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An Attempt at How Cultural Orthodoxies (Dogmas) Form

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Cogs and Gears

I’ve been pretty surprised at the rate at which new cultural orthodoxies have been formed over the course of my lifetime but particularly the last decade.  This post serves as an attempt at dissecting how cultural orthodoxies form and serves to appreciate the complexity of their genesis.  There is too much reductionistic thought out there about how cultural shifts occur and most of it centers on just one or two cultural factors and fails to take into account the massive web of multiple reciprocities that is this thing we call culture. Most of the current cultural commentary picks two or three sources as the root causes.  Typically the cited sources are institutional – the (liberal) media, corporations, the current political milieu, or highly organized elite power brokers.  I think these things have certainly played a role, even key roles, into the cultural shifts that we have seen.  That said, I think these views are pretty reductionistic and fail to understand the complexities the constitute culture.  As Justin Holcomb has said, “The most powerful aspect of culture is that which we do not think or reason about.” My main point in this piece is that the forces, elements, and ingredients that cause cultural change are very complicated and cannot be boiled down to just a few people, tribes, or institutions.

 First, we need to understand what elements of culture are at work, both conscious and unconscious:

 There is a constellation of at least 8 things that add to the formulation of cultural dogma – NOTE:  5 of these 8 are directly taken from a presentation delivered by Justin Holcomb and represent heavily thoughts from UVA’s department of Sociology (particularly that of James Davison Hunter) and also that of Christian Smith (Notre Dame)).

1.  Artifacts:  iPhones, iPads, or other iDevices that unconsciously reorder how we interact with stimuli or information.  Artifacts can also be cultural icons such as the Cowboy, Bald Eagle, or Coca-Cola.  Artifacts unconsciously impact how we think and interact about our world.

2.  Language:  Language is the carrier of culture… this is why terminology, accents, vocabularies, technical terms, pronunciations, and word meanings can very heavily geographically even within the same linguistic system.  The use of the various aspects of language heavily determines tribal identity.

3.  Beliefs, Symbols, or Ideas:  these comprise some of the commonly held notions, brand identities, or thoughts of a people group or tribal faction.

4.  Social Forces (aka Deep Structures) – Note the first 6 are from Justin Holcomb:

  • Individualism
  • The Therapeutic – the making of everything as not anyone’s own ultimate responsibility and the centrality of personal happiness of the goal of the individual
  • Consumerism – the commodification of things that should not be commodified
  • Pluralism – the acceptance of mutually exclusive systems of thought as being equally valued and/or true
  • Secularism – the intentional lessening of religious authority in a culture
  • Technology
  • Democritization of knowledge – consensus is king and if the consensus doesn’t agree with you, bludgeon them until they do
  • Post-Modern-Pragmatism – this is my own personal soap box on the mis-labeling of all things post-modern and what we really mean when we say the term “post-modernism”
  • Globalism/Mobility – this also relates closely to the rapid rise of urbanization, the velocity of ideas, the fluidity with which people change geographic location, and the role of the worldwide marketplace and supply chain

5.  Institutions:  politics, education, economic, spiritual, media… etc.

6.  Practices or Rituals:  these are the conscious (places of worship) or unconscious (shopping, sports, entertainment) liturgies of a culture – more on that here, and here.

7.  Elites:  these can be media, political, athletic, celebrity, or other cultural curators and definers.  One could categorize these as being the heads of various institutions (#5 above), but elites are more individuals than groups and seem to transcend even the institutions that gave them their platforms.

8.  The Marketplace:  dollars (or perceived dollars) can be the most significant voters of cultural change and this can happen on both the macro (Mozilla) and micro levels (Worldvision).

