Is Your Church Subcontracting Cultural Discernment?

Why do you read what you read? Is it because a teacher tells you or because a friend hands you a stack of books when he or she is done? Is it because you’re friendly with a local librarian who recommends books similar to one’s you’ve already borrowed? Do you only buy books from a particular bookstore? Or from the collection held by your church or school’s library?

Who do you trust to tell you what’s good?

William Dyrness notes that many discussions of modern culture from within the church seem to assume

that Christians can inhabit a space somehow removed from their cultural surroundings. The truth is, of course, that they are already formed by their culture long before they begin any critical reflection on it. Culture is not out there waiting to be examined; it is part of who they are. [1]

Are we engaging in thinking about what is worth reading or are we settling for being told that the label “Christian” will do the thinking for us? I’ve written before on Transpositions about whether “Christian” is a helpful label for literature, and why I don’t just read “Christian” books. However, a recent post about “Christian” books and profanity has shown me that there is an expectation on the part of readers that “Christian” publishers have edification as a business goal. Like many niche industries it developed as a way of giving authors an opportunity to write about topics and narrative lines that were not the purview of the rest of the publishing industry. Some publishers may have had, and may still have, a personal or ideological stake in the content of these novels. But largely speaking, one other reason why the Christian publishing industry is such a large market is because they have a ready audience, and there’s a formula for what works.

I think relying heavily on Christian sub-culture and the industry that symbiotically benefits from its creative output makes us a little bit dumber culturally and a little bit less discerning. The responsibility for developing discernment lies not with the Christian publishing industry but with the local church. Churches have the responsibility to equip artists, pray for them, and encourage them to do their work well, even if it means stepping outside of the often narrow purview of the “Christian art” industry. Let us not degrade artist’s work by using it merely as sermon illustrations or “adapting” it so that a “Christian” label can be neatly affixed. We must encourage artists and writers in our midst to choose a medium or an artform and do it well. Look at some of the most extraordinary novelists of the 20th century (quite a few of them were God-fearing folk, if that’s the measure by which you decide you want to read something) and consider whether these would make it into a “Christian” bookstore. Then consider whether that even matters to Christian discernment and appreciation of the arts.

I would contend that we must equip our artists well with biblically-grounded teaching, with personal encouragement to seek out mentors in order to be taught in their trade and craft well, and with a commission to be salt and light in their field.

Is this a priority in your church community? Do you teach from the pulpit, in Sunday school or in small groups a biblically grounded framework for engaging with culture and with the arts?

Let’s celebrate Good Art because it’s GOOD! Let us appreciate good literature because it is good. Let us not subcontract the work of character formation and discernment to someone else.


[1] Dyrness, William A. Poetic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2011. Print. 74

Image: Author’s own.

6 Comments

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Hey Anna, thanks for this really great post! I think you pose a very interesting question and challenge. For myself, I find it difficult to be aware of the various ways that my appreciation of the arts is shaped by others. As you point out, out tastes, our likes and dislikes, are shaped by those we put our trust in. Your suggestion that, when it comes to discerning those valuable aspects of our culture, we should place greater trust in our local churches than in the Christian publishing industry is an interesting one.

    I wonder if you could share any thoughts you have about how this works. On the one hand, I am skeptical of such an emphasis on the local church as a place for developing a framework for cultural engagement with the arts. And my skepticism comes from being in Christian churches! I have been in too many situations, and heard far too many stories, in which churches offer frameworks that are far too narrow (often out of fear that their congregants will have their faith assaulted, or that certain cultural products are inherently evil). On the other hand, I want to agree with you because I think that whatever one may mean by “Christian identity” is inseparably bound up with a local worshiping community.

    So, I suppose I do want to place my trust in a local church to provide a “biblically grounded framework for engaging with culture and with the arts,” but I also want the freedom to be critical of it. I also think that professionals outside of my local church have great insight into what aspects of our culture are valuable or not, and so it would seem appropriate for the local church to take these insights into account as well. Is this placing too much responsibility on a local church? Does this ask too much of a pastor; that the pastor be a kind of renaissance man?

  • Anna Blanch says:

    Jim,
    thanks for the thoughtful comment and questions.
    I did not say we should put our trust more in the local church than in the christian publishing industry although it would be nice if we could in good conscience do that. What I said was that the local church needs to step up to a responsibility to be engaged with the development of cultural discernment, which I consider to be part of character and spiritual formation. It’s too easy to say that I’m asking too much of the church and then fob it off. I understand your skepticism. It is in fact because of that reasonable skepticism, proven also in my own experience, that I challenge that the industry which puts books and music on the shelves of “Christian” bookstores has made it easy for the local church to opt out of the discussion entirely and I would contend it is here lies one of the root causes for why so many artists feel disillusioned in the body of their local churches. Nothing I said puts this responsibility solely or only on “the pastor” – and the implicit assumption that I’m demanding a “renaissance man” says much too about whether we believe in “a preisthood of all believers” and sharing with the body of Christ, including our local church community, the gifts and talents (and education) we have. This responsibility lies as much with anyone who comes across this post, seeing as it is more likely they have a passion for the arts and thinking through these things in a thoughtful and theological way. Yes, I am asking whether these things are being taught about from the pulpit, but much more teaching should be going on in a church and by more than just one MAN. Otherwise, a church is going to have bigger issues than the ones i’m talking about here.
    Nothing I said prevents your freedom to be critical of the framework discussed and taught, in fact I would hope that you (and others like you) are part of this discussion every day. I agree too about the importance of not thinking the church has a monopoly on assessing and evaluating culture – I said nothing contrary to that.
    I think you will find Sara’s post tomorrow will offer a couple of practical situations where these conversations and reflections are taking place.
    Thanks again for your comment and questions.

