020 Culture Wars?

Few of us, I think it’s safe to say, question the truism that contemporary culture chatters like an activated geiger counter, emitting danger signals, signs of ominous decay if not collapse. But finding thoughtful analyses (rather than off-hand journalistic impressions) of the situation is frequently difficult. Just as he did in an earlier work, Evangelicalism (which I reviewed in “Reedings” #1), James Davison Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, has rendered us sizeable service in Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, c. 1991).

Davison begins his book with some pointed portraits of American citizens deeply divided over such issues as abortion, homosexuality, and public school curricula. On both sides (folks he labels “orthodox” and “progressive”) of such issues you find passionately committed individuals who, unfortunately in Davison’s view, generally hurl anathemas rather than listen to each other. Indeed, they generally “talk past” (p. 131) each other.

The issues are important! They merit passion! “But these differences are often intensified and aggravated by the way they are presented in public” (p. 34). They need to be honestly discussed lest they divide this nation’s body politic, for “At stake is how we as Americans will order our lives together” (p. 34). You suspect Davison fears this nation might divide, as it once did in the Civil War, over irreconcilable moral positions.

The chasm dividing the nation is easily discerned. There are the “orthodox” and the “progressives.” Folks committed to “orthodoxy,” Davison says, share an allegiance to “an external, definable, and transcendent authority” whereas those committed to “progressivism” embrace modernity and tend “to resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life” (pp. 44-45). For example, “orthodox” persons generally label premarital sex “morally wrong” whereas “progressives” often condone it.

These moral and religious convictions are increasingly influencing the political agenda–as was evident in the 1992 Republican Convention. Indeed, one survey found “that the relative embrace of orthodoxy was the single most important explanatory factor in sorting out variation in the elite political values,” counting for more than such things as “social class background, race, ethnicity, gender, the size of the organization they work in, and the degree of pietism by which they individually live” (p. 97).

Consequently, you increasingly find “orthodox” Protestants feeling more akin to “orthodox” Catholics and Jews than to “progressives” in their own “household of faith.” Denominational loyalties have rapidly eroded–something most of us (at least on college campuses) have noted.

Concurrently, there have appeared a multitude of special- interest and critical-cause para-church organizations. One the one side you find James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family,” while on the other side you find Norman Lear’s “People for the American Way.” They’ve mastered the techniques of modern media–radio, TV, and especially mass-mailings. There’s little love lost, or dialogue between, supporters of such polarized positions! They are, in fact, “competing moral visions” of what this nation should be. (And their very survival demands they stress the extremes that isolate them from all but the resolutely faithful!)

They differ on the reading of American history. To a number of Evangelical Protestants, the U.S. was providentially conceived and guided–a theme celebrated by Peter Marshall and David Marvel in The Light and the Glory. We were, and ought to be, they argue, a religious people. A biblical faith enabled our Founding Fathers to establish free institutions which, perhaps more than anything else, encourage free enterprise capitalism.

By contrast, the progressive interpretation of U.S. history insists “that secularity was the dominant trait of American society” (p. 113). In the opinion of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., “‘The American mind is by nature and tradition skeptical, irreverent, pluralistic and relativistic’; elsewhere he says, ‘Relativism is the American way'” (p. 113). That’s the voice of Harvard University and the Kennedy Camelot!

Whereas the orthodox define “freedom” economically, the progressives define it socially (e.g. permissive sexuality); the orthodox define “justice” socially (criminals should get what’s due them) while the progressives define it economically (welfare should provide all for all).

Both sides, of course, appeal to “moral” authorities! But they look to different authorities! The other-worldly orthodox trust “a dynamic reality that is independent of, prior to, and more powerful than human experience” (p. 120). The this-worldly progressives root their ethics in a faith in human experience, education, personal conviction.

Both sides have, consequently, increasingly resorted to warlike strategies. Intolerant, biased, vicious assaults and character assassinations have characterized both groups’ public pronouncements. Discrediting and defeating one’s opponent has become the chief objective the culture wars–in this arena, it’s total war! Consider the Clarence Thomas hearings. Consider the recent election. Thoughtful discussions of substantive issues frequently get lost in the innuendos and aspersions loosely tossed about like hand grenades.

The primary “fields of conflict” where the war’s being waged are these: family; education; media and the arts; law; and electoral politics. Davison details the struggles going on in these areas, then gives a “parting note”: “the culture war is rooted in an ongoing realignment of American public culture and has become institutionalized chiefly through special-purpose organizations, denominations, political parties, and branches of government. The fundamental disagreements that characterize the culture war, we have seen, become even further aggravated by virtue of the technology of public discourse, the means by which disagreements and voiced in public. In the end, however, the opposing moral visions become, as one would say in the tidy though ponderous jargon of social science, a reality sui generis: a reality much larger than, and indeed autonomous from, the sum total of individuals and organizations that give expression to the conflict. These competing moral visions, and the rhetoric that sustains them, become the defining forces of public life” (pp. 290-291).

