For some years now, the concept of “anti-culture” has floated around the Internet as a way to refer to alternative or minority communities that intentionally take a subversive, transgressive, or (in its mildest form) indifferent posture toward culture—whatever “culture” is. As just one example, the people behind AntiCulture.net describe their site as “a museum of Neo Postmodern meta art where human programming meta artists create cyber artists such as artificial intelligence beings and random generators.” Quite transgressive stuff, indeed.
More recently, a few Christian leaders and writers (drawing inspiration from the late sociologist Philip Rieff) have picked up the term “anti-culture” as a way to describe the current “climate” in the United States. The basic idea is that if culture is understood, as Carl Trueman puts it, to be “the elaborate structures and materials built in to the very fabric of society for the refinement and transmission of its beliefs and its forms of life from generation to generation, connecting past, present, and future,” then the United States today does not even have a culture anymore. Instead, they say, we have an “anti-culture” that forbids nothing and runs on chaos.
In Crisis Magazine, for instance, English professor Anthony Esolen writes regarding the sanctity of human life that “you can’t have a culture of life if you have no culture at all.” Culture in America has been thoroughly destroyed, he maintained, “and the most energetic destroyers have been the very people whom we charge with its care: teachers, professors, statesmen, and artists.”Because the contemporary United States still has culture, let’s keep engaging it with truth and grace.
Citing Esolen, Carl Trueman has argued in First Things that the United States no longer has any culture, given his definition noted above. He admits that “we do still have culture of a sort”—if all we mean by that is “pop culture” of the likes of Lady Gaga. But beyond this trivial level, he writes, “the Unholy Trinity of the entertainment industry, big business, and the law courts” have sovereignly decreed “the wholesale repudiation of the past and its institutions and interdicts, and a Devil-may-care attitude to the future.” And if the United States no longer has a culture, he reasons, then Christian cultural engagement in any meaningful sense is over.
Likewise, Rod Dreher, best known for prescribing to Christians his “Benedict Option” of cultural withdrawal and resistance (the point for Dreher is not disengagement per se but rather spiritual formation and Christians “setting their own house in order”), writes in The American Conservative, “We no longer have a culture. We have chaos. And the people will accept it, because we have exchanged the culture we had for chaos, and we call it freedom. . . . It’s time to prepare for some very dark days. Those who still have a culture within them and their families and communities had better start digging in.” Here again, American society has no culture.
Now, I am a traditional Christian. So before I offer any sort of critique, I must first say that I am mostly sympathetic to these writers’ observations—and much more so than your typical American sociologist would be. I understand and share their frustrations with a lot of what has recently been going on in American public life and, well… culture. Along with Esolen, Trueman, and Dreher, I see the self-destructive impulse of several contemporary American mores and assumptions, and of late-modern progressivism and identity politics more generally. I’m not coming at this from a perspective that differs radically, if at all, regarding issues of sexual ethics, gender, and marriage, or the regrettable state of our national capacity for discourse on controversial social matters. All of that—unfortunately—sounds right. No argument here.
With that said, as a sociologist, I think there is some work to be done to clarify how we talk and think about culture. Granted, I might be one of those “trendy Christian blog pundits” that Trueman warned his readers about. In a follow-up post on First Things, Trueman preemptively addresses some potential criticisms re: “anti-culture”:
For the Christians out there who think I am wrong, that “the culture” does still exist and is there to be engaged and transformed, I actually do hope that you are right and I am wrong. I have no vested interest in the world going to the dogs. Quite the opposite. In fact, here is a suggestion: Do not waste time telling me I am wrong. Prove me wrong.
