Culture war suggests a battle to the death. But the metaphor is wrong and therefore fosters poor thinking. A culture is not something with which to do battle, either as an offensive weapon or an object of attack. A culture is a living thing, an inheritance, passed on from generation to generation. It is preserved by loving care not militant brow-beating. It cannot survive as a merely negative opposition to something perceived as its opposite. It is a creative, developing expression of a people’s view of the world that reaches ultimately to the highest things: to the good, the true, and the beautiful. To weaponize culture is, therefore, to destroy the very thing for which the battle is ostensibly waged.
The task before those who would preserve culture is one of creation. It is to build, to steward, and to show by example the possibilities for living well. Of course, as with the poor, the enemies of culture will always be with us. However, they cannot be defeated by tactics of their own choosing. The tactics of culture are persuasive, they are rooted in practices born of love, commitment, and hard work. There is much to be done.
I believe that in most (but not all) cases, traditionalists and conservatives fight this culture war from a wholly defensive perspective. That is, we don’t seek it, but the battle has sought us, and we have no choice but to try to defend what we care for the most. Yet Mark is surely correct in these two points:
1) A culture that wants to live needs to be more aware of and committed to what it is for than what it is against.
2) Culture is not merely propositional; it involves practices, ways of living.
This has a lot to do with why Christian culture in America today is so often ersatz and unattractive. It’s fake, for one thing, and for another, it assumes that all we need is better arguments, when in fact so many Christians and other conservatives have absorbed the practices of the broader culture, and think all they need to do is cover them with a thin garment of Christian ideas.
I am reminded of a Wallace Stevens poem about poetry. Read it and imagine that instead of poetry, he’s talking about religion in our time, or, more broadly, traditional culture:
Of Modern Poetry
The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.
Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.
It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice. It has
To construct a new stage. It has to be on that stage,
And, like an insatiable actor, slowly and
With meditation, speak words that in the ear,
In the delicatest ear of the mind, repeat,
Exactly, that which it wants to hear, at the sound
Of which, an invisible audience listens,
Not to the play, but to itself, expressed
In an emotion as of two people, as of two
Emotions becoming one. The actor is
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging
An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives
Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly
Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend,
Beyond which it has no will to rise.
Be the finding of a satisfaction, and may
Be of a man skating, a woman dancing, a woman
Combing. The poem of the act of the mind.