Rejigging Christian Culture

The demolition of cultural scaffolding made room for invisible cages.
Appears in Winter 2016 Issue: Cultural Jigs
December 1st, 2016

In his essay "The Intelligent Use of Space," David Kirsh observed that, since human beings have bodies, "we are spatially located creatures: we must always be facing some direction, have only certain objects in view, be within reach of certain others." Managing "the space around us, then, is not an afterthought," but "an integral part of the way we think, plan and behave, a central element in the way we shape the very world that constrains and guides our behavior." Things in our environment, and the arrangement of those things, amount to "mental tools," resources that enable us to "draw conclusions and solve problems." Arranging space may be more important to thought and action than "abstract, symbolic calculations."

Hirsh watched videos of people cooking, bagging groceries, working, playing Tetris, to explore how we arrange tools and materials spatially to improve our performance, to leave cues and clues as to what comes next, to limit the number of potentially paralyzing choices we have to make in the course of the task. Experts arrange the objects in space to limit their range of choice. They use "jigs" to inhibit freedom. But like the "slides of a cabinet drawer that determine the direction of free movement, or compliance," such "jigs" make work run smoothly. Spatial constraints on freedom enable us to get into the flow of our work.

We are left to ourselves, with a high "burden of self-regulation," and we don't do it very well.

Cultural Jigs

In his book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Matthew Crawford argues that social life is structured by "cultural jigs." Cultural jigs include ideas, social pressures, and institutional pathways that constrain us in social space, ruling out certain forms of behaviour in order to streamline our actions and enabling us to take our place in the dance of social life.

Someone who enters the presence of the queen of England, for instance, doesn't have a choice about which way he faces; he must never turn his back on the queen. He doesn't have a choice about how to greet her; a bow or curtsy fits in a way that a familiar hug does not. In another age, a violation of these regulations might be taken as a sign of sedition. Today, someone who is ignorant of these jigs will be held up to ridicule in the posher British press, as President Obama was a few years ago. These court protocols aren't isolated, arbitrary demands. They express and reinforce a narrative of English history, a hierarchical vision of political order, and, more abstractly, a hierarchical vision of reality. Prescribed court manners are part of a complex set of norms and practices that governs the social space of Buckingham Palace.

Jigs organize behaviour in larger social settings as well. Early Americans, Crawford points out, were guided by "a nestled set of mutually reinforcing moral norms" about the use of wealth. At the most general level there was the "Protestant ethic" that linked wealth with God's blessing, but also restrained indulgence with a demand for what Max Weber called "inner-worldly asceticism." This theological framework was buttressed by the American ideology of freedom, which regarded debt as a form of enslavement. A spendthrift or a debtor was shameful, all but un-American. In a world without credit cards, debt was more difficult to incur anyway, and so banking institutions reinforced other incentives to thrift. Informational and institutions jigs inhibited Americans from pursuing certain decisions and ways of life that were, considered in the abstract, possible. They were effective because they were "reiterated, fractal-like, along different axes of social life."

Following World War II, left-leaning critics of capitalism embarked on a "wide-ranging project of liberation" that promised to unmask and discredit cultural authorities. Nothing escaped this mid-century critique.

Don't trust anyone over thirty: There goes parental authority. Students stage sit-ins at campuses: There goes intellectual authority. Vietnam is a ruse and Nixon a crook: There goes political authority. This wasn't an assault on this or that outmoded cultural jig. It was a protest against the injustice of all jigs, precisely because they limited the range of choices.

By the 1990s, Crawford argues, the United States had reached a "neoliberal consensus in which we have agreed to let the market quietly work its solvent action on all impediments to the natural chooser within." Liberation "led us to dismantle inherited cultural jigs" and leave us autonomous, isolated, free-range beings, seduced by enticing adverts and sleek technologies. We are left to ourselves, with a high "burden of self-regulation," and we don't do it very well: "We are now very fat, very much in debt, and very prone to divorce."

American culture no longer reinforces thrift, marital faithfulness, or self-restraint. But that doesn't mean it does no reinforcing.

Crawford knows that this is only part of the story, because the upper classes of American society have preserved the cultural jigs of the past by hiring them out. The wealthiest pay for nannies, tutors, personal trainers, the best schools, and whatever else a child needs to develop the virtues that promise success in today's global economy.

Interdiction and the Sacred

This mid-twentieth-century shift did not come out of nowhere. As Crawford observes, the assault on inherited authorities has been characteristic of modernity since Descartes doubted and the philosophes launched their war on the ancien régime. We might wonder, with Charles Taylor, if some of the erosion can be traced back to the Reformation of the sixteenth century or even earlier.

