Archive for the ‘Post-modern-pragmatism’ Category
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:
- 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
- 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.
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 Belief – WSJ 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.
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
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
Great fake travel posters made by artist Ali Xenos. There are some great ones of Rivendell, Tatooine, Dagobah, and Winterfell.
‘Gravity’ Spinoff: Watch the Other Side of Sandra Bullock’s Distress Call – Jonas Cuaron’s seven-minute companion short, filmed in Greenland and featuring Bullock’s voice
Brutal personal piece on about one young man’s battle with our present culture of death – “I Lost My Daughter to the Culture of Death”
Modalimy – Co-parenting for those that want children but not a relationship or marriage. You really cannot make this stuff up.
“Nelson Mandela: A Candid Assessment” – from Catholic site Crisis Magazine
Interesting piece from personal finance blog Mr. Money Mustache entitled, “Get Rich With: The Position of Strength.” Makes some salient points.
Interesting piece in the Atlantic dealing with Clickbait and UpWorthy’s game changing headlines
Trevin Wax over at the Gospel Coalition has a great piece entitled, “Being True to Yourself is Living a Lie.” The gist of the article is that much of pop culture today – everyone from Disney to Lady Gaga – is espousing that being true to oneself is the highest virtue. He sites some of the following examples from Disney and Gaga:
- Cinderella singing about her dreams and being true to her inner princess
- Mulan refusing to fit into cultural stereotypes
- Ariel longing for a world she wasn’t created for
- Aladdin becoming the prince he pretended to be
Music only reinforces this message during the teenage years. For example, Lady Gaga’s anthem “Born This Way” celebrates our urgings and longings:
Don’t hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way
The underlying assumption here is that the highest virtue of life is authenticity to self.
Nietzsche, Disney and Lady Gaga
This kind of assumption has its roots in neither Disney films nor Lady Gaga’s music. The roots of these assumptions are found in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche essentially espouses the most consistent (as consistent as anything can be within a framework that has no God and by corollary no Truth, no fixed axioms… etc.) atheistic system. Nietzsche is one of the few atheists that actually says that morality is contingent on God’s existence. For him, because God does not exist, neither does morality and morality is nothing but a human construction that is keeping humanity from evolving beyond humanity. For Nietzsche, he wants humanity to shed itself of morality and embrace power and dominion over weaker humans. Only when a few will be cruel and domineering over weaker humans (humans who still embrace morality, Truth… etc.) will humanity start the process of becoming like the overman (the overman is to humanity what humanity is to the apes – the next step in our evolutionary biology). Here is the KEY – The key to embracing power… The key to rejecting morality and its chains… The key to evolving and walking the tightrope towards the overman… is AUTHENTICITY TO SELF. (For more on this you can read a piece I wrote entitled – Why Nietzsche is Helpful for the Christian)
The Problem with Authenticity to Self
The big problem with authenticity to self is that we are children of Adam. As children of Adam, being authentic to ourselves means we should embrace all our sin patterns and call them good and healthy. What happens if we apply the lyrics of the Lady Gaga song to the man who is attracted to little boys or girls?
Don’t hide yourself in regret
Just love yourself and you’re set
I’m on the right track, baby
I was born this way
What happens if we apply these lyrics is that pedophilia is not only not wrong, it is rather virtuous and good – for I am merely exercising my authenticity to my personhood as a son of Adam. Margaret Sanger was just being authentic to her feeling that certain races and genetic material was inferior and therefore ought to be prevented from birth or eliminated from the womb. Hitler was just being authentic to his extreme hatred in his heart for the Jews, gypsies and homosexuals. Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, Richard Ramirez, Albert Fish, Ted Bundy, and the Zodiac were all just expressing on the canvas of the murdered bodies their authentic personhood as sons of Adam.
Calling all the sinful, disobedient, law-breaking, twisted and harmful desires of our heart good is not just unhealthy it is dangerous to society, the thriving of culture and the reality of the Gospel.
The Good News
The good news is authenticity is a virtue in the new life we have when we are adopted into Christ’s family. We are given the mind of Christ, the Holy Spirit, God’s book, and a community of people to grow and flourish. Authenticity means living in light of being no longer a son of Adam but a son of the King – one who has been set free from the mind of sin and death and is free to become a slave of Christ.
Thorough article analyzing “Why the Arabic World Turned Away from Science” (HT: Nancy Pearcey)
Scathing anecdotal piece of UCC minister complaining about all the conversations with people who are “spiritual but not religious”
Thank you for sharing, spiritual but not religious sunset person. You are now comfortably in the norm for self-centered American culture, right smack in the bland majority of people who find ancient religions dull but find themselves uniquely fascinating.
Sad but true comic: “The Evolution of Intellectual Freedom” (HT: BL)
I always look forward to 9Marks eJournals, this one entitled, “How Much Should You Pay Your Pastors?” was particularly good.
NYTimes article, “One Size Fits Nobody” on the crazy world of (women’s) clothing sizes
Thrice new single, “Promises”
ps. Sorry it has been forever since posting… for the handful of you that find these posts interesting
I feel like I’ve got to get this out of my system to justify spending 6 seasons watching a compelling narrative only to be severely disappointed. WARNING, this will contain spoilers, read on at your own risk.
