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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


3 Month Introspective

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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

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Moving Forward, Part 6: “Post-Modernism”

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Richard Rorty

Richard Rorty: If you don't understand him, you probably don't understand "post-modernism" either...

Perhaps you have had an experience like this one:  You are talking with someone about your personal beliefs.   After explaining your story and worldview they respond with something to the effect of, “that is so good for you,” or “I am glad you have that.”

Perhaps you have had another experience like this one:  You are at a church, or a conference, or some other Christian meeting and the speaker has talked about the importance of understanding “post-modernism.”  I have heard some form of this talk probably a dozen times and never has the speaker ever hit the nail on the head.

This blog post will attempt to sort out Evangelicalism’s imprecise analysis of culture and philosophy on the matter of “post-modernism”

Post-modernism “explained”

Post-modernism is a reaction against the arrogance of modernism and the Enlightenment Project.  Modernism and the Enlightenment Project attempted to create a perfect worldview through pure reason alone.  Suffice to say this project was a dismal failure and imploded in the late 19th century.  This created an intellectual vacuum in Western thinking and the main thing that replaced it was an equal and opposite reaction to modernisms’s hubris.  Post-modern thought rejects foundations;  it is skeptical of overarching stories and worldviews; it says that truths are merely local and not universal.  The problem with post-modernism and defining the term is that  post-modernity rejects definitions, rejects categories, rejects foundations, and rejects Truth.  Hence, the philosophy is best understood as a reaction against modernism and requires modernism to exist in the same way a tick requires a host.

All to common example

One such example was a kind 70+ year old professor during my time at seminary.  The man had incredible ministry experience yet was sorely off in his cultural and philosophical analysis.  For several weeks he used modern categories and terms to describe post-modern thought.  The underlying irony was that he was attempting to explain as a slightly modernistic outside observer what an entire class of slightly post-modern inside participants had experienced their whole lives.

What is wrong with the analysis [Besides the face that almost every time anyone says, “Post-modernism is ________,” they are being reductionistic… ]

I do not believe we are in a post-modern culture!

I have talked to hundreds of people who have many different worldviews.  I have talked to people in several countries, on three continents (including Western Europe).  Christians love to label “Post-modern” as some kind of catch all.  It is dangerous to assume that post-modernism can be considered a “worldview.”   It is dangerous because it can be best seen as a rejection of worldviews, even though Christians continue to call it a worldview.  Lots of people I talk to are scientific rationalists.  Lots of people I talk to are pragmatists.  Lots of people I talk to are inspired by Eastern thought.  Some of the people I talk to borrow from all of the above – these are the people that we have incorrectly labeled “post-moderns.”  Let me repeat:

Post-modernism is not a stand alone philosophy. Christians have completely mislabeled and misunderstood this philosophical undercurrent.

What you need to be studying is the philosophy of Richard Rorty.

Post-modernism is a critique of modernism and is not a standalone worldview.  However, Richard Rorty took the post-modern skepticism and married it to another philosophy:  pragmatism.  Rorty was a philosophy professor at Yale (1956-57), Army (57-58), Wellesley (58-61), Princeton (61-82), Virginia (82-98), and Stanford (98-2005).  Here is a brief outline of Rorty’s thought:

1.  Propositions are true if they are helpful, and not because they have a one-to-one relationship with facts.

2.  Language is a game, because words are defined by other words, which are defined by other words, which are often defined by the original word in question (heavily borrowing from later Wittgenstein and post-structuralism)

3.  All language is contingent.  There is no link between language and reality.

4.  Therefore, Truth is incoherent and pointless.  No Final Vocabulary exists (Rorty’s way of denying the existence of absolute truth)

5.  The ideal person is the ironist – a person who:  1. skeptical of final vocabulary  2. Argument within ones current vocabulary cannot dissolve such skepticism  3.  As they philosophize about their situation they do not think that their vocabulary is somehow closer to reality than others.  People that have exhibited these traits according to Rorty – Nietzsche, Foucault, Heidegger, Proust, and Derrida.

