Posts tagged with: culture

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.

There’s been a spate of stories lately in various media about the difficulty that evangelical denominations are having keeping young adults interested in the life of the institutional church. Here’s one from USA Today, “Young adults aren’t sticking with church” (HT: Kruse Kronicle; Out of Ur). And here’s another from a recent issue of my own denomination’s magazine, The Banner, “Where Did Our Young Adults Go?”

I wonder if the push to be “relevant,” initiated largely by the baby boomer generation’s rise to power in institutional structures, hasn’t hastened rather than chastened the loss of interest on the part of young adults. If all churches offer is culture-lite, why even bother?

No doubt the reaction by some will to go to even greater lengths to make church “cool,” because using pizza and pop for the Eucharist hasn’t been enough so far. But, contrary to what might be the natural reaction to some, the way to keep people invested and coming to church isn’t in the continuous lowering of barriers and expectations, but rather the call to a committed and disciplined life of discipleship.

There’s a reason why well-to-do, educated Muslims are attracted by Islamist rhetoric: it gives them something to believe in, something ostensibly worth fighting and dying for. The fact that Westerners don’t get that is all the more illustrative of how far gone the culture really is.

For a small but illuminating example of the current zeitgeist, check out the questionable reaction of this pastor and teacher, when a teenage student falls asleep during Friday prayers: “If God knows they need sleep, who am I to wake them up?” The question, no doubt arising out of admirable intentions, leaves me agog and aghast.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Osama Bin Laden is bidding his followers to come and die for him, and we can’t even ask our kids to stay awake during prayers?

It’s been shown in numerous studies, reports, and anecdotal tellings that religion that is high-maintenance, expecting more of its members than perfunctory attendance, tends to do better in attracting new members and keeping old ones. People are looking for meaning and truth. That’s just a basic fact of human nature. If people aren’t getting the truth at church, they’ll look for it somewhere else, even if, as in the case of Islamism, it’s a futile search.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic…. Do not defend God’s Word, but testify to it…. Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”

This week’s ACT 3 weekly essay, “Why Christians Ought to Make a Difference in the Marketplace,” by David L. Bahnsen:

I have heard it said in my life on more than one occasion that God sent his Son to save souls. Indeed, for evangelicals, that is certainly true. However, for the professing believer who talks of a deep concern for individual souls my question and answer will either be a gigantic disappointment or it may be a true experience of edification. While all Christian men and women ought to be interested in the salvation of individual souls—God is truly in the redemption business—I contend that, as Leslie Newbigin masterfully argues in his gem of a book, Foolishness to the Greeks, the souls of individuals have been spiritually ravaged as a result of our complete surrender of the key institutions and spheres within our society. Newbigin wrote this a generation ago in reference to the inexplicable surrender of modern science and advanced analytical philosophy to secular humanists. His argument actually simple—in a short-term effort to prioritize souls over spheres and people over institutions, we actually lost both. My belief is that where Newbigin was astutely right decades ago, today’s sphere of surrender from the covenant community of God has actually taken place in the marketplace of our day.

Read the whole article at the ACT 3 website here.

Blog author: jarmstrong
Friday, April 20, 2007
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The feature film "Freedom Writers" appeared on DVD this week. It stars two-time Oscar winner Hillary Swank as a very young Long Beach (CA) high school teacher assigned to a freshman English class made up of students all destined to fail. The kids are African-American, Asian and Latino inner-city kids raised on drive-by shootings in a hard-core death-based culture. The story is true and the film is genuinely beautiful.

Erin Gruwell, the teacher in the story, gave her students a voice of their own, a sense of place and a future. She empowered her kids by getting them to read, write and think. She accomplished this by getting them to read The Diary of Anne Frank and then by having them write their responses in a personal journal. The experience slowly transformed how these kids understood life and coped with their own past. Gruwell continually battled an uncaring school system that was set up to fail, like most school systems in the cities of America. She was hated by some of her peers for rocking their boats and she lost her husband’s support, and thus her marriage, in the process. (Sadly, her husband is the epitome of a self-centered male who wants his little wife to abide by his desires and then give up her own personal dreams. I know too many Christian males who think this is godly but I will save that sermon for another day!)

The kids learn to tell their own stories and through this they find real freedom. A group of "unteachable" teens discover the power of acceptance, tolerance and love. Their lives are changed and their dreams are recovered in the process. The cast is superb, the script compelling and the end is deeply moving. The movie is rated PG-13 for violence and language, as you would expect. I recommend "Freedom Writers" to teens and adults.  Christians have a lot to learn about getting involved in real culture change. Gruwell’s transforming work provides a powerful model that tells a very moving story quite well.

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."

