Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A brief comment on culture

I have encountered (throughout my undergraduate career, up through my graduate studies, and seeming to continue without abatement) a consistent appeal among rhetorically savvy covenant-breakers as well as covenant-conscious theologians and pastors to the need, the necessity, of communicating a message in a way that "the culture" can understand, digest, and ultimately find persuasive.

The banality of such a claim is made interesting by the vast range of interpretations for what it means to communicate in a culturally relevant manner. For some it means capitulating wholeheartedly to the desires of the particular audience. For others it means addressing a timeless truth to the particular aspect of an audience's culture than needs to be cultivated accordingly. In other words, the spectrum on one side of communicating to culture seeks to make a message identical to that culture's affections, whereas the other side of the spectrum seeks to change a culture's affections by means of communication.

Most attempts fall somewhere in between the two poles, but what such mingling entails is syncretism, or the combination of culturally accepted claims and counter-cultural claims.

First of all, anyone who wants to speak to a culture has to have some idea of what the culture is in fact. In other words, the speaker is interpreting culture according to some principles combined with some empirical study (even if it is as minimal as his own personal experience). Acknowledging as much simply means that there is a worldview behind the speaker's assessment of whatever culture he is addressing. Insofar as the speaker's worldview is significantly different from the audience he addresses, he is already on the road toward the cultural change end of the spectrum.

Why is this so? It is so because no speaker will consciously speak against what he believes to be right, and insofar as what the speaker believes to be right runs counter to the culture of his audience, he will make claims that push the culture toward his own viewpoint. The extent to which the speaker is self-conscious of his own viewpoint in relation to the audience is the extent to which he is able to push the envelope, if he so chooses.

Second of all, what determines the speaker's aim to synthesize his message to the culture's affections or to press the need to change their affections stems directly from the speaker's willingness to have his message accepted or rejected by the audience. A speaker whose aim is primarily persuasion will find himself commiserating with the culture's affections.

Why is this so? It is so because persuasion seeks identification with the audience in their own terms, and identification with the audience seeks commonalities recognized by the audience as such. In other words, purely persuasive motives will seek to gain the audience's acceptance on grounds they accept, in order to try and pull them toward grounds that they might find objectionable.

The speaker whose aim is primarily proclamation of his own principle (whether self-derived, or derived from an outside authority such as Scripture) will still retain the desire to persuade the audience, but it will be secondary to the aim of portraying the principle in a way that is both accurate and significant to the affections of the audience where they are out of step with the principle.

Why is this so? It is so because the speaker believes that the principle's significance outweighs the desire to have it accepted as true by the audience. The speaker will still attempt to portray the principle in its best possible light, but that aim is governed by the principle itself, and not by its perception amongst the audience.

Recall that the audience's affections may or may not conform to what the principle, which the speaker wishes to convey to them. When seeking to persuade the audience in their own terms, the speaker will allow the principle to be molded in the image of the audience's affections, which is also the impetus for the present culture. Insofar as the speaker does this, the principle is altered to a greater or lesser degree, if not altogether altered. But the speaker who conditions his speech after the principle's self-attesting value and implications will command the audience to abandon their prior affections in favor of the principle's requirements.

In the foregoing, highly generalized discussion, I have treated culture in the context of the speaker's address to an audience. The point has been to highlight that culture is not the aspect which determines beliefs, but the aspect that is determined by beliefs. Cultures can and are changed as the beliefs of individuals within a culture change. My question is this: if cultures reflect belief, rather than determine it, why should the speaker ever self-consciously alter his own belief to conform with culture if he thinks it wrong?

Put differently, why would any preacher of the Gospel EVER wish to be culturally relevant in a culture that has almost entirely abandoned Biblical principles of belief and conduct, faith and practice? Such a preacher may gain the masses, but risks losing his soul.

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