Home/Rod Dreher/Two Stories Of Church & Culture

Two Stories Of Church & Culture

The thread on my post about preaching in a post-Christian world is quite good. I wanted to highlight two long, really insightful comments. One is by a Catholic priest; the other by a Protestant pastor. Both are deeply insightful, and give us a lot to think about.

First, the comment by the Catholic:

As a young Catholic priest of an archdiocese of a major city in the United States, what strikes me is not only how unaware most Catholics in the pews are of the decomposition of traditional Christian culture (or how long ago that decomposition began in earnest), but how even many — perhaps most? — members of the clergy are unaware.

Whether more traditional or more progressive, many seem to believe that if we adjust the dials a bit, we can turn things back to the 1950s (the former long for its institutional strength and cohesion, the latter pine for its influence in culture). Few recognize that in the 1950s we were witnessing the last gasps of a kind of cultural Christianity that had sold its inheritance for a mess of pottage — and in fact, American Catholics were not much different from their Protestant peers (see Will Herberg’s classic, “Protestant, Catholic, Jew”), and took most of their bearings from the liberal tradition of modernity, rather than traditional Catholicism.

Even within the episcopacy today, many still have not grasped the nature of this cultural shift. Just as many seem quite Cartesian in their understanding of how the Faith is appropriated — just preach the right ideas, and people will change. They fail to recognize how the Faith is transmitted culturally — how the reception of practices and symbols and relationships in an embodied integral context are often more important than clear and distinct verbal communication of ideas.

Case in point, notice how few bishops seem interested in the Liturgy as a force for cultural change. In my own archdiocese, there is almost no central coordination or even concern on that point — far more effort is spent on clarifying ideas by publishing documents that no one reads, as well as furtively remonstrating in social media, posting videos with views in the mere hundreds. Meanwhile, as the numbers of Catholics in the pews declines at 3% every year, the few left take their cues from mainstream culture, and their experience of Sunday Mass remains a minimalistic affair of compromise, with little beauty or ritual: a mostly spoken denuded 60 minute sleepwalk, with hymns from the 1970s (still!), inside churches built or renovated in the 1960s. The exceptions only prove the rule.

I have found that much of this is a generational difference: most parishioners are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. They’re are quite attached to this denuded version of Catholicism, moralistic and therapeutic in its preaching, cold and empty in its mystagogy. It’s a bell curve as you look for younger parishioners, but the younger they are, the more they explicitly crave substance in doctrine and mysticism in ritual. But even they often do not realize just how diseased the culture outside is, or how deep its reach is into their lives, or how radical the cultural changes must be for them to live Christian life in its integrity, or how difficult this will prove.

Despite their craving for doctrine and mysticism, many young Catholics still think that orthodoxy and orthopraxy lie in an interior commitment of the will, having a personal relationship with God, understanding and believing the truths of the Faith, trying to live the Faith in one’s life. They fail to see that Catholicism must always be a cultural experience and commitment: that one needs the support and formation and achievements of a culture, that the human person will always be a cultural animal, and that if one is not being shaped and formed by an integral and comprehensive Christian cultural experience (however big or small, in the case of a Benedict option), one is being subliminally shaped and formed by a very different culture. Most Catholics, both lay and clergy, assume that most of the culture and their participation in it is indifferent to their practice of the faith. That is what a Cartesian and voluntaristic account of the Faith looks like in practice.

As for the clergy, I find that even the orthodox priests who were formed during the JPII pontificate remain curiously unconcerned and aware of the importance of culture – for them, it’s often about orthodoxy – as in preaching the truth – and less about an experience of beauty and mysticism. The attitudes of priests formed during the JPII years versus the BXVI priests with respect to liturgy best illustrates this point. The former are content having removed the crazy abuses, and are convinced that clear and distinct preaching of the truth will cure the culture (notice their passion for didacticism). The latter are much more concerned about the liturgy as a force for cultural change and the primary way that the Faith is experienced and appropriated, particularly insofar as it is celebrated beautifully and mystically.

