The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan.”
– Exodus 31:1-6 (ESV)
In August of 2015, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) published “Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel.” In it, Moore adroitly takes on all the hot-button social issues facing American Christians: political involvement, marriage and sexuality, religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, and others. The book is well worth a read for its challenges to the church on how to approach these issues.
Like most who use phrases such as “cultural engagement” today, Moore is concerned primarily with the secular world in which Christians live as aliens and strangers. This is by no means an incorrect way to think about culture, but it is not the only way. Culture can refer generically to the way people live, their language, cuisine, entertainment, and leisure activities. It can also be used more narrowly.
“When a poet writes a sonnet or a songwriter strums out a melody, it is the closest either ever gets to bringing forth something ex nihilo — to producing something unnecessary, but meaningful.”
Often when a person is described as “cultured,” we are meant to understand that he or she is well acquainted with the best output of society’s creative class. Such a person is assumed to be familiar with classic literature and to frequent museums and symphony halls — the kind of content that withstands the judgment of history. Christian engagement with this sort of culture is a very different proposition than what Moore’s book addresses, and it warrants a different discussion.
Understanding why humans produce this type of culture is straightforward in the Christian worldview. We believe God has been eternally self-sufficient; thus, He had no need to fashion either us or the universe. Consequently, our existence is unnecessary. But because it was the very goodness of God’s nature — His love and generosity — that impelled him to create, that existence is far from a bleak or insignificant one. Instead, it is full of intent and purpose. Lincoln Harvey, assistant dean and lecturer in systematic theology at St. Mellitus College in London, calls it “unnecessary,
As creatures bearing God’s image, imitating creation through cultural production is natural (in a pre-fallen sense) for humans. When a poet writes a sonnet or a songwriter strums out a melody, it is the closest either ever gets to bringing forth something ex nihilo — to producing something unnecessary, but meaningful. By no accident do we name this capacity “creativity.” It is a reflection of God’s glory and a good and proper pursuit. This is why the great composers Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel both often acknowledged the source of their genius by writing “SDG” on their compositions, representing the Latin phrase Soli Deo gloria — glory to God alone.
Creativity is manifestly not limited to the arts. It takes more than a little creativity to structure a private equity deal or develop a new way of selling groceries. No matter how excellently performed, however, essential economic activities do not fully address the collective human yearning to produce that which is meaningful. It is through culture — and particularly art — that humanity explores the deeper nature of reality. Out of the overflow of the heart, the artist creates.
If mathematics and scientific observation communicate factual knowledge, then literature, music, and painting can impart that which transcends the verifiable. This is not to suggest an artificial dichotomy between the practical and the aesthetic — or, in academic terms, between the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields and the humanities. A baroque concerto is full of mathematical symmetry, and the golden ratio (coincidentally an irrational number) is the source of much beauty. But where some fields of inquiry aim at precise explanations, the arts grapple more fluently with the ambiguous. Producing culture, then, is one way for finite beings to make sense of the infinite.
This striving to express the inexpressible leaves artifacts: poems and paintings, sculptures and songs. The net effect of these cultural products is a kind of record of social memory. Each piece serves as a touchstone that condenses meaning for the individuals steeped in the context in which it was created.
The idea of such collective memory is deeply biblical and covenantal. A variation of the phrase “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2) appears perhaps five dozen times in the Old Testament. So too does the word remember in a covenantal context, God alternately promising to remember His promises and calling the Israelites to remember both His goodness to them and His law. The Ebenezer stone of 1 Samuel 7 was a physical remembrance of God’s help at a specific time of trouble.
Collective religious memory does not by itself constitute the existence of culture, however. “Culture is the one thing that we cannot deliberately aim at,” wrote T.S. Eliot in “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture.” “It is the product of a variety of more or less harmonious activities, each pursued for its own sake.” But if direct commands to remember do not fit this working definition, there are numerous biblical references that do.
“Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea,” sang Moses and Miriam after the Red Sea crossing. Who can doubt that Exodus 15:1-18 was memorized and sung for many generations?
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” begins Mary’s Magnificat. Surely the early church sang along, and even today we can feel Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s visit much more than if this poetry were absent from Luke’s gospel.
The entire book of Psalms is poetry composed on and for a variety of specific occasions. Representing about 5 percent of the entire Bible, the Psalms give us such beautiful, dense truths as “His love endures forever,” “The Lord is my shepherd,” and “Why do the nations rage?”
Our country has its own touchstones. “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” “Fourscore and seven years ago.” “I have a dream.” Even folk songs like “Yankee Doodle” and hymns like “Battle Hymn of the Republic” are part of the shared memory of what it means to be American. And of course most touchstones are far more subtle.
To some observers, both Christian and non, this kind of culture is swiftly eroding, to the extent they wonder whether it is recoverable at all. Catholic thinker and Providence College professor Anthony Esolen, writing in “Public Discourse,” had this to say about the decline of culture he has observed:
“We are a people now illiterate in a way that is unprecedented for the human race. We can decipher linguistic signs on a page, but we have no songs and immemorial stories in our hearts. The pagan Germanic warrior could not read, and where were the books for it anyway? But he had centuries of song in his mind.”
Esolen laments that his students — even his honors students — have never even heard of great poets like Tennyson, Milton, Wordsworth, and Keats. Provocatively, he believes that “academe has largely become an institution devoted to the destruction of cultural memory.” The impact may not be immediately obvious, but to Esolen it is profound. “You can, if you wish, read Tennyson’s poetry. No one is going to stop you,” he acknowledges. “But without the cultural tilling, how can you understand it? And with whom will you share it?”
