Being a critique of a 75-year-old essay by C.S. Lewis.
Still spot on but way out of touch
“Christianity and Culture” is the title of an essay by C.S. Lewis originally published in some journal in 1940, 75 years ago. With other old articles of his, it can be found in a compilation, Christian Reflections, 1967. I still have my copy.
I’ve just reread the essay. My first reaction is the same as at my first reading decades ago – to beam approvingly. Few essayists have ever written as precisely, succinctly yet elegantly, as politely yet convincingly, as Lewis.
My second is to sigh -- what a period piece! Lewis’s essay questions the place of culture in Christianity without questioning the then current but now quaint definitions of either culture or Christianity. To modern ears, even many Christian ears, the title, “Christianity and Culture,” isn’t catchy, Lewis’s treatment is pedantic and punctilious and out of touch, out of touch and narrow-minded and blinkered, embarrassingly slavishly scriptural, un-liberated, Victorian, stuffy if not offensive. Out of touch and not remotely relevant either to contemporary Christianity or current culture. However hot the topic was 75 years ago, it’s boring now, and out of touch. It’s surprising the essay can still be found anywhere.
I’m 85 years old and to me it’s still hot. And so touched by it that I am moved to present a review and old-time critique of Lewis’s essay, my disagreements and all (if I can find any), plus a reverie on Lewis himself, weaving in my own observations – getting dangerously close to harangue or comedy, and venturing far from Lewis’s stately style – on how culture and Christianity, everything, have changed just in my lifetime. I’ve outlived Lewis by half a century.
I identify with Lewis. Besides being an increasingly aroused conservative Christian like Lewis, I was born to culture (in my case art, though detoured into medicine) and therefore automatically inducted into the Universal Federation of Culture, like it or not. I’m not completely sure I like it.
An academic, literary and cultural icon, the archetypal Oxford and Cambridge don, he made the cover of TIME magazine in 1947. But he wasn’t as famous as Ernest Hemingway, a contemporary, and who remembers Hemingway? But Lewis, like Hemingway dead for 50 years, is now more widely known than ever, Lewis fan clubs popping up all over the planet and the web, probably because of his fantasies like The Hideous Strength, Out of The Silent Planet, and Perelandra, and of course Narnia, recently made into video games and movies that have grossed over 1.5 billion dollars. If Christian essays were all Lewis ever wrote, he probably would have vanished from the scene faster than Hemingway and his bullfights. But for me, if fantasies were all Lewis wrote, I wouldn’t be bothering to write this. I’m no fan of fantasies, even those said to be parabolically Christian. (A little personal idiosyncrasy, there.) It’s Lewis’s no-bones-about-it Christian essays I shall always remember, and reread.
Though always a lay member of the congregation and not a professional theologian, he was, I think, a more effective champion and expositor of essential Christianity, certainly for the likes of me, than Paul Tillich, Rick Warren, even Bill O'Reilly or either of the Robertsons,” Pat “700 Club,” or Phil “Duck Commander.” His only equal, I submit, is St. Paul.
Obligatorily atheist when he donned academic gown, he was remarkably and famously converted to Christianity, and he was not one whit embarrassed about it – extraordinary on both counts! Being of analogous but inferior mentality, I find how he was converted even more extraordinary than the fact of his conversion. It was hardly the usual way, or place. It happened in the gothic calls of a university not a cathedral, or sawdust trail, or even uTube. As he tells in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he was converted through intellect and reason and, especially, literature, that is to say culture, of all things! Backlit clouds would be first on my list.
Once converted, Lewis saw Christianity as Christ Himself had proclaimed it, as recorded in the gospels and presaged by the Old Testament, as rediscovered by the Reformation. Though a philosopher, he rejected many of the 4th century neoPlatonic makeovers and later patristic accretions. And though a scholar, he spurned most of the then-emerging untethered hermeneutics and Germanic über alles higher criticism. For Lewis it was Sola scriptura. Now it’s “so long and farewell” to scripture, hello talking points, hello again neoplatonism.
Even more axiomatically, and archaically, and startlingly, culture to that former generation meant only the noble and the beautiful. Therefore, culture was the arts (for Lewis, literature; for me painting), of necessity classical because classicism equates arts with beauty. Even if labeled “art” and masterfully rendered, and extolled for “honesty” or “truth,” as Hollywood and Hemingway always claim, to Lewis and his generation if it was not beautiful, well proportioned, uplifting, it unquestionably was not culture, -- it was ugliness, degradation. It’s reversed now and not a pretty sight.
