Sound Thinking

30 Jan

The Market-Driven Marriage?

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/30/06

The May 2005 issue of Harper's featured a very disturbing feature about the Rev. Ted Haggard, or "Pastor Ted" as he is affectionately and informally named by his congregation. Haggard is the pastor of the 12,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs, and the current president of the National Association of Evangelicals. Among the disturbing features in the article was this observation by the author, Jeff Sharlet:

"One of Pastor Ted's favorite books is Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree, which is now required reading for the hundreds of pastors under Ted's spiritual authority across the country. From Friedman, Pastor Ted says he learned that everything, including spirituality, can be understood as a commodity."

Well, yes, everything can be understood as a commodity. But far from being a convenient characteristic of modern life, this is a temptation of inadequate analogizing which should be resisted by everyone, and which the Church and its leaders should be warning against rather than glibly and carelessly promoting. If Uncle Screwtape were still advising his trainee in our market-driven society, I'm sure among advice he would give is "Get your patient to see everything in life as a commodity. This will give us a point of leverage by which to advance his sense of his own sovereignty ('the customer is always right,' after all) and his feeling that unfashionable ideas and commitments are disposable."

The devilish disorder promoted in our lives by the assumption that everything can be understood as a commodity is illustrated in a recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle, headlined "Marriage proposal: Why not privatize? Partnerships could be tailored to fit." The article, written by a lawyer named Colin P. A. Jones, argues at one point: "Exclusivity and the use of choice to define one's identity are at the core of modern consumer society. Extending this to marriage is only logical."

It shouldn't be that hard to see why the commodification of everything is a problem, not an opportunity. (One of our former guests, Vincent Miller, did a marvelous job spelling out many of these problems in his book Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture). But as in many instances, the pursuit of "cultural relevance" is radically different from the pursuit of cultural wisdom. [Posted January 2006, KAM]

Professor Leon Kass, former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics and a guest on several volumes of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, has drawn the public's attention to issues of aging in recent months. In September 2005 he oversaw the publishing of the Council's report Taking Care: Ethical Caregiving in Our Aging Society; two periodicals, Commentary and The New Atlantis, took advantage of the report's appearance in order to attend to the questions an aging society faces. Commentary ran an article by Kass and Eric Cohen (editor of The New Atlantis) that relied in part on Taking Care; The New Atlantis published an excerpt of the report.

In Commentary's article, "Cast Me Not Off in Old Age," Cohen and Kass note the coming of a "mass geriatric society" and the anxieties it will bring with it. "How we age and die are not only private matters," they write, "Our communal practices and social policies shape the environments in which aging and caregiving take place." They examine questions that will confront society as it faces the demands of caring for an increasing number of elderly, emphasizing that the demands will be not only economic in nature, but also spiritual and cultural.

The New Atlantis's "The Aging Self," on the other hand, examines questions of what it means to age in today's society, along with the issues and frustrations concomitant with old age and decline. It states: "But for human beings, aging is not only a biological experience but a psychological, existential, social, and religious one: it involves seeing oneself in a new light as one's life progresses and one's body changes; it involves looking back on one's past experiences and looking ahead to one's shortening future; it involves treasuring life and independence as long as possible and accepting dependence and death when they can no longer be resisted. It involves changes of familial and social roles, changes of responsibility at work and at home, and differing forms of participation in civic and communal life." The excerpt discusses the ethics of graceful aging and encourages the elderly to cultivate courage, wisdom, simplicity, and humor as they age.

The MARS HILL AUDIO Journal has published interviews on the related topics of medical ethics and euthanasia; C. Ben Mitchell discussed the Church and bioethical issues on Volume 70, and there are links to other interviews here and here. [Posted January 2006, ALG]

11 Jan

"The Image Culture"

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/11/06

In the Fall 2005 issue of The New Atlantis, Christine Rosen continues her insightful series of articles on technology and culture, especially those technologies that we might call "consumer technologies" rather than "producer technologies." She's not interested in large data-processing, communications, travel, or manufacturing systems, but in things like iPods, cell phones, video games, and online dating services. These are technologies that re-configure the way we sustain relationships and order our experience in time and space. They also affect the way we regard and use language, our habits of thinking and imagining, even our sense of self.

In her latest essay, "The Image Culture," Rosen joins a venerable tradition of reflection on the comparative cultural and expressive possibilities of images and words, and considers how the ubiquity of images erodes their power. Along the way she brings a number of commentators into the discussion, including Susan Sontag, Marshall McLuhan, and Mitchell Stephens, as she discusses how programs like Photoshop and PowerPoint have transformed our relationship to images and to verbal language.

