Monday, April 26, 2010

And Looking to the Future...

My final (I think) description of how the characteristics of American culture affect American evangelicalism.
Future-oriented

American culture characteristically sets the near future as the focus of thinking and effort. Individuals choose their actions, and their actions today are important because of how they will affect that individual and his or her environment in the foreseeable future. If the goal of action is focused on the future event of glorification and new creation, this view can be readily incorporated with the Christian mindset of sacrifice and suffering that accepts them as worthwhile in light of the future glory that will result (Rom. 8:18). On the negative side, future-orientation makes it easy to forget to be grateful for God's past and present blessings. American Christians face the danger of living for an imagined future and neglecting the treasures and opportunities of the present.

A future-oriented society values things that are new and change that anticipates the needs of the future. This allows changes for the better to occur more easily and quickly than in past-oriented cultures. Conversion to Christ can occur much more smoothly, without the same level of struggle against the patterns of previous generations. If the conversion shows evidence of changing the near future for the better, than the patterns of the past can quickly be tossed aside. If one generation of the American church exhibits faulty thinking, the next generation is ripe for a message of change within the highly-self-critical, continually-contextualizing mindset of evangelicalism. While some Christian movements are barely catching up with one wave of trends, other voices are calling for a new barrage of changes to keep with the fast-moving culture around (and within) the church. This does not bring all good changes, however: some valuable and useful practices are also brushed aside in the forward press for new forms of contextualization.

One corollary of future-oriented thinking is a glorification of youth. “Reaching the next generation” and touching the lives of youth “because they are our future” are commonly used phrases within the American church. Leaders are frequently favored because of their youth and energy - sometimes so much that the more important qualities of proven Christian character and wisdom are examined less rigorously. Christian organizations readily accept the mindset that, if they are to continue to thrive, they must cater to the desires of a youthful target audience or constituency. Thus members of the church who have lived long and faithful lives of Christian service may be marginalized or forgotten because of the cultural perception that they have outlived their usefulness and have little value for the future. In the rush to rescue the “orphans” and build them into future leaders, the “widows" may be neglected (James 1:27), even though this evaluation of age and worth is not warranted by a biblical theology of the church.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Give me options! (Or at least let me think I have them)

The Power to Decide

While many cultures have social or communal ways of making decisions for an individual, American culture places the locus of decision squarely on the individual most affected by the decision. In the overwhelming majority of situations, a person has the final say in determining his or her actions and situations. Others give advice and information to aid in the process, but Americans adamantly desire - even demand - to make their own, individual decisions (or at least feel as if they are doing so). This makes it a natural and logical appeal to call a person to choose Christ instead of continuing in sin, unbelief or false religion. The New Testament’s portrayal of sin, faith and judgment as individual choice and consequence communicates readily to this culture. When a person is convinced of the guilt of sin, the choice to accept forgiveness is a logical next step. The American assumption which Stewart and Bennett label the “implied agent” (61-66) - the idea that every occurrence is connected to an agent that caused it - also makes it easy for judgment to be viewed as actions that result in personal guilt which deserves punishment.


The belief that actions should be controlled through highly personalized (and frequently self-centered) decision gives fertile ground for several problems in thinking about how people are related to God. One constant threat is worry about the future: an individual who is constantly causing things by every decision and action will surely be tempted to defy Christ’s teaching in Matthew 6:25-34 and worry about the outcomes. Thinking in terms of a "right" to choose can easily set a trajectory toward a false sense of being in control. The God of the Bible calls for unconditional trust and acknowledgement of his sovereignty, and an overweening tendency to proclaim cultural catch phrases like, “It’s my life” (as per Bon Jovi), “I Did It My Way” (Sinatra), or “I do whatever I feel like, gosh!” (Napoleon Dynamite) leaves an American Christian in a prideful and rebellious independence that is incompatible with a Christian worldview.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Busy, busy busy...

As a note on method: while evangelicals - and especially fundamentalists - have had a tendency to talk about culture only when it affects our Christianity negatively. If our cultural assumptions fall in line with Biblical priorities, we don't talk about the effects of culture; we just pat ourselves on the back with pride over how great we are as the church. Thus, we fail to notice the aspects of our culture that are helpful, and begin to think of culture as the problem instead of as a neutral medium. In these posts, I make an effort to balance positives and negatives of cultural characteristics. When something we believe is part of American culture that obviously doesn't mean it's right - but it doesn't mean it's wrong, either.

Task-oriented

The culture of the U.S. emphasizes accomplishments, work, numbers, and results. Americans value doing, and the more factual evidence we have that the action is yielding observable results, the better we feel about the actions. This results in a high value on activism and productivity. An effective evangelist, in this mindset, is one who can count a high number of people who made decisions for Christ. A pastor expects that if he does his job well, his church will grow in numbers. These expectations are met in some cases and are not entirely off-base, but quantitative measures alone do not adequately evaluate the qualitative progress that should be part of church life. Faithfulness, growth in character, building relationships, listening and observing are often not valued as highly as activities like running programs, staging events, and speaking to crowds, because the results of the former actions are less tangible.

