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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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Best Links of the Week

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The Supreme Courts Back Alley Runs Through Philadelphia.”  A story on how Roe v. Wade makes regulating abortion clinics exceedingly difficult and opens the doors for the horrific squalor and infanticide of the clinic in Philadelphia.

Summary of a really interesting survey of evangelicals in the UK.

Billy Graham regrets not steering clear of politics and regrets not spending more time with family.

Mark Sanchez picks his nose and wipes it on his backup QB, video here.  (HT:  Aaron)

Consumer Watchdog and privacy group is raising concerns over close ties between Google, the NSA, and the present federal government.

Christian Astronomy Professor successfully sues the University of Kentucky for religious discrimination against him.

Iran has cleared a major hurdle in the uranium enrichment process.

Solid WSJ report on their murdered reporter Daniel Pearl.

U.S. Taxpayers have footed the $160 million legal bill for the executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Unbelievable and unconscionable.

Government Unions are trying to court the TSA to join their ranks.

Chuck DeGroat continues his series on dealing with difficult people with an excellent piece on dealing with the borderline (passive-aggressive).

Bernanke’s Rally Runs into Headwinds

A fairly thorough dossier on the American mafia.

Check your Munis as a bunch of states are quietly looking at bankruptcy.

Donald Trump has some harsh words on the pomp and show put on for the Chinese president.

Two Italian scientists (with suspect pasts) claim they have successfully found cold fusion.  No offense to my Italian friends, but this is very doubtful.

Double dip in the housing market.

UPDATE:  The appalling story of the Philadelphia abortion doctor who was charged with eight counts of murder, who had squalid conditions and random baby parts in jars… women are coming forward saying that he left them sterile.  Also in this vein, Al Mohler had a good piece on the President’s comments on the Roe v. Wade anniversary speech.

“People are Awesome”:

Best Links of the Week

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The Economist has an excellent article entitled “The Disposable Academic: Why Doing a PhD is a Waste of Time”

Delightfully lengthy article in GQ about Mossad’s somewhat botched assassination of a Hamas leader in the city of Dubai. (HT:  Phill)

Fascinating article that makes a compelling case that the Stuxnet worm that has disrupted Iran’s nuclear program originated ironically from China (and not the U.S., Britain, or Israel).

50 cent makes $8,700,000.00 off one tweet.  As a corollary to this article, there is way more money in self-branding in the entertainment industry than there is in the entertainment industry.  I also think it is ridiculous where people will take investment advice from.

I watched Ted Haggard’s little special on TLC last weekend.  I won’t delve into analyzing the state of his soul but Carl Trueman does a pretty decent job.

When you hang your head in shame, the last thing you should be thinking about is whether the camera has caught your good side.

The Lazy Slander of the Pro-Life Cause

BBC article on the impact of the King James Bible on the English language.

No other book, or indeed any piece of culture, seems to have influenced the English language as much as the King James Bible. Its turns of phrase have permeated the everyday language of English speakers, whether or not they’ve ever opened a copy.

2010 Los Angeles County bill tab for illegal immigrants in public schools was $600,000,000.00.

Utterly appalling story of abortion doctor in Philadelphia.  There had been no inspection of the clinic since 1993.

Gosnell “induced labor, forced the live birth of viable babies in the sixth, seventh, eighth month of pregnancy and then killed those babies by cutting into the back of the neck with scissors and severing their spinal cord,” Williams said.

Patients were subjected to squalid and barbaric conditions at Gosnell’s Women’s Medical Society, where Gosnell performed dozens of abortions a day, prosecutors said. He mostly worked overnight hours after his untrained staff administered drugs to induce labor during the day, they said.

12 Things that Will Cost Less in 2011

Starbuck’s ‘trenta’ infographic

Best Links of the Week

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Dealing With Difficult People:  Narcissists.  The best article I’ve read this year.

IBM computer to play against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.  Should be another interesting man vs. machine conflict.

Doug Wilson piece entitled “Calvinism, Eschatology, and the New Media

Andy Crouch, “Ten Most Significant Trends of Last Decade

A number of people in California recently won $150 by correctly guessing 4 of the 6 numbers of the California Lottery.  The winning numbers were:  4, 8, 15, 25, 47, 42

Apparently the Catholic Church is doing a realty series on exorcism, but I heard this was news to the Vatican.

New US $100 bills to have 3-D technology.

AIG is recapitalizing.  Unbelievable… have any lessons been learned?

Banks repossess over a million homes in 2010.  Also, foreclosures rising.

Drunk Scientists accidentally pour wine on semiconductors and make some scientific discovery.

