A healthy culture is one in which humanity thrives, in which people can live as God meant them to live. Contrary to the current gestalt, a healthy culture is not simply one in which everyone is polite and gets their way. Culture is a garden that requires planting and weeding, watering and fertilizing. As with all gardens, culture requires soil cultivation and protection from invasive species. Who is called to this good work, but cultural gardeners? This cultivation of culture is the Christian’s calling and it demands both wisdom and courage. It also demands discernment and a high standard of quality. God strikes the human heart courageously, with all the fervor and velocity of a blacksmith upon an anvil. Christians imitate him by vividly awakening those hearts they can touch and that can only be done out of the depth of the whole person. That is why Paul charges us this way: “Therefore, my beloved, to be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (I Cor. 15:58). When Nehemiah rebuilt the city, he was going about cultural work “with the trowel in hand, and the gun rather loose in the holster” (T.S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock”). Steadfast. Focused. Brave. Christians can learn to do the same.
The other day, I overheard a Christian deride “culture” as if it were an object outside of his jurisdiction, outside of his town, outside of his home, outside of his own heart. “Culture” had become a convenient scapegoat for all of his frustrations with our times. He had clearly forgotten or did not realize that culture is the manifestation of human achievement of which he is part and parcel. Like a son who disowns his family name and critiques his father, this man had effectively removed himself from his society and the aggregate of souls living alongside his soul, to judge the issues of which he is inextricably a part. Instead of recognizing his part in culture and doing something to improve society, he chose the easy way out.
Discord is always easier than healing; criticism is always easier than creation. Many people inadvertently adopt a rhetoric of cultural warfare that substantively changes the way we see culture and the way we interact with culture. Instead of building a healthier culture, we only critique it. Instead of cultivating culture, we hunker down and toss grenades. It seems to me that culture is not the problem, people who create culture are the problem. Ideologies and desires pass through people and are evidenced in the culture that they make. If we want to see cultural change (and we should), then we must change people and people are not generally changed by cultural criticism. The great calling for Christians is to stop complaining and start building.
The church has largely abdicated cultural stewardship in favor of culture warfare, thereby effectively leaving culture in the hands of the church’s enemies who recognize the power of the imagination. Instead of cultivating the cultural garden we inherited–weeding, planting, and fertilizing–the church has focused her efforts on piety, politics, and ideology. Since she has abandoned beauty, she should not be surprised when truth and goodness take their leave from broader society and from the church. As Gregory Wolfe presciently warned, if we do not help to build culture by our creativity, if we simply keep criticizing culture, the torn-down gates of our city will welcome a new barbarism. It seems apparent that we are now living in that new barbarism and it is our divine calling to reclaim all of it for God’s sake. We cannot reclaim something that we hate or that we evade.
Instead of seeing culture as a territory won or lost, instead of simply attacking and condemning, generative people see culture as a garden to cultivate. Like a master gardener, we can learn what the cultural weeds are and pull them, but we will be nothing more than a human rototiller if we do not learn to replace those weeds with something beautiful and spiritually rich. Like every farmer knows, the fertility of a field depends upon good management of that land, knowing what to plant and when, how to fertilize and with what, and which invasive species need eradicating.
Painting: “Gardening” by Victor Gabriel Gilbert