In our last few articles, we defined what culture is Biblically, then we started taking a look at the religious nature of culture. We saw that it has its own practices that shape us (its liturgies) and its stories that give meaning (its doctrine). In this article we take a look at the third religious marker of culture, the groups that define us or culture’s communities.
Groups that define us
We are created to be social or communal beings - truly, no man is an island. This is a good thing as the Lord Himself affirms that it is not good for man to be alone (Gen. 2:18).
We naturally form groups and as such, we create identity markers that reinforce belonging to those groups. For example, politically - MAGA hats in the US, for better or for worse, became a strong symbol of belonging to a particular political party and personality. We all do this - whether it is in company branded clothing, activist groups, churches, sports clubs and teams, or even hobbies.
I. Our Sinful Tribalism
Some interesting experiments by a Polish psychologist - Henri Tajfel - show just how hard-wired we are to form groups and social connections. In the 1960s, Tajfel performed a series of experiments where people were divided up into groups based on trivial and random criteria - such as flipping a coin. What he found is that no matter how trivial or minimal the distinctions were between the groups, people tended to favour those in their own groups above others when asked to distribute money or even arbitrary points to people only identified to them by their groups.
One particularly interesting experiment had participants hooked up to an fMRI machine and watched videos of people’s hands being pricked by either a needle or a Q-tip. When the hand being pricked with a needle was labelled with the participant’s own religion it was observed that the participant’s brain activity spiked in areas having to do with pain than when the same hand was shown with a different religious label! This held true when the experiment was repeated with arbitrary group assignments decided by a coin toss instead of religious labels. The experiment proved that we naturally don’t feel as much empathy for those who we see as “other”. (Experiment described in Haidt & Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind, p. 57-58) Our sinful dispositions lead us to tribalism.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that today, many people’s social lives tend to be shaped significantly by social media - our Facebook pages have hundreds of ‘friends’ whom we have maybe never met. They are disembodied to us and embodiment is critical for developing empathy towards others. There is a certain disassociation that happens when our only interaction with someone is mediated by a screen - they become just a name and picture instead of an embodied soul. This is why social media can so quickly degenerate into the worst displays of human depravity towards one another - spewing verbal vitriol we would otherwise never do in person when we have to come face to face with their common humanity. Gene Veith comments on the social climate of the internet:
“This context makes it easier to dehumanize people—they have no faces, no bodies—and thus to treat them viciously. You treat them as abstractions, personifications of the ideas or qualities you hate, rather than as tangible “neighbors” whom the Bible enjoins us to love.” (Gene Edward Veith Jr., Post-Christian, p. 175)
Additionally, real world social groups necessitate us interacting with people who differ from ourselves. In a real-world golf club, for example, one must navigate interactions with people from different political spectrums, phases of life, religion, race, etc. However, now because of our online social lives, we create social groups based on shared commonalities and perpetuate tribalism.
“Groups that consist solely of individuals who are like each other, as in online communities, will often define themselves by their opposition to other groups. This is a formula for social discord.” (Gene Edward Veith Jr., Post-Christian, p. 174-175)
II. Us vs Them
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, a secular lawyer and social psychologist, in their New York Times best selling book, The Coddling of the American Mind, describe three great ‘untruths’ that have been spread in our culture today. One of them is the ‘untruth’ of Us versus Them which says that life is a battle between good people and bad people. It sees life primarily through the lens of conflict and differences.
“The combination of common-enemy identity politics and microaggression training creates an environment highly conducive to the development of a "call-out culture," in which students gain prestige for identifying small offenses committed by members of their community, and then publicly "calling out" the offenders. One gets no points, no credit, for speaking privately and gently with an offender-in fact, that could be interpreted as colluding with the enemy… Life in a call-out culture requires constant vigilance, fear, and self censorship. Many in the audience may feel sympathy for the person being shamed but are afraid to speak up, yielding the false impression that the audience is unanimous in its condemnation.” (Lukianoff & Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind, p. 71-72)
This has led also to the cultural phenomenon of “virtue signaling” - the practice of saying/doing things for the public eye to be seen as virtuous and avoid the ire of the cultural mob. We see this in Hollywood and celebrity culture which seems compelled to constantly signal their morals and politics constantly - even though these actors usually have no experience or expertise in the issues to which they speak. “Movie stars and directors, for example, have become agents of moral revolution - they create a cinematic experience designed for moral persuasion.” (R. Albert Mohler, The Gathering Storm, p. 146) This trend has gained so much momentum in our day that even those from the political and moral left have started speaking out against it. Trent Eady, a Canadian LBGTQ activist, wrote:
“Thinking this way quickly divides the world into an ingroup and an outgroup-believers and heathens, the righteous and the wrong-teous.... Every minor heresy inches you further away from the group. When I was part of groups like this, everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues. Internal disagreement was rare.”
