Tag Archive for culture

Island Culture

Le Mont-Saint-Michel is a tidal island off Normandy, France. Water levels have varied over the centuries, but at its highest, the island would be completely cut off from the mainland, and at low tide, foot traffic could recommence.
The tidal island is a decent illustration of the relationship between the church and its surrounding culture. The church is rather like the island, somewhat separate, but still somewhat connected to the dominant culture. The culture is like the mainland. The tides represent how accessible the one is to the other.

When the waters were low, it meant plenty of traffic between the Island and the Mainland. That meant people, art, language and even categories of thought travelled back and forth. The Island influenced the Mainland, and vice versa, and in times dominated by Christian thought, there was enough homogeneity between the two for there to be only a minor culture shock when going from the one to the other. People going from Mainland culture to the Island church didn’t feel like complete foreigners.

The rising waters of secularism mean that the traffic between the two diminishes, until friendly relations between the two are basically ended. Faithful churches become island cultures. Their identity, norms, loves, customs, and art forms become increasingly localised, with little counterpart in mainland secularism. The Island and the Mainland are increasingly distanced from one another, and become foreigners.

When this happens, churches have two choices. They can attempt to maintain enough familiarity with the Mainland, by importing various secular forms into their churches. Alternatively, they can put their heads down and cultivate Island Culture.

What does Island Culture look like? It means unabashedly perpetuating your own Christian culture in your local church, without respect to how many links it retains to secular culture. That includes the coveted links of relevance, novelty and recognisability.

For example, Christians do not worship the way they do or teach what they do because secular culture announces this week’s List of Relevant Topics. We teach what we do because God has already limited and bounded what will be perpetually relevant in a book called the Bible. Christians do not worship, disciple and shape church life with an eye to how new, updated, or contemporary they seem. Island culture means how old or new something is becomes of secondary concern. What we’re interested in is if something is True, Good, or Beautiful, regardless of whether it was made yesterday or in the fifth century. We have no irrational prejudice towards what is new, nor do we have some nostalgia about a supposed Golden Age of Christianity in the past, but we should not be surprised if much of what we use in island culture originated in eras where Christianity was far more fruitful and culturally dominant. When the bridges between the church and its society were wide and plentiful, the traffic brought both good and bad into the church, which we can continue to sift through. But there is no reason to feign shock that the best artefacts of Christian culture are often older than 100 years. This is Island Culture.

But perhaps the hardest pill to swallow about Island Culture, and especially for pastors, is the matter of recognisability. A visitor to your Island Culture from secular mainland will increasingly find it all very strange, very unfamiliar, and quite unrecognisable. He will not recognise the way of singing, much less the music or the hymns. He will not recognise the authority structures, the way of praying or preaching, or the discipline of the church. It will seem very, very unusual. In fact, his first experience is that he will likely characterise it as “weird”, “abnormal”, “too traditional” or “a bit too sombre”. The unfamiliarity will make him feel awkward, and to most populist Evangelicals, that is just death. The thought of a visitor feeling out of place or uncomfortable fills many pastors with utter dread.

And therein lies the problem. Emerging from a long season where the Island and the Mainland were fairly connected, many pastors are unprepared (and some are unwilling) to embrace the realities of Island Culture. They’re convinced it is still possible to make a church feel familiar to a secular visitor. They usually make this attempt in the music, the outward presentation of the worship service, and in the trappings of technology, or lifestyle-based ministries or sermons. They will sometimes characterise these as “externals” or “preference issues”.

Such words are evidence of what psychologists like to call “confirmation bias”. The vocabulary is designed to reinforce a comfortable view: that there is nothing specifically Christian about music genres, affections, modes of worship, or various technologies; these are all blank hard drives, ready to be filled with Christian content. Actually, these hard-drives often carry powerful viruses of secularism that inevitably destroy the Christian nature of whatever is copied to them. They are artefacts of culture, which always shape the meaning of whatever we put in them.

What many such pastors do not realise is that this distance between us and secularism is not one created by a faithful church. It is created by a secular culture that is rocketing away from biblical norms. The faithful church is not trying to be deliberately odd. Even if it simply perpetuates Christian doctrine, worship and ethics within itself, the faithful church will find the distance increasingly growing between itself and the culture of Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Google, Hollywood and the secular elites. Rising tides don’t mean the island is floating away. It just means previously exposed bridges of commonality are disappearing.

To the degree you seek to make people immersed in secular culture feel at home on when they visit the Island is the degree to which you must import and naturalise ideas, morals, entertainments, dress, or music which are not simply non-Christian, but increasingly anti-Christian. And ironically, to the degree that you succeed is the degree to which you have failed: failed to faithfully preserve and perpetuate the faith.

I take it for granted that every church wishes to be warm and welcoming. I imagine every loving pastor wishes to reduce the awkwardness of unfamiliarity for secular visitors as a sheer act of hospitality and compassionate evangelism. All this is good and well. But the real problem is the pastor who thinks he can reduce the distance between the Island and the Mainland by importing Mainland goods, and baptising them as Christian.

He may see some successes. Unbelievers may feel that the church speaks their language, settle down, and assimilate into the church. On the other hand, what the seeker-friendly movement has abundantly shown is that too much of this simply colonises the Island for secularism. The natives on the Island superficially identify with Christianity, but everyone speaks with a secular accent. They may turn out to be long-term tourists, and not real residents. Again, too much success at this may actually be a sign of failure, given the growing distance between Christianity and secularism.

What then? We cannot control the tides. We cannot move landmasses. We must not turn the Island into a colony of the Mainland.  Conserving and propagating Island Culture is our only obedient option. What does that mean?

Embrace being unusual. Embrace the task of a lot of explaining for those who come to you as refugees from other churches. Embrace slower growth, and accept (with sadness) less return visitors from the neighbourhood. Accept some of the most likely candidates for getting and perpetuating true Christianity will be those who grow up in your church, if they have faithful and thoughtful parents who explain what is done and why. Accept you will be misunderstood as a hide-bound traditionalist, or as a wooden conformist to an old way without any sense of the times or the way to remain relevant. Accept that you will be caricatured as the stereotypical parson with an aversion to change, a suspicion of youth, and a perpetual scorn towards modernity. Accept that the only way people will really understand what you’re doing is if they spend a long time on the Island.

And then, put your head down, and work.

Tattoos: To Do or Eschew?

The Christian life is meant to be a life of obedience grounded in discernment. “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21) Such discernment is not simply an inner sense of confidence, or a feeling of sagacity, but an active judging of all things for their meaning. The pursuit of meaning is the only way to obey in a world where meaning itself changes. A good test case for what this looks like is the question of tattoos.

There are a few lazy ways that Christians could attempt to shortcut the process of scrutinising the meaning of tattoos. They could ask the loaded question, “Would Jesus have worn a tattoo?” This hardly helps, because it trades on whatever mental pictures we have of Jesus, which usually excludes tattoos. The very foreignness of the idea excludes a positive answer, and ends the debate unfairly.

They could also simply quote Leviticus 19:28 : “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.” Note, I do not mean it is lazy to quote this verse, as if it is meaningless or inconsequential to the debate. I mean it would be lazy to quote this verse as if it settles the debate. The use of a verse from Israel’s law brings with it a host of interpretive questions: what commands to Old Testament Israel apply to the New Testament Christian in the same sense? Just one verse earlier, Israelite men were told not to trim the edges of their beards or shave around the sides of their head. Does that apply? For that matter, all Israelites were to wear tassels with a blue cord on all of their clothes (Num 15:38). Are these laws fulfilled in Christ or not? Are these “moral” laws or ceremonial laws? Leviticus 19:28 is not a smack-down prohibition against tattoos. On the other hand, the burden of proof lands on those Christians who favour tattoos to explain why God did not want the Israelites to mimic the Canaanite practice, if the whole thing is amoral. Before you get a tattoo, you should have a pretty robust theology of how Leviticus 19:28 relates to the New Testament Christian.

