Saturday, February 08, 2020

Capitulating to the Culture

I don't dislike liberalism as much as people think I do.  I do dislike an idea which is near to it.  Whether it lies behind it or is derivative from it I can't fully say.  I can see arguments on both sides of which is horse and which is cart. In its hopes for relieving of suffering, and of wanting life to be as equal as possible for as many as possible, liberalism is a good thing, and its proponents usually have at least some good motives for wanting to put its programs in place. Their initial legislative efforts often had good results, picking off the low-hanging fruit of what had been going wrong in abuse of employees, unequal application of justice, racism, pollution, and many other areas where society has fallen short. When they go back to the well with further legislation, and what the role of conservatism has been in solving these problems is a separate discussion.

But I believe popular culture is dangerous to one's faith.  My first Christian teacher was CS Lewis, and he hammers this point home in a dozen places. That the adoption of causes is dangerous to the faith is explicit in The Screwtape Letters, in its section about "Christianity and..." The danger of a local or professional culture is the point of "The Inner Ring" and That Hideous Strength. In stressing the eternal over the temporary, it is a theme of Mere Christianity and oddly, The Abolition of Man. "The Weight of Glory" and "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment" teaches it, and one hardly needs to even read "Willing Slaves of the Welfare State" to see where that one is going. Other essays in God in the Dock and Of Other Worlds bear on it as well. Lewis was very conscious of how the culture one is immersed in, and the people one associates with and admires have a great, even profound influence on what we believe. He wrote to counteract that influence, as he saw it as severely undermining faith and all good thought.

I was a young man who was deeply influenced by the culture around me, enough to be its prisoner, and the shafts went home for me while reading him.  There is a method of disdaining the dominant popular culture by simply switching over to a more exclusive one.  You know, the popular culture of the intellectuals, or the forward-thinking, or of those who had cast off the shackles of their parents' culture. The cool kids, though we call it by another name when we are older. I worshiped at that shrine as I graduated from college.  I remain grateful to Lewis to this day for receiving that lesson at the proper time. I have had an ability to recognise at fifty meters the deliciousness of being One of the Special Ones ever since.

There are immediate dangers in even the rejection as well.  We cannot land nowhere, and if we cannot have good philosophy and ideas we will have bad.  We will have art, music, and literature, and we are capable of leaving the arms of one mistress for another. There are Christians who fetishise being separate from The World, and that may be a greater danger, as we now add self-righteousness to our snobbery. There was a Christian school years ago (I have heard) which set its February vacation to a different week than the rest of the state, despite the inconvenience this caused to its own teachers and students.  When challenged, they would quote Romans 12:2 "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God." KJV, of course. Yet I have found it easier to resist the fads of evangelical culture, once I had seen the curtain drawn back on the other. I do find myself patting myself on the back about it still.  Constant vigilance.

It is not merely that we will have some bad ideas hanging around in our heads and distract ourselves from the things of God.  Lewis believed that if we go down that road, we will eventually be willing to abandon anything in the faith. We might hold to a church or some customs, and tell ourselves we are not diminished, but we will be kidding ourselves.  Much of the Christian church has already ceased to attend to clear expectations for sex, marriage, and divorce.  Theology has not driven the change in practice. The desire to change practice has driven the theology.  We just don't believe those things anymore.  Not really. One of the pastors at Ben's church has mentioned that late in his career, he is becoming more involved in politics.  I thought immediately "This will be the greatest threat to your faith in your lifetime."  I say this because I have seen it.  Heck, I've done it. He is getting involved at the local level, with the schools and with the police, so it may not go so badly.  The grand ideas and sweep of events on the national and international level may be more of a snare.

Lewis was not anti-government, BTW, as is clear from much of Perelandra and the Narnian Chronicles. He liked monarchy and admired democracy, but was very sensitive to how quickly it could all go wrong.

I lean more against liberalism because it owns so much of the popular culture.  This may seem an odd thing to say with Donald Trump as president, but he is more a culture warrior for a non-liberal tribe of the popular culture than he is an intellectual conservative.  (He is very good at that, and that is very useful to conservatives, which is why they like him.) Many popular movies have conservative themes, but even children's movies now reliably contain a liberal suggestion or ten, and the movies for the Discerning Viewer are liberal.  Fiction, even genre fiction, is now politically instructive.  Popular musicians and TV personalities preach liberalism and take up its causes. Academics and journalists have their own popular cultures, which they are happy to believe are separate from the masses, and thus enlightened. 

If you go and live among them you will become like them. You will give ground inexorably, and in the end you may even join them as the social pressure increases, because you will have put your treasure in the social realm and your heart will follow. You may end up denying the faith in truth, whatever Christian decoration you continue to sport.

Who Goes Nazi? from Harper's in August 1941 is a related  phenomenon. My own comments in 2011 might also be of interest, though they are less important.


james said...

The prince of this world has servants all over the spectrum(s). Any culture devised by us sinners will have stains in it somewhere. Some cultures are objectively worse than others; but some merely have vices we're not comfortable with.

Korora said...

In this chess game between grand masters, impatient kibitzers successfully pressured White into a colossal blunder.