part one of this series here.
as i was thinking about my frustrations with the cul-de-sacs we in the american church have driven ourselves into, i started asking myself how we got here. and i think so much of where we are is connected to who we are.
so, what’s unique about us americans? what characteristics (good, bad, neutral — this isn’t the point) seem to be reasonably common to us. here’s my list:
from the first non-natives to arrive on this land, we’ve been reactors. those first footsteps were taken by folk fleeing the motherland for religious freedom. sure, there’s something wonderfully noble about this — but it’s still a reaction. and — religious or not — this is part of our DNA. we love to react, strongly, to things (i sure do).
this is true of protestants in general, of course. it’s in our very name — we’re protest-ants. the reformation was a (much needed) reaction. and every denomational splinter since then has been another reaction or series of reactions. these are rarely reactions TOWARD something; but, more often, reactions AWAY from something. my friend tony jones once suggested (in casual conversation; but i’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this!) that he wished we could change our label from ‘protestants’ to ’embracients’ (i posted about this once, back in the day). i love that notion. but it’s not very american! if i’m fully honest, even my desire to be an embracient is a reaction to the protesting nature of my story.
as americans, we absolutely love to break things down into their simplest, most explainable bits. we’re the birthplace of the assembly line, and we’ve always approached science as a means of explaining things. it’s self-help and pop psychology. it’s the wild success of ‘for dummies’ books, and all their christiany counterparts.
very closely connect with this is that…
once we’ve simplified something — breaking it down into bits that are accessible and understandable — we love putting those bits back together in a pretty little system. we’re obsessed with explaining. of course, this has had some absolutely fantastic outcomes. but it’s taken us into some cul-de-sacs also.
we’re highly individualistic, with VERY little sense of inter-relationships
of all the items on this list, this is one of the more unique-to-us. as i travel internationally, i’m continually struck by how much more interconnected people are in other cultures, and how less individualistic. not that some cultures aren’t disconnected and individualistic — it’s just that we own the patent on this! it’s the american dream! most of us know, cognitively, that the idea of the american dream (that you can make of yourself anything you choose, if you apply yourself) is not always true; in fact, it seems less true every passing year. but the notion that you are who you choose to make yourself — 100% — is burned deeply into our collective psyche. it’s the still-alive image of the american cowboy: alone (except for his horse and his marlboro-induced black lung), complete, self-made, self-relient, and self-sustaining.
we’re over-staters – we love blanket-statements
i’m terrible at this. i use overstatement and generalizations ALL THE TIME (see? there was one right there!). and this is a classicly american idiocyncracy. really, the caricature so many people (around the world) have of us is a loud, mickey-mouse-hat-wearing, fat person saying, “AWESOME!” my friends in other countries constantly tease me about this. when i arrived in singapore this past summer, for our fourth youth ministry training event there, our wonderfully reserved host (who i’ve known now for years) braced himself for the big ol’ american hug i was about to give him, and beat me to the punch by asking me (with mock excitement), “are you doing EXCELLENT? is everything AWESOME?”
we’re enamored of BIG (and we believe that big = success)
what can i say? the US is a big country. and we really dig big. we like big cars, big plates of food, big hair, big houses with lots and lots of land, and big churches with big programs. and somewhere along the line, we equated big with success, or with good. this is such a norm for us that most of us wouldn’t even question it, or think about it at all, if we didn’t visit other countries where it’s obvious that big isn’t valued, and isn’t the only measuring stick of success.
i think an ancillary to this last one is that we’re close-minded, and assume we’re right. again, this isn’t uniquely american. on none of these am i positing that americans suck and every other culture is wonderful. i love this place! and i love this church! but we do have a pretty strong sense that we’re right. (this is probably tied to the sytemization-obsession listed above also — once we simpify and systemitize something, we close ourself off to other ideas. i’ll ‘rif on this more in another post).
next, in part 3, i’ll start to unpack what i see as the church implications of these american characteristics.