Changing a Culture Within

How do you influence the culture around you? I admit, I have purchased items, watched movies and listened to music simply because it is Christian. Why? Because I thought that supporting fellow Christians was the best thing to do, or because I knew that Christian fill-in-the-blank would be morally uplifting, or because I thought I could help change culture. Sometimes, I didn't want to think about what I read, heard, watched or purchased.

Culture reflects the values that people hold dear; art both reflects and develops those values. Consider the impact that Uncle Tom's Cabin had on the American population before the American Civil War. The book both reflected the Abolitionist movement's program as well as inspired others to do more. Charles Dickens and William Hogarth also influenced their culture through novels and paintings.

Within the conservative Christian culture I grew up around, there are two battles taking place: first, the desire to see the culture changed; second, to separate from the same culture. Since the early twentieth century, the conservative Protestant churches have, as a whole, separated from the culture around them. First, it began with magazines then colleges and universities, to high schools, and into the subsequent Christian music, book and film industry that we currently have.

In my lifetime, the Christian industry (and make no mistake, it is an industry) has improved. I doubt if Azure Maris would have ever been considered when I first started writing. For one thing, it isn't an allegory; when I first started writing at fourteen, Christian fantasy = allegory with a salvation message at the end (think C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). Thankfully, publishers like Ambassador International and Marcher Lord Press have helped change that depiction and have allowed non-allegory fantasy to be published. The films produced lean towards professional levels, at least on their shots and editing. The story lines need work because they can be a little heavy-handed when the message trumps the story. Music has its moments: sometimes the songs are insipid; sometimes they are powerfully moving. In this regard, the Christian music industry follows secular music industry.

Yet, within this paradigm, there remains the Christian image of mom, dad, son, daughter and a dog living in a nice suburban household where Mom stays at home either to homeschool her children or to be involved in their Protestant school. They attend a nice little church that holds to the fundamentals of the faith. Nothing bad happens in this world; no drugs, drinking or unplanned pregnancies. The worst that might happen is one of the children learns a swear word. It's the 1950s sitcom, modernized. Some stories venture into the harder realities of life, but still within the framework: the father might work too much; the mom might need to take a job outside the home; the son might consider taking steroids to improve his game; the daughter might struggle with anorexia. Other elements remain safely out of the way: child abuse and neglect; terrorism and other radical aspects of faith like cults or abuse to name a few. The struggle to apply one's faith into every day life is difficult because remaining true to one's beliefs while exhibiting compassion and love often war against each other creating the struggle between legalism and spiritual anarchy.

If this is the culture change that we offer a broken world, is it any wonder that the broken world doesn't want our help?

The first step that conservative Christianity needs to make, if it wants to change the greater culture, is change its own culture. Cast aside the rule book in favor of God's compassion. Do we ignore our doctrines? No, but instead of following them to the letter, we learn to follow the heart behind them. Often the artists, regardless of culture, are the first to recognize the tension between love and law. In expressing the hope of change from within, the artists face significant struggles, backlash and name-calling to say the least. Why? Because change hurts, and saying that something is wrong, needing to be fixed is not easy. Someone might see the problem, but it cannot be fixed by one person, no matter how great that person's vision might be. To create change, individuals must first look inward before they can start forward.

In the past five years, I've realized that some things I held true simply did not matter. I'm learning that the gray areas of life are the times most often used to build a person. Through my process, I see ten steps that helped me reconsider art both within and without the church:
  1. Opened my eyes. The easiest and hardest to do is open one's eyes to the greater culture both the current culture and the past culture.
  2. Grounded myself. In looking at the culture, I found that I needed to know what I believed, and why before I could sally forth to see what others believed.
  3. Educated myself. I needed to learn a great deal about what was out there. This education process included not just art, but history, science and other religions.
  4. Immersed into a field. I can't know everything about every subject, but I can learn a great deal about several subjects. I love textiles whether creation or history, so learning about them is a worthwhile field.
  5. Talked with others. In the process of delving into subjects or educating myself, I learn that I simply need to talk with someone else whether that person is an expert or a sounding board.
  6. Taught others. A hard one because not everyone wants to be taught, but bringing information to people helps change their culture. This step rarely involves classes; I taught someone about supporting the arts through a conversation. "Only rich people buy art items," my friend said, opening the opportunity for me to explain, that no, it isn't just rich people who purchase art.
  7. Connected with others. Finding like-minded individuals can be nigh on impossible. With the advent of modern technology this is made easier. Encouragement can be the hardest part of the journey.
  8. Looked at the big picture. One of my friends in Ireland tells me that to understand modern Irish history, I have to follow the themes throughout Irish history. The same is true with art and culture in general: to understand what happens now, we have to study history. Things don't just pop into space, there is often a cause.
  9. Examined the threads. Similar to number eight, but focused. In weaving, to learn about fabric structure, we study a small portion of it: repetitions or an area. This small area can give us insight into the greater structure. The same is true within the culture. To understand something, you have to (a) know your field then (b) see the repetition and structure within that field.
  10. Created enjoyment. One of my former pastors didn't like the word fun with youth group ministry. His reason: they were there to learn, not have fun. Learning is fun; the times I learn the most are when I'm having fun whether engaged in the activity or discussion. Hard work comes whenever we learn a new skill, but that hard work is what makes the skill fun later.
I admit that while the steps are all written in the past tense, I continue with them in the present. You cannot stop any of them, but need to actively engage all of them every day. These are the steps that I took; you might take other steps, but each one of us can be involved in changing our culture for the better, we just need to take that first step.


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