Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories That Shape Our Lives is a book by Steve Wilkens and Mark Sanford that is written to help Christians understand eight competing narratives within American culture that have significant influence and power both outside and within the contemporary church. The hope is that this book will help Christians understand these views and more fully integrate every aspect of life in line with a Christian worldview. Wilkens and Sanford show that worldviews in practice do not originate from a set of propositions but rather emerge like a story. A Worldview serves as an underlying story about reality (what the world is like) that gives us identity and provides a framework for our convictions which serve as the basis for our ethics (“shoulds”) and values (priorities). All worldviews offer definitions of the fundamental human problem and how we might fix it. When you boil it down, every worldview attempts to answer the question “What must we do to be saved?” Perspectives and habits from our culture creep into our lives and corrupt our worldview without our awareness. These worldviews are popular philosophies that have few intellectual proponents but vast numbers of participants: individualism, consumerism, nationalism, moral relativism, naturalism, the New Age, postmodern tribalism and salvation by therapy. The book examine the everyday expression of these worldviews, what we can learn from them, and their shortcomings.
Individualism- I Am the Center of the Universe
Individualism is the belief that the individual is the primary reality and that each person’s unique interests and goals should be pursued by whatever means are deemed proper. We are to strive for autonomy and self-sufficiency and rely on others only as they contribute to our personal pursuits. All other people, groups, or organizations are secondary considerations. When I am the primary reality and center of the universe, I see others as a tool for maintaining my status or a competitor for my place. Individualism absolutizes the individual and cannot adequately address our social nature. When I buy into individualism I serve as my own moral conscience and think that it is immoral for others to impose their standards on me. Individualism has a flawed view of human nature and of freedom and achievement. One of the first questions we need to ask about any worldview is, Who gets to be God? Individualism, by placing the individual at the center of the universe, attempts to put us in the God-position.
Consumerism- I Am What I Own
At the most basic level, we have to consume things to live. Scripture is clear that we are consumers and that we are to enjoy it. But the danger is degenerating into consumerism, starting with something good and making it an absolute good. Consumerism absolutizes consumption by believing that we can find fulfillment by accumulating wealth and everything that comes with it. It tells us that all our needs can be satisfied by what we consume. This is one way that advertising sells. Advertisers prey on our fears and insecurities. For example, a car is not simply a car. It means freedom, status, power, or security for us. In the process people are reduced to objects to satisfy our fulfillment. This philosophy makes it difficult to value people. Relationships become transactional, trade-offs to fulfill our needs. Consumerism reduces everything to categories that can be resolved with wealth. One of the main problems with consumerism is that we are not the ultimate source or owner of the things that we have. God is ultimate and our role is to wisely steward the resources that God has given us for his glory. It is probably not an overstatement to say that consumerism is the most potent competitor to a Christian worldview in our culture.
Nationalism – My Nation, Under God
Nationalism is the imbalanced and distorted form of something that is good-patriotism. The seeds of nationalism are found when there is belief that one’s own nation is uniquely favored by God and an integral part of God’s plan. In the U.S., nationalism is often found in conservative Christian circles. When you combine the superpower status of the United States with the rather widespread belief that the United States is (or in some cases, as) a Christian nation, nationalism becomes a seductive worldview for Christians. Patriotism is not a bad thing but when someone loses their perspective and offers their highest loyalty to a specific state, it becomes dangerous and destructive. Nations are not eternal entities but are created things. They come into and go out of existence. Nationalism is tempting when nations have sufficient strength or goodness to inspire deep-seated loyalties. The danger is that nationalism overreaches in its demand for loyalty and views “the other” as a challenger. It ignores the transnational nature of Christianity. The concept of a Christian nation obscures the fact that the Christian’s primary solidarity is not with those who pledge allegiance to a particular flag, but those who confess Jesus as the Lord, regardless of their nationality.
Moral Relativism – The Absolute Truth About Relativism and Something Like Relativism
The idea of moral relativism is rooted in the postmodern idea that we cannot be free from our biases about observable reality. The Enlightenment suggested that we can only know what we observe. Postmodernism questions whether we can be free from our biases about observable reality. Truth claims are now considered presumptuous and dangerous and those who claim to know truth are oppressors and must be resisted. The authors believe that there is a difference between genuine moral relativists who don’t believe in absolute moral truths and “moral relativists” who don’t actually believe that everything is relative. People are rarely total subjectivists. Most assume that what they observe is true. Some are not really moral relativists but anti-legalists, reacting to legalists who insist on rules but seem unconcerned about people, therefore appearing arrogant and intolerant. There are a number of philosophical and moral problems with moral relativism. No one can live by it. You can’t argue that moral relativism is true if nothing can be known to be true. Morality that begins with me must logically and necessarily end with me. Justice is undermined because the issue of fairness is a matter of opinion. Relativism’s universal demand for tolerance and freedom has nothing to support it. The very goodness of the ideas that make moral relativism attractive to many—peace, humility, freedom and tolerance—creates a problem for moral relativism. They function as universal moral goods, the very thing that moral relativism denies. Moral relativism wants to absolutize our freedom and volition, but it ignores ethical limits on their legitimate expression.
