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Preparing to Live Amid a Deathwork Culture

When the game changes so do the rules and the game's strategy and tactics. Nothing is worse than thinking you are playing one game, when in fact you are playing another game. The same is true in terms of cultural influence.

If the cultural paradigm shifts, then playing by the rules of the older paradigm is a guarantor of failure. Critical for cultural success is accurately knowing the signs of the times. Critical for leadership in such a moment is accurately defining reality. "Our is not an age of change, but a change of age." The assumptions that ground culture have shifted in the past twenty years, not incrementally, but fundamentally. This means that cultural engagement strategies used in the past will no longer be relevant to or effective in the future. Our moment calls for living in the tension of faithfully holding on to ancient truths while applying them in new ways. This calls for exploring leaders and innovative institutions. Our moment has called up what our moment now demands. For starters, we must agree on the cultural contours of our moment.

There is a widespread feeling of dis-ease among Americans today. This feeling is compounded among people of faith. Many sense that they are living in a world no longer compatible with their core convictions, even more, a world that is a direct assault on common sense. From family life to public life, everything feels upside down. People feel like they are living in Nietzsche's transvaluation of values—where the sense of good and bad have been reversed. This felt dis-ease is well founded and is reflective of real changes in society. But feelings alone are not enough to give an individual or institution a sense of direction. More clarity on the cultural contours is needed. Such clarity will not be sought until there is agreement that such a shift has occurred.

There has been a shift in the plate tectonics of American religious culture in the past twenty years. Incremental changes have now accumulated to the point that people are consciously aware of a social and cultural paradigm shift has taken place. We are living in a different world from the recent past. Ideas that were recently unthinkable—that men can identify as women and thereby compete in women's sports and use women's lockers and restrooms—are now so mainstream that to deny them is to risk extreme forms of social approbation. A female supreme court nominee was unwilling to publicly define what is a "woman." The nature of social media is ubiquitous, the Internet and the response to the pandemic have only served to accelerate the impact and depth of these changes. We're living in a new world—a world with a new set of rules and different social expectations. This is undeniable.

More significant than the scope and pace of change is its content. This new age is not something we've seen before. What Americans are facing today is a social-cultural reality that is historically unprecedented. Never have Christians faced the kind of challenges that our current age is bringing to the church. This is a bold claim and deserves some immediate skeptical scrutiny.

There is a historicist tendency to exaggerate one own moment of history. One can easily assume that one's own moment is the most significant, most pivotal, and most distinctive. This is the fallacious rhetoric used during academic commencement speeches each spring. "Class of [fill in the year], you are the most important class living at the most important moment of history. The future of the world depends on you." So goes the glib ceremonial speeches to robed graduates each year.

Adults in the room learn to be generally skeptical of such sweeping claims about the distinctiveness of one's own moment in history. A broader sense of history tends to relativize and neutralize such claims. Maturity presumes to know better.

While it is generally true that there is "nothing new under the sun" when it comes to God and human nature, this is not actually true of historical change. The crossbow and gun powder ended the age of Feudal knights. The modern geopolitical world changed after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Never in history did man have the capability to create such instantaneous and widespread destruction of man—killing as one bomb did between 70,000 and 146,000 people. Intellectual shifts and technological innovations can place us in unprecedented times—when something fundamental about the nature of our understanding of reality shifts dramatically. This is such a time. We are entering a new age.

Something fundamental has shifted in the past twenty years or so. As church leaders we must come to terms with the scope and contours of this change. For the sake of our kingdom work, we must come to terms with our times. Catholic philosopher James Shea reminds us of our leadership responsibility to define reality for our people.

This is the task for every generation; but when social arrangements and the church's influence on the societies she inhabits are relatively stable, relations and strategies may hold good over a long period of time. In an age of change, the church needs to pay attention to the modes by which she carries on her graced battled to be sure she is not "fighting yesterday's war," using strategies that for whatever reason are outmoded and have become ineffective. In a time that could be called a change of the ages, this duty becomes urgent. We are currently living in such a time. We are watching many long-standing arrangements and relations being altered sometimes with surprising rapidity.[1]

This is a time for visionary Christian leaders to explore the challenges of our age with depth, candor, and courage.

University of Pennsylvania sociologist Philip Rieff suggests that cultures are always an expression of their relation to a larger overarching sacred order.[2] His theory of culture is built around a theory of authority, where we have moved from cultures based on "thou shalt not" to a culture based on "thou shalt"—from restrictive repression to transgressive liberation. In particular, the power of culture is to so embed these cultural norms and restrictions so that they are unconsciously held as a taken-for-granted reality. He writes, "A culture survives principally by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reason which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood."[3] In ancient cultures this sacred order was defined by fate. More recently, culture has been shaped by faith. Today, there is an effort to disconnect culture from any association with a sacred order. Here faith is replaced by fiction, in what Rieff calls a "third culture world" or a "deathwork culture."




