Cult and Culture

I’ve been at the CIRCE conference in Houston, which offered not only tips for classical education but, what is supremely classical, actual content. I learned some things that I’ll be posting on this blog.

For example, we had several presentations that drew on Russell Kirk, arguably the father of modern conservatism. One of his points was that the root of “culture” is “cult”; that is, the foundation of every culture is a religion with its distinct way of worship. (In cultures that reject religion, an ideology takes its place, as happened with Communism.)

That’s a profound point in itself, but then it made me wonder: I have always complained about Christians who conform to today’s culture with all its woes. But could it be that the problems in the church came first, creating our cultural woes? Did the secular liberalism of the European state churches produce the secular liberalism of modern Europe? Did the subjectivism of Christianity (which certainly began in the 19th century) produce the subjectivism of contemporary culture?

If so, reforming culture would simply be a matter of the church getting its act together.

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.

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

    RE: “Did the subjectivism of Christianity (which certainly began in the 19th century) produce the subjectivism of contemporary culture?”

    Yes, I think so. I was actually discussing this with my parents last night at dinner. Even within the Lutheran synods of today, very few people (it seems to me) know the history of their own denomination and how much events of the 19th century have to do with the the practices of our synods today. Our discussion centered around the role of men and women in the church, the great differences in practice among the various synods today and how we got to this place in time. Very interesting discussion to have with your parents and between ELCA’ers and ELS’ers. No arguing. Really!

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

    RE: “Did the subjectivism of Christianity (which certainly began in the 19th century) produce the subjectivism of contemporary culture?”

    Yes, I think so. I was actually discussing this with my parents last night at dinner. Even within the Lutheran synods of today, very few people (it seems to me) know the history of their own denomination and how much events of the 19th century have to do with the the practices of our synods today. Our discussion centered around the role of men and women in the church, the great differences in practice among the various synods today and how we got to this place in time. Very interesting discussion to have with your parents and between ELCA’ers and ELS’ers. No arguing. Really!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Without addressing the question of which came first, the secular liberal chicken or egg, I just wanted to point out that it’s not necessarily so that “reforming culture would simply be a matter of the church getting its act together.”

    After all, once you have abdicated a position of authority and been relegated to the cultural backwaters, say, you can’t regain your former status merely by changing your tune — after all, who’s listening to you now?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Without addressing the question of which came first, the secular liberal chicken or egg, I just wanted to point out that it’s not necessarily so that “reforming culture would simply be a matter of the church getting its act together.”

    After all, once you have abdicated a position of authority and been relegated to the cultural backwaters, say, you can’t regain your former status merely by changing your tune — after all, who’s listening to you now?

  • FullTime

    I think your question is a sound one, Dr. Veith. I remember in high school learning of the reformation that it seemed any time two church members disagreed about anything there was a new Protestant denomination born.

    However, it might be said that the secular culture of THAT time might have led to those effects on the religion. At that point things get cyclical and spiral and dizzying…and redundant all over again.

    I am not really sure the question CAN be answered. Which came first, religious division or social rebellion? I suppose it depends on whether you consider Adam and Eve’s snack choices to have been striking out against God in a cultural, social context or a religious one.

  • FullTime

    I think your question is a sound one, Dr. Veith. I remember in high school learning of the reformation that it seemed any time two church members disagreed about anything there was a new Protestant denomination born.

    However, it might be said that the secular culture of THAT time might have led to those effects on the religion. At that point things get cyclical and spiral and dizzying…and redundant all over again.

    I am not really sure the question CAN be answered. Which came first, religious division or social rebellion? I suppose it depends on whether you consider Adam and Eve’s snack choices to have been striking out against God in a cultural, social context or a religious one.

  • http://lutheranguest.blogspot.com/ Jim

    Wasn’t it Alexander Schmemann who wrote that “the church is the nursery of culture”?

    Still, the church serves Christ, not the culture. So the goal of the church getting her act together is that she may serve Christ better; it’s not so that culture can be improved.

  • http://lutheranguest.blogspot.com/ Jim

    Wasn’t it Alexander Schmemann who wrote that “the church is the nursery of culture”?

    Still, the church serves Christ, not the culture. So the goal of the church getting her act together is that she may serve Christ better; it’s not so that culture can be improved.

  • Anon

    I don’t think it is that simple. The cultus of the society is not necessarily that of the Church.

    The synods and congregations certainly need a profound change in the heart and the head. We are far too Sardisian these days. But if the change doesn’t encompass the majority of the denominations, and the majority of the people in our society, this will simply make us more faithful martyrs. Though if we must be martyrs, let us be faithful ones.

  • Anon

    I don’t think it is that simple. The cultus of the society is not necessarily that of the Church.

    The synods and congregations certainly need a profound change in the heart and the head. We are far too Sardisian these days. But if the change doesn’t encompass the majority of the denominations, and the majority of the people in our society, this will simply make us more faithful martyrs. Though if we must be martyrs, let us be faithful ones.

