Masculinity and Family Values: The Cure to Society’s Ills?

Culture Vultures I’m very skeptical about “Christian” patriarchy and the Family Integrated Church movement for biblical and (Reformed) theological reasons.  I’m also skeptical of these things for social (or sociological) reasons. I agree with many of the points made by the authors of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  Here’s an excerpt from the introduction where the authors give some common suggestions on why American culture is crumbling.

“Perhaps the most widespread alternative explanation locates the source of our problems in a crisis of the family.  The cry that what our society most needs is ‘family values’ is not one to be dismissed lightly.  …But why is the crisis expressed as a failure of family values?  It is unlikely that we will understand what is going on here unless we once again take into account the culture of individualism.”

In other words, in our individualistic society we tend to blame individuals for society’s problems: if we fix individuals, social problems will be solved.  The authors say there is some truth in this, and a call to renewed commitment to marriage and family responsibilities is a good call.  However,

“…to imagine that problems arising from failures rooted in the structure of our economy and polity can primarily be traced to the failings of individuals with inadequate family values seems to us sadly mistaken.  It not only increases the level of individual guilt, it also distracts attention from larger failures of collective responsibility.”

“The link between cultural individualism and the emphasis on family values has a further consequence.  …Failure [for a man] to support [his] family may be taken as an indication of inadequate manhood.  It is easy to draw the conclusion that if American men would only act like men, then family life would be improved and social problems solved.  Some such way of thinking undoubtedly lies behind the movement known as Promise Keepers, as well as the Million Man March of 1995.”

“While we share many of the values of these movements, we are skeptical that increased male responsibility will prove to be an adequate solution to our deep structural economic and political problems or even that it will do more than marginally diminish the sever strains on the American family.  The notion that if men would only be men then all would be well in our society seems to us a sad cultural delusion.”

Bellah and the other authors go on to explain these things in more detail.  Their perspective is that rampant individualism is the major factor that has been tearing America apart for years: not primarily loss of family values or loss of masculinity (though these things are somewhat related).  Simply regaining family values and “manhood” is not a deep and lasting cure for all cultural ills – there’s more to it than that.

Perhaps the same could be said of the church?  How much has American individualism and populism weakened the church?  Quite a bit, I would say.  If you want more info on this, I recommend Habits of the Heart.  You may not agree with all of it, but it will stretch you, challenge you, help you fight against individualism, and think more in terms of solidarity and community.

Habits of the Heart, ed. Bella, Madsen, etc. (2008 edition).

shane lems


Cowboys, Detectives, and Loner Christians

Culture Vultures In Habits of the Heart (2008 ed.) the authors brilliantly illustrate American individualism by examining American stories – specifically stories of the cowboy and the detective.  Even more interesting is what John Locke has to do with cowboys and detectives.

“Individualism lies at the very core of American culture. …John Locke is the key figure and one enormously influential in America.  The essence of the Lockean position is an almost ontological individualism.  The individual is prior to society, which comes into existence only through the voluntary contract of individuals trying to maximize their own self-interest.  It is from this position that we have derived the tradition of utilitarian individualism.  But because one can only know what is useful to one by consulting one’s desires and sentiments, this is also ultimately the source of the expressive individualist tradition as well.”

“…A deep and continuing theme in American literature is the hero who must leave society, alone or with one or a few others, in order to realize the moral good in the wilderness, at sea, or on the margins of settled society.”

“American is also the inventor of that most mythical individual hero, the cowboy, who again and again saves a society he can never completely fit into.  The cowboy has a special talent – he can shoot straighter and faster than other men – and a special sense of justice.  But these characteristics make him so unique that he can never fully belong to society.  His destiny is to defend society without ever really joining it.  He rides off alone into the sunset….”

“The connection of moral courage and lonely individualism is even tighter for that other, more modern American hero, the hard-boiled detective.  …The detective is a loner.  He is often unsuccessful in conventional terms, working out of a shabby office where the phone never rings.  Wily, tough, smart, he is nonetheless unappreciated.  But his marginality is also his strength.  …To seek justice in a corrupt society, the American detective must be tough, and above all, he must be a loner.  …The hard-boiled detective, who may long for love and success, for a place in society, is finally driven to stand alone, resisting the blandishments of society, to pursue a lonely crusade for justice.”

In this chapter (6), the authors also wonder out loud if radically individualistic people are “capable of sustaining either a public or a private life.”  This discussion is also a good one for Christians to think about.  Such radical individualism is antithetical to the biblical concepts of covenant and communion (fellowship of the saints).  I would even say that this individualism is one thing that has weakened and is still weakening the Christian church in the United States.  Many Christians regularly avoid the assembly of the saints and view church membership as an imposition upon their individual rights and preferences.

God, however, didn’t create people to be loners (Gen. 2:18), and when he redeems sinners, he calls them into regular and personal fellowship and worship with other Christians (Acts 2:42, Heb. 10:24-25).  Christians living alone are going against the grain of the biblical faith and no doubt suffer for it.  We all need to pray against our own individualism and for those wandering alone from the flock of Christ.

