Scruton vs. Carson on Culture

Roger Scruton, Culture Counts (2007) 1-2 and 106:

By “culture” I mean what has been called “high culture”–the accumulation of art, literature, and humane reflection that has stood the “test of time” and established a continuing tradition of reference and allusion among educated people.

[T]he attempt to build a realm of intrinsic value–and that is what a culture really is.

D. A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited (2008) 1:

Not very long, “culture” commonly referred to what is now meant by “high culture.” … Today, “culture” has become a fairly plastic concept that means something like “the set of values broadly shared by some subset of the human population.” That’s not bad, but doubtless the definition could be improved by a bit of tightening.

To which Scruton replies, 2:

The culture of a civilization is the art and literature through which it rises to consciousness of itself and defines its vision of the world. All civilizations have a culture, but not all cultures achieve equal heights.

Carson again in a footnote, 3:

Here I am parting from many older treatments [i.e. T. S. Eliot], which, despite their heuristic value, subtly assume some notion or other of “high” culture.

But Scruton defends Eliot, 13-14:

A culture consists of all those activities and artifacts which are organized by the “common pursuit of true judgment,” as T. S. Eliot once put it. And true judgment involves the search for meaning through the reflective encounter with things made, composed, and written, with such an end in view.

As I referenced previously and as these two men demonstrate, there are two sides in the church’s culture wars. Scruton’s side allows him room to oppose pop music (for one among several examples see pages 60-65 in Culture Counts), but Carson’s leaves music alone. The first camp makes judgments about architecture, art, and literature while the second seems quick to find reflections of common grace in inferior works.

This debate enters the church every Sunday in the form of musical styles, architecture, and personal appearance. It touches economic and political philosophy (though the two sides probably have most everything in common here).

But what we shouldn’t deny is that the tension exists. Rather, the times call for a sober investigation of first principles surrounding–it would appear–even the very definition of culture and the fabled existence of that dreadful beast, high culture.

This entry was posted in Multiculturalism, Orthopathy, Quotes and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Scruton vs. Carson on Culture

  1. Keith Call says:

    Why shouldn’t an adequate definition of culture not include both “high” and “low” influences? In the end, it’s all worldliness, as scripture call it. It is the accumulation of the ways of fallen mankind, which Christians must navigate until Christ’s “new world order” is established.

    • Seth Meyers says:

      Last night, a wedding ceremony in our village lasted until late into the evening and even early morning hours. A kind of music that was heavily synthesized, dogmatically bass-driven, and laughably repetitive including electronically modified voices shouting boomed through our village and disrupted my family’s sleep.

      Today one of our church members didn’t meet with the believers because he was helping with the music at this party.

      Is this the way Christians should celebrate a conjugal union? Does this represent the beauty of Christian entertainment? If people are converted should they leave this style, or embrace it? Should we use music like this in worship? One way, I think the most enduring way, to answer these (and other) questions is by accurately getting your arms around the subject of culture.

      The debate between men like Carson and Scruton matters because Scruton provides a way to critique art forms; Carson provides a way to critique propositions.

      • Keith Call says:

        I don’t disagree, but I do wonder about allowing someone like Scruton, who does not exhibit the kind of robust, confessional faith that Bible-believing, conservative Christians normally affirm, define the parameters of conservative “Christian” culture.

  2. Jesse says:

    This is interesting, thanks for laying it out.

    I don’t think see the problem with Scruton and Eliot’s thinking that Carson does. The major difference is not in between definitions of cultures, but rather in the question of whether a culture can be judged. As Mohler has lately made clear, it is an Evangelical virtue to refuse to judge. Scruton, on the other hand, thinks this is of utmost importance. Lack of critical judgments about culture lead to decadence.

    We should remember that Eliot began with a much broader definition of culture and then specified contexts and realms of culture. Culture is the incarnation of the religion of the people. Culture is a personal thing, it is a familial thing, it is a church thing, a community thing, and it is even a national thing. Now, with mass communication, one could argue that it crosses barriers of language and nationality. In other words, even though Eliot focused most of his attention on the larger spheres of culture, he wasn’t confused about the nature of the smaller ones (family, church, etc.).

    Scruton seems to follow Eliot’s emphasis on high culture, perhaps to a fault. Scruton’s definition of culture could be taken to mean his definition for the purposes of that book, which deals with high culture.

    I think Eliot’s basic definition, “Culture is the incarnation of one’s religion,” encompasses all of these different spheres of culture and gets to the heart of the matter. What you do (manners and customs) and create (literature, art, music) are the incarnation of what you believe to be true of the world (religion). It isn’t the professed religion of a person that causes him to act the way he does – it is the religion that actually exists in his heart and mind.

    One need only look at the artifacts of culture to gain an understanding of the “collection of judgments” and religion of a people. What does the hip-hop crowd hold dear? What was important to Bach? Luther? What has the CCM crowd judged to be most important? What Rembrandt? Bosch? Kinkade? How do their works incarnate their metaphysical dreams?

    Anyway, I just found your blog, and am delighted!

    • Seth Meyers says:

      A solid line:
      “Lack of critical judgments about culture lead to decadence.”

      And a stinging paragraph:
      “One need only look at the artifacts of culture to gain an understanding of the “collection of judgments” and religion of a people. What does the hip-hop crowd hold dear? What was important to Bach? Luther? What has the CCM crowd judged to be most important? What Rembrandt? Bosch? Kinkade? How do their works incarnate their metaphysical dreams?”

      In another place, Carson offers that religion may be a fruit of culture, whereas Eliot and those of his ilk say that religion is the taproot that produces, as you called them, “artifacts of culture.” If religion is at the base of things, then Christians should exercise more caution in dealing with culture. If religion is more of a fruit than a root, we can be a little less exact in our treatment and still be satisfied that we are faithful stewards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *