Foundations: No.71 Autumn 2016

Dialogues Concerning Cultural Engagement (Part Two)

In this two-part essay, the author addresses the subject of Christian cultural engagement in a post-Christian context. In Part One (Foundations 70), the author establishes that cultures of the West can be characterised as post-Christian. He then explores the issue of engagement through a series of dialogues with different characters: 1) the Knight, who represents a political approach to cultural change, 2) the Gardener, who represents the Benedict Option espoused by conservative writer Rod Dreher, and 3) the Member of the Loyal Opposition, who represents the posture of “faithful presence” espoused by sociologist James Davison Hunter. Part Two (in Foundations 71) gathers the various characters for a round-table discussion. After pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each, the author lays out his own approach which focuses on imaginative cultural engagement using the arts and entertainment. He explores the issue of same-sex marriage as a case study, and the reconciliation between gay activist Shane Windemeyer and American Christian businessman Dan Cathy as an example of winsome engagement in which each discovered a common humanity in the other. Our goal is a cultural engagement that is an analogue to that kind of winsome reconciliation that creates space within which estranged parties can meet, or what the author calls “planting oases”. He then briefly considers two examples of this in the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, and U2’s Superbowl performance in February 2002.

Scene IV: Round-Table in the Drawing Room

The scene opens with an establishing shot of an English manor (think: Brideshead Revisited or Downton Abbey). Dissolve to a crane shot of four figures observing each other sitting around an antique Edwardian cherry table in a richly furnished parlour. Thick burgundy wall-to-wall carpeting, a gigantic and ornate marble hearth surrounds a fireplace whose flames cast a warm glow over the room. Gilded mirrors and oriental prints adorn the ancient oak-panelled walls. The works. It is obvious that this is the kind of room where Matters of Great Import are decided. Imagine the room in which the culminating scene in a murder mystery unfolds, when Poirot gathers the suspects and walks everyone through the options until he names the real killer. That room.

Sitting around the table: the Knight in a dark 3-piece suit and power tie, the Gardener in more casual clothes appropriate for manual work (she’s immaculately clean, but one can see dirt under her fingernails), the Member of the Loyal Opposition, still wearing his light blue oxford shirt and khakis, and Turnau in jeans, some random tee-shirt (connected with Godzilla or Firefly fandom), and a hipster-esque flannel overshirt.

Turnau: Thank you for all coming on such short notice to a meeting that very well might contain a good deal of monologue on my part. (Knight, Gardener and MLO groan, roll their eyes, and mutter discontentedly.)

Turnau: Hey! It’s my imaginary movie. I’ll chew the scenery as much as I like! At any rate, I wanted to tell you all that I think each of your approaches has something to offer, and each makes critical mistakes.

Sir Knight, I deeply appreciate your passion and the way you intentionally engage cultural issues in a way that strives to be biblical. I believe your insistence on politics as the fulcrum that will change the direction of culture is mistaken, as is your sometimes uncritical nationalism, triumphalism and dreams of restoring a Christian empire. But let’s face it: we are political creatures, and Christians shouldn’t simply absent themselves from the political process. Perhaps we can learn how to do politics in a new key, so to speak.

Mrs. Gardener, from you I learned the importance of preserving habits of the heart when they are in danger of being worn away by the corrosive patterns of late modern society. Intentional community, the church as she should be, is a vital and irreplaceable element in preserving the faith in a post-Christian world. I believe however that we can have intentional community, preserve what needs to be preserved, and vigorously engage the surrounding culture. In fact, I think such engagement sharpens and deepens our Christian commitments. Outreach and “upreach” toward God reinforce one another. Cultural engagement can be done as worship, making the gospel shine before our eyes as we hold it out to others.

And Mr. Loyal Opposition, from you I learned the virtue of quiet faithfulness and working for the common good within the cultural spaces where God has placed each of us. But while I don’t want to “despise the day of small things” (Zech 4:10), I also don’t want to plan only for small things. We can and should perhaps expect more, and speak out prophetically and imaginatively where we can.

Call me a naïve, sentimental fool…

MLO: (Sotto voce.) Naïve, sentimental fool. (Beat. Turnau glares at him.) What? You literally asked for it.

Turnau: (Continues undaunted.) Call me a naïve, sentimental fool, but I still think that change in culture is possible. God can transform things, and he can use us to do it. There are elements each of you brings to the table: strong proclamation, intentional community, quiet faithfulness in culture. Real cultural engagement is going to need to draw from each of your wells. But it seems to me that all of you are missing a vital piece of this puzzle crucial to cultural engagement.

(Dramatic pause.)

The role of the arts and entertainment! Imaginative engagement with popular culture!

Knight: Popular culture? That black beast that has polluted the minds of our young for too long? That Babylon that we can’t reform, only boycott?

Gardener: I’m inclined to agree with the Knight (amazingly). Popular culture is precisely why we need a strategic withdrawal. It infiltrates the soul and destroys real Christian culture. It undermines real worship with its seeker-sensitive worship-as-entertainment, church-as-business model.

MLO: It’s a plebian waste of time that only leads to the trivialisation and loss of meaning in real culture.

Turnau: I get it. I know you all have problems with it because you see it as a corrupting influence, a corrosive bile that erodes spiritual seriousness. But by being dismissive or alarmist about popular culture, you’re missing a big part of the real problem, and a big part of the solution. Let’s take the same-sex marriage debate as a case-study.


[Title appears on screen for three seconds, documentary style.]

Popular Culture, Imagination and the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

Before I launch into my exposition about the same-sex marriage debate and cultural engagement, I want to say something that I shouldn’t need to say: Christians should avoid homophobia like the plague, right? Hateful, mocking, or dismissive attitudes toward LGBT people should have no place within the Christian community. Agreed?

Gardener: Agreed.

MLO: Agreed.

Knight: Agreed. But I’ve been called homophobic for just taking a stance that gays disagree with. What about that?

Turnau:  I completely understand. It’s impossible to please everybody, especially in a heated cultural debate such as this. I’m talking about “so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). I believe it is possible to profoundly disagree with some of the cultural positions the LGBT community take, and respect them. More than that: to love them (more on engagement in love a little later). What they call us is not up to us, right? But for our part, we want to love and respect them, right?

Knight: Got it.

Turnau: Now that that’s out of the way, I can begin. (Knight, Gardener, and MLO settle into their chairs.)

In a recent essay, legal scholar Hunter Baker, like a lot of Christians, looked on in bewilderment at the lightning-quick shift in public opinion. “I can’t easily explain how something that was an overwhelmingly dominant view for thousands of years has now become the greatest black mark against the church, but it has.”[1] Something that seemed so solid – the traditional definition of marriage – suddenly collapsed and was remade before our eyes. Surveys support this feeling of cultural whiplash. There has indeed been a rapid sea-change in public opinion from 1996 to 2015:

  • In 1996, when asked the question “Should marriages between same-sex couples be valid?” 68% of Americans responded no, and 27% responded yes.
  • In 2015, they were asked the same question, but the positions had flipped: 37% said no, and 60% said yes.[2]

In less than 20 years, the approval rating for same-sex unions more than doubled, and the negative rating almost halved. Approval rates rose in virtually every demographic group regardless of age, religion (including Evangelicals), sex or political affiliation.[3] Within the last 10 years (2005-2015), approval rates climbed from 37% to 60%.[4] The data is, at first glance, baffling. How could a reversal of such an ancient and established perspective be abandoned virtually overnight? The shift in public opinion was simply too fast to be a generational change.[5]

Gardener: Oh, do let me guess – popular culture played a significant role, yes?

Turnau: Absolutely. It’s not the whole story, but we’ll start with gay involvement in the entertainment industry. James Davison Hunter says this about the gay community: “At most 3 percent of the American population, their influence has become enormous… far disproportionate to their size.”[6] He mentions popular culture in passing, but it seems to me that gays in the entertainment industry have played a key role in the public acceptance, legalisation, and eventual celebration of same-sex unions.

I won’t make you sit through a detailed history of gay representation, how the “love that dare not speak its name” morphed into an overall cultural acceptance (and even celebration) of same-sex relationships as the new normal.[7] But here’s the big picture: for the last 20-plus years, the number of gay characters portrayed in film and television (followed by comic books and popular song) has climbed steadily, and as a parallel development, approval ratings for same-sex marriage climbed steadily as well.[8]

These new roles for gays were not stock characterisations, whether of the effeminate, over-the-top camp comic relief (such as the homeless cabaret singer in 1991’s Fisher King) or the terrifying lesbian killer-whore (as in 1992’s Basic Instinct). Rather, these new gay characters were smart, serious, playful, witty, sympathetic, supportive, successful, complex – characters like lawyer Will Truman (from the American situation comedy Will and Grace), councilman Harvey Milk (from the eponymous film), rodeo cowboy Jack Twist (Brokeback Mountain), talented singer Blaine Anderson (from Glee) and many, many more. In other words, these were ordinary (or extraordinary) three-dimensional people just like you and me, but they happened to be gay. And these characters were caught up in plotlines that had viewers rooting for them, identifying with them. The American audience became familiar with gay faces (both fictional and real, as certain celebrities came “out of the closet”), and what had been widely seen as a perversion was humanised into simply an alternative orientation.

