A student's guide to the "whole big ecosystem" of culture
A student's guide to the "whole big ecosystem" of culture

A student's guide to the "whole big ecosystem" of culture

With tours through durability, community and attentiveness, plus a long tarry in poetry.

September 1 st 2009
Appears in Fall 2009

1. In a recent interview with byFaith magazine (July 2009), you said that "one of the reasons the church has been culturally inert is because we don't have a lot of laymen who are interested in the whole big ecosystem of culture and all its interrelated aspects." What advice do you have for undergraduate students who are interested in that big ecosystem, and who desire to cultivate a Christian understanding of that ecosystem?

I think the first step is to be fully persuaded of the fact of Christ's cosmic Lordship, that the honouring of Christ's reign has systemic, institutional consequences as well as internal and interpersonal ramifications. And when I say "fully persuaded," I mean that this fact should become a commonplace assumption, the backdrop to all we think, do, say, read, study and imagine. That requires being part of a community that is practically and theoretically exploring a fully ramified Christianity. All too often, students get involved in fellowship groups or other student ministries only for emotional encouragement. Of course we all need something like a pep talk now and then. But motivation is always toward something. Sheer enthusiasm for something vaguely Jesus-y leaves us vulnerable to cultural captivity. And one of the tendencies of contemporary culture is to encourage a sense of fragmentation, what Wendell Berry calls "piecemealing," where the connections of things in creation and in history are obscured or denied.

Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. That is the presupposition behind the Great Commission: "All authority in heaven and earth is mine. Therefore make disciples who learn how to honour all of my authority." When we hear the word "discipleship," we should immediately have this comprehensive scope in mind. Discipleship is growing in obedience to the Lord of heaven and earth, which requires some knowledge of the moral order of creation.

Oliver O'Donovan's brilliant book Resurrection and Moral Order (Second Edition, Eerdmans, 1994) is a study of Christian ethics as a response to moral order, not just as rule-keeping. That phrase "moral order" alludes to the purposiveness of God in establishing a comprehensive connectedness within creation. In two marvelously succinct summary sentences, O'Donovan asserts:

Morality is man's participation in the created order. Christian morality is his glad response to the deed of God which has restored, proved and fulfilled that order, making man free to conform to it.

There is a moral structure in creation that can be known and (thanks to the redeeming work of the Spirit) honoured. Growth in obedience to God involves attentiveness to that moral order. Obedience is not mindless rule-keeping, but rational, knowledgeable recognition of the glorious structures of creation. O'Donovan observes that this kind of knowledge is very different from the kind of contextless specialized knowledge promoted by modern culture. Knowledge of creation "must, in the first place, be knowledge of things in their relations to the totality of things. To know cosmic order is, in a sense, to know the totality of things—not, that is, to know everything that exists, which must be the prerogative of God, but to know what we do know as part of a meaningful totality. We must grasp the 'shape' of the whole, in so far as it gives meaning to the particular objects of our knowledge."

Modern culture assumes we can know the world without any apprehension of the whole of things, because modern thought denies the existence of any order shaping the whole of things.

O'Donovan notes that in that earlier day—in the premodern West—conventional patterns of thought did not separate knowledge into the "empirical" and the "theoretical" (or, for that matter, into "science" and "religion") the way the modern world does. He observes that "the fragmentation of knowledge in the pursuit of investigative science suggests a sceptical despair about the very possibility of knowing things in all their aspects and in their relations to other things; while the abstraction of religion from empirical reality represents a flight of faith into the subjective and the irrational."

Cultures are like ecosystems because cultures involve patterns of engagement with creation, and creation is a coherent whole. Even cultures that deny that coherence—cultures that celebrate fragmentation —tend to exhibit a coherent sense of fragmentation! (I'm reminded of someone I knew years ago who gave the impression of being deeply shallow, not just shallow on the surface.) Cultivating a sense of patterns of patterns might be aided by developing a love of poetry.

Since metaphor—the recognition of likenesses between different things—is the basic tool of poetry, a poetic form of understanding is more at home with the recognition of how various resonances form in cultural life. Resonances, not just strict patterns of cause and effect, are important shapers of culture. There is no strict causal relationship between the theory of relativity and relativism, but there is a resonance between them that needs to be acknowledged if we want to understand the prejudices of 20th-century culture.

So far I've suggested a presupposition (cosmic Lordship, nurtured by discipling community) and a faculty (poetic understanding). So equipped, students need to become familiar with the basic outline of the modern story. This is not just a matter of learning some social and intellectual history, but of struggling to understand how our own deep assumptions about reality have been shaped by our cultural experience.

Students who have lived in other cultures for a time have an advantage over those who've never left home, since they have sensed how what seems to be "common sense" is mediated by cultural institutions.

