All Work and No Play

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Some of the discussion at OldLife about high and low culture has prompted me to re-post.

Lane Keister seems to have much adulation for the recent book, “Do Hard Things.”

The book and the review are aimed at youth. Maybe it’s just memories of junior high counselors and high school just-say-no rallies, but I get nervous when adults are “given a microphone” and presume to address kids. And when religion is the backdrop I brace myself even more. These things rarely seem to go well. Speaking of doing hard things, it isn’t easy speaking with kids. It’s easier to talk to them. One irony is that the message most often has to do with not living down to low expectations, yet all the sub-text seems to assume kids are indeed fairly moronic. If the review is any measure, the book is no exception to this irony. But if I am being serious about the second greatest commandment and not exasperating children, I am not so sure swapping out a sweaty moralistic-therapeutic deism for a brainy one is any less transparent or patronizing.

It seems rather apparent that much of this, quite understandably, is simply a general reaction against the insipid. Certainly none of us who have made our trek out of wider evangelicalism and into the confessional tradition need to be convinced that dumbness reigns our former haunts. But ultimately what ails in Keister’s review is not only an absence of the eschatological categories that distinguish between the two ages but a confusion between popular culture and that which is merely banal. I am not as sure as Keister that they are really one and the same. And, ultimately, what this brief review reveals is that we Reformed are as vulnerable to cultural trapping as anyone else.

The cultural analysis Keister seems to echo by way of the book by Alex and Brett Harris seems overly reliant on a simplistic taxonomy between high and low culture. With the target audience of teens, there are, evidently, only two options: “slacking off and partying,” or “accomplishing things for Christ.” It is never very clear what is exactly meant by the phrase “accomplishing things for Christ,” but usually it seems to be code for “whatever our quarter of the religious sub-culture deems superior.” To my old evangelical circles this would translate into staying relentlessly well ahead of the “cool” curve, while for Keister it seems to mean filling every square inch with theological tomes. Granted, the latter may have more in common with a truer piety, but when pushed with all the fervency of a revivalist it seems that something has been Lost in Translation. Call me under-realized (go ahead, I’m used to it), but I’m not so sure that the best of our tradition understands the corrective to a zeal without knowledge to be a zeal for knowledge.

If the directive from the revivalist is to dive deeper into one’s experience with the risen Christ, the exhortation by certain Reformed is to dive deeper into one’s mind. But if it is really true that Christ is apprehended by faith alone then both of these tendencies look to be two sides of a skewed coin. If pietism’s legalism is to never let the inner life go un-groomed, certain Reformed are vulnerable to standing aghast at a mind at ease. If the wider evangelical world is about consuming, aping and even creating popular culture, the Reformed and Presbyterian world seems almost as smitten with doing the same only with a more sophisticated culture. Trafficking in a fair amount of stereotype and caricature of one by the other, both seem to have something of an indulgent love affair with one cultural strain or another. But, again, if faith alone is the ordained instrument by which to embrace Christ, it would seem that even cultural preferences are as finally invalid categories as reason, experience, emotion, ideology, etc. Despite what certain Reformed might assume, consumerism isn’t only for those who brandish Icthus symbols on bumper stickers and checking accounts. It can also afflict those who like to read thick books and understand the relevance of nearly extinct languages.

I have no problem with doing—or thinking—hard things. (Can one move from unbelief to the Durham Trail to Geneva without it?) But what about easy things, or those things in between?

I recall an exchange with another Presbyterian minister in which he was bemoaning the Western accent on the institution of work. The so-called “Protestant work ethic” was the culprit. We are “too consumed with work,” he seemed to be saying. Despite his protestations to the contrary, work (and material gain) kept coming off as icky or somehow impious. I couldn’t help feeling like a certain form of legalism was brewing in which I was probably supposed to look upon my own happy pursuit of particular vocation with suspicion. I was finally rendered something of a Little Dwarf with a chronic case of Hi-Hoism.

With Keister, I get the other impression. I get the sense I should feel a pang of guilt for my devotion to King of Queens re-runs every evening at 7, or for the fact that I am not quite sold on the idea of seeing to it that my children are ready for a PhD in high school. I wonder if it is enough that my own catechetical instruction has a six-year-old trying to not only pronounce but understand words like “justification” and “glorification,” even as she darts from the dinner table to take in some Nickelodeon. And if it’s guilt we’re after, I have quite a measure of it every time I walk into a book store and am confronted with all that I haven’t read. (I’m not kidding. It got so bad one time I had to leave my wife stranded at the coffee bar eighty-four seconds after walking in.)

While it would seem that the first minister might have me enjoy my work less simply because he confuses it with idle busyness (or material gain with an intangible form of materialism), Keister and company seem to conflate popular culture with that which is pure piffle. To be fair, he does suggest that none of this is “to say that we should just chuck popular culture entirely.” But one wonders just where in the world that comes from, or on what grounds, when just seconds before he told us that it “is barely worth one listen,” to say nothing of a general sentiment throughout that popular culture is probably best left untouched.  I’ve been around it enough that I like to think I know latent legalism when I read it. In response to both of these ministers, I don’t like my play being demonized any more than my work. And for what it’s worth, everybody knows what all work and no play can do to a body and soul. That lesson wasn’t lost on Shelley Duvall.

I know it is tantalizing to embrace the notion that society at large is being led down the tubes by the boogey-men of “dumbed down culture,” taking the cult with it. But every generation does this, and I do seem to recall something about even the gates of hell not prevailing against the church. And I realize it is to take some wind out of the sails for those who like to think “…it is really gutsy to rebel against the entirety of culture” when I say that a high and hard culture isn’t the solution to low and easy one, as if there needed to be a solution in the first place. But I think the more useful and over-arching categorical arrangement is Paul’s eschatological notion of this age versus the next one. What is “gutsy,” I think, is Paul’s eschatology. Moreover, the Reformed understanding of the doctrine of creation, in which we ascertain the essence of the material world to be “very good” while its condition sinful, is the ground by which we may partake in all things resident to this age, including high and low culture; we understand this age to be evil because it is passing as a result of our sin, not because it is inherently corrupt. It could be that any voice which tries to set up a class system between anything within this age not only misses sight of the correct taxonomy but may also flirt with a form of legalism. If the antithesis is between this age and the one to come then it doesn’t really follow that the antidote to a piety of sustained adolescence is the sanctity of intellectualism. Dualities are a treasured hallmark of the Reformed tradition. But the trick, it seems to me, is to get them right in the first place.

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