and others that they were in conversation with what my friend viewed, and knew all too well, as the stiflingly parochial and achingly correct discourse of the Ivy League. They displayed, he said, a practiced aloofness, bordering on disdain, for the Baptist faith and life that was, for my friend, the bracing alternative to 'the larger culture.' One person's stifling ghetto is another's bracing alternative (p. 12).
Of course there is much in Protestant cultural Christianity that is theologically sketchy, and there are lots of excellent articles in Books & Culture that you won't ever find in Christianity Today. And no it's not a bad thing to leave Left Behind's eschatology behind... but nor is it bad that lots of people are reading about the fact that Jesus is coming again and seeking to be spiritually prepared. We should take a cue from Paul and forgo despising, because the thing about unsophisticated, nuanceless, overbearing, kitschy cultural Christianity is that it's not going to go away. And that's a good thing.

There are many examples I could give of this kind of cultural Christianity in Greece, a country whose Christians have been subject to more than their share of oppression, and who consequently have learned some hard lessons of endurance. Consider the perpetual crossing and kissing, crossing and kissing, that happens as each soul thinks with their respective bodies as they enter the sacred space of the Orthodox church; or the many mountainside chapels and murals, where my instinctual Protestant distaste was overcome in realizing that whether or not such devotional channels avoid my theological scruples, given the choice between these expressions and Ottoman conquest, I'd prefer the first. Perhaps the strongest example was in Phillipi, one of the most well preserved of all ancient Biblical sites. Try to find the city as it stood when Paul preached there, and you won't. You'll find a place that claims to be the famous prison, but it's unlikely that it actually is. What you will find however are churches - massive, two-story, giant basilicas. In fact, three of them. What you will find is cultural, material Christianity by the ton. It is as impossible to find the pure essence of New Testament Christianity as it is impossible to find the ground that Paul walked on - what we have instead are basilicas. You could dig past them, but even then what would you find? Pagan temples that preceded the Christian ones, which are (at least to me), hardly preferable.

Explains Robert Louis Wilken in a very helpful article on the matter at hand,
Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church's history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture.
Cultural Christianity is of course not enough. It is a supplement to genuine, vibrant, orthodox Christian faith. But for those not quite prepared for the latter, a Christianity of culture is a helpful waiting room until the moment of interior conversion arrives. Furthermore, cultural Christianity is necessary insulation against the cold blasts of secularism, and so is stripped away to our peril. A healthy degree of body fat may not look sexy, but it is healthy, and if you're caught in a blizzard, it could save your life. Likewise a deposit of cultural Christianity may not impress your hipster friends, but it could be the very things that helps Christianity survive whatever challenge to it may be waiting around the bend.

Certainly all Christians, as they are able, should develop their eyes and ears beyond Warner Sallman and CCM. But many have not, and among them, most will not they have time, money or opportunity to refine their sensibilities until the new heavens and new earth (where I expect they'll have to). For those of us a bit more elevated, good for us. But sophistication need not be accompanied by snobbery, and it best not. For it's not a far step away from despising cultural Christianity to despising Christianity to, dare I say? Dare I will... despising Christ.