Posts tagged with: culture

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
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
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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
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
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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.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, April 3, 2008
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Rod Dreher links to a piece by Cato’s Brink Lindsey, “Culture of Success.” The conclusion of Lindsey’s piece is that familial culture is more important to child success in school and economic achievement than external assistance, in the form of tuition grants or otherwise:

If more money isn’t the answer, what does have an impact? In a word: culture. Everything we know about high performance in all fields of endeavor tells us that, while natural talent is a plus, there is no substitute for long hours of preparation and hard work…. Apply these lessons to doing well in school, and it becomes clear that the class divide in academic achievement is fundamentally a cultural divide. To put it in a nutshell, the upper-middle-class kid grows up in an environment that constantly pushes him to develop the cognitive and motivational skills needed to be a good student; the low-income kid’s environment, on the other hand, pushes in the opposite direction.

Lindsey, to his credit, recognizes the fact that these sorts of trans-generational, cultural and familial concerns typically lie outside the competence of his own libertarian ideological camp:

We insist on the central importance of individual responsibility for the healthy functioning of a free society. Yet, by the time people become legally responsible adults, circumstances not of their own choosing — namely, how they were raised and whom they grew up with — may have prevented them from ever developing the capacities they need to thrive and flourish.

I’m disappointed to find that Lindsey then makes the move to say that on that basis there exists “the possibility that government intervention to improve those circumstances could actually expand the scope of individual autonomy.” I’m not disappointed because the statement is false (it is in fact true), but because the government isn’t the first place we should look to find solutions to cultural problems. What about other institutions, most especially the church?

Dreher’s post is lengthy and worth a read in full, in part because it takes Lindsey’s piece as a point of departure to bring in a number of other insights and sources. Dreher writes of the government’s relation to culture among the poor,

…I don’t believe all the government programs we could possibly imagine will fundamentally change their condition, because their condition is not fundamentally a matter of material deprivation.

Culture is more important than politics, as Moynihan said. But he also said that politics can save a culture from itself. What kind of politics could save inner-city black culture from itself? Ideas? Because we certainly need them in society at large, not just the black inner city.

Dreher also echoes my question: “Here’s what I don’t understand: where are the churches in all this?”

Where are they? If they aren’t actively engaged in responsible urban evangelism, which many are, then they are probably doing (A) nothing or (B) lobbying the government to do something. A is bad and B might be worse.

Dolly Parton was featured on American Idol this week. One of the songs a contestant performed from her body of work was the song, based on her real-life experiences, “Coat of Many Colors,” and it teaches a lesson directly relevant to this topic.


Here’s the last verse, after the children make fun of her for her coat:

But they didn’t understand it
And I tried to make them see
That one is only poor
Only if they choose to be
Now I know we had no money
But I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My momma made for me
Made just for me

Blog author: jballor
Monday, November 19, 2007
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Last night the American Music Awards were televised on ABC. Among the big winners were alumni of the hit TV show, “American Idol,” whose stars won 3 AMAs.

Kid Rock, the Rock N Roll “Jesus.”

But there was another kind of “idol” on display at the AMAs, as Detroit’s own Kid Rock was a presenter and did a spoof of his fight with rocker Tommy Lee in a comedy bit with host Jimmy Kimmel. Kid Rock released a new album last month, “Rock N Roll Jesus,” which received 4 out of 5 stars from Rolling Stone.

My dad, who is a arts and entertainment editor at a daily newspaper, played the title track for me a few weeks ago and asked what I thought. I said, “It’s pretty offensive.” Here’s a sample of the lyrics:

Testify
It’s a Rock revival
Don’t need a suit
Ya don’t need a bible
Get up and dance
I’m gonna set you free yeah
Testify
It’s all sex, drugs, rock n roll
A soul sensation that you can’t control
And you can see I practice what I preach
I’m your rock n roll Jesus
Yes I am

In his RS review, Anthony Decurtis says that Kid Rock latches “onto the verities of sex, drugs and rock & roll as a path to redemption — both his and the country’s.” The holy trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are replaced by Kid Rock’s worldly triumvirate of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. It’s ironic that Kid Rock points to the licentiousness of American culture as the means for its “redemption.” If there’s anything that threatens America’s stature internationally, right at the top has to be the perception of rampant immorality communicated by American popular culture.

There’s a great deal of religious language and imagery used in the song (if you absolutely must hear it, there’s a live performance video here).

In a sermon on Revelation 17 this Sunday, my preacher described blasphemy as the appropriation of language fit only for God by a creature. The revelator saw “a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names.” That’s exactly what Kid Rock’s “Rock N Roll Jesus” is: blasphemous.

After my dad agreed that the song was such, I expressed wonderment at how far culture has come. In 2007 Kid Rock can claim to be the “Rock N Roll Jesus” offering the worldly allurements of “sex, drugs, and rock & roll,” can debut at #1. Contrast this with the public outcry in 1966 when the infamous comment from John Lennon about the Beatles being “more popular than Jesus” was made.

But perhaps a better analogue in Revelation 17 to Kid Rock’s album as representative of popular culture isn’t the beast, it’s the drunk prostitute Babylon: “the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth,” who is faced with destruction by the beast and its minions. They will turn on the prostitute with derision, and “will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire.”

No doubt many undiscerning and eager-to-be-relevant emergent Christians will grasp at Kid Rock’s record as a cultural “impact point.” Too often Christians are satisfied with any religious reference, even one that is blatantly blasphemous, to justify our consumption of popular culture. Certainly the linkage of Kid Rock to Scott Stapp could be improperly construed as further evidence of Rock’s righteousness (Stapp is the former frontman for the band Creed, who says, “I am a Christian.” The link above is to a story about the release of a sex tape involving both Kid Rock and Scott Stapp in 2006).

Kid Rock is right about one thing at least: “The time has come to settle and the devil’s gonna make u choose.”

Or as Jesus Christ (the real one) said: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”

More: “Christian Parents Are Not Comfortable With Media But Buy Them for Their Kids Anyway,” The Barna Update.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 16, 2007
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“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.” (Mark 10:13-16 NIV)

“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land that the LORD swore to give your forefathers, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.” (Deuteronomy 11:18-21 NIV)

Let’s not leave it to the worldly culture to teach our children the fear of the Lord.

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’

He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

‘And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

‘Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!'” (Matthew 18:1-7 NIV)