Christianity and High Culture

Rather, he wants Christians to remember that they are not actually called to change the world, but to be faithful witnesses in the world.

I have been reading James Davison Hunter’s disturbing book To Change the World – The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Davison Hunter’s thesis is even though Christians desperately and sincerely want to engage the world for the better, they are actually pretty bad at doing it. In fact, Christians have embraced strategies that cannot hope to bring about change in the world.

There’s lots to say about this provocative read, but one particular thing caught my eye. Davison Hunter points out that evangelicalism as a movement is prodigious at cultural production at a popular level (especially in the US) but has almost no traction in ‘high’ culture.

For example: the Christian publishing industry is multi-million dollar phenomenon, with its own publishing houses and its own bookshops. But very few titles cross-over into the mainstream, and almost all of these are what you would call ‘popular’ (think, The Shack or Left Behind). In the echelons of literary publishing there is almost no Christian presence at all.

There’s good reasons for this. The instinct of true Christianity is thoroughly egalitarian, in recognition of the significance of every human individual and the universal appeal of the gospel. Elitism is abhorrent to true Christianity and especially to missionary Christianity. As Davison Hunter says, ‘elitism for believers is despicable and utterly anathema to the gospel they cherish’.

Heaven forbid that churches, of all places, become the sites of exclusion and condescension.

But populism has its own vices. As Davison Hunter puts it:
the populism that is inherent to authentic Christian witness is often transformed into an oppressive egalitarianism that will suffer no distinction between higher and lower or better and worse. At its worst, it can take form as a ‘tyranny of the majority’ that will recognise no authority, nor hierarchy of value or quality or significance. When populism becomes a cultural egalitarianism, there is no incentive and no encouragement to excellence. (p. 94)

The dilemma that arises from this observation is this: the evangelical movement, which has aspirations to changing the world and not just winning souls, is addicted to a populism which is at odds with what we know about ‘the dynamics of world-changing’. The world is not changed by popular culture. The world (as Davison Hunter shows) is changed by the making of what we might call ‘high’ culture. This is not elitism: it is simply true. A work of superior aesthetic quality by its nature has a superior power to impact the world in which it is encountered.

As Davison Hunter says:
there is an unavoidable tension between pursuing excellence and the social consequences of its achievement; between leadership and an elitism that all too often comes with it. Is it possible to pursue excellence and, under God’s sovereignty, be in a position of influence and privilege and not be ensnared by the trappings of elitism? (p. 94)

The trouble is, too, that this tendency to populism means that evangelical Christianity often imbibes the worst features of popular culture – its shallowness, its brittleness and its attention deficit disorder, for example.

Davison Hunter is not calling on Christians to produce more operas so that we can extend our influence in the upper echelons of power in society. Rather, he wants Christians to remember that they are not actually called to change the world, but to be faithful witnesses in the world. The absence of Christians from these cultural forms is a failure of the call faithfully to witness to Christ in all the world. As he says: ‘The failure to encourage excellence in vocation in our time has fostered a culture of mediocrity in so many areas of vocation’ (p. 95).

This notion of faithful witness is what the martyrs of the early church period bequeathed to us as our inheritance. They were not about a grab for power – about get Christian hands on the levers of government so that the world might be more obviously ordered to Christian ends. They were instead about testifying to Christ whatever the cost. And actually: this was a more effective strategy for world-changing, as it turned out.

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