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We are living in an age marked by skepticism, intellectual incoherence, and hostility to great, commanding ideas. In such a time, many Christians spend a great deal of time and emotional energy simply holding onto their faith—holding on, that is, to their assent to the most basic, core beliefs of the faith.
Our time is also marked by widespread ethical illiteracy and moral carelessness, a setting in which the alleged vocation to “authenticity” displaces any other trajectory of virtue. Encouraged by powerful social forces to “follow our bliss,” that is, to trust the innocence of our untrained desires, the perennial struggle against sin has become for many Christians an alien and exotic pursuit at best. Heroic holiness has never been common, but it was once at least more commonly coveted. Today, it seems implausible to many Christians to keep the bar set so high.
An Obstacle to Maturity
The properly ecumenical ideal of “mere Christianity” upheld by this magazine has great benefits, but it is surely not a call to be content with being “barely Christian.” Called to make disciples, teaching them to observe everything the Lord of heaven and earth has commanded, the Church and its shepherds should emulate the Apostle Paul in his zeal of “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). That goal of maturity is a recognition of the fact that the faith of the Bible and the Church is a faith with profound and myriad ramifications, intellectually and morally.
A passion for Christian maturity is easily obscured when church leaders become preoccupied with the Church’s cultural relevance. The widespread desire to be (as the common term of art puts it) “culturally engaged” is often a distraction from the Church’s mission, not because it takes culture too seriously, but because it has not paid close enough attention to the actual state of our culture.
The prevailing strategy is to make the Church more congruent with the current cultural ethos, with fashionable sensibilities and forms, so that those outside the Church will be more likely to assent to a few Christian propositions. But this strategy fails to account for the depth and breadth of our culture’s disorder. It may nudge some toward the profession of faith, but it does so by removing from sight the glorious image of a fully ramified Christianity.
We might be able to sustain some resonance with our confused culture by remaining barely Christian, but becoming thoroughly Christian, exploring and enacting the cultural ramifications of our faith, requires us to be more prophetic toward the cultural status quo. Real cultural engagement requires the wisdom to repudiate and shun cultural disorder.
Shifting Styles & Values
The moral and intellectual liabilities of our moment are evident in our dominant cultural styles. For example, it is obvious that our society is less sympathetic toward formal patterns of behavior than it was forty years ago. Well into the 1960s, men thought nothing of wearing a tie to a baseball game (and the hats they commonly wore were not ball caps), women rarely wore jeans in public, and the display of torn or frayed clothing at school or at a shopping center would have been a source of embarrassment to members of either sex. What one wore to the gym was not what one wore to go out to dinner. There were generally recognized proprieties—socially sanctioned expectations—to which one (without much thought) deferred.
Today, we defer (without much thought) to the complete absence of any sense of deference. That shift toward informality, toward the abandonment of proprieties, is not, as many assume, simply a meaningless evolution of style. Numerous cultural observers, from Richard Weaver in 1948 (in Ideas Have Consequences and in other essays) to linguist John McWhorter in 2003 (in Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care) have argued that the contemporary preference for informality is deeply tied to suspicions about authority and about metaphysical hierarchy.
As McWhorter points out, “Formality in all realms, be it sartorial, terpsichorean, culinary, artistic, or linguistic, entails the dutiful acknowledgment of ‘higher’ public standards considered beyond question, requiring tutelage and effort to master.” The move toward informality is, at its deepest level, an expression of our culture’s valuing of individualism and moral autonomy.
Symbiosis of Form & Content
If Christians were really culturally engaged, really serious about recognizing meaning in forms of cultural expression, they would be much more reluctant to embrace certain cultural trends. Carelessly adopting cultural change without understanding the meaning of that change is to treat culture as something inherently frivolous. It represents a failure to take symbolic action seriously.
Convictions and conventions always live in a kind of symbiotic ecosystem. That, after all, is what a culture is: a network of mutually reinforcing conventions and convictions, interlocking patterns of form and content. Bad convictions bring forth and are sustained by certain (and suitable) conventions. Because we are embodied creatures, good convictions are not sustained simply by attaching good teaching to whatever conventions happen to be popular. We couldn’t use heavy metal music to instruct listeners about the virtues of gentleness and humility simply by changing the lyrics.
