[This paper was first presented at Gutenberg College’s 2013 Summer Institute in response to Jack Crabtree’s paper, “How To Follow Jesus When You Cannot Kill the Beast.”]
My paper does not respond directly to Jack Crabtree’s paper, “How to Follow Jesus When You Cannot Kill the Beast,” but it arises from what Jack said. In raising the possibility that the end may be close, Jack’s paper caused me to reflect on the words of Jesus when he wondered if there would be any faith left when he returns. Several times Jesus intimates that few will keep the faith when the curtain closes on history. Whether or not the end is getting close, I would like to be among those who keep the faith.
The faith Jesus is talking about is substantive. It is not Disney faith—that is, belief that the miraculous can happen. Nor is it mere belief that God exists. Rather, it is the profound conviction that the God who made us is both just and righteous and is willing to save any and all who will embrace Him as Lord and Master. God is a good and loving God. If we value Him, then we will value what He stands for—that is, we will value goodness.
So the question I want to address is this: In a society that has turned its back on what is good, how do we keep from being swept along? How do we hold the line?
We could talk at two levels about holding the line. We could talk about how to keep society as a whole from becoming more wayward. This is an interesting and important issue with many significant considerations that we could discuss with profit. But I happen to share Jack’s pessimism on this point. I see no indication whatsoever that our society has any interest in taking God or goodness seriously. And since we all have more things we could do with our time than we have time to spend, we have to choose how to allocate that time. As I have observed our society over the past few years, I have become less inclined to involve myself in politics, and so I have elected not to talk about “holding the line” at this level.
The other level at which we can talk about holding the line is at the individual level: How do I keep myself anchored in what is good and true? I find this issue personally challenging. I think often of the experience of Lot as described in Genesis. He chose to move to the well-watered plain. At first he was camped outside of Sodom, but later we discover that he and his family have moved into Sodom itself. The dominant culture of Sodom was, using Jack’s terminology, “contrabiblical.” Lot himself was tormented by living in the midst of such lawlessness. The Apostle Peter says that Lot was “oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day with their lawless deeds)” (II Peter 2:7-8).
But whereas Lot was tormented by the surrounding culture, his wife and daughters were seduced by it. Having been warned not to look back as they fled Sodom just before it was destroyed, Lot’s wife could not restrain herself and was reduced to a pillar of salt. Lot’s daughters resorted to incest as a solution to their childlessness. So Lot paid a high cost for living in a society with no regard for God and His moral principles.
The culture that surrounds us has a huge impact on our lives and the lives of our family and friends. How do we keep from being carried along with the culture?
Unfortunately I have not solved this issue. I am bumbling along as best I am able. My goal in this paper is to sketch out the issue in greater relief by using a couple of areas of struggle from my experience. But first I would like to look briefly at the cultural change that our society has experienced over the past sixty years. That change explains much about where we are today.
I have witnessed stunning cultural change over the course of my life. First-hand experience is particularly important. A few years ago our family decided, for reasons that now escape me, to start raising sheep. Neither my wife nor I had any experience raising sheep, so we bought books to educate ourselves. I read in one book that sheep do not eat at night. A few weeks later I went out into our pasture in the middle of the night to check something. It was very dark and still. When I got out in the pasture, I heard a sound and pointed my flashlight in that direction. A half dozen sheep were staring at me and chewing grass. The sound I had heard was the sound of sheep grazing. So I know that at least some sheep eat at night. You could show me a whole stack of books that say that sheep don’t eat at night, and that would not shake my certainty.
I know what cultural change I have witnessed over the years. Some of you may be old enough to have witnessed that same change; some of you are not that old. My experience cannot replace first-hand experience for you who did not experience it, except to the extent that you deem my recollections reliable and trustworthy.
Experiencing a Revolution
I was born in 1953 in Stayton, Oregon, a small town of about 2,000 residents. My ancestors were some of the earliest settlers in the area, so a significant number of the townspeople were relatives. I remember, at the age of six or younger, walking from our house to the center of town. It was about a mile walk as the crow flies, which was more or less my route as I took back alleys and cut through yards (there were very few fences between properties). Once in the center of town I would go to the grocery store and select a few items to buy. I carried no money; the cashier just wrote down the amount of my purchase for my parents to pay later (the store was owned by a relative).