  • Pr. Schroeder

    As the mainline church bodies tried to be relevant in the ’60s and earlier, they dabbled in all sorts of ‘isms’ and so forgetting the Scripture verse, Ye are the salt of the earth…but if salt has lost its saltiness. G.K. Chesterton wrote about this to the effect: If the Church loses its saltiness, then the world will not criticise for the church for being too worldly. And so instead of “thus saith the Lord”, then all sorts of denominational ‘social statements’. For my wife and I we have speculated that Yes, as the mainline Protestant church bodies became ‘relevant’, used historical criticism of Scripture, embraced the ‘new moralities’, the consequence seems to have been the moral decline, and utter subjectivism, actually narcissism (see Senator Barak Obama)of America. The frightening portion of the Lord’s saying from St. Matthew is His judgment: if salt has lost it’s saltiness, it is good for nothing, but to be thrown out. I recommend a recent article by Joseph Bottum in First Things, “The Death of Protestant” which I think supports Prof. Veith’s observation.

  • Pr. Schroeder

    As the mainline church bodies tried to be relevant in the ’60s and earlier, they dabbled in all sorts of ‘isms’ and so forgetting the Scripture verse, Ye are the salt of the earth…but if salt has lost its saltiness. G.K. Chesterton wrote about this to the effect: If the Church loses its saltiness, then the world will not criticise for the church for being too worldly. And so instead of “thus saith the Lord”, then all sorts of denominational ‘social statements’. For my wife and I we have speculated that Yes, as the mainline Protestant church bodies became ‘relevant’, used historical criticism of Scripture, embraced the ‘new moralities’, the consequence seems to have been the moral decline, and utter subjectivism, actually narcissism (see Senator Barak Obama)of America. The frightening portion of the Lord’s saying from St. Matthew is His judgment: if salt has lost it’s saltiness, it is good for nothing, but to be thrown out. I recommend a recent article by Joseph Bottum in First Things, “The Death of Protestant” which I think supports Prof. Veith’s observation.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I think the secular theory came, in a way, first with Rousseau and Hegel, and unfortunately state churches used to “getting along” with the powers that be, and interested in looking good, adopted portions of it. Either way, the church does not escape guilt for this.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    I think the secular theory came, in a way, first with Rousseau and Hegel, and unfortunately state churches used to “getting along” with the powers that be, and interested in looking good, adopted portions of it. Either way, the church does not escape guilt for this.

  • Bruce

    I guess I’m with tODD on this: we’re way past fixin’ whatever ails us, if the idea is to return to some sort of direct Christian influence on the culture. Joseph Bottum of First Things addresses this in the current issue, an essay entitled THE DEATH OF PROTESTANT AMERICA. After reading it, I was struck by how the past fifty years paralleled about 40% of the cycle described over and over again in the book of Judges. The downward cycle from belief to apostasy, before the Lord would raise up a spiritual leader–a Judge–to lead the people back to the Word of God.

    We Americans tend to think that our way of life and culture aren’t subject to the rolling of time–or they shouldn’t be in any case.

    The solution of “the church just getting its act together” with the fruit of influencing the culture may just be another way of saying that God will someday act to do so. In the meantime, the OT concept of “remnant” is not at all outdated.

  • Bruce

    I guess I’m with tODD on this: we’re way past fixin’ whatever ails us, if the idea is to return to some sort of direct Christian influence on the culture. Joseph Bottum of First Things addresses this in the current issue, an essay entitled THE DEATH OF PROTESTANT AMERICA. After reading it, I was struck by how the past fifty years paralleled about 40% of the cycle described over and over again in the book of Judges. The downward cycle from belief to apostasy, before the Lord would raise up a spiritual leader–a Judge–to lead the people back to the Word of God.

    We Americans tend to think that our way of life and culture aren’t subject to the rolling of time–or they shouldn’t be in any case.

    The solution of “the church just getting its act together” with the fruit of influencing the culture may just be another way of saying that God will someday act to do so. In the meantime, the OT concept of “remnant” is not at all outdated.

  • FWw

    It is hard for me to think of the message of Christ crucified as a cultural commodity.

    This Jesus hanging dead on the cross who now is seated at the right hand of God the Father, is really the only message the Holy Church has to offer.

    We can say that holding up a moral standard to the world is ALSO a proper role of the church….Jeremiah to the world…. or should we think so?

    Maybe this preoccupation is really what the root of the problem is.

    It seems rather that we christians get to be salt and yeast. Those invisible things that somehow are perceived without really being seen.

    We each, get to be in Christ in our rhythm of death and resurrection that we started in the Holy Baptism we received from our Lord through our Mother Church.

    This death and resurrection indeed happens with both Holy Law and Holy Gospel. The Law Kills us. The Gospel is our life. Sinai and calvary. Distinct but never to be separated. The crucifix is perfect symbol for this.

