“Strategy” in the Culture Wars (Part 2 of 3)

The Culture War Puzzle (Piece 3): Modernity as Divine Confrontation 

One way of reading the story of civilization is to read it as a story of divine pedagogy. This can be overstated at the expense of other truths and metrics of reality, but (as such) it is both a biblical notion (Gal. 3-4) and a thickly treated theme in the history of the Christian church. Can modernity possibly be read in this light? One peculiar way of answering this would be to consider the crisis of modern mental health.

It is no accident that modern television sometimes explores mental health issues with surprisingly profound nuance (Bojack Horseman, Undone). Our increasing inability to “adult” or to “even” is very frequent, and we are probably being a bit lazy or self-protective if we think that this can entirely be explained in terms of something like “entitlement.” Jacques Ellul (no softy) saw quite clearly that modern agitation bespeaks a real and distinctively modern fragmentation of soul, otherwise manifest in our growing addiction to medication, pornography, and entertainment—all instruments of “relief.”

Relief from what? From whence derives our agitation? Some of its sources are easy enough to identify. The above products are, in some way, relief from the impact of our sold birthright. Primally hungry in (now) atrophied spiritual organs, we distract ourselves from even taking note of our alarming numbness, and rather overwhelm our existential cravings with a sort of perpetual spiritual snacking. And just like prostitutes who are paid in the very drugs for which their condition evokes the need, so our own distractions function as both the relief from and the offered rewards of our arrangement. Without extremely stimulating and constantly changing modes of entertainment and distraction, our society would likely implode. But there is another dimension to our agitation that is often overlooked. One of the remarkable elements of Bojack Horseman is that, for all its excess, it is brutally moral. It looks very honestly at the soul of man (but in a mode of dominant animality!) and exposes him to himself. It tells us that we are not okay, and that this is due in no small part to ourselves. We need relief not only from the lost goods of modernity, but also from its judgments. We are all addicts. 

What might this have to do with divine pedagogy? If the history of man is God’s training of human beings to trust God’s plan for him, then, in man’s rejection of God’s program for himself, God shows His power by accomplishing His own ends through man despite sin. As I said earlier, much of civilization was birthed in hubris, and some of the earliest stages of our civilization were so violent that God prevented man from self-annihilation (the deluge). While later civilizations were also violent, they also accomplished some order, and even placed man in a situation that could warrant greater degrees of interdependence (i.e. at least some parody of trust), distributed through more complex communities negotiating some provisional peace. Israel, of course, is at the center of this divine pedagogy, and is placed into a more direct relation with God, one which demanded the trust in God that Adam rejected. And it is crucial to note that the judgment of Babylon was thought, by many of the Jews, to have taught Israel its lesson. It no longer worshiped idols. It (presumably) got its priorities straight. Jesus entered a culture that cared quite deeply about the law of God, a culture that many Christians might (sans the scalpel of our Savior) be inclined to think had proper priorities. But the judgment of Christ was that this culture was incredibly sick, that its parody of godliness covered a multitude of self-protective maneuvers that echoed the original hiding and covering of Adam. 

Here’s the point. In God’s providence, might our detachment from home and kin function to chasten an idolatrous relation to them? After all, some of the most demonic programs of the last two centuries have been carried out in their name. And perhaps future households will be significantly chastened of these tendencies. Not calling into question the priority of the local (or writ large, of the nation) as sites of political and social identity, I nevertheless aim to highlight the degree to which Christian civilization is ever called to be a pilgrim civilization—activist without being anxious, deeply attached and also loose-handed.  