In the summer time, I would eat breakfast and then run out to play with the neighbor kids. I did not check in with my mother until lunch time, and then I was off again until dinner. After dinner I would run out for a few more hours of play. All of this was typical for the children in my neighborhood. No one showed any concern that what we were doing was the least bit unsafe.
I was taught to greet everyone I met, whether or not I knew them. I was taught that it was rude not to look each person in the eye and wish them a good day. We never locked our house or our car. It was not uncommon for me and my brothers to wait in the car while my parents ran into a store to get something. Other families did the same.
There was some crime but not much. I got a bike for my sixth birthday. Just a few days later, I failed to put the bike in the garage before going to bed. I left it on the sidewalk in front of our house. The next morning it was gone; someone had stolen it. So I know crime happened, but it was rarely a part of my experience.
There were two dark sides to my experience in Stayton. The first was the treatment of migrant workers. Stayton was an agricultural area which produced many berries and vegetables that needed to be harvested by hand. So every summer an influx of families of migrant workers would move into the area to help with the harvest. The migrants were always viewed by the townspeople with caution and suspicion; they were treated as pariahs.
The second dark side was the tension between Catholics and Protestants. The town was sharply divided along sectarian lines. Catholics went to Catholic school, and Protestants went to public schools. Catholics went to stores owned by Catholics, and Protestants went to stores owned by Protestants. The neighborhoods were all mixed so that Protestants lived next to Catholics, but in every other respect they lived separate lives.
But these divisions did not change the fact that the moral code inculcated in me and my peers was uniform and consistent. The same moral framework was promulgated and supported by church, school, media, and government. And this moral code had its roots in our Judeo-Christian heritage.
Throughout my childhood I felt safe and secure in a very stable environment. My parents were loving and happily married, and I knew they would stay that way. I was living in the town where they and many of my relatives had grown up. When I was seven, my family moved to another community where I had no relatives, but the environment was nevertheless stable and secure.
This environment began to change quite suddenly and quite significantly, however. I remember sensing the change as it happened. Everybody sensed it. To some the change was unsettling; to others it was exciting; to most it was a little of both. I can even identify the event in my life that marked the beginning of the change.
In 1964 one of my classmates let his hair grow out until it touched his collar. This was against the dress code. I can’t say for certain whether or not it was actually against the dress code because I don’t really know if there was a dress code. In the fifties and into the sixties, there were many things that people just didn’t do. Males never wore hats in a building. Children never addressed adults without saying “Mr.” or “Mrs.” People never failed to dress nicely before going into the city (for us that was Salem). This list could go on and on. One of those things that males just didn’t do was grow their hair long. So my long-haired classmate knew he was breaking a social taboo whether or not there was a dress code.
This began a steady stream of increasingly frequent and bold challenges to the existing norms. Multiple challenges to the dress code were followed by issues of student government and the right to protest. Alongside this were challenges to the moral code. Drugs became very common. In the early sixties, only the marginalized “hoods” used drugs, but when I started high school in the late sixties, I noticed an unexpected alliance of the “hoods” with some of the most popular kids. I later realized that the “hoods” were supplying drugs to the popular kids. By the time I was a senior in high school, fifteen to twenty of the more popular guys would all “go home” for lunch on Fridays. In fact, they left school and went somewhere to take drugs. After lunch, some would simply skip their afternoon classes, but others would come back to school stoned. All the students knew what was going on. Most teachers and administrators had too little experience with drugs to know what was happening, and those who knew what was going on were unable to deal with the problem effectively.
The other area of challenge to the social norms was in the realm of sexuality. Sexual promiscuity became very common and socially acceptable, which became very evident in our sex education classes. My class was among the first in our school to have sex education as a part of the curriculum. The classes were not particularly objectionable, but the class was punctuated with side comments from some of the popular kids that the teacher was unable to control. Those comments communicated to all the students that sexual promiscuity was very cool and anyone who thought otherwise was a “prude.” To call someone a “prude” was one of the worst insults that could be uttered.
Music played a huge role in the changes that happened in the sixties. The music was very attractive and strongly promoted the changes in morality that were underway. Drugs were promoted as a way to see the world through different and more beneficial eyes. Promiscuous sex was depicted as harmless fun, for example in these lyrics from a Steven Stills song: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” The propaganda value of music at that time should not be underestimated.
The changes I witnessed were mirrored in communities all across the nation. The cumulative impact of all these changes was a huge cultural transformation, a revolution.
The sixties revolution was a typical revolution. Revolutions are best at deconstructing; the thing they do worst is reconstructing. The sixties destroyed the culture that existed in the fifties. That was the goal. And Christianity was seen to be right at the heart of that culture. So the sixties had Christianity in its crosshairs. This is the origin of the antipathy towards Christianity that we still see in popular culture.
Comparing Before and After
Only in the last fifteen years or so have I seriously reflected on the difference between the environment I grew up in and the environment young people grow up in today. I have been teaching college-age students all of my adult life. In the last fifteen years, I have noticed a significant uptick in the number of students who are overwhelmed by life. They find life to be complicated, stressful, and lonely. They are paralyzed by all the weighty and difficult decisions they have to make. And they have learned to cope with life by retreating to addictive behaviors, running the gamut from drugs, alcohol, cutting, eating disorders, and pornography to video games. I am convinced that stress, instability, and insecurity are at least part of what is driving young adults to such behaviors. The cultural environment that we have created is a major factor in fostering these behaviors.
I would not argue that the fifties were perfect. I am not sure that I would even claim that the fifties were particularly good. I remember in the sixties agreeing with much of the critique of the fifties. The fifties were brutal to anyone who did not rigidly adhere to the lengthy list of social norms, and the social pressure that could be cranked up against any maverick was very intense. Everyone was forced to conform. So I do not view the fifties as the “good old days.” But the environment of the fifties seems to have been more conducive to the development of psycho-emotional health. And the question I have been tossing around in my head over the past several years is “Why?”
Having thought about this and having talked with students and tutors about this and other related issues, I think I can identify four important ways in which the cultural environment of the fifties was more conducive to psycho-emotional health. The first is the sense of stability and security the culture conveyed. The world I experienced as a child was not in flux. Divorces were an aberration rather than the norm. I could reasonably expect my family to remain intact throughout my lifetime. I did not live in fear of strangers or worry about being abducted or molested. There may have been some real dangers lurking in society, but I and those around me were either sheltered from them or oblivious to them.
The second way the culture of the fifties was more conducive to psycho-emotional health is that the world was presented in a more manageable form. Historically, the task of culture has been to present to its young people an organizational framework for making sense of the world and all its phenomena. Culture presents its wisdom, distilled over many decades, about the nature of human existence. The culture of the fifties told us the roles of men and women, told us what marriage is and how it works, limited our choices of employment, told us what was morally right and wrong. All and all, many restraints were placed on our freedom to choose. All these constraints might strike you as unambiguously negative, but this is not so. To live in an environment in which each individual must make dozens of very momentous decisions is overwhelming. It has reached the point now where even one’s gender is a choice. I have seen many young adults paralyzed with fear in the face of some of these decisions. They dread the consequences of a bad choice and prefer the safety of remaining in a limbo of indecision.
The third feature of the fifties culture that contributed to psycho-emotional health was its emphasis on self-discipline and self-control. Since the fifties emphasized conformity to social norms, everyone had to learn to control their behavior. Emphasis on conformity was oppressive, but people were trained to exercise self-control. It is good when people are able to control themselves. It is sad when people can’t bring themselves to do what they need and want to do. But that is the situation in which many young people today find themselves.
