The debate over cultural Christianity—its benefits, desirability, even its definition—usually happens along an illuminating but fruitless bifocal. For evangelical pastors, cultural Christianity is precisely what they are preaching against most Sundays. It is the spirit of easy believism, unregenerate membership, and theological indifference. But for evangelical thought-leaders and scholars, cultural Christianity is what makes institutional church life possible. Cultural Christianity suppresses antihuman philosophy and purifies, imperfectly but necessarily, the public square.
Both sides are right, which is why I find “Is cultural Christianity a good thing” a hopeless inquiry. Most of cultural Christianity’s value is, ironically, in its failure. We need cultural Christianity precisely to the extent that we do not have regenerate Christianity. “Are prosthetic limbs good” could be a question about the inherent desirability of limbs or prosthetics; the answer to the first question is, “Yes,” the answer to the second is, “No,” and that’s pretty much how I see the question of “Bible belt” culture. The less spiritual rebirth you have, the more value you will get from its ghostly societal imprint, and vice versa.
Interestingly, a visible example of how cultural Christianity interacts with society and the church is contemporary Christian music (CCM). I grew up on CCM, and at one point buying a CD at the local Family Christian Stores was a major part of my adolescent life. I was just old enough to enjoy the prime of bands like Jars of Clay and dc Talk, and to be part of the early bandwagon for folks like Relient K and Sonicflood. If I was in the car, Christian Family Radio WCVK was on the air, and any free Friday night was spent listening to their 3-hour Christian alternative show. My days of CCM fandom were a sliver of time in which encountering my favorite music was communal and serendipitous, dependent on discs and FM stereos instead of broadband and $12.99/month. I loved it. It’s gone forever.
CCM’s heyday came about not mostly because of authentic spiritual fervor, but because of cultural Christianity. This is not to say that most CCM artists were/are not really Christians. But the subcultural institution known as CCM was distinct from the spiritual authenticity of Christian performers; it was maintained and executed by agents, musicians, record label executives, marketers, and others whose goal was to participate in a thriving niche subculture rather than to do evangelism or worship.
I remember back in the day that people would write in to CCM review website and magazines and complain whenever a negative review of an album would publish. These folks argued that Christians ought not criticize “the ministry” of another band or artist; who are we to say what God can’t use? But even as a teenager I knew intuitively that this was some kind of category error. A Stacie Orrico or Plus One album wasn’t a “ministry” in the sense that we usually mean by the word. It was a product, a cultural artifact, and by releasing it an artist was submitting their work to standards of excellence that were in CCM’s best interest to maintain. And here’s the main point: These standards did not emerge organically from within evangelical Christianity or even CCM. They were a version of the standards of music criticism used by mainstream pop culture. This kind of synthesis between pop and Christian culture was the essence of CCM.
Cultural Christianity gave CCM its rationale and its market. Fundamentalist traditions eschewed all forms of modern music and viewed CCM as sinful, while many non-evangelical Christians simply listened to whatever was on FM radio. Then and now, CCM targeted an audience that wanted a Christianized version of mainstream society. It was often striking to me how self-aware CCM publications were about this. At one point in its history, CCM Magazine included a “Sounds Like” infographic in every album review. This was a very practical way to help readers decide what kind of cultural swap they wanted. Like Counting Crows but want gospel content? Try Caedmon’s Call. Interested in Matchbox Twenty but want worship lyrics instead of angsty relationships? Check out Big Tent Revival. It’s easy to sneer now at the unoriginality of it all, but the point is that this worked because it’s precisely what many CCM audiences wanted. When the Christian radio station describes itself as “Safe for the whole family,” this is what it means.
And it was good.
Cultural Christianity creates a tension. As an evangelical, I confess the need for conversion, regeneration, and a purified local church membership. But there are many things worth preserving in society that do not meet this criteria. Cultural Christianity is at its best when it creates and preserves imprints of the gospel in society, even if those imprints are themselves insufficient for total absorption by the church. CCM is an artifact of cultural Christianity. At its peak, it was a thriving Christian subculture wherein believers could produce art that unbelievers then wanted to sell and even sometimes buy. Christian teens were able to hear boy bands and heavy rockers sing about Jesus instead of sex because of an infrastructure maintained not by the church invisible but by a market.
The flip side of this, though, is that many who were not actually regenerated believed or acted as if they were. And that leads us to where a lot of headline performers from CCM’s heyday are now.
Jennifer Knapp, Derek Webb, Kevin Max, Dan Haseltine, Michael Gungor, and Jon Steingard are just a few of the CCM notables who have deconstructed or left the faith altogether. Tim Lambesis, the former lead singer for Christian alt band As I Lay Dying, was straightforward about just how Christian the Christian rock scene was: “We toured with more ‘Christian bands’ who actually aren’t Christians than bands that are. In 12 years of touring with As I Lay Dying, I would say maybe one in 10 Christian rock bands we toured with were actually Christian.” It’s not a coincidence that the stars of CCM’s peak days began publicly wrestling with faith around the same time that CCM lost its commercial foothold. In some of these cases, the work created the impetus for faith rather than vice versa; when the work was no longer as lucrative, the faith was no longer as rooted.
If the preserving power of gospel imprints is what makes cultural Christianity valuable, the potential for apostasy is what it makes it tragic. The decline of CCM has correlated almost exactly with the decline of nominal Christianity. As the public square turns hostile toward traditional Christian assumptions, the motivation for artists to create inside a Christian subculture evaporates. Just recently I read an interview with the lead singer of a Christian rock band, who was asked if he still thinks of the group as “Christian music.” He replied that he does not, because, even though he still has “spiritual beliefs,” he does not trust any organized religion (i.e., the church), and he does not want to exclude anyone through the label “Christian band.” This is precisely how people talk when they live and work in cultural Christianity, and recognize how it threatens to become a liability.
The drama of CCM is that it rode the high wave of evangelical subculture from the 1970s to the early 2000s, collapsing upon the rocks of the Internet and social transformation. The kind of cultural Christianity that made CCM vibrant and often life-giving has receded, possibly beyond recall. This is something to mourn, because it’s not clear that me that American evangelicals will ever again have access to the kind of artistic landscape that they did for two decades. This is the absence of a gospel imprint, and culturally we are the worse off for it.
But the decline of CCM subculture is not the decline of gospel music. In the last decade there has been a resurgence of artistry from deeply theological and reflective songwriters, such as Andrew Peterson, Sandra McCracken, CityAlight, and others. What’s more, the decline of cultural Christianity has been an occasion for Christian artists to turn their attention wholeheartedly toward the church, as the financial incentives to keep nominal belief on life support disappear but the spiritual incentives to encourage, entertain, and soothe fellow Christians rise. “Do you want cultural Christianity” is an interesting question, but it is quaint now. The real question is, “What do you want to take its place?”