Posts tagged with: culture

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)

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, November 8, 2007
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Today was a pretty full day that just wrapped up a few minutes ago. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, opened up the day with a keynote address, “Pioneering the New Media for Christ.”

Mohler emphasized the communicative mandate of the Christian faith: “To be a Christian is to bear the responsibility to communicate.” Setting this statement within the context of stewardship, Mohler emphasized the biblical foundations for a Christian view of communication. In creation God made human beings in his image, as communicative and rational beings. The account of the Fall in Genesis 3, however, provides us with the context of sin.

Although Mohler didn’t make the link explicit, the Fall’s effect on communication comes to expression in the Genesis 11 account of the Tower of Babel. So language can be both used properly and misused (to lie, to slander, to gossip, and so on). But after Creation and Fall comes Redemption, which is expressed in terms of the divine communication, the revelation in Jesus Christ (the Logos of John 1).

Mohler engaged Francis of Assisi’s instructions to teach and preach “with words when necessary.” Admitting that actions must be consistent with our declarations, Mohler asserted that words are always necessary. “No one is going to intuit the Gospel,” he said. Citing Romans 10, Mohler noted that faith comes by hearing the Word.

With a brief theology of communication in view, Mohler examined the varieties of technological means that have been used to transmit the Gospel. Christians, he said, are a people of the Book, a “literary” people. Noting that Christians initially used radio to a greater extent than television, Mohler provided the basis for a comparison of various kinds of media.

In this way, the advent of the Internet is more like radio than TV, insofar as the ease of access, production, and broadcasting, in North America is far more extensive than was popular access to TV in that medium’s early days (78% of Americans have access to a computer, and that percentage is markedly higher the younger the target group).

Mohler’s address provided evidence for the claim that blogging, podcasting, and videocasting are legitimate and important media for Christians to responsibly and prudentially engage the culture and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

The talk raised the following issues for me. Given that “Godblogging” as a phenomenon is “talk about God” in a particular form, the possibilities for identifying the parallels, relationships, and continuities between “Godblogging” and “theology” (God-words) are plentiful. I also considered Augustine’s treatise on Christian rhetoric, De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), especially Book IV, as a source of seminal relevance.

On a more minor point, Mohler attributed the lack of Christian engagement in film in the early days of Hollywood to economic and artistic deficits. It seems to me that there was just as much a cultural deficit, which is perhaps what he meant by an artistic deficit, in the sense of the inability to appreciate beauty wherever it exists. There was (and still is among some) a profound and deep distrust of the theater and film (and television by extension) as inherently deceitful and powerful tools of diabolical power, given the pagan backgrounds of the theater.

Here’s what the CRC’s 1928 Synodical Report on Worldly Amusements had to say about film in particular:

It is also common knowledge that the moving picture industry is to a large extent in the hands of unscrupulous men, whose only concern is large financial profits regardless of the moral influence of the presentations. A large number of these pictures are a shameful exploitation of the sex-instinct; and many other exert a baneful influence through the portrayal of crime, a flippant attitude toward parental authority, the dignity of hte govenrment and of the church. Because of these things the movie-theater is undeniably one of the most destructive forces in our country, morally pestilential.

Based on these and other observations, the committee recommended abstinence from theater attendance by Christians.

With that minor caveat, Mohler’s address was full of Christian wisdom about the technology of our culture and Christian engagement. More to follow in the morning.

Also: The folks at Stand to Reason are live-blogging the event. There are a number of posts on Mohler’s talk.

Besides my two years of living abroad in Egypt, I spent my entire elementary and upper school existence in the public schools. My experience with the public schools in Hawaii and Mississippi were rather atrocious. To read one experience I encountered in the public schools in Hawaii, check out this Acton blog post.

Mississippi has a wonderful and generous culture, and the people have strong values. In fact, I love Mississippi. The state’s public schools, however, could often be described as nothing short of disappointing. It should also be noted that I went to one of the public schools that was considered to be the best in the state. The problem in my view was not that Mississippi was a poorer state. The teachers for the most part were intelligent and just as there are everywhere, there were good and bad teachers. I had an exceptional teacher in high school who helped foster a love for American history, and American military history.

But one of the fundamental problems with these schools was that most people did not want to learn. In fact, classes were daily interrupted by kids “pantsing” each other, or oddly enough, sometimes pantsing themselves. If you walk into many high schools in America, it becomes evident it’s more of a fashion show and popularity contest than an actual serious center of learning. While socialization is an important part of education, it’s hard to argue public schools are the best models for socialization.

I had an English class in 11th grade where the teacher was mooned by students on several occasions. The kids of course would be suspended. They would be back only days later to disrupt class and offer a rerun of their crimes. When I first moved to Mississippi, I was shocked to learn that corporal punishment was allowed to be administered by administrators in the school. Within weeks, I felt it was not administered enough.

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe has a piece today titled, “Big Brother at school.” The fact that government schools are so steeped into our life and culture makes it hard for traction to be gained for reform, and for differing views to emerge about education. It may be why so many conservative leaders talk about government never voluntarily giving up power, or government never voluntarily reducing itself in size.

Jacoby delved into a host of ideological conflicts between parents and government run public schools. Here is his main point against government domination of education:

A more fundamental truth is this: In a society founded on political and economic liberty, government schools have no place. Free men and women do not entrust to the state the molding of their children’s minds and character. As we wouldn’t trust the state to feed our kids, or to clothe them, or to get them to bed on time, neither should we trust the state to teach them.

