Were I filthy rich and not a Christian, I would definitely pattern my life after the culture of The Great Gatsby. Go ahead and judge me, I know it’s shallow. Lavish carousals, debonair fashion, flashy cars, imposing rococo, orange-dyed poodles — bring it on. I’ll sometimes entertain this delusion for a few seconds, recall the commitment I made to die to the world and live to Christ, and move on.
I’ve read The Great Gatsby twice, and my wife and I recently saw the new Luhrmann movie (well done, Leo). My experience with the story has been the same each time. I indulge the imagination for a while, and then I retract once the story unveils the tragedy that proceeds from such a life (I’m pretty sure this was Fitzgerald’s intention). Fitzgerald masterfully betrays the illusion behind such bourgeois decadence. However, he leaves the reader with no alternative. This technique lands Fitzgerald suitably among the “Lost Generation,” a phrase that Gertrude Stein used to refer to the artists of the 1920s who sought to creatively portray the empty wonder of our world. Nick Carraway, Gatsby’s neighbor, voices the heart of this mentality, “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
How to handle this “inexhaustible variety of life” is the conundrum that stays with me after I read the Fitzgeralds and Hemingways of the Lost Generation. What relationship does my Christian identity have with the world? Do I retreat to isolationism, guarding my personal holiness before God by shunning culture? Or do I adapt my faith to the world, compromising what I must in order to coexist harmoniously with a modernizing society? A contemporary of Fitzgerald offers a better way.
“The thought of the day is out of connection with Christianity.” J. Gresham Machen, a suave theologian and professor at Princeton, prophetically voiced this concern in 1913, the same year that F. Scott Fitzgerald entered Princeton as a student. Perhaps Machen had Fitzgerald and his friends in mind when he admitted, “The students of our great Eastern universities… are not Christians.” Both of these men would leave Princeton in a few years due to World War I. Machen went to France to do volunteer work with the YMCA, while Fitzgerald dapperly reported for military duty in a tailored Brooks Brothers suit in Alabama (the War ended before he was deployed). Fitzgerald went on to co-pioneer the Lost Generation of writers, while Machen returned to his position at Princeton, defending a faith that was increasingly tuned out by the burgeoning Jazz Age.
It’s time to tune back in to the alternative that Machen offered to a spiritually impoverished culture. “The twentieth century, in theory, is agreed on social betterment,” Machen wrote, but their notions of success were enslaved to “the practical materialism of the age. Men are so engrossed in making money that they have no time for spiritual things.” Against the cultural establishment of his time, Machen believed that Christian faith enhanced the “inexhaustible variety of life,” infusing it with meaning and beauty rather than abusive delusion.
Machen regretted that most Christians responded to the culture of his time in two harmful ways — many kept the faith and gave up on culture (fundamentalists), while others kept culture and gave up the faith (liberals). He objected that the first option stifled “the pleasures afforded by the acquisition of knowledge or by the appreciation of what is beautiful.” The second option reduced Christianity to a mere “human product,” robbing it of its supernatural power. Faith and culture are designed to coexist: “God has given us certain powers of mind, and has implanted within us the ineradicable conviction that these powers were intended to be exercised…. Despite all we can do, the desire to know and the love of beauty cannot be entirely stifled, and we cannot permanently regard these desires as evil.” God intended for humans to flourish in the creative abilities He has given us. The problem with the culture of the Jazz Age — and every culture ultimately — is that they twisted God’s kind gifts into hollow ambition. Machen’s alternative is to bring all branches of “human endeavor” into “some relation to the gospel.” God’s blueprint for culture is far better than what we settle for.
If pursuing things like music, film, fashion, or other artistic modes of expression for Christian ends sounds boring, it is because the imagination is dull. And God has been sorely underestimated. Machen writes, “Dedication of human powers to God is found, as a matter of fact, not to destroy but to heighten them. God gave those powers. He understands them well enough not bunglingly to destroy His own gifts.” Christ’s return will be the time, Machen says, when “all of art is devoted to one great end, when all of thinking is permeated by the refining, ennobling influence of Jesus.”
 J. Gresham Machen. Christianity and Culture. Originally published in The Princeton Theological Review, Vol. 11, 1913.