Friday, November 23, 2007

Building a Culture of Faithfulness (Part 11)

Man-centered vs. God-centered Thinking

We now live in demotic times, according to historian Jacques Barzun, and thus we live in a civilization that has lost its confidence and has degenerated into populism. The naturalistic religion of America makes man the measure of all things, whether it is man collectively (i.e. socialism) or man individually (i.e. individualism).[i] Christianity should reject both of these options in favor of biblical, trinitarian, covenant thinking. In short, we must be God-centered rather than man-centered.

The Sixties

The events of the 1960’s are often seen as the cause of the current culture wars in American society. In reality, the infamous “sixties,” which basically include from the mid 1950’s to the mid 1970’s, represent the natural culmination of the naturalistic trends we have briefly observed. For example, the so-called baby boomers represent the maturing of the youth culture that had emerged in American history. Emancipated from family identity, separated from the adult world by the school system, many of them reared in meaningless mainstream American Protestantism or nominal Catholicism, influenced by powerful and ubiquitous media, and with growing wealth, free time, and transportation, they lived out the ideals of self-realization. Thus, American pop culture takes its cue from the young and novel, rather than from the wisdom of the aged. In some ways, the sixties illustrate well the seeming paradox of contemporary society – a paradox that the world has no way of solving.

On the one hand, the sixties were the decade of personal liberation from all social restrictions and taboos. God was “dead” and so was his morality. Formality was rejected in favor of just being “natural.” The feminist movement kicked into high gear with strong Marxist undertones, and marriage began to crumble as a social institution. The civil rights movement appealed to the rights of the individual. Elvis Presley and the Beatles brought the new “rock music” to the mainstream, and Woodstock became the icon of the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll culture. Supposedly all authority was viewed with suspicion, but in reality it was just any authority that seemed to stand in the way of personal autonomy. Walt Disney capitalized on the culture of self-fulfillment by building the largest entertainment empire the world had ever seen, and sports continued their ascendancy into the stratosphere of public importance.[ii] Of course, the majority of Americans appeared to continue on in life without the huge change noted in intellectual and popular culture; there were not too many Allen Ginsbergs or Jane Fondas. Nevertheless, the underlying ethos American society was deeply changed. Self-realization, or “freedom,” was the order of the day.

The art and architecture of the day reflected this loss of any overarching sense of truth, goodness, and beauty. Twentieth century “art” music had become so intentionally fragmented, difficult, meaningless, and detached from reality that it ceased to attract all but the dedicated elites of the art world. Painting, too, had turned into the absurd or the juvenile – highly skilled absurdity, at times, but absurdity nonetheless. Architecture, which is “the mirror in which a civilization views itself” according to Roger Scruton, showed the same trend. The modernist architecture of the twentieth century was a direct repudiation of the classical ideas of beauty and truth. Of course, modernist architecture has now been largely rejected, but there is no accepted coherent alternative to it. Thus contemporary high culture has abandoned its inheritance, which was shot through with Christian ideas, and has become a pretense, whether in its modern or post-modern expressions.

On a popular level, rock music reflected the triumph of personal autonomy and self-expression (often in libidinous forms).[iii] It served to transmute the personality of its performers into the embodiment of the desires of its listeners and so both expressed and built celebrity culture. So-called Christian pop music emerged as the aural equivalent of a cheerleading squad – it is ear candy to get people excited, but one would not seek wisdom from the blondes there. It is aesthetic fast food, or even a commercial for the fast food. Rap music has now taken the degeneration to a new level. It is the “music” of the lowest level of personal self-expression. It is gut level music, incapable of developing rich judgments and affections, which are inseparably intertwined. Freedom is self-expression, no matter how vulgar.

Technology made this freedom seem possible. A new medium of entertainment and “news,” the television, transformed public discourse and helped to project larger-than-life human idols.[iv] The advent of the PC and the Internet brought seemingly unlimited power and knowledge to our fingertips. Medical science provided “the pill,” supporting the social drive to free physical relationships from marriage and child-bearing, and now genetic engineering and stem cell therapies are promising seemingly unlimited control over human life from conception to the grave. The interstate highway system and jet airliners provided the freedom to travel easily, and space travel conquered new frontiers. Thus modern Americans often trust in technology to provide freedom and make them happy.

The changes were not only taking place in popular culture, but also in law. As Michael Sandel says, “The central idea of the public philosophy by which we live is that freedom consists in our capacity to choose our ends for ourselves.” This “aspiration to neutrality,” he says, “finds prominent expression in our politics and law.”[v] Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy more recently wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This is human autonomy at its most brazen and at its most insane. Highlights of this trend, in varying degrees and ways, include removing prayer from public school, passing the Civil Rights Act, adopting no fault divorce, and legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade.

