Make Culture Christian Again

Everyone agrees. The West has a problem. For good or for ill, what we used to call “Western civilization” is crumbling. The monuments of its past are being pulled down. Its heroes are being wiped from the public memory. Efforts at stemming the loss are vilified as “racist” and “white supremacist.” Nobody in polite society wants to be associated with its institutions and ideals anymore.

Particularly not with Christianity.

Even in so-called conservative circles, to call oneself “Christian”—as opposed to “Judeo-Christian”—is something of a faux pas. A bit gauche. Definitely lowbrow. Not particularly intellectual. Certainly not something a rational thinker would wholeheartedly embrace. Well, perhaps it is okay to be Christian in the circles I frequent online, but then I have never been invited to the right cocktail parties. Not that I would have any idea how to behave.

Then again, as they say, turnabout is fair play.

I’m a Christian, and Christianity has always been a bit embarrassing to the highly cultured.

Augustine of Hippo found Christianity’s lack of culture particularly painful before he became a Christian. He was, after all, a teacher of rhetoric, and the scriptures (at least in the translations in which he read them) could not hold a candle to the great literary works of the pagans. It was only when he heard Ambrose unlocking the mysteries contained in the Christian scriptures’ crude phrases that he was able to swallow his pride as a rhetorician and embrace the sermo humilis of Christ.

You could say that being embarrassing to the highly cultured was, is, and ever shall be Christianity’s defining USP.

Or, at least, it should be, if you understand the difference between “culture” and “praise.”

Culture is about how people live. What language they speak. What they wear, what they eat, whom they marry, how they interact with each other socially. How they raise their children. “High” culture issues in art, architecture, music, philosophy, and science, but it, too, is grounded in the ways in which people live. Culture has to do with the ways of the flesh: sex, food, bodily manners. It has to do with the way in which people manipulate the world around them materially, whether for the sake of physical necessity or for the sake of beauty.

Culture, in other words, is of this world. But Christ’s kingdom is not.

This is why it is so hard to spot Christians in a crowd. Christians eat everything. Christians wear the same clothes as everyone else. Christians sport piercings and tattoos—or not. Christians play all different kinds of music. Christians make all different kinds of art. Christians have no particular skin or hair color. Christians marry whom they please, not whom their families tell them to marry. Christians read all different kinds of stories. Christians speak every language on earth.

Christians, in other words, blend. But they do not mix.

It was ever thus, even in antiquity.

As one early Christian explained in a letter addressed to the tutor of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. 
The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. 
But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. 
As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring.* They have a common table, but not a common bed. 
They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. 
They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.
“Yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.” Our early Christian apologist is being disingenuous. Of course Christians are assailed as foreigners and persecuted as rubes. We do not belong in the world, everyone knows it, and it drives them crazy.

Culture is about marking oneself as belonging to a particular group.

What is infuriating about Christians is our refusal to worry about belonging or marking ourselves as in any way “cultured.” As Remi Brague notes in his Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern World (2019), unlike with other religions, there is no such thing as “Christian culture,” only Christians who participate in the culture in which they find themselves. In Brague’s words:
For instance, there is in Judaism a Talmudic cuisine, based on the rules of Kashrut; there are Christian cooks, but there is no Christian cuisine. There is in Islam a so-called prophetic medicine, based on the pieces of advice given by Muhammed in some cases and summarized in some collections of hadith which have this name, prophetic medicine; there are Christian physicians, but there is no Christian medicine. There is in Islam an Islamic dress code, the Islamic veil for each grown-up female, the commandment that each adult male let his beard grow and trim his mustache; there are Christian tailors and hairdressers, but there is no Christian fashion. 
Are you starting to understand why “Western civilization” is under threat? Christians have no way to defend themselves against traditions grounded in culture, that is, in everybody adhering to certain cultural rules—and yet, without Christianity, cultures die.

This is the paradox on which Western civilization, insofar as it is Christian, depends: what makes a culture “Christian” is not its social institutions or material artifacts.

What a makes a culture “Christian” is its focus on God.

The monks of the Middle Ages understood this paradox. They worked and they prayed, but they did not do so for the sake of “culture.” They worked and prayed out of the desire to praise God as the Creator of heaven and earth, and in order to do so, they developed great art forms, particularly music, liturgical poetry, book-making, painting, metalworking, drama, and architecture.

Great art—or food or clothing or social institutions—does not make a culture great. What makes a culture great is the purpose for which the art is made.

This is why modern art sucks.

It is also why Western civilization is failing.

Without God, “culture” is simply “cult.” Idolatry. The worship of things that human beings have made. Things like statues and Constitutions. Things like flags and governments. Things like ideas about freedom of speech and equality before the law.

All artifacts of human invention.

All things of this world.

But Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.

And yet, the world that God made is good—and worthy of praise as a creature of God.

