How culture shapes us
In her important book The End of Sexual Identity, anthropologist Jenell Williams notes an important principle that we ignore at our peril. She writes, “Desires, however biologically grounded, are formed by culture; we can’t want what we don’t know” (61). Later she quotes another anthropologist to conclude: “What people want, and what they do, in any society, is to a large extent what they are made to want, and allowed to do….” (61). The immediate context of Williams’s writing concerns the nature of sexual identity. However, the principle applies to any desire, not simply our sexual desires. If you wish to understand a culture, note desires it creates its membership.
A corollary the aphorism above is that if you wish to know what a culture really values you may do so by noting the severity of the reaction to propositions that contradict those values.
Take for example the now famous “you didn’t build that” line from the 2012 presidential election cycle. A neighbor responded to the (public perception of) President Obama’s words: “like hell I didn’t!” A strong reaction and one that reverberated across social media sites.
The underlying notion that the president challenged is that George built his business by his own hard work. George asserts, to the contrary, that yes it was his hard work that built the business. Who’s right?
Both. One of the most powerful myths of our current moment is the myth of individualism or the myth of the meritocracy. Does this mean that people who build strong, successful businesses don’t work hard? Certainly not. In fact, hard work and perseverance may well be the single biggest reason for business success. It’s not 100% of the reason however.
As Dinesh D’Souza notes in The Virtue of Prosperity business success often comes about because of the mixture of hard work, a good idea, a strong network, and willing customers. Factor out hard work and it’s unlikely you’ll succeed. However it does take more than hard work.
It’s a worthwhile exercise to consider the desires that under gird the moral sentiments or policy proposals that get bandied around both on the campaign trail and other places equally seedy, social media sites.
Reactions to the following all tell us something about our cultural goods:
- the revocation of the payroll tax holiday
- reforming gun laws to limit access to assault rifles and assault weapons.
- Congress’s failure to provide economic relief for those affected by Superstorm Sandy
- North Carolina’s successful passage of Constitutional Amendment defining marriage as between a man and woman
Of course, the Christian must go further. The Christian must also measure his response in the light both of Scripture (ultimately) and the church’s reflection on Scripture over the centuries (persuasive but not necessarily binding). To do this, the Christian has to be part of a community of people who together are taking the vocation of following Christ seriously.
We call this, the church. And of all the allegiances that you owe membership in the church is one of the most significant. It is the micro-culture in which you will be formed to faithfully follow Christ and the base out of which you will go into the world to bear witness to Christ in your vocations.
How is the church–in its local expression–helping to form you for faithful living in a fallen world?