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The Meaning of Culture War

December 17, 2010

Culture Flip!One of my Evangelical blogging friends frequently brings up things relating to the ‘culture war.’ On Facebook, he posts several articles about the biblical illiteracy of the rising generation of Christians as being tantamount to the current generation of Christians ill-preparing that rising generation to fight in such a war.

He has a vested interest in seeing this trend reversed, because what will win if Christians and traditionalists don’t?

Secularism.

Nihilism.

“Tolerance.”

Subjectivism.

And so on. But these things come with their own pitfalls. “Tolerance” is decidedly intolerant when it wants to be (intolerant of those who do not fit within the tolerance umbrella.) Subjectivism has its own objective claims, they say. Secularism enshrines its own religion.

…I generally don’t get these sentiments, and as a result, the idea of “culture war” doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sure, sure, I enjoy culture bombs in Civilization IV, and I enjoyed watching cities flip as early as Civ III. Getting new cities without firing a single bullet? Si, me gusta! …but this doesn’t seem like a real life phenomenon.

Today, Times and Seasons had an article (yes, yes, they usually do that every day). But with a title like, “There could not have been saints in Ancient Greece,” I just couldn’t avoid reading that! You can read in depth about the passage from which that title comes (it made sense to me), but what I was more interested in was the relation to modern struggles.

What took place was the squaring off of two different cultural paradigms, wherein proponents of the opposing paradigm couldn’t show up as what they were…On the one hand, there was a cultural paradigm with no room for the LGBT community. Within this paradigm there were no loving, committed, homosexual couples seeking to build a life together in a way that is recognized by and contributes to society. Rather, there were a host of other possibilities—from the APA’s diagnosis of mental derangement to healthy repugnance at perverse behavior to righteous condemnation of those who live in willful rebellion of the decrees of God and nature. On the other hand, there was a cultural paradigm with no room for proponents of a traditional understanding of marriage. That is, there were no humble, God-fearing, defenders of a mode of family organization that has embodied and propagated a set of remarkably resilient values and been conducive to one of history’s significant forms of human flourishing. Rather, there were ignorant zealots, groundless conservatives, and thinly veiled or downright flagrant bigots. These weren’t rhetorical shots across the bow. From within their respective cultural paradigms, this is how the other actually showed up. The problem here is the inability of the one to show up as what they are from within the cultural paradigm of the other.

Again, it makes sense to me at least.

But James continues to strike even closer to home.

These mutually exclusive paradigms continue to operate, and one doesn’t have to look far to see their articulation (or accusation). There is also at work a sort of astonished, wresting attempt to make sense of things—where certain lifestyles show up as something foreign, something that resists our understanding (I believe that this is manifest in Pres. Packer’s infamous question this last General Conference, and Rosalynde’s articulation of a contemporary Mormon theodicy in response; I also see it registered in those outside and critical of Mormonism who nonetheless manifest a hesitant and genuine bafflement at the potent and meaningful way this religion plays out in its members’ lives). (emphasis added)

and it doesn’t stop there.

Not that every political and cultural compromise is a genuine fusion. Particularly in our pluralistic society, we’ve grown accustomed to accepting the “right” of someone to adopt what we can only see as an eccentric and unfathomable lifestyle or position. Nor does conversion automatically grant one dualistic vision or understanding—I regularly read former Mormons who have entirely lost their ability to grasp what is going on within Mormon religious life and experience (assuming they originally had such an understanding). And even when there is a genuine fusion, it’s not always readily apparent as a fusion to those observing the actions and articulations that constitute it. Firmly entrenched within their respective paradigms, many claim the fusion of horizons that is manifest in certain political actions to be nothing but a betrayal, an apostasy or acquiescence, a slouching step toward Gomorrah or oppression, a coerced concession, meaningless gesture, or a halting and superficial step toward justice whose real aim is merely to relieve societal pressure.

(emphasis added.)

How timely is it that MSP had a couple of posts so recently about MSP’s goal of civil discourse, and then of the connectedness of Mormon communities?

Sometimes I wonder if it’s even possible…I wonder if instead we aren’t just “accepting the ‘right’ of someone to adopt what we can see only as an eccentric and unfathomable lifestyle or position.” That’s ultimately the way it seems to be — and quite frankly, that just doesn’t seem like a satisfying goal (which is why I’m glad it is not true “fusion of horizons”). I wonder too if we’ve lost our ability to grasp what is going on within Mormon religious life (the possibility that becomes stronger upon reading so many articles — at least for me — is that I never originally had such an understanding. While I feel there is so much I share with Mormons, believing and nonbelieving, there is a shocking amount that seems totally foreign to me.)

The worst thing about the article is its ultimate hopelessness. For all that James talks about a fusion of horizons, in the end what rings louder is his comments on what possibilities will be closed off. His final lines seem to be damage control:

Some closures would obviously be welcomed. Others would be a wrenching and regrettable loss. Just what we end up with is by no means clear at present.

