Let’s play connect the dots…
By now, you might have heard something about the so-called “culture-wars” in this somewhat un-united state of America. Whether we are quite as “polarized” today as the some media outlets would like us to believe, I don’t know, but I think it’s safe to say there are cultural shifts of persuasion on a number of topics in our culture within the last few decades. I don’t want to take on any one particular topic, or really talk about the culture-wars, except as a way to get at something more important.
If we roll back the tape, American culture was more influenced by and in-step with what was considered Christian ideals on a range of issues. That’s not where we are today. What has happened? Why has the Church lost so much influence?
Here’s my take…
I think the shift from a predominate Christian influence arose, first, from a theological shift within the Church. If the Church has lost the culture wars, they (or we) have lost it because they lost the places of culture-shaping. Where are these places of cultural influence? Paraphrasing a popular quote: “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” I think there is a sort of genius to this quote… that cultural influence is exerted from ‘underneath’… from the arts, from the educators, from the poets and musicians at least, and that true cultural influence is not exerted primarily from the top (power-over) from the politicians and the makers of law, etc.
Here’s the theological shift I see… Along the way, in various intensities within various Christian traditions, gradually there began to be a retreat from the “world” toward the establishment of sub-cultures. That retreat’s underpinnings came from a particular theological take on the Church’s relationship with the world. The “sacred” and “secular” divide arose from a well-intended desire to preserve the Church’s integrity but the fallout was an unintended lost of influence in some of the key platforms of culture shaping.
One feature of this shift was the creation of Christian institutions and categories. Just reflect on where we are now… We have Christian colleges and universities, Christian media & publishing companies, Christian para-church ministries, Christian bookstores, Christian artists, Christian music, Christian radio stations, etc. etc., and even Christian breath mints! These institutions and categories of orienting the Church to the world have created a sectarian sub-cultural splintering into ever-shrinking spheres of cultural influence.
But the underlining theological shift goes deeper than the sacred/secular divide… The sacred/secular divide is the fruit and flower of the shift toward a neo-gnostic tendency to divide up the world up between the “natural” and the “supernatural” so that the Church is left to traffic in the “spiritual” and the world can carry on with the business of inquiry and development of the “natural” world. For example, you can see this in the Church’s primary concern for “saving souls” for a future spiritual heavenly destiny, in some important ways disconnected from the ‘here and now’ of the “natural world.” The problem isn’t that the Church has concern for “souls”… it’s that this concern is not the whole story because it arises from a bad theology (i.e. a bad ontology).
We can see this in the renewed interest in the Church toward “social justice” and this is good, but that this continues to be interpreted along the lines of tending to people’s “natural” needs and is seen as something differentiated from people’s “spiritual” needs. Again, we owe this breaking up of the world, in this way, to a bad ontology. (One that I don’t think maps on well to the biblical narrative, btw)
Just to sum it up here, we’ve moved from the highly publicized “culture wars” of our day to see that the Church loses influence when it loses the places of culture-shaping. The Church retreats from the places of culture-shaping primarily on the basis of the sacred/secular divide, and that sacred/secular divide is informed by an underlining theology in tandem with an underlining ontology.
There is certainly more going on that just this, but this hits the core highlights.
Where does the Church go from here?