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Saturday, February 25, 2012

How Our Environments Shape Us

Romans 12:1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.


Whether we like it or not, our environments influence us in ways that we are often times unaware of. Simply by existing, we are at times shaping, but more often being shaped by the things we are being exposed to. We are creatures of passion and adaptability. We love to be drawn in and to be drawn out. We are certainly creatures of habit, and these habits are formed through both deliberate and unconscious modes. James K.A. Smith of Calvin College gave a titillating talk on how culture is actually liturgy in many ways. I am writing this to flesh out and contextualize the basic points he made in his speech. He begins by discussing how there is a belief that people are what they believe, meaning, that people are primarily their thoughts and that reasoning is often what drives human behavior. He disagrees by stating that it is not the primary factor, but just a factor that drives decisions in people. He makes mention that people are not brains on sticks, but rather, kinetic, visceral, and affective beings that are driven by wants more than what they think is right. Instead, he makes the argument that people make choices based on their desires and wants; in other words, they pursue the things they "love". The example he gives is one of his son: every Sunday morning, he enters into a battle with his teenage son to go to church; however, the same son can wake up radiant and glowing on Saturday morning at 6AM if he has to go have breakfast with his friends. The actions of his son demonstrate what he really loves - time with his friends.

As we are motivated by the things we want, we fail to recognize that the things we want are sometimes conditioned into us by outside forces. We want to believe that we don't make decisions based on the influential powers of others, but the reality is that we are always simultaneously in a state of influencing and being influenced. Every conversation that we have with people helps to develop our own theories on what life should be like as well as help others to develop the same. Every event we participate in either validates what we believe to be true or makes us question if we are on the right track. All of this is part of the process of being shaped by our environments whether we are conscious of it or not. I believe that this is also the beginning of compromise for many people as well.

We tend to believe that we have more control over our environments than we actually do, but this is a great temptation that we must avoid to believe. There is a shaping process that occurs in us through our environments, much like how rushing water shapes the riverbanks that guide it over time. The river banks don't notice while enjoying the company of water, but rivers are formed through the shaping power of water. Sometimes, we are fortunate to have enough influence over others to help shape culture; in fact, the late Steve Jobs was a master at this. He would be so furious with his passions that there was no room to question him and what he desired was executed. With the dispersing of iPods, iPhones, iPads, and essentially 'iEverythings’ around the world, Steve Jobs single-handedly changed the way people shopped, communicated, interacted, and behaved. But most of us will never be Mr. Jobs.

We don't often times recognize how our environment shapes us simply because we are not active participants in the creation of our environment or the culture that defines it. However, if we have been to Vegas, we can quickly understand that the environment we engage in has a transformative and engaging effect. Walk through a casino, and you get lost in it; time disappears as the sounds, the lights, and the temperature never changes on the casino floor. There are no windows that look out, so what you absorb is only within the walls of the casino. It's as if you are enclosed in a fortress of solitude with the intention of honing in on the thing that they want you to focus on. You become entranced with your surroundings and find yourself getting swept up in the excitement and the siren song of the casino. In fact, the values of the casino become the values you begin to adopt for yourself, which marks your entrance into the culture. Everything about Vegas changes you; that's why they say, "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." People who go to Vegas understand that there is a culture to Vegas that if you don't quickly participate in it, you will miss out on all of the crazy "Hangover" moments that could happen. Morals, personal standards, and ideas of what is decent gets thrown out the window, as you simply just immerse yourself into all that Vegas epitomizes. People try to make Vegas a place for everyone, but the people who seem to really be transformed by it are those who get swept up by it. There are many places that produce a similar effect as Vegas including cities (e.g., New York City, Los Angeles, Seoul, Tokyo, Rio de Janiero, and Chicago), theme parks (e.g., Disneyland) as well as universities (e.g., Wheaton College, UChicago, Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Berkley, USC, and UCLA). Even job industries and major corporations have a formative culture that seeks to indoctrinate people. Investment bankers have a common language and attitude that they share about money and work life. Jim Collins calls for companies to develop cult-like cultures in his best-selling book, Built to Last. Culture clearly shapes us more than simply a set of beliefs, norms, traditions, values, behaviors, and language that is accepted by people; in fact, culture is the incubator for people to become indoctrinated into a specific vision for the kingdom we want to become loyal subjects of.