I don't want to engage in a dispute about genealogy. That would miss a more fundamental point, namely, that jigs have not disappeared. Authority hasn't withered away, and we haven't been liberated from all constraint. American culture no longer reinforces thrift, marital faithfulness, or self-restraint. But that doesn't mean it does no reinforcing.

Philip Rieff defined a culture as a system of prohibition, a set of inviolable, sacred "Thou Shalt Nots." Only when certain behaviours are excluded, and we can trust one another not to even think of acting in certain ways, only then can we say we have an operative culture, a shared way of life. Modern culture replaced the primacy of interdiction with the primacy of possibility. In modernity, every possibility remains an open possibility. After the first world of paganism and the second world of monotheism, we have emerged into a "Third World" in which nothing is sacred.

That is, I submit, at best only half right. Our social space is still organized by "a nestled set of mutually reinforcing moral norms" that encourage consumerism, multiculturalism, and unrestrained sexual choice. These are unusual cultural jigs, to say the least, jigs that seem to remove all limits. In fact, contemporary culture, sometimes subtly, sometimes bluntly, encourages us to travel along certain rails. We have, for instance, severe moral strictures against certain kinds of speech. Donald Trump crosses a sacred boundary when he crudely flouts these strictures, and the outrage against him is the outrage that greets sacrilege.

In spite of superficial appearances, the jig is not up.

We are not beyond interdiction; what is interdicted is the defence of traditional majority culture.

Consumerism, Multiculturalism, Sexual Politics

Advances in communication technologies open new possibilities. I can roll over in bed at night, pick up my phone, and order a book using my Amazon app. Every place has become a potential shopping centre, every moment an opportunity for a spree. Because no one (apart from the NSA) watches me pile up the loot in my virtual cart, I'm freed from the fear of shame that would restrain me at Target or Old Navy. My phone flatters me, as Thomas de Zengotita so brilliantly explained in his 2006 book, Mediated, by telling me I live in a me-centric universe, where everything I could possibly desire is within reach of one-click checkout. I don't have to use my phone that way, any more than I need to use a hammer to pound nails. I could be a fogey and use my phone to make phone calls. But neither the hammer nor the phone is neutral with regard to its use. It may be "mere" personification, but, as Kevin Kelly has argued in What Technology Wants, it's accurate: Tools want to be used this way and not that.

My phone "wants" my wants to head in a certain direction. My phone trains me to expect instant satisfaction of my infinite desires. It entices me to seek satisfaction in stuff. Prices vary, but my phone doesn't acknowledge any hierarchy of inherent value. Inside my phone is Vanity Fair, where everything is equally for sale. Our world is jigged by phones, computers, and tablets toward self-absorption and roving, inattentive consumption. My phone turns my self into a cellph.

The behaviour encouraged by my phone is reinforced by the economic and political ideologies that provide intellectual legitimation for modern society. The desiring, individual, detached technological cellph is the individual chooser of capitalism and liberalism. Technology and political ideology both assume that liberty is truly liberty only when my choices are unconstrained by any ends or purposes or by any hierarchy of values other than the hierarchy I establish for myself. Preserving and extending that unrestrained freedom is a sacred moral norm that shapes political economy as much as technological development.

Consumerism names a large set of habits, desires, ideas, institutional structures, norms, objects, and behaviours, and interlocks with other large sets of habits, norms, and institutional structures. Multiculturalism and consumerism are cozy bedfellows. Consumerism rests on a dissolution of hierarchy of values and ends, and multiculturalism likewise renounces any ranking of cultural superiority and inferiority. Free choice validates any cultural system we may choose, and no criticism of freely chosen systems is tolerated: Who are you to say that my culture is abnormal? As technological consumers and as cultural beings, we have no consensus about values, and that lack of consensus is our highest value. Multiculturalism is consumerism of ways of life.

Technology enables multiculturalism to impinge on our intimate social spaces. As Ulrich Beck has said, because of advances in communications and transportation technologies, "'The global other is in our midst' acquires here a literal, intimate, family connotation. One's brother-in-law now has a wife from Thailand. A woman from Poland has been hired to look after grandpa. One's godchild has recently started living with a theologian from Togo. Where is Togo, actually? How come he is here? Is he here for the sake of a residence permit or out of 'genuine love'?"

Despite appearances, multiculturalism is not a space of absolute tolerance. Our speech is regulated down to the pronoun. Cultural stereotypes of all sorts are regarded as unholy, impure thoughts that have to be policed and purged. The tumult of the 2016 American presidential race signals deep hostility to what has become a tyrannical multicultural regime that demands an extreme, all-but-suicidal selfeffacement before the cultural other. We are not beyond interdiction; what is interdicted is the defence of traditional majority culture. And the briefest self-reflection will demonstrate how deeply this monitoring of speech and thought is etched into our psyche. We have been enlisted as our own thought police.

