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Society and Culture

Richard John Neuhaus on the Social Contract

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The myth of a covenant, we are told, is simply no longer believable. From Thomas Hobbes in the seventeenth century through John Rawls in the twentieth, it was replaced by the myth of the social contract. I expect people counted the myth of the social contract more believable because it was a myth of their own creation. It was a fiction pure and simple, but it had the attraction of being our fiction. According to this story, human beings emerged from a “state of nature” in order to constitute society. Or, in the case of John Rawls, they are behind a pre-social “veil of ignorance” making deals with one another according to their calculated self-interest and thus bringing “society,” with its key idea of justice, into being. No matter how sophisticated, or at least complicated, theories of social contract may be, they are as thoroughly made up as nursery tales. In fact, there are not and never have been human beings apart from societies. The individual person does not emerge from isolation into society but from society. Some societies are called primitive and some are called advanced, but society is the constant in the human story. The “state of nature” and “veil of ignorance” are fables; nobody has ever encountered, nor can we even plausibly hypothesize, persons apart from society.

Richard John Neuhaus on American Exceptionalism

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Americans have at times “theologized” their history, seeing this experiment as an instrument — maybe even the instrument — of God’s unfolding purposes. That way of thinking has been out of fashion for some time now. When it was in vogue, it was sometimes attended by a doctrine of American “exceptionalism” so exaggerated that American purposes were depicted in angelic hues, untouched by the ambiguities, corruptions, and lust for power associated with mere mortals… The caution is always in order. Those who think of themselves as angels may end up by giving themselves license to do things that are, in fact, quite beastly.

The Proper Study of Mankind

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Oxford professor, philosopher, and historian of ideas, the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-97) was also one of the finest English essayists in the 20th century. This retrospective collection of 17 of his best essays surveys his entire career as a thinker, including his work in political philosophy and the philosophy of history, his thoughts on the Enlightenment, Vico, and Machiavelli, and his passion for Russian literature. Reprinted are such seminal essays as "Two Concepts Liberty" and "The Hedgehog and the Fox," as well as his reflections on Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Edited by scholars Hardy and Hausheer, who also provides an introduction, and with a foreword by Noel Annan, this book also includes a helpful bibliography. A fitting epitaph for a man passionately and eloquently devoted to ideas. ~ Library Journal

From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present

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Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has now set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500. In this account, Barzun describes what Western Man wrought from the Renaisance and Reformation down to the present in the double light of its own time and our pressing concerns. He introduces characters and incidents with his unusual literary style and grace, bringing to the fore those that have “Puritans as Democrats,” “The Monarch’s Revolution,” “The Artist Prophet and Jester” — show the recurrent role of great themes throughout the eras.  The triumphs and defeats of five hundred years form an inspiring saga that modifies the current impression of one long tale of oppression by white European males. Women and their deeds are prominent, and freedom (even in sexual matters) is not an invention of the last decades. And when Barzun rates the present not as a culmination but a decline, he is in no way a prophet of doom. Instead, he shows decadence as the creative novelty that will burst forth — tomorrow or the next day. Only after a lifetime of separate studies covering a broad territory could a writer create with such ease the synthesis displayed in this magnificent volume.

Tom Wolfe on Bases in the Hookup Culture

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Back in the twentieth century, American girls had used baseball terminology. “First base” referred to embracing and kissing; “second base” referred to groping and fondling and deep, or “French,” kissing, commonly known as “heavy petting”; “third base” referred to fellatio, usually known in polite conversation by the ambiguous term “oral sex”; and “home plate” meant conception-mode intercourse, known familiarly as “going all the way.” In the year 2000, in the era of hooking up, “first base” meant deep kissing (which was now known as “tonsil hockey”), and the groping, and the fondling; “second base” meant oral sex; “third base” meant going all the way; and “home plate” meant . . . learning each other’s names. Getting to home plate was relatively rare, however.

Phillip E. Johnson on Teaching That God Played No Role

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It is not surprising that in a country where the vast majority of citizens believe in God, it is controversial to require that the public schools teach as fact (or as implicit in the very definition of “science”) that God played no discernible part in the creation of plants, animals and human beings. It is also not surprising that many citizens, unpersuaded by official reassurances that “science and religion are separate realms,” suspect that a religious or antireligious ideology lies behind the enormous importance science educators attach to persuading young people that evolution is their creator.