 Second, we need to understand what some of our cultural orthodoxies (dogmas) happen to be:

(Note – I have in view here principally the West and specifically the American cultural context)

-“The highest moral good lay[s] in personal self-fulfillment” – see George Marsden’s book, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment:  the 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal BeliefWSJ review here

-Public conversation (or dialogue or discourse) is only to be about facts and not beliefs – in other words it is taboo to talk about God

-Marriage is fundamentally about (romantic) love

-Homosexual behavior is to be accepted at least as non-abnormal and in some instances as normative

-What doesn’t hurt other people is morally permissible

Authenticity to self and personal happiness are very important virtues and perhaps the highest of all the virtues

-Personal happiness is ultimate

-Sex is principally intended for pleasure

-Be good (in your own eyes) in order to be self-actualized (happy)

-The subjective individual self, in combination with the herd (read: democritization of knowledge), is the greatest interpreter, curator, and judge of what is true, good, and beautiful (over against history, data, or external authority)

Third, we need to understand the interplay of the cultural elements with the culture, our tribal faction, and ourselves

Velocity of ideas:  

Before movable typeset, ideas and culture were principally only shared along trade routes.   Those trade routes which were often roads or nautical routes were the only means by which one culture (or tribe) might cross-polinate another group.  This made the velocity of ideas was much slower than in post-industrial and pre-internet age.  Another complexity to the transmission of ideas dealt with low levels of literacy and significant linguistic barriers that existed for millennia.  Oral traditions can travel remarkably quick yet must gain certain thresholds of cultural penetration in order to take route and multiple through generations.  The paradigm shifts in the transmission of ideas were principally the Gutenberg printing press, transportation advances (cars, planes… etc.), and communication revolutions (radio, television, satellite, internet, web 2.0).  These paradigm shifts in transmission of ideas has radically increased the velocity of ideas.  In the modern era, ideas can travel at nearly limitless speed, spread through thousands of seemingly disparate and unconnected networks or tribes, and reach saturation levels significant enough to change public opinion, shape political policy, or even to overthrow governments (ie. Twitter and the Arab Spring).

Cultural Interaction is Determinative of Belief:

Humans naturally gravitate toward like kind and like minded.  That said, there is significant interplay between what we believe and how you come up with what you believe.  Orthodoxy (right beliefs) affects orthopathos, (right emotions) affects orthopraxis (right practice), affect orthodoxy, affects orthopraxis, affects orthodoxy… ad infinitum.  So how we interact with culture – whether we engage it, critique it, or embrace it will impact consciously or unconsciously what we believe.  You can evidence this very clearly with radically undercontextualized and/or cultish groups like the FLDS or the Westboro Baptist folks.

Unconscious Cultural Elements:

The seven cultural elements listed above are constantly influencing our lives in good ways, bad ways, and every shade of grey in-between.  Most of this influence is unconscious, subconscious, selectively ignored, or down played as not playing a role in what we believe.  I have had several hundred conversations with people about what they believe.  In an overwhelming number of such instances, people believe the set of ideas that justify their wants, desires, and passions.  In these instances the horse was the wants, desires, and passions of the heart that drove the cart of the justifications, rationalizations, and knowledge of the head.  In other words, people seek evidence, truth, arguments, facts, and knowledge about their beliefs after those beliefs are formed by their belief system (secular, religious, philosophical, or other).  There are notable exceptions, but this seems to be more normative than not.  Most folks could not even name a single thinker, writer, philosopher, sacred text, or cultural element that was the genesis of their most central tenets, dogmas, orthodoxies, or beliefs.

Conscious Elements:  

That said, some of these cultural elements above are very conscious.  These elements are the ones that tend to get the most ink spilled about them.  It is usually institutions and elites that get the most attention and the usual scapegoats for when their is some rising cultural dogma that is contrary to our own tribal orthodoxy.  I do not wish to downplay the role of celebrity, elites, the marketplace, and institutions of all kinds in the formulation of new cultural dogmas.  The role of these conscious elements has been well noted in the sexual revolution, the rise of feminism, the rise of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and have shaped the battle lines on other issues like abortion, gender, and sexuality.

