010 The World We Live In

THE WORLD WE LIVE IN

I’ve found a number of useful illustrations in The Day America Told the Truth, by James Patterson and Peter Kim (New York: Prentice Hall Press, c. 1991). According to the book jacket, the authors “set out to take the moral pulse of America in the 1991s. Using state-of-the-art research techniques that go far beyond superficial five-minute polls, they conducted [they claim] the largest survey of private morals ever undertaken in any country to unearth and quantify the personal ethics, values, and beliefs of our time.” Since I’m not a sociologist, I can’t really evaluate their research methodology, but I take their claims at face value, add some healthy skepticism bred by seeing too many statistical studies, and assume they thoroughly interviewed great numbers of people.

What they found, in brief, is that “On every front–love, marriage, and the family; religion, politics, and the community; work, leisure, and our global position–the ground beneath our feet began shifting. Yesterday’s verities had vanished. Unpredictability and chaos became the norm” (p 3). Compared with data collected in 1950, for example, the percentage of women who were virgins when they married has declined from 58% to 34%. The percentage of Americans who think religion is very important has declined from 75% to 54%. (This, I must add, does not square with recent Gallop polls, which are widely regarded for their methodological balance and precision).

“Americans are making up their own laws. In effect, we’re all making up our own moral codes. Only 13 percent of us believe in all of the Ten Commandments. Forty percent of us believe in five of the Ten Commandments. We choose which laws of God we believe in” (p. 6). Amazingly, “the overwhelming majority of people (93 percent) said that they–and nobody else–determine what is and what isn’t moral in their lives” (p. 27).

Perhaps it’s understandable, then, that crime’s far more prevalent than official statistics reveal, and that “Lying has become an integral part of the American culture” (p. 7). According to this study, “JUST ABOUT EVERYONE LIES–91 PERCENT OF US LIE REGULARLY” (p. 45) That means every week most people tell lies of some sort. “Only 31 percent of us believe that honesty is the best policy” (p. 49).

Sexual behavior has turned chaotic. “In terms of the idealized couple of the past–virgins joined in holy matrimony, faithful till death do them part–we found nothing but a shadow on the wall” (p. 73). Increasing numbers of children are sexually abused. Date rapes multiply–20% of the women interviewed said they’d “been raped on a date” (p. 128). The list goes on and on! The book rather confirms what we Christians suspect: humans sin incessantly!

One interesting aspect to the book is its geographical delineation of morality. They find clear differences between “New England,” “Old Dixie,” and “Marlboro Country,” three of the nine zones indicated. Folks in “Old Dixie,” for example rank first in believing in God, last in using drugs. The “Granary” (prairies and plains in the heartland) rank first in the number of drunk drivers, last in support civil liberties. “Pac Rim” people (Washington, Oregon, northern California) use more drugs and give less to charity than other regions.

Beyond examining geographic differences, The Day America Told The Truth focuses on topics such as “the real moral authority in America,” “the sex lives of Americans,” “American violence,” “work,” “God and other heroes,” etc. Data indicating trends, and quotations illustrating such, give the reader considerable insight into the ethical standards and behaviors widely evident in our country.

Several chapters present the study’s findings on religion. Some 90% of the people believe in God, yet not many of them take Him or His commandments into consideration when they make moral judgments! The self-described “very religious” people (amounting to 14% of the us) do, however, behave differently, live according to a higher standard. Religious people are more contented, use less drugs, more routinely tell the truth, do better work, and stay committed to their families.

At the beginning of my graduate studies, nearly thirty years ago, I read a book entitled How to Lie with Statistics, and I always keep that in mind when reading books based on polls and sociological data. They’re useful and illuminating, but probably never definitive. Such studies, like the famous (or infamous, according to your evaluation of the study) Kinsey Report usually find what they go looking for, what they design questions to elicit. Yet they often provide anecdotal insights and broader perspectives. So, I found The Day America Told the Truth both fascinating and helpful.

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Most of us know, if only on a tacit level, television has transformed our world’s cultural landscape. Yet few of us seriously probe its workings and implications for the church as well as for the broader society. Quentin J. Schultze, in Televangelism and American Culture: the Business of Popular Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, c. 1991) helps us do so. One of the authors of Dancing in the Dark, which I reviewed in an earlier newsletter, Schultze teaches communications at Calvin College and is a highly regarded scholar who’s devoted much care to the study of television. He not only watches the programs, he studies the flood of solicitations sent to those who respond to the televangelists’ appeals.

What concerns Schultze is “how and why televangelists are helping to transform American Christianity from a church into a business, from a historic faith into a popular religion based at least in part on superstition” (p. 11). Still more, he argues that “televangelism is probably the most characteristic and remunerative expression of American religion. It is the nation’s own religion, a special Protestant hybrid raised in American culture and nurtured by the mass media. Televangelism may even be the flagship of American religion, setting the style and tone of local and denominational life” (pp. 11-12).

