Where is the Hope?

Ross Douthat, writing in 2012, could have waited just a few more years before penning Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics to include forthcoming distressing events, nicely rounding off his jeremiad observation of Christian decline in the United States. In a few  years he could have included on his list the increased reports of shootings (police against citizens and vice versa), the bankruptcy of the city of Detroit, the U.S. Supreme court striking down DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) which eventually led to gay marriage being the law of the land. Add to that the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch on duty who claimed self defense in the shooting death of an unarmed black teen named Trayvon Martin, stoking renewed racial tensions causing several riots in other cities with demands of justice.

Another critical event Douthat could have included in his book had he waited is the rapid decline in sexual mores. In the 1960’s, the idea was to liberate sexual constraints in the name of progress. To simply say that has changed is an understatement. Since the legal adoption of gay marriage in 2015, our culture now entertains issues of transgenderism, gender dysphoria, non-binary, gender reassignments, etc. The language surrounding this particular issue is confusing, even to experts.

Douthat’s observation of culture decay in the U.S. is a sobering reality that ideas do have consequences. However, and I confess, having studied apologetics at a graduate level, most of my conclusions explaining Evangelical drift is from a social context that seeks to define truth in relativistic terms or an outright rejection of the existence of god. i.e., atheism. Douthat on there other hand is keen to discern that this is not always the case:

“The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul.”1

James Davison Hunter in his book To Change The World makes a convincing case that our cultural challenges cannot be mitigated through a simple “change of hearts and minds”2 either. Hunter, I believe, overstates his case because in the end he advocates for a “faithful presence within” mindset which is itself an indication of a changed heart and mind. Other experts chime in with their panacea. Rod Dreher proposes that authentic renewal “will have to happen in families and local church communities,” a grass-roots movements retreat, harkening back to the days of the Benedictines in the 10th century, forming communities that extolled the virtues of order, work, prayer, hospitality and a balanced view of life.3

I had a chance to interview Timothy Muehlhoff, professor of communications and author of Winsome Persuasion: Christian Influence  in a Post-Christian World. He wrote the book partly in response to Deborah Tannen’s description of our current culture as being the argument culture. Argument culture according to Tannen is a disposition “that urges us to approach the world, and the people in it, in an adversarial frame of mind.”4 I asked him what he thought would be effective in helping turn culture around. He said the solution is for believers to start showing neighborly love and compassion.5 This is easier said than done, but is there any better way? After all this is exactly what the Lord commands of us. In chapter three he expounds specifically what neighborly love and compassion looks like.

Ross Douthat, Os Guinness, Rod Dreher, James Davison Hunter, Vincent Miller and other Evangelical leaders offer timely humble answers to our post-Christian world problems. We may see things get better with the coming generation or not. But we must never lose hope. Even as a self-identified pessimist, Douthat offers great hope:

"In The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton describes what he calls the “five deaths of the faith”—the moments in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed to either perish entirely or else fade to the margins of a post-Christian civilization. It would have been natural for the faith to decline and fall with the Roman Empire, or to disappear gradually after the armies of Islam conquered its ancient heartland in the Near East and North Africa. It would have been predictable if Christianity had dissolved along with feudalism when the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance, or if it had vanished with the ancient regimes of Europe amid the turmoil of the age of revolutions. And it would have been completely understandable if the faith had gradually waned during the long nineteenth century, when it was dismissed by Marx, challenged by Darwin, denounced by Nietzsche, and explained away by Freud. But in each of these cases, an age of crisis was swiftly followed by an era of renewal, in which forces threatening the faith either receded or were discredited and Christianity itself revived. Time and again, Chesterton noted, “the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs.” But each time, “it was the dog that died.”6

And yet our best hope is Christ.

"I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."7

Solitude in Journaling

I still remember vividly the time when one of my colleagues looked at me with derision when I mentioned nonchalantly that I did not have my phone with me. She had texted me just a few moments prior and had expected a quick response. I do not recall the content of the message but to her it was urgent and therefore important.1 I was stunned by the look of bewilderment in her face upon learning that I had left my phone unattended somewhere in the office. After that awkward moment, I realized then that I had come face to face with what Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World identifies as a person hooked on the “digital attention economy.”2

The demands of life in our modern world are difficult enough without the added pressure of constantly checking our digital devices for updates. This is one of the reasons I have learned early on to adopt a lot of suggestions in Newport book. He calls for more people to join the Attention Resistance3, to be more minimalist in their adoption of technology.