Scientific Naturalism – Only Matter Matters
In naturalism, all that exists is physical and nothing exists except the material. The fundamental components of reality are atoms, elements, or energy. The universe is a closed and deterministic system. The laws of nature are not created entities or purposeful but they are unchanging and without exception. There is no room for God, miracles or souls. Reliance on God stands in the way of real solutions. Naturalists argues that if we apply reason to what is real (matter) and true (the laws of cause and effect), we can solve all real problems. As a result, science is a form of salvation. Some of the problems with scientific naturalism include the diminished status of human beings, the undercutting of the reality of people as moral beings, the trustworthiness of rationality and, from an existential perspective, it inadequately defines human progress or purpose. Science provides tools for explaining what we can do, but by itself does not offer much direction about what we should do. Naturalism finds the intellectual realm incompatible with the divine and sacrifices the spiritual component of our lives. Scientific naturalism attributes unique powers and possibilities to humans but cannot explain why. It sets forth moral goals but provides no explanation for moral characteristics. It assumes we have moral responsibility while claiming that cause and effect explains everything.
The New Age – Are We Gods or Are We God’s?
The aim of the New Age movement is to help people actualize their dormant potential and recognize their inner divinity. The main constraint and problem for people is ignorance of untapped power and energy residing inside them. In place of the dualism that sets God as distinct from nature, New Age offers the monistic view that everything is divine or at least that everything is infused with the divine. It is an eclectic perspective where intuition is given prominence while logic is demoted. Many Christians appropriate New Age-type ideas and form beliefs or base actions on private experiences or interpretations, ignoring Scripture, reason, or tradition. The New Age perspective replaces the one-sidedness of materialism with a one-sided spiritualism. It promotes self-salvation from ignorance of our dualistic illusions.
Postmodern Tribalism – My Tribe/My Worldview
Postmodern tribalism is rooted in an incredulity toward metanarratives that affirm a universal story, absolute truth, and ideas of unbiased neutrality. Postermodernism elevates particularity and believes that we can’t find our identity or meaning through abstract concepts like human nature. Tribe members share a powerful sense of identity defined by common language, meaning, experiences, ideas and a feeling that the group is necessary for survival. One important dimension of intercultural interaction within postmodern tribalism is that not every tribe has equal power. There are strong feelings of being an underdog. There are expressions of pain, fear, insecurity, exclusion and maybe hostility. We have moved from “melting pot” to “multiculturalism” to “postmodern tribalism.” People are retaining their cultural identities rather than submerging them into a larger culture. Proponents are hostile to a Christianity whose claims to universal truth have been used by a dominant culture to erase particularity and conquer enemies. One’s concept of reality, morality, salvation, origin, and purpose ultimately depends on one’s tribal traditions, not a transcendent God. Postmodern tribalism undermines individual moral responsibility by making people the products of their culture. One danger is that when tribalism absolutizes culture’s determinative power over an individual, this puts culture in the place of God.
Salvation by Therapy – Not as Good as It Gets
Millions of people today view therapy as a means, and some view it as the means, to a good life. The therapist has replaced the pastor or priest for relational and behavioral assistance. The breadth of psychology explains why many view it as a competitor to religion, and even an alternative religion. Many mental health professionals work from assumptions about human nature and freedom, our purpose, and a definition of the essential problem that err in their assumptions about human nature. Many psychological approaches assume a high level of determinism. One of the fundamental problems with salvation by therapy is that it starts from inadequate and reductionistic concepts of human purpose and reduces the human problem to a psychological problem.
