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Is the Church high culture?

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 29 February 2008


There is no doubt that the Church consists of a culture that, along with all other cultures, uses specific signs and rites to convey meaning. But what kind of culture is it?

If it were similar to popular culture then it would be expected that it would be accessible to all with little or no preparation. It would be like listening to a popular song and instantly being entertained or going to an action movie and being swept up in the chase. It should be possible to distinguish popular from high culture without the label of “elitist” being bandied around, for there is a distinction.

The appreciation of high culture requires preparation. The late novels of Henry James are difficult and require application and perseverance. Similarly if you want to understand high art you must do some history and train the eye; if you want to enjoy the late quartets of Beethoven you will require some discipline and understanding. The most dominant high culture of our time is natural science. Years of study in the basics of physics and chemistry and mathematics are necessary for us to be inducted into the tribe of scientists.

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Likewise, the gospel is difficult, it is not common sense and requires similar application. The difference between popular culture and high culture is that high culture has been intensified and carried further and we must apply ourselves to follow its path.

Christianity is egalitarian; it is for everybody without exceptions. Babies are baptised into the church before they can talk, a powerful sign that we can bring nothing of our own into the rite of entry. However, it would be a mistake then to believe that the Church was more akin to popular culture than to high. Certainly the populism of many churches play down the idea of it being a high culture because they want to appeal to everyone. In our time inclusivity rules.

Thus it is common for liturgy and music to be dumbed down so that the man in the street, if every he came off the street and came to church, would not be scared off but could respond as he would to Kylie’s latest hit tune. Robert Jenson remarks that if it is so easy to become part of the Church then we must ask whether we are talking about actually joining the Church. If the culture of the Church is so aligned with the culture of the society it finds itself in then does the Church have anything interesting to say?

When I say that the church represents high culture I do not mean that all of the music must be Bach (although in some places that would be an improvement) I mean that the liturgy is an expression of a complex and nuanced theology that has taken 2,000 years to mature and is still maturing.

High culture is deep culture, if you pull one thread you will find it is connected in multiple ways to other threads. If you ask a question then there will be an extended tradition of people who have asked the same question. High culture is radical, it plumbs the depths of truth and requires application to be understood.

Jenson says that “The baptised face a new culture of the church like a mountain in front of them, which they will be climbing till they die”. They enter a strange land in which all is not as it seems and in which some of their most commonsensical intuitions are overturned.

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It is therefore essential that those who belong to the church, or wish to join, be prepared to put some intellectual and spiritual work in. They should be prepared to be confronted by different ideas from the pulpit and to be formed anew by the sacraments.

Shallow church culture and worship does damage to the faith because it is easily dealt with and disposed of. It has the shelf life of a popular song. This is one reason why the mega-churches have such a high throughput, it does not take long to plumb the depths because there are no depths. Once you have been told that Jesus loves you and that you should believe in him in order to be saved, that is pretty much the end of it. Boredom is bound to set in and disillusionment follows that forecloses any further involvement in the Church.

It is no news that in the West the Church grows weaker by the year and that this has been going on since the late 18th century at least. The weakness of the Church is the result of our failure to keep its high culture alive. Where, in our society, apart from specialised theological schools, may be studied the three great pillars of theological science; Church history, biblical studies and systematic theology? It has been the triumph of secularism that such studies have been removed from our schools and universities with the excuses of the separation between church and state and the idea that religion is essentially private.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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