Everything that we conservatives say we value about Western civilization has its ground in Christianity and the praise of God as Creator of heaven and earth. Paradoxically, the reason that we are at risk of losing those things—our institutions, our traditions of art, music, philosophy, literature, and architecture, our history as nations—is because they were never about “culture.”

Insofar as they were Christian, they were not about us and our desire to be “cultured.” They were about God and giving praise for his gifts.

If we are losing our culture, perhaps it is because we are no longer thankful enough for God’s gifts.

Perhaps it is because we have forgotten the ground of our being in God and are grasping at idols instead.

God as Creator
Bible moralisée, ca. 1220-1230
Vienna, Cod. Vindobonensis 1179, fol. 1v
References

Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, trans. Roberts-Donaldson

Rémi Brague, Curing Mad Truths: Medieval Wisdom for the Modern Age (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2019)

For further reflections on the importance of Christianity to Western culture, see MedievalGate and Medieval History 101: The Unauthorized Version.

*NB: Even in antiquity, Christians were remarkable for not aborting or killing their children.

Comments

  1. A carpenter with only a hammer sees every problem as a nail. A fresh convert proselytizes loudest. I'm not faulting you, I agree with much of your linking western civilization to Christianity (Accepting your unspoken, Christianity means Catholicism.) but I feel the fall of civilization can not be tied to too tightly abandonment of God, I see it as being due more to the creation of gods; the state, the society, the latest whatever.

    More and more I suspect humans are, generally, hard wired to worship. Visiting the Russian wild far East, I remember in a graveyard, the older headstones had Orthodox crosses carved in to the top, the newer ones, an enameled disk with a Russian star containing a hammer and sickle mounded in the same position. I saw both as an expression of faith and worship.

    OK, OK, I'll stop picking nits &, none the less, as Unknowns says above, great work!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am a fresh Catholic, but a lifelong Christian, and a medievalist for over thirty years! Plus being an historian, I tend to take the long view on things. It drives my modernist colleagues nuts, too!

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    2. "I feel the fall of civilization can not be tied to too tightly abandonment of God, I see it as being due more to the creation of gods; the state, the society, the latest whatever."

      This is a strange statement. The creation of more "gods", like "the state, the society, the latest whatever" is due exclusively to the abandonment of God.

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  2. Dear FBP,

    This post is most excellent. I really like the way you've pulled together St. Augustine, The Letter to Diognetus, and Brague to bring out the essential truth about our Lord not mandating particular cultural norms (beyond his Great Commandment and the Memorial of the Sacred Liturgy), but rather that all Christian culture flows from praise of the Logos.

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  3. I think, when examining Religious Cultures, they do stand out because each (Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, etc.) has physical roots in a particular part of planet Earth. Christianity was birthed in an area where there was an already deeply established culture... be that food, clothing, etc. Christians had no day-to-day tradition to bring to places with them except for their Beluef in Christ. No problem with that. Creating beauty in the name of Deity is a worldwide cultural tradition. Consider the incredible works of ancient Egypt, or the ancient marvels like Ankor Wat.

    The best thing Christians can do to contribute to any culture is to respect non-Christian cultures as much as they want Christian art, music, etc. to be.

    If there is beauty, God appreciates it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pre-Islamic Arab tribes had a culture of their own before Islam, Ka'aba was already there, so was Hajj. Hare Krishna is a current of Hinduism that began in the 16th century in India, a place that had a deeply established culture. They strongly advise wearing Vedic clothing, Christians don't ask other Christians to dress like the Romans did.

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  4. This is so true. This post describes excellently a phenomenon easy to spot but difficult to phrase.

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  5. "...yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred." That reminds me of Chesterton's observation that he started looking seriously at Christianity (I cant' remember whether the Church in particular, or just Christianity in general) because all the arguments against it seemed to contradict each other (it was supposedly too ascetic AND too permissive, to cerebral and too emotional, too high-brow and too much the faith of the unwashed, etc.) and he wondered what the thing was that so many people hated without any one clear reason why.

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  6. I just learned of you and your work and your faith journey. I am a life-long learner, so your insights expressed in this blog post are most helpful. We are but sojourners with a 'long view'. Your point about culture without purpose is just a cult (idolatry). I will keep you and your efforts to speak up in prayer.

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  7. Thank you so much for these lectures. This is nothing like the medieval history and literature courses I took at university. Just got through the lectures and am off to look at your reference links!

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  8. Thank you for this. I just saw Milo's book and till then had merely assumed Medieval Studies still to be a bastion of Christian culture in academia. How could it be otherwise? I am shocked that the haters and "deconstructors" have spread their insidious poison there, too!

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  9. Your series has quickly become my favorite part of unauthorized TV. Keep them coming!

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Thank you for taking the time to respond to my blog post. I look forward to hearing what you think!

F.B.

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