Representation in popular culture matters. According to a GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) survey conducted in 2008, 34% of the respondents said seeing same-sex characters on television helped change their views (and 29% were influenced by seeing gay characters in films). In a 2012 survey by the Hollywood Reporter, 27% of responders said that seeing LGBT characters on television shows influenced them to support same-sex marriage (6% said it influenced them against it). For under-35 respondents, the percentage that was influenced to be pro-same-sex marriage was much higher.[9] And once the tide of public opinion turned, so did the politicians. Days before President Obama came out in favour of same-sex marriage, Vice President Joseph Biden said in NBC’s Meet the Press in 2012, “When things really began to change is when the social culture changes. I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far.”[10] You could say that the same-sex wedding staged in the season finale of Modern Family in 2014 presaged the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell ruling in more ways than one.[11]

Knight: So what you’re saying is: we need more Christian characters in movies and TV to recapture cultural momentum. We just need a healthy dose of representation of real Christians.[12]

Turnau: It’s not that simple. Characters don’t just leap onto the screen. They have to be created, to be written. Producers need to sign off on the idea that showrunners present. Writers need to come to agreement on what works, and what doesn’t. It’s a long process that requires many people who wield varying levels of creative influence, from network execs on down. If you look at these positions of creative influence, the LGBT community has had a really strong showing within entertainment.[13] There’s just a huge talent pool of gay writers, directors and producers, people who are known and trusted by the heavy hitters of the industry.

Do you think this just happens? No. There is a process that takes decades. It starts with a substantial number of individuals who are dedicated to honing their craft and landing jobs. But that can only happen if there’s “incubation”, when the writers are surrounded by an enthusiastic and encouraging community that actually believes in what they are doing. In the conservative decades of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, gay writers were in college, sending out job applications, networking and finding connections in the industry, spending time, sweat, toil and tears trying to create something concrete out of their love of popular culture. I am certain that they met resistance and discrimination at the beginning.[14] But they had a slow, steady, long-term vision of creating an infrastructure, a network from within which they could eventually create messages and characters that would sway hearts, minds, and imaginations. It was a community effort over the long-haul.

All during this time, Christian leaders were raising the alarm about the “gay agenda”.

Knight: (interrupting) Well, weren’t we right? Wasn’t there an agenda at work here?

Turnau: Yep, but at least they had an agenda, and a creative, culturally engaging agenda at that! Can Christians say the same? Not really. Our relationship with Hollywood has historically been marked with either a dismissive attitude, or suspicion bordering on loathing. And the Hollywood people know what Christians think of them because we aren’t exactly soft-spoken when it comes to our cultural dislikes. Who could blame entertainment industry powers-that-be for making it hard for Christians? “Who’d want to hire a conservative Christian? Those people hate us!” Hate and suspicion: not typically great for opening up networking opportunities. (Coincidentally, that very strident opposition by high-profile Christians led to a lot of terrible stereotyping of Christians in film and television. Judgmental, holier-than-thou sour old women or psycho-killer Christians, anyone?).[15]

Even if we could develop a network, what would we have to offer? The Christian community by-and-large does not develop its creative talent. We don’t give our kids dreams of being writers, creators, filmmakers, and showrunners. We discourage them from getting too cozy with the world because we’re sure they’ll be polluted in the process. There’s little to no support, no network, no enthusiasm, no understanding of imagination and creativity. It will take generations to undo the damage and alienation we’ve created before we can even start from ground zero. That’s why you don’t find many Christians in Hollywood. A handful of actors, a few Catholic directors like Malick and Scorsese. Ex-Christians, lapsed Catholics, Protestants who walked away during university… you find a lot of those.

Gardener: Well of course you find ex-Christians in Hollywood! You move into the belly of the Beast and you will find your outlook much changed. Contact with that world corrupted them and undermined their faith, obviously.

Turnau: For some, that’s probably the case. But perhaps they succumbed precisely because they had no community support! Look, Christian writers and other creatives aren’t super-Christians. They need people to pray for them, friends to ask hard questions to keep them accountable, to encourage them and be on board with them as they try to be faithful and do the job they were hired for. They need a supportive community.[16] For the most part, the Christian church hasn’t been there for them. It doesn’t even understand what they’re doing in Hollywood in the first place.

