Jean Bethke Elshtain
With or Against Culture?
In 2006 we are asking a series of contributors a provocative question: How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good? There are few writers who have explored the inherent tensions in this question more thoroughly than Jean Bethke Elshtain. As a political theorist, she has focused her attention on the common good in an era when her fellow scholars have often been busy retreating into more limited and provisional assessments of the political task. Spanning a wide range of topics, from the morality of war to genetic engineering to capitalism's incursions on family life, informed and cited by thinkers both secular and religious, her writings and lectures are indispensable evidence of a Christian mind at work. Readers who find this essay compelling should make time for her book Who Are We?, a searching inventory of contemporary culture that sustains surprising optimism alongside incisive critique. If Christians are to be an effective counterculture, as Elshtain argues here, we will require the critical hopefulness that she models so well.
Christ against culture; the Christ of culture; Christ above culture; Christ and culture in paradox; and Christ as transformer of culturethese are the possibilities enumerated by H. Richard Niebuhr in his classic work. I take these to be strong tendencies rather than airtight laws of Christian engagement, often with considerable overlap between categories. They can help us to take our bearings as we reflect on the question of a counterculture for the common good. Clearly the question presupposes not one but at least two of Niebuhr's models: both Christ against culture and Christ as transformer of culture.
In our time, these are not mutually exclusive. As a stand-alone posture, against too often turns into brittle condemnation, a stance of haughty (presumed) moral superiority, wagons circled. Transform on its own may degenerate into naïve idealism, even utopianism, a stance concerning which Dietrich Bonhoeffer reserved some of his most severe words. The radical begrudges God his creation, Bonhoeffer insists, for the radical seeks a self-sovereignty incompatible with recognition of our indebtedness to others in the past as well as the present. The radical is all ultimacy, prepared to sacrifice the penultimate, the here and now, for some eschatological goal.
Avoiding these extremes, we must see Christ against and for, agonistic and affirmative, arguing and embracing. This is complex but, then, Christianity is no stranger to complexity. One of the glories of the faith historically has been its wonderful intricacy, the way in which it engages the intellect, helping us to "serve God wittily, in the tangle of our minds," words uttered by the St. Thomas More character in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons. What can Christians embrace in the here and now? The blessings are all around us. In my book Who Are We? Critical Reflections, Hopeful Possibilities, I tell the story of one of our grandsons, who, when he was but two years old, exclaimed one beautiful sunny morning as he was swinging in the backyard: "Grandma, everything is everywhere!" I loved those words then and I love them now. They remind us of how much there is to be grateful for and how easy it is to take it all for granted.
I don't want to wax romantic and sound like Wordsworth extolling daffodils, but it is hard not to sound that way if one attempts to describe the beauties of creation. Even St. Augustine, wary as he was of worldly pleasure and beauty, couldn't help himself. Why is everything so beautiful? he asked. It is as if the very trees and flowers long to be known; indeed, the flowers lift their faces to us. Augustine's great biographer, Peter Brown, notes Augustine's "immoderate love of the world." That love includes friendship and family and the canny ways human beings craft and build and care.
So one can affirm the works of human beings and the creative spark we bring to the most utilitarian crafts and activities. Nor can one neglect the institutions human beings have built in order to sustain a way of life in common together. Amor mundilove of the worldis surely a Christian way of being in the world, so long as it is tempered by a recognition of that beyond the world as we know it, that which claims us and names us "Christian."
Yet contra mundum is also part and parcel of Christ as transformer of culture, so long as this does not become a hardened ideological stance of opposition, an exaltation of grumpiness as a rarified norm, when it is merely the burnishing of contempt. There is in fact much to oppose. If we frame matters with an eye to the ultimate as well as the penultimate, the here and now, we will be able to assay matters critically, and ultimately be able to offer an alternative.
Let's take two items ripped from today's headlines, as we say, the first from an article in The New York Times of June 6, 2006. The article informs us of the startling and alarming fact that the use of antipsychotics by young people in the United States rose fivefold in one decade. Unless American children are suddenly being overtaken by psychoses, this datum calls for sober analysis and criticism. What does this medicalization of childhood portend? How does one explain it? What should we do about it? The cultural boosters will appear before us decked out in sunny hues and tell us that the feeding of anti-psychotic drugs to America's children arises from ever more vigilant care and attunement to the needs of the young. But we cannot take that at face value. Medicine does not exist in a cordon sanitaire free from the influences of economic and cultural forces. What are the problems being treated? "Aggression" and "mood swings," we are told, in addition to that old standby "attention deficit disorder."
Such a basic piece of cultural information matters to a Christian believer. To embrace the Christ who is both with and against culture, hence the affirmer and critic and transformer of culture, is to be particularly attuned to a culture's children, all of them children of God, beings of inestimable worth. It is also to become attuned to their complexity and diversitynot primarily the bean-counting diversity that currently prevails but rather the diverse gifts and qualities that distinguish one child from another, even in the same family. How can we nourish these qualities? How can we control those attributes that are self- or other-destructive? This leads us straight to questions of cultural and religious formation.
For our cultural milieu is one in which the norm is both parents working outside the home, exhausted and busy. It values success and drivenness, measuring success through monetary reward. It glamorizes celebrity and ignores the hard work people do every day to raise children and sustain neighborhoods, to make life less brutal and more decent and kind. It is a milieu of pervasive family fragmentation if not outright breakdown, to which many children respond with anger and "acting out." In this milieu every personal question, and many public questions, are medicalized and psychologized; new drugs are touted not only to the public but to the medical profession via lavish marketing stratagems and budgets.
Christians begin their reflections on this cultural setting with the gift and integrity of the bodies and beings of children. They go on to consider the gift of time and how precious it is. They consider the concreteness of the Christian messagedo unto others here and now, not in the distant future, not in an abstract way. Do not ignore the person before you. This, in turn, invites critical reflection on whether we are rushing to diagnose children as "troubled" or "hyperactive" in part because parents no longer spend concentrated time with their children and prefer them to be pacified when they are with them. Such reflection suggests that radical and uncontrolled experimentation on America's children, by way of powerful drugs, many with known, deleterious side-effects, absent knowledge of long-range effects, may be undertaken at least as much for the convenience of adults as it is for the benefit of children.
Any assault on the integrity of the human body should be of heightened concern to the Christian because Christianity is an exquisitely embodied religion. We recall sobering moments from the past when childrenand adultswere quickly labeled "antisocial" or "incorrigible," institutionalized and forgotten. Now we think we are humane in rushing to medicalize, often against the advice of cautious voices within the medical community as to the alleged benefits and the many known dangers of massive drug use. One doctor cited in the Times spoke of children put on "three or four different drugs," each of which created new symptoms and side effects, before going on to ask: "How do you even know who the kid is anymore?"
That is a frightening sentence: how do you even know who this child is? If we believe every child is claimed by his or her Creator, we should be alarmed by a social milieu where children are treated instrumentally, where pacification of children rather than care and attention to each child in his and her particularity becomes a social norm. We are against this. What are we for? Minimally, we are for taking a hard look at how children are faring in our society. That, in turn, can spur transformation, especially in what I have called "the politics of time." Good, old-fashioned time is what so many children need. How can a society that pretends to be child-centered justify culturally approved neglect? It goes without saying that neglect comes in many forms: tens of thousands of privileged children are neglected in the way I am noting here.
The second item comes from the June 8, 2006 issue of Time Out New York, under the heading "Get Naked," a regular feature in which the magazine's "sexpert" explores the "ins and outs of love and lust." In this issue, the "sexpert" congratulates a mother who has written him extolling the joys of masturbation discovered by her precious seven-year-old daughter, who now wants to know all there is to know about the penis. The mother has decided to enlighten her seven-year-old with photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, whose explicit images of male genitalia in different postures of sex acts and bodily functions stirred up such controversy a few years ago.
