Modern Pensées

Reconsidering theology, philosophy, culture, economics, and politics

Posts Tagged ‘Paul Johnson

An Attempt at How Cultural Orthodoxies (Dogmas) Form

leave a comment »

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

Advertisements

Top 5 Books on Worldview

with one comment

Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey

1.  Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey  [y, l, e, p, s]

Again, excellent book on worldview that I have commended here numerous times.  Get it and read it.

2.  Francis Schaeffer Trilogy by Francis Schaeffer  [y, l, e, p, s]

In The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent, Schaeffer dissects modernity and modern culture, exposing its corrupt roots and highlighting its end consequences.

3.  Universe Next Door by James Sire  [y, l, e, p, s]

Great worldview introduction.  Sire’s Naming the Elephant and Habits of the Mind are also really good.

4.  Intellectuals by Paul Johnson  [l, e, p, s]

See previous write-up here.

5.  Gnostic Empire Strikes Back by Peter Jones  [y, l, e, p, s]

Jones does a good job helping us understand some recent worldviews are really just rehashed Gnosticism.

Honorable Mention:  No Place for Truth by David Wells  [l, e, p, s]
Wells dissects evangelicalism’s roots in modernity in this devastating critique.

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

Top 10 Books on Culture

with 3 comments

The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington

These are books that are helpful for the Christian in better understanding their world past and present.  Some of the books are not written from an explicitly Christian perspective, but are nonetheless quite valuable.

1.  The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntingtonn  [y, l, e, p, s]

Huntington’s thesis is that the world is broken down into 9 different civilizations that each have a different main worldview/religion and that wars are most likely to occur where several civilizations come in close contact with each other – due to the friction created by mutually exclusive ideas.  Huntington’s work has proved to be a solid predictor over the last 20 years.

2.  Culture Wars by James Hunter  [y, l, e, p, s]

Hunter provides acute analysis on the American cultural landscape, describing battlelines drawn over American culture of the orthodox vs. progressive.  A must read for getting a better look at hot-button issues in contemporary America.

3.  Social and Cultural Dynamics by Pitrim Sorokin  [e, p, s]

Sorokin has a mountain of historical and cultural analysis on the history of western civilization.  He describes this history as oscillating between ideational culture and sensate culture.  Ideational culture is where the Western civilization was driven by the world of ideas (typically Christian ones).  Sensate Culture is where Western civilization has abandoned ideas and been preoccupied with pleasuring ourselves (#10 on this list does a great job in explaining the latter in our present context).

4.  Intellectuals by Paul Johnson  [e, p, s]

Johnson takes a look side-by-side at the thoughts and lives of several key intellectuals over the past two centuries (specifically:  Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Hemingway, Bertrand Russell, Brecht, Sartre, Edmund Wilson, Victor Gollancz, Lillian Hellman, Cyril Connolly, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Kenneth Tynan, and Noam Chomsky).  He lets the reader come to their own conclusions… but the conclusions are obvious:  these intellectuals lived lives either horribly inconsistent with their ideas OR their horrible lives drove their suspect ideas.  Paul Johnson also happens to be a very well respected historian whose other works are standard texts at Universities everywhere.

5.  Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber  [y, l, e, p, s]

Weber’s thesis for the first half of the book is pretty shocking – the Puritans started capitalism and that no one but the Puritans could have started capitalism.  Never before had capitalism been created because no one had a Calvinistic view of the world before where work was sacred and one did not spend one’s wealth because their focus was on the world-to-come.  Capitalism required an immense amount of initial capital to begin the new paradigm and the Puritans were the first people to be able to inadvertently create the system.  Weber spends the second half of the book explaining how capitalism destroyed the Puritans four generations later as the wealth accumulated became an iron cage.

6.  Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn  [y, l, e, p, s]

Kuhn levels the idea that the history of science follows the Darwinian model of slow-and-steady progress.  He coins the term “paradigm shift” to explain how the history of science is a history of completely new-and-superior paradigms leveling older paradigms (ie.  Quantum Mechanics and Newtonian Mechanics).  The thesis of the book has implications though for other fields as well.

7.  Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey  [y, l, e, p, s]

Excellent book on worldview that I have commended here numerous times.  Get it and read it.

8.  Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr  [e, p, s]

See write-up on this one here.

9.  Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark  [y, l, e, p, s]

Fascinating look on how Christianity spread from a marginalized Judean sect to the state religion of the Roman empire in under three centuries.  Stark is a well-respected historian and this book is a standard text at most Universities.  I think the implications of how Christianity was so successful in the pluralistic Mediterranean area has important lessons to teach Christendom today.

10.  Sensate Culture by Harold O.J. Brown  [y, l, e, p, s]

Brown picks up where Sorokin (#3) left off.  He takes a good hard look at Sorokin’s categories in light of modern American culture.

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

%d bloggers like this: