The Internet has been buzzing with reactionism, reflection, opinions, and discourse about Evangelical World Vision’s recent decisions around their employees and same-sex marriage. I am not deeply connected with World Vision; I do not support any of their programs and don’t keep abreast to their actions. My responses to World Vision’s choices have much more to do with organizational dynamic, board politics, and the nature of institutions than it does with seeing them as a hallmark of Evangelicalism. Nevertheless, as I have observed the Internet, I can’t help but acknowledge that World Vision is a symbol for many folks and that as part of Evangelical culture it sociologically contributes to the construction of religion.
Thoughts on Construction
Sociologist Peter Berger discusses the interplay between society and humans in several of his works. To Berger, we are simultaneously the creators of society and constructed by society. Human initiative and desire is what has cultivated values, beliefs, norms, and cultural expressions; however once we begin to create this society it becomes its own entity. The process is dialectic, “society is the product of [humanity] and [humanity] is the product of society.”
Beyond the dialectic, humanity lives, breathes, and is understood by the externalizing of its existence. What we know as human would not be so human if we as animals decided to stay within our own self and not create, recreate, build, construct, or produce. Christian Smith argues that we are Moral Believing Animals which is another way of saying humanity has a particular disposition of constructing an external world of emotion, spirituality, and community. We create moral orders and our cultures are types of liturgies that practice and reinforce this moral order.
One of the dangerous things about being the product of society is that we are often shaped unconsciously. The outgrowth of creating culture is the participation in value-shaping activities. The construct of our previous norms and values or those of the preceding generations mold and make us towards a particular human product. What more, in our construction of society, the inputs that we were, at one time, committed to, sometimes take varying manifestations once society becomes its own entity with its own desires. Let’s think of one element of society; music.
Rap emerged from a people (mainly in NY) who were creating Hip-Hop culture as an alternative to the world of violence, drugs, and desolation that was around them. Rap music became its own entity in this world. Rap music began to not only be the product of early MCs such as Coke La Rock, Kool Herc, Kurtis Blow, and Melle Mel, but it began to shape values and beliefs for (mainly) young urban Black and Latino/a folks. As it evolved, its outreach expanded and its value changed because of a series of influences by humanity and human response to being shaped by rap. Some of these evolutions were a far cry from its original intent.
What does any of this have to do with World Vision?
I have been having several conversations with my students about World Vision’s decisions, the conversations happening online, and the nature of Christianity, specifically Evangelicalism. The frustration is diverse, but almost universally present.
As I sip my coffee, listen and respond to my thoughtful students, I cannot help but notice incongruence. Despite the passion of my students, very few of them are actively involved in the local church. Very few take an active role in Evangelicalism’s culture.*
Instead of actively shaping and producing, my students are simply responding to how the culture is expressing itself via World Vision’s announcements, blog posts, comment sections, etc. Their frustration is stifled because they have become more consumers and pseudo-cultural analysts as opposed to producers.
Consumerism has been the normative value of society. Be it our propensity to buy a lot of things we don’t need (or quickly don’t want), take-in a lot of media that we don’t leave space to reflect on, or engage in really “thin” expressions of community that in reality are merely well-constructed entertainment; our consumption drives us. As I observe the responses to World Vision, I see the result of the consumption culture in two initial ways:
First, World Vision has become a definer of Evangelicalism. This is not inherently bad. When we contribute to an organization we hope to define it in a way that is representative to who we are as individuals. However, many folks who are (or were) involved in supporting World Vision weren’t really connected in the first place. They give money to a child, buy a goat at Christmas, but that is the extent of their involvement. In some ways, compassion and charity has become a form of entertainment.
Additionally, a number of folks involving themselves in the conversation have no tangible connection with World Vision outside of interacting with it as a definer of Evangelicalism. Most of my students symbolically interact with World Vision because of the ascribed meaning that has been given to the organization. We all symbolically interact, I am not critiquing that particular behavior in and of itself, but the energy that has been given to our response to this symbol’s (World Vision) decisions and subsequently folk’s responses to the symbol’s decision is telling. Interaction and consumption are interrelated. Many folks have been produced so much by what they have been told is a definer of our Evangelical culture that they consume that info without considering the weight of that definer in relationships to their own participation and/or interaction with the organization
The second result of consumption is in the lack of participation and producing of Evangelical society. I am talking mainly about my students, but have a hunch their experiences may be similar to others (especially on the web). To complain about how one’s culture is being shaped and to harbor frustration about how others are shaping Evangelicalism is permissible. We need gadflies who ask tough questions about our decisions and behaviors. But if one isn’t producing actively in that culture, it discredits the complaint.
The majority of individuals are not going to directly shape the culture of Evangelicalism by responding to World Vision as symbol (those who are and/or were connected to World Vision and made decision do have influence in shaping that expression of Evangelicalism). The majority of producing and shaping of culture happens at the ground level and occur proactively to beliefs and values of the culture one wants to produce. The disconnected conversation ends up being pontificating white-noise.
Individuals are simply consuming and responding to their consumption rather than attempting to produce when they:
- aren’t going to church (being in intentional community with local believers);
- aren’t contributing to the conversations held within local christian community;
- aren’t wrestling with Christianity’s approach to same-sex marriage with the local church;
- aren’t locally engaged with LGBT concerns;
- aren’t actively working with childcare or international justice work;
- aren’t allowing their belief and values to impact their everyday work and interactions;
- aren’t interacting with the culture of Evangelicalism beyond the level of symbol.**
There is nothing wrong with having opinions and viewpoints on World Vision’s decisions and people’s responses. Evangelical Christianity (as a culture and example of society) needs the discourse and the challenge of its participants. Nevertheless, if the energy is directed towards World Vision as an Evangelical symbol, as opposed to the values, beliefs and norms of the ground-level life of what it means to “be an Evangelical”, I think we are missing the mark.
The interaction that occurs in response to a symbol is the reaction of one who is consuming so much of the symbol that they are becoming a product themselves. As a product, Christianity and Christians can only react to stimuli. If we take up the posture of producer and begin to cultivate value, belief, and meaning, perhaps more of us will have intimate relationships with what it means to be Christian in our own contexts and the Evangelicalism at-large will look more the way we want it to.
*Yes, I am excluding attending an Evangelical College because although Institutions have the capacity to shape culture both at a macro-organizational and micro-individual level; students can really be consumers without being contributors.
**No, one doesn’t need to be doing all of this, but I there should be some participation in ones’s context.