Anyone who has ever played a round of team trivia knows the frustration of missing facts. Sure, you may be able to remember who the 30th president of the United States was (Calvin Coolidge) or which actress has the most Academy Award wins (Katharine Hepburn, with four). But there’s always one question. The real stumper. The bit of minutia that comes later in round two, which no one in the place knows for sure—the question that will clearly decide the winner. When it comes, there’s no one better to have on your team than Micah Mattix—Associate Professor of English and communication studies at Regent University, a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard, and the editor of Prufrock, a daily e-newsletter on books, art, and ideas.
Whether it’s the history of British spy craft, the beauty of topographical maps, how bioluminescence works, Roman artifacts, or Russian novels in translation, he’s interested in it. A true Renaissance man, Mattix is comfortable discussing everything from American art to zoology. He recently talked with us about the importance of cultural engagement in a Christian’s life and what we can do to live more thoughtfully.
Jamie A. Hughes:
Tell me a bit about your journey of learning.
I'm a little bit of a junkyard dog in academics. When I was an undergrad, I studied math and economics. My wife, whom I met in Bible school, is from Switzerland. We got married, and my first job in Switzerland was teaching English at a small school. Also, I've always enjoyed reading, so I took literature classes as well as mathematics.
To my mind, everything is connected, and one of the great things about the Christian tradition is, we have a foundation for seeing the world in that way, because it all goes back to one Creator. For that reason, I think Christians naturally tend to see everything as connected, whereas the world we live in sees things as disconnected and specialized. That’s one of the things the Christian worldview offers people.
Some Christians are hesitant to engage with culture. Why do you think that is?
In American culture, for some reason there's this division between the life of the mind and the life of business. We feel the two are somehow incompatible. As Christians, it's really important to both critique the culture and recommend what's valuable. Unfortunately, Christians tend to do just the disdaining part. Augustine famously said Christians have to “take the gold out of Egypt,” meaning you save what's valuable from secular culture because God made it all. Ultimately, it's His gold. We just need to reshape it—hopefully not into a calf but into the temple.
It's really important to both critique the culture and recommend what's valuable. Unfortunately, Christians tend to do just the disdaining part.
What do you make of the saying “Christians should be in the world but not of it”?
I think it's a very freeing phrase. If Christians don't feel that it's descriptive—either the “in the” part or the “of the” part—there’s a problem. Yes, Christ will redeem the world, but the world's still going to be there. It's going to be redeemed, so the things that we're doing now, of work and engaging in culture-making, I don't believe those will go away. Christ will make creation whole, make us and our bodies whole. We’re still going to be using these bodies for praise. We should have the same sort of motivation in our spiritual lives that we do in our professional and cultural lives. We cannot blur the distinction between those things; instead, we must ultimately recognize that the physical world—what we do with our minds and our hands—is a spiritual act of worship. “In the world, not of the world” is a phrase that should encourage Christians to cultivate the whole person.
If someone is just beginning to engage with the world through culture, how would you recommend he or she begin?
I’d start by reading some classics, works that generations of readers and writers have found worthwhile. I would also encourage everyone to subscribe to a cultural magazine, to begin reading outside of your normal reading material to come in touch with and begin to exercise discernment and judgment. Also, find like-minded people. Discussing with other people what you read and discover is really helpful, whether it’s a reading group or just a group of friends. And ultimately, you can apply what you learn to reading Scripture.
We are language users. Part of what it means to be a person is to employ words, and not just to share information. Not just to buy things and sell things. It's not just a tool; it's actually a gift that's part of God's character—language-using. As humans, we should all be on the path of trying to cultivate clarity, trying to develop our capacity for nuance, for holding two ideas in our mind at the same time and making distinctions. We must look for opportunities to take pleasure from words, which we all do in different ways.
We should all be on the path of trying to cultivate clarity, trying to develop our capacity for nuance, for holding two ideas in our mind at the same time and making distinctions.
Individual Christians can certainly strive to be more learned and well-informed, but what about the church at large? What should churches do to foster this discipline in their communities?
Churches can encourage members to read books outside the Bible and have discussions. For example, I taught a Sunday school class in our church called “The Bible and Poetry.” We read key biblical passages, and then we studied poems by people like John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Young, and Gerard Manley Hopkins as we would a commentary. Churches have no problem doing a Bible study on the latest book by a popular pastor, so why not study a faithful poet in order to enrich and expand our faith?
Our world is fast, loud, and distracting—and getting more so by the day. Most people agree this is an issue, but a lot of folks seem to have given up. How can we resist these tendencies?
That's maybe a million-dollar question, isn’t it? Limiting time with tech and distractions is okay, but it's better to replace them with something else. Christians should focus not just on abstaining, but doing so in order to choose something better. Paul calls us to choose what's excellent, not just what's good, right? Play board games with your kids at an early age and read with them to cultivate the habit; this is not something that you can just turn on. It's something that has to be learned. On your lunch break, go to a museum and walk around an exhibit rather than read stuff on your phone. Instead of watching TV on your lunch break, eat in a cemetery where it’s quiet and you can immerse yourself in the beauty of the natural world.
What is the possible outcome for the church and American culture at large if we don’t place a greater emphasis on living a thoughtful life?
Firstly, God is faithful to His promises, and He will continue to build His church, regardless of what we might do or not do. However, there's opportunity for the church to be what it was in the Middle Ages—a repository for knowledge. Right now, Christian beliefs are not in the majority across Western Europe, and it's only going to decline. We’re living in an increasingly secular time. There’s a lot of superficiality out there these days, and declining standards in education across the board. But a secular, materialist view has a very impoverished vision of mankind. Christians can be what the early church was—a body that had an expansive, larger, complete view of humankind and was responsible for saving and for passing on the wisdom of other groups who didn't necessarily profess faith. Perhaps that could be the future of the church. Here's the reality: We have the opportunity today to live more broadly—in the way God intended—and we’re missing out if we don't do just that.