Posts tagged with: culture

My latest Acton commentary:

Do at-risk black males need to be emancipated en masse from America’s public school complex? A new study released about high school dropout and incarceration rates among blacks raises the question. Nearly 23 percent of all American black men ages 16 to 24 who have dropped out of high school are in jail, prison, or a juvenile justice institution, according to a new report from the Center for Labor Markets at Northeastern University, “Consequences of Dropping Out of High School.”

High school dropouts cost the nation severely. Not only are American taxpayers getting no return on the $8,701 we spend on average per student, each dropout costs us $292,000 over their lifetime in lost earnings, lower taxes paid, and higher spending for social programs like incarceration, health care, and welfare.

Given the many social pathologies plaguing black males in low-income and fatherless households, the best place for at-risk black males is not the dominant failed public school paradigm. Since public schools are forbidden to teach virtue and often reduce children to receptacles of information, expanding private and faith-based options to black parents is the only compelling solution.

The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), England’s chief education inspection agency, recently released a report lauding the attributes of faith schools. The report, “Independent Faith Schools,” examined the quality of formation provided by Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu religious schools. The inspectors found “pupils demonstrating an excellent understanding of spiritual and moral attributes.” In all the schools visited, “pupils gained a strong sense of identity and of belonging to their faith, their school and to Britain.” In other words, faith-based schools, by simply teaching about religion, are forming their students to be virtuous citizens.

Has America given up on making virtuous citizens out of black males? In England’s faith schools, “good citizenship was considered by all the schools visited to be the duty of a good believer because this honoured the faith,” the report says. In contrast, American public schools have become prisoner factories for at-risk black males. Because producing educated, virtuous citizens is unrelated to funding, the problem cannot be addressed by the simplistic expedient of increasing government allocations to education. The deeper problem is that the American education system seems no longer to value what faith schools in England are recognized for: producing students with good “spiritual, moral, social and cultural understanding.” (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, October 7, 2009

From the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 to Augustine’s City of God, the civitas is an enormously pervasive and rich biblical and theological theme. On the contemporary scene there area number of indications that evangelicals are looking more deeply and critically at engagement with the “city” as a social, political, ethical, and theological reality. This is part of the explicit vision of The King’s College in New York City, for instance, where Acton research fellow Anthony Bradley is currently a visiting professor of theology. At Houston Baptist University, the publication aptly named The City, “featuring leading voices in Christian academia and elsewhere on the critical issues of the times.”

North of the border, the Canadian think-tank Cardus has long examined the issues surrounding Christian cultural engagement, particularly within the dynamic matrix of what we call “cities.” Recently Cardus published critical perspectives from Darryl Hart and Nelson Kloosterman, “The Gospel and the City: What’s a Believer To Do?”

For a number of years now the Acton Institute has produced specialized conferences focused on the more specialized call to move “Toward a Free and Virtuous City.” The most recent installment of the “City FAVS” took place last month in Weehawken, New Jersey, and featured Dr. Bradley, Rudy Carrasco, Acton president Rev. Robert A. Sirico, and Michael Lee of Georgetown University.

As the Lord said to Jonah of that ancient capital, “But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

Zenit published my article on the pope’s new social encyclical:

Encyclical Offers Opportunity to “Think With the Church”

By Jennifer Roback Morse

SAN MARCOS, California, JULY 17, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Benedict XVI’s “Caritas in Veritate” is his contribution to the course of Catholic social teaching.

Many commentators seem to read this document as if it were a think-tank white paper, and ask whether the Pope endorses their particular policy preferences. I must say that I surprised myself by not reflexively reading it in this way. After all, I spent many years teaching free-market economics.

I distinctly remember reading “Centesimus Annus” for the first time, and mentally checking to see if I agreed with it.

But this is not the correct way to read papal documents. The papacy’s prophetic role is to interpret the past, and provide guidance for the future, while avoiding the excesses of its own time.

In “Caritas in Veritate,” Benedict XVI argues for the centrality of moral considerations in both economics and politics. Without charity and truth, we cannot create a truly decent society, no matter how sophisticated our technology or how thorough-going our democracy.

Benedict XVI stresses the centrality of the social, cultural sphere for several reasons.

First, neither the economic nor the political spheres can function entirely on their own. Both the economic and the political sectors need to be peopled with individuals who have well-formed consciences. Therefore, economics and politics rely upon the Church, the family, and other social structures that shape the conscience.

Second, the cultural sphere needs its own defense. Both the economic and the political sectors have plenty of ideological defenders. The libertarian right seems to believe that the market can manage all of society. The socialist left seems to think that the government can solve every problem and wipe away every tear.

