Redefining our engagement in culture

As a child, I was brought up to suspect culture. To fear it and mistrust it the way that good evangelical Baptists tend to. Of course there were always exceptions because most of us can’t completely reject culture. There are still favorite bands or TV shows that we deem acceptable for whatever reasons, right or wrong.

As an 18 year old, I excitedly enrolled in Calvin College, a Christian Reformed Church school. For those of you who don’t know the CRC, they pride themselves on the saying of Abraham Kuyper, a theologian who said,

“There is not a square inch
in the whole domain of our human existence
over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all,
does not cry: ‘Mine!'”

Thanks to the Abraham Kuyper Society for the quote

The CRC takes this quote as a banner for their beliefs. Essentially, it means that the entirety of the earth is God’s and therefore redeemable – which is to say there is some good and decent God-like quality intrinsic to it that makes it valuable and precious.

For many of the good conservative Baptists that I knew growing up, this idea of serious engagement in the world is a frightening prospect: a sort of (everyone’s favorite phrase!) slippery slope.

I was excited to go to a school that promised engagement and serious intellectual thought, that wouldn’t offhandedly quash diversity in thought and opinion.

Now I’m not so sure that Calvin lives up to its promise of engaging God’s world. Between dismissing profs because they don’t believe in a historical Adam and Eve and telling the payroll that they couldn’t advocate for gay rights, there’s been some grave mishandling of freedom of speech and academic thought at Calvin.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Whether your religious or non-religious, I think there’s something to be said for surpassing this reactionary stage when it comes to culture and interacting with it.

Culture is a fact. It permeates our daily lives whether we like it or not. It’s what happens when humans live together. A negative view of culture belies a negative view of humanity. Since my business these last few years has been traveling and learning French, I can’t imagine being so afraid of culture anymore.

Having said that, I also think there’s a point where it’s in our best interests to occasionally reject aspects of our culture.

Although most religious people at this point would immediately turn towards gratuitous sex and violence on TV.

And I won’t deny that. Often, our society in the United States holds an unhealthy obsession with sexuality in the sense that we uphold certain unrealistic ideals of youthful beauty, slender waistlines, and power couples who break up in a matter of months. Big corporations know that they can make money off it – which is why it’s so pervasive.

I don’t advocate a more prudish society. I think American society is already plenty prudish in the sense that we’re afraid of our sexuality. Sexuality is a huge taboo for a lot of people and so the only education kids receive is from the television, movies and music – the same outlets promoting unhealthy relationships and unrealistic body images.

I do question a society that deals in images. We settle for mediocrity as long as it comes packaged in a glossy, slim, beautiful figure. We glorify these images and make them our ideals – and we try to attain these ideals ourselves. Companies market product after product to attain these ideals. Workouts, clothes, facial cleansers. When we don’t attain these ideals, we fall into insecurity.

Hence eating disorders, suicides, competing to be top dog. We’re a people riddled with insecurities.

So when we talk about our culture and how we engage it as people, religious or not, we ought to begin with this. With the end results. People so scared in their own homes that they keep a gun at their side. People who stare down at the sidewalk while they walk past the same strangers every day.

How did we arrive here? We put as much thought into a mindless pop song on the radio as we do when people are killed in Afghanistan or Syria – or maybe someone in our own city who just happens to live on the other side of the railroad tracks and has different colored skin than us.

I’m lookin at you white America.

At a certain point, we must surpass a reactionary take on society. We must create our own reality – and by that I mean that we must live authentically, not that we should each be living in our own dream worlds. It is, for example, inauthentic and unhealthy to feel comfortable in a world in which we are actively destroying the very ground that we live on in order to sustain unhealthy lifestyles that we’ve come to deem necessary. I’m not trying to make a political statement here. I’m simply offering my opinion that it is shortsighted and selfish on all our part – for those of us who partake in this system.

We partake in a system, a culture of death – where our well-being is dependent on the death and destruction of others.

Think that sounds harsh?

Then why does the West have such heavy entanglement in the Middle East?

Oil. We need gas for our cars.

Why are why destroying the Gulf of Mexico and the province of Alberta?

Again. We need gas for our cars to sustain our lifestyle. From the wealthiest of us, to those scraping by on minimum wage.

This is just one example. We could talk about the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the cheap toys we buy – all sewn, harvested, and produced by exploited workers with minimal rights.

And most of us find one way or another to cope with this thought. Maybe we simply don’t think about it. Maybe we hold quietly racist views that just reinforce our nationalism, our swollen patriotic pride and further convinces us that we are that shining city on a hill that Our Lord Reagan talked about. Maybe some of us decide that we’ll buy food only from producers that treat workers humanely or buy clothes second-hand or that were made in the United States.

None of these suffice. The culture must not simply be “engaged” – and it certainly can’t be ignored either. It must be replaced. We must create our own reality by actively seeking out solutions on a global and an individual scale.

Naive? Yes.

Necessary? Yes.

I’m not proposing anarchy or taking to the streets. I’m proposing a fundamental rejection of culture – through quiet voices, through votes, through speaking truth to culture. To change culture, we must participate actively. We must do more than point fingers in accusation against people who don’t buy organic or don’t shop second-hand or don’t boycott certain brands or countries. Guilt is not a weapon.

While globally aimed, we must be personally centered as well. Since we fundamentally live life alone through our own personal experiences, since no one else can know our own stories fully, we must maintain a certain self-centeredness, a certain level of self-awareness in which we are responsible purely for our own actions while aligning those actions with communitarian goals.

The objective is not in meeting our goal – but in our striving.


1 Comment

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One response to “Redefining our engagement in culture

  1. Lindsay

    this was all great … i especially liked your last paragraph.

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