On "Engaging Culture": How Culture and Entertainment Are Different than Air

I woke up this morning to see 19 notifications on my Twitter account. Usually it means that someone included me in a conversation of which I was unaware, probably because I live on the other side of the Atlantic, and I was asleep. And so it was. Karen Swallow Prior, whom I genuinely admire, made a comment about Trevin Wax’s piece on why some Christians are leery of the term cultural engagement. And many people jumped in on the Twitter conversation. Not a tweetstorm, and not bad natured. Just folks brainstorming about what should replace the term “cultural engagement.” Some submissions were serious, others snarky. And a good time was had by all. Except me, ‘cause I was sleeping.

The relevant comment that Karen made was that she felt that the term cultural engagement “doesn’t make semantic sense.” She raises similar concerns in a recent article she did for First Things in which she argued for a careful, reflective enjoyment of entertainment. It was nuanced and insightful (I mean, she quoted me, so that right there shows impeccable taste). And then she ended with a warning about not “fetishizing,” making an idol out of entertainment by either “engaging” it or abstaining it.

Both extremes ignore the reality that culture is like air: We can’t exist apart from it. We might as well speak of “engaging the air” as of “engaging the culture”—or of separating ourselves from either. 

I found the ending quixotic, hard to Swallow, so to speak (sorry: I couldn’t resist). I DMed her to tell her so. She responded (and I asked her beforehand, so I’m not betraying a confidence):

I will have to think about the air/culture analogy more. I think we should take care with the air we breathe, too. We can't exist without either (like food) but we can be careful or not in how we partake. 

Here’s my attempt at helping her think through that analogy, and in the meantime, rehabilitate the term “cultural engagement.” In terms of the similarities, she’s dead right. Culture is around us whether we want it to be or not. It is a necessity for survival. Even separating yourself Amish or Fundamentalist-style only ends up creating another culture, a subculture, with its own weirdnesses, graces, and idolatries. And like air, we often don’t consider what it is we’re breathing in. So far, so good. 

But there are also profound differences between culture (and entertainment), and air or food. Unlike air (but somewhat like food), culture has a meaning-structure that invites and requires some level of interpretation. Any entertaining television show requires us to know some language, understand plot, character, context, etc. I graduated with a B.A. in English (like Karen), so I tend to think of culture in terms of texts that I can enjoy and unpack. There’s a deeper understanding to be had. It is a meaning-structure that can be engaged. 

The weird thing is that Karen’s words, and indeed, her whole article, sends clear signals that she knows this already. Be careful. Be intentional. Yes, we can be careful how we breathe and eat, but being intentional regarding culture and entertainment is a whole different beasty because of the meaningful structures to be engaged. So, in defense of cultural engagement, I’d have to disagree. The syntax adds up; culture is something that can be engaged like a text.

Maybe the problem is the words “culture” and “engage” are slippery and mean different things to different people. Certainly, Andy Crouch has a point when he objects to people engaging culture as an undifferentiated mass which passes over what’s happening locally, in one’s own neighborhood. Culture is not an undifferentiated blob. But (pace Crouch), culture is a network that functions on various levels: local, regional, national, global, etc. And the larger networks can wield a decisive impact on the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual profiles of individuals. So it’s worth engaging. Local action is necessary to be sure, but so is engaging the larger networks of texts (shows, movies, songs, games, etc.). 

Some object to the activist texture that some give to “engage,” as if engaging were a matter of gathering political resources and using them as a club to force the culture into the shape we’d like it to be (God-honoring, family-friendly, etc.). I think this is what 

Trevin Wax sees as the "dangerous trajectory" inherent in the term. Cultural engagement in this sense means culture-warring until the culture sings our tune. The problem with this path to engagement is that culture is a mishmash of many tunes, and short of outright totalitarian dictatorship (or theocracy), you can influence culture only so far. And in a democracy, you cannot influence it against the will of the people held in its sway.

And certainly, Carl Trueman has a point when he says that …scratch that. Actually, he doesn’t have a point. He is an illustration of what happens when a theologian-cum-curmudgeon employs too narrow a definition of culture. Trueman asserted that because culture has gone definitively against the democratic, Christian consensus that we so long enjoyed in the States, it is now no longer democratic nor a culture. It is an “anti-culture.” This is a bald-faced Thwackumist definition. Parson Thwackum, the famously dour killjoy priest from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. He had a peculiar way of defining religion: “When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.” Trueman, in effect, says much the same, but with a more dismissive sneer concerning popular culture. “I can’t recognize myself and my values in the culture anymore. It’s even inimical to my faith and way of life. Ergo, it’s not culture.” To my mind, that essay epitomizes why theologians should be required to take at least one cultural studies class, to avoid this kind of foolishness. This is our culture to which God has called us. Now. Not 50 years ago. Not pre-Obergefell. Now. As the cultural phrase goes, “Deal with it.” And when I mention dealing with it, I ​mean, engage.

But Trueman’s right when he says in another piece that the “church is not combating meaninglessness so much as offering an alternative meaning in a competitive marketplace. And the idioms of plausibility in that marketplace are themselves part of the problem.” I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about when he trivializes the cultural moment we find ourselves in by saying we’re trapped in a pleasure dome, an “anti-culture of immediacy” in which people simply crave orgasmic pleasure as a substitute for meaning. Such sentiments border on misanthropy that is unworthy Christian charity. And they’re just wrongheaded. Those in