Category: Cultural Reflections

(Thanksgiving, 2013)

From the confines of Tegel prison in Berlin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned these moving words to his family:

It’s remarkable how we think at such times about the people that we should not like to live without, and almost or entirely forget about ourselves. It is only then that we feel how closely our own lives are bound up with other people’s, and in fact how the center of our own lives is outside of ourselves, and how little we are separate entities. The ‘as though it were a part of me’ is perfectly true, as I have often felt after hearing that one of my colleagues or pupils had been killed. I think it is a literal fact of nature that human life extends far beyond our physical existence. (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison)

I often think that only a mother could understand these words fully, but then I must remember than Bonhoeffer was never even married, much less experienced the blessing of his own children. Bonhoeffer, who has been described as an ad hoc phenomenologist, had a unique and penetrating way of speaking about the experiences of the Christian life. While many readers of Bonhoeffer pay attention only to The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together or perhaps a devotional work that cobbles together some of his writings, most never delve deeper into any of his other material. Theological students may read his very short book on the Psalms or his treatment of Genesis 1-3, or even try to get through his Ethics. Perhaps they will read some of his sermons which are becoming more widely available. But most will never read his earliest works which set the stage for everything that is to come: his doctoral dissertation, published as Sanctorum Communio and his habilitation, published as Act and Being. In those texts Bonhoeffer laid a theological and philosophical foundation for his work that he would never stray from. Thus when we read his later and more well known works that are the favorites in the church, and for our purposes, the words above, we must recognize Bonhoeffer’s deep sensitivity to the social constitution of human life.

Bonhoeffer’s theology has been called a “theology of sociality.” For he recognized, as is clear above, our inextricable interconnectedness with each other. [Keep reading over at ChurchandPomo]

A student brought up in class this week that during a visit to the Nike campus here in Portland, one of the employees mentioned that Nike basically “tells us” to buy their stuff. They actually “know” how to get us to want their stuff. They told my student their strategy: simply put their products on celebrities, and then watch the trickle down effect.

In Jamie Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, he describes our experience at the as one in which the “good life” is one display before us in the “icons.” Those “icons” are actually quite familiar objects–they’re the mannequins dressed in the season’s newest threads and designs placed in each store’s front windows for you and me to see as we walk by. We’re invited to imagine an alternative future for ourselves, the “good life” as it is embodied in those icons and how it could be embodied by us. All that is required is the religious transaction of making our offering and receiving the blessing of the priest.

Similarly, Nike seems well aware that the good life can be on display on the living icons that are today’s celebrities.

I’m using Smith’s book in my classes to teach my students about how culture shapes us to be particular kinds of people–people that perhaps we did not know we were before we thought about it in class. We’re learning just how substantially we’ve been shaped by culture, rather than how much we think we’re immune to outside influence. Contrary to how we might imagine ourselves, we’re not autonomous, deliberative, rational, choice-making creatures. Often, we’ve been habituated into certain ways of being and doing in the world, before we’re even aware of it. You were saying the Pledge of Allegiance before you had much of a choice in the matter. And by the time you had a choice, you simply would have chosen to keep doing it because you would have been habituated into the story of why it was good to do so.

Learning about this phenomenon of our cultural formation is a strategy to help us think about how we might participate in the counter-formative efforts of influencing the world in manners that are faithful to the ways of Jesus, rather than damaging and destructive ways of culture. Consumerism–the sort that Nike seems able to foster–is often damaging and destructive. It makes us competitive–we start comparing ourselves with each other and our relationships get bent way out of shape. It messes with our desires to the extent that our sense of satisfaction becomes insatiable and we know no contentment. It even replaces religion, and we end up chasing transcendence by means of consumption. The theologian William Cavanaugh describes this phenomenon well:

Although the consumer spirit delights in material things and sees them as good, the thing itself is never enough. Things and brands must be invested with mythologies, with spiritual aspirations; things come to represent freedom, status, and love. Above all, they represent the aspiration to escape time and death by constantly seeking renewal in created things. Each new movement of desire promises the opportunity to start over. (William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire, 48)

Desire in consumeristic culture is endlessly deferred, such that obtaining one object of desire is perhaps momentarily fulfilling in an almost religious sense, but soon replaced by further desire—for the next new innovation or improvement, the next new fashion, the next invention.

Not a single one of us is not damaged by this.

When I was in elementary school, Nike released its classic Air Jordan line of shoes. I never owned a pair of those shoes. But I knew kids who did. And I was jealous of them. I wanted a pair of those shoes so bad. I don’t know why. And I don’t know where the desire came from. I didn’t play basketball, nor did I care much for watching the sport. But Nike did something to me and my peers. They created a world. They made culture.

In the video below, the artist Malkemore tells the story of a kid who was sold the vision of the “good life” contained in the mythology of Air Jordans. It was ultimately a vision that failed. Like with most art, what happens in this 5-minutes video, with its rich imagery and poetic lyrics–far more is said than I could ever communicate here. But a few key lines and scenes stand out. I list them below.

–Notice the littlest kid in the video, shooting baskets in the plastic kiddie basket hoop—he’s already being inculcated into the way of life that will allow him to be made captive to the lies of what Nike will inevitably try to sell him.

–Notice the line: “The commodity makes us want it” — how does a commodity have power over us?

–Notice the words that the children’s choir is singing in the background — they ultimately tell a tragic story.

–Notice one of the final lyrics: “Consumption is in my veins”


In a world of commodities and the ongoing competition over our desire, where is the space for God?

Matthew 7.1 is a well-known biblical text. It’s up there with John 3:16. But the former is used more like a club than the latter.

Judge not, lest ye be judged. This is now an American ideal.

