By Matthew J. Milliner
To scan the popular Christian publications today is to conclude that the category of heresy has not been lost, but it has been relocated. The new anathema is “cultural Christianity.” “Missional Christians” disparage it. The supposed demise of Christendom is the rallying cry of young, hip evangelicals. Many would prefer to be labeled “Arian” than derided as “Constantinian.” They suspect even classical Christian doctrine, infected as it supposedly is with the cultural categories of Greek thought.
For them, culture is as dispensable to Christianity as a hermit crab’s shell is to the crab. The true essence of the gospel might don cultural attire when necessary, but only to just as quickly cast it off, seeking new garb to attract a fresh set of converts. Hence the jettisoning of one more outgrown shell—the Mainline Protestant ascendancy of American Christianity—is cause for the post-Christendom crowd to rejoice. From this perspective, glorious stone edifices in Manhattan such as Fifth Avenue Presbyterian and St. Thomas’ Episcopal are but discarded seashells scattered on the church’s historical shoreline. The Holy Spirit has found new and better habitations, like house-churches and theology-on-tap sessions in bars.
For others, culture is less easily distinguished from Christianity. It is almost as indispensable to Christianity as a turtle’s shell is to the turtle. A turtle is permanently fused to its habitation by its backbone and ribs; the shell is inextricable from the creature itself. Removing it would rip the animal apart. In its single shell lie a turtle’s protection, distinction, and beauty. This unique relationship to its hardened exterior is what places turtles among the earth’s oldest reptiles—contemporaries of both dinosaurs and us. This relationship to culture calls to mind St. Patrick’s Cathedral, also on Fifth Avenue. When one thinks of “American Catholicism,” one does not think of an abstract idea—one thinks instead of the shimmering stone edifice packed with worshipers at 3 p.m. on any given weekday in a way that its neighboring churches, say St. Thomas’ and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, are not.
This turtle/hermit crab distinction may not rival H. Richard Niebuhr’s typology in Christ and Culture, and by no means is it a perfect analogy. But it may prove instructive nonetheless.
These differing ideas of Christianity and culture—the expendable versus the essential—play themselves out in how different scholars grapple with one of the biggest religion stories of the hour, the explosion of Pentecostal Christianity in the Global South. For the hermit crab approach, consider Alister McGrath’s characteristically lucid history of Protestantism, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea. He knows that the Protestant brain drain to older traditions—converts to Catholicism or Orthodoxy—constitutes a problem. Finding himself in a difficult field position, he punts to Pentecostalism, and in this passage one can almost hear his foot hitting the pigskin:
So what of the future of Protestantism? Those who base their answer on its fortunes in Western Europe, its original heartlands, may offer a somewhat negative answer. But for those who have reflected on its remarkable advances elsewhere, such an answer is inadequate. Yes, the sun may set on a movement—but it is too easily forgotten that the sun rises again the next day. Protestantism has had its moments in the past; it will have them again in the future.
The growth of Pentecostalism enables McGrath to end his history of Protestantism on a triumphal note. He rejoices that Pentecostals “see no need to engage with past memories of Christendom or modernity, proceed[ing] directly to the next generation of ideas and approaches.” Here is a movement liberated from “captivity to the cultural habits of early modern Western Europe,” and now fully adapted to the forces of globalization and entrepreneurship. The hermit crab crawls on, happily leaving the shell of European and American Christendom behind.
Others, however, have reflected on Pentecostalism’s remarkable recent advances, and remain less than sanguine about the Protestant future. Robert Louis Wilken, writing in the January issue of First Things, is among them. “True,” he admits, “one can point to the astonishing growth of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere, especially in Africa and Asia, and to the unbounded enthusiasm evangelicals and Pentecostals have brought to Christian mission. But energy and enthusiasm are no substitute for deep roots, vital and durable institutions and a thick and vibrant culture.”
Wilken asks some serious questions that McGrath’s need for Pentecostal relief from Protestant problems may have led him to avoid: “Will the younger [Pentecostal] churches have the staying power to pass on the faith in its fullness generation after generation and give rise to distinctly Christian societies? And how will they fare in the face of aggressive Muslim communities alongside which some live?”
Accordingly, he celebrates continuity. Europe’s “churches, shrines, tombs, and pilgrimage sites . . . [ are] imprinted deeply on the Christian soul,” and losing this heritage “would be a crippling blow.” He calls for Christian memory with “tangible links to the past mediated through communities tethered to the earth.” Should it not develop this kind of Christian culture, Global-South Christianity is exposed and at risk.
As one might expect, McGrath (the hermit crab) is an evangelical and Wilken (the turtle) a Catholic. For the most part, the hermit crab mentality is a Protestant one. But though they are an endangered species, Protestant turtles have been known to show their heads. In a recent book, the evangelical Mark Noll concludes that “Christendom, however manifold its shortcomings, has historically proved to be a most propitious environment for the flourishing of Christian learning.”
Another most impressive turtle, at least technically Protestant, was T.S. Eliot. In a series of essays entitled Christianity and Culture, Eliot saw the need for the cultural “baggage” of Christendom that so many seek to discard. Eliot felt that the massive question of Christian culture, if not addressed, “will return to plague us,” as this one most certainly has.
Be it duly noted: The post-Christendom crowd today has legitimate concerns. Be it further noted: Eliot addresses them. He is on guard against dangers that Christian culture poses, such as excessive patriotism or superstition masquerading as piety. In fact, the kind of Christian culture he defends “must inevitably lead to criticism of political and economic systems.”
Eliot’s notion of Christian culture eschews coercion, for indeed not all participants in Christian culture are one kind of Christian, nor are they necessarily Christian at all. “The unity of culture, in contrast to the unity of political organization, does not require us all to have only one loyalty: It means that there will be a variety of loyalties. . . . To our Christian heritage we owe many things besides religious faith.” Among these are our notions of public and private morality, the development of the arts, the heritage of Roman Law, and the standards of literature. “The Western World has its unity in this heritage, in Christianity and in the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome and Israel.”
Eliot’s understanding of Christianity and culture was both large and subtle, so difficult that Eliot himself could not grasp it “except in flashes.” He could, however, name two errors: the beliefs that “culture can be preserved, extended, and developed in the absence of religion,” and that “the preservation and maintenance of religion need not reckon with the preservation and maintenance of culture: a belief which may even lead to the rejection of the products of culture as frivolous obstructions to the spiritual life.” The second immediately brings the post-Christendom crowd to mind.
Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that all parts of Christian culture need be retained, just as it would be foolish to discourage new forms of indigenous Christian culture. Eliot suggests neither. Instead, he points out that a Christian culture already formed is discarded unwisely, for it is not made overnight. “You cannot put on a new culture ready made. You must wait for the grass to grow to feed the sheep to give the wool out of which your new coat will be made.”
True, there may be room in Christianity for relationships to culture that resemble both the hermit crab and the turtle. But should the Church wish to produce further generations of Christians with the luxury to protest Christendom, she needs to preserve and transmit Christian culture in addition to faith. Eliot, no stranger to nuance, on this matter expresses himself quite plainly: “I believe the choice before us is between the formation of a new Christian culture, and the acceptance of a pagan one.”
In an arresting passage, he warns that to neglect the transmission of Christian culture is to destroy “our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanized caravans.” He would be unsurprised to see those edifices further eroded today. He might be surprised to see a crustaceous crowd of post-Christendom Christians celebrating the loss.