Generating culture

An article in the Washington Post on the Pope’s visit to D.C. Tuesday includes a quotation that frames a larger issue perfectly. According to Michael Sean Winters, “The Latin American church still generates culture, unlike the American church. It generates art, myth, the things that help people sustain relationships.”

A Christianity that generates culture! That is what is so lacking in America today. It isn’t an issue of ruling the culture, or of exercising power over anyone. And I’m not saying at all that culture, as such, is in any way what the church’s mission should be. But a vital Christianity, one that shapes people’s thinking and living, has always had cultural side-effects.

Today in America, the church tends to be either reactionary (opposing certain elements of the culture) or conformist (aping whatever the culture does in a usually futile attempt to be culturally relevant). It is generally not, however, generating culture.

Christianity played a role in the development of Western civilization, from its art to its great ideas, that it simply doesn’t play anymore. The culture that Christians generated varied greatly over time and through history. To take examples from English literature, Christianity inspired writers as varied as Dante, Milton, the Metaphysical poets, Coleridge, Hopkins, and even the modernist T. S. Eliot. Christianity generated the invention of the university, universal literacy, the rule of law, non-classical drama, human rights, and on and on.

Perhaps Christians today, though, are laying the foundation for generating culture again. Many are building strong families, which are the basis of every culture. Many Christians are building an educational infrastructure that can bear important cultural fruit. We will know we are generating culture again when Christian artists do not just follow styles but invent new ones that even non-Christians follow; when Christians formulate ideas that shape our larger institutions; when Christianity has a fruitful presence in society once again.

On the other hand, it may indeed be that Christianity is entering a time of cultural marginalization or even persecution. Even in such a time of suffering and testing, Christianity must be vital enough to affect how its adherents think and live. The solution is never to conform to a hostile culture, which would mean the disappearance, or the swallowing up of the church, or its being changed to a mere cultural religion.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • JLarson

    This all sounds great. Is a Two Kingdoms model really the best way to describe the kind of relationship between Christ and culture? Shouldn’t the wall between the two kingdoms, if they really are separate, be super permeable?

  • JLarson

    This all sounds great. Is a Two Kingdoms model really the best way to describe the kind of relationship between Christ and culture? Shouldn’t the wall between the two kingdoms, if they really are separate, be super permeable?

  • Bror Erickson

    I think the problem is the weak theologies in American history that have indeed shaped and formed American Culture, but with long term effects that have been more harmful than good. First and foremost the revivalistic, progressive sanctification doctrine of John Wesley, its counter part in Lutheranism was the rampant pietism that infected our church body at the same time. In fact one could make the claim that Wesley lifted his theology from the pietists. This has generated a culture of isolationism in the church and among the members of the church. Prime example is the intoxicating selfrighteousness that led to the prohibition, a drunken stupor America is still trying to wake up from whilst taking aspirin to get rid of the hangover.
    This sort of thinking has led us to have very few social outlets outside of Church, and work. It has fragmented communities, that if they didn’t go to church together could meet at the bar together family to family.
    In utah here that is even more an extreme with the ban on coffee, and lack of coffee shops, which keep Mormon’s from getting together and actually asking questions about their faith.
    But these theologies have also left a bad taste in the mouths of unbelievers, both those who have been led to despair by their inability to live up to the model, and those who just have encounters with so called Christians who act superior too others. A Case in point on the last one would be the Baldwin/ Pierze fiasco on Celebrity apprentice. Sorry I had to side with Pierze.

