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]

12 Oct

Taking Care

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 10/12/05

"Taking Care is an important, and provocative, ethical document that belongs in every university and medical school bioethics curriculum. More important, it offers a starting point for a badly needed national conversation about a difficult topic that is too often avoided. Leon Kass and the President's Council on Bioethics deserve high praise for another job well done." Wesley J. Smith, "A Kass Act," The Weekly Standard (September 10, 2005)

Under the chairmanship of Leon Kass, a guest on multiple volumes of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, the President's Council on Bioethics produced in-depth studies of human cloning, biotechnology as therapy, human nature, stem cell research, reproductive biotechnologies, and alternative sources to human pluripotent stem cells. Its latest release, and the last report during Kass's tenure as chairman, is Taking Care: Ethical Caregiving in Our Aging Society. The document acknowledges that America is an aging society and explores the concerns it will face as it ages. In the book's preface Kass writes: "Taken as a whole, our report aims to enrich public discussion about aging, dementia, and caregiving, to encourage policymakers to take up these complicated yet urgent issues, and to offer ethical guidance for caregivers—professional and familial—who struggle to provide for those entrusted to their care. We also hope to encourage policymakers in this area to take into account the humanistic and ethical aspects of aging and caregiving, not only the economic and institutional ones. Staying human in our aging society depends on it."

The five chapters in Taking Care are titled: "Dilemmas of an Aging Society," "The Limited Wisdom of Advance Directives," "The Ethics of Caregiving: General Principles," "Ethical Caregiving: Principle and Prudence in Hard Cases," and "Conclusions and Recommendations." They deal, respectively, with aging well in modern times and in America; practical and ethical critiques of living wills; constructive inquiry into ethical caregiving—both its ethical principles and moral boundaries and how prudence and principle collaborate in determining ethical caregiving; and with the conclusions and recommendations of the Council. The full text of Taking Care is available on-line. [Posted October 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]

14 Aug

The Necessity of Tradition

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/14/05

In 1997, I wrote a short article for Modern Reformation magazine entitled "Is Popular Culture Either?" It was an epilogue to my 1989 book, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, which began my interest in what might be called the sociology of popular culture. While many Christian apologists have focused on the message-bearing capacity of pop cultural artifacts, I have long been more interested in the deeper dynamic of how cultural forms situate us in (or out of) communities, how they shape our deepest assumptions (as opposed to our explicit beliefs), and how they shape sensibilities and emotional expectations which, in turn, become matrices of meaning.

One of the aspects of popular culture which I failed to examine as thoroughly as I should have in my book was taken up in this article. I had not yet read Wendell Berry's powerful essay "The Work of Local Culture" (included in our Anthology, Place, Community, and Memory) which underscores the imperative of intergenerational continuity if a community is to sustain any kind of coherence. The word "culture" has historically been used to describe in summary all of the ways of living, believing, and feeling that sustain bonds of membership and obligation within a community. Culture is thus about passing on a notion of the good life from one generation to the next. A culture establishes ends and bounds that in-form the conscience by speaking deeply with morally binding address.

I suggested in that article that "popular culture" wasn't really popular, as it was created and sustained by elites in entertainment, manufacturing, media, and marketing, and it wasn't really culture because popular culture as we know it is deeply committed to age segregation. I addressed the ephemerality and disposability of the artifacts of popular culture in my book, but mostly in the context of the problem of superficiality. The deeper problem is the problem of culture-as-commodity rather than culture-as-legacy. When what we label as "culture" becomes a collection of accessories that individuals independently choose to shape their personal project of self-creation, cultural artifacts no longer have the capacity to bind, to join, to direct, and to in-form. Popular culture as we know it is a web of commodities (often short-lived), aspirations to independence, and the liberation of desire. Cultures as they have been experienced through most of human history have served such radically different ends that calling popular culture "culture" is at best confusing. (I won't bother connecting the dots on the phrase "youth culture.")

From a theological perspective, we were created for community, for membership, for mutual trinity-imitating belonging. Cultures are not simply adaptive mechanisms that facilitate survival, they are the necessary extensions of our image-bearing being. That's why social, political, and economic institutions that encourage us to move in a direction that is (in Christopher Clausen's term) post-cultural, or (in Philip Rieff's formulation) anti-cultural, or (in my own phrase) auto-cultural are finally dehumanizing.