Even the "sexpert" cavils at this. Perhaps that is going a bit too far, he suggests, for there are other ways to educate about the penis. He closes by extolling this mother's "shame-free attempts to give your daughter the information she needs to become a well-adjusted, self-empowered individual." Of course, the Mom must be alert to all those meanies out there who might try to fill her daughter's brain with "body-detesting nonsense," presumably along the lines of: "When you're a bit older we'll discuss those things," or, "You know, that just isn't appropriate. Let's think of something else to do," or, "Respecting your body means to take care of it and not just to use it for any purpose."
"Well-adjusted, self-empowered"the mantra of our time. And well-adjusted means no worries, no shame. Everything is to be uncovered, everything displayed. "Self-empowered" means one can do anything and everything that gives one pleasure, though whether that will bring joy is quite another matter. Where does one start with this pack of nonsense and untruths? The Christian repairs to the story of creation and fall. We cannot escape the heritage of human sin and shortcoming. We inherit it. To pretend that stark nakedness, unveiling everything, is the ideal is to pretend we are back in the Garden and have no history. It is to pretend that the categories of good and evil no longer apply: one is truly in a world beyond good and evil. We have seen what such a world looks like, a world fabricated by those who believed they were supermen beyond normative constraint, and it is a violent, cruel, systematically horrific world.
We should not be fooled. Cultural mavens preaching the gospel of the "well-adjusted" purport to embrace what is "natural" when, in fact, their ministrations disrupt the natural, or so Bonhoeffer argues, by treating life in a vitalistic way that destroys limits and misuses freedom. The Christian tradition offers a number of ways to articulate those limits, but that is beyond the scope of a modest paper. Yet articulate them we must, for those who embrace a shame-free (not shameless, one notices) life assault the integrity of our bodilynessin this case exploiting a seven-year-old child to promote a cultural agenda not the child's own, using her body to score a point in favor of destroying shame and abrogating limits.
A seven-year-old should be discovering the joys of friendship and learning, finding how to make her way in the world, and imagining and preparing for a future. Instead, and by the mother's own account, this child is self-obsessed, masturbating at will and demanding more information on "private parts," private no more in the shame-free society.
The Christian can remind our culture that crossing the barrier of shame is a very dangerous thing and must be considered carefully. Minimally, eradicating shame in the name of being "well-adjusted" must be questioned and challenged at every point. And this should be done in the light of Christ with, against, and transforming culturenot simply critique, but the embrace of an articulated alternative. The world is a vast laboratory for our consideration. As I indicated above, there is much to applaud. But there is also a good deal to condemn, yes, condemn, even as Christ condemned the money changers in the temple. Such condemnation must flow not from the Christian as a "despiser of men" (as Bonhoeffer wrote) but as one who loves and cares for the world.
The common good is clearly at stake in all of this. A society that does not tend to its young lovingly and with respect for each child's deepest needs and integrity is a culture that is trapped in a spiral of self-loathing at some very deep and largely unarticulated level. We are not called to be gods or supermen and women. We are called to be, simply, human and to love one another, to care enough to set limits and to evoke normative ideals to which we are all accountable. We must not abandon our culture to its own most witless tendencies, even if these come dressed up as adjustment and self-empowerment.
Indeed, a Christian counterculture cannot simply be "counter" if it is to enact projects for the common good. People quite reasonably resist the ministrations of those whose proclamations are all negation. Confronted with such jeremiads, we tend to focus on what's eating such people, why their lives are all bitterness and rue, rather than on what may be vital and true about the message. (And if the message is entirely caustic it is unlikely to be true.) If, instead, one criticizes in a manner that displays one's love and concern for the culture and country of which one is a part, then and only then will one be taken seriously. Only then can one hope to spark projects of transformation, achieving a good in common that we cannot know alone.
Jean Bethke Elshtain is Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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