Four years ago, Jason Fowler, our host and editor of Sustainable Traditions, published a blog post he referred to as a lament. In 2012, he expressed some degree of remorse at the cultural changes that had taken place in this country and described some of them. Let’s see how his thoughts have progressed and how he now feels about his observations and the direction of American culture since that time.

Stewardculture:
Jason, you wrote a blog post at Sustainable Traditions titled “Lament: Neil Postman and A Culture of Distraction.” You began the piece referring to how your spirit was not at peace back on that pre-dawn morning in 2012. Has your spirit found any peace since that day or are your more restless or disturbed here as we close in on the end of 2016?

Fowler:
When I wrote that article I was reeling from the trauma of the Aurora theater mass shooting. I live on the East Coast and so only experienced the impact of the event through online media but it was one of many traumatic media events in recent years that I felt I had no way to respond to – and yet still felt grieved by. Immediately after, the national attention turned to the Olympics. And just as quickly the media swung into focus on the Chik-fil-A CEO’s public comments opposing same-sex marriage. Conservative Christians nationwide, and locally, lined up to show their support for the fast food chain and against same-sex marriage. We were buying fast food to make a moral or political statement? Deep down I felt two things: the first thing I felt was how easily distracted or manipulated we are by whatever the media focuses on – and the second thing that hit me was how American Christianity seems so easily provoked to reaction. Today I feel less agitated but am more deeply troubled by our collective reactions. This election cycle has only confirmed what I saw then – that as Christians and as Americans we don’t seem able to discern how easily persuaded or manipulated we are on a collective scale.

Stewardculture:
You mentioned that you saw the culture fracturing and increasingly superficial. Let’s take those one at a time and see where you stand today.

Fowler:
I am thinking on two lines of thought in all this – where American culture is going and where American Christianity is headed. Now more than ever it is increasingly apparent that, as a nation, we are losing a common vision for what America is. The politics of the presidential race clearly reveal very differing visions of America. Also within progressive and conservative politics you have heightened in-fighting and emerging tribalism. There is also a growing distrust of any kind of long-established leadership.

In the Body of Christ there is a similar fracturing as we wrestle with an American culture that has shifted into high gear towards a post-modern understanding of the self and the world. We are struggling to find a place in a culture that has almost fully rejected the truths of the Judeo-Christian faith or any absolutes for that matter. We are truly in a post-Christian context now. Some Christians want to reclaim political and cultural ascendancy (or won’t admit that we’ve lost our position of influence) – and some recognize that we can’t go back. We are faced with a multitude of additional issues that can and are destabilizing our faith communities: systemic racism towards African Americans, the redefinition of human sexuality, the role of men and women in leadership, ecological crisis, terrorism, immigration – to name a few. Major denominations are splintering in pieces over some of these issues like same-sex marriage.

If we are not careful we could fail to discern the underlying meaning behind these rapid changes. We also are in danger of being as shallow as the wider culture. The fact that billionaire, reality-TV show star Donald Trump has been ‘baptized and sanctified’ by well-meaning American Christians is a disturbing example of how shallow our thinking has become – or maybe how desperate. And how shallow or misguided our theology has become. We are in danger of ‘drowning in the shallows’ – to borrow a phrase.

Stewardculture:
If our culture was fracturing back in 2012, do you see those fissures widening or being healed?

Fowler:
There is no doubt the cultural fault lines are opening and growing wider. But as Christians we have a great opportunity to be agents of healing. We cannot necessarily stop the causes of these rifts but we can choose to build bridges across the divides. The Body of Christ alone has the unique challenge to break through social barriers and extend the prophetic witness of the Gospel. Jesus ate with sinners and embraced enemy-love – maybe we can too if we are willing to let go of our own assumptions about what it means to be Christian in America today. The only other option is to be torn apart along with the wider culture.

Stewardculture:
If the lives of many people in our culture are superficial, how do we reverse this trend and gain meaning when relativism seems to be rampant?

Fowler:
Relativism is the fruit of post-modern culture. There is a rejection of absolutes and inability to embrace any kind of overarching reality. This kind of thinking is rampant in the Church as well. Our thinking needs to become re-rooted in the eternal work of Jesus and His unshakeable kingdom and not just be swept along by shifts in the culture. We need to stop living our Christianity out as just another consumer option of a niche sub-culture – we need to abandon our hyper-individualism. The only way to not drown in ‘the shallows’ is to put down our smart phones, turn off our televisions, and start asking: ‘How can I live as a disciple of Jesus right now, where I am?” We go deep together – in the context of community.

Stewardculture:
Could the movement to stand for Chick Fil-A back in 2012 be a misguided attempt to hold onto a culture that has already slipped away? If so, is the so-called evangelical support of Mr. Trump a similar phenomenon?

