James Davidson Hunter, a sociologist at UVA, writes convincingly about the causes of Christianity’s rise in the ancient world. The faith spread, Hunter argues, not by being a religion promulgated by the poor, as the popular myth tells it. The faith spread by being, almost from the beginning (think of the wealthy women mentioned in the Gospels as ‘sponsors’ of Jesus’ movement), a religion of the elite.
Christianity was from the get-go a religion of the culture-makers. Christianity changed the world because it so quickly changed the hearts, minds and worldview of artists and intellectuals who shape and change culture.
That is why Constantine was able to convert to Christianity. It was politically expedient to do so because the cultural elite of Rome were already largely Christianized.
For Christians to change the world anew, to influence culture and not just retreat from it, they need to reengage the arts and intellectual disciplines as Christians- and I’m not talking about those terrible looking Amish romance books you see in the ‘Christian fiction’ section at Barnes and Noble.
I’ve brought this up before and I bring it up again because of Paul Ellie’s article in the NY Times Book Review: Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?
Ellie points out that fifty years ago writers like Flannery O’ Connor, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, Reynolds Price and even John Updike wrote ground-breaking, lauded fiction that was suffused with their Christian convictions. Today, Ellie observes:
A faith with something like 170 million adherents in the United States, a faith that for centuries seeped into every nook and cranny of our society, now plays the role it plays in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “This Blessed House”: as some statues left behind in an old building, bewildering the new occupants.
To Ellie’s reckoning, only Marilyne Robinson’s Gilead (click and buy it now!) counts as an analogous, contemporary novel with equal parts Christian sensibility and aesthetic quality. It’s a beautiful book in case you haven’t read it.
Following the contours of Hunter’s argument above, you could see the loss of faith in fiction as something of a harbinger. As art goes so goes popular culture. The absence of a credible Christianity in contemporary literature could portend a popular culture in which Christianity plays an even more marginal role:
In America today Christianity is highly visible in public life but marginal or of no consequence in a great many individual lives. For the first time in our history it is possible to speak of Christianity matter-of-factly as one religion among many; for the first time it is possible to leave it out of the conversation altogether. This development places the believer on a frontier again, at the beginning of a new adventure; it means that the Christian who was born here is a stranger in a strange land no less than the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Soviet Jews and Spanish-speaking Catholics who have arrived from elsewhere. But few people see it that way. People of faith see decline and fall.
Ellie’s use of the world ‘frontier’ is a wise one for Hunter’s argument can point the other way too. Christianity finding itself on the margins, almost as immigrants in a strange new land, can be seen as an opportunity to reengage the faith in new, creative ways, to rediscover the ‘core’ of our story and convictions and to reemphasize the importance of training Christians to enter their fields of study as Christians.
This opportunity then is one not limited to the world of art and literature. It’s the opportunity which God, in God’s infinite sense of humor, has laid open to the whole Church.