[Click here for an audio version of this post: How would other cultures critique our culture?]
My recent anniversary trip to Italy got me thinking about the foibles of famous figures. Despite their brilliance in art and thinking, many historical figures succumbed to the biases and shortcomings of their culture.
Aristotle is considered one of the most influential thinkers of all time. Yet he is accused of being Elitist. He wrote, “It is clear, that some men are by nature free, and others are by nature slaves; and for these latter, slavery is both expedient and right” (Politics). My professor defending him, saying, “Aristotle couldn’t escape his cultural moment.”
Shakespeare is widely considered the most brilliant English writer ever. Yet my English professor—who loved Shakespeare—considered him sexist. She pardoned him however (in part) saying, “He was brilliant, but also just a man of his time.”
Aristotle and Shakespeare were exceptional. Very few thinkers match their brilliance. We still read their works hundreds and thousands of years later. If they—with all their brilliance—were unable to escape their cultural moments, what chance do we have?
What do we believe today that will look absolutely stupid in a few short years?
The slow creep
Cultural beliefs are like fashions. What looks odd at first gradually becomes the new normal. When I was ten years old—in the 1960’s—I first saw someone wearing bell-bottoms. I laughed uproariously. Within a few short years everyone (including me) wore them. Then it was the straight-legged jeans that looked strange.
No one convinced me of the beauty of bell-bottoms. They just gradually seemed normal (along with many other passing fashions—you really don’t want to see my yearbook).
My same bell-bottomed, 1960’s generation rebelled against our parents’ “greedy,” inequitable generation. We mocked their materialistic one-upmanship, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz? My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.”
Within a few short decades, my generation became the greediest, most materialistic, least equitable generation of the last several hundred years.
We are the generation responsible for Enron and subprime mortgages. Before 1970 a typical company president made about ten times the lowest paid employee. Now a typical president makes one hundred times the lowest paid employee.
Compared to my generation, Scrooge looks like Mother Theresa.
This change to our generation didn’t come through discussion, evaluation, or public debate. It just slowly became ordinary, just like bell-bottoms. New cultural ideas slowly seep into our subconscious, changing our core beliefs. Soon we are Scrooge on steroids.
The passing fashion of religious beliefs
If we don’t examine our beliefs, it’s easy to let the surrounding culture infect even our beliefs about God. Classic beliefs are soon “old fashioned” beliefs, as if fashion had anything to do with God.
Maybe we should just let Madison Avenue create an annual Systematic Theology: “This year the cover will be purple (Purple is the new black), and the trinity will have four persons (Four is the new three).”
Even though “current” beliefs, like fashions, pass quickly, they are often held passionately, as if they are the pinnacle of religious thought.
Immanuel Kant was a key architect of the Enlightenment. He wrote a treatise called, Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason. In it, he says, “Now is the best time [because of reason] to develop religion.”
Nowadays many Christians laugh (or cry) at such a belief. They say the problem with religion is too much intellectualism and not enough heart.
Kant is not alone in his arrogance of “now.” Schleiermacher (Romanticism, 1768-1834), Bultmann (Demythologization, 1884-1976), and Gutiérrez (Liberation Theology, 1928-present) all wrote out of their cultural moment; and all wrote the equivalent of, “Now is the best time [because of their particular X] for Christianity.”
Adopt or Address?
Do any of us really want to adopt passing, often insubstantial, fashionable beliefs? Let’s understand our culture, yes, but let’s address these beliefs not adopt them. Scripture says,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern God’s will, what is good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom. 12:2).
C. S. Lewis doubted any culture’s singular reign on truth. In Screwtape Letters, a senior devil instructs a novice devil to keep his “patient” away from past Christian writers:
It is most important to cut every generation off from all others … for there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one generation may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.
Let’s try something together
This week I’m not going to end with an uplifting application, or story, or humor. Instead I want to end with a question. I want us to ask a question about our own beliefs.
I’m not asking what beliefs you see in other people (like “loosening of sexual standards” or the “growing control of the religious right”). Instead, what culturally influenced beliefs do we ourselves hold? These beliefs can even be “small” beliefs, like “God could never use me,” or “I’m just too old [or young]….” So,
What beliefs do you hold today that might be shaped by our cultural moment?
Awesome reminder. Thanks for this.
I remember getting into Francis Schaefer’s writings about a decade ago. I took the time to write out some of his quotes to meditate on & challenge myself.
Here is something he wrote concerning the Roman culture…
“As the more Christian-dominated consensus weakened, the majority of people adopted two impoverished values: personal peace and affluence.
Personal peace means just to be let alone, not to be troubled by the troubles of other people, whether across the world or across the city–to live one’s life with minimal possibilities of being personally disturbed. Personal peace means wanting to have my personal life pattern undisturbed in my lifetime, regardless of what the result will be in the lifetimes of my children and grandchildren. Affluence means an overwhelming and ever-increasing prosperity–a life made up of things, things, and more things–a success judged by an ever-higher level of material abundance.”
