3 “Through Lines” of Contemporary Culture and How Living Churches Probably Shouldn’t Respond

Recently I was speaking at a church on the topic of cultural engagement. It’s a huge and complex topic. It’s also, understandably, a controversial topic. It’s controversial for a few reasons. First, there are often very controversial issues at stake, issues related to politics, sex, family, entertainment, education, and wealth to name just a few. If we fundamentally disagree on any of these topics, discussing cultural engagement on these topics is going to result in some defensiveness or conflict. It’s also controversial because of personal dispositions. To put it simply, some people are fighters, some of fixers, some are pastors, some are prophets, some have “fire in their bones” (Jer. 20:9) while others have made it their “ambition to lead a quiet life” (1 Thess. 4:11). These different dispositions sometime cause us to fall into conflict with each other about the proper way for a Christian to engage with culture. Finally, this topic is sometimes controversial because it is just so complex. What do we mean by “culture?” What do we mean by “engagement?” There are so many different ways those questions can be answered – even as we look at Scripture.

As I was introducing this topic, then, I wanted to avoid some of the specific controversies that get us stuck. Instead, I focused on what I call “cultural through lines.” These are ideas that pervade all of contemporary western culture. As such, they effect the way that we think and act every day. You can’t understand our culture without recognizing these through lines. There are probably more of these through lines than the ones I’ve identified, but there are at least three which are incredibly powerful and important.

  1. Technological thinking – Humans have always been noteworthy for their development and use of tools to make their lives easier and more efficient. What makes modern man unique is that we no longer think about our tools; we now think through our tools. Thinkers like Ellul, Heidegger, McLuhan, Borgman, Postman, and many others have all made this same type of observation. Our imaginations are now captive to our technology. We see the world through what our technology will allow or not allow. This is what I’ve come to call the “technological imperative.” If the technology exists, then we must not only use it, we must also find our place in it. Usually, this comes along with breathless demonstrations (similar to the traveling salesmen of old) showing us how our lives will be different and better the moment we adopt a new technology. We are made to think that this technology is inevitable and that we will be hopelessly left behind without it. This technological thinking transforms both individuals and institutions.
  2. Fragmentation – We live in an age where traditional mediating institutions like families, churches, schools, and local communities have lost their cultural significance. Many of these institutions have experiences significant rot and disintegration especially in the years coming out of COVID where many of these institutions were directly attacked by misguided interventions. COVID accelerated our fragmentation in ways that we still haven’t come to terms with. Our age is a time of the atomistic individual mostly alone in the world. The ties that used to bind have now loosened. Even trivial things like entertainment no longer bind us. We aren’t watching the same shows, listening to the same music, or reading the same newspapers. We have precious little common ground and few common places to gather. Our age is an age of loneliness and isolation as reflected in the heart-rending statistics below. Technological thinking gave us the false promise of connecting with others across digital platforms. Because we are so easily seduced by technology, we made the mistake of believing these claims, but we have discovered there is a world of difference between connection and community.
  3. Disenchantment – One of the hallmarks of modern, secular life is that the world has been emptied of transcendence. In other words, in our very human quest for meaning, we shouldn’t expect to find anything of substance “out there” in the world or beyond it. There is no meaning to be found “out there;” the only place we can find meaning for our lives is by looking inward. The mantra of the disenchanted is “just follow your heart.” There is simply no other place to look, and anyone who questions this truism is cast off as a bigot.

All of this leads me to the video below. It is a very interesting interpretation of the culture and the church’s (in this case, the Episcopal Church’s) place in that culture. There are a lot of things that I personally disagree with in the video. For instance, I think the Episcopal Church has deluded themselves about why they are a dying denomination. They have rightly identified that on many issues they look very much like the conventional wisdom of the world – particularly the conventional wisdom found among many young people. What they are unwilling or unable to recognize, however, is that a message which says “we are exactly like you” is not particularly compelling. Generally, people, even seekers, go to church because they are expecting something different. They are expecting to be challenged in some way. A church that affirms everything about the way I think or act is not compelling enough to induce me to wake up on a Sunday morning. The Episcopal Church seems content to offer a traditionally religious veneer to the way that people are already living their lives rather than offering them transcendent (and discomforting) truths. What they don’t seem ready to admit is that the young people they are pursuing don’t need a religious blessing; they need a religious conversion.

The real reason I’m sharing this is because of what happens around the sixth minute of the video. Remarkably, all three cultural through lines coalesce under the banner of what they call “do-it-yourself spirituality.” They have created a mobile app which allows individuals to create for themselves a more “authentic” spiritual experience. The approach obviously reflects what I’ve called technological thinking. Our experience of God, religious habits, and spiritual community must now be mediated by an electronic device. There is an urgency to the appeal. We simply must do this because don’t you know that young people are already living their lives through their phones anyway? There is hardly a thought about what is given up or sacrificed in the process. There is no concern about how digital technology actually numbs us to reality. Instead, there is only the huckster’s enthusiasm. Surely, this app will fix what is ailing our souls. The approach also fully embraces fragmentation. Mobile devices in general encourage isolation. A person hunched over her phone is the modern icon of the atomistic individual, but it is the content of the app itself which really embraces fragmentation. Didn’t you know that there are various flavors of theology? Black theology. Queer theology. Feminist theology. We are not calling you to anything in particular. We are not asking you to belong to Christ and his church. Instead, we are indulging in the fragmentation and isolation that already exists in the world. Choosing your own theology is just another way of saying, “You are alone, and we don’t really have any good ideas. The best we can offer are different perspectives that might tickle your ears.” Lastly, they are assuming that the world is disenchanted. The answers you are looking for are within. You have to cultivate your own “authentic” spirituality. The best we can offer is an app that encourages this self-discovery. (Heaven forbid we encourage the discovery of the living Lord and Savior.)

Chesterton famously once said that a dead thing goes with a stream, but only a living thing goes against it. I hate to say it, but the Episcopal Church is doing exactly what dead things do. I’m sure they genuinely believe they are being innovative; that this strategy will help save their denomination. I agree that innovation and creative thinking is important, even essential, for the church, but innovation that runs downstream of culture will not lead to healthy disciples or communities. Healthy churches are those who respond to trends with wisdom. This doesn’t mean we reject every new idea or strategy. Despite what you might assume, I’m actually a big proponent of using technology to advance the cause of Jesus in this world. I have friends who are deeply invested in projects like this. However, what I appreciate about these friends is that they possess enough kingdom wisdom that they know when to adapt and adopt strategies that sometimes go against the flow of conventional wisdom in our culture and lead people closer to fullness in Christ.

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