The intertwining of the two cities in this present age helps us to realize “culture” isn’t something that sits obediently outside the church door waiting to be let in; it forms us inside the church too, whether we like it or not. And the separate destinies of the two cities remind us that, however comfortable late-modern assumptions feel (and we’re fooling ourselves if we think we aren’t late moderns), they’re not our home and we must be ready to critique them.
Tell me if this scenario sounds familiar. Society is divided into die-hard factions that seem to do little but shout at each other. A self-congratulatory rhetoric of freedom and openness thinly veils a dogmatic, authoritarian demand of reverence to the idols of our age. Political and economic forces conspire to sustain a lifestyle for the elite. And a society that assures itself of having moved beyond superstition and lives on “the right side of history” is riddled with a host of bizarre superstitions and archaic assumptions.
Welcome to the world of fifth-century Rome: the complex, tottering, divided, and self-contradictory society in which Augustine wrote his famous work of social and political theory, The City of God. The bishop of Hippo’s treatise offers a compelling pattern for cultural critique that still holds up.
Here are six tools from Augustine’s masterwork that can help us deepen and develop the ways we engage modern culture.
1. Be an inside outsider.
Augustine hasn’t simply read a cheat sheet on late Roman culture. He knows it intimately from the inside, and it shows. He has lectured on rhetoric in Carthage and Rome, and he can quote Cicero with genuine admiration. He isn’t writing about Roman culture just so he can perform a cheap takedown; he understands why it sparkles to those who claim it as their own.
But Augustine is also an outsider. Yes, he’s North African, from Tagaste in modern-day Algeria, and yes, he has a Christian mother and pagan father, but what puts him on the outside of Roman culture more than anything else is his allegiance to Jesus Christ.
Our own approaches to cultural engagement tend to make us choose between “sensitive insider” or “valiant outsider.” Augustine shows us the importance of combining the two.
2. Critique the whole culture.
Augustine doesn’t assess isolated trends within late Roman culture. Instead, he engages with deep structures and fundamental assumptions: the culture’s virtues as well as its vices, its piety as well as its philosophy, its political environment as well as its popular entertainment. The City of God isn’t a SWAT team parachuting in to tackle one particular cultural bogeyman; it’s a police force ranging over the full length and breadth of Roman society.
It’s important to realize that no one had done this before. As Augustine scholar Charles Mathewes notes, The City of God marks “a very crucial moment in the development of what we can call a critical mindset toward the received and unreflective inhabitation of a given social world.” In other words, all comprehensive social and critical theories trace their roots back to Augustine.