Why I Love Cultural Studies (At Least in Theory)

March 01, 2007

Why I Love Cultural Studies (At Least in Theory)

How can they (i.e. the gods) meet us face to face till we have faces? The idea was that a human being must become real before it can expect to receive any message from the superhuman; that is, it must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask, veil, or persona.1

 The academic field of Cultural Studies makes a lot of noise about there not being one immutable Truth, or no Absolutes, God, whom we worship, being a prime example. Postmodernism finds metanarratives which explain the human condition objectionable, because the last Western experiments with grand narratives ended up with the nuclear bomb and the totalitarian excesses of the 20th century. In place of grand narratives, Cultural Studies offers relentless pluralism and privileges the individual as the constructor of meaning. The discipline has thus acquired a pessimistic reputation as having nothing to offer the world because everything is relative and nothing is real any more; concepts like truth, beauty, justice are null and void. Cultural Studies, then, runs the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. By writing off grand narratives which attempt to explain the world, Cultural Studies makes the mistake of writing off God and his grand narrative which actually does explain the world and offers real freedom.

I should note that the Cultural Studies scholars I’ve had the privilege of working with firmly agree that real things happen in the world and there are real concepts out there worth fighting for. It’s not just a fancy language game in the end. The work of Cultural Studies, however, is to question the categories of truth, beauty and justice, and to uncover the assumptions that have supported these categories. Cultural Studies notes that the terms which have been used to define the debate over what is truth, beauty, justice are never disinterested. It seeks to expose what are frequently claimed to be universals as really the interests of a select group of people. And Christians should always be mindful of the dangers posed in this area.

Even though this strange beast of a discipline seems to question the possibility of freedom, it nevertheless has redeeming qualities: one of which is its persistence in pushing on towards the goal of freedom. To this end Cultural Studies concerns itself and aligns itself with ‘the other’: those persecuted, those maligned, those marginalised, those disempowered. Whenever the category of the ‘normal, the natural, the inevitable’ is constructed, those who do not fit this mandate are cast out and ‘othered’, though these people are our neighbours.

This is what I love about Cultural Studies: the political project of social justice it should share with Christianity. Once saved by Christ, Christians are free to serve. We are freed to fulfil the two great commands: love of God and love of each other. But we continue to fail at these, and if not for Christ interceding for us with God, all would be lost. Cultural Studies similarly exposes the ways we have failed to love our neighbours because of our inability to confront difference and embrace it, to acknowledge its existence and not subsume it into our own but love it for its own ends, love it for when it meets us, and also when it stands apart from us. But we have often failed miserably at loving our neighbour, and through failing this, we have failed to love God.

But God, in his grace, invites us to be free in Christ—to makes us real people. This freedom doesn’t mean we are unencumbered by everyone else’s concerns; we are actually freed to follow Christ’s example and serve others. When enslaved to God, ironically, man finds true freedom. If the Apostle Paul were alive today he might call this another instance of a ‘stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23).

Cultural Studies can yell all it wants about history being written by the winners and the Bible being written by the interest group which shouted the loudest, but the critique that Cultural Studies cannot make of Christianity is the sacrifice at the heart of it: the willing embodiment of a perfect God in human form who died to redeem a sinful world. The Bible’s message, of God’s rescue plan enacted through the ages, topped off with the ‘foolish’ gesture of self-sacrifice by God Himself in Christ, is irresistible and impossible to argue with, all the more so because at the Cross God becomes the wretched of the earth.

Andy Crouch writes that at the Cross:

... the other is met by the non-other; God becomes the other and endures the full experience of marginalization. When you call it “marginalization,” you realize what an awful piece of jargon that is—it doesn’t even begin to do justice to what was endured on the Cross and what it means to be the other. What it means to be excluded, what it means to be crucified on the garbage heap—this is what the central figure in the story, indeed, the Author, the Person with all the power in the story, embraced. And once you have met God at the Cross in the crucified Jesus, then you’ll never again imagine that this God is out to wield his power like a white male, because the Cross is where we discover that love is real and that power and love can go together without coercion.2

How can the gods meet us face to face till we have faces? Thank Christ for showing us His face, the face of God, and through our looking back and seeing him, making us real by the acceptance of his grace, and giving us a face with which to gaze upon the divine and not have our sinfulness blight his sight.


1 C. S. Lewis in a letter to Dorothea Conybeare, in Walter Hooper, C.S.Lewis: A Companion and Guide, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1996, p.252.

2 Andy Crouch. ‘The Antimoderns: Six postmodern Christians discuss the possibilities and limits of postmodernism.’ Christianity Today. 13 November 2000. available at http://www.christianitytoday.com/16169 accessed 6 November 2006

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.