Cultural Ballast

© Robert Osburn 2015

The concept of cultural ballast popped into my consciousness about 19 years ago after a guest speaker came to a small class I was teaching at a campus ministry center near the University of Minnesota.  He told us that a wacky practice spreading through some North American churches in the mid 90s was creating chaos in South Asian churches.  While this bizarre spirituality somehow never caused more than a ripple in our churches, it caused great harm in his homeland.  What was harmless to us was hurting the church abroad.

Why did the same phenomenon rock the cultural boat in one society and merit barely a blip on the cultural radar of the other?

Even though many Americans loathe our superficial, celebrity-driven society, I asked myself: Is there some cultural ballast, mostly inherited from our Puritan ancestors, that prevents social chaos when Baltimore burns, gays marry, and the Kardashians pull another celebrity stunt?  I do not deny that, in America, there have been significant cultural changes, mostly for the worse, since the 1960s.  The issue here is that most of those changes have been gradual, reflecting a kind of social equilibrium.[1]

Cultural ballast, as I use the term, refers to the cultural frameworks that ensure social, political, and economic stability in the face of destructive external challenges.  Furthermore, those cultural frameworks: 1) result from the creation of internal obligations, that is, a conscience inclined toward virtue; and 2) are best developed by the deep embrace of a Christian worldview when one becomes a genuine follower of Jesus Christ.

There is a reason why many societies spy on their citizens: They never know what alarming Western cultural import might throw their society into chaos.  One of the greatest of world societies, China, has a 5,000 year history of warlords and religious enthusiasts sowing chaos.  China’s Xi Jinping not only protects the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party, but he is also determined to preserve China’s hard won social equilibrium. 

The key point to note, in regards to China and most societies around the world, is that they somehow lack the cultural ballast that keeps them from falling into chaos when cultural exports from Western countries flood their store shelves and their television sets.  In order to keep their societies reasonably stable, they must exercise the heavy hand of external authority, thus limiting freedoms that Westerners take for granted.  They limit freedom by maximizing order, whereas Western countries maximize both.  Xi and other despots around the world must wonder why the moral and spiritual “pollution” that pervades Western societies doesn’t send us into the boiling sea between Charybdis and Scylla.    

While Americans can never discount the protective mercy of a God who relents from destroying a city even if it has only 10 righteous people within it (Genesis 18:32), the question remains:  “Why is it that other ships of state are so easily threatened by that which barely moves the American cultural needle?” 

In biblical language, the problem is the “lightweight” nature of idols, a point emphasized by the prophet Jeremiah in 14:22, for example.  Idols are empty, worthless, and insubstantial. The result is cultural institutions, habits, and symbols easily disturbed by outside influences.  By comparison, societies deeply rooted in the Gospel benefit from the “heavyweight” glory of God (note that the Hebrew word for “glory” is also translated heavy).  God’s presence stabilizes societies.

 Lightweight, heavyweight, but what explains the difference that results in cultural ballast in one society, its absence in another?  Walking with Jesus Christ amidst persecution, trials, and rejection has the effect of sharpening the moral sensibilities while also deepening the resolve to do what pleases God (i.e., “the right thing”) when the sun is shining and when it is not.  The result is a kind of “rigid moral backbone” that honors God, in good times and bad, because He is sovereign and good.  This shared understanding of reality, almost perfectly exemplified by the Puritans’ struggles in the New England wilderness, cultivated a kind of moral individualism that held itself in check, manifesting self-control, temperance, and attention to others’ welfare instead of indulging one’s wants.

But, now consider the “lightweight” societies known for their idolatry (the vast majority of human societies without the Gospel).  Idols exist to serve and satisfy what the Bible calls “the flesh.”  They make few demands, are endlessly manipulable, and the only moral code they enforce is a morality that calls for devotion to the idol, but not to God and certainly not to higher moral law.  Idols do not see us when we do wrong in secret, and so the conscience has little reason for cultivation.  The result is a lack of internal moral rectitude that only responds to the heavy hand of outside authority. Thus, when moral or other chaos descends upon such societies, the citizens, lacking a strong “moral backbone,” quickly take advantage of opportunities to indulge what they have always indulged: their flesh.  Ephesians 2:3 describes it thusly: “gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts” (NIV). 

The answer to gratifying the flesh, writes the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:13-14a, is shoring up our theological ballast…

 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we (will) no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves… (NIV)

 Deep theological roots, the kind cultivated by New England’s Puritans, produced the great cultural ballast that ensures 21st century Americans still enjoy freedom, order, and relative stability. 

We are forever in their debt, a debt best repaid by reinforcing that ballast rather than shoving it overboard.

[1] I do not deny that there have been a few periods of rapid social change in the USA, such as in the late 1960s and, more recently, with the apparently explosively growing acceptance of gay marriage. Nor do I deny that a few places in the USA, most notably Hollywood, are most certainly lacking in the cultural ballast found elsewhere in American society.  I only note that, for all the social turbulence of American society, social equilibrium is clearly the norm.