In the past few decades, many Christian churches have adopted techniques of ministry that fit nicely into this post-, anti-, or auto-cultural regime. These techniques are sometimes labeled "contemporary," and they are often consciously pitted against "traditional" forms of ministry. The leaders of the various movements that have championed these retoolings seem to be largely oblivious to the problems I have briefly outlined above. In their writings to explain the necessity of their approaches, one reads a great deal about how traditions need to be dismantled in order to reach more people. But there is no evidence that they have wrestled with the question of whether or not traditions are necessary to keep a people together (at many levels) over time. The Gospel itself is then another commodity individually appropriated, not the foundation of a community, not the announcement of a new people committed to a shared way of life forward into many generations. Such re-invented churches are successful in reaching many individuals, which is absolutely no surprise. It would be shocking if they didn't. But if they are to become communities rather than strategies, they will have to take more seriously the necessity of traditions as vehicles of committed memory.

These concerns were all at the back of my mind (as they almost always are) as I was reading a recent article by Lee Harris called "The Future of Tradition," in the June & July 2005 issue of Policy Review. Harris's recent book Civilization and Its Enemies has gotten a lot of attention; several of our subscribers have suggested that I interview him (let me apologize here for my negligence). He has obviously thought a great deal about what allows a civilization to survive, and one of the ingredients he has identified is tradition. He says that traditions must be seen not as "reason in a somewhat garbled code," but as a pattern of living that embodies deep "habits of the heart."

Let me extract a few paragraphs, and suggest that you read them not just with the crisis of our own civilization in mind, but with concern for the health of the Church as a community, a people, a body through time.

"In even the shortest possible list of the attributes of a civilization, you are certain to discover the feature of transgenerational stability. A civilization must have a proven track record of cultural permanence, which is to say that it must be a multigenerational project. A civilization must be passed, with its fundaments pretty much intact, from one generation to the next; and this is especially true when we are dealing with civilizations whose civilizing process requires a stern renunciation of the id in all of its manifestations—ungovernable impulses, unruly desires, a lack of consideration or feeling for the well-being of others, sexual promiscuity, prodigal expenditures on passing fads, and so on. In short, the loftier the ethical ideal of a civilization is, the harder it must work to preserve this ideal against the return of the id.

"But how exactly is a civilization passed on from generation to generation? We can understand passing on an heirloom, like a set of fancy china, from one generation to another. But a civilization cannot be reduced merely to the physical props that are associated with it: the buildings, the transportation system, the machines and the tools, the gold and the treasure. What possible use would America's complex superhighway system be to a generation no one had taken the trouble to teach how to drive?

"A society that wishes to reproduce itself must take care to pass on to the next generation the knowledge required to maintain itself at more or less the same level of civilization. It is not enough to pass on the good china; you must also pass on the family recipe for making the pot roast. Yet even that is not quite enough; you must also find a way to pass along the culinary skills needed to transform a recipe written in words into an actual plate of pot roast. Figuratively speaking, a civilization must pass on the china, the recipe and the cook. But even this is not quite enough. You must also make the cook realize that in addition to cooking, he must know how to replace himself, and, most critically, he must feel that he has a duty to replace himself. Not only must he teach his children to cook, but he must also teach them how to teach their children to cook.

"If a society wishes to find a way of ensuring that newly emergent and valuable techniques are passed on and preserved, its members must feel themselves under an ethical obligation to leave the best possible world not only for their children, but also for their grandchildren.

"The grandchild, far from being incidental, is decisive. Civilization persists when there is a widespread sense of an ethical obligation on the part of the present generation for the well-being of the third generation—their own grandchildren. A society where this feeling is not widespread may last as a civilization for some time—indeed, for one or two generations it might thrive spectacularly. But inevitably, a society acknowledging no transgenerational commitment to the future will decay and decline from within. Which leads to our main question: How is this task accomplished? How do you make parents feel such a deep and unshakeable ethical commitment to their grandchildren?" [Posted August 2005, KAM]

14 Aug

"Music and the Spheres" Lecture Available On-line

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/14/05

In April of 2004, Ken Myers participated in a conference held in Charlottesville and sponsored by the Center for Christian Study. The Conference was called "Music and the Spheres: Music, Faith and Culture in America Today," and the speakers included theologian and pianist Jeremy Begbie (interviewed on Volume 64 of the Journal), conductor and music professor John Hodges (a guest six times, as listed here), and film composer J. A. C. Redford (who also writes chamber and sacred choral music, as discussed in conversation on Volume 41 and Volume 67). These lectures have been available for sale from the Center for Christian Study on cassette or CD (call 434-817-1050 to order), and they have given permission for us to make an mp3 version of the lecture by Ken Myers available for free download from our webpage. In this lecture, Ken examines ways in which social configuration of music in our lives and the assumptions we typically have about beauty and order reflect larger patterns of disorder in modernity. The Center for Christian Study has other lectures available in mp3 format through its web page, [Posted August 2005, KAM]