Category Archives: Culture

I Do Not Want to Fight the Culture Wars

The issue of how the church interacts with culture has perennially energized and dogged Jesus’ church throughout the centuries.  While most Christians, and Christian movements, would seek to positively influence culture, we’ll disagree about how best to achieve that goal.  Many of us will also cringe as we see some Christians doing (hopefully well intentioned but) dumb things in the name of Christ, and we’ll agree with many skeptical and secular approbations of them.  Still, to paraphrase an old phrase from church history, What hath Jerusalem to do with Washington and Hollywood, Main Street and Wal-Mart?

A recent and helpful book that provides needed critique to much of the church’s forays into Christ-and-culture territory and points a way forward is James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World.  For starters, the volume amounts to a massive critique of Christians’ efforts to do what the title suggests.

Hunter is a Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia.  One of the real strengths of To Change the World is that it takes a historical-sociological perspective on how cultures actually transform over time.  In other words, while we may talk a lot about culture change, how does, and has, that really happened?  Are churches seeking to transform culture for Christ employing means that will achieve that end?  Hunter contends that many Christian efforts to change the world for Christ not only fail to hit the mark but may also do more harm than good.

Marshaling a vast array of voices from Christendom, Hunter observes that the contemporary church employs three primary strategies in order to alter culture—converting hearts through evangelism, populist civil/social movements, and political activism.  While he would allow that Christians should seek to share their faith with others and peacefully to engage in the socio-political process, Hunter demonstrates from every period in Western Civilization since the Roman Empire that cultures have never changed through those means.  Hunter writes:
The evidence of history and sociology demonstrates that this theory of culture and cultural change is simply wrong and for this reason, every initiative based on this perspective will fail to achieve the goals it hopes to meet. . . The hearts and minds of ordinary people are. . . relatively insignificant to change cultures at their deepest level.
As an alternative view of how cultures shift, Hunter claims,
Cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production.  In light of this, the cultural economy of contemporary Christianity has been strongest, in the main, where cultural leverage is weakest—on the social periphery rather than the cultural center and in tastes that run to the lower-middle and middle brow rather than to the high brow. . . Thus, for all the talk of world-changing and all of the good intentions that motivate it, the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way.
These are heady words from Hunter, and the case he builds is persuasive to me.

There’s one other aspect to his critique of the church that bears repeating.  He notes that while many typical Christian causes may have some limited merit (although not always), the means by which these causes are put forward are never neutral.  In fact, Hunter argues, the occasional vehemence of Christian advocacy, which he documents exhaustively, can be interpreted as simply another will to power that seeks to establish its own claims by vilification of the “other” and by aspiration to dominance:
The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians. . . unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry.  By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through the discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.
Yowzers!  This certainly isn’t liberti’s way.  Thankfully, I don’t know any Christians personally that are “corrosive” by any stretch, but are they out there somewhere?  What would youtube, or our skeptical friends and neighbors, observe?  (And don’t forget: Mr. T says, “I pity the fool that pursues functional Nietzscheanism under the guise of Christian witness.”)

So how, on the other hand, ought our people and churches to engage with culture?  There are more questions here than there is space to answer, but we begin with the cross, where Jesus turned the very idea of power on its head and demonstrated by his crucifixion and resurrection a way of victory through service, weakness, sacrifice, and faithful presence.  As ones freed to be truly human through the grace of Jesus, we dream of a better world and seek it by the Spirit of Jesus.

In a short story collection by Edna O’Brien called Saints and Sinners, a sexually abused woman wonders, “How beautiful it would be if one of us could step forward and volunteer to become the warrior for the others. What a firmament of love ours would be.” There was this man named Jesus; he was also God himself. Jesus possessed memory, courage, and love for us, bringing good news of a new city and for cities full of broken people. Jesus for the joy set before him recognized the dream of a city as a promise, and for the cross set upon him recognized the promise of a city as a dream. As our warrior-deliverer, Jesus brings peace, a peace that recalls God’s original intention for creation and witnesses to God’s good future that has already begun. Now God’s shalom—his kingdom peace of beauty, forgiveness, healing, and harmony—has been unleashed upon the world, as surely as the last book in the Bible, the Revelation of St. John, tells us of a garden city yet to come that will envelop the world.