I can appreciate the peculiar dilemma Lewis faced, way back then. Culture having always been his life and his profession, he was now a fresh convert and enthusiastic as only new converts are. So he might, ruefully perhaps, see culture as the consummate threat and evil, as alluring and deceptive as the glowing apple for Eve or golden idols for the Israelites. Indeed culture, like mammon, could vie with God for loyalty, overtake Him, even displace Him. A cultured man, like a rich man, is less likely to enter the Kingdom than a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
That was not – I’m not making this up – an uncommon belief in those days. That’s how we seventh-day Adventists thought in my childhood and youth, which, by the way, was coincident with Lewis’s prime.
On the other hand, as the lion of the academic and authoring literary culturati, Lewis could have insisted that Culture is the very Jacob’s ladder to heaven, the prime gift of the spirit, the angel bearing us mortals to the Kingdom with celestial fanfare. On his back on high scaffolds painting his frescoes on the vault of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo ascended to heaven as surely as Elijah was taken up by the whirlwind. That is to say, culture is righteousness as well as good taste. After all, it was through culture that Lewis was converted.
Confronted by both culture and Christ, a lesser professor would go dreamy about both. In fact, he was hardly the romantic about either. He was neither the 19th century poet of the sublime standing in a frock coat on a cliff gazing into the sunset, nor a mystic on a yoga mat, nor a Moses hoisting high the Tables of Stone amidst thunder and lightening. In writing his essay he was as level-headed as an engineer. Lewis was as truly open-minded as an agnostic claims to be.
Lewis’s definition of Christianity and culture, and adjudication thereof, are crystal clear, and at this point I shall let him take over. Quoting him: “Culture is a storehouse of the finest sub-Christian values. They will save no man.” “Cultural activities do not in themselves improve our spiritual condition.” “Is culture even harmless? It certainly can be harmful and often is.”
As an academician should, Lewis quotes authorities, notably Newman, for, says Lewis deferentially, “No one ever insisted so eloquently as Newman on the beauty of culture for its own sake, and no one ever so sternly resisted the temptation to confuse it with things spiritual.” Cultivation of intellect or manners is “for this world,” not the next; between it and “genuine religion” there is a “radical difference.” Culture makes “not the Christian…but the gentleman,” not infrequently two different people entirely. Culture “looks like virtue only at a distance.” Newman “will not for an instant allow that culture makes men better… Culture… has [no] tendency to make us pleasing to our Maker….In some instances the cultural and the spiritual value of an activity may even be in inverse ratio.”
May I enter the colloquy? God is encountered less wondrously through a Te Deum than a prayer. God is less likely to be recognized in the most expensive, most massive, most elaborate marble gothic-baroque-rococo cathedral a pope Julius ever commissioned, among the most exquisitely sculpted saints and murals by the hand of Michelangelo, and resplendent shafts of light from banks of stained glass windows, and flying buttresses, than in the sanctified child, who may never have taken the tour. However groomed His endearingly forked beard or gilded the halo circumscribing His head as seen in medieval altarpieces, or faintly coy His grin on a modern poster on the wall of a youth Crossroads Cafe, Christ is less transcendently portrayed on canvas or a Photoshopped printout than on a holy heart. Painting portraits is my main craving, but I’d hesitate to paint Him. Personally I believe that rather than guiding the soul to Christ, icons distract.
Surprising many of his readers and maybe himself, Lewis sounded less the cultural aesthete and more the puritan cleric, fixating, as he did, on proof texts pro or con culture. With resignation he discovered the Old Testament’s preoccupation with excoriating Philistine culture (aka heathenism), and that “the New Testament seemed, if not hostile, yet unmistakably cold to culture.”
Personally, I was surprised that in his preoccupation with the Bible as doctrinal authority, this reigning connoisseur of literary style seemed uncharacteristically oblivious to the Bible as literature. So may I take over that office, just this once? No expert, I know what I like, as they say. I see Isaiah and John and 1 Corinthians 13 as at least as wrenchingly beautifully written as anything Miss Speh, our high school English Lit teacher, ever exuded over.
As to the literary oeuvre treasured as humanity’s consummate culture, which was Lewis’s professional focus and passion, his lack of partisanship towards it surprised me a little. Frankly and coolly he informs us that “Some of the principal values actually implicit in European literature… (a) bloodshed as the exercise of honor, (b) sexual love, the more illicit the more romantic, (c) material prosperity, (d) pantheistic contemplation of nature, (e)…the remote or the (imagined) supernatural, (f) liberation of impulses ... are not …those of Christianity.” (May I add inordinate preoccupation with fantasy?) And that was Shakespeare the old Professor was talking about.
