How Can You Counter a Degenerating Culture?

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How Can You Counter a Degenerating Culture?

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Culture: It's a word we hear a lot about these days. But what does it mean? One dictionary defines culture as "the particular system of art, thought and customs of a society." Author Robert Dugan offers a broader definition. He defines culture as "the ways of thinking, living and behaving that define a people and underlie its achievements. It is a nation's collective mind, its sense of right and wrong, the way it perceives reality, and its definition of self. Culture is the morals and habits a mother strives to instill in her children. It is the obligations we acknowledge toward our neighbors, our community, and our government . . . It is the standards we set and enforce for ourselves and for others: our definitions of duty, honor and character. It is our collective conscience" (Winning the New Civil War, 1991, p. 169).

Does popular culture—and our attitude toward it—matter?

The Bible contains a disturbing prophetic glimpse of culture in the last days of human civilization. The apostle Paul was inspired to write of the last days as "perilous times" (2 Timothy 3:1). He describes that age as a time when "men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God . . ." (verses 2-4).

Could Paul have been writing of our culture, that of the Western world in 2002? He certainly seems to describe a culture bent on pleasure, entertainment, vanity, greed and utter selfishness at the expense of stable marriages, families and other relationships.

Consider a lesson from history. Sociologist and historian Carle Zimmerman, in his 1947 book Family and Civilization, recorded his observations as he compared the disintegration of various cultures with their parallel decline of family life:

"Eight specific patterns of domestic behavior typified the downward spiral of each culture Zimmerman studied: Marriage lost its sacredness [and] is frequently broken by divorce; traditional meaning of the marriage ceremony is lost; feminist movements abound; there is increased public disrespect for parents and authority in general; an acceleration of juvenile delinquency, promiscuity and rebellion occur; there is refusal of people with traditional marriages to accept family responsibilities; a growing desire for, and acceptance of, adultery is evident; there is increasing interest in, and spread of, sexual perversions and sex-related crimes" (quoted in Confident Living, November 1987, p. 34).

Values-neutral philosophy

A major change over recent decades is that Western culture has become what sociologists call values-neutral.Advocates of this approach argue that we should not adopt any system defining right and wrong and expect all to adhere to it because no one has a right to impose his values on others.

A former U.S. senator from Indiana, Daniel Coats, reported: "I recently saw the story of a high school values clarification class conducted by a teacher in Teaneck, New Jersey. A girl in the class had found a purse containing $1,000 and returned it to its owner. The teacher asked for the class's reaction. Every single one of her fellow students concluded the girl had been 'foolish.'

"Most of the students contended that if someone is careless, they should be punished. When the teacher was asked what he had said to the students, he responded, 'Well, of course, I didn't say anything. If I come from the position of what is right and wrong, then I'm not their counselor. I can't impose my views'" (Imprimis, September 1991).

But if figures in authority won't—or can't—teach standards to children, where will they learn them? In all too many cases, from the popular culture around them.

Tragically, most Americans no longer believe in the concept of absolute moral truths. A George Barna poll conducted late last year found that only 22 percent of American adults—and a minuscule 6 percent of teenagers—believed that "there are moral absolutes that are unchanging." Sadly, only 32 percent of those who described themselves as Christians believed in absolute moral standards, and only 26 percent cited the Bible as the source of their moral principles.

'Impossible without faith in God'

How are we to establish an ethical and moral cultural base for our societies and families? Previous articles in The Good News have highlighted the biblical foundation of true values and the fact that, when the United States was founded, its leaders unashamedly accepted many of the principles of Scripture as the basis for its laws and culture.

Reminiscent of such long-abandoned values, columnist Georgie Anne Geyer wrote: "I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to have a moral community or nation without faith in God, because without it everything rapidly comes down to 'me,' and 'me' alone is meaningless. "Today Americans have . . . stopped acting on what they knew was right—and 'me' has become the measure of everything.

However, moral societies are the only ones that work. If anyone thinks there is not a direct and invaluable relationship between personal integrity in a society and that society's prosperity, that person has simply not studied history.

"And this should not surprise us. Great moral societies, built upon faith in God, honor, trust, and the law, blossom because they are harmonious; because people love or at least respect their fellowman; because, finally, they have a common belief in something beyond themselves . . . Alexis de Tocqueville said it best when he realized even at the very beginning of our national life, 'America is great because America is good. If America ceases to be good, she will cease to be great'" (Bits & Pieces, Sept. 17, 1992, pp. 23-24, emphasis added).

These sentiments were echoed by Svetlana Alliluyeva, daughter of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, when she unexpectedly defected from Russia to the United States.

Why did she defect? In her own words: "I found it impossible to exist without God in one's heart. I came to that conclusion myself, without anybody's help or preaching.