The crisis of modern mental health—partially derivative as it is from the exposure of homelessness—is possibly a “ground zero” site of God’s pedagogy and training of man to trust Him (rather than their lost home or faux replacement “community”).  I recall Ralph Wood (in an interview with Ken Myers) claiming that Tolkien’s The Hobbit is an adventure while Lord of the Rings is a quest. What he meant by this is that The Hobbit is There and Back Again and taken up willfully by Bilbo. The Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, is open-ended, and the crucial task is imposed upon Frodo. In our case, it would be curious to imagine if going “back again” is actually the open-ended quest. That is to say, the resurrection and cultivation of embodied local communities is a task imposed upon us—and one which we cannot afford to neglect or will away. Moreover, the path leading to it is perhaps circuitous and peculiar, and the resultant product perhaps still unimagined by the sages. Analogously, the goal of self-exposure in therapy is not to help you live a different life, but to take up your ordinary one with greater authenticity, and with openness to repentance and change. This is only possible when one’s heart is rested in God’s ultimate control and design. Perhaps the purging fires of modernity will be kindest to those who bring this renewal to the home, one rested in what transcends it, and therefore more deeply oriented toward what lies beyond it—receiving and giving gifts. 

The Culture War Puzzle (Piece 4): You are Not the Judge

It is not surprising that the phrase “do not judge” has become especially popular in our world, and it is often used to excuse sin. But in our rush to avoid this error, we perhaps fail to notice that it is popular for another reason, a legitimate one: the world is not actually that clear to most of us. We don’t even know ourselves that well, much less other people. And perhaps precisely for this reason, when we witness these words pour forth from the mouth of Jesus (Mat. 7:1), the assumption is not that there is nothing to judge, but rather that our putting ourselves in the place of Judge is liable to be a way of avoiding our own greater sins. It is rather God who sees all. James (4:11-12) makes this point in an especially clear manner, giving a haunting diagnosis of what animates our tendency to grab the gavel.

But doesn’t the New Testament contain a good bit of bold rebuke? Yes, and some men use this to give warrant to their parroted rhetoric. But all too often, such persons are missing the necessary ingredients of demonstrated competence and insight, and too easily conflate their own rhetorical context with those of the prophets and apostles. This lack is typically manifest in a more ideological and positivist approach to Scripture, and a fairly one-dimensional reading of the world and of people (and by consequence, their situations).  Crucially, per the above point, we should not automatically make judgments of those who lay it on thick, and should rather first ask whether there is something we need to hear. Even when they are wrong, miscalibrated judgment is not always ill-willed, and we should be especially cautious about projecting sinister motives on church leaders (all too frequent in our day, despite the caution of Scripture on this matter). What discerns all is love of the truth—chiefly the truth about ourselves and only then about others. 

But because it is true that the world is wide and dense, our wisest general posture is to withhold ultimate pronouncements (it is the fool who speaks cheaply in the Bible) and to believe and hope all things. Scripture gives us examples of people acting in ethically ambiguous ways that we might find rather easy to judge, but which it does not. The case of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:18 is fascinating. He asks God to forgive him for bowing to a pagan idol in anticipation of bowing to a pagan idol! Now, the text doesn’t tell us whether this was good or bad (a solid guess: probably not ideal). However, it would also seem (using a kind of “reader-response” hermeneutic here) that the text nudges us in the direction of leaving Naaman in God’s court rather than our own. Are we nudged to have compassion on the man? Why might we be? It is not just that #lifeiscomplicated. That can also be an excuse for misbehavior and latitudinarianism. Honest persons must be sensitive to this and pray against it. Perhaps it is rather that we ordinarily lack the vantage point to make final pronunciations. 

Crucially, the Bible’s warning about our tendencies in this area cuts deeper than we might imagine. It would be easy to think that illicit judgment is something that “chill Christians” successfully avoid. Often, however, such persons have merely changed the lines in their self-written script. Now their denunciations are for the alleged Pharisees rather than the more traditional sinners, etc.  Leapfrogging Marx, then, we might say that the man-man relationship always reveals the man-God relationship. In general, whenever we place ourselves in this role, or in the subsidiary position of calculating prudence for the lives of others,we both (a) seize the reign of God and (b) place ourselves outside the relationship to the law that would expose us as well. We ignorantly wield the weapons of our own condemnation.

