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.