Thirdly, lazy people could also quote Romans 14 and say “this is a matter of liberty and preference”. Says who? How is that determined? If a man wears a Speedo swimsuit to church, is that a matter of liberty and preference? If a member smokes legal cannabis outside the building prior to the Lord’s Supper, is that a matter of liberty and preference? We would have to say that even if such things are, they are more than that. They involve questions of wisdom, prudence, love for neighbour, and appropriateness. In other words, questions of meaning again surface.  Indeed, all matters of conscience and preference remain matters to be judged for their meaning. Saying tattoos are matter of liberty or preference does not exempt us from doing the hard work of discernment; it actually makes it all the more urgent. To properly answer the question of tattoos, we have to ask, what do tattoos mean?

On the most superficial level, tattoos mean what their wearers say they mean: a quote, a name, a Bible verse, a symbol of identification, or simply an adornment they find attractive or enhancing to their appearance. Wearers decide on what they want the tattoo to say or symbolise.

On a deeper level, tattoos mean what they do. Tattoos are a mark of identification. Tattoos have been used for centuries as a visible sign of tribal membership. To get a tattoo is to get a permanent, public symbol of belonging. Here, the Christian should ask, “belonging to what?” A hundred years ago, almost no Christian would be found volunteering for a tattoo. What has changed? It has become cool, which is to say, fashionable. Christians may or may not adopt some of the world’s fashions, and will eschew others. The difference between being attractive in a modern world and being worldly is an important distinction. We must ask, when does the belonging identify you with an entire system devoted to the superficial, the sensual, and the self-glorifying (1 John 2:15-17)? We should always be careful of identifying with something which is passing away (1 Cor 7:31). The multi-million dollar industry of tattoo removal is testimony to how perspectives change when people reach a certain age and realise that they no longer want a permanent mark. Christians are marked by baptism, which is interestingly not a permanent, outwardly visible mark.

On a third (and related) level, tattoos mean what they are associated with. Associations do change with use, but that change is never overnight. For many years, tattoos would have associated you with Maori tribesmen or the counter-culture rebellion of the 60s and the decades that followed. In other words, the cultures that produced tattoos typically did not live under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Granted, evangelical copycatism is absorbing something associated with unbelief into the world of the church, so the association is no longer a clear violation of Ephesians 5:11 or 1 Thessalonians 5:22. But it is at least ambiguous. Those Christians who are prone to be early-adopters should ask if the association has genuinely changed so that their tattoo does not associate them with unbelief, and thereby confuse the conscience of either believer (1 Corinthians 8:10; 10:28).

On the fourth and deepest level, tattoos have an intrinsic meaning. This is the hardest meaning to discern, but yet it is the most universal across cultures, because it has to do with the very nature of a thing in God’s world. The meaning of colours, facial expressions, tones of voice are examples of intrinsic, natural meaning. Here we have to ask, what does it mean to permanently mark the human body? A theology of the body includes questions of modesty in dress, food and drink, sexuality, burial vs. cremation, rest and work, and embodied living. When it comes to marking the body permanently, we should ask, is this mark adornment or defacement? Does it consecrate the body to God or desecrate the appearance of an image-bearer? One way to ask this is to consider: will God raise our bodies up with the tattoos on them, or will He erase them? If God will erase them, what is meant by a permanent mark that will be erased by resurrection? Are we are cross-purposes when we make permanent what God will erase?

In eternity, there will be only one resurrected person who will permanently bear the marks of a body pierced: Jesus Christ. Memorials of His wounds will remain forever, so that we, His perfected people will rejoice and weep and give thanks. Through His eternal marring, our bodies will be eternally perfect. In other words, only one Person on heaven will have scars. We’d do well to ask if scarring our bodies with ink represents this pattern.

For the Christian who got a tattoo before salvation or during a time of immaturity, there is no condemnation in Christ. God receives you in His Son, and takes you as you are. Heaven will perfect our souls and bodies. But for those still considering it, you would be wise to ask questions of meaning. What does a tattoo mean stipulatively, conventionally, associatively, and intrinsically?

Black Voice-Matter

If you believe that black lives matter, and if you believe that non-blacks must listen to what blacks have to say about race and equality to properly understand the black experience, then you can do no better than listen to the following black voices on race, equality and economics. You should listen, even if what they say does not sound like the mainstream media.

Thomas Sowell

The Economics and Politics of Race.
Pink and Brown People
Black Rednecks and White Liberals
Compassion Versus Guilt
Ethnic America: A History

 

 

 

 

 

Walter Williams

Race & Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?