WSJ article entitled “Bye-Bye PCs and Laptops

The Catholic Church and science.  Personally, I am a huge fan of science and think there is a fair degree of agreement between science and Christianity, far greater than many acknowledge.

Green blob from Hubble Space Telescope.

Major Dick Winters passed away earlier this month.  Thankful for this man and countless anonymous men just like him.

China’s new stealth fighter.

Haitian amputee soccer.

Is the Black Church Dead?

The precipitating event was an essay posted last February on the Huffington Post by Eddie Glaude, Jr., a young African-American religion professor at Princeton who gave his column the eye-catching title, “The Black Church Is Dead,” and continued that with an equally arresting lead:

“Of course, many African-Americans still go to church,” Glaude began, noting surveys that track the higher-than-average religiosity of American blacks. “But the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared,” he said.

Best Links of the Week

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Chuck DeGroat has one of the best pieces I have read in a long long time called, “What’s Wrong With Your Pastor?”  Orthodoxy without orthopathos is orthoworthless.

Tim Tebow writing a memoir about ‘faith, family, and football’ entitled Through My Eyes, and can be pre-ordered in hardcover and Kindle.

Marvin Olasky is resuming full-time duties at World Magazine.

Kansas State nutrition professor loses 27 pounds over two months while eating a diet of Twinkies and Nutty Buddy Bars, while lowering bad cholesterol by 20% and raising good cholesterol by 20%.

Company creating an app and cell phone plug-in device to test for STDs.  I am not sure if this is exceedingly strange or a good idea… or both.

iPhone app of the week:  MileBug – creates IRS compliant travel logs simply and easily and you can email yourself the reports in both Word or Excel formats.  If you don’t want to pay the $2.99 they have a Lite version that allows you to create 10 trip reports before having to email yourself.  Also, it allows you to take notes and add parking, toll, or food expenses to each mileage report.

Pretty crazy trick play in a Middle School football game:

Women solves Wheel of Fortune puzzle with just one letter:

My Two Caveats for the Missional Church

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I recently attended the Advance 2010 conference on Contextualizing the Gospel in the New Urban South.  The content of the conference was excellent and the speakers were Gospel-centered and Christ-saturated.  In the interest of full self-disclosure, I would willfully self-identify as being a part of the missional church movement.  While steeping some of the teaching receieved, I am left with two potential pitfalls for the missional church movement.

I think the obituaries have already been written and the eulogies given for both the church growth movement and the emergent church.  Hence, my first concern for the missional church movement is that it will just be another fad within evangelicalism.  I’ve chronicled before the very fickle fadish-ness nature of American evangelicalism.  We have the strong inclination to let our pendulums swing wildly, rarely finding any semblance of balance.  If history is any predictor of the future, the missional church movement will gain steam, others will jump on the bandwagon, then the movement dies because many identified with the movement not for its intrinsic principles, but rather for its pragmatic ends.  Nothing will kill a movement like the evil trinity of inauthenticity, superficiality, and pragmatism.

My second concern for the missional church movement is actually legalism.  This may actually come as a surprise of anyone who saw/listened to any of the Advance 2010 material.  Rightly so, Tyler Jones, Tullian Tchvidjian, Ed Stetzer and others railed against the quaint moralism (or think of Michael Horton’s, moralistic therapeutic deism) of the South.  Here is how legalism could creep into the missional church movement… and it is really subtle and nasty.  In your call to missional movement and mindset, create an implicit caste system within your church.  In this caste system reward those who are ‘more on mission’ vs. those who are ‘less on mission.’  In this caste system the way to earn God’s favor is by doing the works of the mission of God.  I don’t know if this kind of legalism is better/worse than any other form of self-salvation.  Remember that legalism is one of those nasty sins like pride, that can literally manifest themselves in even the most counter-intuitive or even contradictory places (ie. one can be proud in one’s humility).  We must be careful to still remind ourselves and others that our standing with God is not changed by even our greatest Gospel efforts or lack thereof.

In my view, we must guard the missional church movement from those who would see it as the next “it” way to grow your church (after shaving their soul patch and ceased showing movie clips).   We must also guard against guilting people into being on mission.  They must desire to be the church because of the Gospel not because it is the new way to rise in the legalistic caste system in your church.

Your thoughts?

Nietzsche vs. Christianity: Part 5

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Lecture five consisted of a series of talking points.  Aside from Alvin Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism… this lecture explores what Christianity and Nietzsche have in common.  The content suggests that Nietzsche’s Dionysian thinking is not entirely incompatible with Christianity.  It is my contention that C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, and John Piper have carved out common ground between Christianity and Nietzschean Dionysianism.

Audio of the lecture if available here.

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