We should judge culture. We should examine those markers which direct a people's shared pathway. A culture can't obliterate sinfulness, but it can make types of behavior more embarrassing or difficult. It can move to the forefront those examples it wishes to emulate and reproduce. It can encourage the higher and nobler expressions of men according to the image of God in man and the excellence of God's creative work. The greater the culture, the greater its appreciation of the higher ideals in human achievements. The character of a people's accomplishments then reflect the attributes of God.
Modern American culture has set its compass in a trajectory downward, descending from the coordinates that once guided its course. What once repulsed is now admired. What was before shunned is today celebrated. It no longer forces out of sight the public displays it once scorned. From the reaches outside and above its people, our culture has retreated into the people themselves, individual self becoming the gauge for the collective life of Americans.
This series has examined various ways that our culture has arrived at its comeuppance. I recognized the demise of meaning, the undoing of understanding, and then the erosion of discernment. People in this culture behave as though they got something, very much like the society described in Romans 1. God judges by turning them over to their own lusts. They think they're getting something, when all they've got is getting gotten. What else have they gotten?
The Misrepresentation of Achievement
The United States grew out of a quality of individualism arising out of the individual's fellowship with God. Individualism wasn't focused on the person himself, but on the individual responsibility to God and neighbor. Modeled after the scriptural prototype, Americans organized in the smallest self-sustaining unit, the home. Men led their families based upon individual conscience and personal relationship with God. Their individual connection with God pertained to a larger group—the church. Alexis De Tocqueville wrote of this in Democracy in America:
In the United States, on the seventh day of every week, the trading and working life of the nation seems suspended ; all noises cease; a deep tranquillity, say rather the solemn calm of meditation, succeeds the turmoil of the week, and the soul resumes possession and contemplation of itself. Upon this day, the marts of traffic are deserted; every member of the community, accompanied by his children, goes to church, where he listens to strange language, which would seem unsuited to his ear. He is told of the countless evils caused by pride and covetousness; he is reminded of the necessity of checking his desires, of the finer pleasures which belong to virtue alone, and of the true happiness which attends it. On his return home, he does not turn to the ledgers of his business, but he opens the book of Holy Scripture; there he meets with sublime and affecting descriptions of the greatness and goodness of the Creator, of the infinite magnificence of the handiwork of God, and of the lofty destinies of man, his duties, and his immortal privileges.The character hatched from these incubators fleshed itself out in the larger good of community. An early American citizen was directed by something greater on the inside than what was outside, a trait which David Riesman, in The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, describes: "[H]e would rather be right than be president." He was willing to stand alone because his inner strength, so that he lived not by the approval or disapproval of others.
At one time, men were judged by their character and their work. Now they are evaluated by their standing with others. When men no longer look to values of the past nor to an inner core of character, they turn outward to see what others are like for a source of direction. A people that has prided itself on its individualism conforms to everybody else. The expectations of the past induce a sense of insecurity to which men now look to the crowd for alleviation. Even if he does not derive satisfaction from seeking a feeling of belonging from public gatherings, he finds it in his escape into movies and television. The internet has fed this compulsion even more by creating associations that require nothing in the way of virtue or productivity.
Achievement has been replaced by success not in the historic usage of the word. Success now means notoriety, reaching a kind of celebrity that marks acceptance. Television has aided this substitution of real achievement with fake success, not in brainwashing people, although it does that too, but in providing the means by which people can identify what to get along with. It also produces a consumer mentality in its audience. It gives them what they want, an experience they can feel. This is how advertising gets paid. And then the television show makers and their executives get the faux acceptance of entertainment. They pleased a crowd looking for pleasure.
By making achievement about acceptance and conforming to the crowd, the parties involved get rewarded for participation. This is television, radio, and now internet news today, something to repeat to someone at the water cooler to authenticate your involvement. The more preposterous or strange that it is, the more likely you are to repeat it. And so some of the most eccentric people, the people that have contributed the least to the progress of mankind make the news the most. And this new paradigm has come full circle in children's competitions, where everyone gets a trophy just for playing, even if they were regularly late for practice and didn't work hard after they arrived. You want everyone to have a happy experience. The trophy is proof that they did, akin to the scarecrow receiving a diploma.
The Proof of Misrepresentation
We see proof of the misrepresentation of achievement everywhere. The best singer doesn't need a good voice, just a skin tight costume and a willingness to touch him or her self. Music doesn't need a melody. You can make an entire career of growling out bad poetry, clipping off syllables or consonants. What's most important is this: are people watching? Accessibility is key. The poetry must be elementary and rudimentary. Form is personal and free-flowing. Your art expresses self, in touch with whatever emotion or mood or rage the "artist" happens to be having at that moment and takes out on a canvass. Even if the painting tries to look like something, it must have some popular wrinkle that will brand it for this unique niche. Schools won't educate on right or wrong but instead encourage the exploration of diverse human relations. The illiteracy rate rises, the graffiti-sullied, windowless buildings crumble, and rebellion thrives.
In no place have we seen the new paradigm in achievement revealed more than in the United States presidential election. The candidates travel the country for years making promises to the people, knowing that they'll be judged by what kind of benefits they're willing to impart. Photogenic surpasses virtuous. Smooth eclipses ethical. Voters elect someone they like. It doesn't matter if he campaigns on the right to kill the innocent unborn. His past might announce infidelity, indiscretion, and dishonesty. People are more interested in what they're going to get.
Misrepresentation in the Church
The world expects the same and even more of its philosophy of attainment from the church. Churches have eagerly conformed. Church leaders make attracting a crowd the highest priority. Rather than inspiring, influencing, or leading men to higher achievement, they condone and validate their instincts and feelings. They take advantage of consumerism by offering the same incentives as the world. Not every church accommodates the world's ideals to the same degree, but many eat at its trough. A system of doctrine has been replaced by cheap programs, techniques, and methods.
