Chapter 8 - Everyone is Fighting About the Wrong Stuff
When Julius Caesar traveled north into Gaul he was shocked
at what he saw. The people there were dirty, wild, superstitious, ferocious,
illiterate, and libertine. They would fight naked (apparently simply to show
bravery), their women would come to war with them. If they won, they would take
enemy heads as trophies. They would paint their faces.These people were
And the Romans knew that they were inherently superior. Northern Europeans could never be civilized. The best thing the Romans could do for them is to keep them under control by brute force and impose the Pax Romana on them.
But what the Romans saw as inherent to the people turned out to be cultural. In time, the Germanic tribes of the north adopted Roman customs and slowly became, at least a little, civilized.
But let us write ‘civilized’ with a small “c” for both the Romans and for the Gauls. Because their idea of civilization and ours are two different things. The Romans, for all their sophistication, were not exactly saints. For just one very uncivilized example, let me remind you of what we spoke of in Chapter 1: their slavery was nasty. They did the normal things slave owning societies do (beat, mistreat, and abuse) but they also practiced sexual slavery with horrible delight including raping young girls, young boys, and making of men into eunuchs for sexual purposes.
And the Romans were brutal in many other ways as well. They had little patience
for any sort of dissent or rebellion. They practiced widespread infanticide. Their national pastime was watching
people fight to the death. And they were in a state of almost constant war. The
Romans may have been more advanced than the Gauls but they were hardly a
society any one of us would call good or just. And that was the best the
ancient world had to offer. If you traveled to Africa, Asia, or the Americas, with the
possible exception of the Chinese, you would see more uncivilized and brutal
societies with as much slavery, infanticide, and war and usually some human
sacrifice mixed it.
So, what happened in Northern Europe that took the typical man living on the British Isles from a wild face-painting barbarian to something more like a character on Downton Abbey? The answer is not genetics (that have largely remained unchanged). And it is not some sort of natural progression of humans (you can find similar brutality in many nations today). And the changes are certainly not the result of political changes. No. What changed Britain was culture.
Culture shapes a people.
And what changed in Britain's culture over that 2000 year period? Why did their values change so much? Why did they go from practicing human sacrifice when Caesar traveled there to viewing human sacrifice as abhorrent? The answer is the gods changed.
In his excellent, Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut writes, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I think a truer statement is that you become what you worship so be careful what you worship. The warlike gods of the Celts and the Norseman when Caesar first entered the northern parts of Europe were brutal gods. They killed, raped and enslaved. With gods like that, it is not surprising that people that worship those gods might do similar stuff.
Cult is at the heart of culture. The
assumptions we make about life, our enemies, the poor, our families, war, charity,
and everything else that makes up a people are worked into a society like yeast
in the dough over years and years by the gods they worship. People become the
gods they worship. They are the images of their gods.
And when we look at what we call civilization, the first world, you can see that "western values" are actually largely Christian values. Adopted by the west, now assumed to be self evident, and taught to the world.
England transformed over 2000 years. Not in a straight line. The Romans conquered them. Then the Romans left and the English went back to their wild ways. Then in the seventh century Christianity came to the Island. And it was Christianity that started to work, like yeast through dough, to change this wild people.
Christianity has a softening effect on people. While a wild Gaul might think nothing of displaying a severed head in his living room, the Christian faith teaches men to love their enemy and "pray for those who despitefully use you." As discussed in previous chapters, the slavery of the Roman Empire faded as Christianity spread throughout Europe. Then monks started the first universities. Bishops started the first hospitals. Nuns started the first orphanages. Regions like Italy developed the first true capitalist economies. In England, the Lords and Dukes, understanding that God gave laws not kings, helped bring the Magna Carta. Oliver Cromwell tried to bring about the first republic.
None of it is in a straight line. But by fits and starts, Europe was becoming civilized with a big C. And that C was almost completely aligned with the C that stood for Christendom.