C. S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, argues that it has historically been the task of education to help young people develop what he calls “chests.” We human beings all have impulsive desires, what the ancients called “appetites.” But if everyone did whatever he or she felt like doing, it would be the end of society. Therefore societies have always seen it as their duty to help young people develop the habit of controlling their behavior; they have taught people to carefully consider their actions instead of doing whatever one feels like doing. In other words, everyone needs to have a means by which the mind can preach to the appetites. The means by which a young person is trained to have his mind reign in the appetites is called developing a “chest.” We are now living in a society in which this historic duty has been neglected. We live in a society of people without chests.
The fourth and final feature of the culture that contributed to the psycho-emotional health of children growing up in the fifties was the uniform moral code it presented. There was widespread support for this code, which was promoted in schools, churches, the media, and families. There was very little dissent from anyone. And this moral code was clearly rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. To grow up in an environment with a clear, vaguely sound standard of right and wrong was a blessing. That environment no longer exists.
Living in the Rubble
Today our children are growing up in an environment that has no shape, no structure. To steal a phrase from Karl Marx, “Everything solid melts into air.” Now very little is solid, and very little can be counted on. Broken families have become very common. The social norms of the fifties are gone, and in its place we have a “roll your own” culture. Everyone has to figure out what his or her role in society will be, what marriage is, what one’s gender is. You name it—we are on our own to figure it out. The sixties considered the culture and the structure of the previous generation as bad and sought to destroy it. We are now living in the ruble of the sixties.
This is the environment in which we find ourselves. We live in a society of confused and troubled people, and this creates a confused and troubled culture. And, like it or not, unless we were to completely isolate ourselves from it, this culture influences us all to one degree or another. It is our job to keep our heads screwed on straight, and that is a difficult job.
Living in this environment, we find our concept of right and wrong challenged at every turn. Every value we hold is raised up and examined from every angle by the issues posed in our culture. Friends and relatives, who are decent people and from whom we don’t want to be alienated, embrace contrary values. How do we deal with this?
I can identify very well with Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof. He wants very much to maintain the traditions that were passed down to him, but his three daughters each force him to reexamine those traditions. Tradition says that a woman is obligated to marry the man selected by the matchmaker. His oldest daughter has fallen in love with another man, and so she begs Tevya to allow her to marry the love of her life rather than the matchmaker’s choice. Tevya is torn between following tradition and allowing his daughter to pursue happiness. After a period of internal struggle, Tevya grants his permission.
Then his second daughter asks permission to marry. She, too, wants to break tradition. Instead of marrying a man who holds to the traditions and religious beliefs of Tevya and his forefathers, she wants to marry a secular Jew. Tevya finds himself in the same situation as with his first daughter, but this time the issue is an even greater departure from tradition. After another internal struggle, Tevya again grants permission.
His third daughter, then, wants to do the unthinkable. She wants to marry a non-Jew. Once again Tevya’s relationship to tradition is tested. This time, however, he cannot break his tradition; he cannot give his consent, and he severs his relationship with his daughter when she marries outside the faith.
Tevya’s experience matches my own. Every concession to the culture is followed by the request to make a further concession. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. On the one hand, it forces us to clarify our values ever more precisely, and it helps us to see that we need to change our minds with respect to some of our views. On the other hand, it is very seductive. We find ourselves making a whole series of incremental concessions to the culture—changes that we would not make were it not for the intense cultural and interpersonal pressures applied. It can be hard to know for sure when we are making good and necessary adjustments to our understanding of God’s values and when we are being seduced by the culture.
An example of one cultural issue that has seen dramatic change is homosexuality. When I was young, homosexuality was universally seen as wicked. Now in popular culture, homosexuality is not only seen as acceptable, but it is even seen as cool. Attitudes have changed so much that I expect that homosexual marriage will be the law of the land within the next few years. It is interesting to reflect on how my thinking has changed on this issue as the culture has changed.
When I was young, homosexuality was not talked about. I don’t think I had even heard of such a thing until I was in high school. My understanding of homosexuality was primarily shaped by the teaching of the church and what I learned from my family, but the view that I formed was for the most part consistent with the views of the culture at large. I thought that homosexuality was one of the worst—if not the worst—possible sin and that homosexuals were monsters. I don’t think anyone said that homosexuals were monsters, but that is what I came to think. And so it made sense to me that society needed to be protected and isolated from such people.
