Situation hopeless, but not serious

The thoughtful Orthodoxen behind Notes from a Common-Place Book writes today his reflections on a “Country Wedding.”

The back roads drive down there and back was pleasant and gave my wife and I time to catch up on some things. We talked of a number of people who are close to us and whose current situations give cause for concern. (There’s the old joke: Southerners are not gossiping, they are just concerned.) But seriously, my wife and I were in complete agreement as to the particulars of the several problem situations. Of interest to me, however, was that we each arrived there following completely different paths.

The fact that I am Orthodox and she is Protestant is certainly part of it, but it really goes beyond that. I would say that my wife is perhaps too quick to resort to moralizing, just as she would likely say I am too quick to assert that morality has little or nothing to do with it. The older I get, the more I am convinced that morality, as currently defined, is only incidentally, or at most tangentially, connected to the Faith–and is certainly not the way one approaches Christianity. But I am equally guilty of overstating the case on most anything ….

We talked on, speculating about when everything changed and why. But here again, we were coming at it from different directions. First, I doubt that the past she misses was ever really all that grand, for I have never entertained any idealized image of my own childhood world. But beyond that, (and here is where the Orthodox view enters in) I find that things are only playing out much as one would expect them to, given the particulars of our society–our rampant materialism/consumerism, our notions of progress and technology, the inherent flaws within our Americanized Protestant/evangelical culture, and the adaptation of Americanism as a near religion itself. Why would we think that things would be any different? Events are taking their natural course. I am neither surprised nor alarmed at it—“situation hopeless, but not serious.” Between the two of us, I feel I got the better deal—she gets the angst, I settle for a “love among the ruins” resignation.

He then turns to some thoughts he had upon reading a review of George Barna’s The Seven Faith Tribes: Who They Are, What They Believe, and Why They Matter. The Seven Tribes?:

  • Casual Christians: Two-thirds of all adults, they profess to be Christian but it’s not a priority and not integrated into their lives.
  • Captive Christians: One-sixth of the population, they hold what Barna describes as “biblical beliefs” and live it out in their lives.
  • Skeptics: Nearly 11 percent of the population, it is the largest group of non-Christians. Includes atheists and agnostics.
  • Jewish: At two percent, he describes them as “more of a community with a shared history and culture than a group connected by a shared doctrine.”
  • Mormons: Less than two percent, Barna calls them the “Rodney Dangerfield of the Christian world.”
  • Pantheists: About 1.5 percent, includes Eastern religions and the hybrid of New Ageism.
  • Muslims: Barna says they are less than 1 percent of the population, but the most ethnically balanced.

Barna reportedly thinks these groups share some common values (forgiveness, respect for the elderly, generosity) that are the keys to America’s enduring success. Another reviewer concludes with “[Barna] believes that if the seven faith tribes assert themselves and promote their shared values, the United States will reverse the recent decades of ‘cultural chaos and disintegration.'”

I hope the leap doesn’t seem too bizarre, but I was struck by a comment of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, interviewed recently in the New York Times Magazine (their interviews are, by the way, some of the shallowest things in an otherwise serious newpaper). She apparently excludes Islam — or at least “radical Islam” — from Barna’s “shared values” reverie:

We who don’t want radical Islam to spread must compete with the agents of radical Islam. I want to see what would happen if Christians, feminists and Enlightenment thinkers were to start proselytizing in the Muslim community.

I don’t want to read too much into this, but Ali seems to me to be looking for concerted proselytizing by groups ostensibly at odds with each other on many points. But I’ve come to see over the past decade that “Enlightenment thinkers” is not at all a set with minimal overlap with the Christian set. The overlap is quite extensive. (I think that, insofar as it is true, represents a victory for the Enlightenment and a defeat for traditional Christianity, by the way.)

As the author of Country Wedding might say, those three can only get together to promote “materialism/consumerism, our notions of progress and technology, the inherent flaws within our Americanized Protestant/evangelical culture, and the adaptation of Americanism as a near religion itself.” Why would we think that this brew will entice Muslims? I suspect it’s near the heart of what offends them.