As much as we would like to believe we are shaped by how we think and that we are in control of who we become, observing the world seems to suggest that how we think is shaped largely by our interests. Sit through a lecture, and if the topic is of interest to you, then you pay attention; if it isn't, then you doze off. Yes, there is something to be said about the competency of the lecturer, but more than that, outside of academic settings where we are graded, we will only sit through lectures by competent lecturers if the subject matter is of interest to us, or if the messenger is someone we want to know. In both cases, our wants define our actions. Dr. James K.A. Smith argues that it would seem as if our actions then are pulled out of us by what we want instead of pushed out of us by what we think is right. In fact, if you think about what he is saying, the greatest criticism by the over-churched is that they are tired of feeling inauthentic about their faith and that they are exhausted and burnt out from doing so much without being rewarding even intrinsically. It seems to these individuals as if there are too many rules to keep up with that there is no enjoyment in following God. At some point, they either give up, or examine themselves carefully to realize that the God they thought they needed to work FOR had actually died so that they wouldn't feel like they needed to earn their place in eternity, and the joy of that news transforms them from the inside out.

The problem then seems not to be that we have desires, but that our desires often times seem to be directed at things that don't ultimately satisfy or fulfill. The thing we often fail to recognize, however, is that culture (and the rituals within culture) shape our desires more than we may like.

So how do desires and culture meet? They meet at two points.

The first point is if we actively seek out the culture that matches our desires. This can only come if we are able to recognize the thing that will ultimately satisfy our desires. We need a vision for what will, without fail, satisfy the deepest parts of us so that anxiety and worry don't consume us, that other desires are ordered under it, and that it will always nourish us when we turn to it. Some people seem to believe that if they collect a million puzzle pieces, that it will create a complete picture. But what people fail to realize is that there are billions of disparate puzzle pieces from millions of competing puzzles that exist in the same pile. From our perspective, it just looks as if equal visions of what will bring about fulfillment are competing with one another. It would be nearly impossible to figure out what you are looking for if you simply take life on with every puzzle piece that you grab at random. Of course, most people don't live this way. Once they experience the type of love and freedom that the Gospel brings, most people start filling in the edges of the puzzle and begin to see parts of the picture. This doesn't mean that once those pieces are locked in, they will stay in. We are always battling a variety of forces, some of which are internally created and others of which are external. With competing visions for what human flourishing looks like and what the ultimate kingdom we are living for looks like, we must remember that it is easy to get caught up with the one puzzle piece that we want to make fit but doesn't. This one puzzle piece can lead to frustration and even a discarding of everything we have come to know as the picture we are trying to recreate through the connecting of the pieces. However, if we know what it is we are trying to piece together (because the picture is shown to us), we have a tendency to move toward it with a ferocious motivation. We discard anything that seems like a false or counterfeit piece, and we toss away anything that attempts to compete with our desire to complete this picture in our lives.

The second point is if our engagement of a particular culture forms our desires. James Smith quotes St. Augustine, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." The idea that we are all being pulled by our desires is one thing, and the thought that we were made to desire one thing is another. As I mentioned, if we have a vision for the culture we desire, then we will stay singularly focused until it materializes or until we find it. If we don't, then we must recognize that whatever culture we participate in will have us conform our values to its values, adapt our behaviors to those that are acceptable by its standards, and change our standards in everything from low to high cultural expressions. In other words, culture will not only inform us how to get along with people but will also indoctrinate us to become one of the people. If we're not careful, we will become of the world as we are in the world. What we must learn to do as Christians is to navigate, love, and live amongst the people without actually becoming one of them. We must empathize with them, listening carefully to every heartbeat they share with us without having our hearts beat for the same thing that they do. We must do, as Paul did in the book of Acts: recognize, identify, and reveal the culture making idols of their lives, expose them, and then pour the Gospel over them.

How do we do this?

