Culture


A little late, but better than never.

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a very patriotic person (at least as it is defined in current political discourse by either the left or right); my loyalties lie with my family, the Church and the local community.  But on the Fourth of July I don’t mind watching fireworks displays with my children, and so we headed down to the local riverfront to watch the annual show over the Mississippi River.

Somewhere in the middle of it, I was struck with a thought: these fireworks are supposed to represent “the bombs bursting in air.” This is the reenactment of battle, albeit with a lot of artistic license.

I apparently wasn’t the only one with this thought. Iraq II veteran Ryan Harvey had these thoughts:

I tend to believe … that the fireworks celebration is not about Independence, it’s about explosions. It’s about war. It’s a yearly mass-experience that reminds us that we live in a culture of violence and that we are safe enough from war that we can celebrate it from a detached position. But it’s not a conspiracy by some branch of government or some multinational fireworks company, it’s a cultural practice, an unwritten consensus.

You can read the rest of Harvey’s essay at Iraq Veterans Against the War.

A philosophy is only as good as the art it spawns, and that is why postmodernism is a failure. Of the real, enduring art of the last century — and I include literature in this — there isn’t much that was produced in its second half. And what was produced only really served the purpose of generating long, rambling discussions of what defines art in a postmodern culture.

Postmodernism fails because it affirms the denials of modernism — there are no mysteries — but acts as if what is being produced can have a deeper meaning (“because I so affirm”). This is schizophrenic and necessarily kills any real creative impulse, and so the bastard child ends up rehashing its mother’s work, badly. The type set by Holden Caulfield — a character from the badly-named contemporary period but truly the illegitimate spawn of a modernist protagonist —  ends up being the voice of three generations, and the book ends the same way every time: isolated and agnostic.

When we talk about 20th century art, the discussion inevitably falls to the men and women who lived through the First World War and what they produced. The problem with modernism is that — while it did us the service of killing the false neo-classicalism of the romantic period — its end result is soullessness, a relentless search for truth and meaning while denying the mysteries of life, and especially religion. No wonder so many of them died before their time, either directly at their own hands or indirectly through substance abuse.

Which is why, I think, I find myself identifying more and more with the Baroque (gaudiness and all). Even though they painted a false picture of the middle ages and their views of the Greeks were reconstructed and cleaned up at best, it was a thoroughly Catholic period that — while affirming the truth of Christianity — was not afraid to embrace its Western past or acknowledge its Greek roots; the longer you look at philosophy, the more you realize how deeply entangled it is with theology, and thus with art.

Later, the Enlightenment, would usher in with it what has been labeled the Classical period in art, which eventually trashed both Christian philosophy and the Greeks; but the art that intellectual moment de novo spawned was devastated by the emo-kids of the 1800s, the Romantics.

And the Romantics, who were so full of emotion but divorced from religion and philosophy, were the logical precursors to the moderns, who realized that emotion without meaning was exactly that — meaningless self-flagellation. They felt nothing but isolation and could produce nothing more than terse verse, some of it quite good but not laying enough stonework for a foundation for the next step in artistic-philosophical evolution.

And thus, Holden Caulfield is truly the defining figure of the 20th century.

Of course, I realize most of this is just meaningless babble, not good enough for my predecessors, nowhere comparable to those I admire and as banal and short-sighted as my contemporaries, because — like them — I lack any real schooling in philosophy.

Such are the times.

If I may have the audacity to posit this (and I am really just repeating what I have heard elsewhere), the only real answer to America’s runaway government is a good dose of repentance. Not thinking too hard about Romans 13 at the moment, but taking a look at the Old Testament track record for Israel, one thing is pretty clear — leadership can be a blessing or a punishment, and straying too far from godly precepts means that you just might be led by the Assyrians for a while.

Our problems are less grounded in the reality of politicians who are determined to give us mandatory insurance coverage or trillion-dollar deficits than they are in the fact that we are a faithless people, and we have chosen a faithless representation…and that includes plenty of self-identifying conservative types who talk a good game while in their home districts but can’t in practice keep their sticky fingers out of the money pot or stick to their culture war guns beyond platitudes.