I submit that it is precisely those values of classical culture – bloodshed, sex, riches, the undirected spirituality of nature, liberation, and toleration, and those nonstop funny little fibs of Fred Astaire – that are at least as alluring, and entertaining, even addictive to the human instinct as Christian values of fidelity, honesty, communion with God, are to the soul. If classical culture was popular, oh wow, get a load of ratings of mod pop culture! And the winner is….!
Defined as beauty, culture is to be received with gratitude like any other blessing created for us by God for our pleasure, the faculty of appreciation also having been created by God, and He saw that it was good. But Lewis feared “lest excellence in reading and writing were being elevated into a spiritual value, something meritorious per se, just as other things excellent and wholesome in themselves, like conjugal love (in the sense of eros) or physical cleanliness, have, at some times and in some circles, been confused with virtue itself or esteemed necessary parts of it.” Meanwhile, ugliness, certainly depravity, even if labeled “art,” is to be abhorred. For such “art” was given us by Hollywood, not God, and the twain shall never meet; and though awarded by Hollywood, appropriately with a gleaming idol, chichi offal will receive no reward in heaven, only punishment (and eternal torment, although, for me, watching it down here is torment sufficient for eternity.)
Though perhaps not of the same level and direct purpose as Gifts of the Spirit, like prophecy or tongues, the ability to create culture, the talent for writing, playing the violin or composing violin concertos, or for painting is God-granted, to be used and multiplied, and the fruit of it distributed to others. As Christ's familiar parable proclaims, we are stewards of such talents, and accountable. Burying our talents is cursed in no pussyfooting terms.
Lewis proclaims that, being thus accountable, how we use our time “is a matter of serious concern. … Every split second is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan.” “How much of our time and energy [does] God want us to spend in becoming ‘better’ or ‘more perfect’ through culture?” “The thing to which, on my view, culture must be subordinated, is … the conscious direction of all will and desire to a transcendental Person in whom I believe all values to reside, and the reference to Him in every thought and act.” It is “as though God said, 'you get on with what I have explicitly left as your task – righteousness.'”
When it’s all said and done, yes, culture can have “a distinct part to play in bringing certain souls” – notably Lewis himself – “to Christ. [But] there is a shorter, and safer, way which has always been followed by most,… devotion to the person of Christ.” “The thing to which, on my view, culture must be subordinated, is … the conscious direction of all will and desire to a transcendental Person in whom I believe all values to reside.”
Lewis felt obliged to caution against the contention by some cultured Christians that they “have a duty” to be all things to all people, citing Paul (1 Cor. 9:22), and have been specially commissioned to witness within the worldly cultural community to demonstrate that Christians are not necessarily uncultured philistines, thereby to evoke favor and maybe to convert some. I'd like to think so. I amen the idea, adding that not only may a cultured Christian so witness but is obligated to, out of gratitude to God for the gift of culture, and the gift of being positioned to witness. But usually that argument is nothing but rationalization. Isn’t that essentially the same argument the Israelites used for mingling with the supercultured Philistines (capitalized this time; intriguing irony in the labels philistine and Philistine) of their day? I would commend unto religionists who venture into culture, Christ’s prayer (paraphrased) for his apostles: “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world’s culture, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil.” John 17:15.
I would add that at the same time a cultured Christian is trying to impress cultured unbelievers, ostensibly to win some to God, he could actually be deploying his culture to insulate himself from God. Having worked very hard at multiplying his talents, studying very hard, cultivating them like orchids, like the parable instructs, he is transformed into a consummately exquisite being. In no need of divine help, this divinely cultured creature merits, instead, divine gratitude and stars in his crown. God is lucky to have such a refined creature on His side. Like the Pharisee of Luke 18:10, he thanks God that he is not like uncouth men.
In any case, In practice, unbelieving cultured people nowadays are rather more likely to dismiss the culture of a Christian as anomalous than to admire it.
Too frequently what's to admire? Wannabe culture is too often not backed up by sufficient talent and not up to standard, downright dreadful. To nonchristians for whom Christianity itself is automatically funny, dreadful culture if pursued by a Christian is doubly funny. Triply funny if flaunted by a Christian without truly attractive Christian character. If expert culture in a Christian is recognized as attractive, it can also be seen as a travesty if the character and persona of the cultured Christian is ugly, as, alas, it too often is. Me, if I were worldly and beholding such a hybrid Christian displaying the worst of Christianity and even the best of culture I would be doubly amused, and repelled.