Yet on the other hand, the sixties marked an explosive growth in government regulation and domestic spending, such as with LBJ’s Great Society. Even though Marxism, per se, in our nation probably reached its high water mark in the 1960’s and 1970’s and has declined since, government regulation and domestic spending has continued to enlarge at a rapid pace. This becomes painfully clear when we consider that from the mid 1970’s to the mid 1990’s was the first time in American history that the federal budget deficit increased during a time of peace, in spite of record federal revenues. This deficit emerged primarily because of entitlement spending. By 2006, entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security (excluding net interest) consumed 53% of all program spending and a record 10.8% of the GDP.[vi] Americans, more than any other point in our history, now expect the federal government to provide for them.[vii]

The irony of all this is that as Americans became more emancipated than ever before, they also became more dependent and more regulated than ever before. Mark Steyn put the point in his usual sarcastic but pointed way: “A citizen of an advanced democracy expects to be able to choose from dozens of breakfast cereals at the supermarket, hundreds of movies at the video store, and millions of porno sites on the Internet, but when it comes to life-or-death decisions about his own body he's happy to have the choice taken out of his hands and given to the government”.[viii] This appears to be a paradox, but in reality it is simply the natural result of man-centered thinking. The pursuit of a false freedom corresponds with the enslavement of a false security.

The point of all of the above is not to say that all the changes in American society were negative or that the technological advances were necessarily detrimental. There have been many beneficial effects of improvements in areas such as medicine and agriculture. The problems resulted from the refusal to do all this to the glory of God and in keeping with his revelation.

Christianity in Contemporary America

It would be wonderful if we could report that the people of God in America had the wisdom to chart a straight course through these trends. On the whole, however, Christianity in America represents a mixed bag. The mainline Protestant churches effectively capitulated to the spirit of the age over 100 years ago, leading to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. It is my personal opinion that the loss of true Christianity among America’s mainline Protestant denominations is severely underappreciated by many scholars when they attempt to explain the historical factors that have shaped contemporary American society. The fundamentalists were the conservatives who wanted to maintain the authority of the Word of God. By the grace of God, the fundamentalists preserved the true gospel and upheld the absolute authority of the Word of God. We can thank God today for our forefathers in the faith who were willing to earnestly contend for the faith.[ix]

Yet the conservatives (both fundamentalists and new evangelicals, although new evangelicalism has become so broad that it can hardly be called conservative anymore) themselves have struggled with whether to adopt, adapt, or reject the changes in American society. Truth be told, the fragmented state of the churches in America probably rendered it impossible for conservative Christians to develop and live out a coherent alternative. Although they have had a reputation of rejecting the surrounding culture, this is not really accurate. They did at times reject certain features that were common in American society (the stereotypical movies, dancing, drinking, and card games), but for the most part they dressed, worked, ate, lived, and thought like Americans. Conservatives have, in fact, often been in the forefront of new technological and marketing trends in American religion. While rejecting the explicit tenets of the Enlightenment and of naturalism (for the most part), they have not always been good at discerning the ramifications of such thinking for their ministries in their churches, their family lives, their economic pursuits, their entertainment choices, etc. Much of this comes from a doctrinal shallowness and/or a love affair with the world. The churches and church leaders have contributed to this conformism to American culture. The headlong pursuit of relevance has made many a Christian and many a ministry the tail on the world’s dog – flopping around in servile imitation of the latest popular trend, hoping for a pet of approval.

The evangelistic crusades of Billy Graham present a famous example of how conservative American Christianity is thoroughly saturated with American ideals. Although fundamentalists scorned Graham’s decisions to become more theologically inclusive in his campaigns, it is significant that even fundamentalists expressed little concern with the mode and method of Graham’s operation. This is because Graham’s approach rose directly out of the American fundamentalist, revivalist approach stretching back to the Second Great Awakening. Hardly a voice was raised against the inherent problems of “evangelism incorporated” and the Finneyism of Graham’s approach. Even when Graham made statements that contradicted the gospel and included people in his campaigns who denied the gospel, Graham’s popularity was considered indispensable to evangelicalism as a movement, revealing once again how populist American Christianity tends to be.

The adaptation of American Christianity to America’s cultural norms is also exemplified in the contemporary Christian music movement. The explosion of Pentecostal/ charismatic ideas about worship and relationship to God, combined with the ingrained tendency of American evangelicals toward effective marketing, found a perfect mode of expression in the popular music of the 1960’s and onward. The Jesus People, for example, brought their brand of supposed authenticity, and their music, into more established conservative Protestant churches. Much of CCM promises immediate emotional access to God without a deep grasp of truth and the long, hard work of forming that truth into life, which is character.[x] Nowadays, “passion” of any kind is considered almost the highest virtue, with no ability to distinguish good passion from bad passion or higher passion from lower. Sadly, fundamentalist churches, with their “Father Abraham” and “Who’s the King of the Jungle?” type choruses, are not exempt from these trends.

The question that most naturally arises then is, where do we go from here? How do we build a culture of faithfulness to God and to the glory of his Son? How can we be God-centered rather than man-centered?

[i] There are those social conservatives who practice something of a hybrid position with respect to Christianity and naturalism. That is, Christian principles influence their thinking, yet they still look to man for the foundations of their morality and philosophy. An example would be the former senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, in his fine book It Takes a Family.