TV “ministries” almost always share certain traits. They are “audience-supported“–since funds come viewers’ contributions the ministries must cultivate and maintain a loyal audience, so the message is tailored to please those who watch. You can easily shift channels. You write checks only when you’re happy with the presentation. Keeping the audience happy, maintaining its allegiance, becomes a preeminent concern.

They are “personality-led“–we want “stars” and “celebrities” in religion as much as in athletics and films, so successful TV preachers and singers must be attractive personalities. It helps if they’re good looking. (Knowing I planned to visit Lloyd John Ogilvie’s church in Hollywood, a lady who works with my wife asked me to see if he’s really as handsome as he looks on TV. Well, I’ve seen him . . . and he is!)

They are “experientially-validated“–few doctrines or historical traditions receive much attention, but practical, how-to-do-it-and-enjoy-it messages abound. The audience, of course, likely includes folks from a variety of theological persuasions, so you must not risk alienating any of them. Even moral stances may be muted. (One study found a direct correlation between TV viewing and knowledge of the 10 Commandments–the more religious TV watched, the fewer of the commandments were known!)

Technologically sophisticated,” TV ministries rival the best, state-of-the-art equipment and production techniques of their secular counterparts. They are “entertainment-oriented“–to keep folks’ attention you must use variety show or talk show formats and imitate the Johnny Carson’s who score with the American public. Not many Lloyd John Ogilvie type church services last long on TV. Finally, they are “expansionary-minded“–the “success” of the ministry is judged by the number of viewers and size of their offerings.

Were the above characteristics restricted to TV ministries, they might not overly concern us. But a serious problem appears when the people who watch TV programs come to the local church–and most all the folks who watch Televangelists also attend local churches–and expect TV-style religion! Early critics of TV ministries feared they would tempt people to stay away from church, but that’s not happened. What has happened is perhaps worse: TV addicts crave similar “fixes” in their weekly worship services! (Even more problematic in my mind, though Schultze doesn’t focus on it: those who never watch religious TV watch incredible hours or regular TV, and their whole attitude toward life, their basic taste in communication, has been thoroughly shaped by the medium.)

So we want messages and programs that please us–if not, we scoot down the road in search of a church which “ministers to us,” unconcerned with denominational or community ties. We demand that our singers and preachers be alluring personalities, as polished and winsome as Robert Schuller or as old-fashioned and fiery as Jerry Fallwell. We really want to be free of dogma and denominational distinctives–after all, it’s what we feel in our hearts, what enables us to cope with family problems, what provides therapeutic advice illuminating our psychological ills, which most matters. TV ministries, and TV in general, breed “Christians” who have little concern with what the Christian faith has historically considered central.

Americans have always demanded up-to-date technology, and Evangelicals, while often resisting intellectually “modern” trends, have embraced technically “modern” developments with reckless abandon. (I’m always amazed by the sound systems in churches which serve 50 people! Without a microphone, it seems, no message amounts to much!).

We’ve refused to see “modernity” as a whole, as something you cannot easily pick and choose purely wholesome dividends. We really want our church services to be entertaining. We insist our congregational plans be growth-oriented–woe to the pastor who doubts the need for a new gym of “family worship center”!

After brooding about such developments, Schultze says we must discern the “demonic” in the medium. Quoting William Stringfellow, Schultze declares that “televangelism exists in a ‘state of alienation from God, cut off from the life originating in his life, separated from its own true life and, thus, being in a state of death'” (p. 181).

Nevertheless, Schultze insists TV will not go away, nor will Televangelism. What we need to discover, he suggests in the book’s final chapter, are ways to redeem it. He thinks televangelists should be more accountable to governing bodies. He urges churches to focus more study on the medium, helping believers see how they are manipulated and thus prepare them to more wisely cope with it.

I’m not sure Schultze’s recommendations will solve the problems, but his treatise certainly helps me think about how powerfully TV dominates our culture, even our religious culture, and stimulates us to consider ways to correct or counteract its influence.

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One of the less pleasant aspects of modernity is the apparent increase of child abuse. I’m not exactly sure all the term includes, nor am I persuaded it’s as pervasive as certain sociologists and social workers (who have a vested interest in emphasizing the plight of “victims”) assert. But all of us who work with troubled people know how often their anguish lies rooted in childhood sorrows, and there’s no question that the world we live in both encourages (by dissolving families and promoting pornography) and punishes (by legal action) adults who mistreat children.

Though I’ve not read widely in this area, I found Dan B. Allender’s The Wounded Heart: Hope of Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse (Colorado Springs: NAVPRESS, c. 1990) both informative and helpful. Allender received a M.Div. from Westminster Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Michigan State University. He now teaches Biblical Counseling at Colorado Christian University. The focus of much of his study and counseling ministry has been the tragedy of incest and its resultant shame, the burden borne by victims.

