15 June 2004

Religious ghettoes

    David, over at Oxblog, ruminates on the movie Saved!, and he muses about religious communities that live in some sort ot isolation from the larger world.

    I grew up in the community that Saved!
satirizes, and the first 30 minutes of the film were frighteningly
hilarious to me in ways that I think passed over the heads of the
Berkeley audience, as I sometimes was the only person laughing out loud
in the theatre.  I remember the whole culture of creating
alternative, parallel institutions to replicate and concurrently
counter the broader “secular” culture.  We had “Christian” rock,
rap, and heavy metal; “Christian” school systems; “Christian” yellow
pages and business directories; “Christian” media sources (not all of
the TBN or Pat Robertson variety); “Christian” sports leagues; and so
on.  Many of my friends went from kindergarten through college
entirely in a “Christian” educational system.  We were encouraged
to be “in the world, but not of the
world.”  We were concerned about too active an engagement with the
broader American culture, for fear that it would captivate us and bend
us away from the right and true way of living, transforming us for the
negative rather than allowing us to transform it for the “positive.”

    Several aspects of this parallelism have struck me
more and more the further that I get from this culture.  One
reason I put “Christian” in quotes above was that our understanding of
Christianity stayed remarkably restricted.  Other people may have
been Christians, like Catholics or perhaps some mainline Protestants or
Episcopalians (but those latter two were pretty suspicious in terms of
their Christianity), but they weren’t part of our “Christian”
community.  It’s not that we didn’t think they were not
Christians, just that we were sure that our Christianity was better,
more authentic, more trustworthy.  When I became an Episcopalian,
that was viewed with more than a little bit of suspicion — not because
of the possible Romishness of the ECUSA, but because of the perception
that Episcopalians were too liberal to really be Christians.

    But another aspect of this parallel society, which
tried to define itself apart from the larger culture, was that the
definition was both oppositional and entirely on the terms of the
larger culture.  If you think you’re in the world but not really
part of it, than much of your self-understanding comes from looking at
what you’re not part of and consciously going in another
direction.  So when you see that the culture’s sexual ethic has
changed from one which formerly matched yours — monogamy only in the
context of male-female marriage — you look at what the larger culture
is doing and declare it off-limits.  So sex, for example, in the
evangelical ghetto cannot include homo sex, no “casual” sex, no sex
within a committed relationship that has not been transformed into
marriage, no divorce except for infidelity, and so on.  And the
reasoning should be pretty obvious.  The theological view
determines the socio-political view here: God (and even more
importantly) our understanding of God do not change, so all the
structures that are tied into that God in some way are also worthy of
protection and resistance to change.  What do we do, however, if
our understanding of God is not immutable?  What if we begin to
understand human history as a narrative of nearly constant
change?  What happens to faith and life then?  I think this
dilemma has just begun to become acute for many American evangelicals,
but the full implications of what it means for their culture to undergo
revolution in paradigm (which is what might be happening) aren’t clear
to many of them.

    Even more interesting than the above definition by
defiance, many people in this culture do not seem to realize that the
process of defining as “in the world but not of the world” requires a
grounding in the very world that one seeks to deny.  Many
evangelicals seek to keep a wall between their community and the
surrounding culture, but at the same time, they understand themselves
to have an imperative to transform that world.  The necessity to
change requires engagement.  If one wants to attract people to
one’s project of transformation, one has to make it attractive. 
So you show that your culture is not significantly different from the
larger culture, that it has all the same stuff — school systems,
popular culture (of a sorts), cultural institutions, economics, and so
on.  But when you make “Christian” music, it sounds just like
“secular” music, especially given the fact that your group does not
have sufficient cultural power to set the terms of cultural
change.  So Christian music can never actually influence much of
the course of popular music; it can only react to how popular music
develops, changing one step behind the mainstream culture, after
consideration of how one can do that following and still “remain true
to your convictions.”  But it’s still this faint shadow of the
larger culture.  And you become tied into and integrally part of
that which you also deny.

    I mean none of this aspersively.  I don’t think
that evangelicals engage in doublethink about their social roles any
more than the rest of us who belong to groups that aren’t very
self-reflective do.  And I think the movie, in its somewhat
ham-handed way (as David pointed out in his post) recognizes that this
contradiction exists; but just like evangelicals, it doesn’t know quite
what to make of it, and it’s at those points that the humor and satire
fall flat and the ending becomes a bit too pat.

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One Response to “Religious ghettoes”

  1. James Stewart Says:

    I’ve always been tempted to use the phrase “of the world, but not in it”. Certainly that was how my first experience of a “christian bookstore’ in the US struck me.

    We have yet to see the film. My wife and I are hoping to see it soon, and I’m eager to compare our experiences. She having grown up in “Christian schools” in the US and I having grown up a church-goer in the UK, suspicious of the concept of “Christian schools” much less “Christian colleges”.

    I’m hoping it’ll make a good blog entry for me too 🙂