  • Bror Erickson

    I think the problem is the weak theologies in American history that have indeed shaped and formed American Culture, but with long term effects that have been more harmful than good. First and foremost the revivalistic, progressive sanctification doctrine of John Wesley, its counter part in Lutheranism was the rampant pietism that infected our church body at the same time. In fact one could make the claim that Wesley lifted his theology from the pietists. This has generated a culture of isolationism in the church and among the members of the church. Prime example is the intoxicating selfrighteousness that led to the prohibition, a drunken stupor America is still trying to wake up from whilst taking aspirin to get rid of the hangover.
    This sort of thinking has led us to have very few social outlets outside of Church, and work. It has fragmented communities, that if they didn’t go to church together could meet at the bar together family to family.
    In utah here that is even more an extreme with the ban on coffee, and lack of coffee shops, which keep Mormon’s from getting together and actually asking questions about their faith.
    But these theologies have also left a bad taste in the mouths of unbelievers, both those who have been led to despair by their inability to live up to the model, and those who just have encounters with so called Christians who act superior too others. A Case in point on the last one would be the Baldwin/ Pierze fiasco on Celebrity apprentice. Sorry I had to side with Pierze.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    I think we can over think this :)

    God has given the arts to everyone and not just the intellectual elites. Start a choir. Paint. Draw. Buy some piece you like at a local show and give the great artist a little more when he or she is charging too little. The great one’s always are!

    But I think it a mistake to encourage Christian art. huh?! Instead we ought to be encouraging Christians (and non-Christians) to be engaged with the arts and be creative along with everyone else. The great artists will emerge and who they are and what they believe will come forth because they are an artist and they love their craft and the creative process more than the statement that it makes.

    Especially in the U.S. American Christians are always after “Christian” art and usually end up with crap that winds up in the next generation’s yard sales rather than celebrated by the culture.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    I think we can over think this :)

    God has given the arts to everyone and not just the intellectual elites. Start a choir. Paint. Draw. Buy some piece you like at a local show and give the great artist a little more when he or she is charging too little. The great one’s always are!

    But I think it a mistake to encourage Christian art. huh?! Instead we ought to be encouraging Christians (and non-Christians) to be engaged with the arts and be creative along with everyone else. The great artists will emerge and who they are and what they believe will come forth because they are an artist and they love their craft and the creative process more than the statement that it makes.

    Especially in the U.S. American Christians are always after “Christian” art and usually end up with crap that winds up in the next generation’s yard sales rather than celebrated by the culture.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    “Christian Rock” is perhaps the best example of what I’m trying to say here. Although I still get a bit of a chuckle from listening to old Petra tapes.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    “Christian Rock” is perhaps the best example of what I’m trying to say here. Although I still get a bit of a chuckle from listening to old Petra tapes.

  • CRB

    I think the greatest enemy of the church “generating” the culture is, of course, the devil. He uses lies and false teachings to make many inroads. By subverting
    the truth WITHIN the Church, he succeeds in dividing and, as our Lord says, (speaking to false teachers!) “a house divided cannot stand.” This, of course, pertains to the institutional church. But the true Church will always stand for, “Not even the gates of hell shall prevail against it!”

  • CRB

    I think the greatest enemy of the church “generating” the culture is, of course, the devil. He uses lies and false teachings to make many inroads. By subverting
    the truth WITHIN the Church, he succeeds in dividing and, as our Lord says, (speaking to false teachers!) “a house divided cannot stand.” This, of course, pertains to the institutional church. But the true Church will always stand for, “Not even the gates of hell shall prevail against it!”

  • Bruce

    My first reaction to the quote is that there is so much consumerism in America–reflected in the very same fast food restaurants on the main highways leading to every mid-sized city in the land, for example–that the cultural effects are diffuse and hard to pick up. Not so in a largely “undeveloped” (by N American standards) S America, where this Everywhere-The-Same materialism does not permeate the culture.

    Are American Christians not doing anything culturally? I would suggest that per capita we are probably as creative or more than our brethren to the south. You simply can’t perceive it for the landscape.

    Is this bad? Hmmm. Not so sure. When Christian effect on culture is dominant and /or “noticeable”, it may mean it is, well, overripe. Better to be salt, to mix as many metaphors as possible.

