Transforming Culture: Christian Truth Confronts Post-Christian America
- Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Peggy Noonan is right. At some point, in some moment, all of us must admit that something remarkable has happened to American culture. Mrs. Noonan, a former presidential speechwriter, recalls that this moment came for her during a high school graduation in the early 1970s. A young girl walked across the stage to received her diploma. The girl was obviously pregnant. Noonan recalls that her first impulse was admiration for the girl's grit and determination against social disapproval. "But," recognized Noonan, "society wasn't disapproving. It was applauding." As she reflected, "Applause is a right and generous response for a young girl with grit and heart. And yet, in the sound of that applause I heard a wall falling, a thousand-year wall, a wall of sanctions that said: We as a society do not approve of teenaged unwed motherhood because it is not good for the child, not good for the mother, not good for us."
To this the Christian Church would say far more, but the great danger today is that many Christians are seeing the same evidence, and saying far less. A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us. The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture.
Reflecting on the changes experienced by America over just the last half-century, John Howard of the Rockford Institute described the end of World War II as "a half century and a whole civilization ago." We know how he feels. Looking back on the America of 1945, it does look like a whole civilization has passed.
The evidence is overwhelming. Moral relativism has so shaped the culture that the vast majority of Americans now see themselves as their own moral arbiter. Truth has been internalized, privatized, and subjectivized. Absolute or objective truth is denied outright. Research indicates that most Americans believe that truth is internal and relative. No one, the culture shouts, has a right to impose truth, morality, or cultural standards.
In the courts, revisionist legal theories and psycho-therapeutic issues have replaced concern for right and wrong. Justice has become a political argument, not a societal standard. Righteousness is rejected as a concept, a relic of an older age of a common morality, nuclear families, and Victorian dreams. The discourse of a revealed morality commanding right and forbidding wrong is as out of place in contemporary America as a log cabin on Wall Street.
The most influential sectors of society are allied in furthering the process of social disintegration. Television and mass culture have so shaped the American consciousness that many citizens are now intellectually unable to sustain a serious moral conversation. Those who attempt to engage the American people in a serious moral conversation are met with immediate dismissal or--more worrisome still--blank stares.
The arts are increasingly decadent, portraying violence, pornography, and banality as high culture. In the academy, deconstructionism and other purportedly post-modern theories have largely destroyed some disciplines and thrown others into incoherence. The search for truth has been abandoned in favor of political arguments over rights and privileges.
Looking within, Americans have adopted a therapeutic worldview which has transformed all issues of right and wrong into newly created categories of authenticity, self esteem, codependencies, and various psychological fads which basically tell us that we are victims, not responsible moral agents. A cult of self-worship has developed, substituting a search for the inner child in place of the worship of the transcendent God.
The Church has constantly been perplexed concerning its proper relation to culture. H. Richard Niebuhr traced five different patterns of cultural response in his famous work, Christ and Culture. The book over-simplified the issues and now looks awkwardly optimistic, but some of the patterns Niebuhr described are still evident. The Church has at times withdrawn from culture and sought refuge in attempted cultural isolation. At other times and in other contexts the Church has simply abdicated to the culture, thus reflecting the culture rather than proclaiming the cross. A myriad of patterns and be traced between these two extremes. The fact is that the Church has often exhibited several patterns at once, capitulating to culture on the one hand and seeking isolation on the other.
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