Coping with Culture

by David Crabtree

Although we live in an increasingly secular culture, we Americans are nevertheless the beneficiaries of a culture with deep Christian roots. Furthermore, America has a strong sub-culture with which we Christians most naturally identify. Both our culture and our Christian sub-culture, however, are deeply compromised. We can indeed be thankful for our valuable legacy, but we have inherited something quite different from pure biblical truth. Therefore, we all must answer this question: How do we relate to a compromised Christian sub-culture in a way that edifies but does not compromise us?

In August, the participants at Gutenberg College’s first annual Summer Institute discussed how to be a Christian in “Christendom.” We approached the topic from various perspectives, including discussing the ideas of Peter Berger (The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion), Jacques Ellul (Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes), and Søren Kierkegaard (Practice in Christianity). This article is a brief summary of what I gleaned from these works.

Peter Berger makes the point that human beings are the products of culture. Compared to the animals, human beings are born unfinished. Animals are largely governed by instinct; biology dictates many of the decisions that make it possible for them to live and thrive. A man, on the other hand, has much less biological direction. He must be provided with structure and guidance from without in order to make the myriad decisions that allow him to live out his life with order and purpose. For example, culture tells us how to dress, where to live, what to eat, how to talk, and so forth. Imagine how significant language is to our development. Culture provides us with a rich vocabulary and grammar that allow us to order our thoughts and communicate with others. We would be at a huge disadvantage if we had to invent our own language. Culture provides us with ready-made solutions to innumerable problems that would otherwise need to be solved anew by each generation. Culture enables us to benefit from the wisdom and experience of previous generations and allows us to build on their foundation. Culture is good; it gives our lives needed order and structure. In a sense, we owe our lives to our culture.

Culture, however, is a mixed blessing. It gives us more than fashions and language. Culture inculcates into its members fundamental assumptions about reality—some of which may correspond to truth and others that may not—and it does so without their conscious knowledge. We absorb these assumptions, and they become part of our way of thinking even though we have never examined them to determine whether or not they stand up to reason. We never question their validity, and if someone else does, we respond perfunctorily, “That’s just the way it is,” because we have no considered defense. In our culture, for example, we do not even question the assumptions that newer is better, that thin is beautiful, or that the value of a thing is its dollar value. By absorbing such assumptions from those around us we end up with a worldview that does not at all correspond to reality, but which seems right and true because the surrounding culture solidly supports it and drums it into its members.

Three significant developments in society have increased the power of culture in modern times. Modern states, finding it necessary to provide direction to societies that are larger, more diverse, and less responsive to authority than in any other time in history, are in the market for a way to steer public opinion. Simultaneously, the modern era has left people increasingly needy. Modernization has destroyed the kinds of relationships that in previous times provided individuals with a sense of purpose, belonging, and significance; transformed families, churches, and villages no longer meet these needs. We have, therefore, a situation in which the state wants a way to lead the populace and the people desperately want purpose, belonging, and significance. A third development of the modern world—the mass media—offers the possibility of a neat solution. Radio, television, film, and other media are powerful tools for creating illusions. They have made it possible to blur the distinction between reality and fiction to a degree hardly imaginable in previous times. The state uses these tools to give the populace the illusion of meeting its needs while gaining its allegiance and support for state policies. It is no coincidence that Hitler built his Nazi party around unemployed, young males who were eager to commit their lives to a cause. Jacques Ellul uses the term “propaganda” to describe this phenomenon, which bears little resemblance to its clumsy, state-sponsored, Cold War predecessor with which we typically associate the term. The emergence of sophisticated, modern propaganda expands the ability of culture to mold the thinking of its members and makes modern culture particularly powerful.

The dynamics of culture apply not only to the broader culture in which we live, but also to the Christian sub-culture. Although it is true that we are products of our culture, it is also true that we create culture, and this has important implications for the Christian sub-culture. Because we are sinners, we want to have our salvation now, and we therefore want a religious system that will give us the peace and security we crave. Any religious culture will gravitate toward establishing such an order. Once established, however, we begin to see that order as sacrosanct because our salvation depends on its continued existence. Kierkegaard calls this the “deification of the established order,” and he says this order “is the smug invention of the lazy, secular human mentality that wants to settle down and fancy that now there is total peace and security, now we have achieved the highest” (p. 88). The established order then uses its power to silence anyone who questions it. Ironically, one who denounces the “salvation” that the deified established order offers will be seen as arrogant and even blasphemous: “that single individual who teaches the most humble and yet also the most human doctrine about what it means to be a human being, the established order will intimidate by charging him with being guilty of blasphemy” (Kierkegaard, p.91). This helps explain why the Pharisees responded to Jesus as they did: they were doing everything they could to protect their “salvation”; the established culture was acting to prevent its fundamental assumptions from ever being seriously examined. So we are naturally inclined to encourage the development of a worldly religious culture, which, in turn, shades our thinking.