Yet the country is not as polarized as it may seem. Our cultural enemies may not be as wrong-headed as they seem. The issues may not be as simple as they seem. If I’m reading Davison rightly, he seems to suggest that if only we’d turn off the TV and walk across the street and talk to our neighbor we might get a better perspective on the common life we all should value. If only we’d ignore the direct-mail solicitations and deal with the people and needs in our local congregations, perhaps we’d be more in touch with the real issues, ones we can actually affect, those we need to deal with rather than shout about!

* * * * *

For a decade Jerry Johnston has been working with America’s teenagers; he’s spoken to four million of them in some 3,000 schools and written books such as Why Suicide? and Going All the Way: The Real World of Teens and Sex. In his latest publication, he asks a good question: Who’s Listening? What Our Kids Are Trying to Tell Us (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, c. 1992).

In his supportive foreword, Josh McDowell (like Johnston a veteran of interacting with young people) pinpoints the book’s focus by saying: “In my years of working with young people, I can honestly say that most of the serious problems associated with teenagers could have been averted with properly expressed parental love. Most of the kids who went over the edge into sexual promiscuity, alcohol and substance abuse, or other aberrant behaviors could have been saved by a loving mom and dad who spent more time listening” (p. 9).

Johnston himself has listened and “learned that kids live in a world completely different from the world their parents lived in as teenagers. I’ve learned that pressure to use alcohol and other illegal drugs is almost impossible to stand up to–that girls almost he same age as my daughter have experienced group sex–that satanic rituals have attracted the attention of hundreds of young people–and that suicide has become an attractive option for far too many kids” (pp. 15-16).

Yet, perhaps, even more tragic is the underlying reason for such self-destructive behavior. All too many “teenagers feel as if no one cares about them–that no one is listening” (p. 16). The “no one,” basically, refers to their parents! Johnston gets thousands of letters and phone calls from kids who just want to be heard. They’ve had enough preaching. Parents usually preach well to their kids! What they need is a loving ear.

Given that focus, Johnston structures his book in accord with subjects aired in letters he’s received, teenagers’ concerns about suicide, family problems, violence, homosexuality, alcohol, abortion, drug abuse, satanism, pregnancy, rape, and mental/emotional illness. Finally, he lists “twenty prescriptions for effective communication with teenagers.”

Our kids are killing themselves. In the last forty years, suicide has surged from the fifth to the second cause of teenage death. “Ten percent of teenage boys and 18% of teenage girls have attempted suicide” (p. 22). Such kids explain that “their parents don’t care–that they never have time for them; that they never listen” (p. 23).

Family problems are breaking our kids’ hearts. “The American family has broken down, and our kids are trying to pick up the pieces” (p. 32). They long for happy, healthy homes, but working moms and dads just don’t seem to have the time or interest necessary to build the secure fortresses they need. And in the process our kids have grown frightened, sad, lonely, angry, and confused.

Then there’s violence. Schools are often battlegrounds rather than scholarly havens. TV acerbates the problem: “The National Coalition on Television Violence reports that by the age of eighteen, a child will have seen 200,000 violent acts on television, including 40,000 murders” (p. 43). Unfortunately, too many adolescent males confuse a pretentious and often aggressive “macho” with the authentic masculinity they actually crave. Add alcohol to the mix and you compound young peoples’ problems. It’s the “nation’s number one drug problem” (p. 70). Yet it’s cleverly touted– “by age eighteen the average teen has seen 100,000 beer commercials on television. and the message those commercials send is always the same–that alcohol makes life better” (p. 71). In fact it makes life worse, and kids get addicted not because they enjoy it so much but because they’re bored with life and find alcohol dulls the pain.

Kids struggle sexually. Some slip into homosexuality, others get pregnant and have abortions, others develop Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Incest and rape add indignity and pain to the picture. Many kids barely enter puberty before they’re sucked into a highly promiscuous adolescent sub-culture where it’s expected that one be “sexually active.” Christians who imagine such behavior is restricted to the non-Christian world need to face the fact that kids in our churches are about as sexually active as their unchurched peers!

Such activity is understandable in light of the models we give our kids! Advertisements on MTV and the pages of Rolling Stone appeal to youngsters’ sexual hungers. TV sit-coms push the theme that “it’s time to quit being a virgin” (p. 121). Song lyrics blatantly promote casual sex. Against such slick, moneyed promotionalism, the only hope for a youngster’s wholesome sexual development is close, caring contact with healthy parents. But unfortunately, the parents are usually absent! So the kids watch TV and go to the Mall to buy whatever promises to augment his or her sexual appeal!

While I’ve mainly illustrated the problems Johnston discusses, the book seeks, chapter by chapter, to advise parents on ways to deal with them. The “answers” are summed up in a concluding chapter, “twenty prescriptions for effective communication with teenagers.”

