In order to conserve transcendent ideas about God, conservatives are committed to worship regulated by God’s Word, and they are also committed to discerning between true religious affections and mere physical appetites in worship.
Such discernment is difficult, however, because all of us are products of our culture. If a distinction between religious affections and physical appetites has been lost in our culture, then it is not surprising that we have a difficult time being able to distinguish between worship forms that nurture ordinate affection and worship forms that merely create physical impulses.
Conservative Christianity has a solution to this dilemma, and it is rooted in the second pillar of conservatism, namely, a commitment to nurturing a Christian tradition. Conservative Christians will be committed to worship forms that have been nurtured within the historic Body of Christ.
It is common today to insist that all cultures are equal. To assume otherwise is elitist. Instead, we are lead to believe that culture is simply neutral, cultural expression simply being conventionally shared preferences of a given society. With this kind of thinking, to claim that something like hip hop culture or rap is sinful is an elitist attitude not fitting for a Christian.
There are two problems with this view, however. The first is that all cultural expressions are products of human creation and therefore expressions of human values. Nothing that humans create is neutral, especially art forms. What we create expresses our values and worldviews.
It is for this reason that culture is a visible expression of worldview. It is religion externalized. T. S. Elliot provides a helpful explanation:
We may go further and ask whether what we call the culture, and what we call the religion, of a people are not essentially aspects of the same thing: the culture being, essentially, the incarnation (so to speak) of the religion of a people.1
But even beyond that, such a view that cultures are neutral assumes that cultures are somehow created in a vacuum separate from any external influences or historical development. On the contrary, the very term “culture” illustrates the long-term, progressive cultivation of something over time, influenced and nurtured by the environment in which it grows. A culture is the natural product of the environment in which it was nurtured.
All cultural forms, then, are expressions of value systems. This leads to two conclusions. First, whatever we create in our time and our culture is always built upon something that has come before. There is no such thing as inventing a new cultural form ex nihilo. Such a prospect is impossible. We create using materials that have already been developed and nurtured. This does not mean that cultures cannot or should not progress and change over time. They do and they should. But everything we create starts somewhere, within already existing value systems.
Second, it is also impossible to take a cultural form that was nurtured within one value system to express its values and somehow reconstitute it to express contrary values. The whole contemporary notion of “cultural redemption” is fundamentally flawed in this respect; it assumes that culture itself is neutral and only the use of cultural forms determines their worth.
I believe in cultural redemption. I believe that all avenues of cultural expression including literature, visual art, music, and architecture can and should be used for God’s glory. Christ is Lord of all. But there is a vast difference between saying that we want to redeem culture and saying that we want to redeem particular cultures or cultural expressions. A cultural expression is like a facial expression or tone of voice—it means what it means; you can’t change its meaning in order to use it for something else. That’s like saying I can redeem a proud look into something good. I can’t. I can redeem my “look,” but to redeem a proud look would be to completely transform it into a different form.
The same is true for cultural expression. Cultures are developed within value systems for the purpose of expressing those values. Therefore the values cannot be divorced from the expressions themselves.
Nurturing the Church’s Culture
So where does this leave us in our quest for cultural forms to use in the worship of God? Well, we cannot just “invent” a new form to use. That is impossible. We have no alternative but to build upon cultural material that has come before us as we create new expressions. The question before us is, upon what shall we build?
A conservative Christian will recognize that we have at our fingertips a rich heritage of cultural forms that have grown within what we might call the historic Christian Church—forms that were cultivated with the goal of expressing transcendent values—and he will choose to conserve those forms as he considers the present and looks to the future. He will repudiate novelty for its own sake or cultural forms nurtured within paganism for the purpose of expressing pagan values to pagans. Instead, he will choose forms that have been cultivated within the community of faith for the purpose of expressing transcendent values of truth, goodness, and beauty.
What are such cultural forms? Since the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century, Christianity was the dominating cultural influence in Western society.2 All of the cultural forms that come out of that period were nurtured in an environment of transcendent values. This is not to say that it was all sacred or even that it was all good. But all of the forms were created to express transcendent values. When the Church was dethroned by Reason as the dominant cultural influence in the 18th century, human autonomy and secularism took over as the environments within which culture was nurtured. Later commercialism, made possible by the invention of mass media, created the additional environment in which pop culture was born.
This is not to imply that everything that has developed within the historic Church is good or that everything created outside is bad. But there are some fundamental factors that lead conservative Christians to gravitate toward the former and suspect the latter. First, the historic Church was conscious of the transcendent, the absolute, and the eternal while pop culture revels in the immanent, the relative, and the immediate. Second, the historic Church had a sense of community and accountability while pop culture serves individualism and autonomy. The culture nurtured in the historic Church had as its goal the taking of a person from where he is to where he ought to be. Pop culture aims at motivating the consumer to want more and more of what he already has.
Now once again this is not only about evangelicals who are willing to use contemporary pop forms in their worship. Culture devoid of the accountability, community, and noble values of Christianity began far before the Rock Age. It for this reason that I believe there is a great difference between being “anti-contemporary” and truly conservative. There are many people today who do not want to use contemporary pop forms because they express sexuality or rebellion or unbridled rage, and yet they cling to older, outdated pop forms that express values no less fitting for worship such as sentimentalism, triviality, and romanticism. They believe that they are conservative because they are defending a certain tradition, yet it is a tradition that is different only by degree from contemporary pop culture; it is not different in kind. Somewhere along the way good churches lost their cultural connection to historic Christianity, and when that happens the default mode is to create using the dominant cultural language of the day.
This is also why I squirm as I observe well-intentioned believers today who really want to produce doctrinally-rich, God-centered hymnody. I am thankful for the motivation of these folks in what has been called the modern hymn movement, but since they have not immersed themselves in the musical forms that were nurtured in the historic church, their natural default is to write using the clichés and techniques of today’s popular culture. It is impossible to simply decide that you are going to produce something as good as what has come before without first writing in the language of what has come before.
I always insist that a defense of conservatism is not about old vs. new, but practically that is what it has become only because virtually no one in the last 100 years has written from within the tradition of the historic Church. There have been plenty who have borrowed from it, to be sure. But most have written in the language of Stephen Foster, Vaudeville, Broadway, Disney, Hollywood, and worse. Again, that does not mean that nothing good has been written. But certainly cultural forms worthy of Christian worship have not been cultivated to any significant degree, and what good there is can only be described as the best of what could be a whole lot worse.
In our conservation of biblical worship, we cannot just start out of nothing. We must be committed to conserving those worship forms that were nurtured within the accountability and transcendent value system of Christian community. It is only when we commit to this that maybe our children will be able to continue in cultivating those forms.
- T. S. Elliot, “Notes Towards the Definition of Culture,” in Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1949), p. 100. [↩]
- I acknowledge the potential difficulty of this discussion when we begin to apply it to indigenous church planting in the distant regions of the world. However, we do not have such difficulties when discussing Western civilization. [↩]