I am not one who buys the revisionist idea that America was founded as or ever was — in any real sense — a Christian nation, and I think our current political situation is the end sum of 200 years of taking the Lord’s name in vain when convenient.

There are many things we cannot reverse without massive, violent social upheaval, but we can start by acknowledging that God is greater than any nation or system of government, and that our nation is on life support only by His great grace. A good deal of the American electorate, of which Christians are a significant portion, are guilty of thinking switching politicians will save us, but real salvation — even in a temporal sense — does not lie with any man or electoral mechanism. Until America takes a backseat to the Gospel in the hearts and lives of Christians (and while many will protest this is the case, experience and just having my eyes open tells me otherwise), America never will be great.

And yes, America does need to repent of its social sins, from its unjust wars to the fact that we have neglected the poor, the hungry, the widow and orphan, and the fact that — while doing so with bald-faced gall — we have turned to the government to take care of the problem.

But all of this is to say that, looking back at the history of Israel, a good dose of sincere repentance did end up in restoration.

And yes, I do have faith that God is bigger than our economy, or the Senate, or the judiciary, or our failing, flat-broke empire.

Now that I have somewhat belatedly seen the documentary Jesus Camp, which has been quite the rage amongst disillusioned evangelicals, I have a few thoughts.

Before we go on, here’s the trailer if you haven’t seen it:

First things first, though. Let’s be honest: this thing was a hit piece, pure and simple, so of course, when they showed the people who homeschool their children, they’re going to show them discussing how to disprove global warming and how six-day creationism is the only logical option, and of course they’re going to use clips of Becky Fischer saying that she wants children to be radicals for Jesus, and that children are her number one targets because they are most moldable.

But those people aren’t representative of all Christian homeschoolers (heck, the original American homeschoolers, the Amish and the Mennonites, are nothing like those people), and the clips of Becky using battle talk have an Evangelical context that, frankly, wasn’t explored. Just because you hear something one way doesn’t mean it was intended that way. And no matter how you want to interpret it, and there are plenty of ways you can, Becky didn’t mean that she wanted the children to strap on dynamite packs to blow up busses.

With this in mind, I have a distinct feeling that while Becky may have known what was going on, the families followed in the documentary were probably not quite aware of how they would be portrayed. In fact, I think they were probably blindsided at their first screening.

On a different note, the clips of Air America host Mike Papantonio as the supposed voice of reason are both a poignant but very deliberate choice. He is supposed to represent reasonable non-evangelicals, but — even though I found myself in agreement with him more than once — in reality he’s no more an authority than a smartass kid in a dorm room (or a blogger).

That said, there were plenty of things to find disturbing about it, and a lot of why I keep an arms length from a lot of what evangelicals do.

Particularly disturbing was the fact that, while the name of Jesus was mentioned, there was never a clear presentation of the Gospel during the entire camp, at least during the parts of film that made the cut. Lots of talk about changing the world, but no Gospel.

There was loads of wonky Pentecostal-y religious stuff, but more unnerving to me was the sense of destiny the both the children and Becky seemed to have (all the talk of “this chosen generation,” etc.), and how much they linked it to America, and American politics. There was a strong, strong mix of false civic religion in with…whatever brand of Christianity they were practicing.

Here’s an example:

And that played right into the filmmakers agenda. The last 15 minutes of the movie was bits of news clips about Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s confirmation interspersed with clips of culture war sermons, as if to say, “It’s these people’s fault.” Sigh.

Concluding thoughts:

I’m not sure why the raves about this movie, from one side or the other. Evangelicals have been known to have a few goofy religious practices, and you’d have to be blind to think they aren’t politically activated, and that they have blended and confused politics and religion.

And yes, they have given plenty of ammunition to the firing squad.

But the people featured in this documentary are not representative of the evangelicals I know, and I live in the Bible belt where I have a pretty good chance that, if I  hunked a rock into a crowd, it would just as likely hit someone who would rather say, “Praise the Lord,” instead of cuss you for it. The people I know, while they love Fox News and think Barack Obama is probably the Antichrist and Nancy Pelosi is the Whore of Babylon, are not Becky Fischer. Nowhere close.

