Saturday, January 24, 2009

More on culture

Robert Bellah in his book, The Lonely Crowd, has a typology of three generations of culture--the tradition-directed, the inner-directed, and the other-directed. I will refer to these types as "traditional man," "individual man," and "alienated man."

The traditional man sees his identity in the history and customs that have been handed down generationally. The intrusion of "others" has no significant impact upon his self-image and there is little fluctuation in his beliefs. The traditional man finds his moral compass in the doctrines he has always known and seen lived out in his community.

The individual man is less tied to history and customs and finds his self-image tied to deep-seated values given to him by his parents and facilitated by the economic opportunity and cultural freedom that were present in the U.S. after the industrial revolution. The individualistic man finds his moral compass not in the doctrines of the clan, but in his own self-direction within the scope of abilities he possesses. He is more affected by the "other" than is the traditional man, but the effect of the "other" is to spur on the individual man toward proving himself all the more.

The alienated man is no longer possessed of a history and customs, no longer confident in an inner sense of morality and purpose. The alienated man looks to his imagined neighbors for his self-image, and his real neighbors in turn look to the major source of cultural cohesiveness where the imagined form is fostered--i.e. mass media and entertainment. The spectacle of entertainment places a premium upon a variety of unattainable aspects of humanity, focusing especially upon external facets. The inability to find oneself in the immediate world means that the alienated man is constantly "mediated." He is constantly self-aware, but lacks any confidence because he is always seeking what the social norms are for his situation. He is devoid of any moral compass, because his message and medium pander to ever-changing emotions and desires of an increasingly diverse and heterogeneous mass of consumers.

The great fear of the traditional man is breaking with custom, or transgressing the taboo. He is never in so much anxiety as when he feels forced to break custom, or when custom has no answer to his dilemma. Alienation occurs when the clan casts out the traditional man and he is forced to make due on his own.

The great fear of the individual man is breaking with his inner compass. He is never in so much anxiety as when he feels forced to break his own rules, or when he has failed to accomplish his self-set goals. Alienation occurs when the individual is forced to see the flaws that remain in his character, or sees that his virtues are not enough to set him apart from the crowd.

The great fear of the alienated man is breaking with the social norms mediated to him via media and entertainment. He is always in anxiety, for in the increasingly multi-cultural and pluralistic environment he finds himself constantly pulls him in different and often contradictory directions. Never able to stand against these crashing tides, the alienated man always feels like a fool, though his exterior may present the most confident and secure personality. The alienated man is never sure he has escaped the false ideality and false identities of the simulated world in which he finds himself.

The Christian man is tempted to fear when he speaks out against evil in his midst because speaking against the crowd is the antithesis of everything our present culture represents. The Christian who has undergone even a modicum of exposure to the culture during his youth feels the tension between this dominant mode of being and the one which Jesus calls him to in the power of God. The Christian man must remember that it is not his peers to whom he is beholden to please, to change, or to otherwise effectually motivate (for only the spirit of God may move the hearts of men). Rather, the Christian man must recognize that he knows the God who forms the virtues of all cultural forms without any of their vices:

1. God commands the Christian man to remember his history--his sinful origins, his great redemption by the great and longsuffering God, and the great promises of God which govern the Christian man's outlook on the future.

2. God has given the Christian man the mind of Christ so that within his heart he has access to the truth of God's Word that will serve to define and motivate his self-understanding. He is able to question customs that are not a true part of the history God has called him to manifest, and he is able to stand up against false "others,"--to strive all the more for the prize that God has determined for him in Christ Jesus.

3. God has given the Christian man a love for others that enables him to perceive the pains and joys of the "other" and to rejoice, rebuke, and restore the "other" to his or her place in the Kingdom, if God so wills. Rather than being alienated, the Christian man is at home in the unhomely world of sin (for he knows the Kingdom is here and is coming to fruition), and he is an instrument of reconciliation to those who will repent and believe.

We must always remind ourselves that never has there been a culture that has perfectly reflected God's commandments in the Scriptures. Insofar as we are placed in this moment in time we may compare what we witness in our own culture with what God calls us to in Christ Jesus to work out with fear and trembling (for what else is working out our salvation if it is not the inculturation of Christ into every aspect of life?). We need not fear to break taboos of traditions that ought to be abandoned, we need not fear to look to God's Word as our moral compass despite the ridicule of others who see it as slavish and self-denying, we need not fear to be the social outcasts of a people who take the fluctuating norms of the present culture as their object of faith.

I believe it was Augustine who earliest echoed Paul and was later reiterated by Calvin: We know our true selves when we know Christ. To champion what Christ champions and to deplore what Christ deplores is to know that our words and deeds are salt in the sinful world: the salt that some will savor, the salt that some will feel burn in their open wounds, and the salt that some will spit out for the callousness of their hearts, which have lost the taste for glory.

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