The work of sociologist Christian Smith shows just how much it pervades the average American’s imagination when he writes about emerging young adults in his book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. In the interviews with young adults that constitute a portion of that book, Smith highlights a certain common characteristic among many of them. Instance after instance an interviewee utters the common statement, “who am I to judge someone else?” or some form of the same. Smith and his co-authors are rather disturbed by the lack of an ability among young adults to offer a rational evaluation of circumstances. While individuals seem to make certain decisions for themselves, they are unwilling to presume that the decision they have made for themselves is the same decision others ought to make too. “Who am I to say?” they will ask.

Following from a point Smith makes in an earlier book, one which draws on the same longitudinal National Study of Youth and Religion as does Lost in Transition, Smith argues in Soul Searching: The Religions and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers that much of what American young people claim as their spirituality has been handed down within the tradition they have experienced in their family life. In other words, that “tradition” is most likely meant to mean “from their church.” But, more importantly for my argument here, at any rate, it is from one’s parents. If a young person (teenager or young adult) is regularly articulating such utterances as “Who am I to judge?” we ought to be prompted to think of Bourdieu and his point about habitus and disposition again. Such regular utterances come with practice, and practice occurs in an environment which fosters it. If the family is handing down this value to mimic, it’s no wonder it has taken such a strong hold.

Clearly it is important for us NOT to judge. And to justify our position, we’ll point to Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount.

But there’s a problem here that causes us quite a bit of consternation. It’s a bad interpretation of the text. We should ask ourselves, is Jesus really telling us it is utterly sinful to judge? Are we really to make no evaluations whatsoever in this life?

That seems a very thin interpretation of this text, and it gets us into some real trouble. This was the concern of Smith and his co-authors in Lost in Transition. They wondered if young adults could make any substantive evaluations at all. If making judgments seemed to them to be somehow “all wrong,” then how were they going to get through life when faced with kind of moral conundrums one has to face from time to time? How, in fact, if such young people were to eventually start families, would they raise children or discipline them or teach them to lead a particular kind of life if they could not decide on how someone else (in this case, their own child) ought to live?

Mind you however, a good interpretation of Matthew 7.1 doesn’t simply free us to sling at others whatever judgments we want.

What we ought to realize is that we make evaluations and judgments all the time. Evaluations of good, bad, and everything in between are necessary for our very safety and survival, much less for our moral navigation through life. We know in our bones how to stay out of danger (by making judgments of dangerous situations, and doing so without “thinking”). And we know at times moral right and wrong in utterly viscerally ways–situations make us “sick.” But we also make other kinds of judgments. Very often, like I’ve written in the previous three posts, our judgments are of the sinful variety. They are negatively judgmental. They’re not particularly helpful, and certainly not necessary for our safety or survival. And for that we ought to repent. Otherwise, the world is right in calling us hypocrites. It’s that simple.

The rest of the time, to the extent that we are followers of Christ, we are learning to judge rightly and well. I learned early on in my Christian journey a particular term for this: discernment. It’s something of an art. Decisions, evaluations, judgments—they’re often hard. Sometimes they’re borderline undecidable. Maybe that’s why Luther said “sin boldly.”

A few things I’ve found helpful:

  1. Good judgment and evaluation happens in community, not alone. Don’t assume you don’t need help. Don’t assume you’ve got it all figured out. Don’t assume you’re done learning.
  2. Good judgment and evaluation takes time. It’s never snappy. It’s never hasty. It’s always aware that there is more to the situation than meets the eye. Every time. Period.
  3. Good judgment and evaluation begins with listening and exploring. And perhaps this practice never ends.
  4. Good judgment and evaluation requires habitus formed in the crucible of worship where the people of God have gathered.

TV isn’t the only cultural means of training our judgmentalism.

There are other cultural examples which predispose us to such negative forms of judgmentalism. Take each new political season and the mud-slinging that goes on between candidates. The more we hear it, the more we’re exposed to it, the more of a “normal condition” such phenomena become, thus shaping our imaginations toward what is possible and even allowed in our own lives. Mind you, this is all happening pre-reflectively—that is, we’re not actually “thinking about” it. We’re just engaged in the practice of watching TV or listening to the political ads. It all happens quite passively, much like how we catch a cold—it just happens to us. To the extent that our exposure to such negative judgmentalism shapes our imagination of what is possible and normal, we are more pre-disposed to start emulating what we see as the new “norm,” mimicking the members of our “community.”

This situation is bolstered by another place we regularly find ourselves: the grocery store checkout lane. What do we see there? Magazines with the latest pictures on the cover of the most recent young Hollywood actress, billboard artist, or Victoria’s secret model caught with added weight wearing a bikini on the beach. Accompanying the picture is of course some judgmental headline wondering what possibly happened could have to the woman that she would have “let herself go” so carelessly (what they really mean is “disgustingly”).

The ever-present and always inviting Facebook is a further culprit in fostering a negative judgmentalism within us. No longer do we have to be in “public” to render our “private” (in our heads/minds) evaluations of others; now we can do so just by logging on to Facebook to see what our friends are posting today. Furthermore, we can obscurely call out whomever we want and rant about whatever aberrant behavior we’ve encountered in someone that we didn’t like. It might be your next door neighbor, your co-worker, or someone you randomly bumped into while you were running an errand. Or consider adding your voice to the choir of random complaints that abound in social media. Try the topic of sports, perhaps the “replacement refs” can be a good example? Why not use Facebook or Twitter?

