Culture in an Age of Consumption
Is evangelical culture weak? It certainly doesn't seem so. The volume of books, music albums, and lively blogs indicates a thriving industry of decidedly Christian products. But should strong sub-cultural production and consumption be equated with a vibrant impact on the broader culture?
James Davison Hunter doesn't think so. He raised these and other questions in his latest book, To Change the World, and spoke about them in a panel at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. last month. I was a respondent on the panel, alongside Mere Orthodoxy blogger Matthew Lee Anderson, and we discussed how young evangelicals are looking for a script or a framework for engaging the broader culture.
In his book and recent interview with Christianity Today, Hunter paints a disparaging picture of evangelical efforts to transform American culture. The University of Virginia sociologist challenges the notion that transforming millions of "hearts and minds" actually effects cultural change. He critiques the politicized efforts of the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the neo-Anabaptists, and concludes that Christians need to engage culture through "faithful presence" in their different spheres and communities.
To Change the World has prompted some lively discussions—including responses from Chuck Colson and Andy Crouch on CT's website—about what "faithful presence" actually looks like. How should Christians live in the world?
To answer this question, one thing we should consider is how consuming cultural artifacts establishes personal identity. This is especially true for young adults, including young evangelicals, and those who mother, mentor, and manage this generation should understand how they interact with cultural artifacts (movies, music, visual art, social media, and so on). Consumption-as-identity has moved beyond establishing social status by flaunting wealth; in fact, one's relative wealth may be less important than it once was. What matters now is the ability to cobble together a unique blend of thrift store clothing, just-out-of-the-mainstream iPod tracks, and vintage posters. The blend of consumed artifacts—or bricolage—is what sets you apart. Curating a personal style isn't wrong, but trying to be "original" for its own sake can easily foster both pride and insecurity.
Students at most evangelical colleges will tell you that making fun of their junior-high CCM music is now a rite of passage. And many of them—as Brett McCracken documents in his just-released Hipster Christianity—have moved on to consuming music that's not explicitly Christian. In the name of engaging the culture, some of these evangelicals—what McCracken might call genuine "hipster Christians"—are embracing music and other cultural artifacts simply for being excellent and good. For example, a book club might examine a novel's superior syntax and challenge the author's assumptions about humanity. In this way, evangelicals are beginning to move past merely consuming a product and are instead interacting with cultural artifacts in a way that builds community. Some are also creating cultural artifacts, not just consuming them. As Andy Crouch asserts, both cultivating and creating culture can be an example of what Hunter calls "faithful presence." These approaches reflect a holistic understanding of common grace. God can work through the creative efforts of any person, whether or not an artist, musician, or writer is a Christian.