Westmont Magazine A Modernist in a Postmodern World
Last spring, my wife read me an announcement from the public events section of the Santa Barbara News-Press: “Lecture: ‘Spirit Possession: How Earthbound Spirits, Ghosts, Demons and Soul Fragments Can Affect Your Health and What You Can Do Now to Release Them,’ free seminar by Santa Barbara’s board-certified regression therapist Peter Wright, CPLT, CHT, who will outline six steps needed to release spirits and heal the cause of the attachment, improving your physical, and emotional well being.”
While the ad seems like something from the middle ages or earlier, I see it as a kind of metaphor for contemporary life in Southern California and the profound cultural changes that have occurred within my lifetime.
I grew up in a world where most of the significant technologies of the 21st century were just being developed: antibiotics, jet aircraft, television, radar, microwave, fax machines, nuclear bombs, guided missiles and other weapons of mass destruction. The first truly digital computer, the 30-ton ENIAC, was patented when I was 13 years old. The greatest amount of technological change of any era in history has occurred during my life.
This period has also seen unprecedented social disruption, as cultural norms have raced to catch up with the ever-changing technology. I’m glad I learned about the world before the effects of such technologies became invasive, but I realize that portions of my worldview are incomprehensible to people born after 1960.
Explanatory theories of culture and society have also undergone a profound evolution. I grew up in the time that intellectuals describe as “modernity” and have passed into the time of “postmodernity,” or as a few social commentators claim, post-postmodernity. This change has been intellectually and morally confusing, due in part to the love-hate relationship I have with postmodernism.
Modernity achieved its zenith in the world of my youth, the era of “Fordism.” Social life was more or less based on notions of predictability and control, similar to factory production. The culture assumed that technology and science could meliorate the physical and social problems of humanity. The social milieu appeared to be stable with well-defined gender, race and class statuses.
As a sociology major at San Francisco State in the early 1960s, I became enamored by positivism. Unknowingly, I accepted the assumption of modernity that the social and behavioral sciences could ultimately know how society and people behaved. It was quite a bit later that I really comprehended the social and spiritual implications of this position.
In college I also discovered Karl Marx. His books were not taught in class and were not readily available in bookstores. Truthfully, I had no real understanding of communism, but it sounded profound. Reading Marx gave me a sense of rebellion and purpose.
I had never considered graduate school, but I was flattered when several professors encouraged me to enroll in the master’s program. They sealed the deal by allowing me to teach my own course, so I agreed and “The Sociology of the Family” was my first instructional opportunity in higher education.
I looked forward to my master’s work when a confluence of forces began to shake my equilibrium and change my worldview.
The first and most significant event was my conversion to Christianity. I grew up a Roman Catholic and stopped going to church when I became 18. I announced to my parents that I was now an agnostic. The Roman faith had become incomprehensible to me, and I could not receive satisfactory answers to the questions I raised. The final straw was the church’s position on birth control, which I thought absurd. I stayed an agnostic (despite my wife’s consistent attempts to evangelize me) until October 1964. Through a series of strange circumstances I had a rather cataclysmic conversion. I then grew rapidly in my knowledge of scripture and theology.
Suddenly I realized that many of the great ideas from my discipline were amenable to integration with my Christian faith. I have been pursuing this goal ever since, having authored a book, several book chapters and articles about integrative aspects of sociological theory and Christian faith.
The second was a series of events that began to crack the structure of modernity and propel us into postmodern culture.
First came the civil rights movement. The sociology faculty got heavily involved in the civil rights struggle and expected students to protest, and, if necessary, get arrested. At the same time, the first hormonal birth control pill became available and restrictions were lifted on the sale and distribution of what used to be considered obscene. The sexual revolution was under way.
The hippie movement and the drug culture followed. This took place against the backdrop of the Vietnamese war, the first one fought on prime-time television. Large-scale protests, so-called urban riots and other revolutionary phenomenon occurred.
As the common sense predictability and stability of society and culture suddenly changed, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Many of the formally accepted authority structures, especially those that provided value direction, lost widespread cultural acceptance.