Consider, in this light, the debate about schooling options that has raged over the last few decades in some conservative communities.  Some of the results are already in. In the 90’s, homeschooling was especially on the rise, as was the recovery of so-called “classical education.” And much good came of it. I myself am a beneficiary. Nevertheless, on the ground, this was sometimes portrayed as a major priority for serious Christians. The unwritten (and sometimes quite overt) rule appeared to be that, if one was at all able, the most godly thing to do was quite obviously to take their children out of public school (often scripted in the narrative as a modern altar of Moloch). Perhaps not surprisingly, this often created insular communities with a lack of proportion. To listen to some advocates talk, one might get the impression that an enriched life was impossible apart from this particular mode of living. The resultant world is quite naturally (even if not intentionally) carved up into those who are part of the project of saving civilization and those poor souls who are (because of circumstance or ignorance) feeding the fire of its self-consumption. It is not surprising, then, that the appeal of this movement was generally limited to certain sorts of personalities, perhaps measured by the fact that some intelligent Christian readers probably find this report quite surprising and odd. 

One of the perennial problems here is that principles become juggernaut abstractions that bulldoze their way through the host of considerations that render a particular practice actually prudent, or of relative urgency. Pastoral leadership is especially tricky here. It is inevitable, of course, that the pastor will teach both principles and even have some advice about what these principles ought to look like (generally speaking) in practice. But the degree of relative importance and prioritization is crucial here. It is simply not realistic to imagine that one could frequently proclaim the superiority of a particular concrete practice (i.e. “If you have any ability to do this, God would have you do it”) without inevitably creating the impression that those who cannot or will not do it are “part of the system,” morally lazy, unwitting assimilants  into the borg of modern moral compromise. And this, in turn, inevitably produces a great deal of alienation and misplaced shame. And yet perhaps if one could see many people’s lives with God’s knowledge of them, they would see the grave risk of incautious pressure. Many who ought (when all is seen) to be focusing their energies on very basic levels of faithfulness can be sidetracked into the flashiness of our particular communal scripts. We all want to be godly, courageous, and part of saving civilization, after all. But taking up one’s dominion according to the dictates of an outsourced conscience inevitably results in many instances of exposed incompetence, a pile of unpredicted consequences, and finally failure. This is not some rare case. It has been and is common, and it is especially tragic when such persons are assured, in their failure, that it would have all gone okay if they had just obeyed a little bit more. Such a retort typically evidences ideology over wisdom. Wisdom is ever-creative and contemporary about what a principle might look like concretely on just this ground. A cynic might retort that this is just a way to loosen things up and avoid hard work. But here as well, the sincerest love of truth, rather than kneejerk cynicism, discerns all things. It is, after all, actually possible that we judge people too much.

Certainly we cannot trivialize the problems in modern school systems, nor the concerns of parents who opt out. Moreover, there are parents who do not take this matter seriously enough, or who uncritically absorb our culture’s default settings without due consideration to what honors the Lord and benefits their children. My exclusive claim is that this still under-determines the “right” choice in many particular circumstances, and for reasons that are often barely on the register of passionate critics. Sometimes this is rooted in a questionable model of how moral and intellectual influence works (i.e. that having progressive teachers makes progressive children, or that privately educated children will not turn out like their secular counterparts). Here again, one need only look to the evidence we already have to see the problem with this common orienting point.  Moreover, this kind of oversimplification often bespeaks others rooted in the same failure of imagination. Even those who have read many books on education, public policy, and local school horror stories do not necessarily have wisdom about the concrete world of actual human decision-making (i.e. the actual location wherein such choices are made). Even more revealing is the zero-sum manner in which the issue is processed. The goodness of a particular practice necessarily translates to the badness of another. Typically involved in this is a narrative—about the role of government, a certain telling of our history and trends, a vision of what a good society looks like, how family/economic models fit into that, etc. And crucially, this “big picture” (along with its implicit construal of our immediate priorities and risks) is rarely obvious, either in general or in particular. 

