Church, culture, corpus callosum

Here’s a little something I wrote this week for a conference proposal. I would love some feedback!

Although recent continental philosophy has seen something of a “return to religion,” in the cultural realm the West is still aptly described as post-Christian. The ideological and material structures of society within which we currently function bear traces of their theological, and often ecclesial, origin; yet the church, perhaps the central social institution of centuries past, finds itself profoundly cut off from culture, even from a “postsecular” culture interested in new forms of spirituality and religious expression. Art, imagination, pop culture – even science, philosophy and politics – are finding new ways to speak, think and experience “religion” and the “numinous” in the context of their own various discourses, quite apart from the limited influence of the church.

In response to this groundswell of the spiritual, there is fortunately a growing movement within the Christian faith seeking to relate culture and its artefacts back to the church in a dialogical, missional mode. Thus we have the emerging fields of “church and…”; church and art, church and politics, church and marketplace, church and science, all under the umbrella of church and culture. Like the corpus callosum which connects the two hemispheres of the human brain, these interdisciplinary projects aim to re-connect synaptic gaps between sacred and secular, theological insight and life in an embodied cultural context, the nature of the ecclesial body and the complexities of lived experience.

Picture this: you are on a train headed to an unknown destination, through an endless forest. The forest is beautiful, with tall pine trees reaching up to the heavens with thin, ephemeral fingers. There is a river down below, and you can see footpaths snaking their way through the undergrowth. You want to get out and explore the forest, but you can’t – you’re on a train. You are separated from this beautiful landscape by glass and speed, as you hurtle down the track towards the distant horizon.

Perhaps in some ways, the church has been a train, set on its goal beyond all earthly forms and customs. The forest is culture – pop culture, high culture, low culture, open-source, polysemous, plural, interconnected, dynamic culture – and we are accustomed to seeing it from a train window, passing it by on our way to our heavenly destination. As we used to sing, “this world is not my home, I’m just passing through”… and yet, looking out the window we see a diverse cultural world we want to immerse ourselves in, winding paths we want to explore, trees and plants we want to examine up close, scenery we want to stand still and behold. Do we have to get off the train of “church” to be able to experience “culture”?

I propose that, rather than trying to simply bring the forest onto the train – taking the “spoils of Egypt” captive and dragging them back into the church – we do in fact need to take some time to get off the train and explore the unfamiliar territory. Of course, there are paths we shouldn’t walk down, but there are so many more scenic journeys we have left untried. We might need to get lost, experience the wilderness, take in a deep breath and embrace the beauty of culture before we start getting anxious about missing the “train to glory.” As Tolkien said, “not all those who wander are lost”; we need to take the opportunity of our present situation to immerse ourselves in yet another “strange new world,” and re-define ourselves as not just the church of Christendom (especially not in the Canadian context) but the church for the life of the world.


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