On vacation in a western state last week, at Mass with my family, I was struck by the way in which liturgical inculturation takes place whether we like it or not. The homily at this Mass — which I suspect was inspired by SCOTUS’s recent DOMA decision, though gay marriage got only a passing mention — was on the need for Christians to be countercultural and for the Church to resist calls to “update” itself or “get with the times.” Rather, disciples of Jesus are called to let their faith shape their identity, not the culture; they should not try to fit in, but to stand out.

It struck me as a bracing and challenging, if somewhat un-nuanced, message, though I wished examples had been drawn from across the American political spectrum of cultural forces that were contrary to the Gospel. But what also struck me was the way in which the liturgical context of this homily was thoroughly adapted to American cultural sensibilities. The presidential style was fairly folksy — the homilist eschewing the ambo and preaching from the center aisle, the interjection of humorous ad libs at various places, etc. The music was entirely in the contemporary idiom and performed in a notably “pop” style (this was commented on by my wife and kids, so it wasn’t just grumpy old me). The building was modern in both style and layout (the formerly ubiquitous “fan” shape).

None of this was particularly bad. The architecture was actually pretty good; the music wasn’t my thing, but the congregation joined in with something approaching gusto; the presider’s folksiness seemed to draw the people into the Eucharistic action rather than draw attention to himself.

But I found myself wondering if the priest who was preaching such a rigorous counter-cultural message was himself aware of the rather thoroughgoing inculturation that the liturgy he was celebrating had undergone. Had he drawn for himself a distinction between cultural accommodation in doctrine and morals and inculturation in liturgy, rejecting the former while affirming the latter? Is such a distinction even tenable? Or is it the case the inculturation of doctrine, morals and liturgy is simply inevitable? Is it the case that even if we are trying to be countercultural, it happens anyway?

The state I was visiting has a long-standing problem with wildfires. For years, the policy was to prevent them entirely (remember Smokey the Bear?). But it eventually became clear that wildfires happen anyway, and that if they are suppressed too long the result is a fire that is far more destructive than otherwise, because so much flammable material had accumulated that it becomes impossible to stop the fire from destroying human life and property. So now the policy is to let some wildfires burn, and even occasionally to have a “controlled burn” in favorable weather conditions to reduce the possibility of a more destructive fire at another time.

The analogy is obvious. Maybe inculturation, like a wildfire, is not something to be either recklessly promoted or totally resisted, but rather something that happens anyway, something to be monitored and, when opportune, promoted in a controlled way and, when inopportune and even dangerous to the life of faith, suppressed (perhaps Rita’s recent post on the threat posed to Sunday by American culture might be an example). Of course, then the debate becomes one of how to discern the inopportune time from the opportune (for example, are Saturday anticipated Masses the beginning of uncontrolled destruction or rather a “controlled burn”).

But that is a much more interesting and realistic debate than one over whether we should prevent or promote something that happens anyway.

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