[ii] Sports have assumed a place in American society which is obscenely out of proportion with their eternal value. When tax money is used to build immense stadiums, stars are paid tens of millions of dollars, and the laity spend gobs of time reenacting the appropriate rituals with their young, it is quite clear that we have collective idol worship going on. Christians should be able to enjoy a good game with a healthy sense of enjoyment and a healthy sense of the relatively limited value of it all (1 Tim 4:8). I long for the day when the corporate worship of God’s people will both surpass the collective immolations of fans at a football stadium and be different in kind from the fans at a football stadium.

[iii] “…Parents [of the 1950’s] made no mistake in identifying the subversive sexual charge in the music. Although it was criticized, softened, and censored in the service of the status quo, rock ’n’ roll was pivotal in a reassessment of sexual attitudes and behavior that only seemed to spring out of nowhere in the 1960s” (Glenn C. Altschuler, All Shook Up [New York: Oxford University Press, 2003], 68). “In all its many phases and styles, modern pop music’s enduring message, conveyed by the aphrodisiac of a pulsing bass beat, was as simple as it was subversive: surrender to the pleasures of the body” (Brink Lindsey, The Age of Abundance, 188). I believe Lindsey’s statement, while saying something true, is simplistic. Rock music (which influences most forms of pop music now) is not simply an aural aphrodisiac, although it lends itself easily to that and some users of this music do take it that way. Rather, it is music which does not know how to inspire and build the soul with anything other than animal passions. It is incapable of training and refining the soul because it cannot sustain musical thought and dialogue. It relies on an artificially accentuated beat to make up for its lack of the “true movement of music which arises from its inner life” (Roger Scruton, Culture Counts [New York: Encounter, 2007], 65). Modern pop music does many times accurately reflect or express the inner lives of Americans, from the jaded or sad to the silly or excited, but it offers them no way build a new way of thinking and feeling so that they can escape perpetual adolescence and learn to value what is eternally weighty.

[iv] In the 1920’s the flapper era bore similarities to the sixties, but in the sixties television provided a new way to export that ideal to the masses which the twenties did not enjoy. We have come so far that we now even call shows things like “American Idol.”

[v] Public Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 9. Sandel would not share our Christian worldview, but I cite him to demonstrate that even he recognizes the huge impact our ideas of freedom have had on our laws. Robert Bork writes of the 1960’s, “It is not too surprising…that a mood of radical autonomy or, if you will, moral relativism began to appear in the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court…. But the rise of moral relativism – perhaps a better term would be moral chaos – drove constitutional law in a new but no more respectable or rational direction” (“Olympians on the March” in Lengthened Shadows, ed. Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer [San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2004], 198).

[vi] Brian M. Riedl, “Federal Spending – By the Numbers,” The Heritage Foundation, March 8, 2007. Before leaving his post as chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan predicted that Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security would account for 13% of the GDP by 2030. This much increase would, according to Greenspan, “make current fiscal policy unsustainable” (Available at /speeches/2005/20051202/default.htm; accessed 16 August 2007).

[vii] Witness, for example, the fiasco in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Two years after the devastating storm, 127 billion dollars of federal money had been spent on the area, yet the city was nowhere near back in order.

[viii] America Alone (Washington, D. C.: Regnery, 2006), 45.

[ix] Controversy within the fundamentalist camp later led to the emergence of two general groups known as fundamentalists and new evangelicals. For a concise history and evaluation of this time, see Earnest D. Pickering, The Tragedy of Compromise (Greenville, SC: BJU Press, 1994). A very informative account of the same events from a British perspective can be found in Evangelicalism Divided by Ian Murray (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2000). The classic critique of the liberal departure from the faith is by J. Gresham Machen, Christianity & Liberalism, originally published in 1923 and still in print. A substantive theological critique of the “new evangelicalism” can be found in Promise Unfulfilled by Rolland McCune (Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald, 2004).

[x] Ephesians 4:15 says that growing up into Christ requires the continual process of avlhqeu,ontej evn avga,ph, “dealing truthfully in love.” Our musical choices must meet this same requirement. I would like to add one caution here to those of us who are conservatively minded in music. We should learn a lesson from the so-called high culture of the twentieth century. High culture became so kitschophobic that its greatest aim was to produce anything anti bourgeoisie. This phobia turned art music into inhumane and bizarre junk, unpalatable to human ears, unresponsive to the human heart. So in Christian circles we must not react so strongly to “cheap” Christian music that we end up producing a strained or forced kind of “high” music that is unintelligible to the average believer. Good and enduring music does not flow from a reactionary mindset. It flows from a heart that is at home in its cultural/religious environment and creatively explores and responds to life in that environment. The Christian musician knows that this environment is from, through, and to God (Rom 11:36). This generically Christian worldview has informed our Western musical heritage, which explains in part why our folk music traditions and the Western classical tradition have produced works of such beauty that still resonate with the heart of man.

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