There were two things that were compelling about the LOST narrative: it’s characters and it’s mythology. I believe that humans are hard-wired for stories. The most compelling stories are stories that illuminate some aspect of the Biblical storyline of creation-fall-redemption-re-creation. LOST focused heavily on the brokenness, alienation, and self-destructive patterns of its characters/candidates. We can empathize with the fallen condition of these characters – sons that didn’t measure up to their overly-expectant/deceptive/abusive fathers, addiction, purposelessness, and low self-esteem. We can empathize with the arcing of their characters as they realize their brokenness is due to a lack of community and that when we ask for help, redemption comes.
My frustration with the LOST narrative is its re-creation (I am not prepared to speculate about whether the flash-sideways end state of most of the characters is purgatory, a kind of heaven, or some sort of eternal recurrence, so no comments there). The fallen condition was redeemed through community and I was tracking with the arc of the storyline until the re-creation narrative (the final 10 minutes of the show). One of the things I have thoroughly enjoyed throughout LOST has been its intelligence and inter-textuality, continually making reference to excellent works of literature and philosophy. I share the same love for many of the authors referenced: Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Fyodor Dostoevsky, C.S. Lewis, and Søren Kierkegaard. However, if the writers had even a cursory understanding of these writers (or philosophy in general), they would quickly dismiss the blatant syncretism of their own re-creation narrative. Stephen Prothero, religion professor at Boston University, dismembers the ‘One God, Many Paths’ sentiment of our day, showing that it is reductionistic and dangerous to pretend we are all the same. The quality of dialogue between Jack and his father was poor, the imagery was trite and reductionistic, and the final montage cliche.
My two cents, feel free to disagree with me…
So, I’ve been chewing on some Nietzsche for the better part of the last 8 months (I mentioned a few things I was struck by here) . I think Nietzsche is very helpful for Christians and is worth reading/understanding. There are at least four reasons why this is the case:
First, Nietzsche is helpful because he presents a worldview almost completely antithetical to Christianity. From my experience, total opposites often have a lot in common and typically this is the case because opposites employ the same categories to divergent conclusions. Nietzsche takes many of orthodox Christianities’ categories and turns them on their head. He preaches the opposite of the Sermon on the Mount, encouraging master morality over slave morality. He preaches that humanity has killed God through our lack of worship of God and as a result there is no such thing as good/evil, right/wrong, or black/white because all of these depended on God for their existence. He preaches that all that humanity has is power through the assertion of one’s will.
Second, Nietzsche and Christianity have a few common assessments and aims (The Fall, Telos, and Pleasure). In my opinion, there is definitely a sense of the brokenness of things in Nietzsche’s philosophy. While not coming from a theistic framework, he sees that humanity needs to rise above its current pitiful state to something higher. While he might not refer to the ubermensch as redeemer of humanity, it is certainly Nietzsche’s telos for humanity. Nietzsche and the Christian see very eye-to-eye when it comes to a promotion of life-affirmation (given, from very different angles). Some may accuse Christianity of being prudish or oppressive but they haven’t read C.S. Lewis on joy, Jonathan Edwards on affection, or John Piper on Christian hedonism. Both Nietzsche, Lewis, Edwards, and Piper all put forth a very life-affirming, full-bodied, joy-filled, and pleasure-seeking vision of life.
Third, Nietzsche is correct in his assessment that the death of God necessitates nihilism (a rejection of all morality). For Nietzsche a large portion of his philosophy was devoted to the reevaluation of everything in light of the death of God (particularly morality). Unlike the New Atheists who want to have their cake and eat it too (atheism with some semblance of morality), Nietzsche obliterates this notion. Nietzsche rejects all transcendence in light of the death of God, for if God is the only transcendent thing/being in existence, then the death of God also destroys anything transcendent. The only meta-narrative (for Nietzsche) left is the assertion of power and pleasure in the face of the harsh world.
Fourth, Nietzsche’s worldview is horribly unlivable. The unlivability of the Nietzschean worldview is probably the greatest critique of his thinking. I won’t even delve into the fact that Nietzsche spent the last decade of his life severely mentally ill and institutionalized (as this has been abused by Nietzsche’s critics). It is no great secret that Nietzsche’s most faithful disciple was Michel Foucault. Foucault was an influential post-structuralist and post-modern thinker who sought to live Nietzsche’s worldview to its logical end. Power and pleasure were at the center for Foucault and Nietzsche and as such Foucault delved deep into the world of homosexual sadomasochism. It was not uncommon for Foucault to have 6-12 such encounters in a single night (facilitated by the bath-houses of 70s era Southern California). He was quite open and would brag about his sexual power and prowess. He was one of the first public figures to die of AIDS. He wanted to die in his native Paris and upon his triumphal entry to his city, 2 million people lined either side of the Champs-Élysées. Those celebrating his return carried posters with Foucault’s motto, “Be Cruel.”