This task-oriented view combines with America’s distinctive pragmatism to have a variety of effects. The focus on efficiency results in high output in terms of buildings, book and media output, and large-scale activities. It also results at times in viewing relationships as important primarily for the work that gets done as a result. I have found myself dramatically varying the amount of time I spend with people in my Christian community based on what we are working on together more than any other factor. We unite and put effort into our relationships because doing so is important to accomplishing a particular task. Networking and partnering with other churches and organizations views relationships as the key to greater effectiveness and results. According to doctrine, it is our union in the body of Christ that causes us to love, care for, and learn about each other. In reality, increased productivity often drives the connections we make.

Task-oriented pragmatism seems connected to a frequent lack of emphasis on aesthetics among evangelicals. Stewart and Bennett observe that “Americans focus on operational procedures rather than perceptions of the situation” (30), while other cultures spend more time talking about observations and descriptions of the people, places and situations involved. The American mindset assesses what resources and processes are most efficient for producing the greatest numerical results by communicating the facts of the gospel to the greatest possible number of people in the manner that yields the most public (i.e., recordable and countable) confessions of faith. Pouring time and resources into fine arts, architecture, and d├ęcor is usually valued only to the extent that it makes these activities effective, not for the sake of ideals like expressing truth and beauty in imaginative ways or reflecting the creative nature of God.

Pragmatism can easily lead to neglect of intellectual and historical foundations for Christianity as well. Being driven for numerical results and having an affinity for constant activity sometimes make time spent thinking, studying, and reflecting seem like a waste. While there are a number of evangelical groups that are exceptions, large swaths of American Christianity are colored with an anti-intellectual hue. As Charles Malik says, “Evangelicals are in a hurry to preach the gospel,...but ‘they have no idea of the infinite value of spending years of leisure in conversation with the greatest minds and souls of the past, and thereby ripening and sharpening and enlarging their powers of thinking.’” (Pearcey, 282) Undervaluing intellectual life in exchange for getting faster results raises questions about the true nature of the results. If church is done in a way that is disconnected from the lessons (both good and bad) of 2000 years of church history, is it really as close to the ideal as we would like to think? Are we not arrogant to think that we can interpret Scripture from a modern or postmodern American viewpoint without ever comparing it with the insights of the many good thinkers who have examined Scripture through the centuries? These are questions we must continually ask when tempted to follow the cultural impulse toward simply pushing ahead, running the risk in doing so of producing a great number of Christians with shallow knowledge and little sense of connection to a larger body.
1. Pearcey, Nancy. Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004.
2. Stewart and Bennett. American Cultural Patterns: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Rev. Ed. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1991.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

American Culture and Christianity: More Stuff don't Make You More Better

One characteristic prevalent in American culture, and sometimes invisible to us, that affects how we view our faith is...

Materialism


America has supported, since the early days of its settlement by Europeans, a wealthy culture with a stable government and economic liberties, where hard work and good morals are much more likely to yield financial prosperity than in many nations. The culture places a high value on possessions, wealth, income and the comforts they give as evidences of success and status. The unprecedented economic mobility available in America provides opportunities that would be unthinkable in more static or stratified societies. The prosperity of our country presents an incredible opportunity to use our vast resources in worshipful Christian generosity. Sadly, the statistics show that professing Christians in the U.S. are far more likely to acquire more possessions and comforts than to give a significant percentage of their wealth. We are easily misled by the idea that more money and possessions make life better, so that we miss out on the blessing of choosing contentment and joy.


Our efforts to help the poor frequently are built on the assumption that money, possessions and technology ought to be bundled together in a package with the gospel. This mindset needs critique, however, as it reflects the cultural assumptions that increase in personal wealth is always a sign of progress. Introducing wealth in the wrong manner (e.g., along with consumerism) can be dangerous and destructive to relationships and attitudes emphasized in aChristian worldview that are already present in another culture. (As illustrated in this article) Linking economic prosperity to proper relationship with God can be supported by careful proof-texting, but does not line up with a well-rounded Biblical theology. Yet this link is easily taken for granted by affluent (by global comparison, if not by their own standards) American Christians. We ought to be thoughtful about how to share wealth with those in need and still affirm the relationships and attitudes that are emphasized in a Christian worldview rather than unwittingly conveying consumerist attitudes.


All of the material world was declared good as God created it, which allows us to accept the pleasure, goodness and beauty we find on earth as gifts of God. Because fallen man will abuse pleasures that were intended for good, self-control and discipline are distinctive parts of the Christian lifestyle. A worldview that condemns pleasure or views material things as inherently bad does not line up with the story of creation and its exposition throughout Scripture. Exalting pleasure as an end in itself fails to bring satisfaction, however, and sets a person on an idolatrous course, giving more value to stuff than to God. Where no clear guidelines are given, we must ask questions such as the following: Am I enjoying this as an act of worship to God, or am I allowing it to distract me from God? Am I enjoying this in a way that brings me closer to other believers and maintains an effective witness to the world around me? Each pleasure, each material blessing, each comfort that we receive should be accepted with gratitude as a gift from God, and offered in worship back to God, submitted to use for his glory and the service of others.


When prosperity comes to a Christian, it presents an opportunity to use our resources in worshipful generosity. As American believers, we must fight the cultural pressure to acquire more possessions and comforts rather than to sacrificially give a significant percentage of wealth. The blessing of choosing contentment and joy is important to the Christian way of life, regardless of one’s level of wealth.