a note about cultural separatism and cultural engagement

Two items:

Bono is now writing as a (regular?) columnist for the New York Times.  Here’s a post-Easter piece.

Roger Scruton, philosopher and conservative thinker, contributes this piece to City Journal.  Scruton freely admits that his conservativism is humanistic in character (this is the basis of his attack on Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists in other places), not religious.  He essentially argues that the value of Christianity — and he wholeheartedly believes it is valuable — lies in its effect as a stabilizer of culture (a la President Eisenhower) and as something that helps to sustain civilization. 

With that caveat, here’s an excerpt:

For people of my generation, it seemed, for a while, as though we could rediscover meaning through culture. The artistic, musical, literary, and philosophical traditions of our civilization bore so many traces of a world-transforming significance that it would be enough—we thought—to pass those things on. Each new generation could then inherit by means of them the spiritual resources that it needed. But we reckoned without two all-important facts: first, the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that without an injection of energy, all order decays; and second, the rise of what I call the “culture of repudiation,” as those appointed to inject that energy have become increasingly fatigued with the task and have eventually jettisoned the cultural baggage under whose weight they staggered.

This culture of repudiation has transmitted itself, through the media and the schools, across the spiritual terrain of Western civilization, leaving behind it a sense of emptiness and defeat, a sense that nothing is left to believe in or endorse, save only the freedom to believe. And a belief in the freedom to believe is neither a belief nor a freedom. It encourages hesitation in the place of conviction and timidity in the place of choice. It is hardly surprising that so many Muslims in our cities today regard the civilization surrounding them as doomed, even if it is a civilization that has granted them something that they may be unable to find where their own religion triumphs, which is a free, tolerant, and secular rule of law. For they were brought up in a world of certainties; around them, they encounter only doubts.

If repudiation of its past and its identity is all that Western civilization can offer, it cannot survive: it will give way to whatever future civilization can offer hope and consolation to the young and fulfill their deep-rooted human need for social membership. Citizenship, as I have described it, does not fulfill that need: and that is why so many Muslims reject it, seeking instead that consoling “brotherhood” (ikhwan) that has so often been the goal of Islamic revivals. But citizenship is an achievement that we cannot forgo if the modern world is to survive: we have built our prosperity on it, our peace and our stability, and—even if it does not provide happiness—it defines us. We cannot renounce it without ceasing to be.

What is needed is not to reject citizenship as the foundation of social order but to provide it with a heart. And in seeking that heart, we should turn away from the apologetic multiculturalism that has had such a ruinous effect on Western self-confidence and return to the gifts that we have received from our Judeo-Christian tradition.

As the Church lives in the ruins of the civilization that Scruton describes, I wonder whether the repudiation of “apologetic multiculturalism” even makes sense as a “fix.”


For a bit of clarification: I understand that much of what I link from day to day is a mixed bag.  None of you will agree with everything that you read in these articles.  I myself don’t agree with everything I read there. 

So my linking of a particular article should not be understood as an unqualified endorsement of it.  Rather, I link it because something in it made me think or gave me a clearer picture of what is out there.  Ed Harrell speaks frequently of “cultural separatism” as a key to understanding Churches of Christ.  I think this is accurate.  I also think that, to the degree that we have given up on that, we have lost a great deal.  However, that sort of cultural separatism is a double-edged sword.  In order to maintain it, ironically you have to know what is out there, what exists and what is going on outside of the walls, so to speak.  This is especially important for the elders and evangelists among us. 

We haven’t always done a very good job of this, though.  Sometimes we rely on caricatures of the religious groups we disagree with (e.g. Baptists, Catholics, etc.).  Sometimes we do the same thing with social trends.  Paradoxically, in order to fight an adversary you have to know him (her or it) very well.  Paradoxically, in order to be separate you have to be engaged.  Otherwise local churches run the risk of being swamped by social forces or ideas that their leaders are ignorant of and therefore unprepared for.  This is because our churches do not exist in a vacuum (socially, doctrinally, historically, etc.).  Our members watch TV, they listen to talk radio, they go shopping, they are marketed to 24/7, they listen to music (country, pop, etc.) and on and on.  (This is even more the case with our children.)  None of these activities are morally neutral.  All of these things form who we are.  Moreover, they can often have a far more formative effect on the average member of a congregation than the 2-3 hours that he or she spends in Bible classes and worship each week. 

For example, I’ve known people growing up who surrendered their opposition to Christian participation in politics and war because they fell under the influence of “conservative” talk radio and the cable news channels.  Three hours a day of Rush Limbaugh (or Al Franken or Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly — my point is not to single out a particular “side”) and then a full night of CNN/Fox/MSNBC go a long way in subconsciously and consciously forming the way that people think.  The services of the local congregation (2-3 hours a week) can hardly compete in terms of time.  All the while, there was no statement from the pulpit or from the elders about limiting (or, better, being discerning about) one’s media intake. 

Likewise, in the face of the economic boom of the past decade, how many preachers or elders made the connection between the mad rush for higher-paying jobs, bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger TVs in society at large and the condemnation of greed and materialism in the Scriptures?  What does the eldership of a local church do when a member pulls up in a new Mercedes in the parking lot (I’ve seen this)?  Is the suggestion ever made that the money might have been better spent or that conspicuous displays of wealth fly in the face of the simplicity of the Gospel? 

I could point to other things as well.  I just chose these because they come out of my own experience.  What do you (all four of you, that is) think?