To Change the (Barbarian) World

(This posting may be of limited interest to non-Orthodox readers.)

I just discovered a new Orthodox blog that looks somewhat promising, Koinonia. The owner/host has completed a very manageable 3-part series, Barbarians at the Gate, where he takes to task not the barbarians (he just identifies them fairly trenchantly), but the indifference or capitulation of the Orthodox Church to those barbarians. Part of his solution is that we cease and desist from bashing Western Culture and get down to the work of transforming it.

Our alliance with barbarism has happened because we have rejected the Christian roots of Western culture in a misguided effort to (1) keep the Church Greek (or Russian, or Arab, or Serbian) or (2) to distinguish “True Orthodoxy” from “false Catholicism” or (3) because, like Frank Schaeffer, we are simply cultural-despisers who have found that the Orthodox tradition is a convenient cudgel with which to continue waging our political or cultural battles. Whatever the reason, this amounts to a refusal to engage in any meaningful way with the cultural marketplace of ideas. As a result, it leaves the public square utterly naked – even as we moan and complain about it privately. Worse, it makes us the tools by which Nietzsche could proclaim that God was a non-factor (“dead”) in modern life. Itputs us in a position where we not only fail America – to be salt and light for our neighbor and our country – but also Christ and ourselves.

The spiritual genius of the Orthodox Church has always been the ability of the Church to take on and transform the dominate culture. This means that just as Jesus was the authentic Jew among Jews, the Church has been – in turn – authentically Greek among the Greeks, and authentically Russian among the Russians, so too we must be authentically American among the Americans. While have rarely done this perfectly, we have largely done this without sacrificing the Gospel or the communion of the various local or ethnic churches.

Is there any reason, other than sloth or despair, why we think we cannot do this in America as well?

It hit a nerve. My posts in the short life of this blog have been relatively heavy on culture-bashing. I bash because I really do care – like an inarticulate father who doesn’t know what to do with a sick child except to yell.

Part of the challenge in Barbarians at the Gate is that there are people outside the Church with whom we can and must make common cause. He suggests, among a handrul, the Catholic Church.

I suggest that James Davidson Hunter, author (coiner?) of the influential Culture Wars in the 90s, is also one with whom we can make common cause. I highly commend this paper he gave at Trinity Forum 8 years ago. That “briefing” finally has grown to a book of the same title. I am greatly looking forward to reading it (if I can moderate my blogging long enough to fit it in).

Davidson’s main points from the briefing eight years ago:

  1. Culture is a resource, and as such, a form of power.
  2. Culture is produced.
  3. Culture production is stratified into a rigid structure of “center” and “periphery.”
  4. Culture changes from the top down; rarely if ever from the bottom up.
  5. World-changing is most intense when the networks of elits and the institutions they  lead overlap.

Another with whom we can make common cause is Ken Myers at Mars Hill Audio Journal, who has been inspiring me for several decades now. I think we have some examples to emulate as well from the folks at Front Porch Republic.

The work at hand is not revolution, but the slow permeation of salt and the absorption of light. We need to be about it sooner rather than later.

Living toward the flourishing of others

Rod Dreher at Beliefnet writes enthusiastically about a new book, To Change the World, from James Davidson Hunter, who perhaps coined the term “Culture Wars” in his book by that title.

I have high respect for Hunter, though it’s been years since I read Culture Wars, so it was affirming to hear him making some of the points I made last month in Conscientious Objector the the Culture Wars. Hunter, eloquently:

The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians–and Christian conservatives most significantly–unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry. By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through a discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.

Me, [you supply the adverb]:

The Culture Wars are unwinnable on present terms partly because stridency and contempt beget stridency, contempt and alienation.

I don’t care who fired the first volley. That’s lost in the mists of history like the instigation of the Hatfields versus the McCoys. I’d like the shooting to stop. I’d like artificial divisions to end. I suspect there’s more common ground than either side presently will admit because of how things have been framed. Let’s tone it down a bit and then explore what the real divisions are. The more we insult the other side, the more we paint both sides into corners from which dialog, let alone truce, is impossible.