Adults who abuse children exert enormous power over them. Mixing threats and privileges, cruelty and kindness, they preserve secrecy for incestuous activities. Feeling powerless, victims sink into the paralysis of “doubt, despair, and deadness” (p. 102).

Detaching herself from her pain, the abused girl becomes an “ice maiden,” inwardly disintegrating while outwardly maintaining a facade of normality. Amazingly, in part because of a degree of sheer physical pleasure felt in the sexual encounter, the betrayed victim often blames herself for her abuser’s behavior, heaping false guilt onto her sense of shame.

In time, certain consequences almost inalterable follow– depression, sexual dysfunctions or addictions, low self-esteem, compulsive behaviors such as bulimia. Safe ways of relating to others without letting them get too emotionally close run the gamut from the “Good Girl” to the “Tough Girl” to the “Party Girl.” Just as long as no one really knows the real girl, the secret’s safe, no matter how miserable it makes one feel.

In Allender’s judgment the only way out of the pit, the “biblical route to change,” demands, first of all, honesty. Various steps, demanding a thorough and rigorous examination of one’s past, uncovering all the sordid truth, must be taken. Since sexually-abused children frequently repress their memories, such honesty often unlocks towering rage as they clearly see the truth about their mistreatment. Just admitting it happened is the all-important first step.

Then repentance brings about deliverance. Repentance is not feeling sorry or asking forgiveness. “Repentance is an internal shift in our perceived source of life. It is recognizing that our self-protective means to avoiding hurt have not ushered us into real living (the reckless abandon to God that ultimately leads to a deep sense of wholeness and joy) or to purposeful, powerful relating. Repentance is the process of deeply acknowledging the supreme call to love, which is violated at every moment, in every relationship–a law that applies even to those who have been heinously victimized” (p. 202).

Though demanding, though less attractive than the “quick fix” so many victims long for, only repentance enables one to escape the fetters of the past and enter into the joy of “bold love” available to those who follow God’s pathway.

Allender’s book should help both those who counsel victims and those victims who read it. In my judgment, Allender accurately diagnoses and cogently prescribes treatment for one of the devastating emotional cancers gnawing away at all too many people.

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The proliferation of “addictions” and of “recovery groups” to deal with them certainly marks the contemporary cultural and religious scene. Good things often lose their substance when fragmented too widely, and fads easily corrupt worthy ideas. So I’m not sure if Toxic Faith: Understanding and Overcoming Religious Addiction (Nashville: Oliver Nelson, c. 1991), by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton pushes the “addiction” theme too for or not. But it does, at least, make some points worth pondering.

When Christian “faith” is pushed to extremes, it turns toxic. This is best seen in such exotic practices as snake-handling rituals, but it appears as well in the presumptuous claims and assurances of some who promote faith-healing and name-it-and-claim-it prosperity advocates.

“Toxic faith is a destructive and dangerous relationship with a religion that allows the religion, not the relationship with God, to control a person’s life” (p. 31). When God’s “gifts” take center stage, one’s religion easily shifts to self-aggrandizement and God himself is reduced to a great Supplier of goods.

The authors delineate “twenty-one toxic beliefs of a toxic faith.” The list includes such things as “conditional love,” “instant peace,” “guaranteed healing,” “monetary rewards,” a “spiteful God,” “irrational submission,” and a “pollyanna perspective.” Embracing beliefs such as this, the faithful shape a religion which easily becomes an addiction, involving such things as “compulsive churchaholism,” fixation on Scripture and its memorization, and the tragic loss of God who gets shouldered aside by incessant religious activity.

After describing the stages through which one becomes an addict, the authors seek to identify characteristics of a toxic faith system. They point to such things as “authoritarianism” (often under guise of “spiritual leadership”); incessant church activities; comfortably settling into a group containing a high percentage of troubled souls (isn’t it interesting that the Church is today often considered a hospital rather than an army?); legalism; and the tendency to negatively label and despise those who don’t share the intensity of one’s religious devotion.

Such toxic faith poisons both its possessor and those close to him or her. It also subverts and destroys authentic Christianity. It’s an enemy to be fought!

Concluding chapters suggest ways to treat addicts, for recovery is in fact possible. They also list characteristics of a healthy religious faith, life-giving and free of obsession, which Christians have a right to experience.

The book’s packed with case studies, anecdotes, quotations, the kind of stuff we preachers can use to illustrate sermons or as references when counseling individuals. I find the material interesting, though I doubt “toxic faith” is the Church’s main problem. Few folks I see, church-goers included, have more than a passing interest in church, must less a pressing addiction to all its programs. But the authors make a point, a point worth pondering, and they do so in an interesting way.

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