Knight: But we do have creative people working in entertainment. Lots of them! And not in that moral cesspool called Hollywood.

Turnau: And where are all those Christian creatives working? In Christian-owned entertainment companies that are completely ignored by the mainstream culture. That’s not being part of the overall cultural conversation. That’s just making stuff to entertain your own people. It’s the community talking to itself. It’s fine for galvanising your own group, but really lousy for being heard by anyone else.

Gardener: That’s because no one will let Christians into creative positions.

Turnau: And for good reason. Not only is there almost a century of hostility between the church and Hollywood, it’s not as if a Christian writer fresh from college and looking for a job in television arrives at a level playing field. He will find the deck stacked against him in this post-Christian world of ours. The way most people around him see the world is diametrically opposed to his. They look at a Christian and see a dinosaur (and not a cool dinosaur like T-Rex or  Velociraptor, either). They are suspicious of what they see as a fossilised morality. And that suspicion of Christians and Christian morality is socially entrenched, and has been for decades. So even if we manage to sneak a Christian or two into Hollywood, Trojan-horse style, it won’t be enough. Not if we want them to be part of the larger cultural conversation.

MLO: So what else needs to be done? You are painting a pretty bleak picture.

Turnau: I mean to. So, two things need to be done. First, we need to recognise the cultural logic behind the current imaginary landscape. We need to understand the cultural currents that have been in place for a long time and within which something like same-sex marriage makes perfect sense.

Knight: What are you talking about?

Turnau: I’m saying that, in a sense, same-sex marriage was a done deal by 1950. (The Knight scoffs.) Hear me out. In the economically bountiful post-WWII era, people responded to the years of wartime depravation by a concerted effort to make themselves prosperous and at ease.[17] And that attitude changed things in academia and in the therapist’s (and pastor’s!) office. A culturally significant number of scholars, psychiatrists and pastors stopped asking the complicated and difficult question of “What is true and good?” Rather, they asked the more immediate question: “What is good for you? What makes you happy and fulfilled?” According to Christian writer Joel Miller, Americans started redefining human nature: “We swapped the traditional American view, grounded in a certain pessimism inherited from the Protestant understanding of original sin, for the newly refurbished and Americanised psychotherapy.”[18] The focus shifted from “What is true?” to “What makes for personal fulfillment?” So in the 1940s and 50s, these two innovations came together – the post-war commitment to comfort, and a redefinition of human nature and life’s purpose – to form what historian Alan Petigny calls the “Permissive Turn”.[19] It changed our cultural logic and paved the way for a later rapid shift in cultural norms. The “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 70s was the natural unfolding of that cultural logic in the lives of the next generation. Same-sex marriage is simply the next step in that logical evolution. If the main goal of everyone’s life is self-fulfillment, then why shouldn’t we allow same-sex people to marry? It’s fine, as long as they’re happy, and as long as they don’t infringe on anyone else’s right to self-fulfillment, right?[20]

In a sense, America has been poised for same-sex marriage since 1776 when the Declaration of Independence announced the “unalienable rights” of everyone to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Knight: But the Founders weren’t for subverting traditional marriage! They meant something completely different when they said “liberty” and “happiness.”

Turnau: I’m sure they did. They probably had in mind something that entailed certain responsibilities to family, community and civic duty. “Happiness” would mean living life as it ought to be lived, loving your neighbour, that somehow your wellbeing was bound up in your community’s wellbeing.[21] “Liberty” within a democracy meant not just freedom from restraint, but freedom for a productive existence, freedom to pursue a life well-lived. But those definitions changed in later years (cue Hunter’s “dissolution”).[22] The meanings of those key words were held in check for a while by echoes of an essentially Jewish and Christian ethic (including sexual mores). But gradually, those definitions were displaced by something more fragmented, more self-focused. The rule of the Robber Barons and the rise of consumerism in the late 19th century took its toll, carving a landscape of consumer desire.[23] And during the 1950s, another seismic shift occurred at both the elite level (scholars, medical professionals), and within popular culture (images of prosperous, contented families abounded on television sitcoms and in advertising). The whole cultural narrative changed, and along with it, the logic behind cultural norms. Happiness and freedom now signify that each of us has the licence to live as he or she chooses, and no one can tell us otherwise. Because of that long-established shift in cultural logic, our arguments have to sail against a stiff wind, so to speak.

Knight: So argumentation is useless now? I mean, you make it seem so dire; an open-and-shut case.

