Engaging with the culture can be exhausting.
(Several years ago I posted this as a Facebook note, accessible only by my friends. It's a retelling and reflection on something that happened one night on an outing to the movies with my wife. I submitted it last year to Touchstone Magazine and they published it in one of their 2022 editions. I'm free to make it available now so long as I make clear that it first appeared publicly in Touchstone.)
Russell Kirk, man of letters and father of conservative thought in America, said somewhere that it’s impossible even to go out to dinner without being bombarded by the “vulgarities of the culture”. He mostly had in mind the growing inclination of restauranteurs to blare obnoxious music over loudspeakers, making meaningful conversation at dinner all but impossible.
But I remembered Dr. Kirk’s observation during an outing to the movies a few years ago with my wife. We went to see the movie “Persecuted”. (An interesting movie but not a great one. To its credit, it deals with important themes, most notably the distinction that must be made between a commitment to the truth and a commitment to the state.)
We sat in the top row of the rather small theater. (The older our eyes get, the less malleable we become regarding our distance from the big screen. Every few years we move a row further back.) Just prior to the start of the movie three teenagers walked in, moving past us in the row to take up seats at the far end to our right. There were, perhaps, 5-6 seats separating us from these kids. The group consisted of two girls and a boy, with one of the girls and the boy being an obvious “couple”.
About two thirds of the way through the movie, I noticed some commotion among the group to my right and when I looked down the row I was surprised to see one of the girls, having removed most of her clothes, sitting on the boy’s lap facing him. These two teenagers were, you will be surprised to learn, entirely uninterested in the movie’s treatment of the tension between our faith commitments and our loyalty to the state.
Now, I’m no prude. Neither am I blind to the proclivities of teenagers, but this business of taking off your clothes in a public setting was a new one on me. These kids were perhaps 15 or 16 years old. I don’t think the boy was even growing whiskers yet (I got an up close and personal look at his face a little further into our story.)
So I sat there in my seat for a moment or two trying to decide what, if anything, I should do about the activities at the end of the row. At first, I was really irked. They were, after all, being a distraction from what was taking place on the screen. But then, as I thought about it, I found another reaction emerging: fatigue. The cultural decay all around us feels increasingly like a relentless assault, and sometimes I grow tired of the conflict and want to simply withdraw from the engagement.
There’s a popular, angst-ridden teenagery song from a few years ago called “Say Something”. I think perhaps Christina Aguilera recorded it. In the song, she talks (at length) about throwing in the towel on some relationship she had hoped would lead to greater things. Now, when you merely read the lyrics of the song, they sound a tad bit incoherent and more than a little redundant. But when Ms. Aguilera actually sings, you can feel more of the emotional weight of her painful disappointment that the other person in the relationship is unresponsive and checked out. (In my mind, I picture Ms. Aguilera emoting these words as some young guy sits on the couch, obliviously enmeshed in a video game or watching ESPN. In real life, some poor woman has written an entire book on this very phenomenon.)
I confess that I feel a little fatigued sometimes when I hear one of these incessant calls for Christians to “engage with the culture”. It is one thing to challenge believers to be a prophetic witness to the impact that Jesus has on our lives. It is quite another thing to have an emotionally needy craving for cultural acceptance. I confess that when I consider the frequent Christian drum beat about “cultural relevance”, I sometimes catch a whiff of craving. Not always, but neither do I think that the emotional neediness is entirely absent.
If the call to cultural engagement is accompanied by any expectation that the culture is going to love us back, I’m afraid we may ultimately find ourselves in poor Ms. Aguilera’s shoes.
I have learned over time that the extent to which I experience fatigue while engaging the culture is directly related to which expectations I carry into the engagement regarding my own responsibility for the outcome. If I believe that the way to measure success is by how the culture responds, then not only will I be disappointed but, like Ms. Aguilera, I will be sorely tempted to throw in the towel.
I was recently reading the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah where the prophet receives his commission. It is a famous section in which Isaiah has a vision of the scene around God’s throne. His reaction is pretty typical of other reactions that people have had upon seeing God in person. (Throughout scripture, the reaction to actually seeing God falls inevitably somewhere along a continuum between abject terror and actual unconsciousness. I’ll just observe that any notion that people do a happy dance of some kind when first encountering God face-to-face is pretty much unsupported by the historical record.) In Isaiah’s vision, God asks for a volunteer to “engage the culture” of Isaiah’s time. Isaiah, being one of the main characters in the story, steps forward and volunteers for the task. So far so good. But this is the point at which things take a surprising turn. God’s instruction to Isaiah is to proceed with a prophetic witness, the purpose of which is to further entrench the culture in unbelief and hard-heartedness. In other words, God’s mission for Isaiah was to increase the culture’s opposition to God by his faithful prophetic witness.
