I read a fascinating article this morning by James Loeffler in Mosaic Magazine, titled, “The Death of Jewish Culture.” It’s about the history and evolution (or, perhaps, de-volution) of Jewish culture in America. Loeffler wonders if an increasingly secularized Jewish culture with weakened ties to its faith heritage and common language can endure and prosper. It’s a thoughtful and provocative read if you have any interest at all in the interplay between popular culture and ethnic culture.
As I read, it struck me that many of Loeffler’s observations are equally valid for Christian culture in America. In fact, most of the issues he raises seem to transcend any particular American sub-culture, but they echo worries that emerge in my own conversations with Christian fiction writers struggling to balance their faith with their craft. If you read the article substituting “Christian” for “Jewish,” you get something like this:
(Christian) culture means something other than simply the sum total of works of art or other artifacts, of whatever quality, made by individuals who happen to be (Christians). Nor is (Christian) culture merely the sum total of such works made by (Christians) on explicitly (Christian) themes. It refers instead to a self-consciously modern, public culture, rooted in the unique civilization that gave it birth and formed its voice, and expressive of a thick, expansive, and holistic identity.
and this, (referring in the original to the transformation of Jewish art and music in the early 1900s):
No longer accepting or heeding (religious) strictures concerning the profane and putatively (“worldly”) nature of artistic production, they chose the higher secular pleasures to be had in the here-and-now over the abstract promises of the world to come…actively stepping out into the world as creators and consumers of their own public culture…To be sure, this public culture was not without its problems, foremost among them the complete repudiation by some secular this-worldniks of even the slightest taint of religiously-infused motifs.
In the rush to leap out of the ghetto, to make (Christianity) modern, relevant, attractive, and modish, (Christian) artists had lost both their dignity and their voice.
and this, describing developments in the 1990s:
In brief, (Christian) culture once again came to be regarded as a pathway to (Christian) identity: an ultimate outreach tool to (Christians) who might recoil either from the ritual and spiritual commitment required by (Christian) religion or the particularism implied in the notion of (Christian) peoplehood. Replace forbidding (liturgical) prayers with concerts of (Christian) music, the reasoning went, and you will provide a meaningful way for post-religious (Christians) to assert their own place in the multicultural arena. Swap traditional (Bible) study for (Christian)-themed book talks, and you afford a palatably “universal” means for (Christians) to engage with their own literary heritage.
and near the end, where Loeffler points out the precarious state of a culture cut loose from the moorings that define it, simultaneously failing to engage the surrounding culture and to nourish the internal culture that provides life, and light, and strength:
If a point of pride for contemporary American (Christian) cultural organizations is their commitment to the broadest possible definition of (Christian) culture, this very eschewal of boundaries constitutes their greatest challenge. A broader, more inclusive, more “universal” (Christianity), without even the most tenuous link to the traditional markers of (Christian) identity, is a contradiction in terms and, culturally speaking, a prescription for sterility.
There’s certainly not a point-to-point correspondence between Loeffler’s analysis of the Jewish cultural experience in America and the progress of Christian art, music, and letters, but the parallels are intriguing, and I expect I’ll be thinking about this article for some time to come.