Jesus beckons that people follow him, and his followers that they seek the peace of the city.  This is culture change at its most audacious.  The Lord Christ gives his people every resource for his mission, and we receive the courage to remember, the audacity to dream, and the resolve to serve. Jesus’ grace operates in our world to repeal the fall, overturning the broken spiritual, psychological, relational, and social dimensions of our world. Including where are congregations have been planted: as the kingdom comes to bear upon our region, what a firmament of love ours would be.

The mission of all of the liberti churches is to live, speak, and serve as the very presence of Jesus in our areas.  To that end, lives of worship, community, and mercy are the are the sine qua non of what Jesus calls us to do, and by God’s grace the heartbeat of the liberti churches. We believe that this type of life is the one that truly fulfills the longings of the human soul, brings flourishing to a broken world, and unites people as no other message can. We do not pursue a different world, but a freer one.

(FYI: this article will have appeared as a post in liberti’s new app.  I’ve cross posted here, and I hope that you enjoyed my savvy deployment of the future perfect tense in the previous sentence.)

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Somewhere, Tuesday is Fat

Mardi Gras made me hate New Orleans.

I was born in the Crescent City, and growing up there, the holiday got worse every year.

As a young boy, I didn’t understand the allure when, on Mardi Gras morning, my parents would wake me up before dawn, pile us into the van, drive to a parade route, curse about the lack of parking, finally park miles away from the parade, walk miles to the parade with folding chairs and full ice chests, set up, and then sit there.

My brother and I perched, freezing, at the top of a sitting ladder—do they make those any more?—and halfheartedly shouted, “Throw me something mister!” for beads and trinkets that I didn’t care to take home.

We’d wrap up after lunch, pack everything away, and fight traffic back to the suburbs. I always received my folks’ postgame “wasn’t that fun?” as an ironic taunt.

Elementary school opened my eyes to how thoroughly parents could embarrass their children on Mardi Gras. Most of them (not mine, thankfully) treated Fat Tuesday as the one day where they could do everything they told us not to. The phonies.

News broke one year that the city was forcing Mardi Gras krewes—the year-round clubs that build floats and put on the parades—to integrate. What dismayed me most is that I hadn’t realized until then that the krewes had been segregated! Which century did this town live in?

Natives always spoke of the Old World flavor of New Orleans, and apparently they meant it. The greens, golds and purples of the season couldn’t mix, and a city with many horribly ugly racist moments in its past had continued to institutionalize what it disavowed. The hypocrites.

Skipping town

In middle school and high school, Mardi Gras moderately reined in my hostility toward my parents annually humiliating their children; now it was our turn. At best, though, Mardi Gras ran like an ongoing loop of Adam Sandler’s “I’m So Wasted” sketch; crossing lines just to say that you did is empty calories.

The Mardi Gras of my senior year in high school sealed it. Up before dawn and gearing up—not with parents, but partners in crime—we rushed uptown to the three blocks where all the kids from a handful of high schools came together.

It was a grey morning in which the windows of heaven were cracked open so that a cold, slow drip fused the skies and the streets into roughly the same substance. For warmth I clung to a girl that I genuinely liked but didn’t love, which made me sad every time I was with her. I wanted to go home, except that I was already there.

Within the next four hours, the roads had turned into a communal vomitorium. Most of us had scuffled with police (either they were harassing us, or we were harassing them). One friend’s car was impounded for drug possession, and another bud, drunk, got into a fistfight with his own dad, drunk. A win for humanity.

I felt like I hadn’t slept in days, but I got back to the house at 3 p.m. I napped angrily but was awakened by a friend asking if I wanted to go out that night. (This was the guy whose car was impounded earlier in the day; he of course needed a ride for the evening.)

