30 Sep

What Is Life Like after Culture?

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 09/30/01

The modern elevation of individual autonomy leads to postmodern suspicion of all authority, and eventually to postculturalism. Insights from Christopher Clausen and Philip Rieff . . .

In the summer of 1996, The American Scholar published an essay by Christopher Clausen. It was called "Welcome to Post-culturalism" and in it, Clausen (a professor of English at Penn State University) reflected on how the word "culture" has come to mean something very different from its historical meaning in anthropology. In that context, it "refers to the total way of life of a discrete society, its traditions, habits, belief, and art." This way of life was transmitted from one generation to the next and thereby served as a system of moral instruction and ethical restraint.

But "culture" in this deep sense has always been something of a problem for Americans. "The American political tradition places individual liberty ahead of nearly every other goal, thereby (among many other benefits) reducing occasions for intergroup conflict." The liberation of individuals from restraining forces "is one of the permanent trends in American life and comes closer to realization with every advance in communications. But the freedom that lies beyond culture may be a mixed blessing—in some respects a liberty that not even John Stuart Mill could love. The escape from restraint that the Internet represents derives not from an ideal of human fulfillment but from the narcissistic experience of one's own personality, strengthened by its reflection in the computer screen, as the only significant reality. The major constituents of real cultures—family, religion, ethics, manners—have shrunk almost to the vanishing point as authorities over individual behavior. This inflation of personality at the expense of exteral reality did not begin with the computer age; Christopher Lasch chronicles its rise in a book entitled, naturally, The Culture of Narcissism (1978). Computers and their sibling, cable television, have, however, greatly accelerated the process." [p. 387]

"The old liberal distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding conduct has little significance if one inhabits a world made up primarily of bytes and images. Like television itself, which exists only to reach the largest possible audience, such a world has no fixed norms; like the Internet, it welcomes virtually any content from any source. Every expression, however violent, pornographic, or merely shallow, is equivalent to all other expressions. 'The First Amendment,' proclaims Michael Eisner, chairman of the Walt Disney Company, 'gives you the right to be plastic.'"[p. 387]

Clausen's observations resonate with earlier concerns expressed by Philip Rieff in his 1966 book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud. In that book, Rieff describes a culture as an "inherited organization of permissions and restraints upon action." [p. 3] But the 20th century was witness to a widespread suspicion about any inherited assumptions about good and evil, and so encouraged social institutions and personalities that were committed to liberation rather than restraint. This marked a transition from culture towhat Rieff terms anti-culture: "The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized. . . . Our cultural revolution does not aim, like its predecessors, at victory for some rival commitment, but rather at a way of using all commitments, which amounts to loyalty toward none.

Rieff's diagnosis is similar to Clausen's, but more pessimistic. [Posted October 2001, KAM]

21 Aug

Flannery O'Connor

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 08/21/01

Titles recommended by Ralph Wood, a guest who talks about Flannery O'Connor on Volume 73 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal.

Melvin J. Friedman and Lewis A. Lawson (eds.), The Added Dimension: The Art of Mind of Flannery O'Connor (Fordham University Press, 1989)

Frederick Asals, Flannery O'Connor: The Imagination of Extremity (University of Georgia Press, 1982)

John F. Desmond, Risen Sons: Flannery O'Connor's Vision of History (University of Georgia Press, 1987)

Richard Giannone, Flannery O'Connor and the Mystery of Love (Fordham University Press, 1999)

Jon Lance Bacon, Flannery O'Connor and Cold War Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2005) [Posted August 2005, ALG]

30 Jun

Robert Gagnon On-line

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 06/30/01

Robert Gagnon, a guest on Volume 68 whose interview with Ken Myers is published in full on Conversation 20, "Texts, Sex, & Sanctity: Robert Gagnon on Homosexuality & the Bible," offers various resources about the Bible, the Church, and homosexuality in his web pages.