– Francis Schaefer, How Should We Then Live?, pp 205
Beliefs of the Heart
That’s a great quote. Thanks.
I like the fact Schaefer uses the word, “adopted.” That’s what we do. We see something we like and make it our own. In this case, as the answers of Christianity were hidden or lost, people “adopted” the answers from the society around them. That society said, “If you want real life, all you need is personal peace or affluence.”
It didn’t work then (1500 years ago) and it certainly doesn’t work now. Our culture has taken the prescription of personal peace an affluence, and where has it gotten us? Increased depression, increased self-absorption, increased cynicism, and loss of real LIFE.
I think there is a better solution!
You ask a good and challenging question. Frankly I don’t like it. Well, at least thinking critically is hard, and it often uncovers uncomfortable truths about me. In fact, maybe my hesitancy to think critically about my own life (it’s plenty easy to criticize others) is one of my cultural weaknesses. I just assume the way I act and relate is perfectly OK, and culture reinforces my personal pride “be whoever you want to be,” accept everyone, especially yourself.” But am I doing right in all the things I do, all the ways I behave, and all the ways I relate? if I’m honest… probably not. But thinking critically means I might have to change, I might have to strive for something better, and that is both uncomfortable and hard work–neither of which sound like an ice cream cone on a hot day.
The other thing I can think of is my ‘me centered’ view of religion. If I’m not getting anything out of my prayer, my worship, or my service, then I get grumpy, or even worse, I question whether those things are worth my time. I want results! I want to feel better after my prayer time! But is that the ultimate point of prayer, worship, or service? I don’t know. I’ve been reading a couple books that quote from ancient authors, and they all seem to agree that the point of prayer, worship, or service has very little to do with making the person who prays/worships/serves feel happy or self fulfilled.
And yet that’s how I approach life–unless I really make an effort–which according to the first point, doesn’t happen as often as it probably should.
Beliefs of the Heart
Ouch! At first I thought you were writing about MY approach to God. Then I realized … you were indeed. I can relate.
The irony is that we WILL get “something out of it” when we truly worship God. But when we aim “to get something out of it” we rarely do. Most Christian denominations have a belief that says the purpose of humanity is “to glory God and enjoy him forever.” The thing is, if we aim for that enjoyment, we’ll get nothing. If we aim to glorify God, we get enjoyment thrown in.
It’s like many other truths. If we primary aim to make ourselves happy, we usually fail. When we aim to bring joy to others, we find we get joy as well.
Chad, David, and Sam,
I am envious of you who are able to articulate my sentiments so well! I had to laugh at Sam’s response ( first sentence) to David’s comments. I am critical of one of the men in my men’s group who is always threatening to change churches because it is not “meeting his need”, but he, in fact, rarely attends, and only lives a 5 minute walk away from our church. However, though I do not voice my own thoughts of leaving at times, I suppose I am the pot calling the kettle black because I will sometimes get frustrated with changes our senior pastor makes, when I should be more patient and rely on God.
Sam, you make great points. The world, in my eyes, is currently upside down, particularly with the apparent acceptance of homosexuality. After reading today’s blog, I will “…hide Your Word in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee.”, out of a deep fear that I may begin to see homosexuality in a more favorable light. God’s Word is clear. He is my rock, and on top of that rock I will remain firm. Prayer required.
Beliefs of the Heart
Thanks for your response. I certainly know about the pot calling the kettle black. I’m guilty of that all the time.
Just call me the kettle this time.
I’m not sure how able we really are to see the ways we are influenced by our culture, except in those places where we can see culture changing. Cultural norms are, well, normal. There have been a few times where God has used his word to show me that what I have believed is not what his word says; a few more times where others have shared what God has shown them and I heard the truth. I think this is one of those areas where in large measure we need to trust God to show us where we are more American (or any other cultural identity) than Christian. It’s worthwhile to pray for that revelation.
Beliefs of the Heart
Thanks for engaging in this discussion.
I understand and share your suggestion that it is very difficult to understand culture’s influence on us … because we are immersed in our culture. We sometimes see things in culture that we don’t share; but it is hard to see how we have been influenced.
Hard, but I don’t think impossible. When scripture commands us not to be conformed but be transformed by the renewing of our mind, it is telling us to do the very thing that seems so hard.
My first job out of University was overseas. I lived in London and traveled extensively throughout Europe. As I made friends, they often told me of their stereotype of a typical American: loud, insensitive, TOO sensitive, insincere smiles (“Have a nice day”), materialistic, etc.
After two years, I returned to the States. When I looked around, Americans seemed loud, insensitive, TOO sensitive, etc.
Someone once said, the best way to understand your culture is to see it from the perspective of another. That’s what happened to me.
I think the best way for us 21st century Christians to see how we are influenced by our culture is to see it from another culture. That is why it is so important to read past Christian writers. It is helpful to see the world from their perspective, to see their solutions to unhappiness, discouragement, sin, self-esteem, feelings, etc.