We are jigged precisely in our being unjigged, in the systematic refusal to occlude options.

Similar dynamics are evident in sexual politics. Ivan Illich made the distinction between "vernacular gender" and "economic sex" a central theme of his 1983 Gender. Preand non-modern societies are founded on a far-reaching gender duality. Spaces, activities, tools, and opportunities are either male or female. In some tribes, if a woman touches a man's bow, it renders him impotent; a man who works with women's tools is effeminate. Specifics vary, and do not correspond, as we might expect, to modern conceptions of public and private, economic and domestic. Women might be traders, or might be responsible to deliver some of the produce of a tenant farm to the lord of the manor. That workaday duality is reinforced by proverbial wisdom, myth and legend, even by an implied cosmology that views heaven and earth and everything in them as gendered. Men and women didn't have to ponder what tasks to do or what tools to grab. In traditional society, the space of gender relations is jigged.

Economic sex came into its own in the nineteenth century, in conjunction with the triumph of global capitalism. It is founded on the conviction that individuals are distinguishable only biologically, by what Illich describes as a "bulge in the jeans" or its absence. Sex is a superstructure built on a more basic neuter subject. In the West today, the notion of gendered tools or tasks is unthinkable, as the ideology of economic sex has triumphed through pop culture, law, remaking the few remaining male bastions like the military.

Many Christians were shocked by what appeared to be the sudden rise of the gay marriage movement. As a specific proposal for the protection of gay rights, gay marriage is comparatively new. But the ground was prepared long before by the un-gendering of human life during the nineteenth century. Indeed, already during the Middle Ages, Illich argues, marriage had been transformed into a joining of two individuals, rather than a knitting together of gendered kin networks. "Marriage," like so many of what Illich calls the "key words" of modernity, is a gender-neutral term.

The operative jigs in contemporary culture do not, perhaps, make up a neat and coherent whole. The fact that communication technologies have developed within liberal capitalist order is, more or less, a historical accident. A progressive autocrat like Peter the Great might have accomplished as much under the right circumstances. But, then, no set of cultural jigs is ever fully coherent or universal. Within the United States, there have always been outliers and heretics who operate by their own intellectual and moral norms, their own sacred prohibitions, who jig social life in their own ways. Still, there is an undoubted overlap between our reigning political ideology, our sexual politics, and the trajectory of our technology.

We are jigged precisely in our being unjigged, in the systematic refusal to occlude options. We do not lack a sacred; possibility is the sacred. We still operate by the primacy of interdiction: the interdiction of interdiction. Anyone who violates that interdiction— anyone who suggests that some biotech options should be foreclosed, or that some sexual acts are perverted—is shamed and punished. Our cultural matrix may be unprecedented, but not because it is a-sacral. It is unprecedented because the sacred space is occupied by nothing. As David Bentley Hart has it, Christ evacuated the crowded world of ancient paganism, and there is no turning back. If we will not have him, we will have to settle for being jigged by the nihil.

Jigging Christian Culture

Over the past two centuries, Christian worship has been invaded by the same ideology of free choice I've examined. Prescribed orders of worship are regarded as offences against the Spirit. Ritual stultifying. A printed bulletin occasions suspicion of drift toward Roman Catholicism. It is impossible for worship to be completely free-form, and anti-liturgical churches tend to fall unconsciously into habitual, repetitive patterns—what Lori Branch has wittily called "rituals of spontaneity." But the official liturgical "theology" of many churches is an ecclesial version of Rieff's primacy of possibility.

By contrast, Israel's liturgy was "jigged" in a literal sense.

By contrast, Israel's liturgy was "jigged" in a literal sense. God revealed the dimensions and materials for Israel's sanctuaries and their furnishings, and the furnishings were installed at particular places in the sanctuary. Torah prescribed certain kinds of animals for certain kinds of offerings, and the priests had to follow a complicated set of procedures at the altar. The Levites who transported the tabernacle were not free to set up the lampstand on the north and the table of showbread on the south. Worshippers couldn't decide to bring chickens or badgers for sacrifice, just to shake things up, nor could priests decide how the pieces of an offering were to be arranged on the altar. Everyone's freedom of movement and action was constrained. Few decisions had to be made in the midst of worship. Following prescribed steps, taking what was ready to hand, every participant was able to enter the flow.

Until comparatively recently, Christian liturgy has been understood in a similar way. Talal Asad points out in his Genealogies of Religion that medieval monks understood the daily office as an intrinsic element in a program of paedeia, not as "expressive" or "symbolic" actions occupying a realm "beyond useful and useless." Liturgy was useful; it formed virtues. Hugh of St. Victor believed that sacraments were a form of "exercise" that inculcated humilitatio. By imposing changing bodily postures and movements, Hugh argued, liturgy corrects the "bad changes" that result from sin and inscribes a Christian choreography, training the worshipper to dance life virtuously.