Hunter, interviewed, says he wants to accomplish three things through his new book:

A third thing that I would like for readers to take away is that there are alternative ways of thinking about the world we live in, and engaging it, that are constructive and draw upon resources within the Christian tradition. In the end, these strategies are not first and foremost about changing the world, but living toward the flourishing of others.

I like the italicized phrase at the end. It’s no panacea, however, as there remain some deep differences about how one promotes human flourishing. I’ll forego examples, lest I inflame things, though I have a very specific sharp difference in mind that arose between me and a bright young Christian of very liberal bent. For him it was self-evident that X promotes human flourishing. For me, it was almost self-evident that X promoted delusion, which might feel affirming and nourishing in the short term but ultimately would fail.

Dreher also has some extend quotes from Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington, a teacher of screenwriting in L.A.:

My vocation is to be a storyteller to the people of my time — and if I create a good enough story, stories have a way of transcending time. I’m very preoccupied with creating a story and characters that will haunt people in a way that sends them on a journey of introspection.

I am a political animal in many ways. It’s a big hobby for me. But I have, with the rest of my generation, almost completely lost confidence that real good in society can be achieved through politics. I don’t think that’s the pathway to lasting good. I think that politics can clear the field for good to be done, but I don’t think it actually achieves anything. I think culture is what creates good in the world. That’s the realm of the artist: the storyteller, the musician, the poet. And I see myself as a storyteller.


We may get a majority vote for the “right” side on this issue or that, but that will not end the war. There will be other battles. There will be guerilla warfare. There will be no peace, and there’s only a minimal chance for the “Right” to win. Not until the Right’s own culture changes.

Changing culture is the work I’m about now – feeling my way rather than barreling ahead. That’s much subtler work than culture war. I’m not sure how good I am at it….

I’m putting nobody under obligation by asking this, but what real good do you think politics accomplishes – or what great evil does it avoid?

Does economic growth rot the culture?

Georgetown political theorist Patrick Deneen thinks genuine conservatism is incompatible with global capitalism and that confusion of the two is a cold war artifact. I’ll not equivocate about this one: I very strongly suspect he’s right.

Other stimulating excerpts:

My goal has been (I hope) in particular to deepen some of our political understanding and vocabulary, to make visible to more readers some of the deepest presuppositions of modern politics and even the deeper philosophical ideas that inform discrete political issues.  By enlarging the view and elongating the perspective, I also hoped that some other overlooked possibilities might be entertained – particularly beyond the worn and largely unproductive contemporary political positions adopted by the Right and the Left.

[M]any modern proponents of democracy believe that true democracy will only be achieved when we have overcome all “particularity.”  The root of the contradiction of modern democratic theory is the idea that there are only two justifiable and desirable conditions of humankind – the radically individuated monad and the globalized world community.  Any intermediate grouping or belonging is seen as arbitrary and the locus of limitations – hence, unjust.

Technology aids and abets the modern project of eviscerating attachments to local places and cultures.  Not long ago, thinkers like Emerson and Dewey praised the liberating and transformative potential of the railroads and telegraph; today, it is the internet and Facebook. [No, the irony is not lost on me.]

I think there is great systemic danger in the not-distant future due to a coming (or already arrived) energy crisis.  This will be a traumatic experience for a civilization that has been built around the assumption of permanently cheap energy.  I would submit that our economic crisis, our debt crisis, and our moral crisis are all pieces of this larger energy crisis.  Because our way of thinking treats problems as separate and discrete, we tend not to see their deeper connections.  I would be happy to elaborate on this, but won’t presume to take up the space to lay this out in this venue.  The thinker who has best articulated the contemporary tendency to treat all problems as “parts” while ignoring the whole is Wendell Berry.

(I found the interview linked above through Deneen’s own summary at Front Porch Republic, which also reminds me that he was interviewed by Ken Myers at Mars Hill Audio Journal, an excellent resource for commuters or people who like something other than frenetic music on the iPod when they work out, walk, bike or whatever.)