Turnau: Well, I think we ought to modify our expectations in light of our current context. And we need to buckle down for a task that will take generations. One of those tasks is to radically challenge the prevailing cultural logic, to question happiness and freedom as they are currently understood. And that has to happen in the universities, in the therapist’s office, in the churches, in recording studios, and in television, movie, and video-game scripts. It has to be a multi-pronged re-storying of our culture.

MLO: You mentioned two things. What’s the second?

Turnau: (Dramatically.) And now I will show you a more excellent way: cultural engagement as love. What I mean is this: if we wish to really engage post-Christian culture, and those who create it and enjoy it, we must love both the culture and the people.

Knight: How can we as Christians love something that sows wickedness?

Turnau: Love doesn’t mean agreeing with everything and everyone (otherwise, why would Jesus tell us to love our enemies in Matthew 5?). But it does mean that we’re willing to enter into their worlds and listen, even as we seek change in the imaginary landscape that informs these post-Christian cultural narratives.

Once we see cultural engagement as an act of love, we will understand that cultural influence is not a zero-sum, winner-take-all game. We’ve been living so long in an “us versus them” mentality. Rather, we need a “we are for you” mentality. Without erasing the antithesis between our respective core commitments, we can engage those with whom we disagree in love. We can disagree with people without making them the “other”, moral pariahs and lepers, lesser beings in our eyes. Rather, we recognise that we’re all moral pariahs and lepers. We all need a Saviour. That’s the gospel, right? We can bring healing by taking the low road of engaging in a humble, loving way.

[Onscreen title.]

The Story of Dan and Shane

Let me give you an example of what I mean by loving engagement: the reconciliation between Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy and gay rights activist Shane Windmeyer. Americans know (though people in the UK may not) how in 2012, Cathy responded to a reporter’s question (in an interview for Baptist magazine no less) about whether he supported the traditional view of marriage and family. Cathy responded, “Guilty as charged”. He elaborated,

We [that is, Chick-Fil-A] are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that… We operate as a family business… our restaurants are typically led by families; some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that… We intend to stay the course. We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.[24] 

Those comments, plus his company’s financial support of groups that support a pro-traditional family agenda, caused him to be quickly labelled “anti-gay” and “homophobic”, and there was much media outrage. This despite the fact that he is the president of a fast-food chain who has little or no political influence, not a culture warrior to be feared. The LGBT community fumed and boycotted. Christians took umbrage on Cathy’s behalf, snarled right back, and started anti-boycott campaigns to make sure they ate more Chick-Fil-A products than ever. But very quietly, something else was happening behind the scenes.

Months later, a Huffington Post article came out authored by Shane Windmeyer, head of Campus Pride, a university-based gay rights organisation (and one the groups calling for boycotts against Chick-Fil-A).[25] In the article, Windmeyer related how Cathy contacted him, seeking a meeting to talk shortly after the calls for boycotts began. Windmeyer, suspecting shenanigans, was hesitant. But Dan Cathy was relentless. He texted Windmeyer, emailed him, called him, invited him to football games and family meals. Windmeyer did meet with Cathy, repeatedly, but not once during all this time did Cathy ask for Campus Pride to stop boycotting. He simply wanted to get to know Windmeyer as a human being. Over the months, the hostility and distrust melted and a friendship formed. Dan Cathy listened to Windmeyer’s complaints, and compromises were reached. Chick-Fil-A would no longer fund groups that Campus Pride considered anti-gay. And Shane Windmeyer showed exceptional bravery in writing a very public essay that spoke well of a man that his community would rather vilify (just read the comments beneath the story). Both men took enormous heat over their friendship, but both men showed courage, openness and humility. Neither compromised his principles, but both discovered a new-found respect for the other and common ground on which to meet. That is cultural engagement done in love.

Knight: But Cathy caved, and got very little in return!

Turnau: I wouldn’t call it “very little”. Look at what was accomplished through this relationship. Did Dan Cathy’s engagement with Shane Windmeyer somehow make Windmeyer less vocal in his advocacy of LGBT rights? No. Is there still a deep divergence between their moral visions of what America should be? Yes. So was nothing accomplished? Not at all. Through a difficult process of listening and dialogue, both men had their imaginary landscapes broadened to accept the other as a human being worth listening to, worthy of respect and love. They will not agree on everything, but they have come to trust one another’s integrity and good will. That is a huge step in the right direction. That kind of engagement has great potential to yield practical benefits in the long term for the good of the whole society, not just this or that particular interest group.