Concluding thoughts:  If you have bought into the idea that the contours of the cultural landscape are complex and inter-related, then I hope that you might be willing to think and interact on those contours with more deftness and in a manner than is more winsome.  I would hope that you would be able to identify more readily some of unconscious elements that comprise the invisible hand of culture.  Be patient with people who do not understand or do not care that they hold numerous mutually exclusive ideas in their worldview.  Have compassion on the culture for it is harassed and helpless:

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Matthew 9:36

 

For further reading:

Culture Wars, James Davison Hunter

Intellectuals, Paul Johnson

Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment:  the 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief, George Marsden

Social and Cultural Dynamics, Pitirim Sorokin

To Change the World, James Davison Hunter

Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, John Frame

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3 Month Introspective

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Introspective

So, I’ve been blogging consistently for three months.  This is the week of Christmas and I’ll be all over the place.  I thought I would briefly summarize the 3 months of blog series on here:

Blaise Pascal:  We took a look at Blaise Pascal’s thinking, its use of aphorism and its relationship to both tri-perspectivalism and presuppositionalism.  We also looked at his use of aphorism and his warnings against deism and atheism.

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Past, Present, and Future, Parts 1-7:  We defined the term evangelical.  We looked at its historical roots in the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and its ties to celebrity culture, democritization of knowledge, and modernism.  Then we looked at the roots of liberalism, the Protestant split and suburbanization, and defined and outlined evangelical populism and their game plan for reaching America.  Finally we assessed the current status of American evangelicalism and then made some predictions of future trends.

Introduction to Apologetics, Parts 1-7:  We looked in broad strokes at the various schools of apologetics.  We then took a more in-depth look at:  Classical Apologetics, Evidentialist Apologetics, Presuppositional Apologetics, and the specific apologetics of Blaise Pascal and Alvin Plantinga.  Finally, we employed the three phases football as an analogy for the different apologetic schools and I likened Tim Tebow to the presuppositionalists.

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Moving Forward, Parts 1-10:  We looked at some analysis of some shifts evangelicalism will need to make moving forward:  Doctrine, Worldview, Urbanization, Globality/Mobility, “Post-Modernism,” American Culture(s), Contextualization, Balance, and Final Analysis.

Top ~10 Books by Topic:

Top 10 Systematic Theology Texts

Top 10 Devotional Classics

Top 10 Books on the Church

Top 10 Books on Science and Christianity

Top 10 Books on Christian Biography

Top 10 Books on Culture

Top 10 Books on Eschatology

Top 5 Books on Worldview

Top 15 Books on Status of American Evangelicalism

Top 10 Books on Church History

Top 40 Books to Read While in College

Top 10 Books on Missions, Discipleship, and Evangelism

The 25 Most Destructive Books Ever Written…

Top 10 Apologetic Works

Top 10 Books on Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

Top 10 Books by John Piper

Top 5 Children’s Books

Best Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms of the Christian Church

A Comprehensive List of Top 10 Book Lists of 2009

Up Next:  We will be looking at some thoughts on the economy and investment and then delve into the mind of Friedrich Nietzsche…

Written by Michael Graham

December 19, 2009 at 11:29 am

Top 15 Books on Status of American Evangelicalism

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No Place for Truth by David Wells

These books represent the best analysis on the present status and recent history of evangelicalism.  This list is meant to be informative and not to be alarmist or disconcerting.  I think the classic Dicken’s line, ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times‘ will apply the Christ’s church til He return.  It is implicit also in this list that works commending a Christian worldview, like Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth, are must reads.  I have also omitted more esoteric debates including books on open theism, federal vision, new perspectives on paul… etc.  The purpose of this list is zoomed out than those specific issues.

1.  No Place for Truth by David Wells  [e, p, s]

How modernity crept in and screwed up evangelicalism.  Absolute classic.

2.  The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll  [y, l, e, p, s]

The scandal of the evangelical mind is that it is so scarce and scant.  You may also want to read Os Guinness’ Fit Bodies Fat Minds, addressing evangelicalism’s intellectual laziness and preoccupation with the temporary.

3.  The Democritization of American Christianity by Nathan Hatch  [e, p, s]

Fascinating analysis of the democritization of Christianity in America.  His historical analysis is keen and well-researched.

4.  Christianity and Liberalism by J. Greshem Machen  [e, p, s]

This classic work delineates the liberalism of the early 20th century as being a completely other faith than the historic orthodox Christian faith.  86 years later it is still relevant.

