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Monday, April 8, 2013

Coming Apart -- or Fracturing?

by C.J. Chase


Last week, Dina wrote about proposed changes in the definition of “marriage” and what Christians should do when our compassion for people intersects with our obligation to God. As it turns out, I had a follow-on post already in the mental hopper before I’d even read hers. I’ve been reading Coming Apart by noted social scientist Charles Murray. I’ve never watched a reality show in my life, but I read such books (complete with graphs and appendices) for fun. Dr. Murray would probably draw some conclusions about me based on those two facts. But would he be right?



The premise of Coming Apart is that the American class system is becoming ossified in a way never seen before—with a multi-generational “elite” (based as much on education, intellect, and lifestyle choices as income) who are increasingly segregated from the rest of America. He even has a “How Thick is Your Bubble” quiz if you’d like to see how familiar you are (or aren’t) with Murray’s “ordinary Americans.” (Note: the subtitle of Coming Apart is The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray states in the book he focused on white Americans so as to remove any charges that the data was skewed by racial or ethnic factors.) 


While I found much of Murray’s work fascinating, I don’t think it explains where I find myself in 2013 America. An American Christian woman of 50 years ago was part of mainstream America. She read the bestsellers of the day (Mary Stewart, Helen MacInnes, and Daphne Du Maurier all made the list in 1963), watched the top rated television shows of the time (The Beverly Hillbillies, Bonanza, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Petticoat Junction, and The Andy Griffith Show were the top five for the season that ended in April, 1963), and listened to the same radio shows as the rest of America. 



Now fast forward to 2013. That American Christian woman is quite possibly living on the
fringe of American popular culture. She reads books specifically written by and for Christians (often sold in Christian bookstores), has her car radio tuned to the local Christian radio station, and probably avoids many of the top rated TV shows. 


Quoting from Murray’s first chapter: “Two conditions have to be met before a subculture can spring up within a mainstream culture. First, a sufficient number of people have to possess a distinctive set of tastes and preferences. Second, they have to be able to get together and form a critical mass large enough to shape the local scene.” Are American Christians now a subculture within the wider American experience? As we move into a post-Christian age, will we have a choice? And is becoming a distinct subculture a good thing or a bad thing?



One of the interesting things with Murray's upper/lower class dichotomy is that the “elite” tend to have liberal attitudes (particularly in the “Big Four” influential areas of New York, Washington, Los Angeles, and San Francisco) toward marriage and family in that they espouse an “anything goes” toleration. And yet, they live their lives in a very conservative fashion with low divorce and illegitimacy rates. Those at the other end of this change in the American class system still have more conservative attitudes toward marriage and family, but they don’t live that way. They are more likely to divorce, have children out of wedlock, commit crime, and skip regular church attendance.


Where does a Christian fit? As the culture continues to coarsen, what should we do? How are we “in the world” while still not being “of the world”? 


I wish I had answers. As I discussed the book with my husband, we both agreed that many times we don’t feel like we belong anywhere anymore. The culture has shifted, and we have not. Suddenly, I find myself countercultural – a rebel, my husband called me. Yeah, that’s me. Mild mannered rebel. But I fear my children, if they are to live their lives as practicing and believing Christians, will have to be true rebels. In 2010, Cardinal George of Chicago made a frightening statement about the future he foresaw for American Christians: “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.”


So, since I said I had no answers, I’m opening the floor for discussion. How much can and should Christians withdraw from a culture grown increasingly non-Christian and in many cases even anti-Christian? To withdraw completely is to lose all ability to reach people with the message of Hope. But to conform to the culture around us is to lose our identity as Christians, and perhaps even to lose our children to the culture. For those of us whose families have been in American for more than a generation or two, we are entering uncharted waters. Until recently, American values and Christian values coincided to a large degree.  That relationship is, well, coming apart. Where do we go from here? How far can we go before we have to draw our line in the sand? And what do we do when we get there?