7 responses to “a note about cultural separatism and cultural engagement

  1. I’ll have more comments later but just a quick one now. In my experience it is at best a slim majority of a congregation that is there for 2-3 hours a week, despite all of the emphasis placed on attendance, exaserpating the problem you outline so well even more.

  2. I dunno, man. People get “weird” when they stop watching TV. Religious groups that discourage TV viewing are quickly designated as cults. Do you want your children to grow up in a CULT?

    OK, sarcasm off. I make that comment because it seems to me that the inevitable result of engaging the culture in order to critique it in light of the gospel is an eventual disengagement with that culture. At some point you decide that the “redeeming” elements of prime time drama or Fox News or the latest romantic comedy flick aren’t worth the time and effort required to search for them. It cannot be baptized; we’d be better off just throwing the TV away. Injustice, decadence, vanity, and all sorts of sin are plenty apparent enough without looking for them on the airwaves.

    This is where things get hairy. If a preacher at your average church of Christ congregation delivered a sermon which said that the congregation should stop watching TV altogether (and spend more time thinking on and doing the things of God), there would be such an uproar that he would certainly be fired. (Undoubtedly, you’d see a similar result if the message came from the elders instead.) Likewise for a sermon about materialism that actually challenged members on their cars, mansions, boats, designer clothes, gadgets, cosmetics, jewelry, etc. People are always ready to rationalize the things they don’t want to give up. If leadership persists in this course, they can expect a rapid decline in attendance. (Possibly not always a bad thing?)

    And to be clear, by “disengaging with culture”, I’m really referring to mass culture, the culture of homogenization. The sort of culture that happens when people are face-to-face with one another is a totally different subject. We should not disengage our communities and human cultures therein.

  3. You make a good point about separating out different kinds of culture. In this post, the examples I gave have mostly to do with the version of American culture best symbolized by Britney Spears, McDonald’s, internet porn, Wall Street, “change,” American Idol and the Department of Defense. That’s what the average person sitting in our pews faces day to day, whether personally or vicariously through the raising of children.

    What I really think that elders and evangelists need to understand is not so much the cultural ephemera that all of that represents (is?). Rather, it’s the ideas that lie behind it, ideas about culture, about politics, about social structures (such as the family, the neighborhood, etc.), theological ideas (what it is to be a Christian, what the Church is, what the proper role of its leaders should be, books that members are reading — The Shack, anyone?). Postmodernism comes to mind (not the cartoon version of it, but what it is in reality), also.

    Basically, its the big ideas that I have in mind. The kinds of things that trickle down in more concrete fashion (in the ways listed above) to the average Christian in the pew on Sunday morning. That’s where I think that evangelists and elders really need to be engaged.

    For instance, how many elderships in our city (especially the urban core) could talk intelligently about how gentrification is affecting the neighborhoods where their church buildings are located? How many could give you a definition of gentrification?

  4. Thanks for clarifying. I think you’re absolutely right in saying that elders need to be aware of these things and articulate Christian responses in ways that their flocks can understand and use.

    Two related dangers occur to me:

    1) The leaders might get lost in the esoteric or abstract realms of philosophy, sociology, and theology and have trouble articulating the gospel answer to their congregants. That is, they might decide that three or more Sunday School quarters are required to cover postmodernism or Nietzshe before they even begin to talk about what it means for believers to follow the Way. I know I’ve had occasional experiences at Acklen in the past where academic chatter overtook edification.

    2) The church can become reactionary to the extent that the cultural ephemera dictate the agenda of the church, though of course in a negative sense. That is, every Sunday morning sermon becomes a response to a talking head from the evening news or a scene from the latest blockbuster.

    That said, I think the benefits of such a program would greatly outweigh the risks. I suppose the process would be to:

    1) recognize significant cultural expressions that are in opposition to the kingdom of God,
    2) identify the underlying “big ideas” that generated them,
    3) find the “big ideas” of Christianity that answer and disarm the cultural ones, and then
    4) find ways to express these Christian answers in practical and concrete ways.

    Thus, you can model the alternative Christian community without disengaging the surrounding culture on the one hand or being unwittingly swallowed by it on the other.

  5. This deals with the old challenge of being in the world (and engaging it) but not being of it. Finding the right balance is sometimes tough.

    Though I usually think our greatest danger comes from compromising too much with our shallow culture, I’ve been reminded lately of the fact that too much cultural separatism can place a barrier between us and those we are trying to help. I’ve been in contact with an impressive young lady in another state and encouraging her to attend a good congregation in her area composed primarily of dedicated home-schoolers that dress very conservatively. I know that they are fantastic and loving people. However, I found out just recently that though she admits that they are very loving, she is uncomfortable with their ultra-separatist outlook and therefore not seeking their spiritual help which she badly needs. Certainly, she is probably to blame to some degree, and yet I’ve been reminded that to be the salt of the world, we can’t withdraw too much from it.

  6. Gardner,

    Thanks for this example. I think that the separatist outlook you describe in this congregation is in many ways a good one. It’s part of what I have in mind when I think of “cultural separatism.” I wouldn’t want them to give up those things that embody their commitment to the Lord. But, at the same time, it seems that many, many people in the Church have forgotten how to talk to those on the outside. This is why I think that it’s important that elders and evangelists take extra care to be informed and to be aware of what is going on around them.

    O.K. I think I’m just repeating myself (and you, too). I really like the way you put it in that last sentence: “…and yet I’ve been reminded that to be the salt of the world, we can’t withdraw too much from it.”

  7. Meanwhile as far as I can make out Roger is essentially an agnostic, which essentially means that he already “living” in the ruins, or put in another way thoroughly godless.

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