The most important change was the acceptance of Marshall McLuhon’s (The Media is the Message) “cool media” as an integral part of our lives. Television had suddenly become a cultural requirement. The culture began to manifest four of Zygmunt Bauman’s eight criteria for postmodernity:
• An acceptance of constant change;
• A lack of universally binding authority;
• Domination by the media and its messages;
• Domination by spectacle (TV and elsewhere).
The amount of objectively available cultural products exceeded the assimilating capacity of any one member of society. Although this has been widely termed “information overload,” it may be a crucial factor in the ambiguity and messiness of postmodernism.
Through people I met at Peninsula Covenant Church (Dwight Small, the pastor, and George Blount, who was completing a doctorate in physics at Stanford while on leave from Westmont), I learned about Westmont. I wasn’t sure I wanted to teach there when Dean Frank Hieronymus began recruiting me, but I enjoyed my visit to campus and eventually took the job in 1967.
One of the things that intrigued me about Westmont was the existence of the sociology practicum program. I have always believed that theoretical learning ought to be counterbalanced with connections to the real world, and I have urged my students to see a direct connection to people and society. I agree with Jacques Ellul that Christians can’t know their neighbors merely in terms of sociological categories and concepts; such knowledge must involve direct interaction. It was not accidental that Ron Enroth and I developed the San Francisco Urban Program and internships as a way to wrench conceptual elements into an essentialist basis for our students and actually meet and minister to real people. It’s one of my better contributions to Westmont.
I was hired on the condition that I would begin a doctoral program, and I decided to attend USC. I ended up doing quantitative research for my dissertation, using the first version of SPSS to perform my analysis on a state-of-the-art, room-sized, IBM computer with 270k. Only five of us out of a class of 28 completed degrees; I earned mine in 1975.
I also spent time learning theology and working out aspects of faith-learning integration and wrote about the concept of alienation. Since alienation is part of the human condition, it was challenging to explain it to undergraduates.
In the 1980s, I began to investigate new directions in sociology. One was the phenomenon of the so-called “new class” elite: the information brokers of society (such as the media and professors) who control the flow of information and decide what will be presented to the public and what will be withheld. This elite concentrates unprecedented power in the hands of a few to control the thoughts and ideas of the majority of the population.
As I investigated the new class, I began to connect this concept with firearms use and policy. At the time, a group opposed to gun ownership put the so-called Handgun Control Initiative (Proposition 15) on the November 1985 ballot in California. With the help of students, I constructed a research design that identified the initiators of this proposition. As I began to unpack the initiative, the elitist, racist nature of it became fairly transparent. Restricting the supply of handguns would make them an inelastic commodity and drive the price up significantly, keeping them out of the hands of the so-called undesirables. The results clearly verified my initial hypothesis. I got a paper and two articles out of that work. Additionally, I had the pleasure of debating the public-interest attorney who authored the initiative. He was the epitome of the new class and was rather shocked when I challenged him about the racial and class implications of his initiative.
Concern about the new class also led me to study gun shows; there are still more than 4,000 per year in the United States. Since the new class tended to either ignore or demonize gun owners, many people who comprise the gun culture attend gun shows. Every other household in the country has at least one firearm. Besides selling firearms and assorted paraphernalia, such shows create a temporary community of gun aficionados that tends to legitimatize individuals who own guns. Certain new class elements are aware of this and have been working to close such events down.
My work on gun shows also led me to develop an awareness of lower-middle-class white males, once an important political group. Protected by unions and custom, they dominated many industries and trades. Changes in the nature of manufacturing and movements toward pluralism in the workplace now give many such men the perception that they are superfluous.
I am finding that many of them are alienated, and guns provide a symbolic way to assuage this alienation. Owning firearms is a way of controlling circumstances that seem out of control. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that these folks get their news from the media, which provides viewers with enormous quantities of largely spurious danger, thus producing deep-seated feelings of insecurity and a type of panic. In fact some have argued that panic is a permanent fact of postmodern culture — panic in the sense of losing external standards of public conduct and the internal basis of identity. Perhaps one manifestation of this process lies in the increased incidence of workplace violence.
