Culture Wars? What Culture Wars?

Whenever I see a headline using the term “culture war,” I briefly get my hopes up for what the news article will contain. I think to myself, “Perhaps those on the left have finally become concerned about the works of Charles Dickens being too widely read.” Or, “Maybe the executives at MTV have finally realized the danger to their livelihood present in the Corries.” But then, when I do click on that link, I am sadly disappointed to realize that the news item being referred to concerns only one of a handful of issues that seem to garner the title of “culture war” issues – abortion, gay marriage, contraception, religious speech in public, etc.

Don’t get me wrong: all of these issues are important. What I have been longing for recently, though, is a true culture war, or perhaps even a culture crusade. The usual issues associated with the “culture wars” definitely deserve attention, but they do not necessarily seem to connote a battle between cultures. Rather, it seems to me that these issues are disagreed upon only by different ideologies residing in the same, drab modern culture. And there is a big difference between two different cultures being at war, and two different ideologies.

Indeed, in today’s “culture wars” there is very little actual disagreement over matters of culture. Instead, the arguments revolve around specific topics that fit into the ideologies of “right” and “left.” For instance, those on the “left,” and on the “right,” pretty much agree on the goodness of the Super Bowl, no matter what they think about abortion, contraception or gay marriage. In fact, the Super Bowl is such a large modern cultural institution that in a list of television events ranked in order of number of households watching, seven out of the top ten events have been Super Bowls.

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The only time a Super Bowl becomes a contentious topic in the culture wars, though, is when something outside of the actual game touches on one of the “hot button” topics.  For instance, two years ago there was an explosion of controversy over a supposedly pro-life Tim Tebow ad that was set to run during the Super Bowl. At the time, Jehmu Greene, president of the Women’s Media Center, argued against the ad saying, “An ad that uses sports to divide rather than to unite has no place in the biggest national sports event of the year, an event designed to bring Americans together.” She wasn’t against the ad because it was pro-life; she was against it because ideologies and culture were becoming too mixed.

But those on the “left” are not the only ones that argue for a separation between these “hot botton” topics and cultural institutions. A similar example is Super Bowl XXXVII. At the time, there was no widespread question in the “culture wars” regarding whether Super Bowl XXXVII contributed to the common good of society. Rather, Super Bowl XXXVII caused controversy due to Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the half-time show. Reactions from the right were similar to the Women’s Media Center’s reaction to the Tim Tebow ad: give us our cultural institution without the ideology.

In fact, the president of the conservative group Morality in Media, Robert Peters, said as much when he said, “The future of the NFL will depend in large measure on whether parents can continue to be proud to have their children participate in the great sport called football. A great football game notwithstanding, Sunday’s halftime performance was a national disgrace.” Peters’ issue was with just the half time show, not the cultural institution that made it possible. From his remarks, he seemed to have no issue with the fact that millions of people gathering around a TV is a cultural event.

But if we are going to fight a true culture war, then we do need to be concerned with the fact that the gathering of millions of people around a TV for a football game is currently considered a sacrosanct cultural event. If we are going to affect true change in the world, it’s not enough for us to be simply focused on the ideologies of right and left. Instead, we need to be challenging the world on a cultural front, i.e. challenging the cultural activities of modernity. Whether the Super Bowl is good for man is a question that should be asked in a genuine “culture war.”

The primary weakness of the current ideological approach to the culture wars is that there is an implied separation between truth on “culture wars” issues, and the rest of human action. Many today want to enjoy all the aspects of modern culture without believing the ideas of modern culture.  They hope to be able to enjoy all the same TV shows, music, books, and movies that modern culture offers while simply arguing against the sexual ideology of the sixties. It’s as if they were walking modern colleges, with different departments of home-ology, work-ology, fun-ology, and ideology. Man is a unified being, though, and so a solely ideological approach to confronting today’s problems fails to offer a comprehensive solution that addresses all the aspects of man’s existence – intellect, will, imagination, and sense. Ideologies only inform man’s intellect. So, those who are only ideologically on the side of truth, but who otherwise take part in everything else the culture has to offer, may be forming their imaginations and desires based on the lies of modernity.

This is where a true culture war can really bring about change. Culture, unlike ideology, is not satisfied with only the intellect. True culture seeks to form the whole man. It includes all his actions: work, home, leisure, and intellect. Culture seeks to unite books, songs, poetry, philosophy, theology, liturgy, art, architecture, and economics. A culture is pervasive, it is found in all the parts of a society. It is not content with simply having people believe in its ideas; culture aims to form people to see, hear, smell, touch, taste in a certain way. It wants to make them dream in a certain way, and only then will it make them think in a certain way.

Indeed, in his book The Restoration of Christian Culture, John Senior illustrated how when culture is good, i.e. Christian, it can direct man and all his actions towards his ultimate end, God:

All architecture, art, political and social forms, economics, the way people live and feel and think, music, literature, all these things when they are right are ways of fostering and protecting the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. To enact a sacrifice, there must be an altar, an altar has to have a roof over it in case it rains; to reserve the Blessed Sacrament, we build a little House of God and over it a Tower of Ivory with a bell and a garden around it…Around the church and garden, where we bury the faithful dead, the caretakers live, the priests and religious whose work is prayer, who keep the Mystery of the Faith in its tabernacle of music and words in the Office of the Church; and around them, the faithful who gather to worship and divide the other work that must be done in order to make the perpetuation of the Sacrifice possible – to raise food and make the clothes and build and keep the peace so that generations to come may live for Him, so that the Sacrifice goes on even unto the consummation of the world.

The answer to modern culture, to the “culture of death” as John Paul II called it, is a thoroughly Christian culture like the one Senior describes, a culture centered on the Mass. It is not enough for us to simply offer ideological arguments against abortion, gay marriage, contraception etc. when confronted with the evils of modern culture. If we remain solely in the realm of the ideological, then we will never be able to introduce men to the full human life the Christ wishes them to have “more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). Indeed, as Senior says just a little later in the same book, “instead of an argument, I propose a reading of the thousand good books.”

We must begin, as Senior and others here at Crisis have so aptly pointed out, with a re-formation of the imagination. In order to reinvigorate a Christian culture that has largely been lost over the past hundred years, we must lay a foundation of solid human experience for ourselves and our children. This means living differently than the rest of the culture. It means reading the “Thousand Good Books” listed by Senior, both alone and out loud with our families. It means learning the old songs and singing them together. In truth, we can do without the trappings of modern culture, without television and modern music, if we are at the same time replacing them with the trappings of the Old Christian culture Senior described above.

If determined, devout, hopeful Christians take on this true cultural warfare, instead of merely ideologically holding to true principles while culturally acting in the same manner as the rest of the world, the world will be changed. As more people become exhausted with the current culture (spiritually and literally), there will be those who have kept alive the old Christian culture as an alternative. They’ll be known by others because they’ll be singing and reading. They’ll appreciate good craftsmanship, and enjoy good beer. They’ll truly work during the week, and they’ll truly pray on Sunday. And one day, the “culture war” headlines will declare, “Shock! Local family reads out loud together” and “Culture War Update: Boys’ school learns old Irish tunes instead of Lady Gaga songs.” Now those are headlines I can’t wait to read.


  • Matthew Anderson

    Matthew Anderson is a husband and father and believes that if he plays his cards right, these will be the two greatest accomplishments of his life. He enjoys life, the outdoors, banjo music, most types of gin drinks, and anything rugby. He currently is blessed to call the great state of Virginia his home and to reside in its fertile Shenandoah Valley.

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