Why might this cultural dementia be happening? For Esolen, a major factor is the subjugation of academic inquiry to leftist politics. But there are other factors at play as well. Mario Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian novelist who came to fame as part of the Latin-American boom of the 1960s. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2010, then published “Notes on the Death of Culture” (a nod to Eliot’s earlier work cited above) in 2012. He sees democratization and consumerism as culprits in culture’s debasement.
“The naive idea that, through education, one can transmit culture to all of society is destroying ‘higher culture’ … making it ever more superficial,” Llosa writes. “The disappearance of any minimal consensus about aesthetic value means that … it is now not possible to discern … what it is to have talent or to lack talent, what is beautiful and what is ugly, what work represents something new and durable and what is just a will-o’-the-wisp.”
If this sounds a bit like an old man shouting, “Get off my lawn!” to neighborhood kids, Llosa nevertheless perceives that so-called cultural elites are losing their ability to define what is good art and what is not, due in part to the (not altogether undeserved) resentment of the middle and lower classes. And he is correct that putting artistic value up for a vote is not the way to evaluate culture. There are standards of quality for cultural content that are no less exacting for being subjective.
Llosa contrasts “the culture of the past” with “the entertainment of today,” suggesting that the former was intended to endure into the future, while the latter is “made to be consumed instantly and disappear, like cake or popcorn.” Here he has another point. Culture is hard work, not only to produce, but also to appreciate. A constant stream of mental junk food is only a touchscreen away, and it is far less taxing, if equally less rewarding, to watch YouTube than to read Tolstoy.
The twin factors of anti-intellectualism and easy entertainment exacerbate one another. One is likely to have little concern for the symphony after spending 50 or 60 hours on the factory floor or in a coal mine, preferring instead to watch TV. To the extent that elites might (hypocritically, in all probability) scold this choice, that only reinforces how out of touch “culture” really is.
The problem, of course, is that labor and entertainment may fill the time vacuum, but they will not fill the meaning vacuum. Culture is not inherently a moral good. But in its absence, less wholesome touchstones, like ethno-nationalism or political ideology, can supplant it as a source of shared memory.
Culture as Christians
How should Christians — whether as creators or appreciators — engage culture in such a manner as to fill this void? Happily, there are solid answers. Steven Bush, in a podcast recorded for the ERLC in 2016, speaks of producing art both for the church and from the church. Bush is a pastor and “lead storyteller” at Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas. He works with artists and musicians connected to the church as they serve the body and represent to the world what culture-making looks like from a distinctly Christian perspective.
Worship is an opportunity to create culture, with the Psalms offering a perfect illustration. The songs noted previously are a second example, and the fine decorations of the tabernacle a third, with the added bonus that God specifically commanded their creation and commissioned the skilled artists Bezalel and Oholiab for the work.
The edification of the body of Christ is another fertile field for Christian artists to plow. Ephesians tells us that God gave some as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers to establish and build up the church. By analogy, the church is blessed as well when God gives it painters, sculptors, musicians, and filmmakers. The perspectives of creative Christians will benefit their brothers and sisters when they broach new subject matter or depict applications of Gospel truth in thought-provoking ways.
To properly edify the church, art must still be art, not merely a cheapened facsimile stamped with a Bible verse. That may initially be popular, but it can easily fall into the same pit as secularly produced pop culture. In “Art and the Bible,” Francis Schaeffer puts forth a fourfold test for evaluating a work of art, a test that would be appropriate for anything purposed to edify. Schaeffer lists four basic standards:
1. Technical excellence [Is it of good quality and a good example of its genre?]
2. Validity [Is it an accurate depiction or statement of reality according to that genre?]
3. Intellectual content, the worldview that comes through [Is it true of God, His ways, His creatures?]
4. The integration of content and vehicle [Does the message match the medium?]
Bush further aligns with Schaeffer in his thinking about art produced from the church for a broader audience. The goal or content of such art need not be evangelistic. We do not expect Christians in banking or medicine or law to evangelize everyone they encounter in the office. We do expect that they will perform their duties with excellence, integrity, and a grasp of ultimate truth. The same should be true of artists, with perhaps a special emphasis on the proclamation of truth — this is, after all, where they will be most distinguished from their secular peers.
Christian artists should take care that this knowledge of truth not reveal itself in arrogance. In the same ERLC podcast, Alissa Wilkinson counsels humility. A professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York, as well as a writer for Vox.com and a former film critic for Christianity Today, Wilkinson tells budding Christians in the arts to work hard at their chosen craft by studying under those who do it well (whether they are Christians or not), submitting to editing, and participating in the larger community of artists.
This is sound advice for appreciating culture as well as producing it, and it once again comports with Schaeffer. “We are not being true to the artist if we consider his artwork junk simply because we differ with his outlook,” Schaeffer wrote. He observed that Christians often fail to distinguish between technical excellence and content. Consequently, “the whole of much great art has been rejected with scorn and ridicule.” A better path, according to Schaeffer, would be to praise the artist for excellence even while differing with the worldview presented. This requires both effort and humility.
A final point harkens back to Eliot’s assertion that culture cannot be made by sheer force of will, but results from aiming at something else. In his new book “Out of Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture,” Anthony Esolen puts an explicitly Christian spin on this idea: “He who would save a culture or a civilization must not seek first the culture or the civilization, but the kingdom of God.”
Esolen is pessimistic about the prospect of reversing the destruction of culture. We know that it will not be fully redeemed before Christ’s return. But with God’s kingdom as a primary focus, we have an opportunity to salt it by producing and extolling cultural products that speak ultimate truth. Soli Deo gloria.
Phil Mobley is a writer and consultant living in Lilburn, Georgia.