Extremists on both sides fail to respect culture’s distinctive role. (more…)

Last week I wrote that “The ethical standards connected with journalism as a profession have arisen out of centuries-long practice and reflection,” and that “To abandon these standards in the rush to new media would impoverish public discourse to the detriment of us all.” (I develop some related points at length in an accompanying blog post).

I also asserted that “Professional journalism must be present for a free society to flourish, and it is in the pursuit of this calling that Christian reflection and practice over the last two centuries has a critical role to play.” Any discussion about Christian engagement with journalistic culture would be remiss without mention of the World Journalism Institute at the King’s College in New York, whose mission “is to recruit, equip, place and encourage journalists who are Christians in the mainstream newsrooms of America.” (Acton research fellow Anthony Bradley is the Francis Schaeffer Chair of Cultural Apologetics at WJI.) The King’s College also publishes Patrol, “a daily web magazine that covers the arts, culture, and politics in New York City.”

This week’s PowerBlog Ramblings question is: “What form will journalism take in the age of new media?”

I made a mental note of it awhile back when I heard that there was a “Christian” version of the immensely popular Guitar Hero video game franchise in the works. Wired recently reviewed Guitar Praise – Solid Rock here.

Reviewer Eliot Van Buskirk notes that Guitar Praise “inhabits a gentler world where a bad performance gets you mild clapping and gentle suggestions instead of the raucous boos and catcalls that accompany failure in Guitar Hero.”

There are two conditions that would have to be met before I would consider purchase of this game.

First, this song from Sonseed would have to be included:


Zap! (For some reason hearing that song always reminds me of this SNL skit [video here]…and since we’re closing in on Christmas, even better.)

And second, I’d have to receive a standing offer to play Guitar Praise on stage as part of my church’s praise and worship team.

On a more serious note, this is a great example of how “evangelical” culture is so often derivative of popular culture (in a bad way) and dated (also in a bad way). Somehow I don’t think “Christian” Guitar Hero is what Andy Crouch has in mind for fulfillment of the call for Christians to be “culture makers.”

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, November 5, 2008

If a handful of friends and I were able to bang our heads against the wall for years by speaking the truth about Communist totalitarianism while surrounded by an ocean of apathy, there is no reason why I shouldn’t go on banging my head against the wall by speaking ad nauseam, despite the condescending smiles, about responsibility and morality in the face of our present social marasmus. There is no reason to think that this struggle is a lost cause. The only lost cause is one we give up on before we enter the struggle. — Václav Havel

The above quote is from “Politics, Morality & Civility,” an essay by Czech playwright and former President Václav Havel, published in his 1992 book Summer Meditations. The book was written soon after the former dissident took office following the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia.

Doing some post-election reading, I came across the quote in an article by Al Sikes titled “Overwhelmed by Culture” on the Trinity Forum site. Sikes, whose career has spanned law, business, and government, currently divides his time between business consulting for the Hearst Corporation and board work. He also chairs the Board of Trustees of The Trinity Forum.

Although “Overwhelmed by Culture” is on the surface about the financial crisis, it really goes much deeper than that. Sikes observes that “the culture has overwhelmed its purported masters; the culmination of systemic wrong-headedness has miniaturized much of the leader class.” He reminds us that the Founders were most concerned about the “overwhelming importance” of the young nation’s moral condition, which is the basis for economic and political decision-making. Sikes:

Today’s crisis is said to be about money (too little liquidity); I believe it is about character. Putting people at profound risk as a tool of either public or private greed is morally wrong. Sure, each time a loan is made to an aspiring homeowner or entrepreneur, for example, there is risk, but the risk of highly leveraged purchases of exotic securities is of a different order. And the risk of under-funding pension and health-care promises (yes—promises, not mere programs) is of a different and, I would suggest, more profound order.

In a Darwinian world such conduct is simply in the order of things. After all, there are thousands who now live in lavish comfort as a result of their predation. They are survivors. But those who deal derisively or dismissively with faith and its foundations should pause; this crisis offers a learning moment.

We are on the eve of an election. It is often said that this election will be the most important one in at least a generation. Perhaps. I have no trouble finding admirable traits in both candidates for President, and I am hopeful because that is my temperament. But in parallel, I am convinced that the most important need is not on Pennsylvania Avenue but in the hearts and minds of the governed.

Read the rest of “Overwhelmed by Culture.”

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Wednesday, November 5, 2008

We’ve posted Rev. Robert A. Sirico’s Oct. 30 speech delivered at the Acton Institute annual dinner in Grand Rapids, Mich. The dinner also featured a keynote address from Rev. John Nunes, president and chief executive officer of Lutheran World Relief, and remarks from Kate O’Beirne, National Review’s Washington Editor, who accepted the Acton Institute Faith & Freedom Award in honor of the late William F. Buckley, Jr.

