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.
This approach is freeing to me. But it should not become a license to embrace any movie or book just because it is "so realistic." A related mistake might be trying too hard to "find God" or a Christian narrative in anything and everything. The result, writes philosopher Jamie Smith online for Comment, "is too often a fixation on God-language in cultural artifacts or—worse—belabored allegorical readings which see 'Christ figures' everywhere." He continues:
We should expect art to be more oblique. And instead of asking artists to show us God, we should want them to reveal the world—to expand the world, to make worlds that expand creation with their gifts of co- and sub-creative power. The calling of painters and poets, sculptors and songwriters is not always and only to hymn the Creator but to also and often be at play in the fields of the Lord, mired and mucking about in the gifted immanence that is creation. With that rich creational mandate, a Christian affirmation of the arts refuses the instrumentalist justification that we "find God" in our plays and poetry.
Hipster Christians are heeding Smith's advice, says McCracken. But McCracken also urges evangelicals to be wary of embracing "cool" and using personal style as a way to stand out from the crowd. Embracing "cool" can easily become a way to assert social power over someone else, and can easily lead to individualism, competition, vanity, and rebellion for its own sake.
In every context—from what we buy to how we vote—Christians need to be mindful of their approach to power. In fact, Hunter controversially argues that we should jettison terms like "redeeming the culture" and "advancing the kingdom." He is concerned that evangelicals' public witness has been reactionary and framed in terms of what they are against. This is one reason why the young evangelicals McCracken describes have embraced cultural artifacts firmly outside the Christian subculture. They are looking for "authenticity," not a cultural product designed to copy and capture the market. Even though they face the same temptation to use consumption as an identity-marker, they value quality over quantity.
Our ability to consume is a form of power. Will Christians use that power to portray the image of Christ to a broken world? Or will we strive to be cool individuals attending cool churches?
Anna Littauer Carrington is assistant editor of The Review of Faith & International Affairs. She and her husband live just outside Washington, D.C.
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Matthew Lee Anderson also discussed similar ideas in "Culturally Focusing on the Family."