Perhaps the best tool or discipline that has helped me personally to remain focused on the important things in life, while at the same time help mitigate the constant distractions from social media is journaling. Newport calls this the practice of writing letters to yourself. He writes on Moleskin journals; I type mine on a document on my laptop. He writes topically; I write about my random thoughts at random times. He writes to himself on an irregular basis; I try to write regularly. Some of his writing gets included in published works; mine will never see the light of day.

I have maintained an electronic journal since 1989, right around the time the Mac was invented. Transitioning from the typewriter, in which a lot of my college papers were written, to this new invention whose primary benefit at the time was its ability to save work and allow editing was a treat. It was also during this uncertain period of my life that I decided to adopt the discipline of journaling. Most people who journal write using the traditional method—pen on paper. I do mine on a Word document I keep on the cloud. That is intentional. I have given some thought about my preference of typing my thoughts on a computer because it provides some advantages. This is in deference to Newport’s admonition to ask this question before adopting new tools: “is this the best way to use technology to support this value?”4 In my situation, the answer is yes. The value is in my ability to search the past more easily and systematically. I share some of those values here.

Format: Every new entry starts with the date and time. The date and time helps me locate and situate myself in history. I want to be able to capture the moments of my thoughts. This way I can better compare how I felt and imagined certain things between periods of my life. Did I mature in my thinking over time? Have I become a better person compared to a year ago?

Setting: Here I describe the place where I am, the weather and other relevant events around the time of writing. Again, this helps me not just get reacquainted with my state of mind, but helps me recall how I felt, getting connected emotionally with the content of the entry. I spend time trying to describe in detail where I am sitting, the room I am in, the noise level, the colors of the room, the people around me or absent from the place. Is it sunny, cloudy, raining or humid, etc. All these descriptors help me relive those moments, good or bad.

Content: Since I have determined in advance that this journal is not going to be shared with anyone I am free to include anything without fear of being judged. This is between God and me. I have no restrictions as to whether I write formally or informally; coherently or incoherently. I incorporate my best ideas and half-baked ones, joys, despairs, prayers and answers to them, lessons I’ve learned and habitual sins I struggle with. Most of the time it’s crying out to God for help.

Practice & Solitude: Writing is not only a good skill to have, but it is indispensable for leaders. Good leaders communicate constantly and clearly to their constituents, keeping them informed of goings on at the organization. I have found it extremely helpful to accustom myself to the habit of writing, expressing my thoughts and ideas to keep me mentally, spiritually and emotionally sharp. Since solitude is more about what is happening in the brain5 as opposed to the environment around us, writing gives me the space to be creative and explore original thought.

Cal Newport has given us shape and form to some of challenges of our hectic modern lives. He asks us to always check our value system, is what we are engaged in shaping us into better people, contributing to human flourishing? In a Christian context, are we doing things that contribute to loving others as ourselves? To be a digital minimalist is to say like the Apostle Paul said “…but I will not be enslaved by anything…”6

Undulating VUCA

Reading Jennifer G. Berger and Keith Johnston’s Simple Habits for Complex Times brought back bad memories and good ones as well. Bad because of the avoidable mistakes and anxieties in leadership I had made years ago when I managed a university campus bookstore; good because of the lessons learned.

At the height of my career I was on top of the campus retailing world. I was innovative, charismatic and confident about my profession. I was respected among my colleagues, traveled to take part in industry conferences and made real contributions to constituents. They even elected me to serve on boards and eventually ascended to the position of president of our state association. I enjoyed recognition and influence, which in the end, and in retrospect amounted to nothing more than an illusion.1

Prior to the internet boom and before e-commerce was even a word, college bookstores were prominently part of the university landscape and ethos. Not only was it the only place to purchase textbooks and myriad of university logo tchotchkes, it provided a whole lot of intangibles as well, i.e., school spirit, social connections, etc.

In 1994 Jeff Bezos founded Amazon.com. As the popular aphorism goes, the rest is history. The writing was on the wall. At that point it was only a matter of time before the publishers, along with the bookstore industry would struggle to reinvent itself. It was a tumultuous period to say the least. Many bookstores could not compete and had to close. Some got leased to larger conglomerates that provided the market share and margins just to survive, much less thrive.

In the midst of all of this, the bookstore I was managing employed best practices, lowered prices to remain competitive while providing great service and selections. Despite our best efforts, leadership decided to lease our college store to a third party vendor. I was crushed. Looking back I’m convinced we did not have all the data to make a wise decision. The only thing that ran through my mind was “who is to blame.” I did not know it then, but my mind set as a leader was naive and immature, arrogantly thinking I had it together. Berger identifies this form of mind as “self-sovereign.”

The world is a volatile place and this is out of our control— nothing can be done. Ambiguity is the fault of the leaders, who should have the power or the good sense to make things clear. Complexity is mostly unseen. When people talk about interconnections or shades of gray, the self-sovereign mind may well reject those ideas as absurd (or intentionally misleading) ways to somehow make the situation come out to that person’s advantage.2

In an ironic, undoubtedly, providential turn of events, my bosses thought it was good to put me in a cohort-based leadership program at the university. Everyone in the group knew what was going on with the bookstore, and it was one of those elephant in the room type of thing no one dared bring up. I had mixed feelings but felt affirmed because my leaders remained confident in my abilities. One of the most important things I gleaned from being part of the leadership cohort was the importance of diagnosis. This is akin to Berger’s idea of asking different questions; not the kind people ask in the hopes of funneling the other person to the preferred answer. Highlighting the importance of diagnosis, Ronald Heifetz in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership says that “The singly most important skill and most undervalued capacity of exercising adaptive leadership is diagnosis.”3 As leaders we are prone to action, but experts are saying we must stop and see the bigger picture first.

As I mentioned in the beginning, there were good memories as well. Good, not in the sense that I enjoyed the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA).4 Not at all, however, what I did take away from the experience was the importance of looking for the learning moments.5 That is what kept me sane. I considered that time of my life a “wilderness” period, uncertain of the future, where rational things seemed no longer to make sense. Was the transition into leasing smooth? Was it even the right decision? If there is another important lesson learned, it is the fact that these are not the right questions to ask in a complex system.

The Gospel Revisited: Charting a New Way Toward Culture Change (Part 2)

In my last blog post I sought to bring to the fore some of what ails our beliefs and behaviors of Christianity in the West but more specifically in the United States today. In this post I would like to continue where I left off; and that is to offer a hopeful way forward for the faithful.

Hardly any Evangelical leader today would argue that we are currently living in a post-Christian and post-truth culture. In the last ten years we have seen a myriad of books that have been published to counter the cultural slide; titles such as Renaissance by Os Guinness, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option and To Change The World by James D. Hunter come to mind. These modern day prophets, in their speaking and writing have warned, consoled and provided a new fresh way to view the world in the context of Christianity today.

If we grant the premise that we ultimately are what we love1, our understanding of how culture’s devolvement may simultaneously help us recover a proper vision of God’s kingdom. It is this understanding, an awareness, that counts as the first step.2 To illustrate this, one of the joys in my life has been teaching my son how to play competitive tennis. My family encouraged this sport in him as soon as he began walking and after years of practice he now is able to keep up with college-level tennis players. However, every once in a while he experiences a bad streak in his game in which his forehand strokes, his main competitive advantage, fail him — and fail him badly. When this happens I, as his coach, would tell him two things: (1) explain the mechanics of his stroke, what makes it work and what causes failure; and (2) physically demonstrate the proper correction, a slight tweak in how he grips the racket in order to hit the ball with enough spin and pace.

