Friday, April 29, 2011
It's Hard to Love a Luddite
Although Christianity has made a huge difference in the lives of people around the world, this does not seem to be true for the poor people in Appalachia and the American South. I want to know why.
That question has led to others.
Is there (or should there be) a correlation between the percentage of devout Christians within a given area and the level of education, poverty, and crime – the quality of life, in other words – experienced by the general population in that same area?
Are the Evangelical regions of our nation safer?
Does Evangelical influence make any difference at all in the quality of social life of a given community?
When I observe through history how Christian spirituality, service and education has lifted individuals and cultures, I marvel at the fruit of our faith. I can say the same about what occurs in many parts of the globe today. However, when I think about the Christian influence on American culture now, I am dismayed.
Something is wrong.
It is time to realize that much of American Evangelicalism lives and operates within a cultural and scientific perspective that has not been current for at least three generations. We don’t discuss continental drift. We are uneasy about the implications of the Genome project. The theory of relativity and quantum mechanics seem to have no bearing upon our views of time and space. We do not intend to adjust our local churches to the realities of globalization. We have not noticed the downward spiral of poor believers in our inter-cities or rural counties.
We are, perhaps deliberately, stuck in a time warp and spending too much energy trying to pretend that the world has not changed.
This has happened before.
In 1811 a group of textile workers in Nottingham, England began destroying weaving machines with a large sledge hammer they called “the hammer of God.” These textile terrorists would soon be known as 'the Luddites.' They were on a crusade to destroy emerging technology because it was reshaping English culture.
It’s easy to make fun of the poor Luddites, because we are not impoverished nineteenth century textile workers. We are not wondering about how to feed our children after machines take over our jobs. But it doesn’t take much imagination to understand their plight. If machines were taking food out of our childrens' mouths, then we might conclude that machines are evil.
To some English people those machines were a sign of progress. They realized that the factories were growing the nation’s industrial base because they were already profiting from the shift. Today, as we look back, most of us share the perspective of those progressives. However, it didn’t look like progress to those living beside streams of urine and feces in filthy shacks as they choked on the factory fumes. The textile workers remembered the agricultural life of their grandparents and the natural rhythms of work they had experienced in the pre-industrial age. It seemed as though someone was deliberately destroying their paradise and replacing it with these “dark satanic mills.”
The Luddites intended to fight this evil with the hammer of God.
Are American Evangelicals Luddites?
Oh, when it comes to technology, contemporary Christians are certainly not Luddites. We like our gadgets. As soon as we can imagine an application for them, we even use them in worship. However, if we are talking about our attitudes toward the sciences that create the technology, or toward the humanities that contemplate the values by which we live, many of us are very much like Luddites. We want the world to stop changing and we don’t want to consider what it will look like to live and work in a globalized society where our faith is one among many. We are not certain we have what it takes to survive in that sort of world.
Those who can, ignore the changing world. Those who can't are floundering without a map.
Upwardly mobile Evangelicals send their children to great universities. There, some of these children encounter contemporary issues for the first time. Hopefully, they also join a good campus ministry. If they are not terribly concerned with developing a coherent world view, they may earn the degree necessary for getting a good job without becoming overly concerned about the implications of globalization or the scientific conclusions of the last one hundred years.
The view from below is more dismal. Poor evangelicals do not have access to private religious education. The children of poor Evangelicals attend public schools and immediately encounter secular perspectives very different from what they have learned at home. Their alarmed parents often react by encouraging them to study for vocations that will not require them to face either disturbing scientific knowledge or the philosophical nuances of literary life. This often leads poor evangelicals to choose either menial occupations, or perhaps more lucrative kinds of work that nonetheless do not involve facing the dangerous new ideas of contemporary life.
Whether wealthy or poor, many Evangelicals are constantly retreating from the realities of a globalized, postmodern and technologically sophisticated age.This has created an unsustainable situation. Either Christians must learn to make the sorts of contributions their ancestors once made to the culture or stop claiming to be anything more than a society built on nostalgia.
The place we can begin is in our own backyard: the hellholes of our inter cities and rural counties, which though filled with gospel music and Jesus billboards, produce a constant crop of misery. The hammer of God, which we often use to bash legitimate questions posed by contemporary life, could become a blessing were we to use it to batter away at the demonic structures of poverty, ignorance and despair. We can recover the old weapon of exorcism and drive out the spirits of defeat, fear, anger and denial from ourselves.
Many say we need a national revival, but we have experienced a number of emotional updrafts we have called revival every decade or so for the last century. We need something else, something like the transformational power of a reformation, that will reorder our thoughts, our theological paradigm and our spiritual practices.
The Luddite path is a dead end.