There are many books one can read to begin to learn (from the standpoint of a Christian account of life) how modern culture took shape. Some books try to tell the whole story in outline; others follow one theme. I've found C. S. Lewis's work immensely helpful in grasping how modern presuppositions have developed, since Lewis understands the premodern mind so well. Read his The Discarded Image (Cambridge University Press, 1994), for example, to begin to get a sense for how what we take for granted (and assume that everyone, everywhere, everywhile takes for granted) differs from what was commonly assumed before the Renaissance or Enlightenment. Lesslie Newbigin's Foolishness to the Greeks (Eerdmans, 1988) is a helpful introduction to modern assumptions, as is his Truth and Authority in Modernity (Trinity Press International, 1996); so is Craig Gay's The Way of the (Modern) World (Eerdmans, 1998), A. J. Conyers's The Long Truce (Baylor, 2009), and Peter Leithart's Against Christianity (Canon Press, 2003), to name just a few that are often on my desk.

In reading these and other books, students should try to take note of how assumptions about reality have been conveyed through social institutions and technologies. Philosophers may formulate ideas, but it is social experience that conveys tacit assumptions about life. And those tacit assumptions, the things we take for granted, are arbiters of plausibility. We are unlikely to believe anything that goes against our deepest assumptions. This is why Christian belief is more and more difficult in the modern world: because the tacit assumptions conveyed by our social experience exclude or pre-empt a Christian understanding of reality.

2. You are fond of Wendell Berry's emphasis on "work of durable value." How do you suggest students should go about identifying "work of durable value" that deserves their close attention and careful study during their undergraduate years?

Since you've invoked Berry, let me begin my answer with a quote from his essay "Christianity and the Survival of Creation."

"Good human work honors God's work. Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honors nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God."

I would add that identifying work of durable value requires a posture of gratitude and wonder toward the creation in which we are called to work. Apart from such an inner bearing, all "checklist" approaches to identifying good work will flounder. One approaches work either in a utilitarian way or in a sacramental way. Either the world is a lot of meaningless raw material or it is a meaningful gift with a meaningful structure, a structure within which human life can flourish, but only as that structure is honoured.

In his book, For the Life of the World (Second Edition, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997), Alexander Schmemann describes this sacramental posture: "When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the 'sacrament' of God's presence. Things treated merely as things in themselves destroy themselves because only in God have they any life. The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world. For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is communion with the dying world, it is communion with death."

By contrast, the dominant modern mentality toward world and work is utilitarian. The great Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant once wrote that North Americans tend to lack "the recognition that our response to the whole world should not most deeply be that of doing, nor even that of terror and anguish, but that of wondering or marveling at what is, being amazed or astonished by it, or perhaps best, in a discarded English usage, admiring it; and that such a stance, as beyond all bargains and conveniences, is the only source from which purposes may be manifest to us for our necessary calculating." In other words, we can only work well in and through the stuff of the world as we honour the created goodness and givenness of the world.

With Berry as a part of this conversation, I am also reminded of his book Life Is a Miracle (Counterpoint Press, 2001), an extended essay on (among other things) the terrible consequences in our life and our work of the various reductionisms that characterized technological societies. This is another reason why I stress the virtues of acquiring a holistic understanding of culture: we can't know the meaning of our work without some sense of the pattern of creation in which our work is placed, and how our work can honour the patterns of life God has placed in creation, patterns which can then take cultural form.

3. You believe individualism to be a corrosive, destructive force in the modern world. Do you have any suggestions for students who wonder how to live in way that is not individualistic in the context of today's college or university?

Some form of community is often prescribed as the antidote to individualism. But "community" involves more than getting together with a bunch of people just like you. So I would urge students to get involved as much as possible in the lives of people who are unlike them: different ages, different vocations, different stages in life. Local churches are (at least in theory) an ideal place for this, as long as the church doesn't segregate students into the "student ministries."

Secondly, one of the great conveyors of individualism is the commodification of everything. Individualism goes hand-in-hand with the displacement of the idea of culture as a legacy or inheritance with that of culture as a set of sovereignly selected commodities. We now choose everything in our cultural life; we don't simply receive anything. One way of fighting the mentality of individualism is to put oneself in a position where one is an apprentice, where one receives something offered rather than "consumes" it. For example, find someone (in that church community you're a part of) who knows a lot about an ethnic food tradition and go to a restaurant with them, letting them choose the menu (and maybe you can even pay for their meal). Or find someone (a professor, even) who knows a lot about some artistic tradition that is foreign to you (German cinema, Renaissance choral music, English detective fiction) and apprentice yourself to them. You could do the same with master gardeners, cooks, bird watchers, woodworkers, motorcycle mechanics, even theologians. Yes, there is an initial act of individual choice, but submitting to someone else's authority and expertise over time is a great way to fight the temptation to assert our own sovereignty.