Sterling Newberry on Citizenship

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To be a citizen is, literally, to be “of the city” — the very fractiousness that makes a city means that a “civic sense” is going to be not a monument, but a river which is constantly carving out new channels, overflowing its banks, absorbing new tributaries and branching out into deltas. It is a spirit that pervades urban life at its best, which creates a sense of openness and possibity, and importantly a sense of the possibility of creating a community of choice — the hall mark of the city is that one may find, whatever ones interests and ideas, at least some small number of people who share them to an intensity that you may gather together as a group to advance them. The great urban flowerings of the past — for example Pharonic Thebes, Classical Athens, Hellenistic Alexandria, Moghul Dehli, Augustinian Rome, Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan London, Romantic Paris, Fin de la Siecle Vienna, Weimar Berlin, Modern New York – shows what it is capable of producing in its hey dey. The imperfection of civic life is, to me, part of the dynamic energy which makes it exciting. Utopian ideals are for idyllic rural colonies in the hills, where serenity reigns and there is a quiet exclusivity. Urbanity is the profane orgy of human excitement wrapped in the fine control of a sacred sense of polity.

Phillip E. Johnson on Journalistic Narratives

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The creation-evolution controversy is one of those subjects that has become standardized in the press. I sometimes have the impression that journalists just click on a “bash creationism” macro in their word processors and sit back while the printer pours out a string of cliches: the Catholic Church persecuted Galileo, the Scopes trial in 1925 should have settled this matter, the Bible is not a scientific textbook, scientists agree that “evolution has occurred,” mainstream religious leaders say that God and evolution are compatible, and the country will fall into ruin if evolution is not emphasized in the schools. Even the feeble witticisms are standardized, as columnists either exploit the irony that “creationism is evolving” or speculate that the next creationist move will be to declare the earth flat, while the editorial cartoonists caricature opponents of Darwinism as apemen. The journalistic macro learned what little it knows about the subject from polemics by scientific materialists like Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, who are accepted by journalists as impartial authorities because they speak in the name of “science.” So the macro defines creationists as Bible thumpers who either are ignorant of the scientific evidence that contradicts their position or choose to disregard it. From that starting point it is inconceivable that creationists could have any rational arguments to make, and you can cite just about anything you like, from fossils to finch beaks to pesticide resistance, to make them look like people blind to facts. There is no need to try to understand the dissenting point of view because according to the macro all doubts about evolution are irrational by definition.

Paul Weyrich on Politics and Culture

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The reason, I think, is that politics itself has failed. And politics has failed because of the collapse of the culture. The culture is becoming an ever-wider sewer. We are caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.

Don Eberly on Religion and Politics

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The problem has not been expecting too little of politics, but far too much. True conservatism brings a natural skepticism to the reforming possibilities of politics. It sees as its first job the long-term cultivation of character, culture, and community. It views politics as “downstream” from culture, more reflecting it than shaping it. Conservatism avoids excessively politicizing religion or religionizing politics because genuine religious faith stirs allegiances that transcend nation and ideology. The Scriptures would counsel even more skepticism about both the possibilities of politics and the form in which it should be practiced.

Gene Edward Veith on the Culture War

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Actually, Christian have made inroads into many culture-making professions, but they are often too timid and too eager to be liked to be waging a war. Christian colleges have the potential to be a powerful resource for the church in the intellectual battles against unbelief. And yet, Christian academicians are often so eager to seem intellectually respectable to their non-Christian peers that they capitulate at the first sign of blood. Instead of entering into intellectual combat by trying to refute the untruths of today’s intellectual establishment, many evangelical theologians are busy trying to find a way to make them compatible with a revised version of Christianity.

Gene Edward Veith on the Culture War

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And Christians should remember that the culture war is not going to be like Desert Storm, in which victory and defeat were settled in a matter of days. It will be more like the Thirty Years War. Or the Hundred Years War. If Christian are serious about waging a war for the culture, they must not be discouraged by single defeats or unrealistically elated by single victories. They must be in it for the long haul.

The Top 100 Works of Journalism

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Sometime, somewhere, some anthropologist must have explored that tribal ritual: the greatest-hits list. These lists date back at least to the seven wonders of the ancient world. They reflect the importance of some area of tribal endeavor — monumental architecture, say, or rock-and-roll. And they establish hierarchies; how better to show your pre-eminence in the pecking order than to rank everyone else? Journalists, trained to make their value judgments in neat pyramid style, most important facts first, could hardly be expected to resist the millennial listing urge. If Modern Library can cause a stir with its list of 100 best novels and the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame can take abuse for its top 500, why shouldn’t journalists share in the fun? ~ Felicity Barringer in the New York Times