  • Bruce

    My first reaction to the quote is that there is so much consumerism in America–reflected in the very same fast food restaurants on the main highways leading to every mid-sized city in the land, for example–that the cultural effects are diffuse and hard to pick up. Not so in a largely “undeveloped” (by N American standards) S America, where this Everywhere-The-Same materialism does not permeate the culture.

    Are American Christians not doing anything culturally? I would suggest that per capita we are probably as creative or more than our brethren to the south. You simply can’t perceive it for the landscape.

    Is this bad? Hmmm. Not so sure. When Christian effect on culture is dominant and /or “noticeable”, it may mean it is, well, overripe. Better to be salt, to mix as many metaphors as possible.

  • JonSLC

    A good warning about Christians either being reactionary or conformist when it comes to culture. I’d encourage us not to accept those as the only alternatives. Instead of being reactionary, couldn’t we articulate thoughtful expressions of Biblical truth in the face of cultural elements that oppose it? And instead of being conformist, couldn’t we acknowledge the good in American culture while still refusing to be swallowed up by it?

    Is it possible that some are turned off to Christianity because they feel themselves being forced to make a false choice between being either reactionary or conformist?

    Musician Derek Webb has commented on these topics (google his name). Among other comments, he laments the creation of the Christian subculture, with music that can be easily categorized and then dismissed. He maintains that Christian music is sometimes rejected by the culture NOT because it’s Christian, but because it’s simply bad art! He encourages Christians to engage the culture with objectively good art, music, etc.

    I do recognize that there can be and is anti-Christian prejudice, but wouldn’t it be more productive for Christians to fight that by excelling in art and culture, rather than by lamenting our mistreatment ?

  • JonSLC

    A good warning about Christians either being reactionary or conformist when it comes to culture. I’d encourage us not to accept those as the only alternatives. Instead of being reactionary, couldn’t we articulate thoughtful expressions of Biblical truth in the face of cultural elements that oppose it? And instead of being conformist, couldn’t we acknowledge the good in American culture while still refusing to be swallowed up by it?

    Is it possible that some are turned off to Christianity because they feel themselves being forced to make a false choice between being either reactionary or conformist?

    Musician Derek Webb has commented on these topics (google his name). Among other comments, he laments the creation of the Christian subculture, with music that can be easily categorized and then dismissed. He maintains that Christian music is sometimes rejected by the culture NOT because it’s Christian, but because it’s simply bad art! He encourages Christians to engage the culture with objectively good art, music, etc.

    I do recognize that there can be and is anti-Christian prejudice, but wouldn’t it be more productive for Christians to fight that by excelling in art and culture, rather than by lamenting our mistreatment ?

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer TK

    Dr. Veith writes, “Christianity must be vital enough to affect how its adherents think and live. The solution is never to conform to a hostile culture, which would mean the disappearance, or the swallowing up of the church, or its being changed to a mere cultural religion.”

    That’s why I send my daughter to her Lutheran high school! One interesting problem, however, is that 50% of her school is non-Lutheran. Yes, they are Christian, but many come from religious backgrounds that have conformed in one way or another to our hostile western culture. It makes for some challenging moments for our teachers who are sometimes framed as intolerant for merely presenting God’s Word as it is, i.e. homosexuality, close communion, baptism, etc. Many denominations have compromised on these matters. More than once, this has lead to some discussions at home…ones that start out, “Isn’t it just important that we all love Jesus, Mom?” Ugh…

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer TK

    Dr. Veith writes, “Christianity must be vital enough to affect how its adherents think and live. The solution is never to conform to a hostile culture, which would mean the disappearance, or the swallowing up of the church, or its being changed to a mere cultural religion.”

