As humans, it’s hard for us to know with any sense of certainty where we are in history. The narrative ribbon that connects age to age is knitted with intergenerational strands that are longer than our lifetimes. But there are moments, ripples in our collective fabric, in which societies advertise their own watersheds. Think about the late ’60s and early ’70s in this country. Walter Cronkite reporting on The Beatles’ impact in America, a cultural evolution invading the news. You say you want a revolution, well, you know…
Jayson Whitehead’s feature this week intertwines the personal account of a writer struggling with the legacy of his conservative Christian upbringing with interviews of local artists whose faith drives them, even if it doesn’t necessarily pervade their work. To give the narrative context, Jayson talks about American Christianity’s struggle to cope with the challenge the ’60s presented.
The world had gotten too big for a thinking person to believe only a Christian could be redeemed. Absolute moralities didn’t hold up to a fast-moving cultural landscape in which -isms implicated the righteous and the damned alike. But more than anything else, it was the gospel of self-realization and self-expression that emptied the churches. All you need is love.
There used to be jokes, back when it mattered, about the fact that there is no one American Christian experience. A Baptist, an Episcopalian, and a Lutheran walk into a bar… In my lifetime, popular Christianity has experienced a mostly non-denominational resurgence with a practical, family-oriented message that has borrowed heavily from the narrative of the early church and its war against Hellenic culture and the Roman Empire. But American Christianity has mostly left the intellectual, artistic, and philosophical edges of our world alone in favor of stabilizing its congregational value systems.
The artists in Jayson’s story, and no doubt the communities that support them, are trying to accomplish something more ambitious by asking us to imagine there’s a Jesus.