This type of winsome cultural engagement relinquishes claims of conquest over the land in the name of God. Christians need to wake up to the fact that we are not a moral majority. We are a minority voice in a land replete with a plurality of competing voices. Some of those voices are deeply disconcerting to us, and we understandably feel threatened. But they are human voices, voices worth engaging lovingly and respectfully. Our success or failure should not be judged on how well we have wrested the reins of power from our opponents to “recapture the culture”. Our success should be judged by the humility with which we engage our opponents, how charitably we articulate our agendas, how gracefully we accept setbacks, how well we love our fellow citizens, and how well we demonstrate that we are for them, that we long to call them “friends”. By taking the low road, we may find that we have more of an impact on the culture than by trying to coerce change through politics, or withdrawing into a safe-zone, or by simply keeping a low profile. We are not cultural conquistadors; we are not cloistered; we ought not to be passive. We are now the loyal, loving opposition.

Please note how Dan Cathy’s engagement draws upon each of your perspectives. Sir Knight, did his action have a political significance? Absolutely. The discovery of common humanity between former opponents is a profound political achievement that paves the way for future dialogue. Mrs. Gardener, did the kind of habits of the heart learned in intentional community play a role in this exchange? Absolutely. The ability to extend grace in a humble, loving, persevering way develops only after years of Christian practice and discipline within community. Loyal Opposition Guy, was Cathy practicing faithful presence for the common good? Absolutely. The way Cathy stepped into Windmeyer’s world and welcomed him into his world – that is absolutely practicing “faithful presence”, living as if the gospel is real and can address the brokenness of society in a concrete way. But his love was also “prophetic” in the sense that it witnessed to both the brokenness and the remedy. What bothered him more than anything was the alienation and hurt that was in his power to heal.

And look at the fruit of that engagement. Whatever else Shane Windemeyer chooses to say about Dan Cathy, he can no longer call him a homophobe, a bigot, an idiot who just doesn’t understand. He now calls him “friend”. Cathy listened and loved well. That is a big part of engagement if we are going to be minority partners in the broader cultural conversation.

The moral: naked power politics that does not love our political opponents will not succeed. Withdrawal that does not engage will not succeed. Passively biding our time will not succeed. Lasting change comes only when we intentionally address the whole person, including the cultural and imaginative contexts of those who dwell across the cultural/political divide from us. The key lies in building bridges, not by forcing agendas.

Gardener: But how does this change the “imaginary landscape”, as you call it? You presented some pretty compelling evidence that cultural works – characters in entertainment programming and such like – are instrumental in changing cultural logics and norms. How does a friendship with a gay activist change that?

Turnau: Well, on a small scale, a Christian man now shows up in at least one imagination as “human” and “relatable”. Replicate that over and over and over again, not just with the LGBT community, but with transgender people and others we Christians generally find “outside the pale”, and watch the cultural conversation change. Watch the Christian church shine with quite a different hue in the public square.

Gardener: But is it enough? Those popular cultural stories that create a new normal are still out there. The new norm stands, and that alone makes it harder to understand (much less believe) the Christian story.

[Onscreen title, three seconds.]

Loving Engagement in the Key of Imagination: Planting Oases

Turnau: You’re right. We need to rethink the way we engage culture creatively, imaginatively. We need a change in attitude so that we support Christians who work in the arts and entertainment. And Christian creatives themselves may need to rethink what they are trying to create. What I would like to see is… (hesitates, thinking how to proceed)… you know that reconciliation between Dan Cathy and Shane Windemeyer I just talked about?

Gardener: Yes?

Turnau: I want to see imaginative, creative cultural engagement that can make an aesthetic analogue of that relationship. I want popular culture made by Christians to do what Cathy did, and to do it as part of the mainstream culture. I’d long to see Christian popular culture that’s not about winning a game of cultural tug-o’-war. Rather, our popular stories, songs, film, television and games should create spaces for conversation in which we discover each other’s common humanity, broken and needy, but also full of depth and wonder, created for glory. I call this kind of imaginative cultural engagement “planting oases”. Christians need to take the initiative in creating culture that, like an oasis in a thirsty land, invites the parched travellers of the post-Christian landscape into a cultural space that challenges and refreshes, rather than one that manipulates and repels by its strong-arm tactics. I want to see cultural works that are “aggressively gracious as we seek to be a counterculture for the common good”.[26] We want to be distinctive, and yet draw in those who disagree with us rather than chase them away. In that way, we widen and deepen the imaginations of those who may have started out alienated from us. That’s generative, prophetic, creative planting of oases.