 

 

 

 

 

Shelby Steele

The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race In America

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bob Woodson

Lessons From the Least of These: The Woodson Principles

On the Road to Economic Freedom: An Agenda for Black Progress

 

 

 

 

 

 

Allen West

We Can Overcome: An American Black Conservative Manifesto

 

 

 

 

 

 

Herman Cain

This Is Herman Cain!: My Journey to the White House

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clarence Thomas.

Punishment and Personhood

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taste Formed and Deformed by Culture

Taste is never shaped in isolation. We learn to love what we love from our family, our church, our school, and our society. In other words, taste is largely shaped by culture.

Culture can be defined as T. S. Eliot suggested, “the incarnation of a religion”. At the heart of any culture is Richard Weaver’s “metaphysical dream”: an unspoken but ever dominant vision of ultimate reality. From this vision, a culture creates worship, art, jurisprudence, custom, and social order. Quentin Faulkner says that “culture is perhaps best defined as the collective behaviour (together with the resulting artefacts) of a society engaged in acting out (symbolising) its most deeply held and cherished shared beliefs and convictions”.

Understood this way, culture is formative and , in some senses, determinative. As the composer Julian Johnson, puts it, “Culture is not something you choose: it confronts you with an objective force. To be sure, it is a composite product of individual consciousness and is amenable to our own work upon it, but it is far from being a matter of choice. Culture is no more a matter of choice than having two legs or being subject to gravity is; one can no more reject culture than reject electricity or weather”.

If culture is formative, much of what is wrongly called “personal taste” is actually shaped by example of others and exposure to others’ loves. Tastes are first received before they are scrutinised or even challenged. People begin their lives as members of a culture and identify with its loves and hates; it is only later that they begin to question if they wish to continue to own all that the culture holds dear.

“Ah!”, says the musical and aesthetic relativist, “this just shows that taste has no objective standard! It is completely different from one culture to another, and therefore no taste can be judged to be ‘better’ than another”.

Were humans all still living in isolated folk cultures in which they were united by religion, language, and geographical region, this study would have to consider how different folk cultures have approached beauty, and how taste should be related cross-culturally. But they aren’t. The technologies of mass culture have erased geographical boundaries. All that is left of folk culture are those remnants that have been selected by producers of mass culture to create new products: a movie about Native Americans, a pop song using Swiss yodelling, or a Disney movie about animals with themes sung in Zulu or Swahili. The truth is, we all live in the world of mass culture. The question of universals between cultures is really no longer a major question: we’re all in the same culture now. And it’s really a non-culture. Christopher Dawson says of mass culture,”[T]he new scientific culture is devoid of all positive spiritual content. It is an immense complex of techniques and specialisms without a guiding spirit, with no basis of common moral values, with no unifying spiritual aim…A culture of this kind is no culture at all in the traditional sense—that is to say it is not an order which integrates every side of human life in a living spiritual community.”

What kind of taste does mass culture produce in its members? Faulkner suggests two beliefs.

1. A belief in the individual’s right to pursue self-satisfaction, self-fulfilment, and self-gratification.
2. Confidence in the potential of modern science to create for us an ever improving quality of life, coupled with a fascination with the technology that is the result of modem science.

The kind of taste that most clearly corresponds to the first belief is what we disparagingly call kitsch (art that makes us feel good about feeling). The taste most properly aligned with the second belief centres on, in the words of Calvin Johansson, “media, presentation and image”. A culture given over to this will be one that emphasises what is more entertaining, such as exciting images, rather than text. When image dominates in a culture, a religion of the Word suffers.

In such a culture, taste is necessarily deformed, and such deformity reinforced. Indeed, only the mentality of the marketplace would define taste as entirely a matter of individual choice, like products to be purchased and consumed. Only a member of mass culture would see an eclectic selection of cultural products as “personal style”. “The equating of cultural choice with personal style signals the end of an understanding of culture as something related to objective spirit” (Julian Johnson).

Mass culture does not, and perhaps cannot, communicate transcendent ideals. Its art forms, made as they are to sustain narcissistic interest, are not capable of sustaining the Christian vision of a holy, glorious, and beautiful God. A culture of easy listening and easy living leads to the atrophy of imagination, and to simplistic sentiment.

