Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Culture of Death

A couple of weeks ago I attended a breakfast hosted by the Canadian Urban Institute - a group that hosts regular forums on issues that affect urban life. The one I attended was geared towards how to make faith more a part of the urban landscape and they talked about ways to value, support and include the "social capital" provided by churches.

In the USA the conversation is about funding and valuing "faith based initiatives." Canada has marginalized faith based organizations to a much greater degree even though we have a strong history of co-operation between church and state. For example the church has run native schools, the provinces have funded Catholic schools (in Ontario) and Pentecostal and Salvation Army schools (in Newfoundland). Much of the work with the poor is done by faith based organizations like the Salvation Army (homeless shelters, rehab centres, etc.)

One of the presenters was Rob Joustra from the The Work Research Foundation whose mission is to influence people to a Christian view of work and public life. They seek to explore and unfold the dignity of work, the meaning of economics, and the structures of civil society, in the context of underlying patterns created by God. They have a great website with lots of resources and a very interesting report that should be out in a month called Stained Glass Urbanism.

One of their resources is called "Think." Here they have a number of podcasts about urban, work and cultural issues. I listened to one of them last week (by a guy named John Seel) and I have been thinking about it ever since. Fred Petross at Abductive Columns posted about it and gave me a link to a hard copy. That is great because I was ready to actually transcribe it word for word from the podcast because I feel it is such a significant resource in understanding our current culture.

I've quoted a few sections of below. The links to look at all of it are in the previous paragraph.

On Postmodernism

Identity, morality, and society itself are impossible to maintain unless they are premised on an existing sacred order.

Philip Rieff. (Sacred Order/Social Order: My Life Among the Deathworks), a non-practicing Jew, argues that identity, morality, and society itself are impossible to maintain unless they are premised on an existing sacred order. Cultural formation is a process of translating the sacred order into the social order. Until recently, all societies depended on a vertical relationship with the sacred. All social and individual life made this assumption. This is not true today.

Rieff identifies three historical epochs or worlds, captured in words: fate, faith, and fictions. The first world is the classically pagan, based on fate; the second world is theistic, based on faith; and the third world is postmodern, based on fictions. The third world differs radically from the former two. For the participants in this third world, which represents our culture, “transliterate no sacred order into social order but instead propose a world in which there is no truth and no sacred order, only fictions and various rhetorics of power and self-interest.” This is unprecedented. “Every world, until our third, has been a form of address to some ultimate authority,” Rieff warns.

Consequently, the culture war we face today is not like that of the past. Past conflicts were between competing sacred symbolic systems. They were in effect family feuds. Not so today. Sociologist James Davison Hunter, in his introduction to Rieff’s book, writes, “What makes the contemporary culture war distinctive is that it is a movement of negation against all sacred orders and directed, in its particulars, against the verticals in authority that mediate sacred order to social order.” The third world cultural elites are insistent on instructing society in this “higher illiteracy.” This world, anticipated by Nietzsche, Rieff calls a “deathwork.” “Deathworks are battles in the war against second culture and are themselves tests of highest authority.”

Abandoning the wrong approach

Our past efforts at cultural renewal have not been effective in part because the faith perspective is underrepresented in many of the institutions of cultural leadership. Consider geography. There are four main centers of national cultural influence: Boston, New York, San Jose—representing the Silicon Valley—and Los Angeles. Evangelicals are concentrated instead in places like Wheaton, Colorado Springs, and Orlando. Institutional evangelicalism serves institutional evangelicalism, but rarely the wider culture.

Politics reflects culture; it doesn’t direct it.

Culture is shaped by a small number of gatekeepers. Majority perspectives have little bearing on culture formation. Instead, elites dominate. Neuhaus notes: “Even though [these elites] may be a minority of the population, they succeed in presenting themselves as ‘mainstream’ through their control of powerful institutions in the media, in entertainment, in the arbitrations of literary taste, in the great research universities and professional associations, and in the worlds of business and advertisement that seek the approval of those who control the commanding heights of culture.” Increasingly, grassroots political efforts to reverse the current cultural direction are proving futile. Politics reflects culture; it doesn’t direct it.

Moreover, by focusing on mobilizing majorities and legislative coercion, these faith communities have alienated their opponents while squandering their cultural and biblical capital. They have failed because the convictions that underlie culture cannot be coerced. They can be proposed, never imposed. Culture changes when a society’s assumptions and aspirations are captured by new ideas and images that are developed by thinkers and artists, expounded in both scholarly and popular forms, depicted in innumerable works of art, literature and entertainment, and then lived out attractively by communities of people who are committed to them. By narrowly focusing on Washington and state legislatures, faith communities have forgotten how to assert cultural influence. Today, most Christians in America are known for self-serving power politics rather than humble service for the good of others.

That many faith leaders are now viewing “the culture” as a new strategic goal is laudable, but such recognition also needs a deep theological perspective and appropriate cultural discernment to have any renewing effect.

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