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The Spiritual Value of Material Culture

Basilica of the Santa Croce, Florence (Gabriele Maltinti/Shutterstock)

“THIS is why we need a Christian culture,” says Erin Manning, citing a column in the New Haven Register. The author is Norm Pattis, a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer. Pattis and his wife were in Italy for the Christmas holiday. Excerpts:

And, all at once, I am dumbstruck by the foolishness of the cross.

Paul wrote of this foolishness in his first letter to the church in Corinth: “For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God,” he wrote.

I am not saved. The cross is foolishness to me. Or so it seemed …

You can’t escape the cross in Italy. It’s everywhere. There are churches seemingly at every square. In recessed alcoves on street corners, religious figures peer out onto passersby. Works of art proclaim a story of sacrifice, salvation, and damnation.

Walk a street in Italy and it as though the statuary keeps an eye on you, reminding you that you are not made of the same enduring stone.


Yes, the Coliseum impresses, and the Forum is endlessly fascinating. Rome is a proud city; it is the seat of a civilization that has endured now for millennia.

But what drove me to tears was the sight of the Vatican, this from a sinner, a man of unclean lips, as the prophet Isaiah might say, who never darkens the door of a church, who never prays, and who is tone deaf to the sound of the divine.

Why so moved?

Yes, the Sistine Chapel is a marvel. Michelangelo’s frescos tell a familiar Biblical tale, and the Last Judgment is a powerful statement about a moral order to the universe. But these works of art are almost too overwhelming to move. I kept saying “wow,” over and over again, as we turned each corner.

But there’s something more substantial than the eye candy, something lingering in the silence. Just what it is, I cannot say, but I know enough to want more of it.

It is easy to scoff at the Church until you stand inside one. There’s a silence in the air, the intimation of something holy. All truly is calm. This story of a virgin and her child is so wildly improbable, yet it speaks a truth I can almost hear: Almost, as if a lover’s glance fell just askew and did not meet my eye.

There is a safety in the confines of the Church I found stunning. Amid the world’s chaos, something stands, and has withstood, the test of time. I imagine finding a place there, if such a thing were possible.

I am suddenly the father of a child in need of healing: “I believe, help thou my unbelief,” the words of Mark in his gospel, come to mind.

Read the whole thing. Pattis goes on to reiterate that neither he nor his wife are believers, but there was something about the beauty of these Christian places in Italy that surprised him — and to be precise, surprised him by something that was within himself. I well know the feeling, from my life-changing stumbling into the Chartres cathedral.

Erin Manning adds:

I honestly can’t understand the people who respond to a call for the Benedict Option by saying that, oh, well, Buddhists and pagans are virtuous too. They’re not even grappling with the big questions such as “What is virtue? Why is it good for a Buddhist culture to have cultural Buddhism but not (allegedly) good for a Christian culture to have cultural Christianity?” etc.

Christ built a Church, after all. One presumes He knew that people would need an actual tangible place to go and do actual tangible liturgical things as a way of encountering Him through the sacraments’ actual tangible words and signs, and so on, because He knows what we’re like. At the least excuse half of us would stay home and drink hot coffee on Sunday mornings while prattling about how we’re spiritual, but not religious, with no idea at all of just how far from the Holy Spirit we might be at that given moment.

Yes. He knows what we’re like. If you haven’t yet read Robert Louis Wilken’s “The Church As Culture” essay, let this post be your encouragement. In it, the historian said:

Can Christian faith—no matter how enthusiastically proclaimed by evangelists, how ably expounded by theologians and philosophers, or how cleverly translated into the patois of the intellectual class by apologists—be sustained for long without the support of a nurturing Christian culture? By culture, I do not mean high culture (Bach’s B-Minor Mass, Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew); I mean the “total harvest of thinking and feeling,” to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase—the pattern of inherited meanings and sensibilities encoded in rituals, law, language, practices, and stories that can order, inspire, and guide the behavior, thoughts, and affections of a Christian people.

When one understands culture in this way, the classical distinction between Christ and culture, popularized in H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1950s book by that title, gives us little help. Some have observed, accurately in my view, that one difficulty with his analysis is that “culture” is really another term for “world,” the unredeemed territory in which human beings live. For Niebuhr the question is how the gospel, Christ, can penetrate the world, culture, without losing its distinctive character.

It seems to me, however, that the deficiency with the Christ-and-Culture scheme lies not in Niebuhr’s understanding of culture but in his view of Christ. For Niebuhr, Christ is a theological idea, and most of his book is taken up by an analysis of Christian thinkers who illustrate five basic types of the relation between this theological idea and culture. Niebuhr is largely silent about the actual historical experience of the Church, about culture on the ground, about institutions such as the episcopacy and the papacy (there is no mention of Gregory VII and the investiture controversy), monasticism, civil and canon law, calendar, and the ordering of civic space (the church standing on the central city square). But Christ entered history as a community, a society, not simply as a message, and the form taken by the community’s life is Christ within society. The Church is a culture in its own right. Christ does not simply infiltrate a culture; Christ creates culture by forming another city, another sovereignty with its own social and political life.

For believers bound together in the early Church, says Wilken, the creation of the first expressions of Christian material culture, in adorning the Catacombs, “Their aim was not to communicate the gospel to an alien culture but to nurture the Church’s inner life.”

And yet, the obvious question: with all that Christian material culture everywhere to be seen in Italy, why are Italians not more faithful to their baptism? Italy is astonishingly rich in Christian material culture, but I think it’s generally true about Europe (even if nothing parallels Italy). At least in Italy there is a tangible presence there to remind us of who we once were, and might be again. On the other hand, there are also plenty of material expressions of the pagan religions of the classical world, yet nobody is tempted to worship Minerva again. Hmm…

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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