5.  God in the Wasteland by David Wells  [e, p, s]

Wells continues where he left off in No Place for Truth, by challenging evidenced consumerism in evangelicalism.

6.  The Courage to Be Protestant by David Wells  [e, p, s]

The title is a play on Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be.  Tillich’s work was a classic in early 20th century Protestant liberalism.  Wells draws connections between the emergent movement as really being a form of rehashed 20th century era liberalism.  Wells is also scathing on the level and abuse of marketing in modern evangelicalism.  As far as Wells goes, his Above All Earthly Pow’rs s also a worthwhile read:  in terms of analysis Pow’rs is to post-modernity what No Place for Truth was to modernity.

7.  The New Shape of World Christianity:  How American Experience Reflects Global Faith by Mark Noll  [e, p, s]

I am surprised by the lack of press for this book.  Noll examines the history of Christianity in America and draws parallels in key growth areas (Southern hemisphere and the East).  Noll is actually rather positive amid the torrent of bad press on what American Christians are exporting.  This is an important work because we are good to be reminded that American evangelicalism is not the height of church history.  Further, the church is Christ’s and she will prevail.  I think Noll has his fingers on the pulse of what is going on and what is next, we would be wise to listen to what he has to say.

8.  Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism by George Marsden  [e, p, s]

This is a must read if you seek to understand our history.  Also an important work is Revival and Revivalism by Iain Murray.

9.  Reclaiming the Center:  Confronting Evangelical Accomodation to Postmodern Times by Various Authors  [y, l, e, p, s]

Various heavyweights chime in on the necessity of remaining faithful to the preaching of the Word and to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  If you like this work, I suggest also Os Guinness’, Prophetic Untimeliness:  Challenging the Idol of Relevance.

10.  Christless Christianity by Michael Horton  [y, l, e, p, s]

This books has caused a bit of a stir.  You can read John Frame’s book review here.  I have yet to read the book, but I thought it a worthwhile mention to engage in present dialogue over the status of the Gospel in evangelicalism.  From what I gather, Horton has guys like Joel Osteen in view when he speaks of a Christianity without Christ.

11.  Young, Restless, and Reformed by Colin Hansen  [y, l, e, p, s]

This book is an important first look at the growing demographic of young Reformed folk.  This is an area that needs further analysis and hopefully a good work will come soon.

12.  Respectable Sins:  Confronting the Sins We Tolerate by Jerry Bridges  [y, l, e, p, s]

Bridges is 100% right when he highlights several sins that evangelicals strangely tolerate:  gossip, anger, pride, jealousy, anxiety, and selfishness to name a few.

13.  Why Johnny Can’t Preach:  The Media Have Shaped the Messengers by T. David Gordon  [e, p, s]

Gordon applies Marshall McLuhan’s keen insights to shed light on the dearth of serious bible teaching in evangelicalism.

14.  Confessions of a Reformission Rev by Mark Driscoll  [y, l, e, p, s]

I think Mark Driscoll is a very important voice in evangelicalism, moreso than many of my fellow Reformed brethren.  This book is a humorous yet insightful look into the story of the planting of Mars Hill Church in Seattle.  There are many lessons weaved into the narrative that are wise and memorable.

15.  Why We’re Not Emergent:  From Two Guys That Should Be and Why We Love the Church:  In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck  [y, l, e, p, s]

The first book is a solid book on the emergent church.  I also wanted to end this list with on a positive note with Why We Love the Church.  Many times we can get so bogged down in self-criticism that we forget to praise God for all the truly good things he is doing in and through the church in America.

What we need is always adherence to the same three things:  orthodoxy, orthopathos, and orthopraxis.

(c=children; y=young adult; l=lay leader; e=elder; p=pastor; s=scholar)

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Past, Present, and Future… Part 7

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Neocalvinism

Neocalvinism

It is easier to write about the past than to predict the future. Evangelicalism is quite broad today, perhaps so broad as to question the veracity of its use as a technical term.  Regardless of whether evangelicalism remains the technical term to describe conservative Protestants, I shall try to look at some potential future (and semi-present) trends.

Networks of churches will be more common:  Groups of churches, organized either locally/geographically and/or doctrinally, will be more common.  Organizations like Acts29 will be a more attractive option for new churches planted over against denominations.

Multi-site:  the multi-site movement is where one church has multiple campuses and the main pastor’s sermon is broadcast/simulcast to the other sites.  I think we will see a movement here towards multi-sites that are geographically distant from the original site – this leads to…

Branding:  I can envision some multi-site groups with a nationally (or internationally) recognizable pastor seeking to do multi-site in other cities across the country.   Instead of one self-identifying with being, “Southern Baptist,” one might identify with going to “Superstar Pastor, Chicago” or “Superstar Pastor, Memphis.”

Church Planting:  The church planting movement will continue to grow.  As liberal churches continue to bleed, there will continue to be a need for church planting.

Denominational decline and growth:  Denominations that fail to adhere to orthodox beliefs will decline heavily.  I am sure some denominations will go unorthodox on a variety of theological issues.  I can imagine social theological issues like abortion, homosexuality, and bioethics being some gateways to denominational error.  Denominations that adhere to orthodox faith and seek balance of reaching their city and the world will grow.

Liturgy:  There will be a growth in people who want more of God’s transcendence in the service in reaction over against the more entertainment and pop oriented worship.

Consumerism, Megachurch, and Smaller Local Churches:  Consumerism has failed the church – ie. the church with the great ______ program(s).  It makes for lousy discipleship and many people thinking they are legitimate believers when they are not.  I think that there will be a decline in the megachurch movement.  Megachurches will not go away because there will always be those drawn to a more anonymous worship experience and consumerism will always infiltrate evangelicalism on some level.  However, I think people many (not all) will trend away from the megachurch, preferring real community.  I think this will be in reaction to the great irony of globalization – as the world gets smaller and closer, it becomes more fractured and less communal.  This will be a driving factor for many to leave the anonymous megachurch and go to a place where they can know and have friendship with real people.

Missional Church Movement:  Time will tell if the missional church movement overemphasizes the local mission, an equal and opposite reaction to the imbalance of evangelicalism towards defining mission as unreached or international only.  My guess is that the missional church will seek some balance and develop a positive identity that does not require a defunct evangelism as a host in order to survive (ie. post-modernity needing modernity).

Open Source and Kingdom Mentality:  The redeeming principles of the open source movement that began in computer science will be applied and used well to resource the global body of Christ.  Ministries like Third Millenium Ministries who collaborate across denominational lines and give away all their content for free will be more common (see also Desiring God Ministries).  This will happen as technology is utilized to make edifying data more and more available instaneously – combined with visionary kingdom minded people seek to ensure that the worldwide church is well resourced.

Neo-Calvinism (I am not sure how to define it, but try some of these links- 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5):  Neo-calvinism will continue to grow… whether as a reaction against something else (megachurch, anti-intellectualism, Dispensationalism, irrelevance, or unmissionality) or positively as an embracing of something substantive.

I fear that the internet era of podcasts and videocasts, people’s expectations of their unknown and unsung local pastors could become unrealistic.  This fuels my concern over the already existing issue of celebrity and may lead to the aforementioned highly problematic branding.  I wonder if the great contribution of the non-denominational world will ultimately be de facto denominations that have all their weaknesses without all their strengths.

How things will play out will depend on the actions/reactions of evangelicalism to multiculturalism, mobility, globality, pluralism, re-urbanization, technology, capitalism, democritization, and dualism.  This concludes our look at the past, present, and future of evangelicalism as I see it.

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Past, Present, and Future… Part 3b

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evangelicals ought to take a good hard look in the mirror

evangelicals ought to take a good hard look in the mirror

One of the aims of this little blog series is to help other evangelicals understand that many of the things that frustrate us about America, we not only did nothing to stop but are actually culpable in creating.   There are too many ironic consequences of the Second Great Awakening to warrant only a single post.  We need to take a hard look in the mirror and like the Escher drawing, things aren’t necessary as we thought they would appear…

Consider these quotes:

Americans of the early Republic experienced an epistemological crisis as severe as any in their history… Truth itself seemed to be shattered, and everything was left to the individual-the voter, the buyer, the religious believer-to make decisions strictly on his own.    Gordon S. Wood in Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, p. 275.

