You have been shaped by your culture in many ways that you probably aren't aware. In a well-known commencement speech, David Foster Wallace tells this parable to illustrate a similar point:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?” The culture is the water we swim in every day, that we grow so accustomed to we forget it is there.
While culture isn’t a defining factor of who you are, or an excuse for what you do, it may explain both of those things. Understanding your received culture will help you see how it has shaped you, for better and worse. Similarly, when we talk about God’s rescue mission in the world, turning its recipients into participants, understanding the culture of the people to whom you are going will help you understand bridges and barriers to the Gospel.
Cross of Christ Church and I long to see God do an incredible work of renewal again in Orange County - renewal propelled by the Gospel that touches our region spiritually, socially, and culturally. My hope is to equip you to not only see the water in which you’re swimming, but to bring the good news of Jesus in to it (see Acts 17).
What do you picture?
The speed and diversity that define the growth of California’s population and the capitalistic self-fulfillment that undergirds its economy yield three of the region’s most pervasive characteristics: pluralism, individualism, consumerism, and mobility.
Before we examine these cultural traits I want you to stop briefly and consider what you picture in your mind when you think of Orange County, California.
Is it malls? Beaches? Freeways? Suburbia? Surfing, or skateboarding? Chances are you see at least one, if not all of them. Those images aptly illustrate each of the aforementioned cultural traits. Malls show the consumerism; freeways and suburbia the mobility; and surfing and skateboarding the individualism.
The following examples will show what each of these traits looks like not only in Orange County, but the Millennial Generation, a generation raised and immersed in California’s cultural exports.
Pluralism & Individualism
With pluralism and individualism, the individual is supreme. The individual is the arbiter on issues from government to relationships to religion. The authors of Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Region compare the dominance of pluralistic culture in California to that of Mormonism in Utah, or Baptist Protestantism in the South. In his survey of the faith of American Millennials, Souls in Transition, Christian Smith provides a helpful analysis of the generation’s defining traits: a generation raised on the entertainment, technology, and culture produced and packaged by California. Based on tens of thousands of hours of interviews with thousands of 18-29 year olds, Smith was able to give a voice to the pluralism prevalent not only among Millennials, but among Californians.
Pluralism is subtly evident in every day vocabulary: “I feel” has replaced “I think”, “I believe”, or “I would argue”. Smith says that the effect of this pluralism and relativism is that “claims are not staked, rational arguments are not developed, differences are not engaged, nature is not referenced, and universals are not recognized; rather, differences and viewpoints and way of life are acknowledged, respected, and set aside, off-limits for evaluation.” Going further, Smith and his researchers found how the pluralism and individualism have compounded their subjects’ ability to see an objective reality outside of themselves. They found that the Millennials had profound difficulty seeing a distinction between moral truth and relative human invention, and that they couldn’t grasp an objective truth or fact that is independent of their subjective self-experience.
The second player in this equation is the inescapable consumerism. With few definitive ties to family, tradition, religion, geography, or history, people are encouraged to find their identities in what they do, or do not, purchase. Some sociologists have dubbed ours a thin culture, one in which barrier to entry is consumption. People are encouraged to make, remake - or, in marketing language, brand - themselves and to cultivate their cultural identities by aligning themselves with others of a similar persuasion. These persuasions and alignments predominantly hinge around solely around fashion and entertainment. Driven by ravenous desires for self-fulfillment, individual and corporate identities are resting on the vacuous foundation of consumption.
Orange County is a megalopolis of consumption. In 2010, the recession year following two years in which housing prices dropped by 40% in value, the top three shopping centers in Orange County still accounted for over $3 billion in sales. Returning to Smith’s analysis, he found that with the Millennials, the interviewers “could not, no matter how hard they pushed, get emerging adults to express any serious concerns about any aspect of mass consumer materialism”. To the contrary, they advocated that that there should be no limits to what people might buy, and that what they consumed actually helped “define ultimate goals in life”.
The last element in Orange County’s cultural alloy is mobility. In some sense, mobility has always been characteristic of California. Since the Gold Rush and railroads developed northern California in the nineteenth century, and freeways made southern California easily accessible in the twentieth century, the mobility required to get to California has defined those who stayed.
It is important to look just beneath the surface and see that mobility is more than just moving around physically; it requires breaking attachments and commitments. A mobile culture produces people less apt to practice traditional behaviors like marriage, family, religion, and community or civic involvement. Statistically, Californians marry less and later, divorce more frequently, are more likely to be religiously unaffiliated, and less likely to be involved in their communities. When compared to the other states in the Pacific region, Californians had the least attachment to their localities.
Again, adding flesh to these sociological realities are Christian Smith’s findings. Smith finds that one of the most consistent traits of emerging adults is a belief that settling down is for later. 18-29 year olds see that phase of life as “free, fluid, tentative, experimental, and relatively unbound”. In regards to romantic relationships, Smith found that Millennials could see little connection between their lives now and those they will live after settling down. Connected to the emerging adults’ mobile and individualistic naiveté is an attitude which says that relationships are amorphous, hooking up is common, and cohabitating before marriage is not only smart, but necessary. When it comes to civic involvement, the dominant themes among this group were that volunteering and giving back were for “someday” - again, once they settled down - and that helping others is an optional personal choice. Since Orange County is an exaggerated America, these are traits that most certainly have a pervasive hold on the culture.
What does this add up to?
There are a few questions I hope you’re asking right now. What is the outcome of pluralism, consumerism, and mobility on people? On yourself? What does that look like in the church? Those are good questions with very interesting and helpful answers, and we will address them in a future post.
In the mean time, where do you see these traits in your own life? Around you?
You can also read other posts in this series.
2. Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009)
3. Wade Clark Roof, Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Region: Fluid Identities (Religion by Region) (Lanham, MD.: AltaMira Press, 2005), page 172
4. Orange County Business Journal, “Shopping Centers”, http://www.cbjonline.com/a1ocbj/lists/List-2010-OC_ShoppingCenters.pdf (accessed Feb. 5, 2011)
5. Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009)
6. Pew Research, “Marriage & Divorce: A Fifty State Tour” http://pewsocialtrends.org/2009/10/15/marriages-and-divorce-a-50-state-tour/ (Accessed February 6th, 2011)
7. Pew Research, “Religious Landscape Survey” http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf (Accessed February 6th, 2011)
8. United Nations Public Administration Network, “California is failing at civic engagement” http://www.unpan.org/PublicAdministrationNews/tabid/118/mctl/ArticleView/ModuleID/1473/articleId/24355/default.aspx (accessed February 6, 2011)
9. Wade Clark Roof, Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Region: Fluid Identities (Religion by Region) (Lanham, MD.: AltaMira Press, 2005), page 12
10. Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (Oxford University Press, USA, 2009)