What strikes me as noteworthy and unique about this book is that it aims to provoke Christians to adopt a Christian worldview. In most other worldview books, there are attempts at demonstrating the inadequacies of other systems of thought and to convince readers that Christianity offers something better. However, this book takes seriously the influence of non-Christian thought structures in our culture that influence what Christians value and how they think and act. Christians often confess a fundamental belief in the lordship of Christ and a commitment to the teachings of Scripture but fail to see the various ways in which the life-shaping perspectives in North American culture have formed the way we really believe that life works. It is not theories that mold the lives and beliefs of most people. Instead, the most powerful influences emerge from culture but are often below the surface. Wilkens and Sanford call them “lived worldviews” because we are more likely to absorb them through cultural contact than adopt them through a rational evaluation of competing theories. We don’t primarily think our way in worldviews, we experience them. Our worldviews come to us more like a story or faith commitment than a system of ideas that we select among a buffet of intellectual options.
These stories are widespread within American culture and don’t come at us as a competing worldview but fragmented ideas from multiple directions. Most real lives are a composite of these forces. Christians are not exempt from this and if we do not examine both our confession and lifestyle, we will often find our lives adulterated by elements from various worldviews that dilute and corrupt our Christian life. What is so dangerous about these hidden worldviews is that they can cause us to interpret our experiences and the purpose of life very differently from a Christian worldview.
This book aims to bring about the rearrangement of our identity, convictions, ethics, and actions into greater alignment with reality as understand from a Christian worldview. Worldviews are ultimately about full-orbed, multidimensional, real human lives, and how we can get the most from them. The goal in assessing and evaluating our values is not to preform an intellectual exercise but a recognition that what we believe and how we live will transform us and the world in which we live. The goal of a fully enacted Christian worldview is transformation. God is worthy of his people thinking and living their lives in greater conformity to the truth and to his purposes. Wilkens and Sanford want to bring about transformation of the mind and of our whole lives.
It is noteworthy that many of the competing views fall short because they fail to adequately understand the problem within human nature or have only a one-sided view of the solution. It is often the case that other views do not have a big enough view of the problem or a big enough view of salvation. Many times Christians can offer qualified agreement to certain values within iterative views but in God’s story, they are a symptom of a larger problem. Reductionism in competing worldview represents a misdiagnosis of the fundamental problem of human existence. Christianity offers a robust understanding both of the problem within the world and in human nature and of the solution to these problems in the person and work of Christ.
Wilkens and Sanford have helped me understand that a worldview’s power over us is magnified when we are not conscious of its influences. Without careful, conscious reflection, our Christian story can easily be hijacked by alien stories that take our lives in directions we don’t want to go. These alternative stories affect our commitment to Christ. Because what we are not conscious of can hurt us, it is important to take an inventory of our true convictions. I often find myself relaxing when watching shows and going out to shop but this book shows how critical it is to be on guard against the alternative narratives that are being preached through these mediums. I am not consciously evaluating the statements in light of the values and principles of the kingdom. I have not taken seriously the ways in which I am tempted to accept and then ultimately embrace the attitudes and values within American culture.
How might I put this into practice in my ministry context
I oversee the ministries in our church from nursery through high school. There are so many helpful insights that will be useful in my ministry context. I see this book as an excellent resource in communicating the ways in which alternative stories find their way into our lives. Our students have imbibed so much of what American culture preaches through music, films, and social media that it is sometimes difficult to combat. However, this book has helped me to see that some of the difficulty is rooted in its “hiddenness.” When these competing ideas are openly explored it is much easier to expose and respond to them. This book examines these competing voices by articulating them and helping the reader to discern both the strengths and the weaknesses of these alternative narratives. I plan on talking through these ideas with my leaders and preaching a series on these hidden worldviews to our students. It is critical that we address these alternative stories that are embraced and advocated for in our culture and are so often operating at the subconscious level. The very dangerous thing about many of these narratives is how they are syncretized in the modern church and embraced as if they are part of a Christian worldview.
One of the big concerns for families and for pastors is the significant number of students who grow up in church and leave the faith soon after high school or college. Wilkins and Sanford cite Steve Garber’s book The Fabric of Faithfulness and points out his insightful findings about those who stand firm in the faith during their young adult years. Without exception, those who successfully integrate faith with life followed three practices. First, they developed a relationship with a mentor who practiced an active Christian life. Second, they met regularly with peers who were deeply committed to living out their Christianity. Finally, they had developed a Christian worldview sufficient to meet the challenges of the competing worldviews they encountered after leaving college. When our minds do not undergo continuing transformation through reflection, our stories inevitably deviate from God’s plotline. Our relationships frame the context of our stories, and it is within the accountability of such relationships that we align our stories to God’s story. It is critical that we see other believers living out the Christian story and that we consciously embrace the values and principles of the kingdom and reject those ideas that are antithetical to the gospel.