Choosing Our Cultural Cakes and Eating Every Last Crumb
Recently, I was a groomsman in a wedding… for my 81-year old grandmother. (She is just as amazing as you’d imagine.) Because we live states apart, our communication through the years is done mostly through phone calls, letters, and gifts. And every year on my birthday, she would send me a cake, a pound cake of cartoonish perfection with a smell so sweet it permeated the whole house. It was my favorite—that is, until one year I ate an entire cake in a single day. Slice by slice it disappeared throughout the course of the day until I realized what I had done. I was sick for days, a tangible reminder that too much of something, even a very good thing, could have disastrous results. Frequently, it seems our approach to consuming culture and faith operates in a similar fashion; we pick what we like and gorge ourselves on ideas which only serve to reinforce them, but without the benefit of sickness to serve as a limitation until it’s too late.
This is a concept we are all familiar with, and it seems particularly egregious when the subject is a foil to our own beliefs. We’ve all read stories sedulously curated and tailored to support a narrow interpretation of events which leave out key facts to avoid contesting presumptions, alternative conclusions, or a weakened argument. However, there is a different quality when we ourselves choose to follow a singular narrative, unwilling to take seriously its disputes and shortcomings. Intentional choices like this can breed dire consequences, not simply because of how it hampers our ability to talk “across the aisle,” but also because it shapes how we think and permits us to live in a way where our beliefs are never challenged or dissected.If it seems like our consumptive practices have a near religious-like quality, it is because the two are closely linked: the way we partake in culture can directly influence our approach to faith.
Consider, for example, Laura Ingraham’s comments about NBA superstar LeBron James, that he should “shut up and dribble” instead of discussing politics. Perfunctory statements like these operate on multiple levels to create a linear story, however fragmented, about the role of athletes in society. In a 2009 TED Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie presented “The Danger of a Single Story,” which, among other things, outlines how easy and pervasive it is to reduce complicated people to simple narratives. This contention—athletes should stick to sports—also ignores the nearly $41 million dollars in scholarship James’s foundation has pledged, as well as his work in the community as an activist and status as a role model. If athletes have no place to talk openly about politics and the world they inhabit, then we would be deprived of James’s recently opened I Promise school. James is a hero to many and transcends the sport; it is a disservice to pretend otherwise. Anyone who subscribes to this narrative must also forget the inextricable relationship between sports and society: Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier in baseball, the “Miracle on Ice” in the 1980 Olympics, and countless other acts. We’re used to digesting athletes in short clips and highlights, so it becomes straightforward to then take belief in snippets, to ask of faith’s heroes only what we want of them and nothing more, especially when it could challenge us. No, athletes are more than the sum of their sports.
Or, think about the how narratives apply to leaders, such as the irenic Billy Graham, evangelicalism’s titan who passed away in 2018, and the ennobled position he holds across Christian and American circles. He communed across swaths of diverse people, frequently lionized by them. Yet, narratives which overlook the lessons he learned in his mistakes make those who come after him vulnerable to those same issues. His proximity to diplomatic authority, which came to the national forefront due to his relationship with President Nixon, for example, is something he cited that he would have done differently. (Why is the Billy Graham Rule relegated to cross-gender relationships and not political power too?) Instead of accepting the safeguards Reverend Graham learned, they are brushed off and a molded image is upheld that benefits religious leaders seeking bureaucratic prowess, ironically lacking the preventative measures he is so well known for. Making leaders fit into our own image reveals more about our consumptive tendencies than it teaches us about those fellow’s beliefs, which includes lessons learned through failures as well as successes.
With the advent of Twitter it’s becoming easier and easier to extract information without context and extrapolate a story, following only those with whom we already agree. Jordan Peterson, for example, has undergone a meteoric rise to fame over recent months. His ideas engender strong feelings by those who fail to see or understand his appeal and by those who take his words vox peterson, vox dei. Regardless, it is easy to read only the assertions which confirm our notions—as many have (though many continue to consider his positions and person, and have responded to Peterson in kind). When people are confronted with the knowledge that expands their horizon and take it to heart, they are changed and can respond accordingly. Kneeling during the national anthem has become a bit of a Rorschach test, where some people see an honorable protest and others see remarkable disrespect. However, when Colin Kaepernick was initially confronted for sitting during the anthem, and it was suggested he should instead kneel, he responded by doing just that. He had a narrative and when new information came to light, he adjusted, he changed, and his message was better for it. Those who do not consider what went into this protest, who only hear what their story confirms, are apt to miss the substance of his statement. If Kaepernick had not received feedback, who knows how long people would have continued? Imposing our narratives onto the landscape permits us to ignore portions which make us uncomfortable and remind us we do not know everything. Epistemic humility and a willingness to listen are essential qualities to develop.
