Tag Archives: James 2

Why Ke$ha gets St. Augustine Right (Cultural Capital pt. 2)

A while ago we took a look at James’ call to believers – if you are a believer in Jesus Christ you don’t show favoritism. Period.

This discussion led us to think a little bit about “cultural capital.” Which are those things that we “exchange” or “reveal” in order to get some sort of cultural good i.e. favor, prestige, status, friends, followers, gifts.

We concluded by asking some questions:

So what contributes to what counts as cultural capital within any one particular culture? How do people come to learn what is worth something and what isn’t? Is it simply because somebody told us once that some thing is valuable and some other thing is not?

Today we take up this subject – how do we come to believe that something is “cultural capital” and something is not?

The answer is that we learn what is culturally valuable in a non-cognitive manner. Let me explain….

Human persons are defined by love (a very Augustinian thought) – as desiring agents and liturgical animals whose primary mode of intending the world is love which in turn shapes the imagination.

The things we grow to love and desire are shaped and directed by material embodied practices. These practices are fundamentally religious, but not necessarily spiritual. We might call these “liturgical acts.” These acts in turn shape our vision for what the good life is all about.

Our vision for the good life (the eudaimonistic life) is shaped and directed by aesthetic principles found in stories, legends, myths, novels and films rather than principles.

What are these acts? These acts usually revolve around participating in actions which stir our affections. The are the sort of acts which usually stir our affections are acts which participate in some sort of aesthetic stimulation.

Okay…. Maybe this is getting a bit complicated – what I’m trying to say is that: we are shaped to consider certain things valuable and other things as value-less through non-cognitive means. In other words, we aren’t explicitly taught to value certain things, we are shaped to value certain things.

Think for a second how we know we ought to value some sort of fashionable outfit – for instance “hipster style clothes.” Did anybody ever say “Hey this is what is in right now, you need to wear this…” I’m pretty sure that no one has ever said that. Instead what happens is that you get bombarded by images, which are usually aesthetically pleasing, and eventually you come to believe that you want that sort of outfit.

Some Coachella Hipster looking so "cool."
Some Coachella Hipsters looking so “cool.”

 

Or consider how everybody “knows” that they should have an IPad… Apple’s advertisements for IPad’s have never straight out said “hey this is a good tablet, you should buy it.” Instead, they rely upon knowing that humans are driven by aesthetic principles in order to convince people to buy their product. Consider Apple’s latest IPad campaign. Not once does say that this is a better tablet, rather the commercial tells a story that draws us in, it shows us that the Ipad can help us to live a good and valuable life. We are drawn to that. As this sort of story is repeated over and over, this belief is reinforced – without every saying a single word.

 

 

Apple does not rely upon making cognitive claims in order to sell the product instead Apple relies upon the non-cogntive functions of the human mind to convince you that life is better with their product.

Why does all this matter to our past conversation about “cultural capital” in Christian circles? It matters for two reasons:

First it matters because as Christians we need to realize that much of what we believe is actually caught not taught. The action of “catching” most often happens (or always happens) in the context of community. It is within a community that we learn what is valuable and what is acceptable, or what it is worthless and unacceptable. Sometimes we are right about these sort of things but other times we aren’t. For instance, in Christian circles we tend to value people who speak “Christianese.” Where the heck did we learn that speaking Christianese is a worthwhile thing to do? Why don’t we speak normal English? Is it because early on somebody taught us – hey you need to speak a certain way to be a part of this community – I don’t think so. Rather, its because we have been shaped by a community that includes a certain vocabulary and to be a part of that community requires one to speak a certain way. We just “pick up” on those things.

The church is always at risk of embracing anti-Kingdom cultural patterns

Second, it matters because the church is always at risk of embracing anti-Kingdom cultural patterns. Some are obvious but most are subtle. It’s the subtle ones that are more likely to non-cognitively shape us than some of the more obvious ones. Think some of the music we listen to. For just a second think about Ke$ha’s music…

We’re gonna die young
We’re gonna die young
Let’s make the most of tonight, like we are gonna die young
(Die Young Lyrics)

Or this other Ke$ha song:

I dont wanna I go to sleep,
I wanna stay up all night,
I wanna just screw around.
I dont wanna think about,
Whats gonna be after this,
I wanna just live right now.
(C’Mon Lyrics)

But Ke$ha is on to something that we Christians tend to forget, namely (as Augustine says) that 1) human persons are defined by love. And 2) that we learn what to love by means of acts which participate in some sort of aesthetic stimulation. Ke$sha taps into the power of non-cognitive affection stirring in all of her songs. She tells stories (by means of songs) that tap into our basest human desires….

Will any Christian explicitly affirm Ke$ha’s message – live today without reference to the future? Absolutely not. Its anti-Christian, Christians are called to live in light of new creation, because what happens in our embodied life now matters for our embodied life in the future.

