Culture War Strategy

Discerningthe Times: Why We Lost the Culture War and How to Make a Comeback

SYNOPSIS

We lost the culture war, not because we had bad arguments forthe positions we espoused, but because we had already lost it on the morefundamental ground of hermeneutics. Focused on theology, philosophy, ethics,and politics, we paid insufficient attention to changes taking place in ourcolleges in how reading and writing were taught. The old grammatico-historicalexegesis, the attempt to discover the author’s message to his originalaudience, was replaced by a new view in which authorial intention is irrelevantat best and meaning is in the eye of the beholder. When people are taught toread this way, the authority of all cultural texts—including our foundingdocuments and Scripture—is undermined, so that even good arguments fortraditional values lose their traction. To reverse this defeat, we mustrecognize the importance of reading and how it is taught. You cannot win thebattle for theology or ethics if you have lost the battle for philology.


The culture war is over. We (the Christian Right) lost.

OK, maybe it’s not quite over, and we’re only losing—albeitrather badly. If you quibble over the difference, you will miss the point.

It was a war we were right to fight, for no one who loves hisneighbors can be indifferent to how they will be affected by harmfuldegradations of the culture that surrounds them. But we ought to havefought it very differently. We fought for many of the right things, butoften not in a wise or loving way. We were generally right, and we oftenargued well, but we lost anyway. How did that happen? Why did it happen?It happened because we didn’t understand where the real battle wasuntil it was too late. We probably don’t get it yet. Here’s what I mean.

WHERETHE BATTLE WAS

The founding documents of the American republic, from theMayflower Compact to the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution, wereon our side. They really were. Nobody cares. Nobody can even tell. Nobodythinks it matters. We lost the culture war on that score because we lost itearlier on the even more basic front of hermeneutics.

We lost, in other words, because we did not pay sufficientattention to changes taking place in our schools and colleges in the waywriting and reading are taught. A major shift has taken place there over thepast century, one with serious implications for every other issue we deal with.Typically, the Constitution—like any literary document studied in our secularschools, including the Bible—no longer has any objective meaning given to it byits authors. It means whatever the “interpretive community” (in the case of theConstitution, five out of nine people in black robes) thinks they need or wantit to mean. That is a huge problem in itself, but we have an even bigger one:our fellow citizens are fine with this procedure. Why wouldn’t they be? It ishow they were taught to read themselves.

Many Christian scholars and Christian institutions of highereducation did not stand against this new view with sufficient rigor or energy.Why not? Many Christians either did not understand or just shrugged theirshoulders at, or even welcomed, this change in how we read the world. Some evenrejoiced in it as an improvement over the hated “modernism” they thought hadtaken over the Christian movement. How foolish! But we allowed it to happenbecause its earlier manifestations did not seem to be a threat. After all, theywere happening in “English,” not in theology or philosophy, and in the readingof “artistic” works—novels, short stories, plays, poems—rather than “serious”political, legal, or religious texts. And who cares what a bunch of effeteaesthetic snobs do with incomprehensible texts that don’t matter anyway?

And so in the secular academy, the Old Way—the attempt tounderstand what an author was trying to say to his original audience, believingthat what they would have gotten out of his work must be the authoritativestarting point for discussing the “meaning” of that work—was abandoned asnaïve, unworkable, even perverse. This banishment of authors from their owntexts was first crystallized by the “New Critics” of the mid-twentieth centuryin their concept of the “intentional fallacy”: just pay attention to what the text saysin itself, they argued reasonably; the author’s intention for it, whatever thatmight have been, is a misleading distraction in the process of interpretation.The New Critics’ emphasis on “close reading” of the details of the text itselfwas sound. But wait: did scholars such as W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley1 andthe teachers who followed them intend for us to focus on thetext as a thing in itself rather than as an act of communication by its author?Ahem.

The aestheticism of New Criticism, its focus on works of art,masked for a while the ideological use that could be made of this newauthor-free way of reading, not only in other texts but also in the literaryworks themselves. So most Christian English professors simply picked up thisapproach to literary texts with never a thought as to what would happen if someof its presuppositions were applied to other texts. And indeed for a while“close reading” produced genuine insights into the texts as works of literaryart. But meanwhile, the exile of the author found its fulfillment in the “deathof the author” espoused by current postmodern theorists. (But wait again: ifauthors such as Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes really believe in the “deathof the author” that they espouse, why do their names appear on the spines oftheir books?) Now the very distinction between literary texts and other textshas broken down. Now all texts can be mined for their aesthetic value or theirideological usefulness or anything else the critic wants to find in them. Theone thing those texts cannot do—are not permitted to do—is to allow ourancestors to share with us the wisdom of the past. The “chronological snobbery”C. S. Lewis warned us about now reigns supreme.