4. A little earlier, you said that "cultivating a sense of patterns might be aided by developing a love of poetry." Since many—most, probably—of our readers are not English majors, and are unlikely to have the opportunity to begin developing such a love in the classroom, how would you suggest a young adult go about falling in love with poetry, if it is not required reading toward a graduating certificate?

It is a sign of our culture's impoverishment that it may be assumed that only English majors could develop a love of poetry in the classroom. This is a major symptom of the overspecialization that fragments our lives, personally and socially. Before answering your question, let me suggest that if schools are not going to introduce all students to poetry—not as an academic subject but as a significant part of life—then churches should do so, for at least three reasons.

First, acquiring a sense of how poetry communicates is essential for understanding much of the Bible. Read the Psalms or the parables or Revelation or the epistle of James equipped with the mentality of a scientist or engineer and you're bound to get in trouble. So the Church would seem to have a commitment to teaching poetry based in Christian education and biblical literacy.

Second, an appreciation for the poetic structure of reality is an essential antidote to the various disorders championed by the Enlightenment. Confidence that poetic knowledge is real knowledge, that the scientific method is not the only way to know the world, is essential for cultivating a Christian consciousness. A.J. Conyers points out in The Long Truce that there is a great benefit to recognizing that the world is not simply a place of mechanical cause and effect, but it is the site of what he labels "correspondence."

There exist in this purposefully ordered creation likenesses of one thing to another. A righteous man is like a tree planted by a stream. Marriage is like the relationship of Christ and the Church. I have a sign in my office that reads "Poetry Happens." It is meant to remind me that we live in a world teeming with available metaphors, because we live in a creation. Poetry works because the world is a creation, not simply a meaningless, cosmic accident. Metaphors are more than simply conventional; they have power because, as I've suggested, they reveal something about the likenesses God has placed in creation. This idea that poetry implies an affirmation of creation came up in a conversation I enjoyed a number of years ago with Richard Wilbur, who is, I think, one of our greatest living poets. Wilbur said that the centrality of metaphor in poetry "puts almost every poet in danger of being religious. If anything may be compared to anything else, if the world can be seen as a linkage of similes and metaphors and figures, then poetry itself comes very close to declaring that all things are connatural, that they are all of one nature. And that brings you to the threshold of saying that all things have had a Maker. I remember ages ago reading the final book of poems by Joseph Warren Beach who claimed to be an atheist. And I took it around to him; he was in Cambridge at that time, and I said, 'Joseph, look at these two lines. Don't you think that they amount to a religious affirmation?' And he read them and said, 'Well I can see that they do. I must say I seem simply to have submitted to the spirit of poetry at that moment.'" It is an awesome thing to submit to the spirit of poetry, even for a moment.

Let me commend two rather different books that can introduce the issue of why being at home with poetic expression orients us in a properly countercultural way: James S. Taylor's Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (SUNY Press, 1997) and Thomas Howard's Chance or the Dance: A Critique of Modern Secularism (Ignatius, 1989).

So, if the Church wants to promote a cosmology that is in tune with the Scriptures, and that challenges the worldview of skeptical modernity, it has an apologetic interest in making poetry part of the lives of believers (and seekers).

Third, I believe that the church is diaconally committed to nurturing what's good for human beings as such. Eugene Peterson, in his book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Eerdmans, 2005), asserts that "it is the task of the Christian community to give witness and guidance in the living of life in a culture that is relentless in reducing, constricting, and enervating life." James writes in his epistle that "religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world." (1:27)

James's epistle is New Testament wisdom literature, so we need to read it poetically, recognizing that the reference to widows and orphans probably designates a larger class of sufferers (I think the poetic device here is synecdoche). Widows and orphans are a subset of everyone whose merely human lives have been deprived of some good that is built into the nature of things. The world that God created included parents for children and husbands for wives. These are natural goods, good in the nature of things.

Widows and orphans are dramatic instances of people bereft of certain natural goods, but they are not the only people whose humanity is severed from some good. In any way that our culture is dehumanizing, someone is made into a figurative widow or orphan. And so religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless will be eager to recognize dehumanizing trends, institutions, or habits, eager to look after those distressed by them, and, whenever possible, eager to engage in preventative action as well as tender care.

Language is one of the great gifts God has given to human beings, and its capacities for allusiveness and imaginative expression (reverberating with the nature of creation) has been taken out of our lives by various forces of modernity. I think that, in addition to the educational and apologetic reasons, there is also a diaconal rationale for the Church committing itself to healthy linguistic lives, just as it tries to promote healthy families and good communities.

I realize I haven't answered your question yet, but I wanted to point out how sad it is that individual students, without the help of the Church or their teachers (or often their parents) are left to themselves to figure out how to nurture their imaginations. That said, I would recommend immersion over sprinkling. Read lots of poetry, preferably out loud, but not with the goal of trying to "decipher" it.

