Blurring the Boundaries: Between Religion and Culture
"If a person who had been deeply moved by the mosaics of Ravenna, the ceiling paintings of the Sistine Chapel, or the portraits of the older Rembrandt, were asked whether his experience had been religious or cultural, he would find the question difficult to answer..." -Paul TillichI never used to be bothered by the fact that there is actually a genre of music generally referred to as "Christian," or even that listeners of that genre often refer to every other genre as secular. Indeed, those distinctions were once part of my vocabulary - and still are part of it when for the sake of conversation it's just easier to use them. However, in more recent years, I've been struck and even frustrated by the implications of using those distinctions.
What makes music "Christian" or "secular"? Does Christian music bear the name simply by virtue of its mentioning "Jesus" or saying "hallelujah" even if it lacks creativity, honesty, beauty and all the other elements over which the Christian gospel might actually bear some claim? Is it really properly Christian even if it fails to move us? Is secular music still just secular if it does move us - if it is beautiful, creative, honest, and even transcendent?
If we explore questions like these, the lines between sacred and secular might begin to blur a little. Questions like these seem to be behind the scenes of Paul Tillich's essay "Between Religion and Culture" (from his short book, On The Boundary). He is not impressed or satisfied with exclusive lines, drawn between cultural experiences and religious experiences. He is not interested in searching for God only in the places which are deemed "spiritual" or "sacred," but wants to advocate a spirituality (for lack of a better term) which finds God in the mundane, which sees the "unconditioned" in the places which "have only conditioned meaning in themselves" (On The Boundary, p.69).
"...Culture is the form of religion," says Tillich. This is so because people are planted in the soil of their culture. Religious experience, as it were, happens in the space which people inhabit. There's no space which God has deemed intrinsically preferable for religious experience. When God spoke to Moses through a burning bush, telling him to remove his sandals for the ground was holy, it was not in a church or in a temple but out in the world, on a mountain. There is no intrinsically sacred or profane sphere. "In the presence of the Unconditioned..., there is no preferred sphere... The profane can profess the quality of holiness, and the holy does not cease to be profane" (71). In a sense, perhaps, this is a reality expressed in the tradition of the Eucharist - when bread and wine become body and blood without ceasing to be bread and wine. "...The unconditioned character of religion becomes far more manifest if it breaks out from within the secular, disrupting and transforming it... The dynamic dimension of the religious is betrayed when certain institutions and personalities are considered to be religious in themselves" (72). When music, for example, is considered to be intrinsically religious or "Christian" as opposed to profane or "secular," then the "dynamic dimension of the religious" and the transcendent potential of the mundane is undermined. The soil in which people are planted goes untended and, tragically, ironically, sacredness itself is lost.
This is what I've learned from folks like Derek Webb and Rob Bell... and, more recently, from Paul Tillich.