Excerpt from Rev. Sirico’s speech:

Today we find institution after institution “in the tank” for unrestrained government intervention. One is reminded of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci’s call for the left to begin a long march through the institutions of Western Civilization. The left, it seems, got the memo. How will we respond to this disheartening situation? Now is no time to retreat in disarray. Now is no time to stumble. There remains a remnant … a potent remnant who has not bowed the knee to big government. My call to you tonight is a transparent one: strengthen the soldiers of that remnant. In particular—strengthen that band of brothers gathered with you tonight, the Acton Institute.

Never in Acton’s nearly 20 year history has our message been more essential than right now. As an institution that cherishes the free and virtuous society, we are living through this thing with all of you, and we need your help to continue. Our history of integrity; the quality of our products and programs; the responsible tone with which we approach the questions at hand, all speak to the fact that this work is worthy of your investment. I humbly ask for it with the promise that we will use it well and prudently.

The fact of the matter is that too many of us have become much too comfortable and yielded to a perennial temptation, the temptation to take our liberty for granted. Those of you who have invested in the work of the Acton Institute over the years know—and especially those of you who have had a chance to see our latest media effort “The Birth of Freedom” know—we believe the time has come for a renewal of those principles that form the very foundation of civilization, the same principles that make prosperity possible and accessible to those on the margins.

Liberty is indeed, as Lord Acton said, “the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” As such it is in need of a nutritious soil in which to flourish. In this sense you and I are tillers of the soil, if you will.

Liberty is a delicate fruit. It is also an uncommon one. When one surveys human history it becomes evident how unusual, how precious is authentic liberty, as is the economic progress that is its result. These past few weeks are a vivid and sad testimony to this fact. As a delicate fruit, human liberty as well as economic stability must be tended to, lest it disintegrate. It requires constant attention, new appreciation and understanding, renewal, moral defense and integration into the whole fabric of society.

Read the entire speech here.

The fourth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The fourth leg of the journey took the bikers from Salt Lake City to Denver, a total distance of 478 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional at the beginning of this week focuses especially on the relationship of the church to culture. On day 22, the devotion notes that the “crucial pillars of civilization–education, family, government, and science–are in a state of decline and disrepair.” This may seem like a strange claim given all that humans have been able to accomplish over the last century or so. But if you look at the moral center of all these pursuits (for no human endeavor is “value” free), then the claim begins to make some sense.

Take, for example, the prayer from day 22, which focuses on gambling and the state of Utah’s position, which “forbids gambling and casinos.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reflected on a symptom of the lifelessness of modern society when he wrote,

One gambles with the future. Lotteries and gambling, which consume an inconceivable amount of money and often the daily bread of the worker, seek the improbable chance of luck in the future. The loss of past and future leaves life vacillating between the most brutish enjoyment of the moment and adventurous risk taking.

Similarly, the day 22 devotion observes “that today’s culture, including the church, has sunk into a passionless routine.”

And in the same way, the day 23 devotion examines the ambivalent relationship between church and culture, although it ends on a rather optimistic note: “A hundred years ago biking was a Sabbath sin. Now our whole troupe bikes to church Sunday mornings. We, like the land, are being redeemed.” Even so, a consistent theme of critique towards destructive aspects of modern life is present throughout these devotions. As the day 13 devotion concludes, “Constant busyness is not godliness.”

The overall focus of the bike tour is poverty. To get involved in charities that effectively integrate faith and compassion, visit the Acton Institute’s Samaritan Guide. Be sure to check out the charities working in Colorado. Denver, the destination at the end of week 4, is home to two previous Samaritan Award honorees, “Providence Homes” (2004) and “Joshua Station” (2007).

Picking up on themes we’ve touched on here, here, and here, last week NYT columnist David Brooks weighed in on the culture of debt in the United States.

“The social norms and institutions that encouraged frugality and spending what you earn have been undermined,” he writes. “The institutions that encourage debt and living for the moment have been strengthened.”

Brooks has his own proposed solutions for this cultural shift. Elsewhere Richard Posner and Gary Becker debate whether there has been a paradigm change and if so what it means.

I submit that a good place to start to look would be religious institutions. Max Weber had a profound insight when he pointed out the specifically theological backgrounds (even if he didn’t get the particular backgrounds quite right) and their impact on morally-informed behavior make all the difference between someone like Richard Baxter and John Wesley on the one hand and Benjamin Franklin on the other (the easy cloak vs. iron cage comparison). A divine mandate inspires and motivates in ways other things simply aren’t able.

Brooks wants us to return to Franklin-esque “bourgeois virtues.” But it may just be that those secular virtues don’t have cultural staying power on their own, and when divorced from religious undergirding become a waystation on the way to rampant consumerism.

But hey, at least this guy has figured out a way to make the economic stimulus package permanent (unlike the Bush tax cuts).

