Culture Wars

Jason Micheli —  August 1, 2012 — 5 Comments

Yesterday I wrote a post entitled ‘Mormon Envy‘ in which I used Kenda Dean’s book Almost Christian to reflect on how Mormons succeed at catechizing their youth and Mainline Christians, captured by Moral Therapeutic Deism, do a woefully poor job at it, according to the National Survey on Religion and Youth.

As I alluded to in the post, I have significant reservations about how Mormon theology squares with historic Nicene Christianity. When it comes to doctrines like the Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement and Eschaton there’s simply too much divergence between Mormonism and orthodox Christianity for us to consider them in the fold. Having said that, my issues are theological and, I like to think, civil.

My post yesterday, while only tacitly about Mormonism, generated a surprising amount of pushback about Mormonism itself. Most of it was too uncivil for me to agree to post here.

Even more surprising to me, the pushback was not from Mormons but from self-identified liberal Christians who generally regarded Mormonism as conservative and, seemingly by definition, antiquated, oppressive and rigid in both worldview and praxis.

My own pushback to one comment wondered if the fact that we now think of the word ‘indoctrination’ pejoratively, as brainwashing, is not but evidence that we’re captured by secular presuppositions. When, I wondered, did intentionally forming our children’s beliefs and worldview became the equivalent of emotional or intellectual harm? And isn’t raising our children without imposing a belief system on them it’s own kind of imposition? It’s own kind secular indoctrination?

The tenor of pushback I received makes me wonder if Moral Therapeutic Deism is so pervasive in the Mainline Church’s youth because the Mainline Church’s parents are captured by the presumptions of the secular culture, leaving their children without a compelling alternative (Christianity) to the dominant culture. Why would youth be interested in Church if all they receive in Church is Culture-lite?

This is where I suspect the formation of youth, and how (and how well) we do it rubs up against the larger culture wars being played out once again with gusto.

Scot McKnight has a good post today that picks up the argument from here:

Ross Douthat, whose book Bad Religion I posted about on this blog, has been given some serious pushback by Diana Butler Bass, whose book Christianity after Religion I may well blog about too. (Here’s a recent post by Douthat linking to the others.) Two claims: Douthat thinks mainline Christianity’s demise is due to its lack of moorings in historic Christian orthodox faith, while Bass is making the counterintuitive claim that mainline liberalism’s theology may be the seedbed for a renewal of Christianity in America.

Put in terms of accommodation, Douthat’s argument is that mainline Christianity has accommodated itself too much to culture, to progressive politics, to the trends of society and so has lots its footings. Bass is arguing that by accommodating itself to the culture, politics and society mainline Christianity might find a new way into a renewal. Douthat says Bass is over-reaching and thinks her hope is unlikely to find its realization.

The numbers tell the story of rapid and frightening decline among mainline denominations; the numbers tell of strength or at least of a sustainable future for the more conservative denominations (like the Southern Baptists) and the numbers are probably even stronger for the non-denominational evangelical.

Yet, there’s a problem at work here that belies simplistic theorizing. I doubt that one can wash away departure from the orthodox faith among mainliners and say it has nothing to do with the decline. At some point many have asked, “If that’s what these leaders believe, what’s the point?” But scholars know this is not the whole story. Some have pointed directly at birth rate among mainliners (amazingly low) compared with more conservatives (much higher), and said if you let these numbers stand for 2-3 generations you will see reversals, and that’s what happened: the conservatives have overtaken the mainliners. Yet, I suspect even this isn’t enough, so I’d like to propose for your consideration another factor to consider:

Both mainliners and conservatives have accommodated themselves to the culture. This isn’t an either/or.

Mainliners have accommodated themselves to the elite, sophisticated, and more upper class society.

Evangelicalism, or the conservative churches, have accommodated themselves to the populist culture.

There are more numbers for the latter than the former. Hence, one element of the demographic changes is “target audience” for accommodation strategies.

I have some ideas, but I’d like to know (1) if you think this thesis can be sustained and (2) what are indications of accommodation to elitist culture among mainliners and to populist culture among evangelicals?  

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Jason Micheli

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5 responses to Culture Wars

  1. Again, I think you’re using an ideal that does not exist, especially within the faith example you used. We should ask very serious questions about how one gets children to the point you want. There are more factors than just “teaching a culture.” We have to be honest about how others have succeeded in getting their children to this point. It isn’t always pretty.

    My honest opinion rejects both Bass and Douthat: there is only so long fairy tales about talking snakes and donkeys, killing entire villages for unnamed “wickedness” and gross attitudes about women and gays and non believers will be tolerated by a society that relies so much on science and the advancement more knowledge provides. Christianity’s excuses are failing. Conservative Christianity survives because of its insistence on, as you have noted, conforming yourself to its views, no matter what. As more knowledge becomes available, that becomes almost impossible. You can see it in the Bible itself, which is why it’s so incoherent on multiple topics. Religious views always conform to society. Only fringe groups do it the other way.

    • But you’re presumption that the narratives of scripture were intended to have a single, rationally verifiable ‘point’ not only misses the very nature of narrative, it’s dismissive of the ancient faith community who did not, any more than us, thought donkeys talked or dead men rise from the grave.

      You’re applying an incredibly modernist approach to scripture and then blaming it for not conforming to your standards. Not only is there power in those narratives outside of what can rationally demonstrated, that fact has always been the case and always understood by the faith community.

      Any Christianity that can hold modern wisdom alongside the traditions of the faith isn’t the faith of Aquinas or Augustine, and, frankly, sounds like an incredibly boring, tedious faith to me. It’s the faith of Shleiermacher.