For a millennium and a half, Christian worship was ordered and prescribed, a jigged social action. The constraints of the liturgy were not seen as obstacles to worship, but as generous, necessary pathways into the presence of God. Many churches abandoned this heritage thoughtlessly, in a breathtaking defection from both Scripture and tradition. And this defection has turned the church into another enabler of the pathologies of modern culture.

Liturgy should instead jig Christians to be in the world but not of it. Specifically, classic liturgy includes jigs that combat the distortions of consumerism, multiculturalism, and economic sex, jigs that shape our conduct outside the liturgy. Or, better, the jigs of gathered worship equip us for the leitourgia that is Christian living.

At a very general level, the liturgy subverts the anti-authoritarian value-egalitarianism that infuses contemporary culture. Revelation 4–5 unveils a heavenly liturgy, the pattern of earthly liturgy. Heaven's worship is royal ceremony, with every worshipper arranged around the throne of God. Scholars have noted analogies between the court ceremonial of heaven and that of the Roman emperor. As Craig Koester puts it, the scene poses a sharp choice: Whose throne? Which king? Revelation doesn't leave us with the choice of no throne. Angels declare the "worthiness" of the One Enthroned, and when the Lamb takes the book they fall prostrate before him and declare, "Worthy are You!" This liturgical axiology challenges the anaxiology of contemporary culture.

More specifically, the liturgy undermines the habits of consumerism. Christian worship isn't abstemious or ascetic. It's a feast. At the Lord's table, we receive bread and wine, fruits of the earth and the work of human hands, as gifts from God. In some churches, communicants pass bread and wine hand to hand; as soon as they are received and consumed, they are shared. Feasting at the Lord's table, we are jigged to take whatever comes to our hand eucharistically, with thanks. We are reminded every week to follow Jesus's command: "Freely have you received, freely give." At the Lord's table, we consume without consumerism, as we are jigged to be agents of a eucharistic economics.

In heaven, the living creatures and elders praise the Lamb for gathering a multiculture from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. Tribal customs are not obliterated, national tongues are not silenced. But the church is multicultural priesthood and kingdom, her rich variety harmonized as a polyphony of confession and praise. The liturgy provides a vision of cultural diversity that is neither suicidal nor tyrannical. Each tribe retains its own voice to enrich the voices of others.

At the Eucharist, we receive a foretaste of that eschatological feast that Revelation describes as a marriage supper. At the Lord's table, we are reminded that we live between marriage and marriage, between Adam and Last Adam, Eve and the bridal city. Creation itself is a harmonious duality, heaven and earth, God and creation, bound inseparably in the incarnation of the Word and ultimately in the eternal union of Bridegroom and Bride. That harmony in difference is like unto God himself, an eternal communion of three irreducibly different Persons. Participating in the Eucharist resists the neutering of men and women into economic cellves.

The liturgy is no talisman. Some pass eucharistic bread and wine to a neighbour in the next pew, and then spend the week hoarding and grinding the faces of their employees and tenants. Christian tribes slaughter Christian tribes, and Christian pilots incinerate Christian cities. Christian men often act more like the first Adam than the Last. Some communities gather at the throne, but during the week conform to modern culture's insistence that there are no thrones.

Even then, the liturgy has its effect. It continues to channel us into Christian norms and habits, measuring our performance by the jigs of the gospel. In the end, there are few more important moments in worship than confession. In his or her vulnerability, the confessing man or woman stands in direct opposition to the enclosed and smug cellph of technological liberalism. Confession trains us to renounce the tactics of self-protection and blame-shifting that are second nature for children of Adam. If nothing else, the liturgy jigs us for lives of continuous repentance.

And church members so formed will provide a counterweight to the trajectories of contemporary cultural jigs. Teenagers jigged to bow to the King of kings on the Lord's day will honour human authorities on Monday. Eucharistic businessmen and women will do business out of grateful contentment, and use their wealth to benefit others with investment and charity. Men and women who taste the marriage supper of the Lamb will glimpse a harmony of sexes, rather than a genderless equality. Ultimately, a polity that acknowledges and honours the Lord of the church will acknowledge and honour the church's cultural role, and so escape the nihilism of infinite possibility that corrodes the foundations of political order itself. Jigged by sacred interdictions that protect persons, property, and sexual fidelity, liberal order might yet return to sanity.

 

Peter J. Leithart is President of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, and an adjunct senior fellow of theology at New St Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho. An ordained minister, he serves as Teacher at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. He is the author of Traces of the Trinity (Brazos, 2015), Delivered from the Elements of the World (IVP, 2016), and The End of Protestantism (Baker, 2016).

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