Perhaps Rosen's most helpful contribution to this continuing conversation about image-based technologies (which includes such diverse voices as Jacques Ellul's 1981 The Humiliation of the Word and my own All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes) is her more general observation about how we assess the cultural effect of new technologies. In a discussion of some of the judgments of NYU media professor Mitchell Stephens, Rosen comments: "Like any good techno-enthusiast, Stephens takes the choices that we have made en masse as a culture (such as watching television rather than reading), accepts them without challenge, and then declares them inevitable. This is a form of reasoning that techno-enthusiasts often employ when they attempt to engage the concerns of skeptics. Although rhetorically useful in the short-term, this strategy avoids the real questions: Did things have to happen this way rather than that way? Does every cultural trend make a culture genuinely better? By neglecting to ask these questions, the enthusiast becomes nearly Panglossian in his hymns to his new world."

Rosen's questions for techno-enthusiasts are broad enough to be appropriate for use in assessing almost all instances of cultural change. If these and related questions are not asked, we will never know when we ought to resist certain changes, when we are obliged (by the ramifications of our love of God and of neighbor) to be counter-cultural. The kinds of questions Christine Rosen has been raising in her articles (available online at are exactly right for parents, pastors, and teachers who care about healthy cultural lives for themselves, for those under their care, and for society at large. [Posted January 2006, KAM]

1 Nov

The Culture of Narcissism Nearly Thirty Years Later

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 11/01/05

In the October/November 2005 issue of Policy Review, Christine Rosen attends to the critique of American society that historian and social critic Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) offered in his book The Culture of Narcissism. (When Lasch died in 1994, Ken Myers talked with Dominic Aquila about The Culture of Narcissism; the interview is featured on Volume 7 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal. Lasch and his writings are addressed in a new anthology, Figures in the Carpet, several essays from which will be discussed on upcoming issues of the Journal.) In her article "The Overpraised American," Rosen, a guest on Volume 70 of the Journal, assesses the trajectory for society Lasch predicted in his work. She states, ". . . the narcissism Lasch described has not disappeared. It has simply taken on a different and in some ways more exaggerated form."

In The Culture of Narcissism, which was published in 1979, Lasch asserted that Americans had become narcissistic; they had exchanged the development of character for the development of personality and were happy to peer into a mirror in order to rate who they were and how they might develop a sense of fulfillment. He depicted how the culture was beginning to devalue the very things—a strong home and family life, independence and self-reliance, work, and connections with others in a world "'independent of our wishes yet responsive to our needs,'"—that prevent people from becoming narcissistic and susceptible to the "'terrors of existence.'" Rosen studies the same factors Lasch originally used to discover and describe these trends and concludes that "Lasch's narcissist has become the over praised, attention-seeking, technologically dependent American who is aware and concerned about certain influences on family and social life but little motivated to change his lifestyle to counteract them." She writes: "Although the children of Lasch's narcissists express both shock and confusion over the disorder of their family lives and the declining civility around them, their response so far has been largely one of retreat—into congratulatory, therapeutic reassurances, into the cocoon of increasingly large homes where the demands of domesticity and family life can be outsourced and distracting entertainments easily obtained. This is a technologically sophisticated world that nevertheless increasingly lacks opportunities for genuine connection. It is a world where parents fret about negative, outside influences on children yet do little to stop children (or themselves) from watching hour after hour of the television that celebrates those very influences. Demanding constant praise and immediate feedback, and without knowing where, at any given moment, they rest on the tumultuous yet finely calibrated scale of success, Americans are, in the end, even more anxious and unhappy than the narcissists Lasch first described. Whether or not these anxieties will become a permanent feature of our culture remains to be seen. But as Lasch's book reminds us, their influence is not likely to disappear. It is likely to grow even more powerful in ways now beyond our ability to imagine."

Rosen's "The Overpraised American" is available on-line. [Posted November 2005, ALG]

14 Sep

Ken Myers on the NEA

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/14/05

A few weeks ago, I received a note from a high school student at a Christian school who had read my book, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, and who was writing a senior thesis about the question of whether or not Christians should support the idea of federal funding for the arts. It's a more complicated question than is often recognized, on both sides. In the interest of stimulating further discussion, here's what I wrote to her:

As you rightly acknowledge in your note, you are raising some enormous issues. Let me try to offer some ideas that might help.

First, I should say that the question of federal funding for the arts is as much a question of what we believe about the purpose of government as it is what we believe about the purpose of art. People could agree on their understanding of what art is and what place it should have in our lives without agreeing on the question of federal support.

But let's start with the question of art. When Christians start looking at this question, there are two immediate obstacles. First, for over 100 years, the various institutions that sustain the arts have become distorted and confused. This is not to say that all modern art is bad, but that our culture's understanding of the place of art in human life is really a mess. Modern culture is by and large confused about what it means to be human, and so it is not surprising that it is confused about the place of the arts in human life.