I shouted into the receiver, “I’m getting the hell out of here!” hung up, and went to college in New Hampshire.

But here I am in 2013 hosting a Mardi Gras party (which, by the way anyone in the community is welcome to attend; just lemme know).

I love Mardi Gras, and I love New Orleans. Why the change?

Say Anything with confetti

I told myself while living in New Orleans that it’s so hard to be a saint in the city, but I was really a Pharisee. If I make myself feel superior by judging people doing supposedly bad things, that’s just as bad a thing, no? Even if I wouldn’t want my kids to do everything that’s ever been done at Mardi Gras, Carnival isn’t really a bad thing.

Through no one’s fault, and because of my parents’ hard work and care, I enjoyed a very comfortable childhood. If Mardi Gras was about blowing off steam and resting well, I didn’t feel the need. I do now.

While I’m sure that by most standards my life is still incredibly privileged, I’ve faced enough struggles—and in pastoral ministry and walked alongside many more—that seeking rest and relief from cares are valuable.

(Here’s a fun and potentially weird-seeming Christian fact about Ol’ Jim: I consider myself to be a “sabbatarian,” i.e., one who practices keeping regular periods of rest. For various theological reasons, I don’t do the stores-closed-on-Sunday thing, but I believe that it is pleasing to God when we rest gratefully from our labors. It’s a gracious command for us.)

So, a city that builds an annual party season into the calendar and shuts down everything for a week in the clog days of February? Unbelievably awesome. That I’m given the time to spend hours upon hours standing around, drinking something frosty, talking to people, and catching worthless beads? Sure beats working in the mill. And I can dress up? Sign me up.

At liberti Collingswood church services last Sunday, I talked about how we ought not to treat one another from a functional perspective. We aren’t created to be consumers of other people, using friends, family, and co-workers to gain social capital, fun, pleasure, money, sex, and so on. Relating to people as people re-humanizes us.

Mardi Gras serves no practical, productive function. It’s John Cusack in Say Anything, with confetti. Fat Tuesday in New Orleans is also subversive in a healthy way. It will never be Mardi Gras: Brought To You By Microsoft. You can commoditize Mardi Gras but not control it; it can’t be centrally sponsored and controlled. How many fun things can you say that about?

Not only that, but Mardi Gras is strikingly egalitarian. Thankfully, racism is not the only note in the Fat Tuesday brass band. Everyone in the city does Mardi Gras, and it’s open to all.

I recall Bruce Springsteen saying he loved the Jersey shore because it’s for everyone. It’s not the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard; if you’re a teacher or a police officer, you can still take a week or two there in the summer, and maybe someday get a little place not too far from the sand.

It’s the same with Mardi Gras; we’re in this party together—which is why Mardi Gras always looks kind of bizarre. Last month, I was back in New Orleans for a weekend and grabbed a table at the Carousel Bar in the French Quarter, a nouveau cocktail type of establishment where they fart in the general direction of “mixed drinks.”

Sipping something with my dad, I marveled at the people at the bar as they glided by. (The Carousel Bar actually has a rotating, carousel bar in the center of the lounge. You should take the plunge and do a similar D.I.Y. at home.) There, old people, young people, costumed people, fat people, skinny people, dark people, light people all bellied up together.

By contrast, when I went with Emily a couple weeks ago to the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company (cocktail bar) in Center City, I left resolving to hit the gym and make sure that the cucumber slices I put on my eyes at night were organic.

Fat Tuesday takes that diversity and cranks it up to 11. Exclusion comes in different guises, but Mardi Gras has junk in the trunk with a bumper sticker that says, “We’re all people, after all.”

In its best expressions, Mardi Gras doesn’t serve as simple escapism, either. Traditionally, New Orleanians party on Fat Tuesday, knowing that right around the corner is Ash Wednesday mass, and the beginning of Lent, which commemorates the suffering of the world as reckoned through the suffering of the Son.

It’s an all-out party that persists not in the forgetfulness of death but rather in lament and defiance of it. It’s also a foretaste of heaven: sinners coming together and having a party.

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