Charting a New Way Toward Culture Change: The Gospel Revisited
Neil Postman, an American social critic, professor and author, best known for his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, compared two dystopian visions of the future. The famous version is from George Orwell. He saw a future in which totalitarian states ruled with fear and control. His classic novel 1984 created a world in which its citizens were persecuted for adopting individualism and independent thinking. The book popularized the adjective Orwellian, connoting deception, secret surveillance and has inspired movies such as Minority Report, Blade Runner and The Matrix.
Around the same time, Aldous Huxley, an English writer and philosopher proposed a similar gloomy future in his novel Brave New World . Only this time its citizens are engineered through artificial wombs and put in predetermined classes based on intelligence and strength. To keep society in order and prevent them from knowing the truth, the people who live in it are sustained by a constant diet of soothing, happiness-inducing drug.
Postman, a generation ago poignantly predicted things would get worse in a Huxleyan sense rather than the popular Orwellian one. That society’s ruin would not come resulting from malevolent cultural forces, but by our loves and desires.1
Vincent Miller in Consuming Religion expands on this. He argues that the daily activities we engage in are a result of unwittingly adopting a habit of consuming goods without thinking of the harmful costs it takes to produce them. We are socialized into thinking and behaving in ways that betray our values in part because we have embraced the status quo. For example, we are unconscious in the way we check off our grocery list of produce, canned goods and sundries but fail to realize the human cost it took (growing, harvesting, delivery, etc.) to end up in our shopping basket.
Betraying ones values is typically not something we do consciously. Even inmates are not excused for they adhere to a prison ethic. The popular academic view states that our behaviors are dictated by our beliefs. We act according to what we have been taught is right. The more we are educated and learn proper doctrine, principles and formulas, the more we become civilized—so the theory goes. This has been the educational telos from the start. The problem with this method is that it overemphasized the life of the mind with the exclusion of practice.
There are more ways of knowing than simply reading it from a book. James K.A. Smith lectures on this topic often. In his book Imagining the Kingdom, he talks about a process of “deformation” and looking at the “Christian perception of the world” by borrowing concepts from Merleau-Ponty such as “practognosia,” a know-how that is absorbed through our bodies.2 This absorption in our bodies of truth and practices is precisely what happens when we are shaped by the consumption culture.
As Christians, we must conform our lives in consonant with Jesus teachings and resist, by God’s grace and power, anything that gets in the way of our sanctification. But what process of conforming do we engage in? If it is an item of knowledge, a simple correction will do. But we are dealing with a whole set of beliefs and practices enmeshed in a society. Cultural pundits constantly tell us the West is in decline and the church echo in unison. The church seems to think revival will come about from more preaching and teaching. If this is true, why are things appearing to be worse (Deborah Tannen’s Argument Culture, incivility, gender confusion, etc.) than a generation ago while churches in the U.S. stalwartly remained active in preaching, teaching and missions? While we cannot presume what God will do, he also has given us wisdom to be enact things in this world.
Miller is right when he identifies the problem and a way forward:
“If the abstraction and fragmentation of religious traditions are the result of cultural habits learned in other practices of consumption, then challenging the abstracting effects of commodification on the general level will be helpful for countering it on the explicitly religious level.”3
This is a great start. However, I regret that I do not have the space to continue with practical tips on combating the culture of consumption. Theologian, pastors and evangelists have a tough time recognizing the relevance and ill effects of a consumption culture as it relates to spiritual matters. This is one reason, as leaders helping a generation come of age, our efforts must be calculated and aimed at the real issue. Suffice it to say, “the most fundamental tactic for countering the commodification of culture is simple awareness of it as a problem.”4
1 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1988), viii.
2 Apologeticscom, Sanctified Perception: How Worship Works, YouTube, April 30, 2014, , accessed February 21, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrU3yhGogqY.
3 Vincent Jude Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013), 10.
4 Ibid., 192.
5 responses to “Charting a New Way Toward Culture Change: The Gospel Revisited”
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This is great, Harry. Thank you. You and Dr. Clark made me go digging around for James K.A. Smith a few months ago and I am glad I did. It is interesting to consider your mentioning of deformation and Smith’s teaching on the limits of identifying ourselves as brains. I have always been taught that whatever we think/believe is what we will do – if we want to disciple people then we teach them the right doctrines and rules. But Miller is saying we (un/subconciously?) violate our beliefs & values often. Do you have an opinion on ‘practognosia’ or can expound a bit more?
Hi Andrea. Thanks for the kinds words and for finding this post helpful. Just like you and many others, the “common view” (jumping ahead in our reading) states just that, that the more we learn and are taught, the more our actions and behavior conform to it. That’s true but not entirely true. And we’ve been barking up the wrong true for a very very long time.
Take for instance each year, when countless commit to losing weight, or starting to eat healthier. Intellectually, these people aren’t mistaken. They “know” losing a few pounds (some more than a few) will lead to a better life. But how many of them actually do that. It doesn’t work for them until they actually “do” it. The mistake of course is to “do” it in a big way. That only sets us up for failure and discouragement.
So let’s say I commit to exercising by doing 40 push-ups at a time. I shouldn’t expect myself to do that on the first try. However, if I lower my expectations to 5 reps and doing that several times a day, I’ll have achieved the first step to getting to 40. Then before you know it, doing 40 push ups at a time become part of your daily habit.
In fact, I’ve heard folks who habitually run and do other forms of excercise get antsy if they miss their routine. That’s just one example. Hope that’s somewhat helpful.
Check out that video link I shared where James K.A. Smith talks about “practognosia.” It’s good stuff.
I love the books you pulled in on this one! I believe that God invites us to see things out of His desire to heal them rather than accept them as inevitable. (Jonah and Ninivah for example.) What might a healed vision of our situation be? Maybe if we can picture it, we could work for it.
Good stuff Jenn. Seeing God’s vision of reality and restoration is what we all desire for the people we lead, including ourselves. I could go on and on about this for pages, but I won’t. I’ll have to save it for my dissertation. Hahahaha! That’s a cop-out, I know.
I can’t say too much about this, but one of the things we as Christians must do is tweak, or at least consider how our view of eschatology shapes our behavior. There, that’s it. More of that later when I figure it out for myself. Hahahaha!
Great post Harry. Although I do not remember all of the books you mentioned, I get the idea that we have more to do with the shaping of our culture than outside forces do upon our culture. I do agree that being aware of our own excesses and consumption is how we stop the madness. Refusing to play the game of one-upmanship is needed for all of us. Thank you for this reminder that it all starts from within.