‘They Fought Like Warrior-Poets’ – What Moves Culture?

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Mankind, by its very nature and manifested across time immemorial, has always lived in the context of ‘the group.’ New York Times columnist David Brooks even wrote a book boldly entitled The Social Animal – rephrasing Aristotle’s age-old definition of humans as ‘rational animals’ – in which he establishes the central characteristic of humans as their communal nature. Moreover, Brené Brown, a researcher at University of Houston School of Social Work and lights-out TED speaker has claimed that a summation of her decades of research shows two fundamental traits of human beings: “connection and belonging is why we are here” (pg. 68, Brené Brown, Daring Greatly). That really is a quirky, awe-inspiring reality. We are all individually and completely ourselves, but (avoiding all Jerry McGuire references) as individuals, we aren’t complete in and of ourselves. We need others. Hence, community is in our blood.

Now, arising out of these communities in which humans unavoidably find themselves is something called ‘culture.’ Equally as obvious and confounding as this communal nature of man is this term ‘culture.’ Everyone knows culture exists and that it is important, but we come up short when trying to define it. What is culture, anyway?

It isn’t just something reserved for stuffy museums and archipelagos of highly lauded ‘great works.’ It is not something people participate in only every once in a while when they see an opera, look at a Titian gallery or otherwise seek out some activity when they feel like ‘getting some culture.’ No, culture is far more expansive than that, formed from every corner of a building and every act of a citizen. It is “the way we do things around here” (pg. 174, Brené Brown, ibid.). It is the way of life of a people. It is not just what we do sometimes. Culture is the waters in which we are unavoidably swimming and the juices in which we are stewing. It is the spirit and soul of a communal body of people that exhibits its personality, life and health.

But, notice the root word of ‘culture’ – cultus, which is Latin for worship. Where is the natural spring, the birth canal, the inescapable origin, the ‘root’ for this ‘way of life’ of any people? Ultimately, it germinates from what that people worships. That is to say, culture springs forth from what that people loves and gives its collective heart to.

This is such a crucial point. This is why culture always comes back to how a community of people answers certain questions: What is ultimately significant and meaningful in life? What is true about the world and the cosmos? Who is man? What is his place and role in the world? What is the purpose in living? And, perhaps most poignantly, culture stems from and points to three questions achingly explored in Michael O’Brien’s Island of the World: Who are you? Where did you come from? Where are you going?

All of these questions show culture to be more foundational than just what kinds of foods we eat and how we dress. Rather, it cuts straight to the heart of a people, finding its footing in how they answer Jesus’ perennial question:

“What do you seek?” (John 1:38)

In such a context, it doesn’t take an especially exacting gaze to see that our culture is not such a healthy one. It is one thing for a people to take their best stab at answering the questions above and let the cultural chips fall where they may. But, it something different entirely to do what our society in the West now does: not answer the questions at all.

Look at the above list of questions again… does our society give any whiff of an answer to them at all? How can that be? How is that approach to life an honest response to what are certainly the deepest, most rudimentary questions leaping up from the flames within our chests? How healthy can a culture be (and, more importantly, the people who give birth to such a culture) if it stands blind, deaf, dumb and mute, cutting out its own heart? This is why some have argued that we have no culture left.

What is the remedy? What can give life to what is dead? What can turn darkness into light? One (and only one) thing:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4)

Each and every human being (and, by extension, each and every society) needs the ‘newness of life’ that only Jesus can give. It is to Him that we must come with empty hands and to Him that we must give everything. He is the only one who has the power to change societies and their attendant cultures. Life comes from no other source than God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is the definition of foolishness (and Einstein concept of insanity) to dig into any other well. Therefore, if we wish to play a part in healing the wounds or solving the problems around us, we must, as St. Therese once said, “hide [ourselves] in the wounds of Christ,” so that, through us He may redeem, transform and give life.

And this is the climatic point of the Christian life: if we are truly pierced and converted by the Gospel, then we will spray out over the battle-contested garden of the world as warrior-poets of the Gospel – firmly girded with trust and hope in our Father and ever ready to die for Him in our combat against evil.

We follow Him on His mission to save people from destruction and death (as we ourselves have been saved.) In this way it is absolutely our mission (albeit, indirectly) to build a healthy culture, because it is our mission to let the light of Christ change the way people see and live in the world – to unleash Christ to transfigure hearts.

This is what it means to be a disciple. Consequently, it is only this kind of sold-out abandonment to the Christ-centered Gospel that suffices for restoring a putrefied and entombed culture like ours. When disciples truly live together in a community of Gospel-oriented mission, then societies flourish and fluoresce with truth, unity, justice, beauty, goodness and peace.

Brothers and sisters, this is what we are called to by Him who stands at the ready to pour out His grace and power into the hearts of all men. How can we not respond?

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Periodic Scripture Reflection: Philippians 4:4-7

St. Paul“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand.  Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

When I stumbled across this section in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I stopped reading, looked out the window, and said, “That’s ridiculous.” My intention was not to offend St. Paul, but rather, I was struck with the incredibly high degree of difficulty this passage proclaims. Rejoice always? In the eyes of the world and often in my own life, I find this to be an unattainable reality. Paul, however, believed it so completely that he felt compelled to repeat himself: Rejoice! I immediately look at my life and the state of our country and world and think of all the reasons not to have joy. Abortion, crime, pornography, natural disasters, family illness, and many other things all represent reasons we can justify living without joy. It would be easy to question whether Paul was living in the same world as us. This would be a reasonable concern until you read his second letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 11:23-28, Paul lists his difficulties and sufferings while being a disciple of Christ. It’s impressive, in a terrifying sort of way. Here are some highlights:eight separate beating sessions, three shipwrecks, in danger everywhere he went, imprisonments, and the constant pressure of feeling spiritually responsible for all of the new churches.  Arguably the greatest evangelist suffered an incredible amount and yet he teaches us to always rejoice, which makes him either a hypocrite or truly the saint that he is.

The rest of the passage deals with Paul’s reasoning for always being able to rejoice. He teaches that we must have forbearance or in a modern way, we must persevere. Being an expert at pushing through pain and suffering, Paul says that it is possible to overcome these obstacles because, quite simply, “the Lord is at hand.” Paul was acutely aware of Christ’s presence with him and the power of the Holy Spirit operating in his life. As a result of this reality, Paul’s external circumstances could never affect the internal joy he experienced by living each day with the Lord. Paul gives us another clue to rejecting the temptation to worry or despair when he tells us “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” It seems relatively obvious that we should pray and supplicate to the Lord. What is more striking is Paul’s encouragement to pray with thanksgiving. I think there’s a saying that goes: “a thankful heart is a joyful heart”, or at least my mom used to say that to me. It’s actually true; when we pray with gratitude, we are able to see the tremendous gifts in our lives and focus on the ways that God has blessed us.

While He already knows the desires of our hearts, God wants us to tell him what we need and want. He wants us to approach Him with humility and gratitude. When we recognize and embrace God’s constant presence in our life and choose to focus on His providence, our inner joy can not be robbed by the circumstances of the world. I realize that it is a lofty goal to always rejoice, and it will be a lifetime of praying and perseverance.  Paul never gave up and he remains a witness to what a joyful life in Christ can accomplish. This section from Philippians leaves us with an equally ridiculous promise and yet one that we all want to attain, “and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”