If we are fully cognizant of this insidious dynamic, we realize we have a problem. If our minds contain false assumptions of which we are unaware, how can we pursue truth? How can we sort through all that we believe and weed out what is false, especially when the established order has a vested interest in discouraging such a process? This is particularly tricky for Christians, because the established order of the Christian sub-culture uses the Bible to validate its tenets. Yet how do we know that the God who comes to mind when we hear the word is the God who is there? How do we know that the Jesus we envision is not some fantasy, but rather the one who actually lived and died and rose from the grave? We reassure ourselves by appealing to passages from the Bible, but how do we know when we read the Bible that we are understanding the meaning God intended rather than the meaning the culture whispers into our ear?

The problem sounds formidable, but it is not insolvable. The first and most important step is to recognize that we are individually responsible for our faith. It is all too easy—and the established order encourages us in this direction—to trust the established authorities to sort out for us what is true. The established order fosters dependency. It wants to keep us immature. And, as sinners, we want to be kept immature, unless we are somehow moved to become responsible. But no established order can secure our eternal destiny, regardless of what it may explicitly or implicitly promise. Every one of us will one day stand naked and alone before God to give an account for our lives. Any defense that includes such words as “but they told me…” will be rejected out of hand. Any apologia that seeks justification in the fact that “thousands of good Christians believe it” will be thrown out of court. Every one of us is individually responsible before God; no one else can plead our case. If we realize the significance of this fact, the obligation to sort out for ourselves what is true and what is not takes on a much greater weight and urgency.

Kierkegaard points out that the essence of biblical Christianity is a decision. The God of the Bible and his Son, the “God-man” Jesus Christ, are inherently objectionable to sinful human beings. Every one of us would like to be, if only we could, the master of the universe, arranging reality to our liking. This is not within our reach, but we try nevertheless to control directly what we can and to manipulate any powers beyond our control, and anything that frustrates our desires vexes us. God, whose love and justice are not readily apparent in the context of this world, is a threat to our control. Consequently, every unveiling of another aspect of God’s power faces us with a choice: we can decide not to be threatened or outraged and embrace God in faith; or we can succumb to the fear or outrage and be, in Kierkegaard’s words, “offended.”

Because the established order does not want to reduce its power by driving people away, it does not want anyone to be offended. It therefore creates an unobjectionable God and a fantasy Christ. It defangs and tames the gospel. It places a heavy burden of God’s requirements on men’s shoulders, but it falls short of demanding a transformation of the soul. By such means, the message preached by Christ, which was offensive to so many of his listeners, is sanitized and made into a message offensive to none. But a Christianity stripped of every occasion for offense also blinds its adherents to the most necessary decision in human existence and thus helps them to avoid making it.

There is a tool, if you will, to help us face into the decision we must make. Jesus, in his life here on earth, offended many of his contemporaries. Some were outraged when they looked upon an ordinary, unexceptional human being and listened to his claims of divinity. If someone walked up to you and claimed to be God, would you not be outraged? Others were outraged when they looked at this one whom they judged to be the Son of God and yet who did not rescue himself from his own plight and who did not always rescue his followers. Would you be willing to devote yourself to a God who would limit himself and allow his disciples to suffer when rescue was possible? In both instances, when we see Christ through the eyes of his contemporaries, we understand that they were faced with a critical decision: is a God who would act this way worthy of my worship? More bluntly: am I willing to live in such a reality, or must I create one of my own? By looking at the God-man as his contemporaries saw him, we can see him as he was, without the cultural makeovers that have rendered him virtually unrecognizable. The offensiveness of the God-man must be restored if we are to see him rightly. Seeing Christ as his contemporaries saw him is one way we can break the spell of our culture.

There is yet another way to break the spell of culture. By shear quantity, culture imparts the appearance of certainty to the “truths” it projects: in other words, if you repeat a lie often enough, it takes on the semblance of truth. So long as the bombardment continues, the claims of the culture seem certain and true. If the bombardment ceases or a shock (such as the death of a loved one) occurs “the [culturally constructed] world begins to totter, to lose its subjective plausibility” (Berger, p. 17). Modern propaganda works on this same bombardment principle. It does not attempt to persuade honestly; rather, it appeals to our emotions; it manipulates through a symphony of media voices all singing the same tune. Propaganda seeks to suppress reason; “It does not seek to create wise or reasonable men, but proselytes and militants” (Ellul, p. 28). Therefore, rational examination of the “truths” presented to us can break both the spell of propaganda and the spell of culture. Once we begin to look carefully and thoughtfully at the tenets of our culture they begin to lose their power. The taken-for-granted assumptions of the established order are like cockroaches: they are free to roam in the dark, but must scurry for cover when the light of scrutiny strikes them.

In the final analysis, the spell of our culture, and in particular the religious sub-culture, is not as hard to break as it would seem. The lies our culture tells are compelling because they are the very lies we want to hear. A sincere and fervent desire to know the truth quickly loosens the hold of culture. And God, who is the author and finisher of our faith, is more than able to give us a hunger for truth and to overcome the powerful influence of our culture.

Copyright September 2002 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

David Crabtree