Michael Jensen continues his discussion of Christian responses to the left and right. See part 1 here.
In my first post, I argued that Christians (and particularly Christian leaders) need to develop an understanding of culture that is not one-sided. Indeed, that analysis which pits Christians on one side of a ‘culture war’ against the progressive left in an alliance with others on the right is deficient and even dangerous. It has (sadly) become a trope among some Australian Christian cultural commentators.
The analysis which pits Christians on one side of a ‘culture war’ against the progressive left in an alliance with others on the right is deficient and even dangerous.
It is dangerous because it blinds us to the other struggles and temptations to which contemporary Christianity often falls prey, and it is dangerous because it damages our witness to Christ. It drives us into an anxious, defensive, and self-protective huddle. As we shall see, when we do this, we are not being counter-cultural at all—though we think we are.
I suggested that we need more nuanced ways to grasp what is going on in our very complex world. I pointed to US writer Tara Isabella Burton’s three-part schema: the woke/social justice movement, the atavistic right, and the techno-rationalists. By dividing her analysis into three parts (and each of these parts could be further divided), she helps us better to see the complexity at play. We can also see that in some of the cultural debates being waged at the moment, Christians are actually not the main target. The techno-rationalists see the woke/social justice people as being alarmingly anti-science, for example. Sometimes, we are best just to grab our popcorn and watch what is going on. And Burton’s schema also shows us where we might make common cause with all three movements.
Like any attempt to introduce a schema, Burton’s is as inadequate as it is insightful (as I am sure she would agree). It doesn’t show us how deep the divisions are within the groups, for example. The trans rights movement has deeply divided the left and even the LGBTQI ‘community’. The most savage policing of the boundaries of wokeness is reserved for those who also claim wokeness. The atavist grouping contains both intellectuals like Jordan Peterson and avowed conspiracy theorists.
What we need is not some grand master framework (which is a unicorn) but a set of different, overlapping ways of looking at our culture. In this way, we can better account for the inadequacies and blindspots in each of them.
So, here is my attempt at my own analysis: the four schemes of meaning. This pattern has its own limitations, and I would invite others to debate it and refine it. But here’s the advantage, I claim, of my schema: these four forces are powerfully shaping our world, but they are not primarily ideological. Schemes that focus on ideology find it hard to account for how these ideas start in University classrooms and then permeate the popular consciousness. And they find it hard to explain mysterious alliances. One question that I’ve been puzzling over is how supposedly Marxist (and thus collectivist) ideas have taken hold amongst people who are liberal expressive individualists to the core. My claim is that it isn’t primarily about ideas—so that strange alliances and cross-currents appear, it is accounted for by the power and ubiquity of the four schemes of meaning.
The four schemes are global, transcultural, and non-theoretical. We are sometimes aware of them, and sometimes not. They are interlocking and overlapping. They each speak to a longing of the human soul. And each of them stand to gain from our attention being distracted from them. I’ve called them: mammon, techne, the all-seeing eye, and porneia.
1. Mammon—‘I am a consumer above all’
It goes without saying that money truly is the only international language. The ebb and flow of capital have a persuasive power like none other. Many of our most apparently high-minded cultural debates are simply window-dressing for forms of consumerism. ‘Freedom’ is, above all, the freedom to purchase and consume products. And corporations have long realised that making people feel pious or righteous is a great way to create markets. This has long been noted. Back in the 1920s, cigarettes were sold to women as ‘torches of freedom’—symbols of female liberation and independence. The revolutionary zeal of the 1960s made a considerable amount of money when it was translated into products like Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. In contemporary Australia, corporations now have to display their ethical credentials—with the major banks and Qantas taking a lead during the same-sex marriage campaign (for example). And let’s be quite clear about this: they do it because it makes money, not because it costs them. There is no institution as conservative as a bank, after all. The association with the apparently radical is nothing of the kind, no more than putting the face of Che on a T-Shirt is. It’s cool, not transgressive.
Mammon carries with it an implicit morality. It declares that the prosperous must be the good.
We caught something of a glimpse of the degree to which human life in the 21st century is enmeshed in the economy in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. The market proved to be little more than a gigantic Ponzi scheme. Loan rested upon loan lent rested upon loan—a huge leap of faith that proved to be based on nothing. Now, it’s not that we have any alternative but to live in the contemporary global economic system. We simply cannot. Nor is simply blaming ‘capitalism’ for everything, plausible. Like a gigantic poker machine, the global economy delivers enough people enough of a result that it is against their interests to challenge it too radically. We want what it delivers.
And Mammon as a system carries with it an implicit morality. It judges and ranks humans according to their productivity and purchasing power. Along with the friends of Job, it declares that the prosperous must be the good. Along with the rich fool of Luke 12 it reduces human flourishing to net assets.
2. Techne—‘technology drives ethics’
The power of science as an authority in our world rests on its ability to produce technology that makes our lives better. It’s the engineers, not the theoretical physicists, who are our real heroes. When we say ‘follow the science’, we are asking for technological solutions to our problems or technological advantages over others.