If a person is both a fine Christian and a fine violinist, Louis contends that it should be the Christianity, not the culture, that is more winsome. To the nonbeliever culture is the end in itself, leading to awards, and that's that; in a Christian, Culture is not the end in itself, nor is the award for virtuosity. For a Christian pianist being first place winner in the Tchaikovsky award is but an attention-getting device pointing the audience not to the pianist but to Christ, rather like, in my opinion, Intelligent Design is not an end in itself but as a path to God -- As the ACLU so clearly perceives. That it hardly ever is, essentially never is, in no way mitigates the truth of the statement.
As I noted earlier, serving God and Culture is as improbable as serving God and Mammon, and if the Culture is successful on a celebrity level and brings in the mammon, not improbable but impossible. But, as Christ added after having issued his jaw-dropping declaration about riches and the impossibility of entering the Kingdom, all things are possible with God. And in the end it is the Christian's very life and lifestyle, not writing style, that is the greater attraction to the disbeliever, whether consummately cultured or crude.
Anyway, nowadays Christianity and culture is not the issue. It is the gay "culture" that that has established itself as the ideal of culture. Nowadays community restoration consultants routinely recommend that to bring culture, and therefore prosperity, back to a community, bring in the gays and their culture of interior decorating, film making, drama, and of course hair styling. If the competition for The Most Attractive Culture is between gays and Christians, Christians had better head for the hills.
Abandoning any pretense of converting heathen, the “Israelites worship the work of their own hands,” the exquisite art “their own fingers have made” (Isa 2:8, 9), which is a good definition not only of idolatry but also of culture. Isaiah adds, “Do not forgive them.”
Since Lewis's simple day, claiming to devote culture to the glory of God while in fact turning it over to Satan, has advanced mightily as an art form in itself. In my youth the place of reformation and repentance for sins was the chapel or the evangelist tent; now it is the film festival, moving us to repent in sackcloth and ashes and black tie for the sins of social and marital injustice (forget infidelity), homophobia and patriarchy, the only sins now recognized by our emergent cutting edge church culture. From our pulpit I hear, more often than doctrine, assurances that just about anything that formerly grieved God now gladdens Him if done “as unto God” and brought off with the incantation “to the glory of God,” the same as killing a lamb covered all sins for Jews or buying indulgences for medieval peasants. ”This Bud’s for You, God!” But in effect old Lewis denies this very assertion, resoundingly. “Our only means of glorifying Him [is] the salvation of human souls, the real business of life.”
“The salvation of human souls [is] the real business of life”? Still? That one sentence both crystallizes Lewis and throws him against this generation. Since Lewis, culture has, like the now outdated Virginia Slims, come a long way.
For one thing, no longer is culture literature and poetry, painting and sculpture, symphonies and string quartets -- creativity to serve and exalt beauty. It is movies, screens huge and mini, acting; virtuality to serve, to be enslaved to, to be given over to, unreality.
No longer is Lewis’s culture to be thirsted for, studied, worked at, cultivated like orchids or pearls. That kind of culture is the last thing in the world to be aspired to. If you still must, do not admit it, deny it, use the f--- word. Unless you are Asian. It’s still the American dream to bust your butt … for celebrity, which is de facto culture nowadays.
Here is where Lewis gets archaic, treating Christianity and culture as separate things. To him the question was how they interact and relate to each other. To us, how they are each other, why we would hug a sculpture as a hippy hugs a redwood tree. He saw the interaction as possibly sin; now, of Zen. Of leaping imagination Lewis had plenty, but he never imagined that Christianity IS culture.
Now culture is vaporous and thus cannot be grasped much less labored for. No longer are exhortations to culture inscribed above university library doors. We have been liberated from Lewis's culture, and his Christianity. The now-culture is already you, part of you like a freckle or your social security number; it’s inborn, like your hair color or gender, which, symbolic of this era, now can be changed with less hassle than Lewis’s conversion to Christianity. If culture for Lewis was on a plinth like a statue, in a museum, now it’s in the air, like smog or WiFi. Culture was rare in Lewis’s day and had to be searched for; now as common as tattoos. Ours is the facebook culture, the botox culture, the app culture; the culture of capitalism, bigotry, tolerance, reform, whatever; the culture of everything but culture. So glutted with cultures are we that we even have culture wars -- as if we didn't already have enough wars going on. Everything is culture, even religion. If once we were cultured, now we are culture. Culture is in everything; culture has gone pantheistic. God you can hide from, but not culture.