This analogy highlights two important things in our approach if we are to redeem culture for Christ: belief and behavior. This dynamic tie in respectively to the two things I mentioned above. Belief here is defined as propositions that are true and justified. It’s what counts as knowledge. Behavior on the other hand is the practical way in which one acts or conducts oneself. No one doubts the ineluctable relationship between belief and behavior in the sense that proper belief produces proper behavior. Taking this further, the common view argues that to correct a bad behavior one must correct the bad belief. This is an idealized way of looking at connection but we know this is false. Because if this were true we would not be discussing culture decay. James D. Hunter astutely observes:

Consider, first, the fact that communities of faith have been a dominating presence in American society for the length and breadth of its history. There is some evidence that suggests that there are even more Americans who are worshipping as part of a congregation today than in the past.1 As late as 1960, only 2 percent of the population claimed not to believe in God; even today, only 12 to 14 percent of the population would call themselves secularists. This means that in America today, 86 to 88 percent of the people adhere to some faith commitments. And yet our culture—business culture, law and government, the academic world, popular entertainment—is intensely materialistic and secular.3

For far too long we have fought the culture wars with more education (belief) at the expense of forming behavior, thinking that if we only taught a generation rightly all will be well. We forget that in the politicization of education, it is downstream from culture as other social structures are. In other words, our educational system, institutions curriculum, frameworks, organizations, etc. are a result of the forces that have shaped culture. Perhaps the solution may be found in shining a light to the oft-neglected part of the equation: behavior? Rick Warren, pastor and author of The Purpose Driven Life, expresses this sentiment concisely in a statement he has often repeated:

I’m looking for a second reformation. The first reformation of the church 500 years ago was about beliefs. This one is going to be about behavior. The first one was about creeds. This one is going to be about deeds. It is not going to be about what the church believes, but about what the church is doing.4

Warren is absolutely correct in his invitation and challenge to this generation. We know why, but do we know how to behave? What resources can we draw upon that will help us in the formation? In this short blog, I regretfully have not found enough time and space except to mention the first step in our project to improve culture, and that is a thoughtful awareness of the nuances of the challenges that keep believers in a cultural cul-de-sac.

The Gospel Revisited: Charting a New Way Toward Culture Change

Neil Postman, an American social critic, professor and author, best known for his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, compared two dystopian visions of the future. The famous version is from George Orwell. He saw a future in which totalitarian states ruled with fear and control. His classic novel 1984 created a world in which its citizens were persecuted for adopting individualism and independent thinking. The book popularized the adjective Orwellian, connoting deception, secret surveillance and has inspired movies such as Minority Report, Blade Runner and The Matrix.

Around the same time, Aldous Huxley, an English writer and philosopher proposed a similar gloomy future in his novel Brave New World . Only this time its citizens are engineered through artificial wombs and put in predetermined classes based on intelligence and strength. To keep society in order and prevent them from knowing the truth, the people who live in it are sustained by a constant diet of soothing, happiness-inducing drug.

Postman, a generation ago poignantly predicted things would get worse in a Huxleyan sense rather than the popular Orwellian one.  That society’s ruin would not come resulting from malevolent cultural forces, but by our loves and desires.1

Vincent Miller in Consuming Religion expands on this. He argues that the daily activities we engage in are a result of unwittingly adopting a habit of consuming goods without thinking of the harmful costs it takes to produce them. We are socialized into thinking and behaving in ways that betray our values in part because we have embraced the status quo. For example, we are unconscious in the way we check off our grocery list of produce, canned goods and sundries but fail to realize the human cost it took (growing, harvesting, delivery, etc.) to end up in our shopping basket.

Betraying ones values is typically not something we do consciously. Even inmates are not excused for they adhere to a prison ethic. The popular academic view states that our behaviors are dictated by our beliefs. We act according to what we have been taught is right. The more we are educated and learn proper doctrine, principles and formulas, the more we become civilized—so the theory goes. This has been the educational telos from the start. The problem with this method is that it overemphasized the life of the mind with the exclusion of practice.

There are more ways of knowing than simply reading it from a book. James K.A. Smith lectures on this topic often. In his book Imagining the Kingdom, he talks about a process of “deformation” and looking at the “Christian perception of the world” by borrowing concepts from Merleau-Ponty such as “practognosia,” a know-how that is absorbed through our bodies.2 This absorption in our bodies of truth and practices is precisely what happens when we are shaped by the consumption culture.