The changes in our culture caused me to reexamine these beliefs. It is now clear to me that homosexuals are not monsters; they are human beings worthy of my respect. And homosexuality is not the worst possible sin, but it is a sin, and it takes its place along with the myriad of other sins that people commit. This is not to say that it is trivial—no sin is trivial. This is just to say that it is not uniquely wicked. I used to think that Paul referred to homosexuality in chapter one of Romans because it is particularly evil. Now I do not think that is correct. Paul refers to it because it is such a clear example of how rebelliousness against God’s law results in confusion about who we are as human beings. Homosexual behavior is, from Paul’s perspective, an obvious example of confusion with respect to the created order and, therefore, a form of rebellion against the Creator himself.
Some claim that homosexuality is a condition dictated by our genes. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it makes little difference. Many wrong behaviors have a genetic component. For example, some say there can be a genetic predisposition to alcohol addiction, and this may well be, but it does not change the moral responsibility that falls on everyone to avoid dissipation. Similarly, even if there is a genetic predisposition toward homosexuality, this does not remove the moral responsibility that we all have to avoid sexual promiscuity. And just as sex with someone of the opposite sex outside of marriage is sexual promiscuity, sex with someone of the same sex is also sexual promiscuity.
However, the biggest issue for me regarding homosexuality is how I ought to relate to homosexuals. As I mentioned before, when I viewed homosexuals as monsters, it made sense that they should be shunned and avoided. But how ought I relate to people who are worthy of respect but doing something that is morally wrong? I have taken the approach that I will relate to homosexuals as I would relate to anyone else, but I will not give approval of homosexual behavior. What that means in my day-to-day relationship with homosexuals is that I don’t go out of my way to bring up the topic. I don’t force a conversation about the morality of homosexuality, but if the topic does come up, then I do not hide my convictions.
Is this the right balance? I think so, but I have to acknowledge that the evolution in my views has been due to the changes in our culture. I don’t know if I would have changed my thinking had the culture not prompted me to do so. The critical question is this: Did I change my views because the changes in culture moved me to reexamine my perspectives, or did I change my views because I was seduced to do so by the culture? That is a critical distinction.
Jack talks about an “intellectual” commitment as opposed to a “religious” commitment. I think this distinction is good and helpful. However, I am skeptical that I can always be certain that I can distinguish which is which in my own thinking. It is hard to know when a belief is based on sound reason and when it is not. Everyone is able to give reasons for their beliefs, but that is different from having beliefs that are grounded in reason. I am well aware that the pressure from culture to conform and the sheer number of voices with which one is bombarded can, in one’s thinking, resemble sound thinking.
Another sphere of my life in which I experience the tension of trying to hold the line is in the everyday decisions related to my job. Decisions with respect to the governance of the college have to be made every day. The vast majority of those decisions are of such a nature that there is no clear right and wrong, and so I go with my intuition. But I have come to question the reliability of my intuition in recent years. As most of you know, Gutenberg College has always struggled financially, but the struggle has been most difficult in the past few years. The fact that following my intuition has resulted in difficult financial straits has caused me to question my intuition, and so I have been particularly open to the ideas of others with respect to fund raising. Often people will advocate for one decision or another with equal persuasiveness. I find myself thinking that I could go either way if I would just relax my sensibilities, and maybe my sensibilities are a problem and ought to be relaxed.
The nature, the character, of an institution is manifested by the decisions that are made. Every decision contributes to that character, but no one decision determines that character; the character is manifested in the sum of those decisions. To know when a given decision—many of them very mundane—is consistent with God’s hierarchy of values and principles is very difficult. It is easy to slide away from proper values incrementally and almost imperceptibly. Often only after scores of mundane decisions do the underlying values become at all detectable, and even then one must strain one’s eyes in order to determine whether there has been any departure from sound values. This circumspection is critical, however.