How the News Makes Us Dumb

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We who live at the end of the twentieth century are better informed — and more quickly informed — than any people in history. So why do we also seem more confused, divided and foolish than ever before? Some pundits criticize the news media for political bias. Other analysts worry that up-to-the-minute news reports on radio and television oversimplify complex realities. Still more critics point out that today’s reporters can’t possibly be experts on the wide variety of subjects they cover. Historian C. John Sommerville thinks the problem with news is more basic. Focusing his critique on the news at its best, he concludes that even at its best it is beyond repair. Sommerville argues that news began to make us dumber when we insisted on having it daily. Now millions of column inches and airtime hours must be filled with information — every day, every hour, every minute. The news, Sommerville says, becomes the driving force for much of our public culture. News schedules turn politics into a perpetual campaign. News packaging influences the timing, content and perception of government initiatives. News frenzies make a superstition out of scientific and medical research. News polls and statistics create opinion as much as they gauge it. Lost in the tidal wave of information is our ability to discern truly significant news–and our ability to recognize and participate in true community. This eye-opening book is for everyone dissatisfied with the state of the news media, but especially for those who think the news really informs them about and connects them with the real world. Read it and you may never again know the tyranny of the daily newspaper or the nightly news broadcast.

Dallas Willard on Cussing

Go Recently cultural observers have noted the overwhelming rise in the use of filthy language, especially among young people. Curiously, few have been able to find any grounds for condemning it other than personal taste. How strange! Can it be that they actually find contempt acceptable, or are unable to recognize it? Filthy language and name calling is always an expression of contempt. The current swarm of filthy language floats upon the sea of contempt in which our society is now adrift.

Dallas Willard on Adultery

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Intimacy is the mutual mingling of souls who are taking each other into themselves to ever increasing depths. The truly erotic is the mingling of souls. Because we are free beings, intimacy cannot be passive or forced. And because we are extremely finite, it must be exclusive. This is the metaphysical and spiritual reality that underlies the bitter violation of self experienced by the betrayed mate. It also makes clear the scarred and shallow condition of those who betray. ¶ One of the most telling things about contemporary human beings is that they cannot find a reason for not committing adultery. Yet intimacy is a spiritual hunger of the human soul, and we cannot escape it. This has always been true and remains true today. We now keep hammering the sex button in the hope that a little intimacy might finally dribble out. In vain.

J.P. Moreland on the Loss of Knowledge

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Once the existence of knowable truth in religion and ethics is denied, authority (the right to be believed and obeyed) give way to power (the ability to force compliance), reason gives way to rhetoric, the speech writer is replaced by the makeup man, and spirited but civil debate in the culture wars is replaced by politically correct special-interest groups who have nothing left but political coercion to enforce their views on others. While the Christian faith clearly teaches that believers are to be involved as good citizens in the state, nevertheless, it is obvious why so many secularists are addicted to politics today because political power is a surrogate for a Higher Power.

David James Duncan on Sex and Making Babies

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One of the first things I ever said to you was that I’m old-fashioned where romance is concerned. "A dinosaur I think I called myself. Being a dinosaur, I made a huge exception to my own laws of survival when I started living with you. But I didn’t start living with you because I’d changed. I did it because I couldn’t help it. There’s a big difference. I never really thought we were living "in sin” (I’m not that Paleolithic.) But we were living with dangerously little definition by my standards, which standards are based, by the way, on my belief that romance isn’t just romance, that it naturally leads to love-making, which naturally leads to babies, who are naturally helpless creatures in a naturally beautiful but lethal world, so they naturally need as many pieces of the ancient Father-Mother-Shaman-Tribe-Home-hearth Paradigm as we are able to gracefully give them.

Material Christianity

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It’s tough to be devout and kitschy at the same time, but Colleen McDannell strikes that delicate balance with admirable poise in Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America. Her book is an argument that “American Christians … want to see, hear, and touch God. It is not enough for Christians to go to church, lead a righteous life, and hope for an eventual place in heaven.” This argument is amply defended by smart essays about family Bibles, gravestone design, and Lourdes Water, as well as hundreds of illustrations of vestments, churches, portraits of Jesus, rapture T-shirts, and backyard statues of Our Lady. Where Material Christianity gets really interesting, however, is in its assertion that “Christian material culture does not simply reflect an existing reality. Experiencing the physical dimension of religion helps bring about religious values, norms, behaviors, and attitudes.” For example, the warmth and intimacy of Warner Sallman’s painting “Head of Christ,” which hung in almost every Protestant Sunday School classroom in America until the 1960s, was probably every bit as influential as any given phrase from the Sermon on the Mount in determining the personal nature of Protestants’ relationships with Jesus. Material Christianity covers a lot of ground — from Mormonism to fundamentalism — and every chapter is as theologically wise as it as aesthetically astute. ~ Amazon.com

Exclusion and Embrace

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Life at the end of the twentieth century presents us with a disturbing reality. Otherness, the simple fact of being different in some way, has come to be defined as in and of itself evil. Miroslav Volf contends that if the healing word of the gospel is to be heard today, Christian theology must find ways of speaking that address the hatred of the other. Reaching back to the New Testament metaphor of salvation as reconciliation, Volf proposes the idea of embrace as a theological response to the problem of exclusion. Increasingly we see that exclusion has become the primary sin, skewing our perceptions of reality and causing us to react out of fear and anger to all those who are not within our (ever-narrowing) circle. In light of this, Christians must learn that salvation comes, not only as we are reconciled to God, and not only as we “learn to live with one another,” but as we take the dangerous and costly step of opening ourselves to the other, of enfolding him or her in the same embrace with which we have been enfolded by God.