I recently interviewed Jeanne Murray Walker, a poet and literature professor, who commented that many of her students assume that poems are like puzzles that require some occult key with which to solve them. This is probably because poetry is regarded as an academic subject, not part of life, and because so much of the public speech to which we're exposed—by journalists, politicians, salesmen, even many preachers—is so ugly. The Welsh poet R. S. Thomas once characterized the linguistic landscape around us as littered with "the gobbledygook of technologists and critics, the pompous yet repellently servile idiom of business correspondence, the reach-me-down, utility style of most newspapers, the weird jargon concocted by civil servants, and worst of all, the hectic flush imparted to language by publicists and advertisers." In such a setting, of course there are widows and orphans! And of course, when we meet carefully, richly composed poetry, it seems so unnatural, we take it to be some sort of problem to be solved. But this is to approach poetry unpoetically.

In addition to reading poets, there are some great books (the best by poets) that introduce poetry to serious beginners. Here are the names of several: John Hollander's Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse (Third Edition, Yale University Press, 2001) and his The Work of Poetry (Columbia University Press, 1997); Edward Hirsch, How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry (Harvest Books, 2000); and, from a much earlier time, Elizabeth Drew's Discovering Poetry (Norton, 1962). Other books in which poets reflect on what poetry is and does, and what poets do (and these are poets whose work I like) include Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture (Tenth Anniversary Edition, Graywolf Press, 2002); Czeslaw Milosz, The Witness of Poetry (Harvard University Press, 1984); Donald Hall, Death to the Death of Poetry: Essays, Reviews, Notes, Interviews (University of Michigan Press, 1995); and Wendell Berry, Standing by Words: Essays (Counterpoint, 2005). Textbooks with which I'm familiar include Donald Hall, To Read a Poem (Second Edition, Wadsworth Publishing, 1992); John Ciardi & Miller Williams, How Does a Poem Mean? (Second Edition, Houghton Mifflin College Division, 1975); and Laurence Perrine and Thomas Arp, Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry (Eighth Edition, Harcourt Brace, 1992).

All of these recommendations are those of a generalist. I never studied poetry formally, so these are the recommendations of someone self-taught, but I suppose that's appropriate.

Poets I like? You can guess some of them from my comments above: among contemporary poets, Richard Wilbur, Dana Gioia, Donald Hall, Fred Chappell, Scott Cairns, Ted Kooser, Czeslaw Milosz, Jane Kenyon and Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Remember, this is a list of someone who came to poetry late and who is still acquiring an ear.

One last remark: a "poetic" point of view or way of knowing applies to more than poetry. John Henry Newman once contrasted scientific with poetic knowledge this way: "The aim of science is to get a hold of things, to grasp them, to handle them, to comprehend them; that is (to use a familiar term), to master them. . . . [Poetry] demands, as its primary condition, that we should not put ourselves above the objects in which it resides, but at their feet . . . Poetry does not address the reason, but the imagination and the affections; it leads to admiration, enthusiasm, devotion, love." Poetic knowledge leads to an engagement with that which we know, not a detachment. Knowledge is not just information, but active participation. Poetry achieves this participation by engaging an imaginative attachment to things, but poetry isn't unique in doing this.

5. Do you have suggestions of habits someone could cultivate early in life that may help sustain a sacramental approach to work over a lifetime?

I wish I'd thought to ask that when I was 19. I guess, among other things, I'd counsel cultivating attentiveness and tentativeness. We live in the world in time, so it takes time to perceive things in the world. Just as there are no shortcuts to wisdom or contemplative prayer, so recognizing the goodness and giftness of the world (as well as its givenness) takes time. Multitasking is not a way to save time, and the goal isn't to save time anyway. The goal is to inhabit time well, and to allow things that take time to set our pace. Attentiveness to the world can never be achieved by people who are easily bored. So I guess the main advice I'd give is to learn to do one thing at a time. Don't try to read, listen to music, and surf the internet all at once. Your brain will get used to it, and then you'll never be able to attend to one thing well. (There's a lot of literature on the perils of multitasking, but I've already recommended enough reading for the next five years.)

And I mentioned tentativeness because I think there are many pressures to come to premature conclusiveness about things. If we make up our mind too early, we find it hard to see things that don't fit into our jerry-rigged framework.

Finally, I think we need to be very deliberate about how detached from creation our culture encourages us to be. In "God's Grandeur," Gerard Manley Hopkins memorably warned that the finger of God in creation is often not reckoned because we impose our own projects on creation. I think I said this before, but it's worth repeating: the more aware we are of the distorting patterns built into modern institutions and habits of thought, the more space we'll have for cultivating the sorts of posture we really need before God and his work. And perhaps what is needed most of all is a willingness to be out of synch (in the right ways) with the cultural status quo.

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