I know a zealously progressive Adventist who is embarrassed by every last doctrinal “pillar” of Adventism and systematically dismisses every one of them, but still wants to be called an Adventist only because of “Adventist culture.” I well knew we had doctrines, and knew what they were, but didn’t know we even had such a thing as culture (we were suspicious of it…), much less constituted one. If we have one, it’s different now than it was. Now it seems to be dancing, drama, filmmaking, applauding in church, sermonizing by joke rather than reproach, calls for protest marches rather than repentance. In my day our culture would have been not dancing, not going to movies, it was altar calls, precisely what progressive Adventists deride as burdensome, legalistic, despotic and enslaving, and embarrassingly anti-cultural, and in more honest times why they fled the congregation and dusted from their sandals the very name of SDA. If neither the culture of dancing nor of not dancing is what my friend cherishes, but something else, like being nice people, which I would suppose is the universal Christian, or atheist, culture, or like perfected liturgy and pageantry, Catholic culture would be more historic and far more awesome, although we’re working on it.
Come to think of it, Adventism offers the best available case study of the magnitude of the change. Weary of culture at its beginning, Adventism – at least the more advanced, intelligent, enlightened educated and most highly cultured wing of it -- now throws itself upon the altar of culture as avidly as a rock star groupie throws herself into the maw of The Punk Moloch. If in Lewis’s day culture was personified by literature and art and opera and orchestras, now it is movies on screens big and tiny. So it is Hollywood and Burbank, not Jerusalem ancient or heavenly, that inspires us. Filmmakers have displaced pastors as shepherds. Our sermons feature movie reviews rather than scripture texts.
That’s a terribly depressing tone on which to end my review of Lewis’s old essay. So to lighten the tone I shall now undertake my role as serious critic, and find fault.
I found one. Lewis gave short shrift to culture as affectation, makeup or makeover; habiliment to impress, trappings of status, like tuxedo and cravat, fur coat and designer gown, like the long phylactery-bedecked gown of the Pharisee parading the streets and dispensing alms, pince-nez or a cascading pearl necklace, medals and medallions of the opera-going nouveau riche.
I can fault this omission for a theological and artistic reasons.
Theologically, if genuine culture, no sin in itself, can lead to sin, affected culture already is. Affected, ostentatious, skin-deep culture is hypocrisy, the whited sepulcher. And affectation of both culture and Christianity at the same time is sin compounded, warranting rebuke in the strongest, most politically incorrect of terms, as Christ Himself did. It is also comical.
Which brings me to the artistic point. By overlooking affected culture, all those pince-nezes and the cascading pearl necklaces and the book clubs and book signings, and Hollywood galas and Kim Kardashian’s antics, Lewis forfeited a goldmine of satirical humor that a Charles Dickens could mine for all it’s worth. And so did Weegee, who mined the parvenu culturati for a fortune in glossy photos recently auctioned by Sotheby’s and snapped up by Saudis, maybe. The most famous Weegee is the one I put at the beginning of this piece.
I can offer a good reason from Lewis's curious omission. Though Lewis was legendarily jocose and jovial when quaffing and puffing with Professor Tolkien, in print he was sober and solemn, frequently witty, on occasion droll, but never clownish, thus emulating Christ rather than Dave Barry. His talent for description he exercised and multiplied in his fantasies, or so everyone tells me. So on second thought, yes, Lewis was right to forfeit farce and satire. He was right there too. Christlike, even.
He was right all around, I still think. He was right in saying his kind of culture is good, one of the greatest gifts God has given us, but can be misused, as it most often is. In any case, the gift of redemption and of God Himself, is unimaginably greater. That’s the gist of it. It’s never been said better than Lewis said it. He remains in touch, he grapples, though with soft-gloved hand he smites.
The title may not be as catchy as the clicks on Drudge Report, but let it stand. The title is timeless, however outdated. His essay, his arguments, his very words, his conclusions are timeless, and it’s time, high time, that we again realized that.
As my last function as critic, I must soberly and solemnly but with a wink, with gloved hand, point out that Lewis erred, once. In his day keen assessment of an idea or volume of poetry somehow seemed to require puffing a pipe. King of the campus, he could outpuff them all. He was dead wrong.
Operagoers. Photo by Weegee
Revised Sunday, June 12, 2016
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