What is Good and Who Says?
Posted by Stuart McAllister on May 16, 1998
We live in an era of multiple images, increasing violence and an overexposure to sexual advertising and media. The mood is dark, the feel is decadent. The very idea or aim of goodness seems quaint, an issue of rhetoric or a throwback to some bygone age, perhaps that of Titanic? By this I mean the romantic portrayal of an age of civility and order, yet all the while mixed with 90’s morality and behavioral patterns. Whatever goodness is or was, it must have been something like this!
The deeply expressed nostalgia in our culture is surely a sign of the hunger for something more solid, more lasting, more secure, more, well—virtuous? It is ironic that much of the energy and effort of our artists and cultural architects has gone into debunking, dismantling or deconstructing all that is good, beautiful and respected, to be replaced with the shallow, the ugly, the ephemeral. The great contradiction lies in the often culturally expressed desire for the good old days, for better times or for people to be more civil or nice again.
The massive contradictions and paradoxes that lie at the heart of the postmodern condition are too many to be catalogued. We seem to be experiencing a kind of cultural vaporization, where many ideas, practices and values slowly but surely erode then disappear. Is this some massive conspiracy that seeks to overthrow the Judeo-Christian heritage? Are there hidden forces and “powers” directing some massive subversion? Is it a politically motivated elite who seek in the name of freedom to liberate us all towards an agenda that many fear and would fight to resist?
I am skeptical about most of the above, as I feel we have to look from several angles to consider the phenomena all around us and the diverse and multiple factors influencing and affecting them, and particularly with respect to morality or virtue.
We live in an age that accepts the dominance of the market as a principle, the liberal democratic orientation as vital, yet as Daniel Bell has so ably pointed out, we then have to live with the cultural contradictions of capitalism. The “system” generates endless products, novelties, services, experiences to be consumed. We dutifully comply and adopt lifestyles and orientations served to us in a range of marketing strategies.
The “system” must have freedom; it must have abundance, and it must have infinite variety. Profit is the aim, happiness the desire and consumption the means. Hollywood and company manufacture dreams and models for us to mimic or wish for. Desire is awakened, stimulated, encouraged through the perpetual bombardment of images and wishes. The market “provides” for all, of any interest, persuasion, desire or lifestyle.
Living as the people of God, rooted in the biblical story, meditating on His Word and encouraged by the Spirit, we feel as if a dam has burst! And it has. We live in the age of what Kenneth Gergen describes as the “saturated self,” and my concern for the Church and virtue is not so much at the level of ideas and ideologies as that of social forces and pressures. The idea of saturation is evidenced by the massive overload we all feel as we are bombarded by choices, by options, by voices, by demands which seem to compress us and restrict us. We struggle to make choices as the sheer scope of variety and options leaves us fearful lest we make the wrong choice. It is in this sense that saturation leads to the overwhelming (or inundation) of our moral faculties and instincts.
Reason is abandoned for feeling. The will is overwhelmed by the range of choice. The emotions are on overload as a result of hyperstimulation and image fatigue. The Christian cannot adopt a view from nowhere or secure a pollution-free zone in the daily interaction with culture. Our lives are porous and the volume of influences so vast that much of the corruption, compromise and carnality we are seeing can overwhelm us, unless we take serious and urgent steps. The postmodern world is a boundary-less and boundary destroying world. It is precisely here where we have to do some creative and restorative work. What do I mean by restoring boundaries?
First, I believe we need to recover the full scope of biblical cosmology and root the people of God in His story. Many Christians see the Gospel as a private experience, an internalized authority and as an individual concern. However, the Scriptures remind us of God’s sovereign purpose and role in history, in the creation of all that is, in the life and role of Israel, in the coming of Christ and in the redemptive work achieved on the Cross which transforms all of history. It is only as we recover our story and live in its fullness and with all its implications that we can make an impact on our culture. We need to understand our distinctiveness as a church, our calling, our lifestyle and our destiny.
Second, we need to define and develop shape and substance to discipleship and set effective and life enhancing boundaries—I Peter 1:13-16. By this I mean that we learn to outline the pattern of living called forth by Scripture, that we seek to embody biblical holiness in our use of time, our talents and our resources, that being “set apart” from the world and “set apart” unto God is evidenced in our individual and shared life as the Church. We must explore spiritual formation and identity building as God’s people. The pressure and energy against the godly life is intense; therefore, urgency, clarity and skill are called for.
Third, we need to work hard to be Church and to offer a credible and serious alternative to the spirit of our age (I Peter 2:9-10). Leslie Newbegin has highlighted the need for the Church to be a “plausibility structure” for the Gospel. Newbegin is citing the work of the sociologist Peter Berger who explains that any belief claim or system requires a supporting community or group to sustain it. It is the community that often validates or authenticates the claim or truth demand made by an individual. He suggests that if the model presented constantly falls short of the reality, we have a credibility gap. If our individual and corporate lives do not model the message we proclaim, we rob the world of a powerful and rooted apologetic.
The church in Europe and North America has wrestled with the desire for acceptance, for relevance and for approval from the culture at large. I believe many attempts have only further eroded Christian distinctives and left us just as ignored and maligned as when we began. In my travels in Europe and North America, I constantly encountered churches desiring to grow, to attract numbers and to make connections—a legitimate concern. However, the method and approach is often to adopt forms of entertainment or style that may be modern or well-done but say more about our insecurity than any serious effect on the audience. A group of youth at a recent event communicated to me their frustration that the leaders seemed to assume they “needed” lots of loud music, flashy performances and clever programs, while in reality they wanted content, authenticity and answers to life’s questions. The issue is whether we will be content or culture driven in our desire to reach the modern person.
The Church must be the Church, God-centered, rooted in the Word and obedient, worshipping, witnessing and offering an alternative to the fragmented and wounded society that is all around her. Faithfulness, courage and commitment will go much farther than relevance, adaptation and laid-back religion. The penetration of cultural norms and values is all too apparent in our lack of passion, obedience and faithfulness. Many of us approach our faith as consumers and fail to grasp our destiny and calling as sons and daughters of the Most High. If we want to be good in the postmodern age, then we had better do it God’s way—anything less is sure to fail.