I’ve been trying to read older books recently. These include; Chesterton–Orthodoxy, Chambers–My Utmost for His Highest, Lewis (lots), Dorothy Sayers–Mind of the Maker, Jonathan Edwards (hard to read, but really good), Calvin (Institutes), Bonhoeffer (just a biography with numerous quotes), Brother Lawrence (Practice Presence of God), and a bit of Augustine (again, hard). (Of course … scripture!)
I really think we can read these kind of books and let them examine us. It can be amazing.
Funny, I just finished Chesterton’s Orthodoxy before you posted this, and had just remarked to my husband that once in a while he presented an argument out of his turn-of-the-20th-century British worldview that just doesn’t work anymore. At least not as a way to prove the particular point—which was usually well worth proving by some other means. It made me wonder what seemingly incontestable arguments we may be using that will some day be seen as fundamentally mistaken. (There was a time when one could have argued, I suppose, that we are the apple of the Creator’s eye because he made the sun and planets revolve around us.)
At the same time, I was consistently amazed at the logic of Chesterton’s thought and the startling clarity of his mind.
So I see both your points at work. First, that his culture seemingly contributed elements to his thought that didn’t ultimately have to do with truth. And second, that looking at a thing through the eyes of someone in another place and time can result in a surprise of depth perception.
You said it, Marion. I don’t know how I can answer your question, Sam. I know that my worldview is a construction, but I didn’t construct it consciously. I see the world through it. How can I examine it? Is a fish aware of the water? If I can identify a line in myself between mere culture and essential Christianity, I suspect I’m already crossing it.
Paradigm shifts don’t happen without interior earthquakes. In order to see what I cannot see, I must have a Damascus Road experience — either sudden or gradual. In fact, I think Saul/Paul offers an instructive example. He was standing up for righteousness as revealed by God through Moses, for heaven’s sake! It hurt him to kick against the goad, but he was willing to bear it. There was simply no way for him to see that he was actually fighting against God…unless the genuine service of God was his real motivation. Because it’s my opinion that even being knocked down and blinded by Jesus himself wouldn’t have done it if God weren’t fundamentally more important to him than his view of God.
So this is what I pray for: that I will never forget that God is always different than I think, that I will always hold my convictions open-handed in his light, and that he will shake what can be shaken so that what cannot be shaken may emerge.
Still, I think it is far from useless that people are able to spot inconsistencies in others. So I also pray to — graciously and lovingly — play whatever role God has for me in shaking up the Church.
Beliefs of the Heart
First, see my response to Marion.
Second, I think we need to examine ours beliefs constantly, to see if they are in line with the gospel. Yes, God will occasionally “provide” an earthquake, but I also think that he wants to participate with us in the interior examination.
Paul says in Romans 7 that he was the perfect law follower, until he studied the last commandment (Don’t covet), and it “slew” him. I’m sure this studying was done with the help of the Holy Spirit, but it was also done with self examination.
The first commandments are mostly behavioral (Don’t murder, commit adultery, bow down to idols, etc.). It was easy for Paul to say, “Nope, never did that.” But he comes to Coveting, and it is internal, it is an attitude of the heart; he let the commandment examine him, and it slew him.
That is what I’m looking for. Examination in light of scripture and past Christian writers.
I like ecumenism. I can learn from other Christian traditions. But I think the ultimate ecumenism is not denominational but generational. What can I learn from past Christians who had the Holy Spirit and heard the Lord? They probably have more to say to me than other denominations who are also under the same cultural cloud that I live in.
You’re right, of course. Self-examination is essential effort.
But I still think that any discoveries we make by it are miracles of grace alone.
Sam, have you and I succumbed to the sixties concept that new necessarily means improved? Is it possible that Aristotle and Shakespeare perceived distinctions we dismiss, gloss over, or fail to appreciate? Is our supposedly enlightened critique of these men and others as captive to their times and cultures but one more example of displaced rebellion against our Creator who is bound by neither time nor space?
Meanwhile, “time just keeps movin’ on.”
Beliefs of the Heart
Time does keep on moving on.
I hope we weren’t as infected by our 60’s culture and we might have been; but (as said above) it is hard to know exactly.
But I think we need to know. The outbreak of greed and materialism from our generation caused untold misery for many; we need to examine ourselves lest we abuse others out of our own cultural blindness.
Always love your comments.
My husband has a number of African friends, and they are much more focused on being with people than with getting things done and following schedules and being on time. There’s a very big difference between cultural mindsets here, but to be honest, I’m not sure what belief I’m holding that I would value tasks and schedules and productivity. Maybe that time is my most important asset?
Is your generation really more Scroogelike than previous generations? Are most of your generation the presidents exploiting employees, etc. or are they the ones being exploited? If you can’t tell the difference between wolves and sheep you are unlikely to be a wolf 😉
I studied history but I only lived in my generation; so it’s a little difficult to compare.
But facts are facts. My generation (the 60’s) is the one that claimed we would change the world through love and justice, and my generation is the one that is paid over ten times (relatively) what previous generations were paid. And we give to charities at less than half what previous generations give.
Yeah, I’d call that Scroogelike.