What is fascinating to observe in the history of the last two centuries is the way in which ethics and philosophy have followed technology (something that philosopher Martin Heidegger noted decades ago). A technological innovation appears that reshapes the moral landscape because it makes a behaviour possible that wasn’t possible before. The contraceptive pill was not the first contraceptive available, but it was epochal in its impact on the way we think about sex and marriage. There had been sexual revolutionaries before the 1960s (think back to the poet Shelley, or the Marquis de Sade). But without the technology of the pill, you could not have had the sexual revolution. Once Pandora’s box is opened, it is opened. You cannot easily forget technology.
Examples of this multiply. We find ourselves asking whether it is moral for men to purchase sex robots that look like children. What is the moral status of the representation of a human being that is not in fact a human being? What law could a liberal democracy frame, with its blunt instruments of maximum equality and maximum freedom, that would outlaw the creation of such a machine? Or what about the creation of embryos with three parents, were that possible?
As with Mammon, Techne is another form of idolatry. The rich fool trusts in his wealth; the worshiper of techne “makes offerings to his dragnet, for by them he lives in luxury, and his food is rich.” (Hab 1:16)
Techne is a god that delivers—it really can alleviate suffering and make life better. But it too has a dark side that cannot be hidden for long. Technology at its peak—in industrial/technological capitalism—has wrought an indelible (it seems) wound upon the very earth itself, quite apart from the human cost. We still hope of course that it will save us from the very problems it has caused us.
3. The All-Seeing Eye—‘I am the sum-total of data to be harvested’
If you add Mammon and Techne together you get the emergence of what Professor Shoshana Zuboff calls ‘surveillance capitalism’. In her magisterial book The Rise of Surveillance Capitalism, Zuboff details how Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter (among others) have so rapidly and completely come to dominate the contemporary world—and without us even really noticing. They have made governments reliant on their ability to harvest information for intelligence purposes. They financially benefit—massively—from heightened fears about security.
And—don’t forget—they benefit hugely from dividing our society. The more they can inflame hatred and division, the more they profit. They pretend to be woke, but they gained massively from the election of Donald Trump, who was Twitter’s star performer. The more we get angry about weird progressive leftists, the more we rant on our social media platforms, the more YouTube videos we watch… the more the coin in the coffers of the giants rings.
There is a conspiracy and it’s real. These guys want your data. They want to know everything about you—your hidden sexual preferences, your shoe size, your weight, how you voted, when you ovulate—so they can sell your data to people who want to sell you stuff. And there’s a kind of ruthlessness about it. It is just another species of the objectification that has always threatened to reduce people to assets: strength to marshalled on the battlefield or sold-off in the slave-market; sex to be bought and sold on the street corner. If we submit to it willingly we are inviting the same mistake as ancient Israel that entrapped itself in other kinds of slavery (1Sam 8:10-18 c.f. 2Sam 24:1-10).
4. Porneia—‘I am a pleasure machine’
Porneia—big porn – is another hybrid of Mammon and Techne. Like surveillance capitalism, it is not averse to a cynical use of highbrow and honourable concepts like freedom of speech and even women’s liberation to make it seem respectable and to get legislators off its back. It will evoke a half-true doctrine of creation—that what it is depicting is nothing more than the natural beauty of the human body and its natural pleasures. It has co-opted activists, therapists, and educators as a part of its business plan—which is to make us believe that the use of porn is harmless and even healthy. And like surveillance capitalism (which has a mutually beneficial relationship to it), it was unthinkable before the technology of the internet emerged in the 1990s.
Our society has not developed a moral vocabulary post-Christianity to speak to the evil of porn. Some feminists have laudably decried the objectification of women; but a new generation of feminists, not wanting to seem prudish, have proclaimed themselves ‘sex-positive’ and sought out porn that is ‘ethically sourced’ or ‘woman-friendly’. Yet the destructive impact of big porn is there for all to see.
Big porn not only exploits women, it exploits men, too. Of course it does, although this is not fashionable to mention. But it so successfully exploits male sexuality that porn has become the context against which all discussions of sex must take place. A neurological experiment has been inflicted upon the sexuality of an entire generation. If we listen to Jesus’ declaration that our eyes are the lamp of the body (Matt 6:22-23), we have to believe that the outcome of the experiment will be profoundly deforming.
A neurological experiment has been inflicted upon the sexuality of an entire generation … we have to believe that the outcome of the experiment will be profoundly deforming.
Each of these schemes of meaning powerfully shapes contemporary culture by speaking not to our brains or even to our sense of right and wrong but to our desires. And they are thus much more powerful and deeply-ingrained because of this. They do not take political sides, except where it is convenient to do so.
And this schema, whatever its inadequacies might be, also shows the really difficult challenges for Christian discipleship are in the 21st century and beyond. Christians themselves participate in these schemes—we cannot fail to see ourselves shaped by them. Each of these schemes takes its seat in the pews every Sunday morning. When we open the Scriptures, we need to account for the ways in which we are profoundly already shaped by them, before we even read a word.
The hope for Christian disciples and their pastors is, however, that Christ has defeated the powers and principalities. They are not ultimate. To differing degrees, they do say true things about the world and about the human heart. Capital, technology, relationships, and sex are not, in and of themselves, bad things. But they have become—especially in combination—forces before which human beings all too frequently bow the knee. Christ, however, exposes them for what they truly are.