It isn’t something that suddenly happened in 2010, people have been compromising truth since the early days in the Garden. But never has it seemed so clear that people actually lack knowledge of right and wrong. Of course, most people know that murder is wrong, but few could provide a substantive reason why they know this other than appealing to some self-oriented ethical theory. When it comes to sexual ethics, plenty of books have been written on the topic. But in practice, sexuality and ethics have been deemed mutually exclusive categories. This is because the sexual revolution has accomplished what it set out to do—remove stigma from all sexual situations. Today there is almost no instance in which sexuality is subject to ethical inquiry except perhaps the if it feels good, do it hedonistic point of view.
In an effort to preserve Christian values in culture, there is often an appeal to Judeo-Christian traditions that have long been the source of societal values. But before our very eyes, these traditional values are disintegrating and are being replaced by a new vision of how we should live. The reality is, a new set of values has been established by a culture whose worldview is no longer dominated by a Judeo-Christian ethic. New traditions are replacing old ones. An interesting evidence of this turn is the meaninglessness of symbols. While these may seem like innocuous examples of the culture wars, they are quite pertinent to understanding the cultural influence of Christian tradition and values. A local newspaper recently reported that the first baby born in 2011 was delivered to couple with different last names. I continued to read without pause, but then stopped to assess my own reaction—even I had experienced a degree of desensitization to this issue. After regaining my sensibilities, I recalled that in our culture there is no longer a stigma associated with having children outside of marriage. Though possibly the mother of this newborn is simply making regular use of her maiden name for professional reasons (another recent shift), it is more likely this unmarried couple is completely unaware of the idea they have helped to cement: a child is no longer symbolic of the marital union of man and woman.
Another symbol that has gone by the wayside is the white wedding gown. While many still practice the bridal traditions of “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue,” the white wedding gown that in the past symbolized purity as the young bride is presented to her groom is now stained with the sexual mores of a new era. Brides are still be wearing white, but outside of those relationships truly functioning within the framework of a biblically informed worldview, this tradition is not even remotely emblematic of her virginity. Saying yes to the dress is restricted to its external appearance and to personal sentimentalities, not to what it had originally symbolized. The bottom line is this: when tradition is the basis for values, tradition is at risk of being replaced and values that have no substantive foundation are rendered irrelevant. So it is that the changing traditions in our culture today correspond to the irrelevance of Christian values—not due to an inability to make Christianity popular, but to make it meaningful.
When the values of a culture begin to shift, people will often yearn for the good ole’ days, an era when stigma was able to contain behavior. For instance, there was a time when pregnancy outside of marriage would be corrected by a “shotgun” wedding, a common practice utilized to conceal untimely sexual relations from family, church, or the local coffee clutch—as if retroactively marriage makes an “honest woman” out of an unmarried mom-to-be. Similarly, social stigma—not necessarily what was best for a child—was a primary reason many unwed mothers placed children up for adoption. While shame and remorse can be an appropriate motivating factor to correct ways of thinking and living, in the wrong hands it is often misused. Stigma unaccompanied by truth is merely an apparatus of a culture not oriented toward Christ, no matter how much they may resemble the Church.
Dorothy Sayers once stated that “if we really want a Christian society we must teach Christianity and that it is absolutely impossible to teach Christianity without teaching Christian dogma.” She goes on to say that the “validity of Christian principles depends on Christ’s authority.” That said, it isn’t any wonder that we see barely a remnant of Christian values present in today’s culture. Practices rooted merely in tradition have little or no validity and, therefore, no lasting power. Worldviews have been equalized by the view that morality and spiritual truth are subjective. This does beg the question as to how well the Church—as an institution and as individual believers—is teaching Christianity. Without a source for truth outside of ourselves, we are left to our own devices. Stigma had for a time been a useful common ground approach to moral issues, but the jig is up. People know the difference between tradition and truth, and because they reject the latter the former is meaningless.
Have we been a Church committed to decision-making based on Christ’s authority or because “that’s the way we’ve always done it?” Do we take positions on matters of morality based on the politics of the moment, or have we done the work in Scripture to know what God wants us to know and live out on a given matter? If the average church-goer struggles to see the importance of doctrine, doesn’t quite understand the human condition in relation to Christ, and has not yet learned what it means to think about everyday life through the lens of Scripture—truth revealed—how can she have a gospel-centered presence in her sphere of influence? Why, in her eyes, should it even matter? If, perhaps, we focused a bit more on training men and women to think theologically and teach them how to communicate truth in their sphere of influence, there might be a degree of real and sustainable impact on culture. Invoking one set of values over another based on polls and popularity is just a quick, temporary fix for something with more serious, eternal implications.