One of the advantages of growing old is that it affords a perspective with a larger frame of reference, enabling you to detect the trends and patterns that occur with every cultural shift. But it also allows you to pick up on what remains constant regardless of such shifts – one of these is that no matter what gets deemed as “culturally normative” – the majority of people remain culturally discontent. Every generation wants to make its claim on what the prevailing cultural ethos should be. And with multiple generations coexisting in the same society – no one actually gets what they want . . . because inevitably a power struggle for control ensues.
Control is the operative word here – because if you seek to change culture (or keep it from changing), invariably you will seek to control the levers of how culture is maintained in your society. No doubt, this is why our first impulse is to think in terms of political control – because let’s face it, the power to coerce people into cultural compliance with the threat of violence is nearly irresistible. But in reality, the political machinery of government is motivated by its own agenda – ever following the caprice of its own survival . . . so instead of leading – it follows. Which is likely why Andrew Breitbart famously observed “politics is downstream from culture.”
It was Nietzsche who discovered that the real power struggles aren’t so much in the political debate as they are in imposed morality – believing that those who control the moral high ground, control the political authority to govern. Which is why politicians always seem to presume themselves the arbiters of what the “right” side of history will be. Again, this approach relies on a form of coercion – making the threat of shame the manipulating agent of control . . . by shaming a society into cultural conformity. But the burden of moral dictates can only invite moral conflict – especially, if there isn’t a coherent narrative explaining the meaning of morality as a lived out experience.
Which is probably why controlling the culture always seems to boil down to controlling the cultural narrative. Because when we allow language to be treated as malleable, then words can be reshaped and redefined, so as to spin up a narrative so full of conviction and flamboyance that it would appear profound — without actually ever making any sense. Which is likely why so many absurdly vacuous cultural trends come and go without ever being checked at the door of credibility. In this way our desperation to believe that there could be an overarching narrative for animating a meaningful life, best illustrates our longing for a culture that allows us to be at peace with ourselves . . . and one another.
As Christians we very often assume that we should somehow be reclaiming the culture, because we embrace the only true overarching narrative – but this is a broken ideal. The narrative of the Christian faith cannot be coerced or imposed upon a society, history has made this clear. But rather, a Christian culture is adopted as Christians begin to live out the redemptive realities of what it means to be reconciled to God. So instead of becoming one more clamoring voice among many trying to manipulate the cultural ethos – we should live out the wisdom attributed to St Francis of Assisi “Preach the gospel at all times . . . and use words if necessary.”
For the glory of God is made known as each of us becomes his hands and feet