Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Postmodern Ethics: Social Evil, Individual Good

I ran across this fascinating little column by Denis Prager in the L.A. Times.  It details what I would label as a postmodern ethical trend in public schools.  He tells the story of asking a room full of high school students if they would steal from a department store if they were sure they would not get caught.  In front of cameras taping for a syndicated pilot, the majority of them raised their hands.  Based on this and his experience speaking to youth, Prager draws a handful of conclusions regarding public education and moral development.  The whole article is worth a read, but a couple of points in particular stood out to me.

In these two conclusions Prager notes how morality is abstracted to the social level and not applied on an individual level, and that when moral demands are made of individuals they regard health and not personal vice and virtue.  In his words:

To the extent that schools deal with right and wrong, it is in the arena of social values, not personal behavior. Students are taught what the schools deem correct positions on matters of social concern — such as war, the environment, social justice — but little about personal integrity. At the entrance of a highly regarded Los Angeles public school, there is a sign calling for world peace in four languages. Other signs on campus similarly exhort students to adopt various social positions. Not one sign addresses self — as opposed to social — amelioration.

To the extent that demands are made on young people, they concern health, not integrity and character. Smoking, for instance, is villainized. Copying software, downloading music without paying for it, cheating on tests, lying on insurance claims are not.

Now, the things decried in these two points ought to be decried.  The problem is that they are moral points pressed to the exclusion of personal virtue.

I call this a postmodern moral condition for a couple of reasons.  First, because postmodern morality is inherently relativistic, all individuals are exempt from moral judgment and are then by definition “good.”  Secondly, and ironically, in our postmodern milieu, it is popular to make a certain type of moral judgment-namely judgments that are relatively nebulous and corporate in scale.  So, it is commonplace to hear pollution, greed, violence and the like labeled as “bad,” but never connected to personal moral evil.  A typical exception may be the moral hypocrisy of labeling big-business leaders as evil but failing to label the same evil traits in others as evil.  Thus it appears that evil is a function of influence and not of personal vice.  Moral relativism is the kind of view that is not only self referentially destructive, but it also destroys the rational capacities of those who adhere to it.  

Thus, in Prager’s example, the youth were able to justify personal vice because they viewed a certain type of corporate entity as evil.

The Christian ethic is clear: societies, groups, corporations, etc., can commit evil, but culpability ultimately rests on individuals.  What was the Nazi regime but a collection of individuals, some of which were so evil and influential they were able to illicit tremendous evils from others?  Look at this from the angle of retribution or the enactment of justice for evil committed by a regime.  The Nuremberg trials did not condemn Nazism to the gallows-it condemned several individuals.  How is a collective to be punished if not individual by individual?

In addition, the Christian ethic explains how corporate evils come to be: they are the result of individuals making evil or sinful decisions.  Individuals have within them the capacity for great sin, and thus their influence sometimes leads to great evils on large scales.

It is moral cowardice to selectively label collectives as evil and not recognize or acknowledge the potential evil inherent in each and every individual.  It is the equivalent of naming everything we personally favor as “good” and everything we personally dislike as “evil.”  When that happens, both words become vacuums of meaning, infinitely malleable and ultimately completely useless.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Stem Cells and The Political Fog

This article in the NY Times highlights what the lack of information and clarity can do for an issue as important at embryonic stem cell research. Throughout, the piece assumes that embryonic stem cell research is the only form of research and that, according to a view expressed in the article, anyone opposed to it “oppose[s] the science.”

Unfortunately, as long as the truth about adult stem cells is clouded in political fog and obscured by pharmacological profit, embryonic humans will continue to be used and destroyed as vote-getting cannon fodder. Not once does the article mention the gains of adult stem cell research or its immunity from the ethical debate, and it is hard to tell exactly why. It is possible that the author doesn’t know that ESCs have produced no viable clinical results and that ASCs have already produced over 50. It is also possible that the author didn’t mention those kinds of facts because the senatorial candidates she covered were both so uninformed that they never raised the issue either. Either way, it is depressing and a little disconcerting.

The article’s author had at least one opportunity to mention the scientific as well as the ethical debate, but failed. She wrote:

Although scientists see hope in embryonic stem cell research for treatments and cures, opponents view the studies as immoral because the cells are extracted from human embryos.

There is far more to this issue than that, and it ought to be noted when it is raised.

One of the Senatorial candidates made this bifurcating statement:

"There are people of principle who disagree with this form of research," Ms. McCaskill told her audience. "I respect their principles. But what I don't respect is someone dancing around science for political cover."

It seems to me that politicos who avoid the real-world advances of adult stem cells are dancing around the science for political gain.

I have to admit that it still baffles me how this issue can remain so shallow and obscured in the public eye.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Desperate Call for Pentecostal Theologians, Educators, Pastors, Etc.!

Who's Who in Pentecostalism--ministers, leaders and preachers in the Pentecostal movement--Beliefnet.com

I must admit, being a Pentecostal minister, this list is a little depressing. Admittedly, it comes from Beliefnet.com, but it is probably fairly accurate. I was surprised to find Al Sharpton (maybe more suited for the "Most Influential Pentecostal Hair-Care Products" list) and Joel Osteen on the list.

Relevance and Capitulation?

This wonderful article by Mark Bauerlein in the Chronicle of Higher Education, A Very Long Disengagement, articulates well the current lifestyle consequences of the modern student and challenges universities to not bow to cultural forms which perpetuate the various character vices he exposes.  Fundamentally, the article lists several academic arenas in which college students are failing miserably, and connects them with the kind of activities students engage in which separate them from a thoughtful and meaningful interaction with the world around them.