The point is all the more valid when we hear politicians talking about their federal and state programs for daycare and preschool. Many generations of infants, children, pre-teens, teens and beyond will be raised, taught, shaped, and cared for by the state. Do we really think that’s a good idea?

A long and detailed essay on the topic is available at The Gates of Vienna. A very small sample:

The end of religion, thus, didn’t herald an age of reason; it led to a new age of secular superstition and new forms of witch-hunts.

This will take at least an hour of your time, perhaps more, but it’s worthwhile.

The folks over at the Reformation21 blog, produced of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, have a great discussion going about the spiritual, cultural, and pastoral implications of pornography (here, here, and here).

The first post takes up the Naomi Wolf article, “The Porn Myth,” which also occasioned in part my reflections on the pornification of culture in general and technology in particular.

Carl Trueman aptly wonders (in the second post),

Could it be that pornography is the ultimate free market industry — creative of, and driven by, an insatiable need for change to create new demands and new markets with personal solipsistic gratification as the all-consuming and ever elusive goal? If so, there are elements of it which are symptomatic, rather than constitutive, of a much wider cultural problem and which thus require more radical cultural criticism than `it’s bad for women and it’s dirty’, true and serious as these undoubtedly are. Porn addiction becomes merely an extreme example of the general way we live today and of the worldly expectations which our culture infuses into us as natural and acceptable.

(Trueman also recommends two pieces on pastors and pornography, available here and here. And here’s a follow-up story to the latter piece.)

I read Trueman’s critique in the light of the observation made by Gertrude Himmelfarb in the mid-90’s, that among social conservatism there is “an older Burkean tradition, which appreciates the material advantages of a free-market economy (Edmund Burke himself was a disciple of Adam Smith), but also recognizes that such an economy does not automatically produce the moral social goods that they value—that it may even subvert those goods.” The commodification of sexuality seems to fit into the latter category (i.e. the subversion of goods).

(As an aside, so-called “crunchy cons” might claim to represent this “older Burkean tradition,” but from what I’ve seen its an open question to what extent they appreciate “the material advantages of a free-market economy.”)

And in the third post linked above, Rick Phillips coins the following phrase: “The idolatry of the porn worldview.”

Relating the pornography theme and another recent Reformation21 post on the necessary connection between faith and works, check out the work of X3Church, particularly the Esther Fund, which connects with people who work in the porn industry to try to give them a new life after porn. It’s a ministry with “a passion to help porn stars find freedom from the porn industry by helping them rebuild their lives through financial assistance, education and more.”

A few weeks ago I was listening to a very engaging American RadioWorks documentary, rebroadcast from last October, “Japan’s Pop Power.” The show focused on the increasing cultural imports to America coming from Japan, which by some estimations will soon dwarf industries typically associated with American-Japanese trade like automobiles, technology, and electronics. Japan’s economic success is a sure sign that human creativity and inventiveness are more important factors in human flourishing than mere material concerns or natural resources.

Some of the commentary expounded the typical pattern and dynamics of a sub-culture movement becoming mainstream. A great deal of the program focused on Japanese art, film, and media products, including the form of Japanese comic known as manga. Beginning with Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the growing Japanese dominance of programming oriented toward youth is especially noteworthy (I’m a Yu-Gi-Oh! fan and my wife likes Ninja Warrior).

One portion of the program interested me especially because we have been discussing the importance of narrative here lately. As Chris Farrell and John Biewen spoke with an American teenager, it became clear that in part what draws our youth to contemporary forms of Japanese storytelling, beyond the inherent exotic elements, is the disjointedness of the narrative. It’s often a challenge to figure out who the main characters are and what they are doing. Some of the attraction is no doubt the mental agility that is required to induct a logical flow from the sometimes confusing morass.

But on another level, the attraction is undoubtedly a reflection of a post-modern mindset, which isn’t so concerned with logical plot progression. Japanese shows are renowned for their emphasis on glitzy effects, explosions, and action (oftentimes at the expense of sanity) such that they’ve become a staple of American parody:


It’s always a challenge for Christians to determine when and how to engage cultural movements. Some businesses and industries are without a doubt beyond the realm of moral permissibility, and the Christian is barred from licit participation. The message to those who are involved must be only, “Go and sin no more.”

But other times keen discernment is called for, and Christians at different times and places have come up with very different answers about how to engage the broader culture. At some point soon, for instance, we’ll look in more detail at the Christian Reformed Church’s synodical reports from 1928 on “Worldly Amusements” and from 1966 on “Film Arts.”

One approach I’m familiar with in a professional capacity is the attempt by some Christian publishers to transform the manga genre into something that is a positive and constructive influence, conducive to Christian piety, rather than one that celebrates moral depravity (for which manga is infamously renowned).

Zondervan, for example, has newly available a number of new manga series aimed towards youth or “tweens” audiences (full disclosure: I provided theological review services for a number of these products). On example is a series that follows the fictional exploits of Branan, the son of the biblical judge Samson. Other series follow a team of time-travelling flies and relate the biblical narrative in the form of a Manga Bible (the latter produced by a Korean author/illustrator team).

Whether such ventures are judged to be successful depends on the standards applied by individual Christians. No doubt many will be thankful for offerings in a pop culture genre whose contents are sincerely counter-cultural.

What is certain is that there is no better place to address the needs for a new generation of readers eager for meaningful narrative than to rely upon mythopoeia and, indeed, the greatest story ever told, the “True Myth,” the biblical drama of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.