Over the last four decades, its effects have been devastating: Enron, WorldCom, and a global economic crisis; Watergate, Climategate, Blagogate, and Weinergate; skyrocketing rates of divorces, single-parent homes, out-of-wedlock births, and feral youths running amok in gang-infested neighborhoods.
What to do?
We wring our hands over government corruption, corporate greed, and the breakdown of the family, but what’s to be done? How do we go about uprighting our morally capsized culture?
For far too long our first (and only) answer has been education: If teens are taught the risks of sex outside of marriage, they will choose abstinence; if couples receive premarital counseling, they will have enduring marriages; if business schools include mandatory ethics courses, their graduates will become ethical business people. In short, if we teach people moral principles, they will become moral people. But while education is important, it is not sufficient for making life-changing choices.
Compared to a few decades ago, the incidences of marital dissatisfaction, clinical depression, and personal debt have soared despite the dissemination of more information about healthy marriages and about being happy and debt-free than ever before.
In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks notes that “most diets fail” in spite of what most dieters know about the health risks of obesity. We live in a time when books on dieting and exercise have all but saturated the market, and yet obesity is near epidemic levels. Every Sunday “preachers issue jeremiads against the evils of adultery [or the sin de jour], but this seems to have no effect on the number of people in the flock who commit the act -- or on the number of preachers who do it.”
Conclusion: There is more involved in human behavior than processing information through rational thought.
A matter of habits
For instance, when faced with the temptation of indulging in an adulterous flirtation, our decision is not determined by exercising willpower in the light of what we consciously know. Rather, as Brooks would say, it is determined by habits we have assumed “that trigger unconscious processes,” that rig our course of action from the outset.
Consider the growing problem of student violence toward teachers. While some students have no hesitation mocking, cursing, or even striking a teacher, others wouldn’t dream of showing any disrespect to an elder -- they seem to have innate respect for authority.
“Where did that innate respect come from?” Brooks asks. He answers: “Over the course of their lives, they have had certain experiences” that led them to respect their parents and extend that respect to other authority figures.
Through observation, story, and myriad influences, these young people have “absorbed small habits and norms” about acceptable behaviors in the classroom and out. Without conscious thought, they have acquired a “certain way of seeing” things that guides their conscious actions. That would apply equally to youths who have an innate disrespect for authority.
What this suggests is that character formation, and the behaviors it produces, are shaped by a multitude of sources, making the solution to any social malady irreducible to a single course of action.
It tells us that obesity will not be overcome with another bestselling diet book, poverty will not be solved with income redistribution, the war on crime will not be won through tougher jail sentences, and school violence will not be eliminated by metal detectors and razor wire.
Rather, the remedy for each of these problems, and others, lies in the shared traditions and institutions that “contain implicit and often unnoticed messages about how to feel, how to respond, and how to divine meaning” out of life -- in other words, culture.
Do we want safe neighborhoods, drug-free schools, just laws, and a principled marketplace? Then we must create a culture that promotes those conditions.
And that involves change, transforming change, in art, literature, education, marriages, families, businesses, politics, and governance -- things that, in a thousand unseen ways, set down those norms which influence the way we think and act.
For example, the law of the land informs the moral sentiments of many people. If it is law, they rationalize, it must be moral; otherwise, it wouldn’t be law. That was the moral reasoning behind Jim Crow, as it is today concerning Roe.
Agents of transformation
Cultural transformation begins with individuals who, themselves, are being transformed into agents of transformation. Their makeover is accomplished through a rule of life that inclines their spirit toward God, trains their mind to discern his truth, and conditions their will to act accordingly. The result is “habits of heart” that, in large measure, pre-determine their decisions, behaviors, and character.
At the core are prayer, meditation and study, disciplines that foster change from the inside out: from thoughts, attitudes, and desires to a practiced faith reflective of the Christ life. An exemplar was Brother Lawrence, an uneducated 17th-century mystic who worked in a Parisian monastery as a sandal maker and kitchen worker.
During his novitiate, Brother Lawrence spent the designated time for prayer meditating on God, His truth, and very real Presence. As he came to grasp God as the Object of all our yearnings, his practice of God’s presence began filling more of his day (even during his busiest hours in the kitchen), until, as he put it, “I have come to a state in which it would be as little possible for me not to think of God as it was hard to discipline myself to it at the beginning.”
Through this personal rule of life, Brother Lawrence developed a peace-in-the-storm demeanor that, despite his lowly station in the monastery, inspired his companions and attracted visitors seeking wisdom and inner peace. For over three hundred years, his writings have been studied worldwide by people hungering for spiritual renewal.
But for sheer culture-changing influence, no one since Paul of Tarsus compares to William Wilberforce.
A parliamentarian during the height of Britain’s slave trade, Wilberforce devoted himself to regular prayer, Bible study, and fellowship. It was a life rule that helped him develop an “integrated” life in which his private beliefs informed his public advocacy for factory workers, child laborers, slaves, and other people on the margins of society.
Although it took fifty hard-fought years, Wilberforce was instrumental in bringing an end to slavery in his country, creating a more caring and compassionate citizenry among his countrymen, and inspiring an abolition movement across the ocean.
Where’s the church?
In light of present circumstances, a worthy question is: “Where is the church today in this transformation work?
The church has the message, the witnesses, and the indwelling Presence of transformation. On top of that, it has a nineteen-hundred-year record of influencing change for the betterment of mankind. Without question, the best that Western civilization has to offer was birthed and nurtured by Christian thought. Yet, the effectiveness of the Church over the past generation has been marginal, at best.
Although a handful of ministries, like Renovaré and The Upper Room, help people develop a rule of life for spiritual formation, few churches have a structured process (or even a stated expectation) for developing their people spiritually and equipping them to be agents of change in the culture.
As result, we have a generation of spiritual connoisseurs who want little more from church than a comfortable building filled with nice, friendly members; a pastor who delivers emotionally soothing, intellectually stimulating, but not spiritually demanding sermons; music that is foot-tapping and spirit-rousing; a service that doesn’t cut into my tee time; and (this is important) great cappuccino.
If we want change in the culture, we must be that change, by the help of churches that have been converted from entertainment venues and coffee houses to training centers and boot camps.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at email@example.com.