catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 12 :: 2008.06.13 — 2008.06.27


In a time of war

On Memorial Day this year, my husband Rob and I made breakfast for my immediate family.  It was a delight to prepare a meal for them using almost entirely Michigan ingredients from our farmer’s market and local bakery.  I didn’t want to be too preachy about the many values of local food, but they were curious and asked good questions.  One family member remarked that we were eating “fancy” food, to which my response was that actually, we were probably eating quite un-fancy food produced with plenty of good old-fashioned hard work.  He wondered later how far back in time we were eating; I estimated about 80 years. 

Inevitably, someone asked about cost.  I knew from talking to my mom a few weeks earlier that the eggs we bought from the farmer were comparable in cost to those in the supermarket, given rising grocery prices, but wasn’t sure about anything else.  I had to confess that we don’t really compare prices; we just buy the food we believe is best from a variety of angles and let the rest take care of itself.  In the words of Gregory Wolfe, we’ve become “conscientious objectors” in the culture wars when it comes to food, a point to which I’ll return shortly.

Much of the content of this issue on the relationship between “high” and “low” culture focuses on art and rightly so.  Works of art can be easily delineated, providing ample fodder for philosophical discussion about the relationship between several categories of human culture, whether we refer to it as high, low, pop, mass, folk or classical.  In fact, my work in my “day job” at Calvin College in the Student Activities Office focuses on cultural conversation from the angle of art.  Rob and I essentially help students give credit and consideration to popular culture, primarily music and film, in a Christian academic setting.  It’s fun and rewarding work, but we admittedly have a lot of sub-cultural garbage to wade through, primarily related to the effects of dualism. 

When students approach popular culture from a dualist perspective, which is a common evangelical approach in this time and place, they desire clear boundaries for what is sacred and what is secular.  They want a list of what is God-blessed and what is God-damned so they can rest numbly in the arms of one and avoid the other at all costs.  Many Christians are so consumed with drawing these lines that it engulfs them in fear.  For these earnest folks, the culture war is upon us and the resurrection of Christ is no guarantee that they’ll win, so they turn to political power and boycotts as weapons in defeating evil.  Another result of dualism is that some activities are considered as having moral relevance and others are neutral.  So, for example, we need to watch out for the Devil in the films we watch, but car shopping is an activity to which little more than basic financial stewardship applies.

The model we propose to students, however, is more comprehensive and admittedly much more difficult. Basically, God will show up wherever God wants—from Sunday school taught by the most sage mentor to an R-rated movie created by a fanatic atheist—so watch out!  You’ll be surprised and delighted and terrified, sometimes all at once.  And this incorrigible God who shows up in both the cathedral and the gutter doesn’t just ask for our Sunday mornings (though the ritual of worship is a part of it) but demands to be the center of every moment and every aspect of our very ordinary lives.  From this perspective, the culture war is irrelevant.  Satan has been definitively de-fanged in Christ’s defeat of death, so we turn to sorting through the rubble for glimpses of the Kingdom God has revealed and is building at this very moment in all areas of our lives. 

As Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image magazine, describes it, we promote a position of conscientious objection in these supposed culture wars.  Wolfe cites H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture as offering an ideological blow to dualism, as well as blind assimilation to the dominant culture:

Niebuhr offered another kind of model, the kind embraced by St. Augustine, which envisions the Christian mission as a continual engagement with, and transformation of, culture….  They believed that the life of culture ought to involve a dialectic between nature and grace, human culture and the revelation of God.  Grace without nature becomes abstract and inhuman.  Nature without grace tends toward despair and meaninglessness.  The true paradigm is the Incarnation: Word made flesh, the human and the divine unified.

In our pop culture work with students, and indeed in our lives as homemaking, eating, traveling human beings, the conversation about culture and Christianity inevitably turns to everyday things like food, which in its own way is “popular” culture, in the sense that everyone needs it.  I apply Wolfe’s point about conscientious objection here because eating faithfully is ultimately a question about how to marry nature and grace as a reflection of God incarnate.  This questioning is less likely to lead to a new law that sets limits on calories, fat, cholesterol and, for God’s sake, steers one hundred miles clear of something called “Rat Bastard Rootbeer.”  Rather, the path is one of exploration, relationship, hunger, mystery, mistakes, humility, joy—more like the messy indulgence of eating a new ethnic cuisine with your hands than a fork-fed pre-packaged Weight Watchers dinner.  To be sure, this path requires sacrifice, whether because the food costs more or because it necessarily limits a diet in some way.  But as a wise friend once told me, most things worth doing are difficult.  Thank God Jesus didn’t turn the stones into bread or leap off the temple to the death of us all.

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