However, we live in a culture where Christians live with exactly the sort of attitude Ke$sha sings about. Now most Christians aren’t going to live like Ke$ha (thank God), however they will live with a similar attitude. Most Christians will functionally live as though there is no after life – as though what matters the most is life in the present. Why do Christians live this way, even though Scripture teaches otherwise and sermons preach a contrary message? Its because we are shaped more by non-cognitive means than by cognitive (propositional) truths. Culture around us is full of stories, songs, movies, films, that portray a message contrary to the Christian worldview – these messages shape us in subtle but profound ways.

That brings us back to where we started. Why do we value certain things, i.e. why do we assign cultural capital, to certain things? Its because we are bombarded with stories, songs, film, t.v. shows that slowly lead us to believe that those sort of things are culturally valuable.

In other words – we are story shaped creatures – and the world is doing a better job of story-telling that the church is.

Our vision for the good life is shaped and directed by aesthetic principles found in stories, legends, myths, novels and films rather than propositions.

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A Rich Guy Walks into a Room…. (Cultural Capital)

I have spent all week studying the book of James – getting ready for a new series at Soma. As I have been reading James 2 I have been struck by the gravity of his injunction against favoritism.

Essentially James says, if you are believers in Jesus Christ don’t show favoritism. Period. He gives us some examples of how favoritism plays out in the church. Basically, a rich guy wearing gold rings and flowing robes comes in and everybody pays him close attention, people flock to greet him.

Liberace – aka The Glitter Man aka the man from James 2.

A poor guy comes in and people make him sit on the floor, or stand in the back of the room. The problem with this (there are a few problems that James mentions) is that in doing this believers have become “judges.” Essentially they are saying – X is what makes you a valuable person, X justifies your existence & you have X. The thing is though that their “X” is not God’s X. It’s a radically different X.

According to James, and he thinks they should already know this, God has choosen the poor (the not X’s) to inherit the kingdom. They have things backwards. They have bought into the world’s way of seeing things.

Roman culture says you are a “have” if you “have” money, land, prestige, fancy clothes, etc. King Jesus though says you are a “have” once you recognize that you are a “have not.” To say otherwise is to deny the fact that the gospel is for those who are poor in spirit.

Anyway… I’m really interested in what makes you valuable today, because the truth is, if somebody walked in wearing a gold ring and flowing robes into our services aka if somebody came in looking like Liberace most people are going to stay away from that dude.  I guess what I’m really thinking about is….

What do we consider “cultural capital?”

According to sociologists “cultural capital” is very similar to “economic capital” – it consists of things we posses that are exchanged for goods, resources, and/or power. If you have “economic capital,” i.e. money, you exchange that for food, education, electricity, etc. If you have cultural capital, you “exchange” or “reveal” those things and get some sort of cultural good i.e. favor, prestige, status, friends, followers, gifts.

When talking about “cultural capital” sociologists will tend to classify it into three categories:

  1. Embodied – that is properties one possesses. This would include your language (formal or slang), your physical looks, race or even gender. All these things are used/revealed/exchanged for cultural goods.
  2. Objectified – the physical objects one owns. This includes the type of car you drive, the type of clothes you wear (or don’t wear), the gadgets you own, etc. Just like all other cultural capital, possession of these things (and the public display of them) give you cultural goods. Those might include special treatment at the store, by the opposite sex, or even in the marketplace.
  3. Institutionalized – these are markers accorded to a person according to one’s position in some sort of institutional system. For example, within the education system degrees count as cultural capital. Within the workforce, one’s position (intern vs. ceo) count as cultural capital.

In all honesty, most young adults and college students could care less about “institutionalized cultural capital,” but embodied and objectified cultural capital matter a lot. And that is just as true among Christians and non-Christians.

Christians will certainly value some things non-Christians wont. For instance knowing the Bible will give you cultural capital, experience on mission trips will give you capital, speaking Christianese, or not-cursing will probably give you capital. There are certain identity markers that we Christians (sadly) have that are used to assign cultural value to some and not to others. However things aren’t that straightforward. Although we would repudiate certain things – like looks giving one cultural capital, fashion giving one cultural capital, etc. – the truth is that things just aren’t that simple. Most of the things that non-Christians consider valuable are the same things non-Christians consider valuable. At times these things are at odds with the gospel but they are too subtle for us to notice.

The Church is always at risk of embracing anti-kingdom cultural values. Some are obvious, but most are subtle.

So what contributes to what counts as cultural capital within any one particular culture? How do people come to learn what is worth something and what isn’t? Is it simply because somebody told us once that some thing is valuable and some other thing is not? I don’t think so. To believe that we are shaped to value some things and not value others simply by means of propositional knowledge is to deny the fact that we are embodied beings. More on that, and how we are shaped to value some things as “cultural capital,” next time.