Niall Ferguson, an atheist, highlights the adoption of Christianity as a cause behind the rise of the west in his excellent, Civilization: The West and the Rest. He says that the religion offered Western Europe shared morals, high levels of trust, work ethic, and other values that simply did not exist before. The Reformed Anglican culture had particularly high levels of emphasis on hard work, industriousness, and trust. It is not surprising then that England and English colonies outpaced all other colonial efforts in Europe. The USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, and Hong Kong are all examples of successful English colonies. No other European nation can list so many examples.Look at the globe. What we used to call "the first world" is a picture of the places Christianity has been the longest or the places where England brought its culture.
Some might counter that Japan and Korea as exceptions but they are not. Japan at the end of the 19th century went through a
radical transformation where they tried to copy everything about English
culture and while they maintained a distinct Japanese culture, the effects on
their economy were profound. Korea, likewise, has been profoundly impacted in
the last 50 years by the culture of the United States (thanks to the Korean War)
and by Christianity (that has grown to represent a third of the population).
Politics do not bring true progress. Culture is the key.
Improve the culture, improve the society. And at the heart of that is the gods
that that society worships. Cult defines culture.
You are the Stories You Consume
Remember the quote I provided from Vonnegut above, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I modified that to say that we are what we worship. But I think you could also say that we are the stories we tell ourselves so be careful what stories you tell yourself.
Next to the gods we worship, the stories we tell are the most important things that shape a culture. This overlaps with religion of course as most religions consist of stories (what is the bible if not a long narrative about God's dealings with man).
Humans are story telling animals. Stories change the way we think. We construct stories about our own identity. We tell stories about our family. We tell stories about our national history. We tell stories of the movements we endorse. We tell stories to make each other laugh. We tell stories to make each other cry. We sing stories in our songs. We bathe almost every moment of every day in stories. And even when we sleep we dream ourselves stories.
Like the gods we worship, story telling affects how we think about the world and what our role is within it. These stories, like religion, tell us right and wrong and how we should and should not act. In the "Story Telling Animal: How Story Telling Makes Us Human" author Jonathan Gottschall outlines the results of a 2009 study by psychologist, Joanne Cantor. This study demonstrates how stories can even change our personal ethics. Gottschall writes,
"..if we watch a TV program showing a sexual encounter gone wrong, our own sexual ethics change. We will be more critical and more judgmental of other people's sexual choices. If, however, the show portrays a positive sexual encounter, our own sexual attitudes will move toward the permissive endo of the spectrum. The effects can be demonstrated after a single viewing of a single episode of a prime-time drama." (1)
If this study is even halfway correct, this is a stunning result and shows how absolutely critical stories are to shaping cultural attitudes. When we think about sexual ethics that have changed over the past two generations (from LGBT to premarital sex) one cannot doubt the effect of the stories we have told along the way. From the glamorous romances of the 1970s, to the raunchy comedies of the 1980s, to the pro-gay movies (like Brokeback Mountain) of the early 2000s. In our movies, TV shows, and music we have said something about sexual ethics to the population. And this something.... has had monumental effects - almost our entire sexual ethic has changed.
And all of this is upstream of politics. How do you vote on LGBT issues? It probably has something to do with the stories you consumed and what they said about these things. How do you vote on abortion? It very well might have something to do with the movies and TV shows you watched. What are your politics on race relations? Did you watch a movie about racism?
And given the importance of stories, it is amazing how little attention this gets by the cultural warriors of the right. Conservative Christians are largely absent from Hollywood. Largely absent from the TV industry. Not influential in the music industry. Publishing companies are generally radically left of center. Conservatives are not the story tellers of today's society.
On the other hand the left is downright puritanical in their effort to tell stories. Good luck getting a job in Hollywood if you are not pro-gay. Good luck getting a job if you even are slightly conservative. Good luck getting a job.... let alone gaining and holding any sort of power in that space.
And so you have really two competing stories in America. You have the story being told by our entertainment industrial complex and you have the story told by the church. And please do not underestimate how different these stories are.
Like it or not these two views are in open war. Both sides think they are the light to the world. Both sides think the other side is evil. But I would argue that after 2000 year of Christianity bringing good to the world there really should not be a debate on this. Hollywood's efforts to undermine, question, downplay, and destroy the Christian worldview will do nothing but destroy Western Civilization as we know it.