    Moral betterment is a good and gracious civil gift of God. Christians, being a part of society have their part in this. This is the life and vocation of every christian. To serve our neighbor with the arts and other holy orders of God. Even in the church inself, order and morals and good works are never optional. Self control, etc are fruits of the spirit. There must be rules. Bureacracy. Synods. Order is never lacking in God´s people. There can and should be no end to talk of good works and how they are absolutely necessary for every christian to do and be full of. We must daily repent of our constant lack and failure here.

    Yet…. the message to the world at large from the church is unitary. UNITARY.

    This message, as church, is the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus.

    By quiet example, Christ´s people provide also moral salt and yeast to the dying world. This simply happens.

    Our message, as the church, is death. The law as a medicine that kills the patient. It doesn´t make him better.

    Think Dr Kervorkian here, not Florence Nightengale. Think even of the church as a hospice for the dying, not a hospital. People get to walk out of hospitals alive. Not so with churches. We leave the church when we die.

    Our message is not moral reformation. Only the morally DEAD can be raised up with the message of the Christ.

    Moral betterment is best left to government, pharisees, the boy scouts and parents. God is very pleased with the work of such as these. This work is in no way contrary to the work of the church or the holy gospel. Indeed, it allows for a peaceable world where the gospel has free course!

    But moral betterment is not the message of the church to the world.

  • FWw

    It is hard for me to think of the message of Christ crucified as a cultural commodity.

    This Jesus hanging dead on the cross who now is seated at the right hand of God the Father, is really the only message the Holy Church has to offer.

    We can say that holding up a moral standard to the world is ALSO a proper role of the church….Jeremiah to the world…. or should we think so?

    Maybe this preoccupation is really what the root of the problem is.

    It seems rather that we christians get to be salt and yeast. Those invisible things that somehow are perceived without really being seen.

    We each, get to be in Christ in our rhythm of death and resurrection that we started in the Holy Baptism we received from our Lord through our Mother Church.

    This death and resurrection indeed happens with both Holy Law and Holy Gospel. The Law Kills us. The Gospel is our life. Sinai and calvary. Distinct but never to be separated. The crucifix is perfect symbol for this.

    Moral betterment is a good and gracious civil gift of God. Christians, being a part of society have their part in this. This is the life and vocation of every christian. To serve our neighbor with the arts and other holy orders of God. Even in the church inself, order and morals and good works are never optional. Self control, etc are fruits of the spirit. There must be rules. Bureacracy. Synods. Order is never lacking in God´s people. There can and should be no end to talk of good works and how they are absolutely necessary for every christian to do and be full of. We must daily repent of our constant lack and failure here.

    Yet…. the message to the world at large from the church is unitary. UNITARY.

    This message, as church, is the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus.

    By quiet example, Christ´s people provide also moral salt and yeast to the dying world. This simply happens.

    Our message, as the church, is death. The law as a medicine that kills the patient. It doesn´t make him better.

    Think Dr Kervorkian here, not Florence Nightengale. Think even of the church as a hospice for the dying, not a hospital. People get to walk out of hospitals alive. Not so with churches. We leave the church when we die.

    Our message is not moral reformation. Only the morally DEAD can be raised up with the message of the Christ.

    Moral betterment is best left to government, pharisees, the boy scouts and parents. God is very pleased with the work of such as these. This work is in no way contrary to the work of the church or the holy gospel. Indeed, it allows for a peaceable world where the gospel has free course!

    But moral betterment is not the message of the church to the world.

  • http://www.saintcynic.blogspot.com Christopher

    Dr. Veith,

    May I have the pleasure of posting this article (with all credit to you) on my blogsite? I find it very thought-provoking.

    Thank you for all of your excellent reflections.

    God bless you,
    Christopher J. Freeman

  • http://www.saintcynic.blogspot.com Christopher

    Dr. Veith,

    May I have the pleasure of posting this article (with all credit to you) on my blogsite? I find it very thought-provoking.

    Thank you for all of your excellent reflections.

    God bless you,
    Christopher J. Freeman

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Of course, Christopher. Thanks for doing so.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Veith

    Of course, Christopher. Thanks for doing so.

  • Nathan

    Dr. Veith,

    Have you seen the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor’s new book: “A Secular Age”?

    It won the 2007 Templeton prize.

    Its 800 pages or so, but very informative. In the book, he deals with the theme that you have brought up here in a big way.

  • Nathan

    Dr. Veith,

    Have you seen the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor’s new book: “A Secular Age”?

    It won the 2007 Templeton prize.

    Its 800 pages or so, but very informative. In the book, he deals with the theme that you have brought up here in a big way.

  • Pingback: Which came first?

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  • http://wheatstoneforum.com Rachel

    Nathan,

    Can you tell me more about that book? I’m not familiar with the author. I picked it up at the library today after reading this comments thread and I’d love to hear any more thoughts you have about the book.

  • http://wheatstoneforum.com Rachel

    Nathan,

    Can you tell me more about that book? I’m not familiar with the author. I picked it up at the library today after reading this comments thread and I’d love to hear any more thoughts you have about the book.


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