Reading and Responding to Contexts
In the last post I expressed my conviction that the world is now a "glocal" place requiring multivalent contextual awareness for effective leadership. But how exactly do we tap into the culture's worldview? More difficult still, how do we connect with those people who are at culture's leading edge? The Church has had a bad habit of responding to the questions people were asking 20 years ago with the kind of answers that made sense to people 50 years ago. How do we attune our minds to those shaping our culture's future so that we can have answers for our neighbors' questions before they even start asking them? (recapturing and reimagining the role of culture creating in post-Christendom America is a can of worms for another day!)
First of all, we will benefit from seeing that this task moves beyond awareness of current events. Knowing what is going on is important, and there's a slew of things in the news right now that the church needs to have Jesus shaped responses to. However, if our awareness of the culture is only as deep as the constant stream of news and people's reactive commentary on it we will remain stuck within the culture. By doing so we forfeit our right/ability to see its presuppositions, offer prophetic critiques, appropriate Good News and deeply relevant pastoral care.
Francis Schaeffer was a master cultural interpreter and apologist, and my first introduction to this task. In The God Who is There he explains how existentialist philosophy (specifically its dismissal of absolutes and sense of despair) progressed through Western culture. From his perspective, they cascaded in the following order:
| General Culture
I think he needs to pay more attention to the historic events (usually driven by technology, economics and contact with some new "other") and shifts in the actual contextual forms and functions themselves that move philosophers to articulate new thoughts. But I agree that this is a fairly apt (though perhaps overly linear) portrait of how a cultural worldview shift takes place.
As Schaffer describes it, the church's problem was that it was too absent from spaces where people were asking the questions and experimenting with the ideas that eventually eroded modernism. We weren't hanging out at the exhibits where Dada artists acted out their beliefs on life's absurdity. We weren't listening to the music they listened to or reading the books they read. Far from shaping the conversation, we were not even at the table.
So we became irrelevant. And it's a practice we are still repeating.
Most Christians still struggle to understand what it means to be postmodern or "late Modern" (myself included!) even though the key bards of postmodernism (Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, etc) are all dead, and the ideas they offered have mostly had their way at the general culture level by this point. A new wave of thinkers is already writing and painting and filming and singing away while we continue to be mired in the questions of the previous generation.
My point in saying these things is not that every leader needs to be reading the latest philosophy books. We don't. Most contemporary philosophy books coming out will never take hold and it is impossible to know what will except in retrospect twenty years from now.
Rather, I am trying to affirm and intensify Karl Barth's charge that as pastors, theologians, community developers, and Christian leaders of all stripes we must hold the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. We need to see the big picture, the megatrends, the worldview/philosophical perspective that the majority share, tapping into the ideas innovators are pushing at culture's leading edge when and where we can.
My seminary professor Dr. Brian Ross offers three suggestions for understanding what he calls "the secular mindset":
1) Be friends with secular people and listen to them. Not in a creepy, you are only friends with them because you have an agenda kind of way. Just a normal friendship where you have fun together and share about the stuff that matters to each of you. But pay attention and note those ideas that seem to emerge from a different source than your beliefs.
2) Look into the founding "myths" of the culture. Whether it is a macro-culture like America (City on a Hill, a Christian nation, the American Dream, the land of opportunity, the Founding Father stories, the King Arthur tales, etc) or a micro-culture like the local craft brewery scene (Hipster ideals, local economy, environmental concerns, etc), every niche has narratives--some we are only subconsciously aware of--that provide the backdrop for our concepts of the the world, how to act in it and what the good life is. Researching these backgrounds helps us identify the presuppositions people in the culture are walking around with, even if they can't identify what they are for themselves.
3) Read what people are reading in the philosophy/english/sociology classes at the local universities, watch popular movies, definitely watch indie movies, listen to secular music, play secular video games, etc. As you watch/read/listen/interact with these media, consider the two basic questions that Howard Thurman claims all humans ask: "Who am I?" and "What am I here for?" At some level, we are all trying to figure out what it mean to be human and what our purpose in life is. What answers are the films and books and songs offering to these questions? To what fundamental longings or problems do the answers relate? Get together with some thoughtful friends and have fun with this one.
Once some categories begin to emerge, it is time to consider...
A) How Jesus' Kingdom culture might speak prophetically to the context
B) What the gospel (good news) might be for this context (Note: it may be different than what has always been good news for us; that's ok, God is more than big enough).
There's several gospel and culture related posts in the pipeline, so stay tuned. But in the meantime, I'd love to hear what you think.