The end result is that today if you try to apply the old method,the search for the author’s meaning (technically called“grammatico-historical exegesis”), to any cultural document, people stareblankly at you as if you were speaking a foreign language. That is one of themajor reasons why, even when we had good arguments on the more recognizableissues in what was called the culture war, those arguments had no traction.People simply walked on by as if nothing had happened. To them, nothing had.

Sadly, this blank stare is not limited to “secular” peopleoutside the church. I can tell you that it occurs on the faces of many studentsin conservative Christian colleges. They may tell you something very differentwhen off guard in the cafeteria from what they put by rote on theirhermeneutics exams to please their professor. Outside of class, they take it asa self-evident truth needing no support that readers create meaning in,rather than receiving it from, the text.Readers—not authors. These students don’t know  it, but they have pickedup by osmosis the epistemological skepticism of postmodern hermeneutics. Readers,not authors, are the source of meaning. Authors have no authority. Theirpresence at the moment of “text construction” has no historical orhermeneutical relevance. That would (horrors!) interfere with the freedom ofthe interpreter. The “free play of the mind in the text” trumps all otherconsiderations.

These students don’t know any of the jargon, but they haveabsorbed the assumptions. And few of their professors are equipped to challengethose assumptions.

Their more conservative Bible professors can refute the oldhigher criticism but not the new hermeneutic, and their English professors hadto spend their graduate careers pretending to take the chic nihilism ofpostmodern “theory” seriously if they wanted to get their degrees.2Not allof them came through that experience unscathed, and many had never been toldthat any other view was even possible. Yet they are often hired to teach inChristian-college English departments because they exude all the expectedsubjective pieties, and administrators do not know how to ask the questionsthat could expose the fact that their approach radically undermines the verybasis of those pieties.

Now, no matter what you say, even if you still call the Biblethe Word of God and think yourself a loyal son or daughter of the church, onceyou have adopted this view, authority has been transferred from the biblicaltext to you, the individual. Not only is there nothing to stop you fromremaking the text (or the natural world, in the case of the gay rights cadre)in your own image; you have actually been taught that it is your right to doso, and that so doing is unavoidable, even virtuous. Biblical authors cannot bemade an exception to this principle when it rules the mind unchallenged.

Yes, we have lost the culture war, and many of us have no ideahow badly and how deeply! Many of our own children, even the pious ones, aremore influenced by the culture at this critical point than by the church or theChristian tradition. Can this influence be unrelated to the fact that accordingto many studies they are only marginally better than the world in theirpractice of Christian morality? Readers empowered to create their ownsubjective meaning rather than exhorted to find the objective meaning leftbehind by the author are foxes put in charge of the henhouse when fallen humannature runs up against the demands of the Law of God.

WHERETHE BATTLE IS

So we lost. All right, what do we do now? Most importantly, werealize that the battle is never finally lost because Christis sovereign and He is coming back. Those facts guarantee long-term victory. Inthe short term, since we do not know when He is coming back, we are to befaithful while He tarries and occupy until He comes. Therefore, the battle wehave just lost must be followed by another one that we fight moreintelligently, with a better recognition of our strategic position. Having lostthe battle for faithful reading, we also have lost the cultural privilege andinitiative we once enjoyed. We no longer command anything perceived by ourpeers as moral high ground. We are no longer defending the received tradition;we are now trying to come from behind. We are the new Moral Minority. Ourposition is now much more like that of our brothers in the old Roman Empire,except that instead of being the edgy new challenging Way coming in, we are nowperceived as the outmoded fuddy-duddies being swept aside. A four-prongedstrategy is needed in the situation in which we now find ourselves.

SpeakOut

First, in response to this situation, we should not do what someare doing, and give up or surrender or try to retreat back into our privatereligious ghetto. We should continue to advocate biblical positions publically,even politically, because they are right, wise, good, and the only policiesconducive to healthy human thriving in the long run. The unpopularity ofbiblical positions that are pro-life, protraditional marriage, orpro-traditional family is simply an indicator of how badly those views need proclamation and defense. But we can no longer pretend that they are a defaultsetting, or that they are in any way privileged because there was once aconsensus more or less in their favor. That situation belongs to anincreasingly remote past. Failure to recognize this fact is one of the reasonswe keep losing. We’re still fighting yesterday’s battles.

Teach aProper Perspective

Second, we must prioritize reading and hermeneutics, and the waythey are taught, as keys to our ability to witness effectively to the truth inall other areas. You cannot very well argue that traditional marriage or thesanctity of life should be normative if norms are inconceivable to youraudience as anything other than arbitrary impositions of power. Norms cannot beconceivable as anything other than arbitrary impositions of power if meaning(not to mention truth) is by definition in the eye of the beholder. So if youlive in an environment where the very act of reading as taught by almost allthose who should be our most proficient readers (i.e., English professors)seems to undercut the very concept of determinative meaning and reinforce theabsolute sovereignty of the individual, you will have a hard time making normsseem conceivable, much less believable. When truth is nothing more than a fluidmiasma of shifting perspectives, the exclusive claims of Christ might beaccepted by a few but cannot be taken seriously by anyone.