The above quotes were taken from Robert Bellah, et. al, Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press ,2008).

rev shane lems

Individualism, America, and the Church

Culture VulturesHere in Washington State, I live relatively close to the trail that Lewis and Clark forged to make it to the West Coast in 1805.  Having studied their journey in some detail, I think it is a microcosm of the rugged American individualism that is so rampant today.  It shows up in all sorts of places, including reality TV shows, politics, marriages, the military, and sadly, even the church (from praise songs to lack of church discipline to disregard for church membership).  I suppose it goes back to Thomas Paine’s quip, “My mind is my church” which was echoed in Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself.”

On this topic, the book Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life is an absolute must read.  I’m only half-finished with it, so I won’t write a review (yet), but I do want to point it out.  It was written by a group of cultural scholars back in the 80’s, but revised a few times, most recently in 2008.  Here’s a small glimpse where the authors use Tocqueville (a Frenchman who came to the U.S. early in the 19th century and wrote reflections on his observations) to make their point.

“He (Tocqueville) also saw very vividly the way in which Americans operated in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin, and to describe this, he helped to give currency to a new word.  ‘Individualism,’ is a word recently coined to express a new idea,’ he wrote.  ‘Our fathers only knew about egoism.’  Individualism is more moderate and orderly than egoism, but in the end its results are much the same: ‘Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.'”

“As democratic individualism grows, he wrote, ‘there are more and more people who, though neither rich nor powerful enough to have much hold over others, have gained or kept enough wealth and enough understanding to look after their own needs.  Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody.  They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.’ Finally, such people come to ‘forget their ancestors, but also their descendants, as well as isolating themselves from their contemporaries.  ‘Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.’  Tocqueville mainly observed the utilitarian individualism we have associated with Franklin.  He only in a few instances discerns something of the expressive individualism that [Walt] Whitman would come to represent” (p. 37).

If you have thought about individualism, self-love, isolation, and self-reliance and how these things are detrimental to Christianity and the church, you really need to study this book for more background.  It is quite profound.  Stay tuned for more info on it in the nearer future.

Robert Bellah, et. al, Habits of the Heart (Berkeley: University of California Press ,2008)

shane lems

Raising Paine in the Church

 In this great book on the fellowship or communion of the saints, Philip Ryken explains one major hindrance to solid fellowship.

“Another obstacle to the communion of the saints is the pride of individualism.  This is especially a problem in the American church.  When the French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) visited the United States in the 1830s he observed that Americans ‘owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man, they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands… [This attitude] throws [the American] back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.'”

“The pride of individualism has infected the American church.  Thomas Jefferson liked to observe, ‘I am a sect myself.’  Thomas Paine said, ‘My mind is my church.’  Now many Americans are raising Paine in the contemporary church.  They doubt the necessity of active involvement in a living church.  They rely on Christian radio, worship at home with a televangelist, or treat churches like leased automobiles, trading the old one in for a new one every five years” (p. 11).

Ryken is right.  Hard core individualism is a huge barrier to true Christian fellowship.  And this is one major reason why Ryken wrote and edited this book, The Communion of SaintsHere’s how he said it himself on page 13: “The purpose of this book is to help us rediscover the lost communion of the saints.”   I do believe the book is a great help towards that end.  There’s even a study guide at the end which makes this a perfect resource for a Bible study or book group.  These are the kind of “churchly” books we need to be reading and studying!  You won’t find any trendy jargon like “enacted community,” or “Jesus the partier,”  but you will find a solid, biblical, and practical discussion of what the church is, says, and does in her pilgrimage.

Here’s the info: Philip Ryken (ed.) The Communion of the Saints (Philipsburg: P&R, 2001).

shane lems

Lone Ranger Christians?

 In the early church, one thing Cyprian stressed over and over is the importance of Christians being united with an assembly of other Christians (a.k.a. a/the church).  Some Christians were tempted to leave the assembly because of persecution; others were tempted to leave because some sect was pulling them away.  Today, the reasons for Christians not uniting publicly with other Christians are many.  I’m sure you’ve all heard different excuses why people don’t join a local church.  By the way, my favorite excuse is “the church is full of hypocrites,” which is an hypocritical statement itself.  I like what John Crotts writes on this topic.

“The Lord Jesus intended for every one of his children to be connected to one of these local churches.  There are no examples of free-floating Lone Ranger saints in the New Testament.  …While there is no single verse in the Bible commanding, ‘Thou shalt join a church,’ a clear inside or outside relationship of an individual Christian and a local church is nevertheless apparent.  When Hebrews 13:17 calls upon individual believers to ‘obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls,’ it is assumed that you know who your leaders are, that you are making their lives joyful by following their leadership, and that they know who you are, since they must give an account for your soul.”

“In Matthew 18:15-17, as Jesus spells out the steps of church discipline to restore a sinning brother, the final two steps are 1) to tell it to the church and then, if there is still no repentance, 2) to put the person out of the church, treating him as the Jews treated Gentiles and tax collectors.  Once again, it is assumed that you are inside a local church where you are being held accountable for your words and actions.  Then, if you don’t repent, you are put out of the body you must have previously been in.”

“Whether a church calls this relationship ‘membership’ is not nearly as important as the fact that the body has a clear way of knowing which Christians are inside and which are outside the church.  When Christians wanting to live the Christian life outside the local church claim that their church membership in the universal church is sufficient, they are missing many facets of God’s design for the local church.”

These quotes can be found on page 45 of Crotts’ book, Loving the Church: God’s People Flourishing in God’s Family.

shane lems