Briefly Noted: On Jacques Barzun, Western Culture, and Public Theology

I will not easily forget the first time I encountered Jacques Barzun. During the very first seminar of my PhD program, I took a seminar on Christianity and Western culture. Dr. L. Russ Bush required a cornucopia of books, the fattest and most intriguing of which was From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, which Barzun published when he was 93-years-old. I’ve got the book in my hands right now. We were given two weeks to read it. It is 877 pages long and, accordingly, I took care not to read it in the evenings lest I fall asleep, drop it and crush myself to death. And, although the book had some wonderful moments, I thought it had some some dreadful quarters of an hour.

In a recent edition of The New Criterion, editor Roger Kimball reflects upon Barzun’s role as a public intellectual.[1] Barzun (1907-2012) was a presence on the American intellectual scene from the 1950s till his death this year. In his role as a professor at Columbia University, he was known as a teacher whose influence on his students was deep and pervasive. Also, to the point of this post, he “was a public intellectual before that role had been hollowed out by celebrity and the demotic faddishness of the 1960s” (p. 1). Barzun was the author of more than thirty books.

Kimball notes that Barzun’s earlier works established his public significance. Best-sellers such as Teacher in America (1945) and The House of Intellect (1959) “were part of an intellectual conversation that bridged the gap between academic and general culture in a way that fewer and fewer writers seem to manage” (p. 1). Yet, this is not code for “popular writer.” As the essay states, “Barzun was an academic expert who spoke the language of everyday life” (p. 1). What does this mean? “Barzun seems never to have succumbed to the intellectual’s chief occupational temptation of mistaking abstractions for the realities they adumbrate” (p. 2).

Barzun’s magnum opus is a case study in communicating across the often-growing gap between academia and broader culture. To provide one small example of his attempts to bridge the gap: In From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun argues that decadence had triumphed in numerous aspects of contemporary (21st century) life. Western nations spend billions of dollars on public education, motivated by a generic desire for social betterment, or maybe, personal excellence. All the while,

 “ . . . society pounces on any show of superiority as elitism. The same nations deplore violence and sexual promiscuity among the young, but pornography and violence in films and books, shops and clubs, on television and the Internet, and in the lyrics of pop music cannot be suppressed, in the interests of ‘the free market of ideas.’” (p. 2)

This decadence pervades not only popular culture, but also “the realms of social relations and politics” (p. 3). Though Barzun was quite negative in his diagnosis of modern culture, his prognosis was less negative. As the essay remarks, “decadence is no more inevitable than progress . . . One never knows what reparations await the touch of fresh energies” (p. 3). Thus the essay concludes with the note that Barzun’s very life is evidence of this.

My response is limited to two points. First, in relation to Barzun’s fine point that Western culture is in a state of decadence, the Western church must begin to recognize the need for faithful presence in every sector of American culture (the arts, the sciences, politics, economics, business, sports and entertainment). We must not devalue these sectors (by, for example, implying that the jobs that “really” matter to God are professional vocational ministry jobs). To do so implies that Christ is not Lord over those sectors, and that biblical Christianity does not speak to those areas of life. I am afraid that our evangelical churches have built such privatized and experiential theologies that we have little idea how to relate biblical truth to the pressing public issues of the day. Second, in relation to Barzun’s role as a “public intellectual,” we must hope and pray that our churches and seminaries will produce “public theologians,” who can speak with propriety and prescience to our current context, and lead our churches well in thinking about public issues. Just as Lewis, Chesterton, Schaeffer, and Neuhaus did in their day, so we must in ours.

[1] Roger Kimball, “Notes & Comments” in The New Criterion (Dec. 2012): 1–3.


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