Basically Johnston urges parents to be attentive, noticing behaviors as well as words, to listen carefully, to take time just to be with teenagers. “If somebody asks me how a teen would spell the world ‘love’ for his parents, it would be T-I-M-E” (p. 153). It’s also important to trust kids, to allow them to fail without undue criticism, to praise their efforts and achievements, and to pray with them about their concerns.

This book reads easily and contains much information and advice which parents (and teachers and pastors) need to read and heed!

* * * * *

Fourteen years ago Jerry Mander published Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, a broad-side assault on the medium by a man who had for years written advertisements for it. He decided it was, unredeemably, a malignancy eating away at the soul of man and called for its demise. As an insider, he wrote about what he knew, first-hand, and produced an insightful work.

Now he’s broadened his target and issued In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations (San Francisco: Sierra Books, 1991). He acknowledges he’s sought to combine two books he’s been writing (one on technology, continuing his argument in Four Arguments, and one on Indians, bringing into the present Dee Brown’s thesis in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) into one. Whether or not the two should have been fused is a debatable question!

First, he addresses “questions we should have asked about technology,” the bete noire of modernity in Mander’s judgment, and “the inevitable direction of megatechnology” which seems intent on depriving us of our dignity and the planet of its life. What began as an innocent extension of the tools with which humans survive on the planet has become a Frankenstein (a monster composed of such technologies as television, computers, and corporations) which is out of control.

Mander grew up with the booming technology of the past 50 years, an era which accepted the notion “that technological innovation was good, invariably good, and would be the principal means by which our society would solve its problems and produce a better world” (p. 23). For years he, like most of us, mindlessly embraced its ethos. Unfortunately, if we honestly face the emerging environmental crisis, we now must wonder about that decision. Perhaps we’ve taken the wrong path!

The right path, Mander believes, was charted long ago by native peoples. “Since the beginnings of the technological juggernaut, the only consistent opposition has come from land-based native peoples. Rooted in an alternative view of the planet, Indians, islanders, and peoples of the North remain our most clear-minded critics. They are also our most direct victims” (p. 195). With that assertion he begins Part III of his book, “Suppression of the Native Alternative.”

Mixing historical and contemporary data, he weaves together an impressionistic tapestry of enthusiastic endorsements for the ancient Indian way of life. “Indians are different from Americans,” he insists: they differ economically, politically, culturally, religiously. In Mander’s eyes, such “differences” are marks of superiority! Without apology, he joins the highly romanticized celebrants of the “Noble Savage” such as portrayed in the film “Dances with Wolves.”

Their “stone-age economics” provided tribal peoples ample leisure as well as material subsistence with a minimum of toil. Says “the late anthropologist Peter Farm: ‘The fact is that high civilization is hectic, whereas primitive hunters and collectors of wild food . . . are among the most leisured people on Earth.’ And, says Farm, ‘they re among the best fed people on Earth and also among the healthiest'” (p. 255).

Politically, Indians gave us the model of non-coercive, participatory democracy. The Founding Fathers of this nation, Ben Franklin and John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, to name some, clearly admired certain aspects of Native American political philosophy. Unfortunately, the political system which has triumphed here is far from the Indian model.

While I share many of Mander’s convictions (as you all know!), I’m less than satisfied with his presentation. It’s clear, to me at least, that he takes his own ideals and diligently searches until he locates convincing illustrations of such in Indian culture. So, though he points out some important Native American traits, he subverts his case through exaggeration and warped perspectives. Warring against destructive “stereotypes” which he thinks have injured Indians, he embraces his own set of stereotypes which may be equally destructive!

Part IV of the book, “World War Against the Indians,” deals with contemporary affairs, struggles by native peoples in Arizona, Nevada, Alaska, Hawaii, and other areas around the world, to retain their lands. Anyone unfamiliar with the life-and-death issues, when powerful corporations and nations join to deprive ancient residents of lands and resources, will find this section enlightening . . . and discouraging!

Finally, in an “epilogue,” Mander urges us to recover some Indian perspectives, to go back to a more Indian-style way of life. He claims to find, because more and more people express increased interest in Native American history and culture, hopeful signs of such returning! If only things were that simple! If only something actually resulted from millions of chic multi-culturalists trooping to the theater and feeling politically correct while watching “Dances with Wolves”!

Though I found the book worth reading (if for nothing else than its interesting, at times shocking and outrageous anecdotes and details), in my judgment In the Absence of the Sacred is fundamentally flawed.

It clearly raises important issues! I can think of no more pressing task than restraining and rightly directing our technological monolith. That there’s priceless wisdom and healthy environmentalism to be found in Native American traditions I’ll be the first to assert! But if you want to think through the really essential questions of technology you’ll find Jacques Ellul a more probing and enlightening guide. And if you’re concerned with Native American history and cultural contributions, the recent studies of Jack Weatherford are more balanced and trustworthy.

So this book’s worth pondering, but not a trustworthy guide!

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