Is the culture war over? Or, to use less martial language, is Christian cultural engagement at an end? At the risk of depriving a rapidly shrinking handful of old-school Republicans and countless trendy Christian blog pundits of their reason to exist, I believe the answer is yes. It is over. For to engage a culture there must first be a culture to engage. And, as the ever-incisive Anthony Esolen has pointed out on numerous occasions we no longer have a culture. What we really have is an anti-culture.
Of course, for those saps who use the word ‘culture’ but really mean ‘pop culture’ and therefore assume that a posturing Lady Gaga or the ‘artistic contributions’ of some slack-jawed twenty-something with ill-fitting trousers, a pair of over-priced sneakers, and a recording contract qualify as examples of such, then yes, we do still have culture of a sort. But if we define it as the elaborate structures and materials built in to the very fabric of society for the refinement and transmission of its beliefs and its forms of life from generation to generation, connecting past, present, and future, then we really have none. None at all. From elite critical theory in the lecture theaters of the Ivy Leagues to the rampant epidemic of pornography on so many computer screens, we live in world that seeks to detach and isolate the present from any accountability to past or future. Ours is the era of the sempiternal orgiast, the true hero of our time.
Some may push back against this. We are a democracy, after all, and do our democratic institutions not form something of a cultural core for our world? No. Not any more. The mere existence of a cultural artifact from a previous era does not imply that it is itself significant for the present culture in which it occurs. Thus democracy still exists—we thankfully still live in a democracy—but it is clear that we no longer have a democratic culture. The collaborative interplay of the Unholy Trinity of the entertainment industry, big business, and legal institutions has ensured that the most important decisions of our day, those which set the moral boundaries or our civilization, those Rieffian interdicts which frame our forms of life, are no longer significantly shaped by our democratic institutions. They are controlled by others, not by the people. Our democratic culture is dead.
Look at what happened in Indiana or at what is being pressed in North Carolina. The will of the Boss aspires to carry more weight than the will of the people. Compared to the sovereign decrees of the Unholy Trinity, the calls for a grass roots boycott of Target look desperately insipid, and even the Presidential election seems like a farcical sideshow. And notice what all this indicates about the myriad mediating structures of our world. Schools, libraries, churches, sports clubs, the Boy Scouts etc. all sit under the shadow of increasingly intrusive and prescriptive legislation driven by the imperious demands of the present. Such groups do not really participate in creating culture anymore. They have merely to conform with what the Unholy Trinity decrees in its infinite wisdom or face inevitable and merciless annihilation.
Let’s face it: We now live in a world where refusing a man the right to expose himself in a woman’s toilet is enough to risk your city losing the right to host a football game. Even to suggest there might be a debate to be had about such a thing is enough to render one liable to accusations of irrational hatred and dismissal as a benighted bigot. Culture did not bring that about. Anti-culture did—the wholesale repudiation of the past and its institutions and interdicts, and a Devil-may-care attitude to the future. The anti-culture warriors of this present age have very long, very strong arms and—unfortunately for the coming generations—very short sight. Just think of the Talibanic fury recently released on university campuses against any vestige of the past which does not conform to the exacting morality of the present.
Christians need to wake up to this. We have no culture to engage, let alone transform. It is thus time to drop the hip rhetoric of cultural engagement and transformation that comforts us that we are part of some non-existent dialogue and that grants the world of our opponents a dignity which it simply does not deserve. I am not entirely sure that Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option is the way forward, partly because it seems at the moment to be a work-in-progress with regard to the practical details. But one of its basic premises—that awareness of the antithesis between church and world is becoming vital to the Christian mindset—is surely correct. The church is a culture and the West is now an anti-culture. And we can no more engage or transform anti-culture than we can hunt unicorns or turn lead into gold. Or find a mildly coherent insight or a hint of lasting musical merit in a Lady Gaga song, for that matter.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. This blog appeared on FIRST THINGS; May 5, 2016.