Knight: But will these “oases” really make any difference? It seems so… I don’t know… ethereal and insubstantial. Not like legislation or court decisions.

Turnau: I believe they will make a profound difference. You’re right in this, however: typically, a single story or performance doesn’t do that much. But over time, as more are created, they can have a cumulative effect as they form networks that open up alternative ways of being and imagining ourselves in the world.[27]

Don’t underestimate the power of stories told, performed, sung, and played in culture. They may seem ethereal, but, as Hamlet said, “We are such stuff as dreams are made of.” We gain identity according to the story we imagine ourselves to be in. We all have “narrative identities”.[28] These circulating stories, performances, songs, images and games are the background against which laws are made or unmade, courts decide one way or the other, people fall in love and families draw together or fragment. Stories form the imaginary backbone of culture, or what I’ve been calling, the imaginary landscape. Stories are really, really important. A Native American proverb says, “Those who tell the stories rule the world.”[29] And those who tell different stories well can change it.

MLO: It sounds as if you’re overselling the power of narrative.

Turnau: Am I? Well, I was an English literature major in university. But don’t take my word for it. The celebrated science fiction writer Neil Gaiman went so far to suggest that humans are life forms, hosts if you will, for the transmission of stories.[30] Stories shape how we believe and live in the world, and they seduce us into telling and retelling them:

A lot of stories do appear to begin as intrinsic to religions and belief systems – a lot of the ones we have have gods or goddesses in them; they teach us how the world exists; they teach us the rules of living in the world. But they also have to come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and we want to help them propagate.[31]

Gaiman told about a Polish Holocaust survivor, his cousin Helen. Helen shared a story with him about how as a teen, she and a group of Jewish girls living in the Warsaw ghetto during WWII risked execution by reading a banned book, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. For them, the imaginative escape from the ghetto was worth risking death. The escapes we find in entertainment are anything but ephemeral and inconsequential. They are a powerful way of reshaping life. Gaiman concludes:

We [writers] decry too easily what we do, as being kind of trivial – the creation of stories as being a trivial thing. But the magic of escapist fiction… is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armour, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better… It’s a real escape – and when you come back, you come back better-armed than when you left.

Helen’s story is a true story, and this is what we learn from it – that stories are worth risking your life for; they’re worth dying for. Written stories and oral stories both offer escape – escape from somewhere, escape to somewhere.

Look at our culture now. It is as it is largely because of the stories that have shaped it – from history and novels to films, songs and video games. It all adds up.

Gardener: But what difference can Christian storytellers make, even in popular culture, when so much of the storytelling is dominated by those with a very different vision of what the world should be?

Turnau: No, you’re quite right. Christians by no means have a corner on the story market. And at the moment, the times when recognisably Christian stories shine are rare. Most of the time Christian stories are aimed at Christians. But if we rethink what the imagination is, its power and uses in a post-Christian world, perhaps more storytellers will become involved, and we as a Christian community will begin to speak to people other than ourselves. Given time and God’s blessing, those stories can form networks, and those networks of stories can gather momentum, become leaven in the imaginary landscape, breaking up the dry desert soil. They become another voice in the conversation, another motif in the cultural symphony (even if it’s at times dissonant, and other times harmonising).

I’m not saying it’s the whole solution, but I think imaginative engagement with culture needs to be part of the solution, and it’s a part that I feel has been overlooked for too long.

MLO: Can you give us some examples of the impact of distinctively Christian stories in mainstream culture? This all sounds a little pie-in-the-sky, devil’s-in-the-details. Bring the pie down to earth. Show us where the devil hides.

Turnau: Let me give you two brief glimpses. First, take J. R. R. Tolkien’s books. They had, and continue to have, a very broad appeal. And yet they are distinctively Christian in how they address a whole host of issues – heroism, good, fellowship, evil and so on. They have had a tremendous impact on how people have thought about the nature of goodness and the natural world. Tolkien linked the two, goodness and nature. He spelled out goodness in his stories in terms of rich, vivid imagery drawn from the everyday, natural world – things like the Shire, gardening, a good meal with friends, a quiet green forest.[32] These things belong to a world worth preserving from the likes of the rapacious Saruman (or a rapacious consumer-driven industrial economy). In Tolkien’s books, the landscape is a full-fledged character, a creature that resonates with goodness because of the One who created it. The popularisation of his trilogy in the 1960s galvanised many in America and the UK into action to protect the environment. It convinced them that nature was worth protecting. In a sense, the environmental movement got its imaginative impetus from a distinctively Christian way of seeing the world laid out for all to see in Middle Earth. Elves and hobbits saved the day.

