Finding the Art in Everything

22 June, 2010

C is for Culture

5And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. Revelation 21:5 (KJV)

8 Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.
Philippians 4:8 (New King James Version)

C is for Culture.

One of my heartaches regarding Central Florida is the lack of culture here. As an English Literature major an amateur musician and Art History teacher, I live for it. When I first moved here, one of my coworkers tried to convince me there was culture, but I just had to get used to the local kind. Anyone passing through Daytona can see the temple to what he's talking about--it can hold half a million people who live to watch people drive in circles, really fast. No. That is not culture.

Culture is NOT shirtless overall-wearin', gin-jug totin', toothless gator-shooters celebrating their lawn trash.

Yet, culture is NOT the high-minded post-modern celebration of human depravity such as Chris Ofili's The Holy Virgin Mary a collage of Mary incorporating cut-outs from pornographic magazines and shellacked clumps of elephant dung. Art is often tasked with raising controversy, but in every literal way, this is just shit.

And still, culture is NOT, as Franky Schaeffer writes in Addicted to Mediocrity, * (and as a recovering Christian-retail worker, I love this list, so here's the whole thing!) "the contents of your local Christian bookstore-accessories-paraphernalia shop:

For the coffee table, we have a set of praying hands made out of some pressed muck. Christian posters are ready to adorn your walls with suitable graffiti to sanctify them and justify the expense... Perhaps a little plastic cube with a mustard seed entombed to boost your understanding of faith... And if this were not enough, there's a toothbrush with a bible verse stamped on the plastic handle... And a comb with a Christian slogan or two impressed on it.

...On a flimsy rack are stacked a pile of records. You may choose one at random, blindfolded, for most of them will be the same idle rehash of acceptable spiritual themes, endlessly recycled as pablum for the tone-deaf, television-softened brains of present-day Christians...

...And finally, the publishing houses churn out (measured by the ton) a landslide of material which can scarcely be called books, often composed of the same themes which are viewed as spiritual, slopped together by 'writers' who would be better employed in another trade."

For rednecks, post-moderns, and especially Christians, it is crucial for the redemption of all things that we find true culture.

So if it isn't any of this, what is it?

Matthew Arnold, an English Victorian poet, social-reformer, and critic defined in his book Culture and Anarchy, "Culture is, or ought to be the study and pursuit of perfection; perfection of beauty and intelligence, where Sweetness and Light are the main characters."

Arnold goes on to argue that only culture of this kind has the power to shape a society--to correct the worst effect of laissez-faire capitalism among social classes, the neglect of the common good. With a collective celebration of Intellect and Beauty for their own sakes, people would be reminded what was good and so be motivated to strive for it.

Arnold was talking about culture chiefly for pseudo-political purposes, the stabilization of a turbulent British society. I think he has the right definition of it, a correct assessment of its power, but aiming toward the wrong end.

Instead, Christians should be working within culture to redeem it and use the best of it to point people back toward the Source of all good things. Christians should break down the sacred-secular divide with their participation in and celebration of all things excellent.

Our post-modern society is marked by individualism and its only end is man's right to do as he pleases for himself. We need something more powerful than that if we are going to make a transforming difference.

Beauty and Intellect are the meeting point between this kingdom where man is god and the Kingdom of God as described by the Gospel.

The beginning of this celebration of intellect and beauty, Sweetness and Light, is marked by the Hellenistic Golden Age in Greece. Greek humanism held intellect and beauty as its highest virtues. We need Christians to be nourished by this tradition of humanism, without being Humanists. As Christians, we know man is not the measure of all things, the Son of Man is.

All things will be made new. God's kingdom will reverse this world's momentum of decay. People, nature, politics, art, relationships--all of it-- will be redeemed.

Christians have an immediate role to play in this redemption: We must use the Truth we have to stop the best of this world from spoiling, not be content with the mediocre. The Gospel deserves the highest creativity and human expression we can muster, and we must use the high accomplishments of creativity and expression as pathways to the Gospel.

We are called to be the Salt and Light, after all. Let's get to work.

*Addicted to Mediocrity was written 25 years ago. Since then, it's important to fairly note the strides Christians have made in music and art--however small.

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