(I should add, I am not talking about the Extraordinary Form, and have no special preference for it. I’m talking about celebrating the Novus Ordo as beautifully as possible, about helping people actively pray it, and forming their lives around the Lord’s Day and the Liturgical Year. In short, putting James K.A. Smith’s thesis about liturgical cultural formation in practice, in a Catholic mode.)

I know these comments are more general, rather than answering some of the questions in this post in detail. But all that is to say, yes, most of us are still shoring up the imperium. There is little awareness or concern for a Benedict Option in most Catholic circles – precisely because, the circles are mostly limited to a rote practice of the Faith for one hour a week, or a dutiful maintenance of the institutional structures as they are (as they fade). There remain small numbers of Catholics who do get it, but their presence is indeed small, and they share little with most of the people who are filling the pews or running the store. I often feel that working for the Church today is like working for Blockbuster Video about ten years ago. We’re arguing about how we should display DVDs on the racks in the stores, when our very model of business is becoming suddenly obsolete.

(I hope my tone does not seem pessimistic. I am quite hopeful, and agree with what Pope Benedict has said about this change in the Church. Moreover, I think an institutionally humbled Church will be more saintly and pastorally effective, once we give up trying to adjust the dials in order to get back to the 1950s. Even now, if one has the eyes to see, there are great things happening in the Church, signs of promise and encouragement. It’s only when one is set on shoring up or recovering the 1950s imperium, that one feels so discouraged, and probably fails to notice all the signs of hope.)

Here’s the comment by the Protestant:

I serve a relatively conservative congregation in historic relation to a mainline Protestant tradition, and I’m our area’s designated “historian” on matters of polity & ecclesiology.

So while I take Rod’s point, as I look both back as well as across our congregation, what I struggle with is that it’s very hard for me to say we’ve lost theological formation (or catechesis as some put it, which no one in our tradition would spell or say) when there’s no evidence we have had it. This is a new realization for both ordained clergy and lay leaders in our very laity-centered congregation and region.

What our community (local church, state, wider tradition) has in common with much of the mainline Protestant family is less the apostasy that I know folks here like to point to, than the fact that for many of our congregations, Christianity and membership in a local church was a form of social aspiration. Trying to move up from poverty and rural isolation and little or no property to owning land, a house, and a salaried job — these were the underpinnings of what it meant to be “part of the church” a century and change ago. Cleanliness being next to godliness, and a steady income with some savings tucked away a sign of divine favor, was all part of a cultural Calvinism that included dressing nicely for going to baseball games in the 30s and flying in the 60s. It was a middle-brow appreciation for “The Lost Chord” and “The Holy City” in music and popular prints in our homes and Sunday school classrooms, Warner Sallman prints in our Bibles and a “Head of Christ” in the auditorium, “Great Books” on the shelves and newspapers piling up next to Dad’s chair, under the table with his pipe.

Congregations in the Midwest like the one I serve have a very general knowledge of the Bible, and that’s from those who come from the era where supposedly this was all being done “right,” and a dim sense of right order in worship having something to do with older traditions whose source is as mysterious as the IHS on the front of some of the altar cloths. Younger members, by which I mean anyone under 65, have trouble finding anything that’s not Genesis or the Gospels, and I’m talking about the lifers, not the newer members.

They are all confused as the dickens over contemporary music and the “outline” of songs, a long prayer, a longer sermon, and one more song; by dressing down which they’re gamely trying to live up . . . down to; by tattoos on ministerial candidates and city council members; by the fact that none of their adult children and adult grandchildren are getting married, at least not until they’ve lived together a few years, or after the second kid is born.