So that's the first obstacle: our culture's understanding of what the arts are all about.

The second obstacle is that American Christians by and large are equally confused about the arts. Most Christians seem to have a low view of the arts, and I think it is because they have a low view of imagination.

Let me try to correlate these two confusions with a shockingly quick summary of what I think went wrong in the West in the past 400 years. In his book, The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis observed that in the classical and Christian view prior to the modern age, the chief task of living a good life was understood as discovering meaning and moral order in Creation, and then, through the exercise of self-control, through the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, and (in the Christian view) by the experience of grace, to "conform the soul to reality." There is a pattern of reality in Creation that can be perceived through what theologians call "general revelation," and one lived a good life, one ful-filled one's humanity by fitting into that pattern. Lewis also once said that you can't go against the grain of the universe without getting splinters. What he meant was that when you ignore or violate the order that is there, you will suffer in some way (whether or not you know it).

The older view of art fit into this understanding. Art was one way of perceiving the order of things in the universe. The world was knowable through imaginative means as well as through rational analysis. I think that's why we have so much poetry and metaphor in the Bible. I think that is why wisdom literature in particular relies on imaginative forms of expression (look at all of the metaphors in the Psalms, for example).

Human imagination has the capacity to tell us something important about reality because God, the author of reality and the One in whose image we are made, has made it so. Robert Houston Smith (in a book called Patches of Godlight: the Pattern of Thought of C. S. Lewis, University of Georgia Press, 1981) once summarized Lewis's adherence to this older view of Creation and imagination this way: "Although the imagination might entertain, its noblest and most essential function was that of guiding the mind toward the higher truths that gave meaning to existence. Lewis insisted that those who suppose imagination to be only a psychological or physiological activity of the mind are wrong. When functioning as it should, in secular as well as religious contexts, imagination is the most important means by which higher truths can be communicated. . . . He was concerned to dispel the popular notion that whatever is imaginative is, by its very nature, false or nonexistent. What the ordinary person fails to conceive is that there are some aspects of reality that can be conveyed in no other way than imaginatively. Inasmuch as reality itself transcends the most abstract language, the imagination can offer, when properly focused, higher integrative levels, helping to lead the receptive mind toward a supraverbal apprehension of reality that draws upon the mind's innate capabilities of recognizing truth when presented with it. Thus by imagination Lewis meant something far more important than the aesthetic experience of the fabrication of fantasies." [p. 136]

Lewis gave "assent to the venerable, though by no means universally held assumption that poetic language 'is by no means merely an expression, nor a stimulant, of emotion, but a real medium of information,' whether (he carefully added) that information be false or true. . . . Though immensely subtler, the human imagination is, in its own distinctive way, just as absolute as are universal moral laws or syllogisms. All are part and parcel of the same underlying reality that is itself inaccessible to the mind through any direct means." [p. 136f.]

I want to emphasize two things about this older view (which I believe is the view most consistent with biblical teaching) of Creation and imagination. First, there is an order in Creation. The universe is not just a lot of meaningless raw material, but there are patterns of meaning in the structure of creation that has continuity with the pattern of meaning in our moral and spiritual lives. Second, both reason and imagination are necessary to apprehend this meaning. Even science relies a lot on imagination (Mary Midgley's book Science and Poetry makes this very clear, as does the wonderful work in philosophy of science by Michael Polanyi) in the pursuit of new discoveries. I'm convinced that Einstein's grasp of the way the universe worked was a product of his imagination, not just his ability to compute.

Some of the greatest artists in Western history were very explicit in their belief that they were discoverers of something in reality, not inventors or creators of an entirely new thing.

I said that this was the "older view" to contrast it with the modern view, and by "modern," I mean the view that begins to take shape in the 17th century, and becomes entrenched during the Enlightenment. In the modern view, as Lewis observes in The Abolition of Man, the chief task is not to conform the soul to reality, but to remake reality to fit human desires. In the modern view, the universe is just matter, known by mathematics, but there is no moral order inherent in things. There is nothing there to which we should conform. There is no "higher truth" that can be perceived by reflecting on Nature (notice that the term "Nature" replaces "Creation" in this view). Human will, expressed in human reason, is the highest force in the universe, and we fulfill our humanity not by discerning the pattern of the grain of the universe and living accordingly, but by expanding the power of the human will to do whatever it wants.

On this view, imagination is not an organ of meaning that assists us in recognizing boundaries, but imagination is a way of expressing unbounded human creativity, freedom, and power. This is why art has, for many modern people, displaced religion, and why many currents of modern art are so deliberately opposed to traditional religious belief.