Fowler:
Both instances, the Evangelical support for Chik-Fil-A then and the current Evangelical support for Donald Trump now, are the fruit of a certain kind of theological and political stance towards the wider culture. It is a stance that is one of wrestling for ascendency – a fight for influence – to see who is going to steer this ship we call America. My contention is that, while we need to be salt and light, we need to rethink our current political and theological views. I believe these views are leading us into putting the wider culture into a headlock of sorts that cannot be held. Scripture does affirm that we are in a fight and we are wrestling but – it’s not with flesh and blood. Right now we are framing the struggle from a very reactionary stance.

Stewardculture:
In referencing the titular author, Neil Postman, you alluded to a notion you had similar to Postman’s in that maybe the attack on our culture wouldn’t be or already wasn’t overtly Orwellian, but subtler and clandestine – a more Huxleyian vision. Like Postman, do you see your notion proved out during the last four years or have we gone more Orwellian?

Fowler:
American culture is a mix of Orwell’s and Huxley’s stories – these were both deeply prophetic narratives that decoded the direction we were headed in. I would say we haven’t come to a full expression of what these stories prophesied but we’re pretty darn close. I think we are moving towards fulfilling both futures – we as the American people are doing our part by drowning ourselves in the shallows and the government is doing their part by building an ever more elaborate bureaucracy.

Stewardculture:
This presidential campaign looks too much like the “media-induced spectacle” that you worried would enslave people. My quick check of social media tells me you were prophetic. In that paragraph, you seem to indict the believer in their collective blame and to repent of their own capitulation in the spectacle. Do you still see it that way, and if so, what should we do about it?

Fowler:
American Christians fall ‘hook, line and sinker’ for the media spectacle – because American Christianity has become a spectacle itself in many ways. I wonder sometimes if we are living out our faith more to be seen by other people than to be seen by God. Certainly it seems this is the case for most politicians. We fall for the media spectacle because we too are a part of the spectacle. We too are pulling the levers of the media machinery – Christians are just a subculture fighting for air-time. We are awash in false narratives – convinced we are doing God’s work. But I think in many ways our faith is just another one of our favorite channels. We need media spectacle because ours is a very disembodied faith. We have a lot of repenting to do. I don’t know what this fully looks like but I know it starts with a shift in attitude towards how we use and consume media. I also think it demands a rejection of celebrity culture so prevalent in the wider culture and the Christian sub-culture.

Stewardculture:
What role do our pulpits or lecterns play in this repentance, if any?

Fowler:
Preaching in church buildings and elsewhere could play a large role in releasing a call to repentance. But the kind of preaching we need is like that of John the Baptist out in the wilderness. I’m looking to the wilderness more than I am to the pulpits for this call to repentance.

Stewardculture:
Lastly, Jason, I will tell you that I feel a strong personal desire to abandon denominations and similar structures and try to convince believers to look to building meaningful, caring local bodies of devoted and passionate people, who have had their pride broken so they can be, as we used to say in the old days, on fire for the Lord. What hope is there for that now four years later in a day of smartphone-staring, social media-hungry Christians?

Fowler:
I don’t think we need to abandon denominations – they are dissolving on their own because they are products of another era. Major denominations are splintering more and more and at the same time multi-denominational affiliations are rising. This both brings opportunity and threatens established church politics. I think we are in a time of great change when new wineskins for local Christian community and apostolic networks are emerging. I would agree with you wholeheartedly that our task in this hour is to cultivate local Christian communities that could take various ecclesial forms – but all have a focus on embodied discipleship to Jesus.

Stewardculture:
Give us a parting word of edification.

Fowler:
A lot of what I said may sound a bit gloomy or judgmental but this is a call to repentance. We are in exciting times. The changes happening in our generation are leading us to more authentic forms of Christian witness – if we are willing. We cannot remain unchanged though. Either we go on towards further hardness of heart and lose our lampstands (our witness) – or we walk in increasing humility before God and one another – becoming witnesses of God’s unshakeable kingdom in a time of great instability. Every generation has this challenge. Let’s embrace it fully.

 

Jason Fowler is the website editor and co-founder, along with his wife Pamela, of the Sustainable Traditions project. The Fowlers live with their seven children on a farm near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The Sustainable Traditions homepage can be found here.

 

Dan Grubbs

Dan Grubbs, editor of Stewardculture, lives in northwest Missouri where he is implementing and managing a permaculture-style design on his 15-acre homestead. A weekly teacher of the Bible in his home church, Dan believes that an agrarian lifestyle is one in which he can answer God's calling to steward creation through regenerative techniques that attempt to mimic God's design.

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