In all of this, a more basic problem is that we sometimes assume that there is only one cultural battlefront. There isn’t. There are a host of intersecting problems, the weighted arrangement of which varies highly by context. Moreover, the modern world (in both its gifts and its challenges) is part of our situation! And this produces the irony that many efforts to recover the local forget the temporal and historical dimension of the local (that we are runners in the race at just this time and no other). Leadership bears a distinctive relation to the unknown, and wisdom remains as new as the life that demands it.

When we put it this way, it becomes clear that real-life decisions are almost never as simple as their ideological portrayal. We can talk all day long about things that happen at “public school,” but the truth is that we’re never dealing with some abstraction called public school, but always with the concrete real world of just this public school with this student and these teachers in this neighborhood, etc. Moreover, many households with very involved parents actually appreciate their local schools and are heavily invested in them succeeding. And in plenty of cases, this is not because they buy into capitalism, but because they enjoy a very local community. Moreover, the extent to which top-down ideology is inflected on the ground is still significantly mediated by actual teachers. In my own local primary school, several of these are devout Muslims who are liable to be less than perfectly woke. The recovery of the local and of households, and the good life more generally, can be pursued in different and internally coherent ways. In short, principles do not replace actual prudence. And actual prudence (not as an exception, but very ordinarily) is complicated. Telling an individual that they ought to prioritize this or that, against the backdrop of their lived world (which neither you nor they fully grasp), might very possibly be to demand of them what could never be reasonably demanded of you. And more to the point, we are often not in a position to know this. Even when your gut-reading isn’t wrong, you are not ordinarily in a position to know precisely when and in which cases your instincts ought to translate into priorities for your neighbor(s). And this is part of the reason that the Bible’s general encouragement is that we avoid scripting ourselves in the role of soul-reader. This is not only because we lack sufficient information, but that we ourselves do not have the pure vision that reflects God’s own heart. It is God who judges between the widow’s two mites and the offering of the rich man. And crucially, His judgment tends to be so very different from our own. 

The Culture War Puzzle (Piece 5): Accidental Coordination and Running for His Pleasure

Strategizing what battles to fight in our world is difficult. And in light of our extensive ignorance about most things, perhaps we should rather take up an anti-strategy, which is to say a perspective. Let’s imagine the possibility of accidentally coordinated action. An example of what I have in mind can be drawn from the world of apologetics. It is remarkable to think how much apologists bite and devour each other. But each of them has their own built-in audience and each of them gets at a different subset of individuals. Take a folksy YouTube apologist, for instance. For all the legitimate critiques of their content and methods, it should not surprise us that they help many people expand their mental and spiritual horizons. Some of us need only recall our own biographies to know the truth in this. Perhaps the mentee eventually discovers the limitations and flaws of his mentors, but then there are other guides to pick up the slack, and so on. Here’s the point. God has given many people many gifts, and we often fail to see their complementary achievements. To the extent that we simply dismiss each other, to precisely that extent we probably reflect some anxiety that we are not in control after all, and our failure to believe that it is God who coordinates all activities in His kingdom. 

Note the emphasis here. Just as in the church, in the world, it is God who has given gifts to men, and it is ultimately a matter of their very own dominion to employ those gifts in the world with prudence. And in this, let it be insisted, their own reading of the world is important. Their own inclinations are important. The very simple and plain fact is that godliness comes in many forms. Luther is not Calvin.

Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is (once again) insightful here. The “good guys” are a rather diverse cast of characters (including some who work for Leviathan!) who aren’t that great at working together. Even ancient Merlin has a role, although Ransom must persuade the others that he is useful despite his apparent barbarism. Moloch, for all its talk of diversity, does not produce individuals, but rather “units” of a single product. And in our “strategy,” we often function in the same way, reflecting either the idolatries of a former era or the unwitting absorption of the mental habits of Ellul’s technique.