Now let me get to the question of support for the arts. Some people will say that since so many artistic institutions and individual artists are pursuing a distorted, even blasphemous agenda through the arts, the government should not be at all involved. But if we were consistent, we would have to recognize that many politicians and lawyers have views of law, justice, and government that are just as distorted, so we shouldn''t have government at all! Or, less radically, we could argue that many people involved in scientific research are pursuing power over what they suppose to be meaningless matter in an arrogant and ungodly way, and so government should not support scientific or technical research.

I believe that art serves a public good that is as important as that served by science or commerce or education. If it is appropriate for government to support and organize those other spheres, then there is no reason why it should not be committed to the arts. That being said, not all science, commerce, education, or art serves the public good equally, and, in a democracy, one of the tasks of political life is to promote discussion and debate about the nature of the common good. Unfortunately, the modern project of unlimited freedom has advanced so far that people think their government has no business in making any value judgments. This is a recipe for anarchy. Laws and policies are always expressions of values, and in a democratic society, those values need to be discussed and debated.

One thing that the Church should do in such a setting is promote really good art criticism, to train people to make public arguments about art that rejects the relativism and skepticism of our time. Unfortunately, like their modern neighbors, most Christians don't believe (as Lewis did) that art has anything to do with objective value. Most Christians have accepted the modern idea that art is purely subjective, just an expression of individual (and thus arbitrary) likes or dislikes. And so even while they oppose the NEA on allegedly Christian grounds, they advance a view of the arts that has more in common with their enemies than they realize.

The Endowments (arts and humanities) were set up through the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965 (P.L. 89-209). In Section 2 of the Act, "Declaration of Purpose," Congress declared (among other things) the following:

"(2) that a high civilization must not limit its efforts to science and technology alone but must give full value and support to the other great branches of scholarly and cultural activity in order to achieve a better understanding of the past, a better analysis of the present, and a better view of the future;

"(3) that democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizens and that it must therefore foster and support a form of education, and access to the arts and the humanities, designed to make people of all backgrounds and wherever located masters of their technology and not its unthinking servant; . . .

"(7) that the world leadership which has come to the United States cannot rest solely upon superior power, wealth, and technology, but must be solidly founded upon worldwide respect and admiration for the Nation's high qualities as a leader in the realm of ideas and of the spirit;

"(8) that Americans should receive in school, background and preparation in the arts and humanities to enable them to recognize and appreciate the aesthetic dimensions of our lives, the diversity of excellence that comprises our cultural heritage, and artistic and scholarly expression. . . ."

Some of the concerns expressed here no doubt came from a famous book called The Two Cultures, by C. P. Snow, which looked at the relative roles of science and of the humanities in modern Western culture. His book would be good background for you (he published a revised edition of it in 1964, the year before this bill was passed, and it was very widely discussed at the time).

I think it might be helpful for you to study this legislation (if you haven't already) and ask whether its assumptions (what judicial scholars would call the original intent of the law) is widely understood and affirmed by Americans today, especially by those in the arts.

For the last two years, I have served on a National Endowment for the Arts panel, helping to decide how some of the NEA's money is allocated. I was asked to serve because I have been involved in arts journalism since I was 22 years old (that's 30 years, by the way). But there aren't many committed, theologically deliberate Christians who get involved in the arts this way, which is one of the reasons why so many arts institutions and so much thinking about the arts generally is so disordered.

We will never see ideas and practices in the arts improve in ways that fit a Christian understanding of reality unless Christians are committed to the arts.

Here are a couple of other observations.

Even though the arts serve a public good, it would not be necessary for the federal government to provide support. Regional, state, and local governments may be a more appropriate level for that support to originate. But I've never heard any Christian who wanted to dismantle the NEA argue for increase in government support at other levels.

Finally, let's do a thought experiment. Since Christians believe that God is the Creator of all things, the one who established the foundation of the earth, they should be at the forefront of honoring God in every possible way. They should be more interested in the nature of Creation than people whose belief are rooted in humanism, environmentalism, science, or art. They should be committed to encouraging rich and fitting experience of all of creation. We are saved in order to restore the fullness of our humanity in Christ. We are not saved in order to escape our humanity. Sadly, most American Christians seem to have absorbed the modern assumption that religion is about matters private and purely spiritual, when in fact, the Gospel is a message that has consequences for all of life.

But if American Christians were really committed to honoring their Creator fully, they would be the biggest supporters of the arts. Private patronage of the arts by thoughtful, artistically committed Christians could dwarf federal funding of the arts. And yet I've never seen any of the Christian opponents of arts funding suggest that we need to promote artistic literacy and patronage within the Church.

I hope that some of this is helpful. If you have any questions about these comments, please get back in touch. And if you would like further bibliographic recommendations for your thesis, please let me know.

Good luck, and God's blessings on your writing! [Posted September 2005, ALG]