In the introductory material, Clapp has noted many of the American characteristics that are in tension. In Chapter 2, he starts to get into the particulars, in this case the tension between lonesomeness and community. If there is anything that country singers are good at, it is “high lonesome.” And if there is anything else they are good at, it is love and affection for family, tradition, love, rootedness, and dirt roads, and place.
Much of this chapter, with Clapp serving as an astute cultural observer, is really valuable. It is good stuff, and what he keeps pointing out really is there. But his basic framework for understanding the intersection between biblical faith and culture keeps interrupting.
For example, the chapter concludes with an exhortation to us to adapt ourselves to a “democracy for grown ups.” But if Jesus has been banished from the democratic public square, who is Rodney Clapp, and why does he get to tell us to grow up? Suppose we don’t want to grow up?
When writers and thinkers banish any authoritative source for social standards, this does not keep standards from being imposed anyway. But it does mean that nobody can answer any questions about it. Just because, alright?
Whatever standards you banish out the front door, because there were Bible verses attached to them, you will have to smuggle in the back door later, surreptiously. Clapp objects to some high flown rhetoric that Ronald Reagan had used — “no limit to our reaches, no boundaries to what we can do, no end point to our hopes” (p. 36) — and he was right to object. This kind of thing tends to divinize America, which is idolatry. But that is my point. If Jesus is Lord over the public square, the sin of idolatry is possible. If Jesus is not Lord over of the public square, as Clapp has insisted He is not, then idolatry is not possible. So why does Clapp object to a sin in a location where he has declared that such a sin is not possible?
“Christian schooled in an Augustinian recognition of human realities can contribute much to a democracy for grown-ups. A democracy informed by Augustine’s enduring insights would demand a sober recognition of creatureliness and its limits . . . Creatures are not gods. We are contingent beings” (p. 37).
And Christians schooled in the inappropriateness of bringing their Augustinian recognitions into the public square will keep their mouths shut. Now Clapp has said earlier that he wants Christians speaking up as Christians in our public discourse. Yes, he does, but he has made it clear that we are not to speak in such a way as might convince everybody. We are suppose to offer our “it-seems-to-me,” and “in my personal opinion.” No talk whatever of Jesus being the Lord of this place because He, with His blood, bought all the nations of men.
This is connected to the reason for “Augustine’s enduring insights.” His insights have endured because they were built squarely on the gospel faith that Jesus is Lord. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, having been previously killed in the public square, we of all men are most to be pitied, and Augustine is one of our chief bumpkins. But if Jesus was raised from the dead, in public, in the face of the authorities, then we have a duty to talk about it until all the nations believe and are baptized.
Clapp is right that country music recognizes creaturely limits. But it does so for a reason — this is music that is coming out of the Bible belt, a region of our country that has been overwhelmingly Christian for centuries. And when you succeed in chopping down the tree, don’t come around next fall looking for the fruit.
One other point, less important than the above, but still worth noting. Clapp marks how country music values “hard work” that is “more producer oriented than consumer-oriented capitalism” (p. 38). He speaks of “the virtue of productive work and citizenship. Mature democrats are first and foremost productive citizens, not consumers” (pp. 38-39).
The way he states this makes me nervous. If he had simply been talking about true productivity, he would have qualified this more than he did. God put us into this world with one mouth and two hands, which means that we should produce more than we consume. If we do, we will have something to pass on to our children’s children, as Proverbs describes the righteous man. And incidentally, if there are any country music song writers reading this, “One Mouth, Two Hands” would make a great country song title. But, at the end of the day, I do have one mouth, and I do consume things with it. Nothing wrong with consuming things. God pointed the world out to Adam and said, “Go ahead. Eat it.” But in order to eat it, it must be cultivated first, and God has built the world in such a way as to ensure that we cannot outgive Him.
So we shouldn’t want to be producers only — which is what socialism always wants. Wants us to work hard with no real creaturely incentives because, after we put the economists in charge, all the grocery stores emptied out. Mysterious thing really. Nobody understands it. And we shouldn’t want to be consumers preeminently, sitting on our large American butts, yelling at our roommate to bring more Cheetos because HBO pro wrestling is about to start. That’s no good either.
The one who plows should plow in hope, St. Paul says. That hope is hope of sharing in the harvest. He works hard first, just like in the country songs, in order that he might, in the second place, sit down with his family at Thanksgiving and consume a bunch of things. Especially the potatos.
But from the quality of discussion about the public square that animates Christians these days, I conclude that our condition is desperate. We rarely produce careful biblical thought about the cultural mandate — an outstanding exception being found here — and we consume cliches like nobody’s business. What passes for biblical engagement in economics and culture and society these days is just a bunch of us sitting on our couch eating our intellectual Cheetos.