11 September 2008

Culture Making

Andy Crouch argues that American Christians adopted broadly four stances in relation to culture during the course of the 20th century, in each case taking an appropriate gesture toward certain elements of culture and inappropriately expanding it into a comprehensive posture toward the common culture in general.

While some cultural products (like sex trafficking) demand outright condemnation from Christians, a posture of condemnation fails to account for the goodness of culture, warps Christian testimony to hope and mercy, facilitates hypocrisy, and—particularly in response to artistic works—comes across as "shrill and silly."

Critique, by contrast, is an entirely appropriate response to works of art, the more so the better the art. But a posture of critique diminishes the delight to be taken in many good products of culture, and encourages a certain kind of cultural passivity that overemphasizes analysis and underappreciates participation and production.

A pot of tea, a loaf of bread—the best first response to these is savoring consumption. But a posture of consumption limits us to living "unthinkingly within a culture's preexisting horizons of possibility and impossibility."

Consumerism is capitulation to the existing culture at a deep level, allowing our very identity to be defined by what we can purchase. Copying from a culture is, at best, a recognition of "the lesson of Pentecost that every human language, every human cultural form, is capable of bearing the good news." But copying as a posture produces inauthentic, dated, and tame results.

Instead, Crouch says, the cultural postures Christians should adopt are those of cultivation and creation. Cultivators are "people who tend and nourish what is best in human culture, who do the hard and painstaking work to preserve the best of what people before us have done." And creators are "people who dare to think and do something that has never been thought or done before, something that makes the world more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful."

-- Gideon Straus, reviewing Andy Crouch's new book, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, in Books & Culture, Sep/Oct 2008

10 July 2008

Charles Williams, the third 'Inkling'

Here's something interesting by Archbishop Rowan Williams, from a recent TLS:

Of the three central and iconic figures of the “Inklings”, Charles Williams has always been rather the odd man out in comparison with J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. This is not only to do with Tolkien’s well-documented antipathy towards Williams; there is a whiff of brimstone in the nostrils of some when they read of his involvement in hermetic or occultist groups, and of his agonized and confused sexuality. The novels are bewildering in style and content (Ashenden quotes C. S. Lewis’s acerbic comment that Williams did not always know how to hit the golden mean between Dante and Wodehouse), the late poetry famously obscure, and the critical and theological essays wildly idiosyncratic. Yet it is impossible not to feel that he inhabited a larger world than either Tolkien or Lewis (as the latter acknowledged); and someone who made so deep an impact on both T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, neither of them carelessly generous in their literary or personal estimates of others, surely deserves a second look. Geoffrey Hill has recently stressed the energy and intelligence of Williams’s work on the history of English poetry. Theologians continue to circle round the doctrinal work with nervous respect. And the late “Taliesin” poems still excite something of the same uncertain fascination in a surprising variety of readers....

Times Literary Supplement 18 Jun 2008

27 March 2008

Centre for Public Christianity launch

Two of my Anglican colleagues, Greg Clarke and John Dickson, have teamed up to launch the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX), a research and media organisation promoting the public understanding of the Christian faith. As John puts it, they don't think Christianity needs to be pushed (down people's throats) - it just needs some airtime. That sounds reasonable to me.

There's a new Centre born every minute, but CPX is worth taking seriously - rather like Theos, the new British Christian think tank engaging specifically with public theology. But as I understand it, CPX aims to go broader and deeper into culture and theology, as well as apologetics and history, and if all goes well it will become an important fresh resource and voice for an evangelical representation of the Christian faith.

Not that Clarke and Dickson are mentioning the E word too loudly. After all, this is Sydney, and those look like Anglican churches in the launch clip. But this is no clandestine Sydney Anglican bid to claim 10 per cent of our hearts and minds; as the website notes, the Centre exists through the generosity of private donors and corporations. Notably, I'm told, a grant from the avowedly non-denominational Mission Australia.

Check out the introduction to the Centre for Public Christianity with Leigh Hatcher. Or for the latest CPX press releases, articles and upcoming events check out the news page. And visit the library page for the full range of CPX audio, video and print commentary. As the archive builds, I hope the cogency of argument and range of subjects/issues also increases. Australia (and the online world) needs Christianity 101, but also much more.

This initiative comes from an impressive vision, and it's great to see CPX launched and beginning to do its good work.

Culturally savvy Christians

I read today that Dick Staub has written an interesting book called The Culturally Savvy Christian (Jossey-Bass, 2008). With an extensive knowledge of American popular culture, Staub suggests we don't combat what is superficial, but should instead seek to understand and transform it.

Staub quotes from rock lyrics, movies, and other mainstream media, finding much that is superficial, therapeutic, and overly focused on celebrity and profit. I'm not surprised. Gen X and Y discovered that a long time ago, but there's not much alternative product. Unless you lift the lid on the church ... in which case you'll find much that is superficial, therapeutic, and overly focused on celebrity and profit.

One of the problems with transforming culture is that we refashion it in our own image, which is already fashioned in the image of our culture. To challenge the cultural hegemony, we need to subvert and renew not only its products and production base but its political base ... and that takes guts with little hope of glory.

Oh, and last time I looked, the prophets and artists who used to appear so fresh and hopeful had all become advocates of artful profiteering.

Ah, modernity....

23 March 2008

Happy clappers

On the occasion of the Easter weekend, Jill Rowbotham reports on the growing harmony between Christianity and popular culture (The Australian, 22 Mar 2008).

Living in Sydney, it's hard to escape the pull of Hillsong's music and ethos. It's not for everyone, but there are good reasons to respect and borrow from it. I took my family to an early-evening Tenebrae service at a mainstream church in Sydney's CBD on Thursday. We sat in a huge wood-panelled auditorium with about 35 people (mostly "older Anglo-Australian" couples dressed as though for a wedding), listening to classical music on a towering pipe organ, and responding to a finely wrought liturgy that might have comforted the stalwarts but failed to connect with the two or three 20-something tourists in T-shirts who turned up. And, while there was a choir at the front-left and a TV crew in the shadows to the right, there were no children in the audience apart from my three.

What may have worked in 1950 in the centres of European Christianity does not work in Sydney in 2008, among people accustomed to plasma vision, hi-fi sound and seamless communication excellence. Outside the church walls, people inhabit a jarringly different culture.

But there is a measurable and growing infiltration of Christian artists and cultural products in this "other" culture. Indeed one could speak of cross-fertilisation (no pun intended!). It's natural for Christians to use the technology and forms of a host culture, and to thereby transform church traditions. As Rowbotham says, "The church is built for the long haul and with clear signs it is getting the hang of the digital age ... it may yet learn to mobilise popular support for its eternal message."

Let's hope so. And let's resist the temptation to harvest the church's tall poppies, and to bad-mouth innovations that strike a winning note and sincerely seek to promote the good news of Jesus Christ.

22 March 2008

The atheist delusion

'Opposition to religion occupies the high ground, intellectually and morally,' wrote Martin Amis recently. Over the past few years, leading writers and thinkers have published bestselling tracts against God. John Gray on why the 'secular fundamentalists' have got it all wrong.

An atmosphere of moral panic surrounds religion. Viewed not so long ago as a relic of superstition whose role in society was steadily declining, it is now demonised as the cause of many of the world's worst evils. As a result, there has been a sudden explosion in the literature of proselytising atheism. A few years ago, it was difficult to persuade commercial publishers even to think of bringing out books on religion. Today, tracts against religion can be enormous money-spinners, with Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great selling in the hundreds of thousands. For the first time in generations, scientists and philosophers, high-profile novelists and journalists are debating whether religion has a future. The intellectual traffic is not all one-way. There have been counterblasts for believers, such as The Dawkins Delusion? by the British theologian Alister McGrath and The Secular Age by the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor. On the whole, however, the anti-God squad has dominated the sales charts, and it is worth asking why.

Read more here...

19 March 2008

Welcome to the new Culture and God blog!

This blog explores the relations between contemporary culture and Christian theology. More about this soon....