On March 29, Carl Anderson’s A Civilization of Love (HarperOne, 2008) first appeared on the New York Times Best Seller list as one of hottest-selling books in America among the “Hard Cover Advice” category. Since then the author has been on an energetic European and American tour to promote his book. In just 200 pages, Anderson writes convincingly to elaborate a treatise to dispel dominant secular ideologies whose ethical frameworks falsely aim at human fulfillment and forming good and just societies.

The author is Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic fraternal society, and CEO of its top-rated life insurance company. Anderson brings to his writing a vast amount of practical experience tactfully combined with the rudiments of Catholic philosophy and theology to elucidate his philosophy of love and goodness.

Anderson’s first task is to enlighten his readers on the very meaning of love. He author dedicates his first few chapters to explain that a culture of love is not simply about encouraging romance; and in no way does a culture of love echo the loose liberal ideas behind the hedonistic behavior so vigorously idealized in Western society since the late 1960s. A culture of love is, rather, about self-responsibility, self-denial, hard work, unconditional generosity and steadfast dedication.

And yet, there is something more to love, at least in the Christian sense: Anderson’s primary axiom is that a civilization characterized by love is, above all, one which is rooted in the love of God and is ultimately other-directed. To make his point clear, Anderson spins Descartes’ fundamental existential premise “I think therefore I am” to reveal a deeper insight about man and his relationships: “‘I love therefore I am.’ Or perhaps even more profoundly: ‘I have been first loved, therefore I am.’” Anderson goes on to say that “Divine love implies an other…. Love involves (at least) two persons, two selves.” (chap. 3 “Craftsman of a New Humanity”, pp.35, 37).

Anderson’s second point is that love is marked by the freedom to act and to give; yet it involves a personal liberty which often challenges our spontaneous preferences and natural inclinations for comfort, company and security. “[Freedom] cannot be lived in isolation, that is, unhinged from other values such as equality and human dignity.” (chap. 1, “The Power of Christ to Transform Culture”, p. 10).

Carl Anderson colorfully speaks of Mother Teresa’s little known struggles while experiencing her own “dark night of the soul” in caring for lepers, drug addicts and AIDS victims in the streets of Calcutta.. Certainly not every day, he explains, was Mother Teresa rewarded with the joy of having improved the well-being of India’s most destitute citizens. Many days were, in fact, quite routine and so physically exerting on her body, that it would be very wrong to speak of any “good feelings” that resulted from her unconditional acts of charity. And yet “throughout her ministry she persevered and did not begrudge her work.” (chap. 4 “A Dignity That Brings Demands, p. 61)

Anderson believes that promoting human responsibility, based on personal acts self-giving and firmly rooted in imitating God’s law and love for his creatures, is the only way to make a culture a civilized one. The end result – as Anderson hopes – will be that human society bows ever the less to man-made social agendas and their accompanying large impersonal governmental agencies. As he writes: “Social engineering, even if well-intended, cannot in itself create a just society. Just society must arise out of the hearts and minds of those that live in it. If the precepts that Leo [XIII] proposed [in the 1891 social encyclical Rerum Novarum] – which are, after all, specific applications of natural law – were voluntarily obeyed by all people, the need for complicated laws and governments would be greatly reduced.” (chap. 6 “Globalization and the Gospel of Work”, p. 91.)

Carl Anderson gives good reasons to not rely on state welfare as a norm to provide loving care for the nation’s poor. He cites the millions of volunteer hours and financial support which Americans still give to private charities, including impressive contributions from his own Knights of Columbus councils. Yet, despite the inspiring statistics, Anderson warns his readers of seeking the opposite solution to welfare provision with the words of Benedict XVI: “If men have nothing more to expect than what the world offers them, and if they may and must demand all this from the state, they destroy their own selves and every human society.” (p. chap. 1 “The Power of Christ to Transform Culture”, p. 10).

Lastly, Carl Anderson gives perhaps his best example of how modern society may end up, by recounting the personal experiences of Czech playwright and former president, Vaclav Havel. After undergoing decades of forced social engineering, where the very fundamentals of human love and trust all but vanished from Czech society, Havel confesses: “The worst thing is that we lived in a contaminated environment….We learned not to believe anything, to ignore each other, to care only for ourselves. Concepts such as love, compassion, humility, and forgiveness lost their depths and dimensions. The previous regime…reduced man to a force of production and nature to a tool of production.” (chap 7, Ethics in the Marketplace, p. 109).

Carl Anderson’s book brings to light many pressing social issues affecting most modern nations. But unlike many philosophical works, Anderson provides a cause and a solution sustained by real-life examples and their consequences. I would highly recommend reading A Civilization of Love to reinforce many of the same principles promoted by the Acton Institute.