How about reverse judgmentalism? What do I mean? That’s the kind of thing where you simply make yourself look impressive compared to everyone else. You’re rendering a judgment about someone else without actually being explicitly negative. Facebook and Instagram are now liturgically forming us in this regard. Just pose a shot of where you’re “working” today to make everyone jealous. Then check the comments in 15 minutes to see who subtly expressed their envy. Got the new iPhone? Be sure to let everyone know. And by the way, you’re already playing into Apple’s game of creating desire through simple proliferation of its products in the hands of others. After all, that’s how you came to want one–from a position of lack that was created in you. Did you just run a marathon or ride 16 miles on your bike? Please tell us. Are you eating something better than my bowl of cereal for dinner? Share a picture.

Reverse judgmentalism strikes me as exactly what Elizabeth Bernstein’s Wall Street Journal article “Are We All Braggarts Now?” is all about. Like the story told in all the Dos Equis beer commercials, we’re now locked in a competition to appear more and more interesting. That’s enough to explain our felt need to brag or be reversely judgmental (biblically, depending on the situation, it might be called Pharisaical). And culturally, we’ve got plenty of training opportunities which create in us a habitus from which we operate along these lines without even thinking about it.

Simultaneously, if at any time, we are confronted as being judgmental (like in any of the situations I’ve listed above) our immediate desire might be to find a way out from underneath that accusation. Being called judgmental makes us squirm. That’s because, as I mentioned in the first post in this series, we’re also formed according to an explicit cultural narrative to be non-judgmental, tolerant and accepting. And this mode of being is, for us, in conflict and competition with the implicit judgmentalist training I’ve been discussing. So how do we navigate this conflict?

Perhaps a more important question might be, when can we understand ourselves as judging in a manner that might be considered appropriate, and when have we slipped into the kind of negative judgmentalism that I’ve argued in these posts we’re being trained to embody?

I’ll discuss these competing formations more in the next post.

I want to argue here that TV can function liturgically for us. Watching television has ritual characteristics. Certain shows happen at certain times. They are regularly repeated. There is a certain flow to the event with the show being interspersed with other pieces and parts—commercials with various kinds of messages that are in themselves mini-rituals and which participate in the large consumeristic liturgy Smith might compare to the “mall” in Desiring the Kingdom. Perhaps most importantly, as a liturgy, watching television engages us on a level where our desires are captured and we’re made captive to a certain narrative which sets out for us the good life and invites us to participate in it. As I proceed below, I suggest Reality TV trains us liturgically to become judgmental.

Reality TV is a big training ground for the kind of judgmentalism that all of us disdain—that is, the kind by which we hate to be judged. And it has progressively grown in its proliferation over the airwaves in the last decade. From shows like American Idol and Survivor, it has grown exponentially into whatever niche market might get some ratings. Now the public is dying to watch the Real Housewives of Wherever, Honey Boo Boo, Cooking and Tattooing and Fashion competition shows, Restaurant and Hotel disaster shows where somebody’s bound to be totally ripped by the host, and plenty of others I don’t even know about (what is “Amish Mafia”?). All this is somehow entertainment to us as we join in, participating in our private little fantasy worlds, invited to render our own judgments just by nature of what’s on display.

Our training started concretely in a sense with those shows like American Idol, Big Brother, Survivor and others where the public was invited to weigh in with their own vote. Did you “like” the character? He or she got to stay. Did you hate them? Vote them off. Facebook and Twitter of course allow us to publicly vent our opinions (judgments), all the while hiding behind our avatars and sharing our judgments with everyone and no one at the same time. Whoever we’re talking to, we don’t have to look anyone in the eye, most specifically not the person we’re judging, so there’s no consequences (read: we can get away with it). And there was no fear of joining in the judgmental parade, since everyone was doing and it was built into the structure of things from the moment the phone numbers were displayed on the TV screen to enable you to vote for your favorite contestant.

The judgmentalism in which we were invited to engage (and did—whether or not you texted in your vote, or tweeted, to Facebooked, or ever talked to your friend about it, or just kept your thoughts private) first took the form of, “Wow, she can’t carry a tune!” and “Geez, he thinks he can dance, but nope, he really can’t.” Of course, we went further than that, judging their attitudes, persona, the way they dressed, carried themselves, etc. This is perhaps the implicit kind of judgmentalism we have been taught to participate in. The kind which our dispositions have been formed to naturally perform without our thinking about it. We just do it without reflection. We might try to justify the other kinds of judgment. When someone is out of tune, that is bad and it should be noted—the show is about musical talent and performance after all. Granted. That’s why I’m saying that the invitation to that portion of the judgment is shaping for the more implicit and non-reflective judgments we make. The kind of judgment we’re invited to participate in when we watch the Real Housewives is just a more sordid form. Shows like that (and there are many) put people’s lives on display for nothing else but our own entertainment—and that entertainment takes the form of nothing other than our judgment.

Other forms of television train our judgment also. The popular television show Everyone Loves Raymond trains us, like so many other shows do, to see men as bumbling idiots and women as the ones who really have things altogether. It creates an utterly disrespectful image of men, and a terrible image of marriage. Shows like that, and a recent Discover Card commercial (which captures an example of this perfectly – see embedded clip below), train us to have a certain imagination of how the world works. Women learn they can treat men a particular way (sadly, I’ve heard groups in public spaces talking about their husbands like they’re a bunch of ignorant cave men). Men learn they might as well play the fool. I cannot begin to say much about how young men, women, or little boys and girls are formed by exposure to this kind of thing. But as you might imagine, it’s bad.

Back to Bourdieu. It’s our passive taking-in of all this which creates our dispositions and forms our habitus to be judgmental right along with and in the same manner as the material which we are watching. Why? Because we are not just watching it. Television is formative. It’s not just in-formative. Think about commercials. They’re not just giving us information. They’re creating desires. In the same way, these shows I’m talking about are ritually carrying us through certain ways of being in the world—and through them the good life is on display. Just as in a commercial that tells you how you ought to look or what you ought to own (in order to attain the good life) reality TV’s invitation to judgmentalism invites you to the pedestal of judge, to the position of honor. Your opinion matters. Your vote counts. You’re important. So gone on, tell us what you think. And don’t mince words…we take this very seriously. And tune in next week, and the week after that. And catch this new show where we need you to weigh in. And so on and so forth and suddenly a new way of being develops in us.