When people are dominated by the sensibilities of mass or popular culture, it deforms taste in all the directions that Christian aestheticians have warned against: using art instead of receiving it, taking immediate responses as the “truth” of the work, promoting aesthetic relativism, and creating an appetite for narcissistic art.

Differences in taste can certainly be credited to the shaping force of culture. To what extent a person is embedded in in mass culture will have a proportionate shaping influence on his aesthetic taste.

Chestless Churches

What would ‘Churches Without Chests” look like? To use a strictly Lewisian definition, it would be groups of professing believers without ‘the spirited element’. In plain language, that would be believers who have profoundly under-developed parts of their souls.

Chestless churches would be:

Churches Without Beauty. The music, the poetry, the rhetoric in the sermons, the architecture of the meeting places, the prose of such Christians could be laid side-by-side with Bach, Herbert, Spurgeon, Wren, and Austen and it would be obvious that a profound uglification had taken place. In place of the sublime would be the glossy, in place of the profound would be the emotive, in place of the sober would be the maudlin, in place of the simple would be the trivial, in place of the magnificent would be the flamboyant. In fact, these churches would not stop to consider if their worship was beautiful. They would ask only if it was doctrinally correct, and broadly similar to other churches within their tribe.

Churches Without Judgement. The bigger problem would be that such churches would be largely unable to tell the difference between the beautiful and the banal, indeed, they would be unlikely to even think in those categories. An atrophication of moral judgement would have created Christians agnostic on the question of beauty, shrunken in their capacities to feel and express admiration, and largely addicted to the cheap thrills of popular art.

This profound lack of judgement would show up in other ways, too. Churches with nothing to mediate between their rationalistic (head) knowledge of propositional truth, and their appetites (the belly), would be at the mercy of their appetites. In a contest between what they’d know about lust, and their appetite for porn, the appetite would win. In a contest between what they’d know about covetousness and their appetite for consumption, the appetite would win. In a contest between what they’d know about reverence, and their appetite for amusement, the appetite would win. The result would be ‘trousered apes and urban blockheads’ in the pulpit and pew.

Churches Without Imagination. The judgement would be missing because the deepest part of these Christians would be malformed – their image of ultimate reality. Having been shaped by churches without chests, these Christians would have a hodgepodge of competing ideas, unproven assumptions, and fairly secular ideas about reality. They would be the oddest hybrid of all – evangelical modernists. As such, they’d have little time for the symbolic, for ceremony, for art, for this would just be getting in the way of ‘the facts’. They’d imagine that they have unmediated access to reality, and tear aside any symbol, ceremony, ritual, custom, or art form that didn’t give them the effect of immediacy.

Churches Without Culture. The imagination would be secular because the churches would be without Christian culture. That is, their churches would be adrift in the sea of mass culture, picking and choosing bits and pieces from the anti-culture of secularism. There’d be no sense of the Christian vision of reality and its consequent judgements. Each church would be an exercise in eclecticism, home-spinning its judgements, with little idea of what Christians had made, thought, said, and decided before that moment. The worship would be secularised, the wandering star of relevance would provide navigation, and inane statements about contextualisation would prove that they had long ago been set adrift from Christian culture. Propositions from Scripture would be the supposed norming norm, but continued fragmentation in the church would prove that such propositions were little more than disembodied ideas without form, once Christian culture had been abandoned.

Churches Without Tradition. The churches would be without Christian culture because they had been seduced by modernity, and were now obsessed with contemporaneity, in love with the new, mesmerised by the latest, and slaves to the relevant. They would have little love for the Christian past, and so be strangers to their own culture. They would not measure their own judgements, ideas, affections, or works by the standard of the church triumphant. They would use the authority of Scripture as an excuse to dishonour their parents in the faith – to ignore Christian tradition altogether, or to pay it the occasional, patronising compliment. In the name of evangelism, they would ignore the collective judgements of 2000 years of church history, and use those of 21st century pagan marketers, media professionals, and celebrities.

No beauty because of a lack of judgement. No judgement because of a lack of imagination. No imagination because of a lack of culture. No culture because of a lack of tradition. These would be churches without chests.

Know any?