Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives
Steve Wilkens and Mark L. Sanford
InterVarsity Press, 2009, 218 pp. ISBN 978-0-8308-3854-7
Wilkins and Sanford are professors at Azusa Pacific University. Several available books describe how the Christian worldview – the way we understand the world – differs from other worldviews. However, these authors point out that perspectives and habits from our culture creep into our lives and corrupt our worldview without our awareness. These worldviews are hidden in plain sight, popular philosophies that have few intellectual proponents but vast numbers of participants: individualism, consumerism, nationalism, moral relativism, naturalism, the New Age, postmodern tribalism and salvation by therapy. The authors examine the everyday expression of these worldviews, what we can learn from them and their shortcomings.
1. Worldviews Over Coffee at Starbucks
Worldviews in practice do not originate from a set of propositions but rather emerge like a story. And the story unfolds as a result of forces beneath the surface of life. The model developed by Dr. Steve Green shows worldview as an underlying story about reality (what the world is like) that gives us identity and provides a framework for our convictions which serve as the basis for our ethics (“shoulds”) and values (priorities). (19-20)
What we really believe is not always congruent with what we say we believe or think we want to believe. (21) Confessional beliefs are often at the intellectual level while convictional beliefs are reflected in our actions. “Careful worldview examination requires that we constantly hold up our convictions against the mirror of our actions to see where our confessional beliefs are incongruous with our convictional beliefs.” (22)
“It is important to integrate what we say we believe and what we actually do. This is not possible unless we live reflectively, carefully examining both our ideas and actions to see if they are in sync.” (23) Many of our convictional beliefs work on the subconscious level. We may not be conscious of them, but they are our true convictions.
Romans 12:2 envisions a transformation of our whole being. Changing behaviors alone is not transformation. It attacks the symptoms rather than the disease. A whole-person transformation works from the mind outward. (25) Mentoring, reflective fellowship, and worldview formation together can help us guard against the corrosive effects of non-Christian worldviews.
All worldviews are ultimately about salvation, even if they don’t use that vocabulary. (26)
2. Individualism – I Am the Center of the Universe
The individual is the primary reality and one’s lifestyle should be centered in oneself. Strive for autonomy and self-sufficiency. This is heavily promoted in our folk lore and woven into our cultural fabric. It is apparent in often-heard statements like, “My faith is between God and me.”
When I buy into individualism I serve as my own moral conscience. I am likely to justify my means for my ends. I think it is immoral for others to impose their standards on me. I become the authority on what is right and wrong for me. Freedom and fulfillment are my rights. The priority of personal freedom guts traditional virtues of prudence, courage, moderation and justice. My worth is determined by what I accomplish.
Individualism has a flawed view of reality and of human nature, of freedom and achievement. But it has a strong influence in our Christian culture. “We sing ‘Jesus loves me’ so loud that it drowns out the proclamation that ‘God so loved the world.’” (41)
“One of the first questions we need to ask about any worldview is, Who gets to be God? Individualism…attempts to put us in the God-position.” (42)
3. Consumerism – I Am What I Own
Scripture is clear that we are consumers and that we are to enjoy it (Gen 2:9). But the danger is degenerating into consumerism, starting with something good and making it an absolute good. Consumerism is probably the most potent competitor to a Christian worldview in our culture. “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Of course, no matter how many toys you accumulate, in the end, they are only toys.
Consumerism promises fulfillment from the things we own. Freedom, status and security are attached to objects. Note all the advertisements that promise spiritual fulfillment from material things. Consumerism promises to give us power and make us significant. It keeps score. Becoming financially well-off has become a philosophy of life. In the process people are reduced to objects to satisfy our fulfillment. Hugh Hefner made a 50-year business out of turning women into objects of gratification. This philosophy makes it difficult to value people because they are made in the image of God. Relationships become transactional, trade-offs to fulfill our needs.
Consumerism reduces everything to categories that can be resolved with wealth, leading to substitutes for the real thing, such as sex for love. We can gauge what we value by what we are most afraid of losing. Listen to advertisers: they prey on our insecurities. Remember: we are not the ultimate source or owners of what we have. God has ultimate ownership. “Our role is to use the resources of nature, but to use them wisely and with a view to the concerns of the owner.” (58)
4. Nationalism – My Nation, Under God
In the U.S., nationalism is often found in conservative Christian circles. “Nationalism is the imbalanced and distorted form of something that is good-patriotism.”
5. Moral Relativism – The Absolute Truth About Relativism and Something Like Relativism
“Those who champion the existence of moral, religious, social or political truth face a battery of objections about imposing standards on others, intolerance and charges of oppression.” (80)
Ancient thinkers all assumed truth was grounded in the supernatural. Rationality provided the route to truth because the divine is rational. When Luther challenged the church’s claim to be the ultimate interpreter of Scripture…he radically democratized and individualized access to truth. Attention shifted from what is true to how I know what is true. Enlightenment suggested that we can only know what we observe. Postmodernism questions whether we can be free from our biases about observable reality. Nietzsche suggested that truth claims are simply a means to get power over others. Truth claims are now considered presumptuous and dangerous and those who claim to know truth are oppressors and must be resisted.
People are rarely total subjectivists. Most assume that what they observe is true. Some are not really moral relativists but anti-legalists, reacting to legalists who insist on rules but seem unconcerned about people, therefore appearing arrogant and intolerant. “Something is seriously wrong when rules take priority over hurting people. … even good ethical principles can become tools of oppression when applied legalistically.” (91) [The authors seem sympathetic to this hidden worldview, seeing it largely as a reaction to Christians’ attitudes. Dlm]
Moral relativism has a number of problems. No one can live by it. It is internally inconsistent: you can’t argue that moral relativism is true if nothing can be known to be true. Justice is undermined because what’s “fair” is a matter of opinion. Relativism’s universal demand for tolerance and freedom has nothing to support it.