The big danger here is that, for Christians, we carry this way of being into the world. We start rendering judgment on everyone and everything. Because plenty of us are fans of reality TV too.

More concrete examples in the next post.

Trained to be Judgmental?

Our world forms us to become judgmental. This happens simultaneously with our ongoing training as Americans to be non-judgmental—that is, tolerant—of everyone else. That we’re taught it is important to be non-judgmental (tolerant) is rather obvious. It’s an explicit value articulated in the media and our educational system, and even (perhaps often) within the Christian tradition. So I won’t say much about that here.

To make my point, however, that we’re formed to be judgmental, I must reflect on something that’s not so obvious. And to do that, I have to say a few other helpful things first.

A book that’s been critically important to my thinking about Christian formation (and cultural theory) in recent years has been Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. I’ve suggested it to so many people who’ve also liked it—and with the help of some colleagues made it required reading at my seminary for worship students. But it’s not the simplest read. It takes some wrestling and pondering.

I’m now using it with my undergraduates to think about how culture has formed us. In the book, Smith argues that culture often forms us unwittingly through ingrained habits and rituals that function like liturgies. He calls them “secular liturgies.” The analogy to the church’s liturgy is quite intentional. And if you read the book, his argument that culture can be understood as constituted by “secular liturgies” is quite compelling. So I encourage you to read it. And I promise you’ll get more out of it than that if you invest the time in reflecting on Jamie’s work and the various sundry applications of it to your life. He makes it easy, using examples from popular literature, movies, the mall, TV, the university, sports, and even the Pledge of Allegiance to make his points concrete.

One of his main arguments is about how we are formed as human beings to be particular kinds of people in a manner that operates at a pre-reflective or pre-conscious register. On this point, he means to push back against the rather staid position in Western thinking that, as autonomous agents (which we imagine ourselves to be, since that is what we’ve been taught we are in the story of Western anthropology), we deliberately come to believe everything we believe by choice. Or, in terms of the things we do, they are done as matters of intentional deliberation. Jamie rejects this position. And he is not alone in pushing back on this view. Even recent NYT bestsellers are telling us otherwise—mind you they’re doing so by making the case scientifically borrowing from psychology, neurology, and cognitive philosophy: check out David Brook’s The Social Animal and/or Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow (I recommend both).

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has also argued convincingly that our formation as human beings is not primarily a cognitive phenomenon, but something much more bodily oriented. Thus, for Bourdieu, our thinking and reflection emerges from our primal and chief means of engagement with and comportment toward the world—our bodies. He uses the language of “practice” to help us understand this. His work gives an account for why we do what we do, not by accounting for our “thinking and deliberation” regarding our actions, but by accounting for how the logic of practice is pre-cognitive and pre-reflective. Bourdieu describes our embodied lives as trained toward certain dispositions through regular habitual practices in which we participate. These dispositions structure our engagement with the world. He gives a name to these dispositions, calling them habitus. Our habitus governs our actions at a level below the cognitive and reflective register. The focus isn’t on our brains or minds but on our bodies.

At the risk of scaring some readers off, it’s worth quoting Bourdieu on this very central idea within his work. If this passage doesn’t seem very clear, keep in mind part of the problem Bourdieu has in his writing is that he is trying to challenge deeply ingrained assumptions, ways of thinking that we simply take for granted and which have been rooted in the West for three centuries. Our present condition as captive to a certain way of thinking about and imagining “why we do what we do” prevents us from understanding him easily.

The conditionings associated with a particular class of conditions of existence produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. Objectively “regulated” and “regular” without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of the organizing action of a conductor. (The Logic of Practice, 53)

Here we see Bourdieu explicitly pointing up the nature of habitus as an ordered, structured and structuring register of our lives that functions explicitly at a non-cognitive level. There is no need for a “conductor.” There is no need for the intentional “following of rules” or “aiming at certain ends.” These are not, however, ruled out as impossible or dismissed, but Bourdieu’s point is to reorient our imagination of what it means to be human actors who explain why we do what we do, forcing us to take into account a substantial part of who we are that does not emerge from our “free will,” our freely made decisions, or rational deliberations about what is to be done.

From the time each of us was very young—I mean, from moment after we were born (and now we ought to be paying attention to our formation in the womb it seems)—our dispositions were being created. We were developing a habitus, or better, a habitus was happening to us, on account of how we were engaged with others in our experience of the world. In the same way, this still happens. In fact, it’s ongoing throughout our lives. Our habitus continues to be shaped as much as it shapes our engagement with and comportment toward the world. We constantly engaged with the world in a variety of ways and this engagement is always rubbing off on us. Our world is full of “liturgies” according to Smith—that’s part of what constitutes and forms “culture” in his argument—and human beings are always formed by the cultures in which they participate. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom argues that our engagement with the world, as it is inevitably communal, shapes our dispositions, and thus forms us to be certain kinds of people. Liturgies of any kind foster habitus.

Thus I’ve reached a point where I’m ready to make my suggestion of how we are passively trained to be judgmental.

Our culture provides many opportunities for us to be trained—to develop a disposition, a habitus—to become judgmental. Since this post has gone on for some time, in the next day or two, I’ll supplement this one with some concrete examples of how I see this happening.