If it seems like our consumptive practices have a near religious-like quality, it is because the two are closely linked: the way we partake in culture can directly influence our approach to faith. Ross Douthat, columnist at the New York Times, describes the current state of American religious engagement when he notes the book Eat, Pray, Love could be the seminal religious text for our day, as it follows a protagonist who undergoes cathartic experiences, but ultimately walks away unchanged (or, without a conversion). Change is neither necessary nor required. Nothing is demanded. All Jesus and no commitment. Without keeping ourselves abreast of the ways in which culturally formative acts shape our faith, we are prone to default to faith a-la-carte, picking and choosing what we like. If we are the ones who determine our maturity without others, then we lack the structures to tell when we’ve gone off track. Sure, we may always shade to the aspects of faith which are easy or that we enjoy, but these parts are exacerbated by the overwhelming force of consumption. Instead of holistic application, it becomes another object to be experienced which requires nothing from us. Essentially, it is common to think how our faith impacts our culture, but we must consider how our culture impacts our faith.
The liturgies of everyday life, the cultural heuristics, affect how we approach our faith. Think about the role of women in churches, a pertinent discussion in ecclesial circles right now. Women play an essential role through the story of the Bible: without whom Moses would have not been protected and raised; Timothy had not been raised in the faith; Deborah was the one who liberated Israel, and Mary was the first to tell of the resurrection. A failure to see their importance misses the passion of Perpetua, the activism of Fannie Lou Hamer, and the scholarship of Dr. Karen Jobes. Recall, just this past year, when a prominent ministry sent a tweet asking if women can teach at seminaries. That question was quickly answered by how graciously Rachael Denhollander handled her testimony at the trial of Larry Nasser. What does it say if our texts, history, and experience magnify the role of women, but we fail to follow suit? A boxer would never enter a ring with one arm tied behind their back, so why do some churches?
Another reflection may be how various churches emphasize the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20) without adequately discussing the Great Commandment: to love the Lord with your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself. Doing so creates an imbalance. Again, this is not to say one portion of ecclesial life is not important, but instead a reminder that we are malformed when we ignore other, integral parts of faith. Even spending time in Scripture can reduce the whole of faith to a canon-within-a-canon. By focusing on the syllogisms of epistles and minimizing the weeping in Lamentations, the joy of the Psalms, and the existential angst in Ecclesiastes, we prohibit the fullness of faith from shaping the entirety of who we are. After all, what sort of a faith is it if we can exegete Romans but are unable to form our emotions too? If we are not careful, we reconfigure our faith into a piecemeal composition which suits us and is does not require change or sacrifice. (For example, when is the last time fasting was admonished from a pulpit in a church of abundance?) The gospel, if whittled down to “a prayer and going to heaven when we die,” misses the responsibility which believers share in the present, not to mention that it overlooks the social dynamics required of the community at large. If unchecked, we can become so focused on what’s next that people forget the world was created good and there is still much beauty in it. Sin and redemption are not bound to individuals but take on institutional relationships; individualized readings can easily dismiss this.
The rise of minimalism harkens us to remember the danger of relentless consumption. Stars like Marie Kondo stand out in this landscape, because even the message of taking stock of what we ingest is so radically different. When we eat too much, we feel sick; when we’re imbibed on materialism, we have those who warn us; but when we’ve grown to consume too much of a theological fascination, we are not without corrective measures either, as we have the church and her gifts. Listless from food, we quit eating and exercise. Ennui from materialism, we downsize. And catatonic from our failures, we take stock to listen, learn, and grow. So, the next time, we eat less, reconsider our impulse buys, and exhibit mindfulness in our theological application.
Once we are aware of these tendencies, we can act on them. Faith demands to be taken seriously and slowly, so it helps to read widely, considering divergent viewpoints and those that challenge us. It takes time and humility to be quick to listen and slow to tweet. We don’t know everything, and we cannot learn unless we listen. Having a literary community of various backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, time periods, and denominations, as well as an actual community to correct, encourage, and push us forward helps too. It breaks down the artificial walls we’ve built and pushes us to grow in new directions. A rich tapestry of faith cannot be fully appreciated if our decisions, conscious or automated, fail to change us and, if our only engagement is with that which already fits comfortably in our lives, then we need to re-evaluate what it is we worship. So, we recognize our shortcomings and failures, and we put ourselves in places we haven’t been before, where there is tension, disagreement, and uncomfortable feelings. It is not easy, but it is necessary. But it is worth it. Having been invited to enjoy a king’s feast, we partake, remembering that man does not live on cake alone.
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This article articulates a complex issue very well. I love this challenge to avoid simple narratives in our thinking. It’s so much safer and easier to stick with what we know and hope the world is the way we assume it to be. The unknown is frightening. While it’s never fun to be wrong on a matter, there is joy in growing to recognize more truth than we could before. But this joy requires humility and curiosity. If you write a follow-up, it may be good to address if there are any situations in which taking a simple approach would be best.
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