David Wells in No Place for Truth calls these church leaders "the new disablers." In this case, they've disabled true achievement. They have reduced the church to the services its offers and the good feelings it can generate. The man of God has become a manager and administrator, a professional, depriving the church of the transcendence that God expects of its people and work in fitting with the nature of God. The world of God's truth has been minimized to the practical procedures necessary to satisfy a population that functions the same on all the other days leading up to Sunday. Lessened from this is the ability of these leaders to exegete Scripture and expound theology in a way that will form the moral character of a people. The new world of church theology and practice have disengaged from each other with the program offering a surrogate religion separate from the Words of the Bible.
The new kind of corporate-pastor has diminished the preaching and practice of the church. Achievement in the church, like the world, has become about meeting the needs of religious consumers who look to the churches to meet them. In many cases, the message has been packaged in a way that the listener cannot distinguish it from his normal means of reception. Television producers market programs to an audience. The world uses music to promote its stories and products. The church offers its own brand but using very similar methods. In so doing the church enables consumerism and helps trap its participants in lower instincts away from high spiritual achievement. This reorients the church around self and alters its biblical function.
What Causes Misrepresentation
God commanded man to subdue and have dominion over the earth. Paul admonished men to work and provide for their own. Out of obedience to those commands came new inventions and machinery, fueling an industrial revolution. Most Americans lived on farms or rural communities. With industrialization, a majority of people moved to cities where factories churned out new products. Every aspect of American social structure changed to fit the new economy. The thoughtful, literate culture witnessed by De Tocqueville was gone. The wealth of the nation increased, technology advanced, and a clearer division formed between the secular and the spiritual.
The secular embraced the changes in American culture. With more mass production, more people could own devices that promised to make life more comfortable and happy. New means of marketing those products targeted carnal desires of men, encouraging impulsiveness. The time spent in household chores shrunk. A scheduled work shift left after work hours and weekends with free time for recreation and entertainment. On came theater, sports, clubs, radio, popular novels and then music, then movies, and finally television. Christians stood against modernity and church leaders preached against the changes from modernity. Churches taught separation from the world. They saw the idolatry, covetousness, materialism, lust, greed, and then spiritual indifference that modernism bred.
A major shift in representation of achievement transpired. Before the movement of modernization in America, men were valued according to their virtues and ethics. Objective standards of beauty existed outside of man's carnal instincts and desires. With the massive adjustment, outcomes were judged by how much pleasure they aroused. The Great Depression brought a trial of American discretion and sensibility. Americans chose a leader who promised the easiest way for the most people. The people and what they produced were now assessed based upon their contribution to man's pleasure and happiness. They were not required to advance the nobility or character of man in the image of God.
Television came along to take modernity to a new level. The goal of television is to sell advertising. They can charge higher prices for advertisements if more people watch the program they're sponsoring. The people who produce television shows already raise the percentages for self-centeredness. The programs they like are already morally lower than the average of the population. They play to the lowest common denominator of their audience to increase viewers, their carnal desires. They aim for pleasure. They fascinate by displaying behavior with which most people have no experience. Television programming does not elevate the human spirit to a higher standard of achievement. It finds a way to bring in the biggest audience by giving people what they want to watch.
Movie makers get their money directly from the people at the ticket window. The highest grossing films do not usually even reach the highest quality of film-making. What they have in common is that they are fun to watch. The movies that make the most money, the blockbusters, have certain aspects in common in their storyline. Screenwriter and screenwriting instructor, John Ruby, writes about the blockbuster:
Blockbuster techniques simply allow you to be more attuned to the popular audience you must serve if you want to sell your material. . . . The hero is almost always a rogue, charmer or trickster character. . . . Invariably, the trickster uses his ability with words to accomplish a scam. A scam is a plan that involves deception.Movies are not made to elevate a standard of achievement or influence toward higher human ideals. Both the audience and the producer put themselves first.
Very few evangelicals oppose the modernity that has changed how achievement is defined. They protest only when culture contradicts a very basic doctrine or encourages some blatantly godless practice. Besides that, they either see culture as neutral or a partner to adopt for their own purposes. For that reason, they have done little to separate themselves from it. There are numbers of ways that churches have cooped a new definition of achievement—size, budget, and buildings. They show how important numbers are by how they get them. Christ said, deny self, but they present a message of ease and self-gratification with their music and dress. They promote attendance with promotional give-aways. They design their buildings like theaters and the cadence and style of their sermons like stand-up comedians.
Rather than elevate discourse, a standard evangelical blog laces its speech with popular youthful expressions ("dude," "chill out") and references to popular culture. Instead of raising the discourse of people, they dumb down the conversation, which might also explain their acceptance of the shallow language translations of Scripture. Some of the same ones angry about the degradation of the emergent movement have bridged the gap for those more extreme comrades. Fundamentalists have been different, but mainly in degree. They focus their worldly strategies to get their numbers from a different demographic.
Should we separate from those who refuse to stop misrepresenting achievement? I hesitate to quote a man like David Wells, because he continues to fellowship with those who are part of the problem. However, he has given an accurate assessment of it. He writes:
It is our capacity to wrench ourselves free from the subjective preoccupation of our modernized culture (the same sort of liberation that converted pagans had to find in the early centuries of Christian life) and to occupy ourselves instead with the objective interests of the biblical.How serious is subjective preoccupation unseating the objective interests of the biblical? When men do not understand true accomplishment, how can they aspire to attain? We do great damage in blurring the mark toward which we are to press. If we want it to stop, we must penalize those who confuse the point of human existence.
Our understanding of achievement should be regulated by scriptural analysis. In this God must be emulated and obeyed in both precept and principle.