After leaving the corporate world to stay home with her children, C.J. Chase quickly learned she did not possess the housekeeping gene. She decided writing might provide the perfect excuse for letting the dust bunnies accumulate under the furniture. Her procrastination, er, hard work paid off in 2010 when she won the Golden Heart for Best Inspirational Manuscript and sold the novel to Love Inspired Historicals. Her current release, The Reluctant Earl, is now available  in online bookstores. You can visit C.J.'s cyber-home (where the floors are always clean) at www.cjchasebooks.com  


11 comments:

  1. wow. food for thought.

    you've put in words something i've been pondering. i've got a toddler and i want him to grow to be the man the Lord created him to be. i want him to have a strong relationship with the Lord as well. i know it will be a battle to instill Godly morals and paradigm, if you will, that will probably oppose what he'll get exposure to in school. i want to send him to a parochial or Christian school, but right now, i don't know if i'd be able to financially speaking.

    i've no answers or thoughts in response to your questions - but i will be pondering them and praying for an answer - if not for you, then for me.

    thanks for the post. it's a good one.

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  2. I'm happy to report that my bubble is quite thin, according to the quiz!

    The isolationist, protectionist, Christian subculture that keeps everyone's life nice and tidy and sheltered has played a huge role in the loss of Christian influence in American society, IMO. We're so afraid we might be "defiled" by something, or that our children will be exposed to something we don't want them to see, that we've effectively cut off our avenues of influence to the world around us. We only want to work with other Christians, live near other Christians, socialize with other Christians, etc. That's fine, except for that whole "go into all the WORLD" thing.

    It's a timely discussion... makes me think of the Pope's visit to that juvenile detention center on Easter, where he washed the feet of the prisoners, including two women, one of whom was a Muslim... meanwhile, back in the States, people were ripping each other apart over the same-sex marriage debate. One is Christ-like, the other is labeled "Christian." I think I prefer the former.

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  3. This post makes me think of the recent ACFW conference where the speaker said that by writing Christian books to be sold to Christians via a Christian bookstore was the same as preaching to the choir.

    And you're right... at home and in the car, hubby and the boys listen to Christian music. I don't as I write in a silent world, and I listen to Country when I want music to drive by, or CBC Radio Canada when I want to be informed. Also conference CD's when I'm driving, although some of them put me to sleep when I drive at night.

    We read Christian fiction, but don't stop there. For instance, out of the 6 of us (distant kids included), only the youngest and I didn't read The Hunger Games et al which went through the family like dominoes.

    However, we all watch regular TV and very rarely Christian programming.

    So I guess we still have one foot in each world, which I believe is the right place to be.

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  4. I'm coming in to the conversation with a heavy heart. I have seen such a change in the culture where people were respected for at least trying to follow Christian principles rather than ridiculed for it.

    It's changing at an alarming rate too. Popular culture has made biblical principles a joke. I believe we are to minister to people one on one and we have to rely =more than ever= on sowing seeds of love where we feel there is at least a bit of soft ground.

    This is an excellent post, C.J. I have to admit that walking in both worlds has wearied me. I don't feel like much of a light when the darkness is deeper than ever.

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  5. CJ, I read this post at three this morning (before I went to bed). I thought about commenting then, but I was too sad to do it.

    Deb is right. Instead of "Christian" being a good thing now, it is something that is considered laughable and suspect and, at best, mentally and emotionally weak.

    I'm not good with confrontation. I like order and dependability. The world seems less and less that way (though, most likely it never was).

    I think as writers we must, more than ever, stand firm in our convictions but not seem out of touch. I guess that's why I prefer historicals. Today's culture is alien to me.

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  6. Wow, CJ. Lots to think about and consider and everyone has offered such valid points.

    I do think the choir needs preaching to, i.e. Christian radio, Christian fiction, etc. However, the world needs us as well.

    I do feel as Deb, that popular culture has made us a joke. To the point that there are places and spaces where it's not only uncomfortable to voice your view, it could be dangerous.

    Like Niki, I prefer the Christ-like vs the Christian label. I was so dismayed to read about the criticism of the pope washing the girl's feet. Wow. If I could only be criticized for such a loving act. And didn't they know he was more Christ-like when they elected him?

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  7. Sorry, everyone. We're having a glorious day, so I've been outside with a paintbrush for much of the day. A little difficult to type comments when your fingers are covered in paint. (Question of the day: Is there more on the doors or more on me?)

