‘A Fatal Amount Of Shade’
Ken Myers, from the current issue of the Mars Hill Audio Journal:
Cultures cultivate. A culture is more like an ecosystem than like a supermarket. And human persons, as encultured creatures, are generally less like independent rationally choosing shoppers than like organisms whose environment predisposes a certain set of attitudes and actions.
Cultures cultivate. Not that our activities are absolutely determined by cultural influences. We are rational beings, not just instinctual beings. We can make choices that go against the conventions sustained around us. We can lean into the prevailing winds, but only if we know how to stand somewhere solid. Only if we are not being carried by the wind. We need to be able to imagine alternative ways of perceiving reality.
Cultures cultivate, so if we want to offset the influence of cultural systems that distort or misrepresent reality, we need more than good arguments that analyze the distortions. We need cultural alternatives that provide opportunities for participating in a different way of telling the story of human experience.
For example, counteracting the materialistic reductionism of our time requires practices that convey to our imaginations the coherent unity of matter and spirit. Challenging the assumptions that human beings are best understood and best treated by social structures as autonomous choosers whose choices provide meaning in an otherwise meaningless universe requires settings in which submission and obedience to some order of things that precedes our willing is known as a delight and a blessing.
Distorted institutions and practices can’t be confronted only by arguments. They require well-ordered practices and institutions. Resisting cultural confusion is more than a matter of thinking outside the box. We need to be able to intuit outside the box. And to encourage well-ordered intuitions to those under our care, especially our children — because cultures cultivate.
I’m surprised by how often this simple fact is ignored by people who talk about cultural engagement. There are people who are honestly concerned about one trend or another in our social life, who regard those problems as the effect of bad arguments or bad intentions, and not, as they often are, as the product of some malformation or other in the shape of lived life. So they end up using malformed tools to repair the damage caused by the same malformed tools, thinking that better ideas, or a more clearly articulated list or priorities, or worst of all, the right political leadership, will fix things. To switch metaphors, they aren’t attending to the ecosystemic causes of those problems. They are applying more fertilizer or more water to plants that are suffering from a fatal amount of shade.
I can’t say it often enough: If you are an intellectually engaged Christian, you need to subscribe to the Mars Hill Audio Journal. It is American Christianity’s most important source of serious, deeply literate cultural analysis. The current issue, No. 112, is one of the best ones in ages. Though I’m tied up with a project today and Friday, I’ll be blogging on it over the next few days. Meanwhile, if you’ve never tried the Journal, you can get a free sample for your MP3 player by going here.
To give you an idea of how host Ken Myers’s mind works, take a look at this recent interview he did with the Christian Post. Excerpt:
CP: Practically speaking, how has the church been too influenced by the broader culture?
Myers: Here’s a small list:
- The way in which the dominant role of technology in our lives promotes the deep assumption that we can fix anything;
- The way in which proliferating mechanisms of convenience erodes the virtues of patience and longsuffering;
- The way in which the elimination of standards of public propriety and manners undermines assumptions about the legitimacy of authority and deference to the communal needs; and
- The way in which the high prestige accorded to entertainers creates the conviction that every valuable experience should be entertaining.
And this is just scratching the surface.
Anyway, what do you think about Ken’s point in his introduction to the current Journal, about the insufficiency of the diagnosis that what ails us is a lack of good ideas or good arguments for them, versus a lack of the practices and structures that nurture our intuitions?