      I chose ‘Mormon Envy’ because that is the title of one of Dean’s sections in the book. I’ve no truck with Mormons vs any other group. The point of my original post, and Dean’s thesis, isn’t about beliefs per se (be they liberal or conservative) it’s that certain faith groups are successful at perpetuating faith because the chief vehicle to pass the faith down is the family not the institutional church. I think this is a thesis one can make independent of any conversation about Mormonism. Mainline Churches, by and large, rely on churches and their staff to pass the faith down whereas other, growing traditions, do not.

  2. Again, I think you’re using an ideal that does not exist, especially within the faith example you used. We should ask very serious questions about how one gets children to the point you want. There are more factors than just “teaching a culture.” We have to be honest about how others have succeeded in getting their children to this point. It isn’t always pretty.

    My honest opinion rejects both Bass and Douthat: there is only so long fairy tales about talking snakes and donkeys, killing entire villages for unnamed “wickedness” and gross attitudes about women and gays and non believers will be tolerated by a society that relies so much on science and the advancement more knowledge provides. Christianity’s excuses are failing. Conservative Christianity survives because of its insistence on, as you have noted, conforming yourself to its views, no matter what. As more knowledge becomes available, that becomes almost impossible. You can see it in the Bible itself, which is why it’s so incoherent on multiple topics. Religious views always conform to society. Only fringe groups do it the other way.

  3. I don’t think I miss the point of narrative, I just don’t accept your willingness to define its objective as broadly and as undefined as you. I contend their narratives DID have a singular, rational point to convey to their readers, and they are intentional about it. Fortunately, these views were critiqued. It is only our need to reconcile our modern ethics with a book we have been told has inherent value on its own merits. When that belief of infallibility or divine inspiration clashes with our current ethics, it is then, and only then, do the mental gymnastics begin. To say they didn’t believe God could make a donkey talk or that prophets didn’t raise people from the dead is misleading. Many DID believe that. In fact, the purpose of these stories is often to guard against apostasy and keep the people believing – why would they put stories in there that no one would think was real? New Testament writings clearly show the NT writers were full blown creationists. The allegory or legend part is actually more modern assumptions we have made, not proven.

    Yes, I am blaming it for not conforming to modern standards. If it is to have any modern relevance, it should mesh. Or we should mesh to it. That clearly will not happen because if we are HONEST, there are things in the Bible we do not believe are ethical. And if they are not ethical NOW, why would they have been ethical THEN? They aren’t. This kind of relativism is a copout that is used solely on the Bible and rejected elsewhere. The original Constitution had the 3/5 compromise. We can make excuses for their thinking and culture all day but one has to make a choice: it is either acceptable or unacceptable. If it is unacceptable, we have to be confident enough in our current understanding of ethics to reject the 3/5 compromise, lest someone use some culturally relative or time relative shenanigans to bring it back. The Bible contends the earth is flat and everything revolves around the earth. Yes, I am blaming it for that view and so should anyone living today. The sun does not revolve around the earth. The stories only have value and power if we decide they do. The question is not should faith hope to avoid being boring or tedious – shouldn’t it be accurate? Because the ancient communities – from the early Israelites, to the divided nations, to the post exhilic community, to the post Easter communities – were faithful to accuracy. Orthodoxy didn’t arise by magic happy potions – it was a long drawn out process of debates that were often more political than faithful. A singular accuracy was ultimately the goal – until people started wising up and realizing this was impossible. Thank God they did, I guess…

  4. I don’t think I miss the point of narrative, I just don’t accept your willingness to define its objective as broadly and as undefined as you. I contend their narratives DID have a singular, rational point to convey to their readers, and they are intentional about it. Fortunately, these views were critiqued. It is only our need to reconcile our modern ethics with a book we have been told has inherent value on its own merits. When that belief of infallibility or divine inspiration clashes with our current ethics, it is then, and only then, do the mental gymnastics begin. To say they didn’t believe God could make a donkey talk or that prophets didn’t raise people from the dead is misleading. Many DID believe that. In fact, the purpose of these stories is often to guard against apostasy and keep the people believing – why would they put stories in there that no one would think was real? New Testament writings clearly show the NT writers were full blown creationists. The allegory or legend part is actually more modern assumptions we have made, not proven.

    Yes, I am blaming it for not conforming to modern standards. If it is to have any modern relevance, it should mesh. Or we should mesh to it. That clearly will not happen because if we are HONEST, there are things in the Bible we do not believe are ethical. And if they are not ethical NOW, why would they have been ethical THEN? They aren’t. This kind of relativism is a copout that is used solely on the Bible and rejected elsewhere. The original Constitution had the 3/5 compromise. We can make excuses for their thinking and culture all day but one has to make a choice: it is either acceptable or unacceptable. If it is unacceptable, we have to be confident enough in our current understanding of ethics to reject the 3/5 compromise, lest someone use some culturally relative or time relative shenanigans to bring it back. The Bible contends the earth is flat and everything revolves around the earth. Yes, I am blaming it for that view and so should anyone living today. The sun does not revolve around the earth. The stories only have value and power if we decide they do. The question is not should faith hope to avoid being boring or tedious – shouldn’t it be accurate? Because the ancient communities – from the early Israelites, to the divided nations, to the post exhilic community, to the post Easter communities – were faithful to accuracy. Orthodoxy didn’t arise by magic happy potions – it was a long drawn out process of debates that were often more political than faithful. A singular accuracy was ultimately the goal – until people started wising up and realizing this was impossible. Thank God they did, I guess…

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