In a culture that has lost its belief in God and anything transcendent, politics becomes the new religion. Without the Gospel, there is no sure grounding for unity - and so we become tribalistic and hostile to one another. This is also why every issue today seems to become politicized. If everything is about power struggles and being in the right group or crowd, we can understand the appeal to look for salvation in political solutions.
What Can We Do?
Even our best technological solutions will not help us in this battle. However, the Gospel gives us something more powerful: a common humanity rooted in the imago Dei and for the church - Christ-centred unity bought by His blood.
In modern Western society, we have a tendency to over-emphasize the individual. This has even seeped into the church, where we sometimes minimize the importance of churchgoing, emphasizing small-group Bible study or personal devotion over large congregational worship. Gene Veith notes, “American evangelicalism too can unintentionally create the impression that since a personal relationship with Christ is all-important, the corporate side of traditional Christianity is superfluous.” However, Veith continues,
“Christians withdrawing from church while retaining (to some degree) their Christianity is parallel with the other trends we have been discussing: nones formulating their own interior religions; being “spiritual” (having a private religion) but not “religious” (adhering to institutional religion). Not wanting to be a part of a religious community is one facet of the larger lack of community that we have been chronicling: the privatization of truth; the isolation of living in the Internet; the illusory relationships of social media; the breakdown of our families, municipalities, and politics.” (Gene Edward Veith Jr., Post-Christian, p. 272-273)
Many churches are being secularized from within by this.
III. Counter-Cultural Community
Given the powerful force of our culture’s groups - we can see why scripture warns us: “Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good character.” (1 Cor. 15:33)
The Bible gives us a powerful counter-culture to our culture’s hyper-individualism and tribalism of Us versus Them. It is found in the authentic expression of Biblical community. When we show self-sacrificing love for others as described in Philippians 2, or genuine love for the brethren in word and deed as in 1 John 3, or live out our oneness in Christ which breaks down the racial dividing wall as in Ephesians 2, or show impartiality as in James 2 - we are modeling for the world a counter-cultural community. Our culture wants to define us by its groups. However, we are already defined by our membership in a group: the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. That should be the primary group we find identity in.
Now is the time for us to push even more into Christian community within the local church. For in the church, we are a covenant community bound to one another in Christ. We have said that, “there are many other communities out there, but this one is mine. These are my people and we’re going to work things out for the glory of Christ.”
We cannot face this cultural moment alone - we’ll get eaten alive. When it will cost us dearly to hold to the Christian faith - in jobs, social prestige, and reputation - without a community around you, you will crumble. However, it becomes more bearable when we know we have brothers and sisters around us who have our backs. We are able to be courageous together.
Questions for reflection
How have you felt the pull of our sinful tendency towards tribalism (being partial to people who are in your own groups) in your own life?
Have you ever felt like everything is becoming politicized today? How has this affected you and your willingness to speak on certain topics?
How does your membership in our local church and Christian community practically affect your identity and daily life?
How much of your life is defined by your relationship to your local church? How difficult or easy would it be for you to move to another church or area?
We’ve covered a lot in this article series. We’ve looked at a Biblical definition of culture and the effects of the Fall on culture. We’ve seen the religious nature of culture in its practices (liturgies), stories (doctrine) and groups (community). Next week, as we end off this article series on a theology of culture, we’ll conclude by considering what we are to do as Christians in response to these truths.
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Articles in this series:
Series Introduction (Nov 4)
Our Culture's Communities | Groups that Define Us (Nov 25)
*Dates are when the articles are scheduled to be published.