Compromise so often seems like a loss for everyone. Everyone simply reasons which of the once non-negotiable treasures really can be sacrificed after all…

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11 Comments
  1. I disagree that compromise is a loss for everyone. While that may be true of some compromises, it seems to me that’s the point of compromise. You give a little and the other person gives a little and you both get something you want. Compromise doesn’t work when either person (or belief system) gives up too much.

    As far as eccentricity goes, I think it’s in the eye of the beholder. What may seem eccentric to me, stockpiling food (for example) may be perfectly natural to a person who lives in a remote area.

  2. aerin,

    “You give a little and the other person gives a little and you both get something you want.”

    Contrast this with a conquest.

    “You get everything you want; your opponent loses everything he has.”

    The compromise features “giving a little” from everyone. That is certainly a loss, considering that everything that is given is something that would normally be considered nonnegotiable and sacrosanct to the cause. (If not, it would not be called compromise. The very point of compromise is that what was given is just as valuable as what was received.) Conquest, on the other hand, only features a loss from one side. (Of course, the reality is the conquests do not happen without collateral damage…there aren’t “flawless victories” but there are plenty of “pyrrhic victories.”)

    I think it’s true that eccentricity is in the eye of the beholder. But that’s the entire point. Coming from culturally incompatible* perspectives, the eye of one beholder can’t see the eye of the other.

    *As far as the perspectives are incompatible, that is.

  3. As far as the culture war is concerned, James has hit on the central point. The Right wants their “defense of traditional marriage” to be generally accepted as simply the moral thing to do. But cultural values have evolved, and a huge part of the population sees marriage discrimination as the opposite of moral (unfair, rotten, unethical, even hateful). Legislating against gay marriage isn’t going to change people’s minds or convince people that having a church’s stamp of approval doesn’t make a given position “moral”.

    Compromise so often seems like a loss for everyone. Everyone simply reasons which of the once non-negotiable treasures really can be sacrificed after all…

    Also compromise can mean giving up something unimportant for something important. Really, compromise can be good or bad (or something in-between) depending on the compromise. Trying to decide whether “compromise” is good or bad (as a general principle) is almost as reasonable as trying to decide whether humans are good or bad on principle… 😉

    • Seth R. permalink

      Part of the problem for me is that the battle lines on issues such as homosexuality have been drawn in such a way that it is impossible to make any progress on the issue – at least from a perspective of someone who views homosexual relationships as fundamentally wrong in some sense (sorry, but there it is – I do actually view them as wrong).

      The whole thing about gay rights and marriage, and such runs interference against my attempts to get to the bottom of this issue – because whatever my moral feelings about gay sex, I certainly disagree with the idea that gays should not be given equal rights or treated fairly.

      But that’s an entirely separate moral issue from the question of whether gay sex is bad, and in what way gay relationships are or are not “wrong.”

      But until the issue of rights is resolved, I will never be able to ask these questions and tease out the answers. Because every time you try to talk about homosexuality, it becomes some huge screaming match about “rights” and fairness.

      I’d honestly like to take that debate off the table – neutralize it so we can clear the air enough for me to figure out how to view homosexuality itself. What is or is not wrong with homosexuality? I want to answer this – and I can’t as long as this culture war is going on.

      I think that’s true of many key issues of the culture war. The din of battle often makes it easy to completely lose sight of what it is you were fighting for in the first place.

  4. I feel like the only times when compromise means giving something unimportant for something important is when the parties lacks all the information (which admittedly is more likely than not). But this is more of a “swindle” than a compromise.

  5. openminded permalink

    I feel like a bad compromise happens when one side is only reflecting an external will that’s unnecessary, and the stance proves to be troublesome.

    But I had politics in mind when I said that.

  6. When I was thinking of compromise, I was thinking more in terms of how holidays are handled in families with adult children or how a couple negotiates a disagreement. Both situations (again, I wasn’t good about explaining this) involve people being on equal footing. There can’t be compromise when things are fundamentally flawed.

    As far as culture wars go, I was amused to read an author from the early 20th century some years back. He observed that the current generation believed everything was going to h*ll and society was going to self-destruct. Yet despite all the negativity, society didn’t self-destruct. And those people who were so culturally permissive were my great-grandparents (typically seen as very conservative now). I think history plays a vital role in this debate.

    What I’m saying is – much like what chanson was saying in her comment some weeks ago about people who were divorced. That used to be an enormous issue, a sign of society self-destructing. But that has changed for all but the most conservative of people. Things change with new information, new investigation and study.

  7. Seth R. permalink

    Ask any divorce attorney.

    Divorce is STILL and pretty big negative.

  8. Honestly Seth chanson said it best here (hope my link works). I agree with her.

  9. comment fished out of the overactive spam filter

  10. Thanks Andrew!!

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