LA Case study:

I love LA. In fact, I have a hard time getting on the plane at LAX to leave the city. The weather, my pocket of close friends, the variety of cultures, and the diversity are all things that I love about the city. I love how Hollywood creates artistic works of entertainment, that the fine arts are growing in the city, and that we have a million grassroots movements from slow food to fast-paced car racing. Every neighborhood has a different feel to it. LA is a city that breeds lovers and provides creative types the ability to network. It's also a city that offers professionals a space to pursue their careers without the same degree of competitiveness as you may find in NY. I love LA. But it is not perfect, and it has a lot of self-reflection to do.

LA is a city where the idea of seeing and being seen is ultimate. If the idol of New York is money, the idol of Chicago is power (look at their politics), then the idol of LA is sex. Of course, each city has their pursuits of all three, but what drives LA is not power or money, but sex. The most beautiful people congregate to Los Angeles. In fact, there are so many beautiful people in this city that dating someone who you would consider an 8, 9 or, 10 on a 10-point scale is highly feasible. Image and sex appeal drive the city as "less is more", and $1000 purses are a bare minimum for those barely making any money at all. People can be poor, but if they know the right people, have the right energy, and are socially savvy enough, they can navigate around the city and live the high life for next to nothing. Clubbing and bars define the scene, and the only ways to get in, like in other major cities, are to 1) buy a bottle if the tables haven't already been sold out; 2) know the manager/owner; 3) be known by the bouncer or give him a fat tip on the dl; or 4) roll with celebrities, aka, sexually charged icons in the city. The food scene is exactly the same: reservations get moved around if someone who will bring you publicity comes through. You are not known as powerful or rich if you go to all these places, but rather as desirable, wanted, or sexy. Money only gets you so far in the city, and power is only good for those who want a job or want something to get done. Everything in the broadest culture of LA and Hollywood is sexually charged.

This affects people who aren't directly a part of the crowd by everything they see from Sunset Blvd., to Beverly Hills, to celebrity gossip sites, to how people drive their convertibles to go to Yogurtland. Advertisements line the magazines, which LA is ranked among the highest consumers of, and there are walking advertisements in our schools, churches, and along the streets. In fact, I chose not to go to Pepperdine University for college because during my college visit, I saw a bunch of very attractive Elle Woods'-types (from Legally Blonde) walking around with their Juicy Couture velour, Gucci flats, and LV purses for bookbags. Their Chanel sunglasses prevented me from being able to see if their faces were consistent with their image, but it really didn't matter. I did not want to be part of a culture that worshiped materialism, even though they were genuinely nice people and pleasant to talk with. The scariest thing was that outside of my own judgmental heart, they had no idea that they had become a part of a culture that they never thought they would.

It's a slow fade, as Casting Crowns puts it, and we need a revolutionary and sharp voice to help us assess our cultural blind spots. In LA, you hear the constant narratives of how someone got "laid" and the endless pursuits of both men and women to find "the one" by whatever means necessary. Sex becomes meaningless and is honestly believed to simply be a physical act between two people. Accidentally slipping up is highly tolerated, and no one really cares if it happens as long as no one was raped in the process. There is a belief that if you love your boyfriend or girlfriend, then doing it is fine, as long as you are committed to them in that moment. For those who remain abstinent are concerned, sleeping together, taking vacations together, kissing until your balls turn blue, and doing everything except the actual act of intercourse are OK. LA is not a city that values purity, and if we are not careful, we will accept, believe, and begin to adopt the lifestyle that LA wants us to live. This is what the idol of sex does to a city.

So what?

I think it would be a great folly to believe that our environment doesn't shape us more than we would like. I know it shapes me because in every place I lived, I had to either reject the culture I was a part of with a critical attitude or embrace it with a compromising one. Living in Korea, I felt the pressures of workaholism. At Wheaton, I felt the pressures to conform to a safe and white view of Christianity. At YWAM, I felt the pressures of performing for God through the supernatural. In Spain, I confronted a deep passivity toward everything as if they gave up on life, yet an undying passion for living. How people viewed sex, power, and money all differed based on the culture I was engaged in; however, it didn't mean that I could ignore it or just passively roll with it. Instead, although I am/was far from perfect, I learned that having a standard is OK, that you can engage with the people without compromising Godly values, and that you can be a light into darkness where light is needed. Of course, all this is loaded with Christian jargon that I am too tired to edit for now... but I think you get the picture. We must simply be aware of what things influence us, draw us in, and call out to us.

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