This approach maps elegantly onto whatever might be called the “cultural strategies” of the New Testament. The first Christians were frequently encouraged to live quiet lives of service (which is not the opposite of “activism”), and to be about the success of the gospel. The writings of Justin Martyr and the impressions of the early Romans could instructively be contrasted to our own writings and public perception on this score. In any case, the New Testament doctrine of “gifts” is especially crucial for us. The basic idea is this. Do you have gifts? Yes. Do you know what they are? If not, figure it out. What’s the big strategic move, then? Go give them to people! It seems to me that with this basic metric, we capture something of enormous potential peace-making in the culture wars. Just as each person is a distinct inflection of the divine image, so each household is a distinct way of having the common human project. Moreover, to take it all the way down, we are all flawed, have some error, and lack some competence. But precisely because God’s word does not return to Him void (Isa. 55:11), we can expect that all flawed employment of His gifts are part of God’s design in this world. The Lee Strobel-obsessed undergraduate has conversations I never will. “If they’re not against us,” said Christ, “they are for us.”

But, we’re dying to know, how does critique fit into this? As in the church, differently gifted people also need one another in the world. And this includes others’ correction. I will address the subject of speaking with authority in the final post. More immediately, I’ll elect to further interrogate our craving to be critics.

First, do we sufficiently recognize that there are different ways of looking godly and that human differentiation and style is a created good? Moreover, some of the boundaries of legitimacy in our context are difficult to discern because we live in an era of massive contextual collapse. People from everywhere and from various subcultures (with all their mores and different senses of “decorum”) live right next to each other. And this demands that our evaluations take place in a mind driven by love, rather than a heart driven by our default sentiments.

Second,  do we recognize the relationship between wisdom and knowledge of the world and of persons within it? We have to be able to ask: Can this person in this world plausibly read this decision as a wise one? The answer to this, if we’re truly being honest, is often “yes.” If we think the answer is usually “no” about many of these things, then we are possibly operating on a metric that reduces the phenomena of the concrete world to the epiphenomena of abstract principle (recall Naaman!). The relationship is precisely the opposite. It is in the concrete that the abstract dwells.

Third, however, even when a person’s actions are clearly wrong, do we subtly frame their vice in negation to our virtues? Nobody’s problem is that they are not like us. But we implicitly think so to the extent that we notice ourselves being a bit self-satisfied when we observe the purportedly lazy, cowardly, or sinful. No man’s calling is to parrot my prudence, but rather that they repent of their peculiar and distinctive sins and to learn to become peculiarly and distinctly themselves as they exercise dominion before God. “You do you” has a baptized inflection. 

Fourth, are we spiritually invested in the good outcomes of our neighbor’s projects? If we are celebrating the downfall of some abstraction called “the university,” are we responsibly noting that we celebrate the collapse of a concrete project (a particular university) in which many godly persons are (for godly reasons) peculiarly invested? The goal of mutual edification is to aid our neighbor in calibrating their projects toward the good. It would seem peculiar that I have more hope for an institution’s demise than for my neighbors success at reforming it toward the good. This is to render ourselves unworthy of the good deeds of our neighbors, rather than cultivating the god-like dignity that sees and summons the good in them. Or as Fred Rogers might have put it, “Look for those who are helping.” It’s a big world. There are a lot of situations. And there is lots to do. 

What is a wise man, a wise woman, and/or a wise family to do in this world, then? The plain truth is that it is not always obvious what the wisest thing to do is, especially against the backdrop of all that we could be said to be “called to do.” Should we put our efforts into pursuing Christian subcultures? Should we stick to our spaces and try to subtly Christianize them? Or perhaps overtly Christianize them? Perhaps the answer to what is wise is to ask what our gifts are, to go use them, and to support our neighbors in the use of their gifts as well. This is a fitting posture of a foot soldier who knows nothing of the Captain’s multi-faceted strategy, but trusts Him to win the war. Such a one will be maximally faithful in his own distinctive battle, and leave the activity of the rest to his Captain.