Instead of critically challenging the emerging culture of modernity, populist evangelicals were reshaping Christianity to fit the categories of modern experience.  Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, p. 285.

An Arminian message and a free-church ecclesiology fit with their experience as independent, autonomous actors in a democratic polity and an expanding capitalist economy.  Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, p. 285.

“The Puritan ideal of the minister as an intellectual and educational leader was steadily weakened in the face of the evangelical ideal of the minister as a popular crusader and exhorter”… Theological education began to focus more on practical techniques and less on intellectual training.    Nancy Pearcey and Richard Hofstatder in Total Truth, p. 286.

The outcome of all this was the rise of personality cults, the celebrity system that has become so entrenched in evangelicalism… the leaders of the populist evangelical movement made an end run around denominational structures and built movements based on sheer personality-on their ability to move people and win their confidence… “the ‘star’ system prevailed in religion before it reached the theater…”  Today we rail against the celebrity system within Christianity, thinking it was imported from Hollywood culture… but when we look back historically, we find that the star system began in Christian circles.    Nancy Pearcey and Richard Hofstatder in Total Truth, p. 287; 292.

One of the dangers of personality cults is that they lead easily to demagoguery.  The revivalists were often strong-willed leader who, ironically, ended up exercising an even higher degree of dogmatism and control than pastors in traditional denominations, whom they denounced…  John Nevin, argued that the revivalists’ “high-sounding phrases” of liberty and free inquiry were merely masks for a new form of domination.  Though they called loudly for “liberty,” he said, most evangelical groups pressed every member into “thinking its particular notions, shouting its shibboleths and passwords, dancing its religious hornpipes, and reading the Bible only through its theological goggles…” “so many wires that lead back at last into the hands of a few leading spirits, enabling them to wield a true hierarchical despotism over all who are thus brought within their power.  Thus, ironically, the magnetic leaders who encouraged people to break away from traditional theological structures often ended up becoming authoritarian leaders within their own groups, sometimes verging on demagoguery…  Most of all, perhaps, evangelicalism still produces a celebrity model of leadership-men who are entrepreneurial and pragmatic, who deliberately manipulate their listeners emotions, who subtly enhance their own image through self-serving personal anecdotes, whose leadership style within their own congregation or parachurch ministry tends to be imperious and domineering, who calculates success in terms of results, and who are willing to employ the latest secular techniques to boost numbers.    Nancy Pearcey in Total Truth, p. 289; 290; 292.

Alexander de Tocqueville wrote concerning America:

Meet a politician where you expected to find a priest.   p. 306-307.  (Reminds me of much of the Christian Right)

David Wells on post-revolutionary Americans:

The person for whom democracy is not simply a political system but an entire worldview and for whom, therefore, culture and truth belong to the people… in America, the love of freedom, from which individualism arises, is as fierce as the love of equality, from which conformity arises.    David Wells in No Place for Truth, p. 189-190.

Calvinistic orthodoxy, which looked to be unhappily anchored in the older world of hierarchy and privilege and hence appeared to be decidedly undemocratic, was put to flight before Arminianism.  The church-centered faith that had been favored before the Revolution retreated before itinerant revivalism, reasoned faith retreated before exuberant testimony, and theological confession retreated before axioms of experience.    David Wells in No Place for Truth, p. 206.

Nancy Pearcey hits the nail on the head when she says:

Evangelicalism did not provide a critical stance from which to evaluate the new developments in politics and economics, but was itself in many ways a powerful force of modernization. Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, p. 286.

For the most part, evangelicals in America have not considered their heritage and the things they have cause willingly and inadvertently:

-Celebrity culture – culpable

-Enlightenment Project – culpable

-Modernism – culpable

-Democritization of knowledge – culpable  (implicit in this is also culpability in post-modernism)

We shall look next time at the split of Protestantism…

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