When immersed in a culture that not only doesn’t support or even care about godly values, the danger of this incremental drift is heightened. The surrounding culture affects everyone, and so everyone’s senses are dulled and experiencing the constant tug to conform a little more. Any organization is made up of people affected by the culture, and those people make their contributions to the organization and have their ideas. It is hard enough to steer a straight course for oneself; it is even more difficult to steer a straight course when everyone is being tugged. Earle Craig’s paper, “We Have Met the Beast, and He Is Us,” talked about churches that lose their way. Based on my experience, I would say that any organization that is able to more or less do the right kinds of things the right way and for the right reasons is already a miracle.
Holding the Line
So what are we to do? How do we hold the line in a society that has turned its back on what is good? I don’t have any genius solutions to the problem. The most valuable thing is to be aware of dangers that we face. Beyond this I have three suggestions as to what we can do.
My first suggestion is to become more aware of the ways in which our culture affects us. When anyone is immersed in a culture, its values and perspectives tend to seem self-evident. They need not be explained or defended to be compelling. Simply because they are the values and perspectives of our culture and they are supported by our culture, they are taken for granted as true. Therefore it can be very helpful to step outside our culture and look at those values and perspectives through different eyes. It is amazing how often a cultural practice that seems just the right way to do something is easily called into question when seen through the eyes of another culture. So it is very valuable to gain an outside perspective.
There are two ways to get outside our culture. One way is to go to another culture. To pass through another culture on a train is not enough, however; to benefit from the vantage point of another culture, one must become sufficiently familiar with that other culture to be able to see life through its people’s eyes. The second way is to experience another culture at a distance. The best way to do this is to read, either books from another contemporary culture or books that help one to understand how people in the past viewed life. C. S. Lewis wrote an essay, “On the Reading of Old Books,” that expounds upon the advantage of old books over new books.
My second suggestion for how we can hold the line in our culture is to study the Bible. When I say this, I have a certain understanding of what kind of Bible study is necessary. I am not recommending devotional reading or studying the Bible for inspiration. Such approaches are of minimal value—if they have any value at all. In a time of moral confusion, it is tempting to study the Bible in order to construct God’s moral code. This is a valuable thing to construct, but it is a by-product of Bible study rather than the immediate goal. I have written and spoken elsewhere about the goal of studying the Bible, and so I will not go into great detail here. Suffice it to say that the sensible goal of studying the Bible is to gain greater clarity as to who God is and what He is up to. This is the most critical thing to understand; from this, answers to all other questions flow.
This is especially true with respect to understanding God’s moral values. I liken this process of gaining clarity about God and His purposes to the process that a child uses to understand what he ought to do in every situation in order to be obedient to his parent. Every situation is complex and unique. A child must develop an understanding of his parent’s conception of right and wrong that can be applied to every situation. To achieve this, a child must create in his mind a model of how his parent sees the world. Having constructed such a model, the child can then look at any situation that arises through the eyes of the parent. Creating a model like this is also critical to the process of understanding God’s system of values; no shortcuts can be employed to truncate this process without negative impact. So Bible study must be for the purpose of getting to know God and what He is doing. Only from this broader perspective can God’s moral code be safely grasped.
My third and final suggestion is to pray. The most appropriate prayer is very simple: “I believe; help me in my unbelief.” This prayer recognizes two very important facts. The first is that our faith is not perfected; it is always in need of becoming more solid and stable. The second fact is that we are dependent on God for developing that faith. It makes sense that if we want to be faithful to God, then we will do everything we can to bring this about; but it is very important to recognize that God is ultimately the author and finisher of our faith. Our efforts toward Him are feeble; His movement toward us is powerful. In our relationship with God, He is the one who does the heavy lifting. God is able and willing to pull us to Him. That is a fact in which we can take great comfort.
My hope and prayer is that we will be able to hold the line against evil, that we will be granted the wisdom to determine when our understanding of good and evil needs to be changed and when we just need to stand strong against the siren song of the culture. Maranatha!