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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

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 6

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Our brief look backward at the roots of evangelism has brought us to the last two decades. I think like almost any period in history there are encouraging and discouraging elements… reason for optimism and reason for pessimism.  For me, the last two decades have been more of a cause for optimism than pessimism.

The main cause for optimism is growth of the Reformed side of evangelicalism, combined with the weakening of the evangelical populist side that had dominated conservative Protestantism for most the 20th century.

There are several factors that have contributed to the weakening of the populist group.  First, the populist group had grown to borrow heavily from the culture-at-large, namely, from consumerism and from the methodology and structure of the corporate (capitalist) business world.  The paradigm of the 150-300 person local church became a thing of the past and the megachurch with slick production, smooth communication, and programs for kids of all ages.  Pastors became de facto CEOs.  Attendees were/could be anonymous.  Community was based on affinity groups based on generation or interest.  Upon first glance, it appears to be what the culture wanted…  Diet Jesus:  little/no accountability (or church discipline), worship where that draws attention away from self, preaching that is heavy on story and light on the challenging words of the Bible.  I am painting a rather pessimistic picture of the megachurch movement here, but I think in many examples it is more than fair.  In my view, this kind of church model cannot be sustained and will either die a slow death or ultimately implode.

Is it bad to pray against classical Dispensationalism?

End Times Charts!

Another factor contributing to the weakening of evangelical populism is the death of classical Dispensationalism.  When Y2K came and uneventfully passed it was the final nail in the coffin of classical Dispensationalism.  Surprise, surprise, God doesn’t follow the Gregorian calendar or your end-times charts.  Between no seminary teaching classical Dispensationalism anymore and Y2K this led people to start thinking differently about the millenia and drinking from different wells, reading a bit more broadly.

I think real Christians want real preaching of the Bible, with real community, and to make a real impact where God has them.  I think this desire has led to a large scale movement away from evangelical populism towards churches with

John Piper

John Piper

expository preaching, church discipline, historic confessions, and smaller size.  These churches are almost unilaterally Reformed in their lineage.  I think the resurgence in Reformed theology is primarily not a Presbyterian movement (that is nothing to diminish the real growth here), but predominantly Baptist.  This is due in large part to the influence of John Piper, Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, and several others.  The Baptists have their roots in the Puritans who had deep roots in Reformed Theology.  This resurgence is not without its weaknesses and we shall talk about this later.

One of the more nefarious aspects of evangelicalism in the 20th century was the neglect of the everyday mission field of America.  We have already explored why evangelicals receded from cultural engagement as a equal and opposite reaction against the imbalances of the Social Gospel.  However, evangelicals were equally imbalanced in not engaging the culture with words and deeds.  In the last twenty years we have seen a resurgence in churches caring for the cities that they live in by seeing them as a mission field.  I think the missional church movement has been by-and-large very positive (minus the more radical emergent church voices).

Thrice

Thrice

There has been a resurgence in Christians making diverse solid music, see:  Thrice, Cool Hand Luke, Blindside, Appleseed Cast, Denison Marrs, Reach Records, Reformed Rap, Sufjan Stevens, and Mineral.  In addition there has been a resurgence of Christians making good art, across multiple mediums, see:  Makoto Fujimura, Marilynne Robinson (also here), and Darren Doane.  There has been a resurgence in Christians in academia:  Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Rodney Stark, Dallas Willard, Phillip Johnson and James Davison Hunter.

This concludes our look at the past of evangelicalism… up next, we will at some potential future trends.

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