Christianity and Culture: Engagement or Triumph?

T. M. Moore’s Culture Matters has a
twofold goal: first, to provide a unified
approach to cultural engagement
from a Christian perspective, overcoming
what H. Richard Niebuhr claimed
in Christ and Culture to be a situation of
permanent and inevitable pluralism within
the faith; and second, to inspire evangelical
Christians to overcome their
passivity on cultural issues. Its appearance,
along with other books
such as D. A. Carson’s Christ and
Culture Revisited
(Eerdmans, 2008),
is an encouraging sign of reflection
within an evangelical ethos that has
been more inclined to activism without
theory. But it also suggests that
this reflection is still somewhat constrained
by unexamined evangelical
assumptions.

Culture Matters clearly comes
from the mind and pen of a “teaching
pastor.” It is written to and for
the thoughtful laity, not the clergy
or the academy, and it aims to edify.
Moore keeps his vocabulary simple, does
not disdain repetition, and provides discussion
questions at the end of each chapter.
Culture Matters
In addition to these admirable traits, there
is also a whiff of preachiness in his style: a
weakness for orotund phrases, a tendency
to substitute confident assertion for dispassionate
analysis, and–occasionally–a
triumphalist tone. This latter feature is not
merely a matter of style, as we will see; it
also suggests a problematic feature of his
position.

Moore argues for a thesis that should
be uncontroversial to most readers of Perspectives,
namely that Christians have
a divine mandate to engage in cultural
activity in ways that reflect the reign of
God. But he despairs of any significant
and lasting engagement as long as Christians
lack consensus regarding strategies
of engagement. He seeks to generate such
consensus, not through arguing for an abstract
position, but through providing concrete
models of engagement from Christian
history and the contemporary scene.

Successive chapters take up different
aspects of cultural engagement: critique
of culture, forging new cultural expressions,
education for cultural renewal,
formation of a foundational worldview,
and establishing a “prophetic presence”
within culture. His historical exemplars
include some that will seem familiar
enough in this milieu (Augustine, John
Calvin, Abraham Kuyper), along with others
less familiar (medieval Celtic art, Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz). Contemporary
models appear to be drawn from close to
home: his favored publishing venue (the
journal First Things), his current employer
(Charles Colson), and his musical
predilections (guitarist/songwriters Phil
Keaggy and David Wilcox). From these
disparate models, Moore seeks to extract
a common strategy, which he summarizes
in the final chapter.

Since his project depends so heavily
on providing exemplars of cultural virtue,
we can gain insight into it by examining
how he describes his exemplars–and,
just as importantly, noting the aspects
of their lives and witness he doesn’t address.
For instance, his treatment of Augustine’s
City of God as a critique of culture
(Chapter 1) takes at face value Augustine’s
claims to have decisively routed
his pagan opponents by exposing the
“bankruptcy” of Roman culture and religion
(33 f.). The image of “foolish” pagans
cowering under the self-evident force of
Augustine’s “devastating” critique may
be comforting to Christians, but it hardly
represents how things actually played
out between Augustine and his erudite
pagan interlocutors. The extent of their
shared cultural ground is not acknowledged,
nor is Augustine’s growing ambivalence
about what had been for decades
not a pagan but an officially “Christian”
empire. Granting that Moore’s popular
approach prevents introducing much
historical complexity, still the resulting
portrait of Augustine is so idealized as to
be of dubious benefit for our own equally
complex world.

Similarly, when in Chapter 2 he describes
the art of the early medieval Celtic
revival, he insists that these anonymous
Irish illuminators, metal workers, and
stone carvers “managed to take over for
decidedly Christian purposes the artistic
achievements of their Celtic tradition,”
and he employs the venerable metaphor
of the Israelites despoiling the Egyptians
(49 f.). While this no doubt gets at part of
the truth, by itself it risks ignoring the
reciprocal impact of Celtic culture on the
Christian message. The nexus between
Christianity and culture is permeable in
both directions, and it is naïve to think of
the gospel as a pristine entity that can be
poured into any cultural container without
itself undergoing change. Sometimes the
change may weaken or dilute the gospel,
but there are surely also cases throughout
Christian history in which new insights
and energies are unleashed within the
faith through its enculturation.

These instances suggest that some triumphalism
affects the content as well as
the style of the book. Yet, other chapters
adopt a less militant and antithetical tone.
In Chapter 5, to my mind the strongest
of the book, he presents the late Czeslaw
Milosz (d. 2004) as a Christian poet with
a prophetic vocation; yet Moore is comfortable
acknowledging Milosz’s religious
doubts and heterodoxy (123 f.), emphasizing
what I would call his Christian sensibility
rather than his theology. Yet even
here there may be a kind of passive triumphalism
at work. For instance, while Moore
rightly emphasizes Milosz’s protest against
the dehumanizing materialist worldview of
modernity, he slights Milosz’s equally important
critique of the church for its “religious”
domestication of the Gospel. Biblical
prophecy, after all, is often more concerned
with Jerusalem than with Nineveh, and
sometimes the prophet uses the cultural
tools of the nations to indict the people of
God. In that sense, too, “culture matters,”
but one might not guess as much from
Moore’s book.

Moore is employed by an organization
called the Wilberforce Forum, and
he cites the organization’s abolitionist
namesake as another model of Christian
cultural engagement (93). Ironically, in
opposing the slave trade, William Wilberforce
was also contradicting centuries of
Christian acquiescence in slavery, as well
as what many of his fellow believers regarded
as the clear teaching of Scripture.
His opposition to slavery was genuinely
based on Christian conviction, but that
conviction arose within a very specific
cultural context–one which included,
for instance, Enlightenment ideas about
equality, rationality, reform, and social
progress. The same is true, I would argue,
for any instance of Christian cultural
engagement. If we fail to acknowledge
and reflect on this fact, we risk condemning
ourselves to a self-constructed ghetto
of evangelical triumphalism.

David E. Timmer is professor of religion at Central College
in Pella, Iowa, where he chairs the Department of
Philosophy and Religion.