Third cultures propose a world in which there is no truth and no sacred order, only fictions and various rhetorics of power. This is the world anticipated by Nietzsche in his Mad Man soliloquy in The Gay Science in 1880. Back then he exclaimed that he had come to early. His warning is timely now and is descriptive of our age. Nietzsche's madman cries out, "Whither is God? I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down?"[4] The growing anxiety felt by many today is not simply psychological, it's metaphysical, or better anti-metaphysical, the sense of being in a world without a sacred canopy. Rieff writes,

Cultures give readings of sacred order and ourselves somewhere in it.... Culture and sacred order are inseparable, the former the registration of the latter as a systematic expression of the practical relation between humans and the shadow aspect of reality as it is lived. No culture has ever preserved itself where it is not a registration of sacred order.... The third culture notion of culture that persists today independent of all sacred order is unprecedented in human history.[5]

At stake here is far more than the celebrated rise of New Atheism. What is at stake here is a shift in the core assumptions on which society itself is based and sustained. Sociologist James Davison Hunter in the forward to Rieff's book explains the difference: "In the past, conflict existed between different cultures operating with competing sacred symbolics.... What makes the contemporary culture war distinctive is that it is a movement of negation against all sacred orders and directed, in its particulars, against the verticals of authority that mediate sacred order to social order."[6] We may still have "culture wars," but the depth and contours of this culture war are unprecedented. This is a "revolutionary" change with an entirely new set of conflicts and dynamics. The closest historical parallel to our moment is the last days of Augustine (410 A.D.) as he faced the collapse of the Roman Empire. Yet even here the conflict was between two differing religious symbolics—the Visgoth's fate and the Roman's faith. Ours is equally an Augustinian moment, though sociologically different and historically unique in character. Rieff concludes, "To be radically contemporaneous, to be sprung loose from every particular symbolic, is to achieve a conclusive, unanswerable failure of historical memory... such Barbarians have never existed before."[7] This is a new situation.

Acknowledging the scope and character of this change means that we can no longer simply rely on historical precedents. There is no going back, only forward. We cannot appeal to the strategies of the early church or the Reformation era as these approaches will be fundamentally inadequate to and different from the challenges facing faith today under the unique conditions of advanced modernity. They were responding to the challenges of their moment, just as we will have to respond to ours. The early church and Reformation era were conflicts between competing sacred symbolics. Our conflict is with a "deathwork," with the denial of any sacred cultural symbolic. This is an entirely new cultural reality facing the church and people of faith.

Nonetheless, we are not without hope. Our hope is not to be found in doubling down on past approaches and past strategies, even as we seek to move forward with faithful confidence in unchanging biblical truth reflected in an unchanging created reality. In such a moment, merely converting from one faith tradition to another such as becoming Roman Catholic or Orthodox will not solve this problem only change its character. For all forms of faith—across all Christian traditions and across all historic denominations—face the same challenge of advanced modernity. There is no going back... only going forward and through. This means that our approaches to church and ministry will need to be reframed to correspond to the depth and substance of the challenges facing faith today. We will have to come to terms with this paradigm shift, this shift in the plate tectonics of contemporary American society. Market researcher George Barna draws the same conclusion,

"If you sit back and ponder these changes, you cannot conclude it's "life as usual" in America. A genuine leader, faced with these trends, would recommend that our nation's ministry leaders consider a new mindset and approach to Christian ministry in America....

The emerging America is radically different—demographically, politically, relationally, and spiritually. It is a young, non-white, mobile population. This group is largely indifferent to the well-being of the United States, and is demonstrably skeptical of the nation's history, foundations, traditions, and ways of life. They are technologically advanced, sexually unrestrained, emotionally unpredictable, and spiritually hybrid.

It is becoming clear that Christian ministry as practiced for the past five decades will not be effective with this unique population. Worldview and faith ministry statistics also make it clear that those ministry practices have also been largely ineffective during those past five decades....

If we were objective and honest, we would acknowledge that many of the approaches now relied upon by Christian ministries—and especially by churches—are inadequate to impact the emerging population that needs to be reached with God's truths and principles."[8]

Ours is a time when it will be necessary to reframe faith and Christian ministries to these changing realities. Old approaches are not going to be sufficient. Innovation is not necessarily theological compromise or cultural accommodation. Our is a day when historic orthodoxy must be contextualized afresh to meet the missional challenges of living in a society that has been cut loose from a sacred order. The necessary starting place is to acknowledge this fact as the missional ground zero. From here the exciting and timely adventure of missional faithfulness can begin.

[1] James P. Shea, From Christendom to Apostolic Mission: Pastoral Strategies for an Apostolic Age (University of Mary Press, 2020), p. 2. [2] Antonius A.W. Zondervan, Sociology and the Sacred: An Introduction to Philip Rieff's Theory of Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2005). [3] Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud (University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp . 2-3. [4] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Vintage, 1974), p. 181-182. [5] Philip Rieff, Sacred Order/Social Order: My Life Among the Deathworks (University of Virginia Press, 2006), p. 13. [6] Ibid, p. xxiii. [7] Philip Rieff, Fellow Teachers of Culture and Its Second Death (University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 39. [8] George Barna, American Worldview Inventory 2021-2022: The Annual Report on the State of Worldview in the United States (Arizona Christian University Press, 2022), p. 82-83 [emphasis added].


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