What about other cultural issues? Could a talented Christian writer create a vision of sexual goodness and contentment that was equally distinctive and inviting? A work that could acknowledge sexual confusion, brokenness, rebellion and hurt, but somehow showed a path beyond it to healing and contentment? I don’t know. It’s quite a challenge. But that’s what we need at the moment.

The second example of loving cultural engagement is more recent: U2’s Superbowl XXXVI performance in February 2002.[33] In the wake of the World Trade Centre bombing in New York on 11 September 2001, people in the US were hurting, angry and grieving. Then, on the most widely watched annual television broadcast in America, four Irishmen stepped on stage and became the voice of our grief and simultaneously gave us hope in the power of a love that defeated death. The halftime show started with Bono in the middle of a sea of fans making his way to a heart-shaped stage, singing as he pushed through the crowd. That is to say, he began in a position of identification with the crowd; there was virtually no distance between performer and audience. He was one of them. Given how our culture holds celebrities as latter-day deities, Bono’s choice to start in the sea of fans speaks volumes and echoes the incarnation, how God became one of us.

The first song U2 played was “Beautiful Day”, a song full of energy and exuberance, even as it addresses how life can seem futile and grey. The lyrics affirm that there is indeed a wonder and beauty in everyday life that lies just beneath the surface, so beware of letting yourself become bitter and hardened. You will end up missing the beauty. The band then transitioned into “MLK”, a funeral song written for the slain civil rights leader, wishing him a gentle rest. And while the band was singing, a screen descended and the names of those slain on September 11 began to scroll upward, heavenward. U2 was, on public television, laying our dead to rest. I remember watching it and feeling chills. Fans wept. With the seemingly endless list of names still scrolling, they began playing “Where the Streets Have No Name”, a song about longing for a place where there is no hatred dividing people. Without naming it explicitly, the song affirms the hope of life beyond death.[34] At the end, Bono opened his jacket to reveal an American flag sewed into the lining. The message was clear: I might’ve been born in Ireland, but I am one of you. The whole show communicated not just solidarity, but empathy, love, a moving reminder of divine love incarnated, God with us.

Rolling Stone called it not only the best Superbowl performance ever, but one of the truly great live-TV rock & roll moments of all time… Only U2 could have made this so grandiose, yet so emotionally direct. Grown men wept buckets. Every daft ambition U2 ever had, every lofty claim they ever made, they earned tonight.[35]

Did everyone catch the Christian resonances of the performance? Probably not. But it’s no secret that U2 is Christian, that their tireless campaigning on behalf of the world’s poor comes from a Christian perspective. That night, they brought a country together into a place of healing and told them that love conquered death, that it was safe to lay their dead to rest, that they could place hope in a future in which they are not alone. That night, U2 planted an oasis. I could go on, but I’ll return to examples (especially Tolkien) later in the book.

Knight: Wait, what? We’re in a book? Since when?

Turnau: I thought I told you. You guys are fictional characters in a movie script that’s within a book.

MLO: Does my agent know about this? Have we discussed residuals? I want gross points.

Turnau: You’re a fictional character. You don’t get residuals. Or points. Unless you’re owned by Disney.

MLO: Oh.

[Freeze frame. Triumphant music swells.]


Voiceover (either David Attenborough or Morgan Freeman): Over the course of this video essay, we have explored options for cultural engagement by giving voice and character to them: the Knight, the Gardener, and the Member of the Loyal Opposition. In bringing them to life, we were able to judge the strengths and weaknesses of each, perhaps shedding a little light through dialogue. Our journey concluded by presenting another path of Christian cultural engagement, a path that appreciated the other approaches, and yet went beyond them by focusing on lovingly engaging the imagination through art and entertainment. This is what Turnau means by Christian imaginative cultural engagement: creating works (and supporting the creators of those works) that address the imagination in a way that opens a space for conversation, reconciliation and relationship, imaginative works that resonate with grace. To do this, we need to be as committed to cultural change as the Knight, as committed to spiritual formation in community as the Gardener, and as committed to practicing faithful presence for the common good as the Member of the Loyal Opposition. But we also need to direct our gaze to the imaginary landscape, and to the works that form and shape it, such as popular culture. We need to be committed to creative work that seeks to reshape the imaginary landscape that lies back of the cultural conversations always taking place. Using the Christian imagination to love and heal a post-Christian world means planting oases in the wasteland.

(Fade to black. Roll credits.)

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