6.  Final vocabulary leads to cruelty, therefore it must be rejected.

7.  What is true is what works.  What works is what is true.

Richard Rorty has blended post-modernism with pragmatism, in what I call post-modern-pragmatism.    This is what well-meaning Christians have been trying to explain but been unable to have the correct taxonomy.  Is everyone in America a post-modern-pragmatist?  absolutely not (and I am not sure why so many call ‘our culture’ post-modern).  Is there a trend towards the ideas of Rorty in Western Europe and the United States?  In my view, yes.

The tricky thing about post-modern-pragmatism is that it does not need to be true for people to desire it and adhere to it – it merely needs to “work for them.”  Revisiting the conversation I have had countless times from the beginning of this post – these people are espousing the ideas of Richard Rorty.  The whatever-works-for-you worldview is post-modern-pragmatism and not post-modern thought.

Christians have been unable to deconstruct post-modern-pragmatism because they have mislabeled it and been applying the wrong arguments against it.  The glaring weakness in Rorty’s (and any post-structuralist) thinking is that it is still subversively is appealing to Final Vocabulary in order to deconstruct Final Vocabulary.  In other words, his argument is still essentially:

There is no truth, besides this one.

Post-modern-pragmatism is essentially a bait-and-switch.  Worldviews have always been judged on two criteria:  is it true?  AND  does it work?  Rorty attempted to make those two separate questions, one single question by defining the two terms circularly as being synonymous with the other.  It is a diabolical yet ultimately silly philosophy.  The reason it is so powerful is that people employ this philosophy to justify their mutually exclusive beliefs and sin.  When confronted with the fact that they hold mutually exclusive beliefs they respond, “that’s ok, it works for me.”

I believe the central reason why evangelicals have missed the target by so far on “post-modernism” is because evangelicals are intellectually lazy.  Further, this laziness is always seeking to pigeon hole the many ideas and many cultures of a massive country into a really small box that they can then apply assembly line tools to fix (modernism still rears its ugly head in the evangelical).  Moving forward, evangelicals need to be more precise and more rigorous in understanding cultural and philosophical trends and ideas.  Up next  we will examine how evangelicals have done this, why they have done it, and what we need to do instead.

(if you care to read Rorty for yourself, the best summary of his thought is his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity)

Thoughts on Evangelicalism Moving Forward, Part 3: Worldview

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Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey

Three nasty by-products of a half-century of evangelical cultural disengagement and anti-intellectualism were that secularism, pluralism, and post-modern-pragmatism were allowed to run amok.  Divinity schools where Pastors were trained for ministry became Religious Studies departments where we put religions in a box to poke them and take notes.

Moving forward, evangelicalism must rediscover the Biblical worldview that they have neglected.  I can think of no better starting point that evangelicals everywhere reading Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth.  Every undergraduate, mom, working person, or clergy needs to read this book.  Later I will be doing a series of Top5/10 posts on different books in different genres.  This books is on my Top 10 All-Time across all categories.  It is not an arrogant statement, but a truthful statement, to say that Christianity accounts for everything in the Universe.  This is not tantamount to saying that individual Christians fully understand or comprehend all things or that there is no mystery for us.  But it does mean that, as Augustine put it, “all truth is God’s truth.”  Universities used to be the unity of Christ as total truth uniting the diversity of various academic disciplines that all had their center in his logos.  In other words, the University was much like a bicycle tire, where Christ was the unifying hub and each field was a spoke that owed its stability to the hub and owed its inter-relatedness to other fields also to that same hub.  Now, the University is a place where you get completely different mutually exclusive worldviews in different departments.  This was my experience at University of Florida.  I got diametrically opposed pictures of reality in the Religious Studies and Philosophy departments.  Both were frustrating because both were wrong.  The Religious Studies department was certain that nothing was certain.  The Philosophy department was certain that everything was certain (via modernistic rationalism). I believe that the University is ripe for the plucking because none of these worldviews being espoused have any substantial veracity.  John Summerville has a game plan that I wrote on earlier for on how to redeem the University.

In my view, secularism, pluralism, and post-modern-pragmatism (I will define this term in a later blog post), are ultimately unlivable and provide a really fertile soil for the Gospel.  Evangelicals must take their faith seriously in mind, heart, and practice.

Up next, we will look at how energy, the Peak Oil debate, urbanization, telecommuting, and the suburbs may present a substantial threat to evangelicalism.

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