Earlier this week, I posted on Facebook about a brief moment in the midst of a Sunday morning worship service that caught my attention. Responses to the post didn’t quite seem to understand what I was getting at–this is clearly my fault, since Facebook really isn’t the place for posts which carry with them a substantial amount of implicit information. I can’t expect my readers to know what exactly I had in mind. Consequently, after a few misinterpretations, I took the post down with the promise to elaborate here. Comments are welcome, as keeping the conversation going here will be easier. Here goes.

The brief moment I’m speaking about occurred during the children’s sermon. While the sermon itself was leading to a very significant yearly ritual in the congregation involving parents and their children, what I saw only emerged as a response to a particular object involved in the sermon, not to the sermon itself. As the speaker was beginning the introduction to the sermon, a variety of objects were brought out which would help communicate the lesson. One of those objects was a Green Bay Packers helmet. As the helmet was raised out of the bag containing the objects, a middle-aged woman in the pew in front of me nearly jumped out of the pew with excitement. I found in this particular reaction rather striking. It was one of those moments, I think, where the church’s liturgy inadvertently became complicit with a secular one. That is, unwittingly, unintentionally, and unpredictably, the use of that Packers helmet, at least in the life of one person (if not a handful of others), suddenly brought a burst of excitement about a sports team and their future role in Super Bowl XLV. What stood out to me was the difference between the kind of excitement that could be engendered by the use of a football helmet in the midst of a Christian worship service over and against any excitement (or emotional display, involvement, commitment, enhancement, etc) for  Jesus. I became concerned in that moment, how the church had simply reinforced that woman’s devotion to the Green Bay Packers over and against Christ.

[What do I mean by liturgy here, such that I can use it with regard to both the church and the secular? Quite simply I mean this: liturgy (understood broadly here) is a set of practices meant to shape and form our devotion in a particular manner toward a particular object or way of being. Christian liturgy is meant to shape our devotion toward Jesus. A secular liturgy, such as nationalism is meant to shape our devotion toward a country, such as America. An exemplar practice here would be the recitation of the pledge of allegiance. For this general understanding of liturgy and for various themes in this post, I am borrowing from James K. A. Smith’s work, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation.]

Before I go on to comment on this event, let me explain a few things. First, I want to be clear that the use of a Green Bay Packers helment, or reference to a sports team, or any other cultural artefact may well have a place in Christian worship–I think those places are limited, to be sure, but I’m not saying such things do not belong there outright. This is because we bring our identities as sports fans, Apple product fans, Coldwater Creek fans, Williams Sonoma fans, Lexus fans, into church every single week. It is impossible not to do so. And since, as Martyn Percy (Shaping the Church: The Promise of Implicit Theology, 40) and others have pointed out, religion is part of culture and culture is part of religion, avoiding their interaction is impossible. So a sermon might have a cultural reference. The question is, why is it there? How you answer that is particularly important. Second, I am not condemning, criticizing, or ridiculing the preparer of the children’s sermon for their use of cultural objects (the Packers helmet wasn’t the only one). Third, as I mentioned above, there could have been no possible way to predict the reaction I witnessed. It must be assumed that all motivations behind the children’s sermon were innocent and/or praiseworthy in this regard. What else is a children’s sermon for than to bring the pure Word of God to the children (and often, more clearly than many “adult” sermons, to adults)?

What should stand out here is only this: the reaction of this woman to a cultural artefact in the midst of a Christian liturgy was symptomatic of her involvement in a different, secular liturgy, wherein her devotion toward the Green Bay Packers had already been shaped–and this phenomenon occurred in the midst of Christian worship which is supposed to shape and form our devotion otherwise, that is, toward Christ. The question that bugs me (and should bug you) is this: How often is the church inadvertently, unwittingly, and certainly unintentionally (I hope) complicit in forming the devotion of its members toward something other than Jesus Christ by invoking, involving, or using secular liturgies? How often, in the church’s self-perceived faithfulness, is it in fact subtly complicit in a simultaneous unfaithfulness? One might argue that the answer simply is, all the time, since the church is constituted by sinners. My question for us all strikes more pointedly. Are there times when the church is complicit which can be countered, corrected or undone? Can we become aware or conscious of our complicity such that we can make moves against it? Is the church willing to be considerate and self-critical enough to look for those places where such complicity might exist, and subsequently do something about it?

Here are some examples of where such complicity might be present in the life of the church in the 21st Century:


Many congregations have the American flag (and often a state flag) present in their sanctuary. Various post-Constantinian authors have argued implicitly that the practice of having these flag present is a form of Constantinianism–that is, that the presence of the American flag in the sanctuary of a Christian church reveals a certain implicit confusion about the relationship between Church and State. Under Constantine, Church and Empire were united. Such a relationship no longer exists, technically speaking. However, I have heard Christians speak about America as God’s promised land. In the minds of some Christians, and possibly many, there is still an implicit sense that the church is the same political body as the state–and hence, within many Christian circles, there is a significant effort to return the US to its roots as a “Christian” nation (various examples and the attending problems with this belief are highlighted in the first essay of James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World). The post-Constantinian authors are attempting to recover a more faithful understanding of the church–that is, that the church has a politics of its own, that it is a unique political body with citizens of its own (even if they are simultaneously citizens of various other communities, societies, clubs, nations, etc.). I have written about this a little here. Theologically speaking then, having an American flag present during Christian worship confuses the point that Christian worship is meant to be a public disturbance–one which announces Jesus as Lord and calls everyone to account for their allegiance (or not) to Him.

In addition to the presence of the America flag, what kind of language is used in the celebration of Veteran’s Day, or Memorial Day? While I am definitely thankful for the service of members of the military and those who work to preserve the safety of our nation and many others, I am concerned about the language (or better, grammar) used when we refer to people who have lost their lives in the midst of their service, choosing to call it “the ultimate sacrifice.” Should not that reference of “ultimate” be used for Christ alone? What reference might we use then for the sacrifice they made, since it is still important to be thankful for that work? I am not sure. But in our shared use of the term “ultimate” with the rest of American culture, Christians are potentially complicit in a liturgy which works devotion toward something other than Christ.


Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has written (in his work Unleashing the Scripture) that the Bible should be taken out of the hands of North American Christians. He notes this especially regarding the fairly typical practice of churches giving them out, perhaps to confirmands or visitors. Why has he made this rather striking argument? Because he believes, and I think rightly so, that the Bible is not just any other book, but one which people must be taught how to read. The Bible is a book which belongs to and forms a particular community. To treat it as something every individual has a right to, or to make some sort of missional effort at simply giving them away without any ongoing and intentional connection to a church community in which one might learn to read it, is problematic. Interpretation, which is treated in so much of the North Atlantic world as the native right and ability of any person, is actually quite the opposite. From our youngest moments, we are learning and being taught how to interpret. We don’t simply “just know” how to interpret. Reading the Bible is another way of saying interpreting the Bible, since all reading is interpretation. And since the Bible is the special book of the church–the very people of the Book–should those new to the church not be taught how to read and interpret faithfully? The church must continue to form the communal relationships which are the work of Christ, rather than simply further promote such individualism.


Somehow, companies that sell products know how to get us to need their products–not just want, but need. Somehow, they are able to capture our devotion, even through simple things like television, internet, or print media ads. For example, Apple creates something new, and in so many words says to us, “Look what we made for you. See how it will make you life better? See how by having this product you will be the envy of so many? See how it will make you feel special?”

In our culture, our imagination has in many ways been passively formed to the extent that we see our lives as being filled with work so that we can have things. Indeed, in many ways this is true almost beyond our ability to resist. How can one have food, shelter, and other basic necessities as well as support a family with the same things, without working? Fair enough. But in many ways we take this too far. Our culture, it has been argued (by such thinkers as Josef Pieper, in his Leisure, the Basis of Culture), is one of total work. We work more than we have to. We work in order to have, and to have even more than we need (Apple knows how to make us need through its own liturgies). We work because work defines us. We work, because somehow we were taught that to be a good citizen in our society, we need to productive (with the underlying agenda there being, so you can be a good consumer, and so the economy can keep booming, and so we can keep being happy–another liturgy working devotion to a particular image of what it means to be human).

Many church workers that I have known work more than 50 hrs per week (in some cases that’s too much already). Some work 80 or more. How is this a witness to those in the church who also hear these same workers speak about Sabbath, rest, peace, the light burden of Christ, resisting busyness, and other topics which imply that work for the sake of work is not honoring Christ? Church workers who work so much, for whatever their justification for doing so, are complicit in living an implied theology which serves as an unspoken (and likely unintentional) witness to those whom they serve. The devotion they teach is not toward Christ (as much as one might say they work so much for His sake, because He would not want one to do so), but rather toward the secular imagination’s image of a good citizen–one who is productive, and therefore a good consumer. There are a handful of problems here, and I’ve written about some of them here. Suffice it to say that the church’s complicity in this cultural liturgy is widespread, and likely quite harmful.


What shall we conclude? That’s probably not the right question. Since I write to try to “do” something to my readers, the question is more directly, what should we do? The answer is simple: pay attention. I’ve written this to raise awareness, to bring to conscious thought something we might simply be taking for granted and therefore missing altogether–something which is immensely influential for the church, yet subtly and subversively so. But don’t just pay attention. When you notice the possibility of something you or your church is doing that might be complicit with a secular liturgy, think, converse, and analyze with others about whether your estimation is on track. Then begin to explore how you might change your practices for the purpose of being more faithful and helping those around you to do so as well. I write this as someone who is regularly haunted by these questions–AND regularly convicted about my own complicities. Christ comes to give freedom. The liturgies of His church are meant to work that freedom and form us in devotion toward Him. Thanks for reading.

***Consider this a post that points you toward a new area to explore and think about. It reflects a little of what I’m thinking about. I’m not totally settled on any of it. The discussion could extend on indefinitely, so I can only say a little here. Check out the links embedded…see what you think of it all.***

|| It’s also important that I note I am attacking feminism as an ideology here. However, I do appreciate some of the value feminism has given unto philosophy. I realize that there is some slippage between the negative side of the ideology and its positive benefits, such that one cannot as it were, throw the baby out with the bathwater. For an example of the positive contribution of feminism in philosophy, see Graham Ward’s use of feminist standpoint theory in Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice. ||

In a new article from the Weekly Standard by Charlotte Allen, I read about a culture of people I’ve never interacted with, but apparently they’re all around me–and you too. We’ve heard about the hook-up culture: apparently it’s dead. Allen writes that we have now progressed (or digressed?) into a New Paleolithic Age.

Her article, “The New Dating Game,” is something of a sociological study of the post-hook-up culture. Through a lot of blog research, she brings to bear some interesting observations about the nature of dating and relationships in our very fragmented age. One of the things she seems to highlight by the end is the damage that feminism has done to the very objects of its beneficent intent: women. In an analysis similar to Wendy Shalit’s in A Return to Modesty (a great book, by the way), which says that women, in arguing for their equality and freedom (an argument which has done a significant bit of good for women I might add, but is not without some dire consequences) has forced women into roles they do not want, and maybe naturally do not want. Being promiscuous is now an exercise of a woman’s freedom to choose a mate, or many more than one if she so wishes–such behavior is just plain expected.

