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This time of retrenchment is also the opportunity to begin reconceiving what a new Christian culture—made from the old—might look like…

christian cultureThe recently revived Wyoming School of Catholic Thought has me thinking about how we escape from the “immanent frame,” as Charles Taylor describes our secular age. In a lecture and discussion led by Dr. Thaddeus Kozinski, our 22 participants read Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World, thought about Taylor, and tried to imagine a direction for Christian culture.

I was reminded of the summer of 2000—the Jubilee Year—when my wife Virginia and I made a pilgrimage to Rome. One of the highlights of that memorable trip (which also included a tour of Sicily and Calabria) came in the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Down the center of the nave, someone had set up bronze Stations of the Cross unlike any we had seen before. They were modern but not abstract; they built on a tradition going back for two millennia, but they were startlingly new, and because of their artistic freshness, they broke open the events they depicted like the breaking of bread at Emmaus.

At the time (for some forgotten reason), we could not discover the identity of the artist. Nor have we been able to discover it since. This superb work remains in a beautiful anonymity, like some of the great art and architecture of the Middle Ages, sheltered from all the usual considerations about the artist. Those bronzes have become for me an image of what Wyoming Catholic College is being called to do, which is not to preserve a fading culture but to help make a new one that draws upon the inexhaustible treasures of the Catholic tradition.

One night during the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski lectured on the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and his development of “tintinnabular” music (whose technicalities I cannot begin to fathom). Pärt’s profoundly quieting music, deeply orthodox, influenced by chant, is already among the world’s most-often performed, another sign of the genuinely new being made from the old.

From Anthony Esolen and R.R. Reno to Archbishop Chaput and Rod Dreher, book after book this year has warned us that Christian culture has receded from the mainstream: we cannot expect the broader world to understand traditional Catholicism. Those of us who hold to the Church’s profoundly counter-cultural doctrines seem to many in the secular world strange and atavistic. An emphasis on religious liberty baffles those who instantly decry any violation of “transgender rights.”

Yes, we can take measures to preserve and protect what is left, but it seems to me that this time of retrenchment is also the opportunity to begin reconceiving what a new Christian culture—made from the old—might look like. In the next few weeks, I’m going to be imagining the part of Wyoming Catholic College in such an inspired enterprise.

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6 replies to this post
  1. I believe Christianity would do well to become more “exclusive” than inclusive. By this I mean less preachy, and ceremonial, and more practical, perhaps even political. There may have been a time when it was vital to “spread Christ’s message”, but today everyone knows what Christianity is, or isn’t. There is no need to “sell” anything to anyone. It seems to me that Christianity could communicate itself better to 21st century individuals.

    • Your argument is appealing, but — it has been tried before.

      The old Protestant “Mainline” churches tried those recommendations, and became so “relevant” they have all but disappeared from national life (except when there is some juicy gossip for the Nightly News to thrash to death.)

      But primarily, there is one flaw in your construction. You say, “… today everyone knows what Christianity is, or isn’t.” This is manifestly untrue. It has never been true. Especially among the under-forty crowd, knowledge of Christianity in any of its manifestations and sects is little more than gross caricature. The crude notions people have would be laughable save for the problem that they actually believe the misinformation they have been fed.

      Chesterton remarked, ‘The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.’ Today, I should say ‘The Christian Ideal is unknown, and left ignored.’

      • Yes, you’re correct. Probably few have a proper understanding of Christianity, myself included. A better statement would be that “everyone is AWARE of Christianity”. But rather than proclaim Christianity is for everyone, I would think the opposite is called for. Christians would say that “Christianity ISN’T for everyone. We impose a disciplined Christian life on ourselves, but can’t expect the general public to do so.” Or something to that effect. Make Christianity harder to acquire, and more will see value.

  2. I think the new Christian culture needs to avoid overt-politicization, and find a constructive way to engage culture. Unfortunately, the Christian response to culture has often been to simply denounce it and ban it, rather than engage it and discuss it. If Christians wish to have relevance again, christians, frankly, need to become more openminded. By this I don’t mean that Christians must accept the world’s culture, but rather that we should have a dialogue. As an example, while I believe 50 Shades of Grey isn’t a good representation of what human sexuality should be, instead of simply denouncing it, it would be better to discuss what the Christian alternative is. There is openness to Christian views if we are willing to look for it. Movies such as Lovelace and Don Jon actually come surprisingly close to exhibiting a Christian worldview on sexuality, even if they are still off. Anyways just some food for thought.

  3. The idea of “reconceiving… Christian culture” is one I find fascinating. I am always reminded of another quote by Chesterton: Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave. But I’m not sure how to go from conceptualizing such a thing to realizing it in our culture. I’m not sure it’s the type of thing that converts well from theory to practice.

  4. I agree — it doesn’t translate from theory to practice. I think we are biting off more than we can chew if we try to be too clever and imaginative about how to engage people that are so self-absorbed that they view with horror the idea of bearing a cross, or that suffering is redemptive. You will only Christianize such people will extreme difficulty. David Naas is right — trying to be relevant only has the opposite effect. When people see Christians playing heavy metal they rightly wonder what makes us so special. Or when the Church tried to be relevant after Vatican 2 by replacing Gregorian Chant with Bob Dylan — a huge apostasy ensued. After all, why go to Mass for what you can get six previous days of the week? The more “relevant” and engaging religion becomes the less attractive it is.

    Regardless of whether society is supportive, or hostile, Christianity will always be about the salvation of your soul. Everything else (including all culture) is secondary. The point is to sanctify ourselves. St. Benedict threw away his self, and ended up Christianizing a continent in the doing. That is the paradox. I see no other way towards Christian civilization, than this kind of radical personal sanctification on each individual’s part.

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