Another trend is consumerism. The postmodern consumer society is a place where everything is for sale: high art, corn flakes, the human body, sex acts and abstract theory. Our culture sees the shopping mall as the community cathedral.
In my marriage class I find that consumerism and materialism have profoundly affected my students. They frequently evaluate themselves and those around them in terms of things. I suspect that the so-called dating problem has to do, at least in part, with a difference in class. Some men believe they can’t provide what the women anticipate they should have.
Many young people also appear to expect a “10” for a mate. This is intriguing, since many of those with this attitude are sevens themselves. It appears that this consumerist/material dimension may also be a factor in the divorce rate. Many spouses, particularly men, judge their mates in terms of material criteria: when the other spouse no longer fulfills the perception of adequate material ideals, they get jettisoned. A number of my students have witnessed this process first-hand.
Another trend I see is the ascendancy of process over product. Modernity was concerned with efficient production: the process was merely a part of this. The process of getting to some point has apparently taken on a meaning disproportionate to the product. I note this in discussing marriage among young adults. Sometimes enormous amounts of energy and resources are expended upon a wedding, while only a small fraction of effort is spent on planning to carry out the lifetime commitment of marriage.
The last postmodern characteristic is a movement toward fundamentalism. Modernity tended to rationalize faith and encourage individualism. Postmodernity accelerates the trend toward individualism, while at the same time denigrating community. Since the consumerist culture demands an increasing amount of individual choices, it is easy to see why many turn to God. “What would Jesus do?” This may be a way to alleviate the multifarious demands and choices required of the individual. Additionally, because of the sometimes extreme panic and anxiety I mentioned before, it is not surprising that people are turning to extreme forms of religion. This seems to be occurring on a cross-cultural basis in every religion.
One manifestation involves the complementarian versus egalitarian position in marriage. A number of male students have discussed this issue with me and have told me that complementarianism (biblical headship, where the wife is a complement to her husband versus egalitarian marriage) is the position of a number of their friends. It does appear that a growing number of fundamentalist churches are making this issue prominent in their teaching. I suspect this goes back to the problem of the alienated lower-middle class male. If he can no longer be primary in the workplace, then he will use God to make him primary in the church and home. I suspect this has a lot to do with the high divorce rate among fundamentalists. I am increasingly convinced that radical headship alienates wives and leads to divorce.
Postmodernism appears to be evolving into new forms. A number of commentators have discussed post-postmodernism as a logical extension. Understanding postmodernism and its cultural implications is difficult enough without considering post- postmodernism. Nonetheless, postmodernism as a theory is aging and has very significant problems.
For example, one characteristic of post-postmodernism is “enlightened mysticism,” a reaction to the ambivalence and lack of continuity with the past in postmodernism. This trend recognizes the importance of non-rational (not irrational) structures to bring enchantment (mystery) into culture. Without enchantment people find themselves in sterile rationality and become alienated. Enlightened mysticism appears to add mystery as an epistemological quality that allows the notion of God to be valid. Maybe this will work in a postmodern view of reality; it would not work in the rationalism of modernity.
At any rate, there appears to be growing interest in the mystical. All this brings me back to where I started with regression therapy and soul fragments. It is interesting to see advertisements where someone can take spiritual and mystical concepts, marry them with modern, professional-sounding titles and build a rational-sounding six-step program for spiritual and emotional relief. This certainly would have raised a lot of questions in the culture of my childhood. Today an advertisement such as this is pretty pedestrian.
I have come a long way in my spiritual and intellectual journey. At this point, I am more certain then ever of Jesus. I’m still not sure what all the rest of it means; maybe that’s as it should be. Let me close with a somewhat altered quote from Mark Twain: “The 21st century is a stranger to me — I wish it well but my heart is all for my own century. I took 63 years of it, just on a risk, but if I had known as much about it as I know now I would have taken the whole of it.”