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Learning in (culture) wartime

Steven Wedgeworth | Don’t sacrifice culture in fighting the culture war

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Learning in (culture) wartime
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In 1939, C.S. Lewis gave a defense of Christians pursuing academic studies like philosophy or history while Nazi Germany was threatening the very existence of England. Lewis’ address was titled “Learning in War-Time” and can be found in the collection The Weight of Glory.

Among other points, Lewis states that wartime simply brings the urgency of our situation into clearer focus. One can complain about fiddling while Rome burns, but many people are fiddling while the burning hell comes to their door. Lewis also argues that a life dedicated entirely to fighting the fight, apart from actually living life, is no life at all. It’s unnatural and even idolatrous. Thirdly, Lewis points out that academic studies can be practical measures during a time of war because they provide a larger frame of reference, and indeed a proper frame of mind, to solving problems and resisting lies. The wisdom of the ages guides one through the fog of war. This is why we should read in wartime.

But this is also true for a time of culture war.

“How can you waste your time with a regular Bible study when they’re after our children?” More than one pastor has faced this response from an angry congregant in the last few years. There’s also: “If your pastor didn’t preach against white supremacy on Sunday, you should find a new church.” The assumption behind both arguments is the same. The practical and “active” culture war is far too important for Christians to fiddle with 2 Samuel or Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians.

Or how about learning to play the cello or reading the Pearl Poet? Surely these are a waste of time. Unless, of course, we are doing so to subvert the traditional understanding of music or literature. Christians can commit this same error by watching a movie or listening to a musical work only for the purpose of applying a Christian worldview to it or finding the redemptive symbolism embedded in it, sometimes regardless of its actual presence. Lewis discusses this error as well, “We may come to love knowledge—our knowing—more than the thing known.” When we do this, we are still sacrificing culture for a version of the conquest.

Ironically, our time of nonstop culture war ends up preventing people from making culture.

The problem with these perspectives is that, just like with literal war, prioritizing culture war over culture leaves you with a very poor culture in the end. “If you attempted … to suspend your whole intellectual and aesthetic activity, you would only succeed in substituting a worse cultural life for a better,” writes Lewis. It’s not hard to imagine the person, or indeed the family, who spends all of their conversation talking about politics or the latest controversy in the church. They talk about “the left” or “the patriarchy” at every turn, even over meals. They haven’t gotten rid of entertainment and leisure—of frivolity—they’ve merely chosen to treat the culture war as entertainment. But it doesn’t take long for this sort of entertainment to stop being fun.

Ironically, our time of nonstop culture war ends up preventing people from making culture. When Lewis argues for culture during wartime, he’s talking about arts and science, things like books, music, and math. If every single person poured all of their time, resources, and energy into the war, they would not succeed in defending and preserving their way of life. They would only have the war machine. This too is true of the culture war. If we read neither Augustine nor Achebe and if we listen to neither Vaughan Williams nor Bach, all out of the conviction that we must instead be speaking truth to the watching world, then we haven’t saved our culture at all.

Lewis was, of course, not opposed to good Englishmen fighting in the war. He was himself a veteran of war. Nazi Germany would have to be defeated. Neither am I opposed to Christians fighting the culture war. It also cannot be avoided. But the point is that each of us must do this according to our callings, the callings God has given us. And we must never give the culture war our all, even to the destruction of the culture itself. Struggle must always be a means to an end, and as such, it must always be put in context by the more transcendent things, chiefly the worship of God and then the pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty through loving our neighbors. One practical way to keep this perspective is to regularly do things other than the culture war: Learn, read, sing, and build.

Indeed, one way to gain ground in the culture war is to enjoy and enrich our cultural inheritance.

Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Ind. He has written for Desiring God Ministries, the Gospel Coalition, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and Mere Orthodoxy and served as a founding board member of the Davenant Institute. Steven is married and has three children.


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