As Christians, we must conform our lives in consonant with Jesus teachings and resist, by God’s grace and power, anything that gets in the way of our sanctification. But what process of conforming do we engage in? If it is an item of knowledge, a simple correction will do. But we are dealing with a whole set of beliefs and practices enmeshed in a society. Cultural pundits constantly tell us the West is in decline and the church echo in unison. The church seems to think revival will come about from more preaching and teaching. If this is true, why are things appearing to be worse (Deborah Tannen’s Argument Culture, incivility, gender confusion, etc.) than a generation ago while churches in the U.S. stalwartly remained active in preaching, teaching and missions? While we cannot presume what God will do, he also has given us wisdom to be enact things in this world.

Miller is right when he identifies the problem and a way forward:

“If the abstraction and fragmentation of religious traditions are the result of cultural habits learned in other practices of consumption, then challenging the abstracting effects of commodification on the general level will be helpful for countering it on the explicitly religious level.”3

This is a great start. However, I regret that I do not have the space to continue with practical tips on combating the culture of consumption. Theologian, pastors and evangelists have a tough time recognizing the relevance and ill effects of a consumption culture as it relates to spiritual matters. This is one reason, as leaders helping a generation come of age, our efforts must be calculated and aimed at the real issue. Suffice it to say, “the most fundamental tactic for countering the commodification of culture is simple awareness of it as a problem.”4

Must the Sun Set on the West?

I wish I had come up with this clever title. I owe it to Dr. Vishal Mangalwadi. The title comes from a series of lectures based on his book The Book That Made Your World in which he helps the reader understand the root cause of the West’s decline and what must be done to reverse it. He and other Christian leaders are sounding the proverbial alarm. The decline of Christianity continues to be a popular topic in Evangelical circles today. For example, the latest Barna studies report that only 4% of Gen-Zers (those born after 1996) have a Biblical worldview.1 In the same study, James Emery White, professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary concludes that we are for the first time truly post-Christian.

Many popular Christian apologists and evangelists try to avoid being labeled alarmist in their views by insinuating a doom and gloom picture of the state of Christianity. But it is challenging when the church is confused in that we don’t know whether to jump on the bandwagon (hopeless) or circle it (apologetics and evangelism). The prevailing culture seems to support neither. Ligonier ministries conducts an annual study to measure Evangelical’s responses to doctrinal questions. Last year, one of the statements was “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam” to which 51% of Evangelicals agree.2 This is just one example to show the widening gap between the church’s educational efforts and the outcomes it purports to achieve.

There are several popular ways to stem the retreat to into secularism. Some Christian leaders such as Greg Laurie promote their Harvest Crusades in the pulpit and radio. Others like Ravi Zacharias promote apologetics as solutions. The efficacy of these activities will obviously depend on the working of the Holy Spirit to transform lives as any activity involving changed hearts is concerned. However, there might be another way to go about this. A way that is less obtrusive, given the current sensibilities of our culture; perhaps it is through capitalism. Capitalism, not so much the kind imbued with partisan politics that triggers protest from a new generation. Nor the kind that elicits debate about what form of economic model that works. I am advocating the resetting of capitalism in a Weberian sense.

The message of the good news remain unchanged in this strategy. We are only using capitalism as a social carrier. Imagine today, entire neighborhoods, city blocks being restored, elevating human dignity whenever and wherever prosperity extends its reaches. A Weberian understanding of capitalism uncovers the second highest value (second greatest commandment) of all — brotherly love.3 Love may not be a prime motivator for businesses. However, it is operationally, if not intentionally, altruistic.4 Pastor and theologian Chris Brooks recognizes this point. He sees Detroit, (once the most innovative city on earth turned poorest city in the U.S. within a generation) as a mission field to promote capitalistic entrepreneurship to combat proverty. He said:

“We can see poverty change by unleashing the entrepreneurial, enterprising spirit that God has placed within each and every person within our community. When we begin to see them not just as mouths that consume, but minds that create, God restores flourishing”5

In this short blog, my modest hope was just to introduce others to the the rich foundation upon which capitalism was founded. Sure, there are abuses but that does not mean it should be thrown out, baby, bathwater, and all.