So, as with all polemical documentaries of this sort, what you are going to take away from it is going to depend on three things — perspective, perspective, perspective.

Last night, I ran across this piece of insight from Serge, a western rite Orthodox guy.

Stay away from online Orthodoxy, from Orthodox message boards to ‘Barsanuphius Jones’ convert-testimony rah-rah blogs where ‘Are you saved?’ becomes ‘Are you Orthodox?’ (Blah blah, an icon, blah blah, church-father quotation, blah blah, ecumenists, blah blah, graceless heretics, blah blah, see how un-Roman I am, blah blah, I’m fasting. In this game ‘ecumenists’ are Orthodox they don’t think are good enough and ‘graceless heretics’ other Christians.) […] Also, as Charley has said, a lot of these people are ‘serial Cyprianists’ converting from one true church to stricter one true church until they go completely barking and/or burn out and lose their faith. In nearly 15 years online I’ve been attacked by several such; they seem to change parishes and denominations as often as I buy shoes whilst I’ve stayed put.

Ironically, I found this through a message board, but he has a point. For some reason, the internet seems to attract attack dogs for whatever tradition you’re looking for, whether they be Catholic, Southern Baptist or Pentecostal. Theoblogs can, for some reason, be quite nasty.

Watch, with minor editing I can take Serge’s characterization of Orthodox rah-rah blogs and make it about someone else:

Stay away from online Calvinism, from Reformed message boards to convert-testimony rah-rah blogs where ‘Are you saved?’ becomes ‘Are you Reformed?’ (Blah blah, John Piper, blah blah, Spurgeon quotation, blah blah, Federal Visionists, blah blah, semi-Pelagian Arminians, blah blah, see how un-Roman I am, blah blah, I only sing Psalms.)

Wait, wait, here’s another one:

Stay away from online Catholicism, from Catholic message boards to convert-testimony rah-rah blogs where ‘Are you saved?’ becomes ‘Are you Catholic?’ (Blah blah, Mary, blah blah, Peter Kreeft quotation, blah blah, Protestants, blah blah, Novus Ordo, blah blah, see how super-Roman I am, blah blah, I attend an SSPX chapel.)

Ok, only one more:

Stay away from online Emergent-ism, from Emergent message boards to disenfranchised Evangelical-testimony rah-rah blogs where ‘Are you saved?’ becomes ‘Are you Conversant?’ (Blah blah, narrative theology, blah blah, church-father quotation taken out of context, blah blah, people who hold to traditional moral theology, blah blah, Republicans, blah blah, see how un-Roman, Protestant, Evangelical or Orthodox I am, blah blah, I voted Obama.)

Enough of this. I’m going to bed.

American Family Radio has been airing an ad recently pimping their DVD special “Speechless: Silencing the Christians.” (There’s also a book that accompanies the DVD.) I’m not 100 percent certain, but I think the content is about how government officials and political activists are stopping Christians from speaking out about gays and other boogey men.

Normally, I wouldn’t bother gracing such an ad with an eye roll, but something about this particular one has gotten under my skin lately. Approximately three-quarters through the ad, the spokesperson says, “At 22 minutes in length, each episode is perfect for your Sunday School, mid-week service or small group discussion.” (I paraphrase, but Sunday School is explicitly mentioned.)

Here’s my problem: the aim of Sunday School in most evangelical circles is, ostensibly, discipleship. The same goes for mid-week service. I’ll grant a little leeway for discussion groups, but my point is that participation in the culture war is being implicitly sold as discipleship.

And that’s a problem. Someone can take a strong stand against gay marriage, abortion, sex education, evolution being taught in schools, violent video games, Hillary Clinton’s 2012 presidential campaign, ad nauseum, and still not know a lick about what it means in real world terms to be a follower of Christ.

I am sure that the examples of nasty government and corporate action against Christians that the American Family Association dug up are truly appalling. But I am also sure they are not, in any real sense, persecution. If they are persecution, well, Christ promised us just that (though he didn’t spend nearly as much time talking about homosexuality as these folks).