Instead of engaging academically, they spend more time on TV, on email, in on-line chatting, and text-messaging.  Instead of learning the actual ins and outs of current civil issues, they get their news from Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show.  Bauerlein notes:

“A January 2004 study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that comedy shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart "are now mentioned almost as frequently as newspapers and evening network news programs as regular sources for election news." A story on the report in The Hollywood Reporter began, ‘To a young generation of Americans, Jon Stewart may as well be Walter Cronkite.’”

Clearly most 20-somethings have no grasp on the difference between humor and reality.  (Which is another fascinating post waiting to be written.)

But what grabbed my attention as much as anything was Bauerlein’s final plea with the university system.  Instead of bowing to these powerful cultural trends, he implores:

“Or one can accept the political philosopher Leo Strauss's formula that ‘liberal education is the counter-poison to mass culture,’ and stand forthrightly against the tide. TV shows, blogs, hand-helds, wireless ... they emit a blooming, buzzing confusion of adolescent stimuli. All too eagerly, colleges augment the trend, handing out iPods and dignifying video games like Grand Theft Auto as worthy of study.

That is not a benign appeal for relevance. It is cooperation in the prolonged immaturity of our students, and if it continues, the alienation of student from teacher will only get worse.”

I want to know if the evangelical church’s lust for relevance has done the same thing.  Could that last sentence be retooled as: “It is cooperation in the prolonged immaturity of our congregants, and if it continues, the alienation of believer from God will only get worse.”

In trying so hard to be relevant, have we ended up in capitulation?  Os Guinness quotes James Davidson Hunter (I think) as noting that if you dine with the devil, you had better use a long spoon.

In other words, if you want to use the tools of modern or postmodern culture to grow the Church of God, which have been refined in a workshop not friendly to Christian sensibilities, you need to stay pretty far away from the source.

If an emerging pastor wants to distance herself from truth, she has used a short spoon and swallowed far too much of the devil’s soup.  If a postmodern pastor wants a community to form faith instead of the Faith forming the community, they are probably already stuffed and can eat little more.

Instead of making disciples, have we perpetuated a non-committal form of radical individualism and consumerism?  Being relevant is one thing, being relevant with cultural forms that inherently separate people from the truth of the Gospel is another thing altogether.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Music and Worldview Influence

This is a fascinating article detailing one community’s efforts to curb thuggery and gang-related behavior. In order to either calm down the thugs or get them to move off a piece of property, the store owners or city will pipe classical music through the sound system. From the article:

Research in the UK and America tells them that youths who congregate around precincts, upsetting traders and shoppers, can be calmed down by piped classical music.

Not only is this a great and unobtrusive way of dealing with unwanted elements, but it speaks to the worldview influences of music as well. Many argue on a casual level that music is “just” music and has no particular effect on people. Here in Colorado, many are especially sensitive to that argument as a result of the Columbine High School tragedy and the influence of Marilyn Manson’s music on the killers.

Another article out of the UK mentions a similar initiative in a train station. In this case the stated intent is not just to possibly calm the raucous element, but also to bore them out of the station. The article states:

Classical music will play in Walthamstow bus station to deter schoolchildren from hanging around upsetting the public.

The idea is not to soothe them but to bore them out of bad behaviour.

These articles simply mention almost in passing that classical music has one effect, but that thus conveys the other side of the coin, the obvious violence-inducing effect of other kinds of music.

Music conveys and encourages certain worldviews. When was the last time you watched a horror flick set to Vivaldi? (See possible exception below?) Horror movies, gang-related movies, and their ilk are intended to reflect a certain corrupted and debase view of reality, and the music that they are set to does the same.

In the formation of worldview, music is not an innocent bystander. Classical music requires attention, patience, work on the part of the listener, cannot always be easily memorized, and is often immensely complex in its layering. Rap “music” requires little to no attention, no reflection or analysis, no patience, and is often set to the same computer-generated music over and over and over. Classical music engenders a reflective attitude toward reality and promotes positive and constructive social interaction. Hip-hop “music” plays to the animalistic part of our natures and discourages contemplation, human flourishing, and positive social interaction.

Some will remark that there is much in Classical music that is “dark,” and they would be right. But there is still no comparison between Wagner and Ice Cube. When Wagner and others plumb the depths of human misery and evil, they do so with an elevated and developed sense of human dignity and potential; possibly even with remnants of Christian psychology in their pieces. When Ice Cube opines about evil, he is like a broken mirror with no depth or substance to his work. One reflection of evil and the “dark side” generates virtue, the other generates vice.

Possible Exception?
When I discussed this idea with my lovely and talented wife, Heather, she immediately thought of A Clockwork Orange. If you know the work, you know the protagonist is a sadistic killer who gathers inspiration and solace from Classical masterpieces. Is there a relationship here between Burgess’ message and the worldview analysis above?

As we talked it through, we decided there wasn’t a solid analogy between Burgess’ protagonist and your average gang member. If someone is a sadistic killer, they will likely find inspiration in any place, and it really may not say anything about the inspiration. It will say much more about the twisted reason of the killer. Your typical thug does not have a well-reasoned worldview, and they may not have the mental tools to analyze the worldview influence of the music they listen to. All they tend to know, as the second article above mentioned, is that Classical music is “boring.”