Religious views affect culture, and culture affects religious views

November 4, 2013

Among the links that caught my attention over this past weekend were two about the value of studying theology— even if you’re nonreligious— and one link about fundamentalist dress codes.  The two link topics might seem totally disconnected.  But they’re not. They all touch on religion and culture.

Atlantic article
In the Atlantic,  Tara Isabella Burton writes, “Study Theology. Even If You Don’t Believe in God.”  She refers to the view of those who claim, as does Richard Dawkins  (one of the group often called the “new atheists”), that theological study should have no place at all in academia. Burton contrasts his view with a time in history when “theology, far from being anathema to the academic life, was indeed its central purpose: It was the ‘Queen of the Sciences,’ the field of inquiry which gave meaning to all others.”  Commenting on her own appreciation of her studies in theology, she says “the value of theology lies not merely in the breadth of the skills it taught, but in the opportunity it presented to explore a given historical mindset in greater depth.”  According to Burton, both history and comparative religion provide lenses for see world events from the “outside,” but theology helps us see those events “from inside the heads of those whose beliefs and choices shaped so much of our history.”

Religion Dispatches article
Alana Massey, in “Want to Know How 84% of the World Sees Itself: Study Theology,” published at Religion Dispatches, says Tara Burton’s Atlantic article “provided a much needed opening in public conversation about the need for more theology programs at major universities.”  But at the same time, Massey was disappointed that it missed an opportunity “to discuss how studying theology can inform practical disciplines that are in dire need of new approaches, instead of focusing almost exclusively on theology’s function in the study of history.” She points out that 84 percent of the population has a religious affiliation and it affects those individuals and groups who make up that population every bit as much in today’s world as theologically-shaped views have done over history. Massey refers to an excellent quote from Alex Peterson who  stresses that “religious viewpoints and attitudes affect how people interpret and interact with medicine, politics, neighbors and money.” Peterson says, “Broad theological questions like, ‘ What is your purpose in creation? And more specific ones like, ‘What role does God play in your understanding of your family life?’ get to the heart of people’s self-perceptions and motivations in ways that ‘What is your religion?’does not.”

Both the Atlantic article and the Religion Dispatches essay show how the a theological lens can help us see both history and today’s world events in a new light.  I hope you’ll take some time to ponder both essays.

Fred Clark’s Slacktivist Post
Then in an altogether different tone, but just as much related to theology and perspectives on the world as the Burton and Massey articles are, is Fred Clark’s Slacktivist post on Patheos.  Clark’s title is “Jesus and fundamentalist dress codes.”  Clark reminisces about the huge, ever growing gender-distinct lists of dress code rules that were kept in a three-ring binder by the administrative staff and faculty at the fundamentalist high school he attended. He says the binder “was vigilantly updated to ensure that any new fashion trend was quickly forbidden.” He tells how some things would be added to the list and then later taken off the list, and he tells how the students challenged the rules in clever, creative ways— especially rules about locker displays. (Even lockers had a “dress code.”)

His stories reminded me of the rules I encountered when I attended Moody Bible Institute for three semesters in the mid-1950s. Not having come from a fundamentalist home, I was startled to run into rules forbidding sleeveless blouses and dresses for women students (which were the style then and I had several that had to be discarded). And there was a rule requiring long-sleeved shirts for the men (which was changed during my time there to permit men to wear short sleeves if the sleeves came down to the elbow).  Women had to wear nylon stockings at all times on the campus. (This was before pantyhose so the nylon stockings were the kind that required a garter belt with snaps to hold up the separate stockings on each leg). And certainly there could be no socks, nor jeans, nor slacks (except I believe they were permitted on Saturdays but only within the dorm when women were doing their laundry, etc.).

Even the rule about stockings got more strict after one young male student told the deans he was having lustful thoughts looking at women’s legs covered in nylon stockings, because to him they looked like bare legs, and he found himself distracted from spiritual matters by constantly wondering if the women’s legs really were bare.  It didn’t seem to occur to the deans that the problem was with the young man, not the women and their legs!  But the Dean of Women called a solemn meeting of just the women students and told us that henceforth we had to buy and wear only stockings with seams up the back so that students like this young man would be able to tell that our legs were covered and not be led astray by lust.

Clark in his article said the changes in dress code and other rules at his fundamentalist high school helped open his eyes to an important truth. “These dress-code rules, it seemed, were culturally contingent and not—as we’d been led to believe—matters of intrinsic morality or of the ‘absolute truth’ clearly spelled out for us in the King James English of the Word of God.”

I learned that, too; and here’s where this ties in with the two articles at the beginning of this post about looking at both history and modern times from a theological vantage point.  Dress code rules of the kind Clark experienced in his high school (and I experienced in Bible college) spring from an attitude of standing apart from society as “different”—more righteous.  “Come ye out from among them and be ye separate” (2 Cor. 6:16-18) were words often quoted in fundamentalist circles when talking about forbidden behavior (which at that time included drinking, smoking, movies, playing cards, dancing, and listening to popular music, among other things).  Staying away from these particular “worldly ways” was how one could demonstrate what a true Christian looked like, according to this kind of theology.  Many rules showed great anxiety about sexuality and making sure of clear gender distinctions.  (There was a verse for that, too. (Deuteronomy 22:5).  The whole idea of these rules would fit in with the “Christ against culture” category of H. Richard Niebuhr’s typology in Christ and Culture. 

But the problem with forming a code of behavior on being different and against something (for example in specifics such as dress codes— some being about the most trivial matters) is that changes occur as the culture changes and there can be much confusion when behavior is built on legalistic rules and not on general biblical principles (such as loving our neighbor, the Golden Rule, and Christian liberty).   For example, Christians who believed it was sinful to go to movies didn’t know what to do when television came on the scene and began finding its way into more and more homes around that time. Was it different if one watched a movie at home on television when that same movie was considered so sinful if  the individual had ventured into a movie theater to see it?  If so, why?

Nothing could have surprised me more than Moody Bible Institute’s very recent decision to lift the ban on alcohol and tobacco for faculty members and staff.  I guess I wasn’t quite as surprised about the change on alcohol (since the Bible talks a lot about wine) as I was about tobacco products, especially in view of the health issues now known (although I do remember long ago discussions among some fundamentalists who were troubled about some photos of their hero, C.S.Lewis, being shown with a pipe, and wondered how he could be a real Christian if he smoked.)  The article I just linked to about the changes at Moody also shows changes at other fundamentalist schools and conservative organizations with regard to attire, tattoos, and other issues that were once considered settled and decided according to the will of God.

The problem is that conservative Christians, who, while having built much of their culture (and separate subculture) on trying to be different, also at the same time have want to be accepted and respected by the larger culture, which they want to influence.  So there is cognitive dissonance about being different (and perhaps ridiculed by the larger society).

There is so much more that could be said on these topics, but I think we’ve covered enough for this time.  Perhaps we’ll visit it again sometime in the future.

Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni (1935-2024) was an independent scholar, writer, and editor, and the author or coauthor of nine books. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Letha served as editor of Christian Feminism Today in both its former print edition (EEWC Update) and its website for 19 years until her retirement in December 2013.