We therefore need to be much more vigilant against all forms ofthe postmodern “hermeneutic of suspicion” and much more aggressive in makingthe case for authorial intent as the foundation of textual meaning. Can authorscommunicate with their readers in their texts? The people who tell you theycannot are saying this in texts in which they are doing, quite successfully,the very thing they deny is possible! The ultimately self-refuting nature ofsuch a stance is something we need to hammer relentlessly. The Englishprofessor who believes that authors can communicate with their readers is nowthe most needed missionary on the planet, and sending him or her into thesecular academy (or even the Christian school) is the most strategic missionstrategy we can mount.3

Sadly, the church herself has become a mission field in thisarea. Does the Christian college you support have people on its English facultywho piously believe that deconstruction (for example) is just one more neutraltechnique to be applied to texts, that it is something Christians should “takeseriously” and “learn from”? (Not that I am advocating ignorance of it. Peopleshould be aware of the poisons in their cabinet!) You would be surprised at howmany do. If you hire such people or contribute to their salaries or send youryoung people to study under them, you are aiding and abetting the Enemy. It isno exaggeration to say that the result will be more debased definitions, moralrelativism, and brutally slaughtered babies.

TheImportance of Art in Communication

Third, we must recognize the crucial role of the imaginationalongside reason in cultural apologetics. Failure to take seriously theimportance of literary art (and all the arts) in the formation of human mindsand hearts was one of the reasons we were blind to the shift that took theground out from under our feet until it was too late. We must not forget thatthe greatest apologist of the twentieth century was the greatest not onlybecause he gave us the rational arguments of Mere Christianity and Miracles butalso because he showed us what they looked like incarnate in the Chronicles of Narniaand the Space Trilogy—and most of all because in him reason and imaginationwere seamlessly integrated in one unified vision of the wholeness and thewholesomeness of Christian truth. We need more advocates who have learned suchwholeness from writers such as C. S. Lewis.

How is such integration relevant to the culture wars?Exhortations to sexual faithfulness, for example, will be fully effective onlyif they flow from sound arguments for why God’s commands really are theexpression of His love for us rather than arbitrary prohibitions. And thoserational arguments will be fully convincing only if they are accompanied bycompelling portraits of such faithfulness that make it genuinely imaginable asthe only path to human thriving and fulfillment.4

WalkHumbly

Fourth, we must adjust our rhetoric to address the audience thatactually exists, not the one that was here two generations ago. We need to stopberating people for departing from a position they never held, and instead dothe hard work of evangelizing and discipling them from scratch. Maybe from lessthan scratch. They are jaded and cynical about what they think Christianity is,and that is partly our fault—not because we were wrong but because we were (andare) stupid in our approach.

Here’s an example of that stupidity: On my way to church I usedto pass a billboard proclaiming a meeting in which the Christian Right wasgoing to “take back America.” Have we no idea how this message comes across tothe multitudes of  on believers who read it on a public billboard? Itwould only reinforce all their worst stereotypes and prejudices about us. Evenas an in-house communiqué, it did not send quite the right message. We have to win Americaback before we can even begin to think of taking it back.

It’s finally about recognizing what the real battle is,something we have not been very good at. It is too late to preserve theAmerican republic (we have to restore it). We have lost theopportunity to appeal to the old consensus and we need to stop acting like itis still there. We need to continue our political opposition to atrocities suchas abortion and perversions such as same-sex marriage but we should stopputting any hope in it until we do better at the prior job of evangelism anddiscipleship. We cannot win the battles for theology, philosophy, ethics, andpolitics if we lose the battle for philology (literature and reading). If wedon’t understand these things, we will be fighting shadows on an empty fieldthe Enemy has already abandoned for juicier prizes.

Better to wise up now than later.

 

Donald T. Williams is R. A. Forrest Scholarand professor of English and apologetics at Toccoa Falls College in Toccoa,Georgia. He holds an MDiv and a PhD in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Anordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America, he has spentseveral summers training local pastors in East Africa and India for ChurchPlanting International. He is also the president of the International Societyof Christian Apologetics.


NOTES

  1. “The Intentional Fallacy,” in Critical Theory since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle (1966; repr., Boston: Wadsworth, 2005), 1027–34.
  2. For the fountainhead of postmodern theory, see Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Humanities,” in Critical Theory since Plato, 1206–15. For an excellent evangelical critique, see Alan Jacobs, “Deconstruction,” in Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal, ed. Clarence Walhout and Leland Ryken (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 172–98.
  3. For further discussion of how to make such a defense and mount such a strategy, see my books Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed. (Lynchburg, VA: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg, VA: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).
  4. For further discussion of how this kind of integration has been and can be done, see my book Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: B&H Books, 2006), and my article, “The World of the Rings: Why Peter Jackson was Unable to Film Tolkien’s Moral Tale,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 26, 6 (November/December 2013): 14–16.

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