    DebH -- choosing how to educate your kids is such a big issue right now. Some depends on your state and your district. We pulled our oldest out and homeschooled him after 3rd grade. We didn't do it for philosophical/religious reasons, but my husband just commented last night (when he was reading the blog for me), that looking back now, he's so glad we did it. I just walked past his room, and right now, he's listening to a sermon while he does his calculus.

    Niki, we used to live in Northern Virginia, which is kind of a mother-of-all bubbles place. That said, it DEFINITELY wasn't a Christian (or even Christ-like) bubble. That said, I'm going to quibble with you. I don't think American Christians lost the culture because they were huddled in their bunkers. I think they lost the culture because they were complacent. They didn't even know there was a war going on until it was too late.

    Anita, sometimes I don't feel like when I have a foot planted in the world, I end up burning my toes.

    Deb, I feel your exhaustion. I look ahead and see darkness. It's a struggle to remind myself that no matter what happens, God is in control. I keep telling my older son we are entering a time much like the first century, and he should consider this an opportunity. But I'm older and I know what I'm losing. It's hard to give up my comfortable place. And that leads me to my other fear for Christians. As the water (culture) around us gets hotter, how will we know when to jump out?

    DeAnna, you gave me a chuckle about the preference for historicals. I've always been rather oblivious to pop culture, even as a youth. (My husband likes to tease me that I was never young.) I pretty much have to write historicals.

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  8. Wow! So, I finish typing my comment and I have 5 minutes or so before I have to leave for the bus. So I do a quick check of the news, and what do I find?

    According to the US Army, I'm a religious extremist.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2304739/Army-Reserve-training-material-lists-Catholics-evangelical-Christians-Jews-religious-extremism-category-KKK-Hamas-Al-Qaeda.html?ito=feeds-newsxml

    That's me. More dangerous that Al Qaeda or the Ikhwan. Watch out, soldier. I might attack you with a Christian romance novel.

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  9. Wow, CJ, what a provocative and powerful post! It echoes several discussions we've had in our family lately. Christians definitely are becoming more isolated, listening to our own music, reading our own books, etc.

    As for Christians who write books for Christians, well, yes, we are preaching to the choir. But I hope we're also encouraging them. I can't tell you how much encouragement and enjoyment I've received from Christian fiction.

    I want to go take that quiz...

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  10. Great topic, CJ. Sorry I was down with a fever and missed it yesterday. As I've continued thinking of my topic from last week, the marriage equality question, here is what came to me. I feel like we lost this battle 20 years ago, and it's just now reaching a policy level. The church has failed for at least one generation in reaching the majority of the culture. So now, do we get to whine and insist that everyone think and live and run the government as we want them to? I guess we can try that, but it won't work, and it will just turn more people off.

    To me the more important question is, how can we reach this generation? And I can tell you this much, it won't be the same ways that worked 50 years ago.

    If we withdraw into our own little enclave, we might save our own children, but we won't save anyone else. I think to reach this generation we need to begin with love, respect, and open dialogue. We need to establish real friendships. And none of that is going to happen if we're focused on drawing our political lines in the sand.

    I think we all know the end times can't be too far off, so do we focus on keeping things as neat and tidy for as long as we can, or do we focus on taking many people as possible with us.

    I know some people thought I didn't take a strong enough stand last week, but my sincerest hope was that one of my homosexual friends who had given up on Jesus would read it and see the love and maybe think not all Christians are jerks. To me, in this post-Christian era, I think that's the biggest challenge.

    To be true to our beliefs without being perceived as jerks!

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  11. Deb H, if you do end up sending your kids to public school, I can at least tell you that this is one of the best areas in the country. Virginia Beach schools allow prayer meetings and Christian clubs. They allow religiuos Christmas songs and choral music. Many of the teachers are Christians. It's about as good as one can hope for these days. Although, my daughter who is a senior is feeling a little worn down and looking forward to Christian college. But her friends were her drama click at Salem high school, and most of those weren't committed Christians. On the other hand my middle child is a part of a Young Life click at Landstown High School, so all of his close friends are believers.

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