Men certainly have abused the privilege of the new sexual freedom that has come as a perhaps unwitting result of feminism’s enterprise. Yet in many ways their hands have been tied too. I find it almost utterly hopeless to find women portrayed in the media as living in respect of other men, especially those women portrayed as married. In real life, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard women putting their husbands or boyfriends down for being “dumb men.” Feminism has formed men such that they have no way to fight back. The women call their husbands dumb because they don’t act like real men–they don’t make decisions, they don’t take responsibility…they just sit on the couch and watch sports. Yet, what else is there to do when women have taken control of everything? How can a man be a man when a woman demands that she be allowed to do everything a man does? Granted, there are certain problems with privilege that must be dealt with here so that women aren’t abused and treated as less than human, a sad fact of history the response to which has been the feminist movement. Yet the results haven’t turned out so good for either party–men or women–men can’t demand their roles back (in part cuz sometimes we’re just willing to be lazy) because women refuse to give them up, or worse, because we’re accused of being patriarchal, antiquated, and misogynistic when we make the demand. I’m concerned that women really want us men to take the responsibility and that they’d rather not have it–in fact, they’re resentful that it’s landed on them; but in the end, men feel whipped, hopeless, and resigned while women walk all over them. Men can’t win for losing.

I can’t say that I know people like those described in Allen’s article. They must run outside my circles, or else if I associate with them, I am unaware of a significant aspect of their lives. But I do know people like those I’m describing above.

How does all this play into theology? Well, unless you’re gonna accuse me of being sexist, misogynistic, patriarchal, or antiquated (and hence, to fully miss my point), I’m gonna say its all related to God’s making man responsible in the garden. God didn’t blame Eve. God made man responsible. Feminism is woman’s effort, in some sense, to take that responsibility for herself.

How does this all play into philosophy? It’s another instance of identifying the fact that we have been formed in a culture to be certain kinds of people and relate in certain ways by a underlying productive mechanism that we never really noticed, and thus we are confronted with a very significant challenge if we wish to change it or overcome it.

Back to Allen’s article, her work is just another instance of feminism’s failure to women. It tells the sad story, both of men and women, and the damage of feminism to the possibility of healthy relationships. It has so befuddled and confused us, that we don’t even know how to define “healthy” relationships anymore. I have no short, pithy fix, so I leave it  to you to ponder.

Further resources to jump into this area of thought:

Wendy Shalit’s other book: Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find is Not Bad to be Good (I haven’t read that one)

Donna Freitas: Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses

Emerson Eggerichs: Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs


As an aside, I also appreciate the ongoing conversation throughout the article about evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology can argue that any human behavior can be interpreted as perpetuating the idea of “survival of the fittest.” That is, everything we do can be interpreted as positioning ourselves (or better, our genes) to have a legacy, and a good one, at that. The problem with evolutionary psychology is that it runs into contradictions. Check out this article from Salvo. Allen’s article wittily notices this fault.

I’ve been reading through William T. Cavanaugh’s Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire (listed on the left).

In his first chapter, he discusses in part the unknowns of our economic interactions. Free-market capitalists, he notes, believe that exchanges in the market are free because all the information that the consumer needs is in the price, thus there is no coercion to purchase any given item from any given seller. But what kind of info do we find in prices besides how much items are going to cost us? What we don’t find out, and this is Cavanaugh’s point, is how much the product cost to make, who made it, where it was made, what the working conditions are where it was made, etc.

To elaborate using the example of the beef products we purchase, he cites an article from the New York Times Magazine entitled “Power Steer” by Michael Pollan. The original article is an engagement in the debate between which is better – corn-fed cows or pastured cows. I’m not willing to engage in this debate per se, but it’s worth looking into in light of this article. The information that Cavanaugh highlights is definitely not available in the price. I’ve posted an excerpt from Cavanaugh that gets at the main points of the Pollan article.

When one buys a steak at a large chain grocery store…all the information one needs in order to make a free decision – assuming that the steak is not simply defective or contaminated – is conveyed by the price. The true story behind the shrink wrap, however, is more consequential than [we typically believe]. A calf might spend the first few months of its life eating grass on the range, but typically the rest of its short life is spent in a feedlot, ankle deep in manure. By nature, cattle are equipped to turn the grass that grows naturally on arid land into high-quality protein. However, allowing cattle to graze is considered inefficient these days, because it takes too long. Today’s beef cattle in the United States go from 80 to 1200 pounds in just fourteen months on a crash diet of corn, protein supplements, and drugs. They are given hormone implants (banned in Europe) to promote growth. Their calories come from corn, which is cheap and convenient but depends on the use of lots of petroleum products, and wreaks havoc on their ruminant digestive system, which is designed for grass. The only way to keep cattle from dying of bloating, acidosis, or abscessed livers as they fatten up on a grain diet is to give them steady doses of antibiotics. Still, many strains of bacteria survive. In the past, we could count on the fact that such bacteria, raised in a cow’s natural-pH digestive tract, would be killed off by the acids in the human stomach. But now that the cow’s digestive tract has been acidified by a corn diet, acid-tolerant strains such as E. coli have developed; when those are found in our food, they can kill us. When the cattle are slaughtered, they are caked with feedlot manure, which is where the E. coli reside. Rather than altering beef cattle’s diet, or keeping them from living in their own feces or slowing down the processing speed of the slaughter lines, all of which are considered inefficient and impractical, processors spray the meat with disenfectant solution and irradiate it. Then they shrink wrap it and send it to your local supermarket.