I actually believe real anti-Christian legislation and culture is coming, but this kind of crying wolf doesn’t help it, and I suspect the whining might even make it worse and bring it a little more quickly. I’m tired of the harping about anti-Christian bias in science textbooks every time someone’s child comes home with a book from the public school library that says dinosaurs lived 65 million years ago. I’m not saying we should sit back and take it, but American Christians need to pick their fights wisely and rely more on truth and love and less on hysteria and propaganda. It’s no wonder the Homeland Security office wrote a memo about the possibility of right-wing terrorists who would be focused on single issues like gay marriage — when you talk about a war long enough, though they might laugh about it at first, the perceived enemy just might take you up on it.

But the trick is, the real enemy knows that the best way to distract someone is to take a little truth, twist it a tad, and then let them run with it. (In this case, crusading for what a person thinks is righteous rather than pursuing righteousness.)

My other thought is this: would the martyrs and catacomb Christians look at what is going on now and think, “Man, they’ve got it rough?”

I remember taking a survey of my Spanish class to find out whose parents were still married when I was a junior in high school. Of the class of approximately 25, five of us had parents who were still married, though two of them were twins and the parents of one of those weren’t on their first marriage.

As a child, I felt odd that my parents weren’t divorced. Not envious, mind you, but odd.

When Susannah and I got married, there were a couple of people who made comments to the effect of “When you get divorced…”

Even stranger — and more heartbreaking — was one Wednesday night when the students in our scripture memory class at church asked us when we were getting divorced, not because we were fighting (we don’t fight) but because the child assumed that divorce is a natural part of marriage.

Every week as part of my job I go to the local courthouse and gather marriage and divorce records. The marriage licenses often say that one or both of the parties have been married four, five or — in one instance — six times previously. It’s sometimes astounding to see a divorce filed for someone whose marriage license I had previously copied — I’ve only had this job for a little more than two years.

Likewise, I often write down information from a marriage license that was issued the same month as is listed under the “previous marriage ended” slot.

I’ve seen 18-year-olds on their second marriage. I’ve seen 22-year-olds on their third marriage. People I went to high school with are divorced; people I attended college with are divorced.

We live in a culture of divorce.

And it complicates things.

As a teenager, I saw lots of people manipulate their parents by threatening to move in with the other one if the child didn’t get their way. I’ve seen divorced parents play their children against the other party, and I’ve seen some really nasty personal laundry aired in court for no reason that I could see other than to damage the ex-spouse’s reputation.

Those spats continue to have reverberations.

Susannah’s parents are divorced, and while things are pretty peaceful these days, they can still be complicated. Though we enjoy spending time with everybody, coordinating holidays is a nightmare, and we recently had to explain to our four-year-old that sometimes people don’t stay married.

I know that every marriage — and divorce — is different, and that a lot of factors can play into the tearing asunder of what God has placed together. I realize that. I do.

And while there are legitimate instances that God (and the Church) grants approval for divorce, it seems like a lot of divorces — I say this anecdotally — are the result of “We don’t get along anymore.”

I don’t think that the cultural problem with divorce has to do with the flippancy with which people approach marriage, though that is a factor. I think it has to do with the fact that, while many a conservative will claim that the USA is a Christian nation, we are a Christ-less culture, consumed with selfishness.

Did it really take the movie Fireproof for Christians to realize that if you don’t treat your spouse like crap and instead love them more than you love yourself, they won’t want to divorce you?

(A few months ago, I heard approximately an hour-and-a-half worth of testimonies interspersed with music on K-Love about how Fireproof changed so many people’s marriages.)

I’m not a big fan of that movie, but it has a point — if you don’t don’t approach a relationship with a framework shaped by Christ, it is going to be flawed. This isn’t to say that I think non-Christians can’t have a happy marriage, but at the core of the issue, I believe every relationship will be flawed if it is not Christ-shaped and centered.

And that’s something even Christians fail to do, often and not-so-far between.

I’m guilty of it. You probably are.

But Christ has given us victory. He has given us the means to live a Christ-shaped life though the Holy Spirit, the Church, the sacraments and the scriptures. Let us turn from our sin of selfishness and live in that victory. Let us proclaim it in our churches, and let us emphasize it in our pre-marriage counseling.

And yes, let us shape our marriages by it.

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