How should Christians relate to modern culture? Should they try to identify with culture so they are indistinguishable from their secular peers? Or, would it be better for them to stand aloof from a society espousing a worldview diametrically opposed to their own?
C.S. Lewis would recommend a different course. He would be saddened by Christians who felt compelled to pander to the ideals of contemporary culture. At the same time, he would be offended by disciples of Jesus who deemed themselves too enlightened—or, God forbid, holy—to stoop to engage with modern civilization.
In his essay “Christianity and Culture,”* Lewis begins by pointing out that the omnipresence of culture makes us unconscious of its independence from our religious worldview.
At an early age I came to believe that the life of culture (that is, of intellectual and aesthetic activity) was very good for its own sake, or even that it was good for man. After my conversion, which occurred in my later twenties, I continued to hold this belief without consciously asking how it could be reconciled with my new belief that the end of human life was salvation in Christ and the glorifying of God.
After this epiphany, Lewis began to consciously explore the proper relationship a believer should have with culture. And, his conclusion rejected both of the aforementioned extremes.
Culture has been on my mind since reading the 2019-20 schedule of the Fellowship of Performing Arts. I have written about two of the Lewis-related plays presented by this wonderful theatrical community in the past. The Great Divorce and C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert were both superb. I’m hoping that The Screwtape Letters will return to Seattle soon. All of their work is deeply inspiring.
The founder of FPA, Max McLean, affirms how their mission—producing quality “theatre from a Christian worldview meant to engage a diverse audience”—continues to guide their efforts. This includes a new rendition of Paradise Lost which will debut on Theater Row in New York in January. You won’t get to see the new play outside of New York City, but check this site for a list of their touring casts to see what wondrous performances may be available near you.
McLean writes, “In the arts world, Christians are seen as cultural critics, not culture makers. Mainstream opinion is that Christianity is a regressive idea that has nothing to add to the cultural conversation.”
McLean, like C.S. Lewis, encourages us to challenge this misinterpretation. After all, even if some Christian communions have retreated from the modern Areopagus, most of the great cultural accomplishments of the Western world owe a great deal to Christianity. And that is a debt of gratitude we can increase when we choose.
Culture is Not Our Enemy
Lewis posed an interesting contrast in “Christianity and Culture.” Speaking of the positive aspects of culture (for there are assuredly many shortcomings), he writes:
Culture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values. These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values. They will save no man. They resemble the regenerate life only as affection resembles charity, or honour resembles virtue, or the moon the sun.
But though “like is not the same,” it is better than unlike. Imitation may pass into initiation. For some it is a good beginning. For others it is not; culture is not everyone’s road into Jerusalem, and for some it is a road out.
This final observation—that immersion in culture can lead one on a path away from Life—is profound. I have witnessed this in the action of some who make cultural sophistication an end in itself.
In a far different essay, “Learning in War-Time,” C.S. Lewis elucidates how culture is a given. Even the most earnest prayers of the eremites can dispel it. No cloister has walls so impenetrable that they make culture irrelevant.
In the context, then, of education, Lewis describes the necessity of Christians engaging deeply with culture.
If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.
Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.
Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.
A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. The learned life then is, for some, a duty.
And so, just as the “learned life” is a duty for some, so too is an “artistic life.” It is a good thing, perhaps even an excellent thing, when Christians excel at the arts and talents esteemed by one’s local culture.
What might change if Christians decided to forego their identity as mere cultural critics and strove to become cultural leaders? Now that’s a question worth pondering.
* T.S. Eliot wrote a book with the same title. Published seventy years ago, he assessed a cultural conflict that has only grown more acute.
The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us, and it is a very different problem from that of the accommodation between an Established Church and dissenters. It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief.
It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.