Sunday, January 3, 2010
…we have moved from a time when our communities were relatively coherent and traditions have become fragmented.
Jonathan Wilson, Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World (1997)
Christians, like everybody else, are often muddled, mistaken, foolish and wayward, and are probably trying to ride at least one other horse at the same time.
N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (1992)
We are becoming a nation of fruitcakes.
Barry Goldman, this morning
The LA Times published an opinion piece this morning by Barry Goldman who makes the case that the United States has become 'a nation of fruitcakes.' What he means by this is that Americans generally do not have the ability to differentiate between fact and opinion. In fact, we are becoming more and more empowered to make up our own facts, in regards to science, religion and everything else. This, Goldman concedes, is part of living in a democracy, but...
We like to think we are a nation of individualists who make up our own minds. But what are the limits to this inclination?
...This is genuinely scary. And it's scary in a new way. For the last several thousand years, large groups of human beings enjoyed consensus about the big questions. We may have believed that the universe rested on the back of a giant tortoise and the tortoise rested on the back of an elephant -- and that belief may not have been borne out by more recent advances in astronomy -- but at least there was widespread agreement. Today it is not just the beliefs that are crumbling; the whole idea of agreement is crumbling too.
What Goldman seems to be grappling with is the terrifying concept of fragmentation in our society, something Alisdair MacIntyre tackled 25 years ago in his After Virtue. MacIntyre, the British ethicist, laments that our ethical world has been smashed into fragments, literally. We have remnants of moral systems, but nothing cohesive like we did 50 years ago. Americans are living off mulitiple stories, not one 'worldview' or 'belief system.' Surely, the advent of the internet and IPOD playlists have exponentially hampered our ability to think consistently and coherently.
Globalization has been a blessing and a curse as we are uncritically bombarded with lyrics, advertising slogans and Biblical passages all proclaiming divergent truths. For instance, a young evangelical Christian can proudly pledge to sexual abstinence, but her music, magazines and websites are all screaming a completely different story. Or another example, my rooted Anabaptism gives me a compelling pacifist lens to read the Jesus stories of the Gospels, but most movies that I watch cling to the myth of redemptive violence and I find myself rooting for the good-guy (whether Jack Bauer or GI Joe) to kick some enemy ass!
What shall we then do? Working off MacIntyre's analysis, Jonathan Wilson in Living Faithfully in a Fragmented World (1997) offers a Christian solution: embrace monasticism. No, not that kind of monasticism, but what he calls 'a new monasticism' in which Christian disciples, fully engaged in our fragmented world, commit themselves to small communities with the primary goal to be transformed into prophetic characters of God's Story, resisting and repenting from the counterfeit stories of our culture. MacIntyre (and Wilson) propose that people living in the wealthy, industrialized West have, by and large, lost any sense of personal telos, a coherent goal which centers our lifestyles. The progressive Christian's telos is to be transformed into an agent for God's Kingdom of unarmed truth, peace, compassion, justice, humility, gentleness, suffering service and forgiveness. These virtues don't just happen, especially in a world that screams for us to 'look out for yourselves' and 'do what feels good.' These media messages, in the end, leave us de-humanized and undignified. To combat these, new monastics commit to common marks that describe their vocation together: sharing resources, lamenting racism and prejudice, hosptality to strangers, supporting local economies, contemplative spiritual disciplines, geographical proximity, the open meeting valuing all voices and intentionally committing to forming community (these are a sampling of what some new monastic communities are committing to).
When we followers of the crucified Messiah live uncritically by the various stories of our culture, we are morphed into what Goldman calls 'fruitcakes,' unable to tell truth from gut-level opinions that only reflect our own selfish agendas. Then, free markets solve all economic problems, wars solve all political problems and those on the underbelly of society (the unemployed, uninsured and otherwise disadvantaged) got their because of their own bad decisions and/or laziness. These narratives float around suburban Orange County unquestioned in houses of Christian worship that emphasize soul-salvation and personal piety. Let's get monastic to recover our powerfully subversive Story railroaded by larger societal and acculturated Christian narratives!