My aim isn’t to tell Trueman or the others that they are “wrong” in the sense Trueman seems to mean in that quotation—namely, that American culture (as a coherent and overarching system that reliably transmits values and norms from the past through the present to the future) exists and is really doing fine. They’re right that it doesn’t and it’s not. Instead my critique is just this: While saying the United States today doesn’t have “a culture” or “any culture” may be an effective rhetorical maneuver for making a point, it isn’t actually technically true. Trueman leaves this as an open possibility, writing that “some claim that we still have a culture, though a very bad one. Yes, of course we do—if one defines culture as all that people do beyond those things merely necessary for physical existence.” So even here we don’t disagree; but still I think getting our understanding of culture right is important for having this sort of conversation.
And the understanding of culture these authors appear to be using has steadily fallen out of favor in the social sciences since the 1960s, such that practically no social scientist today conceives of culture as a coherent system for internalization and transmission. On this old view, culture is something like a library: Information exists in propositional form as an ordered system, which people “read” and internalize (into their heads), and which is reliable for passing down knowledge, values, and ways of living from one generation to the next. (The main name associated with this older “library” view is Talcott Parsons.) Perhaps Esolen, Trueman, and Dreher want to say the fading away of this theory of culture is precisely the problem. However, tons of empirical evidence over the course of decades in both the social sciences and cognitive sciences make a strong case that this “library” view of culture is untenable. Empirically, this just isn’t what culture is nor how it works. And importantly, the nature of this evidence (being about the intrinsic limitations of the human cognitive apparatus, and therefore its inability to internalize culture as a library) suggests that this isn’t a new development since the 1960s. That is, our theories about culture are being formed over time by the realities of culture and cognition, more so than the other way around. Culture probably didn’t operate sociologically as a library in centuries long past either.
As Christian Smith shows in a forthcoming article in The American Sociologist, there is still very little consensus—and actually active incoherence—among American sociologists about what culture is. Without getting into the mess of summarizing Smith’s argument, consider just a few alternative theories and metaphors (aside from the now outdated library model) of what culture is. Since the mid-1980s, for instance, Berkeley sociologist Ann Swidler has argued that culture is less like a library and more like personalized toolkits, consisting of people’s specific sets of skills, habits, competences, and bits of knowledge. Alternatively, Lyn Spillman maintains that culture is various diverse processes of “symbolic meaning-making.” My personal favorite metaphor for what culture is comes from University of Chicago sociologist John Levi Martin, who suggests that culture is “like a junkyard, full of sharp bits of rusty metal, in which children happily play” (italics mine). And my own working theory of what culture is boils down to “the interpersonal significance of things,” although that idea would take a whole book to unpack adequately. All in all, theories and metaphors for what culture is remain diverse and muddled. Still, to claim the United States today has no culture works only if one adopts the least tenable, most outdated conceptualization of culture available among the scholars who think about and study it most.
If these Christian writers are using the idea of “anti-culture” as nothing but a rhetorical maneuver to make a point, then OK, cool. But if the goal is to say something accurate about American culture today, then claiming that the United States no longer has any culture isn’t the best way to go. At the very least, we can say that the public meaning and significance of things in American life today most often crystalizes around values (or tendencies, or whatever) like individualism, therapeuticism, relativism, “tolerance,” pragmatism, deism, and identity politics. This hodgepodge of (frequently less-than-honorable) “–isms” isn’t a seamless or even sustainable library of ideas the way Christian writers envision culture, but it is America’s culture nevertheless.
This leads to one final point: Because the contemporary United States still has culture, let’s keep engaging it with truth and grace. To say, as these thinkers have, that Christian cultural engagement in America is over seems overly dire (and arguably shirks some of our biblical responsibility). As a timely alternative, law professor John Inazu and Manhattan pastor Tim Keller together have recently written a thoughtful article on bearing witness “in an anxious age,” which was published in Christianity Today. (Inazu and Trueman had exchanged ideas previously in First Things about how much optimism is reasonable for traditional Christians in America.) Their essay provides a hopeful, realistic, and measured approach to Christian cultural engagement that recognizes the significant complexities and problems of our culture today without resorting to the (anxious?) claim that America does not have any culture at all. That path is a better path to take.
Image by ThomasAlpha via Pixabay.