On Highbrow Christianity

Opera, classical music, wine tasting, craft beer, classical languages and literature: all these things exemplify highbrow taste. Highbrow interests require education and development of the ability to appreciate certain things, so arts that only developed agrarian or industrial cultures can produce (opera, classical music, literary culture) are relative marks of superiority. Anybody can brew and guzzle beer, but not just anyone can write and analyze a symphony. Anyone can become a Christian, but not just anyone can explain the differences between infallibility and inerrancy, read the New Testament in Greek, or compare modern cults to historical heresies. Theologians are more hipster than hipsters: they were highbrow before it was highbrow to be highbrow about being highbrow.

Theologians, like scientists, talk about things that “the rest of us” do not understand, although we trust what they say because we can understand from simple observation of human stupidity that there are things greater than our understanding that make sense to people who understand them. While I love reading good theology, I read it because I want to be right. Although the gospel breaks down to “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so”, theologians battle up and down page after page, spilling bottles and bottles of ink while singing lusty songs of ecumenical councils long ago, pushing for greater clarity in truth about God. They figure out how to talk about God the right way in order to shut down heretics. Theology and apologetics buffs read up on all this stuff because they love God and want to get him right when they talk about him, and they wear the nerd badge with pride. However, not caring a bit for the true subject matter of theology, theology fops tote the latest volumes of hard core theology in order to show themselves to be highbrow Christians.

Christians can be all manner of highbrow: as petty as hymns vs. contemporary music and as serious as Calvinism vs. Arminianism. To quote an XKCD comic, “Our brains have just one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit.” Therefore, two people walled off for a year with 500 pictures of Vice President Joe Biden eating a sandwich will have an opinion on which pictures are great and which pictures are not. Highbrow-types might lose touch with “lowbrow” interests and concerns because they spend a lot of time finely calibrating the scales in their brains. For people doing the work to become qualified highbrow opinion dispensers, the work is rewarding and well worth being labeled tea-sucking pinky sticker-outers. Even if they get big headed and snobbish, at least they put in the work to deeply love something good. For people doing the work to merely become perceived to be highbrow, they deserve to be mummified in labeling tape. Even if they are surrounding themselves with good things, they do not love much beyond themselves.

Intellectual Christianity is great stuff. It is comforting to know that there are serious answers for why experimentation with interpretive dance sermons is a terrible idea. Because theology also touches upon the way that church is done, church government, and how people do ministry, highbrow-types turn up a nose at certain ways of doing church that many might find to be acceptable. They might condemn church music, paraphrase Bible translations, and Christian fiction as being too light and insignificant or poorly reflective of the glory of God. I have even heard of people converting to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy because they wanted to condemn “lowbrow” evangelicalism, with highbrow interests leading them to desire something more visibly connected to history and what they read about in books than what they experience in some non-denominational church. While people swimming the Tiber or the Bosporus may certainly do so just for the highbrow kick, highbrow-types remain evangelical Protestants for similarly highbrow reasons. When some Protestants criticize the use of icons in worship, they make blank church walls a venerably highbrow institution.

Highbrow pursuits are good for their own sake and for the sake of the benefits that they bring to the Church as a whole, but the Church needs more producers of highbrow content and not merely more consumers. Not every pastor will write books for a readership base as large as John MacArthur or John Piper, but theological writing and discussion are good signs of a church’s interest in the deep things of God. As a matter of fact, the highbrow label can be insulting: no one ever tells a doctor successfully treating them for cancer that they thought too much about the human body. While the lowbrow-types should recognize the accomplishments of the highbrow-types, there are reasons why the smart kid in school earns himself a swirly now and then. Intellectuals can save themselves from arrogance by resigning their commissions as critics and taking up the brush of an artist instead, also saving highbrow Christianity by putting it to work for the good of the whole Church. Sure, Christians should reasonably aspire to be highbrow. Being highbrow represents development. Even so, highbrow-types should also be very comfortable with asking, “Do you want fries with that?”