Alister McGrath on Orpheus’ Approach

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If the world seems attractive, the Christian must ensure that God, as its creator, is seen to be even more attractive. The world reflects the attractiveness of its creator, as the moon reflects the light of the sun. ¶ Two incidents from classical Greek mythology suggest themselves here. Homer introduces us to the Sirens, a group of women whose singing was so seductive that they caused sailors to crash their vessels through inattention to their duties. When Ulysses was attempting to sail his ship past the Sirens, he prevented the Sirens from causing any difficulties by the simple expedient of blocking his sailors’ ears so that they could not hear the captivating Siren song. Orpheus, on the other hand, was a skilled lyre player. His method of dealing with this kind of threat was rather indifferent. He played his lyre, the music of which proved so enchanting and fascinating that its beauty totally outweighed anything else.

John Perry Barlow on Freedom, Tolerance, and Fear

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It seems to me that elsewhere in America liberty is far more a matter of law than practice. The Bill of Rights is still on the books and they’d have a hell of a time putting you in jail for just saying something, but how free are we? Whatever the guarantees, I believe liberty resides in its exercise. Liberty is really about the ability to feel free and behave accordingly. You are only as free as you act. Free people must be willing to speak up … and listen. They can’t merely consume the fruits of freedom, they have to produce them. This exercise of liberty requires that people trust one another and the institutions they make together. They have to feel at home in their society. Well, Americans don’t appear to trust each other much these days. Why else would we employ three times more lawyers per capita than we did in 1970? Why else would our universities be so determined to impose tolerance that they’ll expel you for saying what you think and never notice the irony? Why else would we teach our kids to fear all strangers? Why else have we become so afraid to look one another in the eye? We have come to regard trust as foolishness and fear as necessary. We live in terror that the people around us might figure out what we’re actually thinking. Frankly, this America doesn’t feel very free to me at all. What has happened to our liberty? I think much of the answer lies in the critical difference between information and experience. These days we view most of our world through a television screen. Most of our knowledge comes from information about things, not experience with them.

The Culture We Deserve

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In twelve wise, stimulating essays and lectures, a noted Columbia University scholar examines today’s declining culture. Ours, he observes with disgust and discernment, is a period of specialization in which the “torrent of information” compiled is unnecessary, in which college students are diverted to the “minutiae of analytic methodism,” in which the over-production of art has made us into “gluttons who gorge and do not digest.” Barzun examines aspects of literary and art criticism, retrospective sociology, the abandonment of intelligibility, the “rhetoric of numbers,” the effects of relativism on moral behavior and the differences between Art with a capital A , “high art,” public art and domestic art. He avers that the oversupply of fine art increases the need for subsidies; yet, although we pay farmers not to grow crops, we do not pay artists to stop making art. Still, Barzun is consoled by the realization that as long as humans exist, there is hope for “new” civilization and all its works. ~ Reed Business Information, Inc.

Foolishness to the Greeks

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How can biblical authority be a reality for those shaped by the modern world? This book treats the First World as a mission field, offering a unique perspective on the relationship between the gospel and current society by presenting an outsider’s view of contemporary Western culture. “This is an extraordianry book on contemporary missiology. Writing from four decades of experience in Christian mission, Lesslie Newbigin applies the same discernment involved in contextualizing the gospel in another culture to the issues involved in contextualizing the gospel in our Western culture. He lays bare the pervasive and sublte synergism that alters the gospel, and he calls us to a thorough critique of our culture and of the way in which we understand or misunderstand the gospel of Christ and his good news of the kingdom of God.” ~ Mission Focus

Francis A. Schaeffer on Theological Terms

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If we wish to communicate, then we must take time and trouble to learn our hearers’ use of languages so that they understand what we intend to convey. This is particularly difficult today for us as Christians when we want to use a world like God or guilt in a strictly defined sense rather than as a connotative word, because the concepts of these words
have changed universally. In a case like this, either we must try to find a synonymous word without a false connotation, or else we have to define the word at length when we use it, so that we make sure our hearer understands as fully as possible what we are conveying. I suggest that if the word (or phrase) we are in the habit of using is no more than an orthodox evangelical cliché which has become a technical term among Christians, then we should be willing to give it up
when we step outside our own narrow circle and talk to the people around us. If, on the other hand, the word is indispensable, such as the word God, then we should talk at sufficient length to make ourselves clear.