And so we need to fight like this is a war and not a conversation. We need to continue to tell the biblical worldview in church but the right needs to get WAY better at also telling it in other spheres. We need a wave of authors that will write great books as CS Lewis, Chesterton, and Tolkien did in days of old. We need a new wave of filmmakers that can tell great stories in the way that Shakespeare did in centuries past. Christian music and Christian art was once the high point of artistic expression in the world. We need that again.
We need to take this all much more seriously than we are. Stop focusing so much on the next vote and devote much more attention upstream.
Who Gets Angrier?
Almost by definition, corporations like Disney, Netflix, and etc do not
have a moral compass. They are at their core amoral. They are in it for the money. And yet, over and over corporations seem to line up on the left - sometimes radically so. In 2019 Netflix jumped into a controversial topic like abortion and said that they will boycott
any pro-life states that prevail in efforts to ban abortion. In 2020 almost every corporation made a statement expressing support for the leftist group Black Lives Matter. Every June almost every corporation changes their logo to the rainbow to express support for LGBT issues. Why do corporations always seem to lean left? The answer is
that it is a calculation. They are getting pressure from every direction and
yet they have decided that the pressure from the leftest crowd is enough
that taking a pro-abortion, pro-gay, or pro-BLM stand will be better for their bottom line than
When I studied English history in college, my professor once noted that Queen Elizabeth I was a pragmatist more than anything. She wanted to secure the throne and did not care particularly which Christian denomination won out. She had seen the country go from Catholic (under her father) to Anglo-Catholic (essentially Catholic in doctrine but without obedience to the pope). She had seen the country go Protestant under her brother, Edward Tudor. Her sister, Mary, tried to return England to the Roman Catholic church. In all this, Elizabeth noticed something. Protestants got angrier than Catholics. They were more willing to fight. More willing to die. And less willing to compromise than the Catholics. So, Elizabeth largely yielded to the Protestants. Her form of Anglicanism (that has largely endured to this day) was to accept Protestant doctrine with a Catholic-esque liturgy.
In today's cultural war, just as Elizabeth was a pragmatist who did not have a strong preference for who won, our corporations (today's rulers - don't be fooled into thinking it is the politicians) do not particularly care who wins the culture war of today. All they care about is avoiding an uprising. They only care about appeasing the party that will get the most angry if they do not. For Elizabeth, that was the angry group of protestants. For Netflix, the angry group is the secular leftists.
The question I have is why? Why do Christians not get
more upset when corporations undermine our core values? The number of leftists that get mad over dumb things such as whether Netflix filmed in a pro life state is tiny. But tiny crowd, through anger and
organization, successfully pushes the corporate rulers of this world to do
what they want. Why can't we do the same? If every time a company like Netflix
openly disregarded and rejected its Christian customers, we got pissed and flooded their twitter page with angry
comments, protested their dumb headquarters, and unsubscribed from their crappy service, they would think twice about doing it. The reason Christians get thrown
under the bus, is that Christians are willing to be thrown under the bus.
Christians worship a King that got so angry at money changers that he kicked over tables in the temple (see John 2:13-16). Righteous anger over baby-murder is quite appropriate for Christians.
A big part of winning the culture war is learning to get angry.
The world is obsessed with politics. Everyone is focused on the next election. Everyone is always campaigning. The next election is always the most important thing. But their focus is on a game that has largely been decided long ago. It was decided by culture. It was decided by those countless hours we spent in church as children. It was decided by the TV shows we watched. It was decided by the books we read. It was decided by the music we listened to. Religion is not just what you do on Sundays. Entertainment is not just something to get your mind off the world. These things are the very fiber that holds a society together or tears it apart.
A time traveler coming to see American politics would be shocked at the many things that people simply assume and then bring to the voting both. Many of these things are absolutely nonsensical. And this baggage of presumptions, ethics, and sensibilities are all cultural things. They come from the gods we worship and the stories we tell. Everyone is fighting about the wrong stuff. If conservatives are serious about truly making a difference in the most important things of our day (ranging for social to fiscal issues), we need to become vocal tellers of stories: the story of history, the stories of entertainment and the story of religion. Without addressing the culture the next election will have little lasting impact.
Recommended Further Reading
How the West Was Won by Rodney Stark
Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Fergusson