    • Jim Watkins says:

      Thanks for this response. It does give me some clarity about how this might actually work in ‘real life.’ Sorry if there was any implicit sexism in my comment. My use of the metaphor ‘renaissance man’ was lazy and thoughtless in that I did not challenge its inherent genderedness.

  • Tamara Murphy says:

    Thank you for writing this post and for the commentary following. I wanted to add just one thought into the mix here. I’ve done a lot of pondering, questioning, reading, praying on this specific subject and have only been able to draw a few concrete conclusions so far. I do agree that the local church as well as the larger “communion of saints” should play a key role in developing a foundation & framework for a healthy cultural discernment. I think that can be as specific as artist talks and art shows and teaching and book studies, etc. I have a lot of personal opinions of what this could look like, but know that each community would look a bit different, and should.

    However, there is one conviction I’ve formed as a direct result of pondering this very question and that is that the most important work a church can do to help form a healthy cultural discernment is to form and maintain a dynamic engagement with the historic rhythyms and nuances of the Church’s liturgical calendar. I haven’t been able to fully articulate this (and certainly wouldn’t be able to in a comment box) but I think it’d be a good conversation: how much of the “dumbing-down” of cultural discernment would be sharpened with a renewed, refreshed, robust engagement with the liturgical calendar. As only one example, I’ve observed that a large amount of the Christian publishing marketing is targeted to meet the very needs that would be met if we were keeping the practices of the historic Church. That doesn’t mean there is no market to write new books and new music, but it completely dumbfounds me when so much of what is being advertised as “groundbreaking” and “what we’ve been missing”, etc.

    Certainly, there would still be room for practical teaching and modeling, but I just wanted to throw this thought into the mix.

  • Beth Reitmeyer says:

    Very thought provoking.

    As an artist, my pastor has challenged me to help our local church engage in culture, to think about how I can use my artistic gifts within the church. This is a good goal. If asked to teach an art appreciation class/event(s) for my church, I’d start with “how to read your Bible” guidelines: 1. Read. 2. Make observations. 3. What inferences do you make from the text? 4. How does it apply to your life? We’d start with the Bible and then transfer the skills to other books and works of art. We’d go and experience a variety of art. And since we started with the Bible, we would be able to compare the works to it.

    My personal conviction, however, is to prioritize cultural engagement outside of the church: “Therefore go . . . “ Matthew 28:19a. Our churches should be involved in teaching us cultural discernment skills, but it the individual’s responsibility to develop one’s discernment by using it. Each individual should go: to read, experience art, meet and engage artists. Some need to go and create. We should experience a wide variety of arts, including those we don’t like and those we disagree with. My hope is that we exert a positive influence on our culture by engaging with it and its creators.

  • Jim Watkins says:

    This is a very interesting conversation. Beth and Tamara brought up some great examples of how a church might take responsibility for shaping its members’ sense of cultural discernment. I am in a church that celebrates the church year, though I suspect that we only skim the surface of what is a very rich tradition, and exploring how it might impact a Christian’s relationship to his wider culture would be very exciting. And I would love to be in a church that teaches an art appreciation course.

    The thing that still worries me about all this, and I’m not sure I communicated this very well in my comment, is if we aren’t placing too much responsibility on the local church. There is sometimes an expectation placed on pastors today (which is why I mentioned pastors in the comment above, and I do affirm the priesthood of all believers) to be able to offer advice and counsel on everything. This is of course unrealistic, but even if we want the local church as a whole to take responsibility for its members’ cultural discernment we may find this to be too difficult a task. I think it is helpful to recall that cultural engagement not only includes the arts, but also business, science, economics, politics, etc. I certainly think that churches need to address these issues somehow, but how much can they really do? I especially think of very small churches with limited resources. Not many churches are able to offer courses in art appreciation, or in the other disciplines mentioned above. Perhaps there is a sense in which the local church does need to subcontract its cultural discernment.

    I think this post also raises questions about the relationship between the local church and the wider (esp. non-Christian) culture. The metaphor ‘subcontract’ seems to have a negative connotation, and I wonder if it doesn’t suggest that in an ideal world the local church would be able to provide a thorough biblically based framework for cultural engagement. But why should this be the ideal? Why shouldn’t the local church encourage its members to have their frameworks informed by members of other (even non-Christian) communities? I am not suggesting that we be religious pluralists, but simply pointing out that other communities can play a valuable role in shaping a Christian’s cultural discernment as well. If this so, then it seems to me that the local church can feel comfortable subcontracting this aspect of Christian formation sometimes, and they can relax knowing that the responsibility is not only theirs to bear.

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