    That’s why I send my daughter to her Lutheran high school! One interesting problem, however, is that 50% of her school is non-Lutheran. Yes, they are Christian, but many come from religious backgrounds that have conformed in one way or another to our hostile western culture. It makes for some challenging moments for our teachers who are sometimes framed as intolerant for merely presenting God’s Word as it is, i.e. homosexuality, close communion, baptism, etc. Many denominations have compromised on these matters. More than once, this has lead to some discussions at home…ones that start out, “Isn’t it just important that we all love Jesus, Mom?” Ugh…

  • fw

    i live in the largest roman catholic country in the world.

    I am challenged to see how catholicism is producing culture here. catholicism has always been a top-down thing.

  • fw

    i live in the largest roman catholic country in the world.

    I am challenged to see how catholicism is producing culture here. catholicism has always been a top-down thing.

  • http://joshschroeder.blogspot.com/ Josh Schroeder

    Some thoughts on Lutheran education, from someone who attended Lutheran schools from pre-k through 8th grade and in college:

    Lutheran education should not be public education plus a religion class. It teaches from a fundamentally different worldview than public schools.

    Lutheran schools have been around a lot longer than public schools and are not supposed to “keep up with the Joneses” especially when it comes to neglecting fundamentals and wating time on PC nonsense such as gender-neutrality and moral relativity.

    Also, parents need to understand that Lutheran schools will not “cure” their kids – by that I mean that while we teach the theology of the Reformation, Lutheran Schools are not Reform Schools. Lutheran kids are sinners, too. The Bible is not a magic book that turn your disrespectful child into a little angel.

    Parents and teachers need to be on the same page and on the same team. Teachers, it is not your job to parent your students. You are teachers, not parents. Parents, you do not stop being parents when you drop your kids off or put them on the bus. You need to know what’s going on at school and play an active role in your child’s education. Schools can only reinforce what you teach at home.

    I would also recommend Charlie Sykes’ book “50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn In School” for more common sense that isn’t so common.

  • http://joshschroeder.blogspot.com/ Josh Schroeder

    Some thoughts on Lutheran education, from someone who attended Lutheran schools from pre-k through 8th grade and in college:

    Lutheran education should not be public education plus a religion class. It teaches from a fundamentally different worldview than public schools.

    Lutheran schools have been around a lot longer than public schools and are not supposed to “keep up with the Joneses” especially when it comes to neglecting fundamentals and wating time on PC nonsense such as gender-neutrality and moral relativity.

    Also, parents need to understand that Lutheran schools will not “cure” their kids – by that I mean that while we teach the theology of the Reformation, Lutheran Schools are not Reform Schools. Lutheran kids are sinners, too. The Bible is not a magic book that turn your disrespectful child into a little angel.

    Parents and teachers need to be on the same page and on the same team. Teachers, it is not your job to parent your students. You are teachers, not parents. Parents, you do not stop being parents when you drop your kids off or put them on the bus. You need to know what’s going on at school and play an active role in your child’s education. Schools can only reinforce what you teach at home.

    I would also recommend Charlie Sykes’ book “50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn In School” for more common sense that isn’t so common.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa K.

    Good comments, Josh! I could tell stories of the new students each year whose parents have forced them to come to our school to “cure” them of the various ills they’ve picked up at their public schools. Invariably, most last one quarter or less.

    At our large suburban high school, our students have all the same problems of their public school peers, from drug raids to pregnancy to alcoholism, etc. The beautiful difference is how the matters are handled: in openess and love, with prayer and God’s Word. Also, parent involvement isn’t an option; its a must. The school simply can’t run without heavy parent involvement.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa K.

    Good comments, Josh! I could tell stories of the new students each year whose parents have forced them to come to our school to “cure” them of the various ills they’ve picked up at their public schools. Invariably, most last one quarter or less.

    At our large suburban high school, our students have all the same problems of their public school peers, from drug raids to pregnancy to alcoholism, etc. The beautiful difference is how the matters are handled: in openess and love, with prayer and God’s Word. Also, parent involvement isn’t an option; its a must. The school simply can’t run without heavy parent involvement.


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