The social aspiration that was part of the men’s fellowship and women’s fellowship and mission dinners and community outreach was not judgmental, it was meant to be inclusive in the sense of “come change your life like we have, put on a tie, quit drinking, marry your girlfriend, and come regularly to sit in worship with us.” The fact that churches which are growing in our area are led by shaven-headed, tattooed worship pastors where there’s little singing, little social interaction in terms of visiting each others’ homes, and where the language of sexual morality is used more stringently in preaching, but the lives of those attending are still pretty much as they were on entry — they’re baffled. Since I came here five years ago, they keep asking me anxiously “do we need to get a drummer?” and talk about the different concerts and Christian festivals some of their grandkids go to. We have been building Biblical literacy and a sense of where our beliefs and practices come from in Scripture & Tradition, but some of the sharper ones (in my opinion) buttonhole me to say “does anyone else out there want this? what do we do about the fact that an orderly life seems to have little appeal for younger people?”

Obviously, the goal here for me, our congregation, for Christians, needs to be truth. If what we say and share and celebrate is true, then we should hold fast to it. I don’t think the earlier generations of our movement meant to abandon truth, they were in a mid-nineteenth sort of American way trying to pare down, like Thoreau at Walden Pond, to simplify an overly complex Christendom, and I honor their intent.

But my reading of the last century in congregational and judicatory life is that our moral uplift and common community effort and our Christian-ish preaching was aimed more at the driving force of aspiration, the desire to move up from a grim and grimy life close to the land or assembly line, to something better, and Temperance and Continence were clearly means to that end, so they got intertwined. Even now, I read those accounts of the 1880s through the 1920s and my sympathies are with them.

What they forgot to do was anchor those social impulses to a more enduring faith and an everlasting truth, other than as a religious frosting added at the end of making the cake. And social advancement became our entire program, which looked not too terribly un-Christian until, in the 1960’s, it suddenly did. We thought we were stepping back into the “side” that defended Christian values, but we were actually doubling-down on a cultural “gospel” of middle class conservatism, and striding away from Christ and the Gospel.

Which, in my opinion, is how we — and not a few in my church — ended up hanging off of Trump’s coattails. Those folks are starting to have private conversations with me, after a rugged stretch where the “right thinking folk” were startled to hear their preacher say, not from the pulpit but personally, “I can’t and won’t support Trump.” The vacuity of cultural conservatism as its own thing in and of itself is getting ever more obvious.

Meanwhile, the union Democrats and socially more progressive folks in our congregation are starting to ask, about marriage and family and children and where these institutions fit into our self-understanding as Christians, “how did we get here? Is it too late to turn back?” And the social conservatives are still sure of the recipe, but not confident of the means.

In my denomination, I feel almost alone in saying, again and again, “the answer is to be found in congregations.” That’s the part of Rod’s book that I find the most resonance with. Not a wider movement or mailing list, not even a church organization of any sort, but a local congregation that has a healthy regard for the fact that there are reasons why we do things (baptism, church calendar, communion, membership, leadership roles), and that our life together face-to-face is going to be crucial as to whether or not we have anything to pass along to our great-grandchildren.

I’ve not written anything this long here before, and don’t know that I’ve even said the half of what I’m thinking, but thank you for listening. I don’t believe, based on what I hear older people say and what I read in old newsletters and minutes and letters, that we really had terribly well-formed Christian adults steering the ship a hundred or fifty-some years ago. We just got too wound up into American middle-class culture, to the point where we’re still stunned by where that culture has suddenly shifted to, and lack the tools to discern where our cultural trends end and the solid rock of Christian tradition begins. It calls for a geologist’s hammer and some judicious tapping, with the occasional sledgehammer. I think we’ll get there, but it’s not easy, and won’t get easier. And I used to blame the Boomers, but I think I’ve gotten wiser, and realized the rot or confusion or whathaveyou goes back much, much farther than that. It was just that the cracks started showing when the Boomers were in charge, and as is so often the case, they panicked and threw up their hands. But they didn’t set the course or steer the ship most of the way to where we’re now stranded.

What these two comments have in common — or at least what stands out starkest to me — is the shared sense that the church in this country doesn’t even understand what has happened and is happening to it, much less how to change course.

My priest preached a very good sermon today. In it, he told us that Orthodox Christianity is not just a set of beliefs, or what we do on Sunday. It is a way of life. These days, Christianity of all kinds must be that … or it won’t be anything tomorrow.

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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