The meat is cheap, but the social costs are not included in the price. Each head of cattle requires about 284 gallons of oil in its lifetime. As Michael Pollan says, “We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.” Runoff from the petroleum based fertilizer has traveled down the Mississippi and created a 12,000-square-mile “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Extensive use of antibiotics has led to resistant strains of bacteria. And scientists believe that hormone use has contributed to dropping human sperm counts and sexual abnormalities in fish. One cattleman interviewed by Pollan said: “I’d love to give up hormones. If the consumer said, ‘We don’t want hormones,’ we’d stop in a second. The cattle could get along better without them. But the market signal’s not there, and as long as my competitor’s doing it, I’ve got to do it, too.” But it is difficult to imagine how this signal would be generated, because the system is designed to keep the origins of beef a mystery to the consumer. So the cattleman continues to feel coerced into using hormones. (Being Consumed, 29-31)

Here is the link to the original article, “Power Steer” in the New York Times Magazine, 2002.

I’m not sure what to make of this. Cavanaugh suggests buying beef from local farms where you know the farmers allow for pasture-grazing, or local stores where you know the owner and can get an idea of his sources for products. Not only would this make you feel better about the food you’re buying and consuming, but it would also help the local economy.  At the very least, this is the kind of suggestion that helps Christians think better about their practices, while at the same time advocating a deeper awareness of what we’re participating in regarding the everyday practices we take for granted, like grocery-shopping.

For all those in the world who are decrying the United States’ apparent inevitable slide into socialism with the current govermental control of various portions of the auto and banking industries, in addition to the current plans for a government based health care option, I’m wondering if there is a larger picture in which to put these issues into perspective.

First, I’m wondering if the reaction to the potential slide into socialism is merely based on the historically “bad” versions of socialism that have come along and died, like the authoritarian socialism of the Communism of the Soviet Union. Broadly defined, socialism advocates an economic system in which the workers or “the people” directly own and control the means of production. Communist systems broadly construed advocate something similar, however, the manifestations of Communism–especially the “bad” ones–which we have witnessed take the form of state controlled means of production in an absolute form. Once this situation exists, authoritarianism creeps in for the purpose of the state maintaining its power.

So, in light of this, are we afraid of our government falling into the trap of “repeating history,” that is, are we afraid of becoming like the former USSR? If so, the fears seem legitimate. However, might I raise the question of whether or not there is something to be afraid of in free-market capitalism, the state of affairs in which we currently exist. Are there not serious problems to be dealt with here? Is it even possible to conceive of free-market capitalism without the current problems which we now face? I’ll address some of those issues briefly below.

Second, are those who decry the slide into socialism not aware of the current level of socialism in which our society seems to already exist, even if it has gone unnoticed for so long. I’m speaking of our education system, broadly construed–is it not fully in the control of the state? Who sets the standards? Who defines the program of being “prepared for college?” Private schools and institutions of higher learning don’t fit as cleanly into this issue, but there seems to be some level of uniformity at all levels of eduction in terms of the ideals which uphold a certain kind/method of education in our system which takes the form of an institution. Education aims at producing certain kinds of people. It’s generally successful at producing people who fit the current economic system.

Another example might be our emergency care/response system–the police, the fire departments, and many ambulance services (although there is more privatization in this field, the standards for service, credibility, and licensure are still controlled by the government). Who exactly owns these entities? You might say “the people.” (Who exactly is that anyway–do you feel like you own these entities?) Who controls them? The state.

I’m sure there are other examples. Needless to say, for my entire life, education and the emergency response systems of our society have been controlled by the government. No one really seems to be raising much of a stink about that. Yet when it comes to bailing out the auto industry, with the disclosed promise that when the money is paid back, there will be no more controlling ownership on the part of the government, people cry foul. The same is true with the bailout of the credit industry–even though it seems likely that the government is playing the moral role that ought to be occupied by “the people” who run the show in this industry, which will result in beneficial situations to the American public (for example, we might be raped and pillaged a lot less by simple limitations being set on the credit card percentage rates–something the government has promised, but not work that it should have been required to do), people still cry foul.

Now, it’s one thing to see the potential for governmental control of these entities such that, given our sinful human world where everyone wants to be number one, the government might go all authoritarian on the people and just take over everything. This is the kind of thinking of modern conspiracy theories. Not an impossibility, admittedly. However, such conclusions seem far from what might logically follow.

But what about the problems with free-market capitalism? Isn’t our current economic system the very means by which the credit companies were allowed to rape and pillage the pockets of America? Why has there been no oversight? Why has no one been crying foul about this? Why, dare I ask, has there not been some sort of internal controls or standards agreed upon (which might have only amounted to the idea that “we’re only going to rape and pillage the people ‘this much’ and no more”)? I’m not against anyone making a profit. But I am against anyone who abuses the privilege to make a profit, when their greed for more devalues persons to the extent that people are merely seen as potentials for further profit.

So should we ditch capitalism for socialism. I’m not sure. The bigger questions really seem to be, do we know what we’re talking about when we say that we don’t want to become socialist, when clearly it seems that we’re already partially there and have been for some time; and are we really sure that we think free-market capitalism is the place to be since that’s how we got into this mess?

No doubt, whether talking about thinking this through or changing the way things are, both are incredibly complex. But what does seem imperative is that we ask good questions and know what we’re talking about when we spout off our opinions. Too often, neither of these seems to be the case.

What does Christian teaching offer to this conversation? Well, for one, Scripture describes a sort of socialism/communism (see Acts 2). Do I think we should reprisinate this? That not the right question. I’m not sure it’s possible to repristinate. Even further, as ideal as it might seem, I’m not sure that its maintainable on a societal level. I think Reinhold Niebuhr was right in his conception of Moral Man and Immoral Society. Individuals might be able to carry this out, but not on a large scale. For now, as Christians, however we can help out our brothers and sisters, we should.

This post isn’t meant to offer any solutions to our contemporary economic problems. I can’t say that I really have any. But my hope is that we might think better about this situation in light of these questions. I appreciate your comments.