That was a great change because since that moment the main dogmas of Communism lost their significance for me. I have come here to seek the self-expression that has been denied me for so long in Russia" (quoted in Morning Glory, Feb. 5, 1994).

It is faith in God that provides the anchor for a culture. Without it we are cast adrift, lost in a sea of values neutrality or hedonism and robbed of any method of determining right from wrong. The result is a culture that staggers like a drunkard unable to find the wall.

Crumbling morality threatens a nation

The dramatic effects of the Western cultural shift are best illustrated by contrasting social trends. Consider some changes over a 50-year period: "In New York City in 1943, 3 percent of all births were illegitimate. There were 44 homicides by gunshot. In 1992, 1,499 people died of gunshot. 45 percent of births in 1993 were illegitimate. Nationwide, nearly 30 percent of all babies today come home fatherless, 68 percent in Washington, D.C." (Gary Bauer, Family Research Council letter, Nov. 4, 1993).

William Bennett, former U.S. secretary of education, published a book in 1999 titled The Index of Leading Cultural Indicators. Here are a few of the statistics he presented, comparing life in 1997 with 1960:

  • Violent crime increased by 467 percent.
  • Illegitimate births were up 461 percent.
  • Divorces rose by 100 percent.
  • Children living in single-parent homes increased more than 200 percent.
  • Teenage suicides were up more than 100 percent.
  • SAT scores dropped by almost 60 points.

Finally, consider the result of a survey conducted in 1988 by the Rhode Island Rape Crisis Center. About 1,700 students between the sixth and ninth grades attended adolescent assault-awareness classes conducted in schools across the state. Each boy and girl was asked whether a man should have a right to force a woman to have sexual intercourse if he had spent money on her.

The shocking results? Nearly 25 percent of the boys and 16 percent of the girls said "Yes." Sixty-five percent of the boys and 47 percent of the girls in the seventh through ninth grades said it is permissible for a man to force a woman to have sex with him if they have dated for six months or longer (James Dobson and Gary Bauer, "Children at Risk," Word, 1990, pp. 258-259).

Influence on Christians?

Let's not carelessly assume these trends have no effect on those who describe themselves as Christians. The Community Impact Seminar: Focus on the Family reported that two out of every five self-identified Christians say you may do anything you want just as long as you don't hurt anyone else.

In New Testament times, the grinding effect of a permissive, anything-goes popular culture was illustrated by the story of the Church of God congregation in the Greek city of Corinth. Located on a natural harbor and at the intersections of several major trade routes, the city was quite prosperous.

But tragically, like the city of Sodom centuries before (Genesis 13:13; Ezekiel 16:49-50), Corinth had allowed its wealth to lure many of its inhabitants into immorality. So legendary had this city become that it even gave its name to the term corinthianize, meaning to act in an immoral way.

Christians are not immune to their cultural surroundings. The Corinthians reflected the loose, values-neutral backdrop of their city in their own moral carelessness.

The recorded story of the congregation in Corinth tells us of a man who was cohabiting with his stepmother (1 Corinthians 5:1), a sin that was tolerated—or perhaps even condoned—by many in the church (verse 2). The values of Corinthian society had affected them to the point that they would tolerate this kind of degeneracy—much to their shame.

You can also read of their tendency to allow their contentions to boil over in lawsuits (1 Corinthians 6) and their failure to remain faithful to their marriage vows (chapter 7). A sectarian, individualistic spirit (chapter 3), and drunkenness at the solemn occasion of the Passover (1 Corinthians 11:17-22), were among the many spiritual weaknesses of the Corinthians.

Paul had to sternly correct these sins and several others. No, these Christians were not immune to the corroding influences in their culture, just as Christians today aren't immune to their culture.

Countering the culture

So what can you do?

First, you have to recognize the influence of popular culture on all aspects of your life.

What manner of person would you have been if you had been born in another place and another time? How are you different now because of the culture around you?

Familiarizing yourself with the history of our cultures, and with the changing value systems of the modern world, will allow you to begin to appreciate the impact of the time and place of your birth.

Second, you must develop moral and ethical convictions. What do you allow yourself to do? What has shaped your standards and morals, your values? Do you recognize there is a cause and purpose much greater than you, much greater than life itself?

There are indeed proper definitions for the terms right and wrong, sin and righteousness. Those definitions are provided in the Word of God, the Holy Bible. Studying that book was once commonplace. Your studying it now will provide you a moral and cultural anchor.

Third, diminish your concern about what others will think. There is no point in worrying about them, because convictions never bring universal approval.

Those who accept a moral code derived from the Holy Scriptures will find themselves opposed by many (though not by all). Yet your concern needs to be not what people think, but what your Creator thinks.

Finally, stand up for what you believe.

Remember the saying: If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. The courage to stand up for what's right may carry a price tag in the short term, but it will reap valuable returns in your character over the course of this life and into eternity. GN