Accommodation To Culture: Its Toxic Results

Feb 15th, 2020 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

Should Christians accommodate to their culture, to its values, its virtues, its ethical standards?    Instinctively, the answer is no.  But it is important to understand what the American culture believes and values.  What are its standards for authority? Since at least the 1960s, America has accepted two sources of cultural authority:  the authority the science and the authority of the autonomous individual.  Personal autonomy is now viewed by many as the solution to the alienation and despair of Postmodern life.  But the problem is that there is no ethical or moral foundation for personal autonomy.  Modern liberal culture and modern science cannot find an adequate basis for ethics or moral behavior.

What have been the benefits of trusting in science to solve problems?  In a recent article, columnist Nicholas Kristof has documented the truly incredible progress science has made in managing major crises of humanity:  “Every single day another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity.  Each day more than 200,000 got piped water for the first time.  And some 650,000 went online for the first time, every single day . . . As recently as 1950, 27 percent of all children still died by age 15.  Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent . . . As recently as 1981, 42 percent of the planet’s population endured ‘extreme poverty,’ defined by the United Nations as living on less than about $2 a day.  That portion has plunged to less than 10 percent of the world’s population now . . . Diseases like polio, leprosy, river blindness and elephantiasis are on the decline, and global efforts have turned the tide on AIDS.  A half century ago, a majority of the world’s people had always been illiterate; now we are approaching 90 percent adult literacy.  There have been particularly large gains in girls’ education—and few forces change the world as much as education and the empowerment of women . . . Yes, it’s still appalling that a child dies somewhere in the world every six seconds—but consider that just a couple of decades ago, a child died every three seconds.”  Advancements in science, medicine, transportation and infrastructure partially explain these extraordinary advancements in the physical condition of humanity.  God has given humanity stewardship responsibility over the planet (see Genesis 1:26ff) and His common grace explains the remarkable advancements in human understanding and technology.

However, by embracing the chief ethic and virtue of human autonomy, Postmodern culture has no ethical or moral foundation.  Personal autonomy produces a civilization where “everyone is doing what is right in his/her own eyes.”  Consider the following examples of how the pursuit of personal autonomy generates cultural chaos:


1.      Mercer University Christian Ethics Professor, David Gushee emphasizes what most evangelical Christians already know—those who represent the authority of God’s Word are increasingly a stigmatized cultural minority.  In dealing with the LGBTQ phenomenon, this reality is beginning to impact the campuses of faith-based Christian institutions of higher learning.  There are an increasing numbers of LGBTQ students enrolling in Christian colleges.  “LGBTQ Christians who go to Christian colleges and seminaries today are unwilling to accept some straight guy declaring to them that they can’t be both Christian and gay; they won’t tolerate second-class status on campus; and they are not OK with being permanently closeted.”  Gushee goes on the declare that “LGBTQ equality is also a core value for the entire higher education establishment outside of traditionalist religious schools . . . [and] Christian college presidents and provosts are almost universally conflict-averse.  Often very poorly equipped to deal with the theological/biblical/ethical issues at stake, all they want to do is keep everyone happy . . . LGBTQ students eventually demand more than safety, dialogue and a friendly campus life staff.  They want their existence and selfhood destigmatized.  They want to be fully accepted for who they are.”  Gushee captures the fundamental dilemma for Christian college administrators:  “If college administrators break with the exclusionary anti-LGBTQ tradition, they might lose their donors and trustees.  But if they fully practice the tradition, they will lose their students.”
  1. Columnist Ross Douthat recently commented on the status of literature in the English departments of our major universities in the United States. The “canon” of literature has historically focused on the works of the giants (e.g., Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Coleridge, Wordsworth, etc.)—what is now called the literature of “Dead White Males.”  What is the canon of modern literature in the English departments of western civilization?  As a typical Modern Language Association annual conference demonstrates that the humanities are in trouble.  English departments are experiencing the same crisis of faith that Christianity has faced in dealing with the secularization of culture:  “Like revelation and tradition before it, the value of a canon . . . can no longer be assumed, leaving the humane pursuits as an option for eccentrics rather than something essential for an educated life.”  Literature professors in the English departments “can only really teach disciplinary procedures and habits of mind . . . we model a style of engagement, of critical thought: we don’t transmit value.”  Such a declaration would be shocking to a Charles Dickens or a William Shakespeare!  The study of literature is no longer reading the great works of western civilization to determine and then apply what a Dickens or a Shakespeare was declaring in their writings.  Instead, the study is now only “what does this mean to me.”  Authorial intent is irrelevant and worthless.  Take a moment and simply reflect on how such an approach will affect the study of the Bible.  If a serious consideration of what God is saying is irrelevant, then the Bible is irrelevant and worthless, which is exactly where most Postmodern people are.  “What does this mean to me, has replaced, what Has God said.”
  2. In America especially, we are experiencing unprecedented prosperity and wealth creation. Yet, we are a culture pervaded by fear and distrust.  Douthat writes, “The 2010s were filled with angst and paranoia, they pushed people toward radicalism and reaction . . .  They exposed the depths of problems without suggesting plausible solutions, and they didn’t produce movements or leaders equipped to translate disillusionment into pragmatic action, despair into spiritual renewal, the crisis of institutions into structural reform.  It is this peculiar cultural predicament—the combination of disillusionment with stability, radicalization with stalemate, discontent and derangement with sterility and apathy . . . [Douthat] calls decadence.”  Such sentiments have produced populist anger on both the right (e.g., the Tea Party, Donald Trump) and the left (e.g., Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren).  Trust in government, in the church, in stable families, in all institutions in general is at an all-time low.

Trust in science and personal autonomy characterize the dual authorities of Postmodern, post-Christian culture.  This dual allegiance has produced unimaginable technological progress, which has resulted in the beneficial advancements Kristof has detailed for us.  But this dual allegiance has resulted in despair and disillusionment mixed with fear and distrust in almost everything.  Personal autonomy as a core value only leads to disillusionment and fear.  W.B. Yeats in his poem, “The Second Coming,” captures our dilemma best:  “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold/  The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”  The church of Jesus Christ cannot accommodate to this culture.  The Church of Jesus Christ must rise above it and champion the Gospel, which is the only answer to the despair of Postmodern, Post-Christian civilization.  May God gives us the grace, the fortitude and the courage to proclaim and live the Gospel message, for there is no other “center” of hope for Western Civilization.

See Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times (29 December 2019); David P. Gushee, in Religious News Service (3 December 2019); Ross Douthat in the New York Times (29 December and 12 January 2020) and Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times (29 December 2019).

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