Speaking of the ubiquity of pornography in our culture, last week ABC News’ Nightline highlighted the work of XXXChurch, a ministry aimed at evangelizing porn stars and pornographers, as well as addressing the spiritual problems associated with consuming pornography. Check out the story, “The Porn Pastors: XXXChurch.com.”

JR Mahon of the ministry says in the piece, “Our biggest critics are Christians.” Sadly this comes as no surprise. When XXXChurch came up with the idea of a New Testament with a cover emblazoned, “Jesus Loves Porn Stars,” resistance from the evangelical community was quick and strong. The American Bible Society refused to publish it.

Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said at the time that “I think these guys have crossed a line that I would not cross and I would not commit.”

“I just have to wonder what people think when they see that cover,” Mohler said. “In other words, are they expecting the Bible or are they expecting something else?”

Similar furor has erupted over an Australian Baptist church’s display of a sign that read, “Jesus Loves Osama.” Melinda at the Stand to Reason Blog calls such mottoes “bumper sticker Christianity” that is “just so unhelpful.”

The defense in both cases is that the verbiage is that it is simply an attempt to communicate the gospel message in a challenging and thought-provoking way; that we are called to evangelize everyone in the Great Commission and that we are to love our enemies.

There are two errors that are often committed in these areas. The conservative error is to reject both the sinner and the sin in the interests of purity and holiness. The liberal error is to minimize or even celebrate the evil of the sin as good in the interests of acceptance, tolerance, and “love.”

Augustine helps us to avoid both errors. If we are at pains to legislate against certain types of behavior but are not undertaking evangelistic efforts to convert those who need it most, we engage in Pharisaic legalism. If we do nothing to rebuke sin, we engage in licentious antinomianism.

Here are some thoughts from Augustine, that could arguably be pretty well summarized in the bumper sticker slogan, “Love the sinner, hate the sin” (clearly in light of the second quote the word “sinner” would need to be properly parsed):

“That is, he should not hate the man because of the fault, nor should he love the fault because of the man; rather, he should hate the fault but love the man. And when the fault has been healed there will remain only what he ought to love, and nothing that he ought to hate” (City of God, 14.6).

“No sinner, precisely as sinner, is to be loved; and every human being, precisely as human, is to be loved on God’s account, God though on his own. And if God is to be loved more than any human being, we all ought to love God more than ourselves” (De Doctrina Christiana, 1.27.28).

They say that technology drives culture (HT: Zondervan>To The Point).

But what drives technology? Many believe that pornography is the driving force behind adoption of particular technologies. Thus, says Slate television critic Troy Patterson, “Watching YouTube is far closer to consuming Internet pornography than staring at the television. … But then, all media culture has an increasingly pornographic feel, doesn’t it?”

Let’s look at some actual cases where this claim has been made (HT: Slashdot). In a recent TG Daily article reflecting on CES 2007, Aaron McKenna writes,

Quite famously in the war between Betamax and VHS the latter won especially because the adult industry preferred it. If you’ve been around long enough, you probably remember that the very early home video rental stores were primarily responsible for driving Betamax out of the market. And those stores carried almost exclusively pornographic content.

Thus, the fact that pornographers preferred VHS rather than Betamax assured VHS of being the dominant home video technology.

Many are applying this argument to the current battle between Blu-ray and HD-DVD formats. These competitors want to bring high-definition content to the home theater on DVDs. The drives are expensive and the technology is new, so are we in a comparable position to the relationship between VHS and Betamax decades ago?

McKenna did a straw poll at AEE and “got the strange feeling that HD DVD has won the format war already, at least in the porn industry.” Meanwhile, Sony has announced that it will not allow XXX rated content in Blu-ray format. So in this case, it might not be so much pornographers choosing HD-DVD but rather Blu-ray excluding pornographers.

But a recent piece in Electronic Gaming Monthly (“Blue Steal: Is Blu-ray winning the high-def disc jam?” by Marc Camron, February 2007, 34-35) describes another aspect of the DVD format war: gaming. Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Morgan Securities Analyst, points out that the new PlayStation 3 comes with a Blu-ray drive included. Its main competitor, the Xbox 360, is compatible with an add-on HD-DVD drive that runs about $200.

“Blu-ray is in a better position because more people are interest in purchasing a PS3 than in purchasing a stand-alone HD-DVD player,” says Pachter. “That interest will continue for several years. That means that the studios will see a Blu-ray installed base much larger than the HD-DVD installed base, and they will ultimately be compelled to make the best economic decision, which is to support Blu-ray.”

At the time Camron wrote his piece, the news hadn’t dropped yet about Sony’s ban of adult-rated content. But even so the Blu-ray has something going for it that Betamax didn’t: the PS3, which can now be marketed as the family-friendly gaming system because it’s Blu-ray drive won’t have hi-def DVD adult content.

We now know what format pornographers prefer. But the question remains, which one will parents prefer?