I’m quite sure this is not what anyone means these days by “engage the culture”. In fact, I feel pretty confident that no one is even considering the possibility of measuring the success of Christian ministry by the extent to which it provokes a cultural backlash against God.
Of course, one of the differences between our engagement with contemporary culture and Isaiah’s specific commission is that God made explicit, for Isaiah, what he expected regarding the impact of Isaiah’s message. But even though God hasn’t specifically said how to measure our own results from engaging the culture (although Jesus did warn, “Don’t be surprised if the world hates you…’), I have learned that cultural engagement is less fatiguing when I don’t harbor hidden expectations regarding specific outcomes.
What if, in the 21st century, the church is destined to play Isaiah’s role and with similar results? That’s a question I wonder about. A lot.
Regardless of our impact on the culture, it seems inescapable that a resolute determination to provide a faithful witness is an act of love toward those who come after us. Poets, I find, often understand these things before the rest of us. It was T.S. Eliot who said:
“We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory…We fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation it will triumph.”
In his memoir Fear No Evil, Natan Sharansky tells of his imprisonment and unspeakable torture at the hands of the Soviet KGB. Their mode of operation was to torture prisoners in order to extract “confessions” to entirely fictitious crimes against the state. In one dramatic moment, recounted by Sharansky, he was at the breaking point, on the verge of confessing to the KGB’s made-up charges against him just to make the torture stop. But in that excruciating moment, he suddenly recalled how the strength and courage of those who came before him had enabled him to keep his commitment to the truth up to this point. And he realized how, if he broke down and confessed to a lie, it might in some small way undermine the determination of those who came after him. It was his memory of the courage and faithfulness of his predecessors which, in that moment, gave him the strength and courage to endure horrific torture and the subsequent years-long separation from his wife.
So it may be that there is much more at stake in our own cultural engagement than whether we redeem our contemporary culture. Perhaps growing weary in doing good really betrays a secret lack of love for those who come after us. A lack of gritty determination on our part now may very well have the effect of undermining the lives and futures of those who come into the world long after we’re gone.
It wasn’t that I considered all of this that night as I sat there feeling tired at the thought of dealing with the children at the end of the row. But I had pondered these thoughts enough previously that I recognized my own CEFS (“cultural engagement fatigue syndrome”) when I saw it.
For the sake of these children, for the sake of the other movie theater patrons, and for sheer decency, I decided to interrupt their little soiree and introduce myself. I suspected I would embarrass them by my actions, but avoiding the embarrassment of misbehaving children has never been a particularly weighty aspect of my overall decision-making paradigm. (You can ask my own children how that works.)
So I barged in on their amour, catching them in flagrante delicto as they say. The young girl, experiencing a sudden collapse of interest in the boy, leaped to the far seat while attempting (mostly unsuccessfully) to cover up. The boy, eyes the size of silver dollars, sat staring up at me. I leaned down and positioned my nose about 3 inches from his face and said, “I want the two of you to cut it out. Right now.” The young man, clean cut, whiskerless and wearing a terrified expression, simply nodded and said “yes sir.” I informed them I was going to speak with security and then I would be back.
By the time I arrived back in the theater, the group in the corner was the very picture of quiet propriety. You would have thought they were watching the most fascinating movie of all their lives. My wife informs me that, while I was absent from the theater, there was a mad scramble among the kids to make themselves more appropriately attired. You can imagine my surprise.
I sat there, for the rest of the movie, thinking of some things I wanted to say to the kids after the show. It was not my intent to deliver some lecture but to offer a heartfelt warning and a sincere invitation to consider an alternative approach to their lives. But, alas, it may not surprise the reader to learn that while I wanted to speak to the kids after the show, they were distinctly uninterested in speaking with me. In fact, 10 minutes before the movie was over, they all stood up and quietly got out of Dodge.
There is a long running debate, even among Christians, regarding whether the culture is really more degraded than in times past. One would hope that, when children are having sex in the public square, the observation that things in the culture are badly awry would be completely uncontroversial. But probably not. The observation, “there is nothing so vulgar left in human experience for which you cannot find some professor somewhere to justify it”, is all too true.
I wonder what life will be like for my grandchildren. It is their presence here which reminds me of the potentially dire consequences of apathy and fatigue on the part of those of us who came before them. And so I persevere.
I opened these reflections with a little bit of Russell Kirk and I find that he has other relevant things to say about preparing for the future from within the ruins of our cultural decay. Some food for thought for those of my friends who still have little children to raise, or grandchildren to love:
“In a violent time, it is prudent to rear children on tales of peril — and of heroism. If enough of the rising generation take the heroes of fantasy for their exemplars, the wolf will find sustenance less readily. ‘What sharp teeth you have!’ ‘The better to eat you with my dear.’ Give us more woodcutters, in the nick of time.”