The following is part of a series on American evangelicals, considering why American Christian artists who produce high quality work tend to Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox or other high church denominations.
In my last post, I argued that Presbyterianism seems to attract artists who don’t go further down the high church spectrum (Catholicism, Anglicanism/Episcopalianism, etc), because Presbyterians usually have intellectual subcultures, making room for deep discussions on art. In contrast to that, many evangelical Christian groups struggled with anti-intellectualism, making it hard to discuss art in any deep way.
Another key element is that making good art requires a comfort with craft. Any crafting – I’ll use woodworking as an example – requires several things:
- You need an ongoing knowledge of the materials: You can’t just know generally how to make something with wood, you need to know what wood’s capable of (how pliable, how it reacts to colors, etc.)
- You need a deep love for the subject: You won’t take the time to understand wood if you don’t love working with it.
- You need to understand natural talent is a factor and live with that reality: Some people are just better at working with wood than others. Practice may make up for talent in some cases, but in the end there will always be someone more skilled out there.
These traits mean that craft, by its very nature, goes against suburban American culture. It’s become a cliché to say this, but suburbia is appealing because everyone seems to be equal – everybody seems happily average. Suburbia presents a space where everybody can do their own thing – provided those things don’t effect the community’s appearance, and don’t bother anyone else.
This kind of conformity only works if everyone is more or less at the same level. This means suburbia can’t have many specialists… and every craftsperson is a specialist in some form. Thus, suburban culture tends to breed people with fairly average pastimes or occupations. Yes, suburbanites have hobbies (jogging, playing sports in parks, talking about sports, etc.). However, other than gardening, it’s hard to think of a classic suburban activity that is really a craft. You don’t see many suburban woodworking guilds, foreign film clubs, Russian literature book clubs, or any other activity that require diving deep into a subject. There’s no strict reason you can’t have those things in suburbia, but it somehow goes against the whole atmosphere. Someone who deeply studies a subject would have something that the rest of the neighborhood can’t have.
The conflict between craft and suburbia presents a problem for many evangelicals, because at rock bottom much of American evangelical culture is suburban. Jake Meador argues in his book In Search of the Common Good that since 1970, American evangelical culture has been defined by two things: the seeker-sensitive movement and the Religious Right movement. As Meador puts it, the seeker-sensitive movement essentially has the following program: “grow churches through innovative worship and uncritically adopt the cultural garb of suburban Middle America.”
Even for people not associated with seeker-sensitive churches, Religious Right culture tends to be suburban, because its rooted in the late 1970s-early 1980s push to regain cultural relevance. This push was essentially a reaction to 1960s liberalism, which is best described as idealistic Baby Boomers rebelling against their parents’ values. This clash has often been described as “hippies vs. suburbanites,” and while that’s simplistic, there’s much truth in it. As Thomas Kidd notes, post-WWII prosperity included a big expansion in highways, making suburbs a lucrative way to work in the city without living there. Suburbia quickly came to symbolize good-old fashioned, conservative American prosperity, but also shallowness. Multiple accounts by Baby Boomers who left Christianity in the 1960s (for example, Ellis Potter’s Staggering Along with God) describe how flippant and materialistic American culture had become. Francis Schaeffer observed in his 1972 essay “The New Super-Spirituality” that a primary reason many postwar children rebelled against America’s “silent majority” culture is they found that culture cheap (“plastic culture” as Berkeley students put in 1964). So, although many Religious Right supporters didn’t realize it, their campaigns for conservative values became more than just political debates: they became debates about how to make America suburban again.
Thus, whether we’re talking about “evangelicals and politics” or “evangelicals and church culture,” the suburbs are key to understanding what defines evangelicalism. We must recognize modern-day evangelicalism is an inherently suburban concept.
This union between suburbia and evangelicalism creates a dilemma for Christian art. Much of what we call Christian art (Contemporary Christian Music, Christian Fiction novels, Christian Films, etc.) is entertainment by evangelicals for evangelicals. It’s become quite common (even passé) to note this kind of Christian art is usually tacky and didactic. RELEVANT has particularly explored this in many articles that half remember, half laugh at past Christian entertainment trends (such as cheesy 1990s Christian music). These fads have come and gone, but throughout “Christian entertainment” has tended to be, well, average. Practically any word used to describe suburban culture (“tacky,” “average”, “dated,” “shallow,” “plastic”) can be applied to evangelical entertainment and fit perfectly.
Thus, one of the big question that future evangelical artists must ask is: how they feel about the suburbs? They must be willing to do what other writers (Tim Keller, Wendell Berry, Stephen Witmer and others) have done for urban and rural areas: think about what makes them distinct, how they effect people living in them, and how to combat whatever elements conflict with the Gospel. Ashley Hales made some great progress in this direction with her book Finding Holy in the Suburbs, and hopefully more people will explore this terrain. What evangelicals think of the suburbs will affect what they think about art.