Saturday, March 03, 2007

Fish out of Water

For fish, water seems a rather natural place to live. In fact, they are unaware of many of the qualities of their environment (if, that is, they are aware of anything at all). If you take a fish out of water, it becomes aware very quickly that it is in a new environment.

For humans, our culture is like water is to fish.

It seems normal, even essential to life. And we are often unaware of many of its qualities until we are placed in a different culture.

Dallas Willard describes culture as "what one thinks of as 'natural' and as requiring no explanation or even thought" (Renovation of the Heart, p. 97).

At the beginning of this year, I spent five weeks in Sicily teaching English. This was my second extended stay in our Sister City and my 11th visit to Italy. Altogether, I've lived in Italy almost six months (three months with the same family).

I've always been interested in cultural differences. That's one reason that I like to travel. And being in a different culture for an extended time, gives me a better understanding of the distinctives of my own culture.

During this last trip, I started to develop a deeper understanding of Sicilian culture and Italian culture. Some of the things I discovered may surprise you.

Italian culture is more materialistic than American culture. This is the land of the Renaissance, and the emphasis on beauty and appearance is deeply ingrained. Italians must have the latest designer fashions. They are always evaluating each other by their clothes. This translates into a preoccupation with "stuff."

Italian culture is more concerned with appearance than American culture is. Everything is about la bella figura. Women would never think about going out, even to the market, without full makeup and proper attire. Men never wear shorts, except at the beach, no matter how hot it gets. Drivers don't like to wear seatbelts because they ruin the laid-back impression they want to make.

Italian kids are more spoiled than American kids. There is a constant contest among Italian parents to see who can shower his child with more expensive toys and clothes. Mothers wait on their children like servants.

Italian culture is more celebrity driven than American culture. It's no accident that paparazzi is an Italian word.

Italians are more concerned with social status than Americans are. A college degree provides entrée into circles that others cannot enter no matter how successful they might become. There is a reason that the Italian language still has a formal "you." (The English version disappeared some time ago.)

Italians are more obsessed with sex than Americans. Many Americans think that Europeans are blasé about sex and nudity. They have topless beaches after all. Don't confuse more relaxed rules about nudity with a more relaxed attitude about sexuality. As hard as it may be to believe, advertisers use sex more blatantly in Italy than in America to sell all sorts of products. Paris Hilton has a seductive TV commercial for a mobile phone service. The satellite channel FX is racier than its American counterpart; at night it shows programs that are only available in American on adult pay-per-view. One of the popular Italian fashion brands uses a logo than depicts sexual intercourse. (And this logo is worn to school by young children.)

It might seem that the obvious conclusion is that American culture is not as bad as the doomsayers think.

But I have a little different reaction.

I found these extremes jarring. They made me even more aware of tendencies in American culture that trouble me.

However, I find the culture-war mindset unhelpful. It does little to change basic assumptions. This approach only makes decadent values look more appealing.

Nor do I think that things are worse now than they've ever been. There have been many depraved cultures in the history of mankind. And there are places in the world today that are more rotten than American culture in just about any component one might choose.

However, Christianity is not just a private matter. It has much to say about social evil. The proclamation "Jesus is Lord" has implications for how life is lived in the public square. The question is not whether Christians should speak out against sin that has become institutionalized in culture. The question is how can we do this effectively. (Another issue is that we must make sure that we address all social evil, not just the ones that we don't participate in.)

Let's take the twisted view of sex as an example.

Much of what Christians say about sex makes it sound as if we think the whole things is a bad idea. When the church warns people about the dangers of promiscuous sex, it only makes it sound more attractive. The words decadent, sinful and tempting are used in advertisements to make products more appealing.

We need to hear more of the message that sex is good. The Christian message is that God made human beings as sexual creatures. He designed those parts to fit together. In fact, he intended for it to be enjoyable.

But the more powerful a tool is, the more care must be exercised in its use.

We also need more warnings like this. Gene McConnell lists nine lies of pornography.

  • Women are less than human
  • Women are a "sport"
  • Women are property
  • A woman's value depends on the attractiveness of her body
  • Women like rape
  • Women should be degraded
  • Little kids should have sex
  • Illegal sex is fun
  • Prostitution is glamorous

The bottom line of pornography is that

Pornography makes a profit from the ruined lives of young women and entraps men who will spend lots of time AND money succumbing to their product.

The first part of that statement is rather widely accepted. But the second part is rarely acknowledged. Women are not the only ones being exploited by pornography and other sexually explicit material.

Sex is used to manipulate people.

And it works. This is the main reason that sex is used in advertising. Sex sells. But it never delivers what it promises. Wearing that aftershave will not cause women to tackle you in the supermarket.

Sex is used to hijack our attention.

A hint of nudity and the promise of more will keep most men's attention for several minutes. We're afraid to look away for fear that we'll miss something. But this is no more than a tease. Many print ads are designed to look like a shocking display of nudity. But on closer inspection it's a boy rather than a girl. Or the "cleavage" turns out to an elbow or some other innocuous body part.

Television shows flirt with showing more and more nudity. But they can't deliver, because broadcast TV can only show so much.

Cable ups the stakes. Nudity is allowed, but there are still some limits. The limits are pushed, but men are left wanting more.

And so there is pay-per-view. Men pay big bucks for the ultimate in sexual titillation. But it is still just a tease. Surgically and digitally altered women are presented as "the woman next door." They tap in to men's deep fantasies and desires. But the "high" lasts only a short time after the show ends, leaving the viewer more cutoff from the real world, more desperate for true intimacy and more in debt.

Men may not see the harm being done to women by the "sexualization" of our culture (or may not care). But they should take a look at the way that sex is used to manipulate them, to steal their time and money, and to decrease their chances of finding true intimacy.

Pastor Rod

"Helping you become the person God created you to be"

1 comment:

daniel the smith said...

This is a great post.