6. Scientific Naturalism – Only Matter Matters
All that exists is physical. The fundamental components of reality are atoms, elements, or energy. Physical matter is eternal. The universe is a closed system. The laws of nature are not created entities or purposeful but they are unchanging and without exception. Determinism rules. Everything occurs because of an intricate web of causal forces. There is no room for God, miracles or souls. Reliance on God stands in the way of real solutions. Science is a form of salvation. Naturalism claims to provide a comprehensive worldview like a religion does.
“Science provides tools for explaining what we can do, but by itself does not offer much direction about what we should do.” (108)
Scientific naturalism attributes unique powers and possibilities to humans but cannot explain why. It sets forth moral goals but provides no explanation for moral characteristics. It assumes we have responsibility while claiming that cause and effect encompass everything. While theists have to explain the evil in the world, the naturalist has to explain the good. Naturalists must stand outside the world of material forces they hope to change, but this, they claim, is impossible.
7. The New Age – Are We Gods or Are We God’s?
New Age defies definition. It attempts to actualize our dormant potential and recognize our inner divinity. Sometimes it is personal spiritual enlightenment and peace. Often it is expressed as a change that will break down the barriers of race, nationality, ethnicity, and religion to bring a universal salvation. Everything is infused with the divine and we must discover and unleash the spiritual energies within us. They are many paths to such enlightenment so each person should explore their options. Intuition is given prominence while logic is demoted.
“While New Age proponents are quite willing to take firm moral positions on corporate ethics, they are notoriously opposed to any sorts of restrictions on individual behaviors.” (128) Most people absorb bits and pieces of New Age thought from cultural trends. It’s pervasiveness in the culture is what makes it a threat. Many Christians appropriate New Age-type ideas. Christians often form beliefs or base actions on private experiences or interpretations, ignoring Scripture, reason, or tradition.
The New Age replaces the one-sidedness of materialism with a one-sided spiritualism. It envisions self-salvation. “Christianity has a different view. Salvation is salvation from sin. Our sin is not an illusion, but our real and willful rebellion against the God to whom we belong.” (134) “If we are not clear about theological differences between the New Age and Christianity, Christians may believe they are listening to the gospel when they are in fact absorbing the New Age….” (138)
8. Postmodern Tribalism – My Tribe/My Worldview
Identity is becoming more anchored in ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or some other element that has a much stronger pull than a general category such as “American.” There are strong feelings of being an underdog. What seems “safe” for one group seems “unsafe” for another group. There are expressions of pain, fear, insecurity, exclusion and maybe hostility. Tribe members share a powerful sense of identity defined by common language, meaning, experiences, ideas and a feeling that the group is necessary for survival. We have moved from “melting pot” to “multiculturalism” to “postmodern tribalism.” People are retaining their cultural identities rather than submerging them into a larger culture. It’s about getting power by those feeling disempowered. This leads to a culture of victimhood. Postmodernism elevates particularity.
Proponents are hostile to a Christianity whose claims to universal truth have been used by a dominant culture to erase particularity and conquer enemies. The social influence once possessed by Christianity in this country is being challenged. In turn Christians often react by forming their own tribes or subcultures with their own vocabulary, music, literature and educational system. “How we get along with people of different religions, races, lifestyles and nationalities is one of the most pressing issues of the age.” (152)
9. Salvation by Therapy – Not as Good as It Gets
The therapist has replaced the pastor or priest for relational and behavioral assistance. Therapy is often considered the means to the good life. The reduction of all problems to adjustment is an alternative to religion.
10. The Contours of a Christian Worldview
The foundation is more than propositions: it is more like a story about God’s interaction with his creation. The goal is to know God and in so doing to be changed. The five major parts of the story are creation, Fall, covenant, incarnation and redemption.
The creation story “tells us several important things about the world. First, our universe has a beginning; it is not eternal. Second, God intends to create, so the world is not an accident or a fortuitous convergence of random events. Since it is a created entity, the universe is not independent from God or self-sustaining. God’s ordering of creation indicates that, while regularities in the world might be described apart from consciousness of God as its Creator, they cannot be ultimately explained without reference to the god who designs these processes. Finally, because God keeps calling things ‘good’ and ‘very good’ as he creates, it is clear that Scripture does not view the material world itself as evil. Instead, creation is good; it is valued and loved by God.” (185)
Every philosopher and religion recognizes there is something deeply and universally wrong with us. The Fall exhibits the corrosive effects of our rebellion. Competing worldviews fail in part because they do not have a big enough view of this problem. Competing worldviews represent a misdiagnosis of this fundamental problem. All the solutions proposed become just another part of the problem if they are seen as the answer. We need help from outside, a savior, other than ourselves.
Every worldview is a faith system with beliefs that aim at reshaping our lives. “Where sin had once alienated us from God and his creation, redemption brings us back into partnership with God.” If the root cause of the world’s present state of brokenness and disorder is pride, redemption involves a reversal of pride. When we see our need for a Savior, we can understand the lunacy of putting ourselves in God’s place.
“At present, we do a very imperfect job of holding up our end of this partnership. …our lives are often incongruent with what we claim to believe. …we continually face the temptation to displace God from different facets of our lives. …examining, evaluating and purifying our worldviews is an ongoing journey. … Construction of our worldview is a process.” (200-201, 206)
The interpretive grid the authors used for examining cultural stories is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. It refers to four sources—Scripture, reason, tradition (the church’s interpretation and application over its history), and experience.
* * * * * *
Your comments and book recommendations are welcome.
To discontinue receiving book notes, hit Reply and put Discontinue in the text.