Pilgrim March

Thoughts on Life as a Spiritual Journey

The Great Divide

I recently picked up (ordered for my iOS Kindle app) a new book called, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray. It’s a book about the cultural shifts that have taken place since the 1960’s in America. In particular, it’s about the ever-widdening cultural gap between the classes, which the author explores by comparing cultural practices of white Americans over a fifty year period from 1960-2010 (he chooses to limit his research to white Americans to show that this divide is not a race-related phenomenon). The author himself has written an article summarizing the thesis of his book and David Brooks has written an Op-Ed about it (also a critical review here). If you would like a summary of the book, these are good places to begin.

My interest in writing this post has to do with the effects the presence of this divide will have on me as a pastor and the the church in America more generally. What should we do about class division? Should some churches, as a seminary friend of mine contended, be focused on reaching only the cultural elite, the creative class? Or, should churches strive to bridge this class divide through diverse class-spanning congregations? Are there things that our churches do that implicitly or explicitly exclude certain classes?

Charles Murray provides a helpful analysis of the nature of this class divide that will help us answer these questions. He says that our widening cultural chasm has occurred because of the shifting reality of life in America, and he points to four culprits:

FOUR DEVELOPMENTS TOOK us from a set of people who ran the nation but were culturally diverse to a new upper class that increasingly lives in a world of its own. The culprits are the increasing market value of brains, wealth, the college sorting machine, and homogamy.

Murray, Charles (2012-01-31). Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (p. 46). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

He points to educational attainment as one of the clearest indicators of class. He argues it is heavily influenced by intellectual ability and is helped by wealth. Homogany, by which he means that educated people marry educated people and become friends with educated people, is really just a by-product of education, and the college sorting machine, by which he means universities segregate by intellectual ability, is likewise represented in an individual’s education. The essence of his argument is that the core issue at the root of the cultural divide begins and is defined by education.

Most of us are aware of this intuitively. We recognize the value of going to a good college, and we are aware of the lengths to which parents will go to ensure their children get a good education. I once had a conversation with someone from Europe who said the only royalty we have in this country is the royalty of our college education.

Murray goes on throughout the rest of the book to talk about all the other ways that the classes are different. He mentions things like divorce rate, television viewing hours, vacationing, religious practice and more as as key parts of the cultural divide. But education is the issue around which the class divide is defined.

This means that a local church will be class oriented community to the extent that education is a defining aspect of that community.

The church has typically been a place where education is highly valued. Churches and ministries have started schools around the world. They have encouraged children to work hard and learn as much as they can. And much of our ecclesiological structure has been modeled after academic institutions (e.g. sermons, Sunday School, and spiritual disciplines). Even when the fundamentalist church became anti-intellectual in the early part of the 20th century, these churches still valued education internally, as was evidenced by the numerous books written about creationism, inerrancy, and other doctrinal issues. Education has always been an important part of church ministry because it is the requisite first step towards reading the Bible by which we come to know about God.

Which begs the question, does the church’s valuing of education in some way exclude the less educated class? Do sermons that require education and thoughtfulness exclude some? Does the presence of an educated congregation shame the less-well educated out of participation? Does the church that values being intellectually responsible somehow engage in class discrimination?

I fear the answer might be yes, but I can’t envision any other way forward. I can’t imagine a church where we don’t push people to be more educated. Learning has been a significant means by which I experience God in my life and I hope to share that with others. I want people to read their own bibles and study theological texts that push their perspectival boundaries.

But I also believe the answer is no. We can value education without discriminating against the less well-educated. Outside the church, there is an unfortunate way by which “the world” can ascribe value and worth to a person based on their educational accolades that the church should shun. As education has increasingly become a class-definer in our country, it has also become a demarcator of importance and personal worth. The church should unabashedly reject this. We should affirm the intrinsic value and worth of all people regardless of intellectual capacity or educational attainment.

We recognize that true power and influence is not achieved because of the extent of our education but through our capacity to love. We know that people are ultimately moved by our willingness to serve them, not by our ability to impress them. We also believe that the most important person in the world is the one who is willing to lay down his life for another person not the self-important elite who believes his time is more valuable than those around him. In the church a teenager with Down Syndrome has the same ability to achieve importance in the kingdom as a lawyer or doctor. Both can love and serve, which means both have the power to effect spiritual transformation and salvation in others.

So while the church ought to continue to emphasize the importance of education, we should strongly resist the urge to ascribe importance to the educated. God’s grace is at work in all of us. God loves each person in our churches. The extent to which a community of Christians embraces this truth, is the degree to which people of both classes will feel welcomed in our churches. It’s also the extent to which God will actually be at work. God doesn’t favor anyone because of their class, and it’s this emphasis on grace that all people deeply need.

Those who feel belittled by the world around them because they didn’t go to the right college need to know they have significance and value. They need a place to belong and be loved just for being human. And those who are high powered achievers need to know that God loves them simply because they are his children. He doesn’t love them because of what they have accomplished. This is the way I hope the church can bridge the culture gap in America. With this emphasis on grace and the value of all people, I hope our churches will be places where this class-divide is bridged.

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