St. Paul exhibits a deep understanding of this symbiosis of form and content in his letter to Titus, a young pastor serving on the Aegean island of Crete, struggling in a congregation plagued by false teaching and division. The apostle recognizes that the disorder in that church is not going to be addressed unless Titus and his flock become very deliberate in repudiating the cultural mood of the society in which they live. Paul is not content to attribute the problems faced by Titus to a generic human cussedness. He sees that the barriers to faithfulness in that setting have been erected by an array of sensibilities deeply engrained in the culture of Crete, and he calls on the testimony of a shrewd cultural observer to identify the problem.
That witness is Epimenides, a poet of the sixth century B.C., who is held in high esteem by his fellow Cretans despite his blunt assessment of certain national characteristics. After St. Paul reiterates the tasks that have been assigned to Titus, he quotes from Epimenides. Informed by the pagan poet’s cultural discernment, Titus is to continue searching for reliable leadership for the church on the island, the ideal elder being a man who is
above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
The apostle thus describes a form of living capable of sustaining the content of the gospel. From the beginning of the letter, he is eager to underscore this unity of truth and goodness; in the first sentence of the letter, he asserts that he has been called to be an apostle “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness.” Belief cannot be separated from a way of life.
A Bracing Rebuke
But the way of life typical of Cretan culture was not one that accorded with truth or goodness, and this is where the insight of Epimenides is introduced. “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.” There are people in this church who “claim to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” (By the way, this letter is a useful resource in rebutting the claim that the author of the letter to the Romans didn’t share the interest in good works shown in the epistle of St. James.)
In the second chapter, St. Paul goes on to tell Titus to encourage a countercultural set of manners and convictions among his people: “Teach what accords with sound doctrine.” He doesn’t mean, “Teach those things that can be deduced from a core of dogma.” Rather, he wants Titus to encourage the forms of life that establish a cultural ecosystem in which truth and goodness might thrive: self-control, dignity, reverence, integrity, purity, submissiveness, temperance, and steadfastness.
The list looks like St. Paul constructed it with the stereotypical Cretan described by Epimenides in mind—impulsive, undisciplined, self-serving, and shameless. The believers in Crete were to take their culture so seriously as to repudiate and counteract it deliberately and zealously. Far from looking more like their neighbors in the interest of winsomeness, they are enjoined to live lives that put their neighbors to shame.
St. Paul’s letter to Titus is a bracing rebuke to much of the vague talk about cultural engagement one hears in so many Christian settings. It displays a magnificently holistic view of faithfulness, in which doctrine, spirituality, action, and sensibilities are interwoven. It recognizes that cultural moods and styles can be enemies of faithfulness.
Most notably, the apostle (moved by the Spirit) draws much of his insight from the wisdom of a pagan member of the very culture under scrutiny, a native poet who prophetically (if somewhat paradoxically) zeroed in on the fatal flaws of the world outside the Church. In God’s providential economy, the Church is truly aided when it honors those who speak unpopular truths.
The practice of cultural engagement in a disordered culture requires that we look first to the revelation of God and to the history of the Church’s wrestling with that Word to determine who we are and how we ought to live. Thus informed, we can benefit from those outside the Church who, like Epimenides, discern culturally generated obstacles to our faithfulness.
There have been and will continue to be many such voices, men and women who recognize the fashionable but dehumanizing follies of the moment. People who are morally serious and intellectually honest but who have no transcendent faith are often more discerning than Christians in spotting the problems in their culture. They have nothing beyond this life to sustain them, and no evangelistic motive to be winsome, so they have an incentive to be more rigorous in their inspections.
But all too often, these prophetic voices are ignored, as American churches have emulated the most popular trends of our time in order to attract people who want a spiritual supplement to the cultural status quo instead of a radical critique of the conventional wisdom. Christian leaders have assumed that “engaging the culture” means finding out what the majority wants and figuring out how to exploit those desires in the name of Jesus. They have tended to look kindly toward the leaders and defenders of institutions that represent the cultural majority. Churches are more likely to emulate the practices of successful cultural enterprises in business, entertainment, sports, or education than to examine those practices critically to ascertain how they might contribute to cultural disorder and deflect thorough Christianity.
Following St. Paul’s advice to Titus suggests that we would do well to look for and listen to our own pagan prophets. While waiting for a new St. Benedict, we should also heed the heirs of Epimenides.