Evangelicals often feel persecuted in modern American culture. It often seems that everywhere we turn the truth is being twisted, our rights are being restricted and our utterances go unheard. Our first reaction to this hostility is to blame “the culture.”
Yet how much of the culture’s hostility is our own fault? A recent article from Alan Jacobs addresses this question by highlighting the lack of a modern Evangelical voice. Jacobs argues that this lack of voice exists because the culture is hostile to Evangelical voices and because Evangelicals have retreated from culture. He says that Evangelicals retreated from the academic culture by founding their own schools, developing their own curricula and creating their own academic conversations. They founded academic journals, wrote books and developed bodies of research that interacted with one another rather than the secular academy.
While Jacobs limited his article to academics, you could make similar arguments about the broader Evangelical culture. In the last century an Evangelical sub-culture emerged in which Evangelicals read “Christian” fiction and non-fiction, listen to “Christian” music and watch “Christian” movies.
A growing number of Evangelical academics and artists want to re-enter the broader culture, but all too often they do so by following the styles, trends and practices of Evangelical sub-culture — rather than engaging with the styles, trends and practices of the broader culture.
The problem with Evangelical subculture is two-fold. In some cases, the tastes of the Evangelical sub-culture actually are inferior. Mike Cosper has made the point that the most common Christian fiction is Amish Romance. While this genre contains cleaner content and better themes than its secular counterpart (already considered one of the lower forms of literary art), it is generally no better written. Similar criticisms have been leveled at Christian movies and Christian music.
In a follow-up to his original piece, Alan Jacobs claims that much of the Christian scholarship he received was simply poor scholarship because the authors were only interacting with their fellow Christians. As we reflect on these criticism, we can make two points. Evangelicals need to improve their craft, and they need to learn the broader culture’s ‘language.’
A Matter of Taste: Improving the Craft
First, Evangelicals need to improve their craft. To be fair, many Evangelical artists and academics have legitimate limitations, such as overwork, a limited available audience, juggling academic work with family, work and church responsibilities, etc. But perhaps we also have illegitimate limitations created by our own lack of imagination or unwillingness to do the hard work necessary to excel.
In both the artistic and academic fields we should examine the quality of our own work and accept the limitations of that work (both legitimate and illegitimate) before we blame the broader culture for our lack of voice.
What about the argument that the most common Christian fiction is Amish Romance because that is what Evangelicals buy? Christian authors, like any authors, write books in order to sell books, and thus they must write what their audience is willing to read. The need to make a living is a legitimate limitation, though one that Evangelical culture can address by cultivating tastes in more sophisticated reading material. However, when and where Christian novels or movies suffer from poor writing/acting, lack of metanarrative, inconsistent voice or other problems in style and structure, we should be willing to recognize our own failings and work to correct them.
What about the argument that Evangelical academics are often pulled in multiple directions: parenting families, serving local churches, participating in Evangelical academic conversations, teaching in Evangelical schools and more? They may want to do research that engages the broader culture, but doing so would stretch them too thin. However, when and where Evangelical academic work suffers from insufficient research, poor writing, overly broad claims or other problems in argument, evidential support or communication, we should take steps to recognize and correct our own deficiencies before blaming cultural bias for our lack of voice.
Both Evangelical artists and academics will struggle to discern legitimate and deserved criticism from biased criticism, and the temptation is either to dismiss all criticism as biased or to accept all criticism as deserved. Assuming that all criticism is deserved is not fair to the artist or the academic. For instance, Jacob’s claim that Christian scholarship is inferior seems unfair because many excellent Christian academics only engage with other Evangelicals precisely because they are contributing to an Evangelical conversation. Similarly, many excellent secular academics only engage what other secularists are saying because they are contributing to a secular conversation. However, assuming that all criticism is biased is equally unfair to the work and the broader culture. This article is far too brief to enter an extended discussion of how to distinguish a legitimate criticism from an illegitimate one, and there is need for significant wisdom, discernment, and advice in seeking to do so, but it does seem wise to humbly reflect on the quality of our own work before we attribute its criticism or rejection to the bias of the broader culture.
A Matter of Translation: Learning the Language
Second, if Christians wish to reenter the broader culture then we should learn how to communicate effectively with that culture. The majority of Christian fiction, music, movies and scholarship is Christian not in that it comes from Christian sources (though it often does) or that it bears a Christian message (though this is sometimes true), but in that it is intended for Evangelical consumption. These works ‘speak the language’ of the Evangelical culture, but an increasingly secular broader culture understands this language less and less. In fact, non-Evangelical Christians can often barely understand what Evangelicals are saying or why (and vice versa), much less those who are simply non-Christian.
As a result, we need to ‘contextualize’ our message — communicate the true message of Scripture in a way that a culture can meaningfully understand and engage with, even if they do not ultimately accept it. Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17 is an example of contextualization, as is the process of becoming ‘all things’ in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.
The great danger in contextualizing the gospel is that we will wind up in what is called ‘syncretism.’ Syncretism is the process of blending the message of the gospel with the practices and beliefs of the culture in a way that corrupts the truth of scripture. For example, Simon Magus in Acts 8:9-24 thought that the Holy Spirit was a magical power that could be purchased and used for one’s own gain. In many cases Evangelicals have avoided the attempt to meaningfully contextualize the gospel out of the fear of syncretism, and a debate rages in the Evangelical community over whether the attempts that have been made can be considered syncretistic. However, if we are to meaningfully fulfill the call of the Great Commission and follow in the example of Paul then we must seek to contextualize the gospel for the modern culture.
The need for contextualization means that Evangelicals should seek to learn the language of the broader culture and communicate the gospel in ways that the culture can understand.
Where do we go from here? Here are two ways that Evangelicals can begin to work on this process of contextualization.
- In art, Evangelicals can cultivate tastes for art forms considered higher or more suitable by the broader culture. Such cultivation would free, and force, Christian authors and filmmakers to produce a quality of art more likely to garner a wider audience in the broader American culture.
- In academia, Evangelicals can encourage the development of programs that support academics in deeper and more varied research while reducing the demands on their time in other areas. Such work cannot be the calling of every Evangelical academic—the church can and should be the first calling of Evangelical academics as a whole—but it would be useful to develop grant, fellowship and placement programs that create employment for Evangelical academics engaged specifically in research across multiple fields that seek to engage with the broader academic culture.