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“It’s the Culture, Stupid”

In light of today’s historic Supreme Court decision prohibiting states from defining marriage as it has always been defined — between one man and one woman (even polygamous societies wouldn’t dream of extending marriage to homosexuals) — it’s important to remember that we did not lose the same-sex marriage battle today but, rather, over the last 40 years: on the cultural battlefields, on cable TV and in Hollywood, in schools of architecture and educational theory, in pop music studios and art houses. As elitist as this might sound, until we recapture these spheres of contemporary life, progressive radicals will continue to capture the seats of the most visible political power. Politics is downstream from culture. The progressive radicals discovered this critical factor as early as Italian revisionist-Marxist Antonio Gramsci. If we expect the next 40 years of our culture to be different from the last 40, we had better discover it soon – and act on it.

Our mantra must be, “It’s the culture, stupid.”

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To Re-Create the Universe

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The greatest invention of Romanticism was the invention of the reinvention of the self.[1] Before Romanticism, in Christian culture, and even the Enlightenment, the goal of the self was to conform to external reality. In the case of Christianity, that was God’s revealed law. In Enlightenment, that was universal human reason and experience. With Romanticism, and its famous “inward turn,” the individual man, not the collective man (as ancient Greece and the Renaissance had posited), became the measure of all things. For the Romantics: every man gets to measure, is the measure. The Romantics were all artists, tortured artists, and they held the artist in the highest regard. Why? The artist alone, not the engineer or scientist or politician, can create — out of nothing. The artist devises his own world, and the highest work of art is man himself. Man is the quintessential work of art.

If this late 18th century sentiment sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Romanticism is the root of postmodernism, which claims that all of human society is a social construction. We are the makers of our society, of ourselves. And in making ourselves, we make the world.[2] The most popular example of this self-invention is “gender,” the postmodernization of sex, which once meant male and female, while gender today necessitates literally infinite variations, from transgender to bigender to gender nonconforming to pangender to androgyny. Facebook now offers 51 gender identifications, but surely this is far too few. Gender is no longer a given. It is an invention. In principle, every single individual should be able to invent his own, unique gender. The number of genders could conceivably equal the world’s population.

But increasingly in recent years, the socially constructed reality of postmodernism was itself found to be too constricting. It still implicitly acknowledged that there was a “given” in (or as) the universe, available for human reinvention. Humanity had control over the use of this given, but not its existence. In old philosophical language, ontology (being) was that given. This given was what in Christian terms had been called nature or creation.

Over the last few years, ontology itself has been forced to surrender its givenness. As Brian Mattson commented to me, “Ontology is now a social construction.” Not merely human society, not merely culture, not merely categories of life, but reality itself. Not merely whether one will be a man or woman, but how a man and a woman and any other gender is defined or, for that matter, whether man and woman or any specific gender should exist at all. Ultimately, this means not simply the reordering of the given reality, but the re-creation of reality. “What imparts order by binding and unbinding,” writes Guignon of Romanticism, “is neither something in the cosmos itself nor a transcendent creator and source of being. It is the human mind that defines and creates the order of being it encounters.”[3] Man is himself the re-creator of the universe.

It is hard not to see in aspects of the digital revolution, in “virtual reality,” a blatant gnostic element that makes this socially constructed ontology such a panting hope for progressives. The human body is one of the greatest barriers to re-creation (God, after all, the Creator, is spirit), so the body must be circumvented. But the present human body seems to have been adapted (the old, outmoded, Christian word would be “designed”) for Earth. Therefore, overcoming the limitations of this planet will also be on the ontological re-engineering agenda. Autonomous human imagination – the body and its terrestrial environment = a new universe.

All of this is simply the outworking of human autonomy launched in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), the serpentine promise that man will be as God. It is the same impetus reflected collectively in the erecting of the Tower of Babel recorded in Genesis 11. Sinful man is not content to be human. In order to be human, he must be God. The ultimate act of human autonomy is to do what only God can do: create. The irony is that, in attempting to become God, man becomes inhumane (see Genesis 6). The quest for utopia always ends in dystopia.[4]

Because the universe is God’s universe, because it is, in fact, God-rigged, these plans for re-creating the universe will inevitably and invariably fail, and the more spectacular they are, the more spectacularly they will fail. All those who hate God and his wisdom love death (Prov. 8:3). We need not worry, therefore, whether the grand universe-re-creating plans will succeed.

We only need worry how disastrous will be the fallout when they fail.


[1] Charles Guignon, Being Authentic (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), 49–77.
[2] Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy (New York; Anchor, 1967, 1969), 3.
[3] Charles Guignon, Being Authentic, 63.
[4] Thomas Molnar, Utopia, The Perennial Heresy (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1967). 
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Against “The Simple Life”

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A popular error relating to concentrations of wealth is manifested in pious calls for “the simple life.” This is the idea that we should make do with less and less — almost subsistence living. (Not quite: after all, good Christian Americans, even the economic moralizers, still need absolute necessities like corn-fueled cars and fresh organic pomegranate juice. It takes lots of money to live the “simple” lifestyle these days.)

Still, the idea is that we are helping the economy and not oppressing others if we spend less and buy almost everything used and live as much as possible on the bare necessities.

It would be hard to envision a more selfish, self-centered, economically catastrophic strategy.

Let me illustrate this truth by a conversation I once had. A friend and I were talking about Christians and wealth. He stated, “There’s no reason for a Christian to spend $80,000 for a car. Nobody needs an $80,000 car. That’s just plain wrong!”

I said, “Why would you want to snatch food from the table of little, needy children? Why would you want to promote poverty and throw people out of work.”

He apparently wasn’t following, so I explained: “Some of the workers who made that $80,000 car don’t even make $80,000 a year. They have children to feed. They feed those children with the payment they get from the $80,000 that a rich man or woman spends on the car they make. But if people quit buying these cars under the guise of piety, they lose that livelihood and their children suffer.”

I said something else to him: “If nobody needs an $80,000 car, why do they need a $15,000 van like you drive? $15,000! Do you know much food $15,000 will buy? You could walk or make it on a bicycle. By much of the world’s standards, a $15,000 van is a luxury. It’s not in principle any less luxurious than an $80,000 Mercedes, certainly not to people in much of the Third World.”

But this problem with “the simple life” is lost on too many of the economically pious.

There’s an important fact that too many people seem unaware of: A large and prosperous middle class is impossible without a leisure and luxury culture. The reason many of us can have a comfortable life is that a few very rich people buy luxury goods and services that the lower and middle classes help provide.

Which is to say that “the simple life” is a form of pious self-indulgence. It harms good, hard-working people. It’s a high price to pay for aversion to paying high prices for luxury goods.

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