Robert Gagnon, a guest on Volume 68 whose interview with Ken Myers is published in full on Conversation 20, "Texts, Sex, & Sanctity: Robert Gagnon on Homosexuality & the Bible," offers various resources about the Bible, the Church, and homosexuality in his web pages. Gagnon is an ordained elder of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and an associate professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He site contains pdf and html versions of many of his articles, along with information about his books, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, and Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views. He has also posted entries on the Federal Marriage Amendment and legal decisions about homosexual marriage. [Posted August 2004, Amy L. Graeser]

29 Jun

The Ramsey Colloquium and Other First Things Resources

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 06/29/01

The periodical First Things offers a wealth of resources for reflecting on the meaning of sexuality and the shape that the public debate about sexuality has taken.

For a number of years, under the aupices of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, Richard John Neuhaus convened a discussion group of a number of Christian and Jewish theologians, philosophers, and ethicists to discuss a variety of timely topics pertinent to the preservation of public morality. The group came to be known as the Ramsey Colloquium, in honor of the courageous example set by the late Paul Ramsey, whose ethical wrestling on matters from the justice of war to the hubris of biotechnology has aided thousands of people still confronting some of the same questions. Members of the Colloquium included Hadley Arkes, Robert George, Russell Hittinger, Gilbert Meilaender, Philip Turner, and Robert Wilken.

In 1994, the Ramsey Colloquium published (in First Things, March 1994) a brief summary of their reflection on some of the questions then publicly debated concerning the meaning of sexuality. Entitled "The Homosexual Movement: A Response by the Ramsey Colloquim," the brief document remains one of the most concise statements about what is at stake in the changes in public policy being recommended by advocates of public affirmation of the necessity of moral indifference toward homosexuality.

First Things has consistently published a number of helpful articles on this topic. Here are several to note:

In the same issue of First Things that contained the Ramsey Colloquium, the magazine's editor Richard John Neuhaus summarized the work of the many critics of historian and homosexual apologist John Boswell. Boswell's 1980 book, Christianity, Social Toleration, and Homosexuality (University of Chicago) had a remarkable influence in revising the perception of what the Bible and the Christian tradition had to say about homosexuality. Boswell's arguments were enthusiastically embraced by many in mainline churches who were eager to endorse the gay liberation movement. Neuhaus collects a number of the scholarly refutations of Boswell's revisionist book, including the remark of scholar David Wright: "The conclusion must be that for all its interest and stimulus Boswell's book provides in the end of the day not one firm piece of evidence that the teaching mind of the early Church countenanced Homosexual activity." [Posted November 2001, ALG]

19 Jun

Slaves, Women & Homosexuals

Category: What We're Reading
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 06/19/01

In his book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, professor William J. Webb explores the differences between the Church's historical stances on slavery, the subjugation of women, and homosexual practices.

Debate about the Church's historic stance on homosexuality has intensified with the consecration of Canon Gene Robinson as a bishop in the Episcopal Church USA. Many who celebrate his consecration and welcome a change in the Church's teaching on homosexuality refer to the Church's refined positions on slavery and the subjugation of women to buoy their arguments for change. These two cultural phenomenon were renounced by the Church in subsequent cultural settings, they point out, and such should be the case with the restriction of homosexual practices; today's Church ought to lift those restrictions. William J. Webb, professor of New Testament at Heritage Theological Seminary, counters this assertion, however, cautioning that these three issues ought not be conflated. In his book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (InterVarsity Press, 2001), Webb demonstrates that the Church's restriction of homosexual practices acknowledges that the Bible's stance on homosexuality is a "transcultural" stance, unlike its stances on slavery and the role of women in society which are "culture-bound." His demonstration uses the criteria he recommends Christians enlist to determine which components of biblical text should apply today and which should not.

Since it is important that Christians live out the redemptive spirit of Scripture, they must be able to discern which values in Scripture are "kingdom values" (those that transcend culture and time) and which are "culture values" (those specific to a particular time and place). To assist his readers in this task, Webb uses the early chapters of Slaves, Women & Homosexuals to introduce a Redemptive-Movement framework for reading, interpreting, and applying Scripture. In his later chapters he uses the circumstances of slaves, women, and homosexuals in biblical times to develop the criteria of the framework. The book is divided into three sections, titled: "Toward a Hermeneutic of Cultural Analysis"; "Intrascriptural Criteria"; and "Extrascriptural Criteria."[Posted November 2003, ALG]