Bullet Points and Worldviews
Late last week, I found myself embroiled in a long online conversation with an acquaintance over my review of the recent film “Straight Outta Compton.” The movie, which charts the rise of controversial rap group N.W.A., is a well-made biographical drama that raises challenging questions. It also, as one might expect given the subject matter, contains a good deal of content that will be off-putting to certain viewers (and is undoubtedly inappropriate for audiences beneath a certain age). In the “About” section of my personal website, I note that I work from a theistic Christian worldview, and that the opinions throughout my commentaries reflect my beliefs; in the context of “Compton,” this acquaintance claimed that because I did not include discussion of the film’s profanity, violence, or anti-authoritarian elements, I was not offering an analysis from a theistic Christian worldview.
Some, particularly those who do not themselves hold Christian beliefs, might simply label this fundamentalist pedantry. I see the problem as reflecting a subtler danger, sometimes implicit in certain kinds of “worldview”-based thinking (though I remain convinced that the thought-category is useful). Namely, this danger is the tendency to think of worldviews in terms of composited bullet-points rather than as integrated wholes.
Summit Ministries breaks down the concept of “worldview” into ten discrete disciplines: theology, philosophy, biology, psychology, ethics, sociology, law, politics, economics, and history. These lend themselves to translation into an all-purpose checklist that can be applied to any given work of art or expressed value system. “Does this reflect a correct sense of history? Check. Does this reflect a correct understanding of law? No check.” In line with this, many Protestant Christian cultural analyses engage in this sort of point-scoring (a tendency perhaps useful for parents deciding whether or not their twelve-year-old should partake in a given cultural phenomenon, but one with subversive implications for how one thinks about belief systems).
This is the philosophical mistake that David Bentley Hart calls the pleonastic fallacy: the assumption that when you have explained each of the items in a set, you have explained the set itself. A worldview emerges out of its constituent presuppositions, but is not necessarily reducible to ten particular types of claim. The tendency to treat worldviews as sets of massed bullet-points, juxtaposed against one another, oftentimes obviates areas of shared ground that arise from the intersection between different disciplines. For instance, decades passed before I appreciated the ways in which the ancient tenets of some Hindu or Buddhist traditions overlap with elements of the Christian theistic heritage (the paradoxical nature of God as both transcendent and immanent, for instance).
In thinking through what constitutes an expression of ultimate worldview, I submit that the critical question is ultimately an Aristotelian one (and one that Alasdair MacIntyre, in his seminal “After Virtue,” would identify as the cornerstone of moral practice): what kind of thing is this? This stands in contrast to the shallower question: what does it do? The former emphasizes an assessment of a belief or artwork in its totality, while the latter risks slipping into brute consequentialism. (As an aside, it is deeply ironic that evangelical Protestantism often appears likeliest to embrace this latter, given that initial objections to the Catholic Church centered on a perceived “works-based righteousness.”).
This tension between being and doing is epitomized in the classical and contemporary views of the Christian afterlife. Modern culture is suffused with testimonials of the “Heaven Is For Real” variety, stressing all the things we will do after death – things occurring in a heaven that very much resembles an instantiation of our terrestrial aspirations. (Depictions of heaven as a literal, 24/7 hymn-sing arise from this contemporary tendency). Conversely, classical understandings of the afterlife stress renewal and and reunion – the beatific vision of Catholicism and the theosis of Eastern Orthodoxy. Experiencing God is understood as an ontological experience of transformation – a transformation begun with the sacrament of Baptism and proceeding through sanctification, before the ultimate glorification in His presence. Throughout this journey, the kind of thing we are changes, which necessarily changes what we do.
When I claim to work from a Christian worldview, I work from a growing understanding of what it means to be a Christian, in that sense of emerging wholeness and conformity to God. An effective articulation of the Christian worldview doesn’t target low-hanging fruit (“‘Jurassic World’ talked about evolution. This is problematic!”) but rather, in my view, reflects a thoughtful and humble integration of philosophy, theology, ethics, and aesthetics – among other things. For instance, I don’t think one needs to cite chapter and verse to make the argument that a reductionist/materialist account of human consciousness is fundamentally flawed – an argument that reflects a deeply Christian sensibility regarding the uniqueness of man. It’s not easily reducible to single bullet-point disciplines – that issue spans sociology, philosophy, theology, and biology – but it’s integral to ongoing debates about human nature. Standard inductive reasoning, based on theistic first principles, supports this proposition.
Where “Straight Outta Compton” is concerned, I found that the film helped me understand the historical circumstances giving rise to contemporary debates over race in America, and the ways in which aesthetic expression arises from that. The larger picture is that “this is something that actually happened, and which is still happening.” An holistic approach to viewing “Straight Outta Compton,” I submit, recognizes that a biographical film like this is based in empirical reality. One may or may not choose to experience that reality by viewing the film (that is undoubtedly a matter of individual conscience and preference), but to fixate on single instances of “offensive content” or “improper statements regarding the role of law in society” is to ignore what the project (in its totality) seeks to accomplish.
It is undoubtedly far harder to inquire what something is rather than what it does on its face. But where worldview analysis is concerned – worldview analysis that touches disparate spheres of belief and culture – that kind of integration-based inquiry is, in my view, essential.
Photo courtesy of Chris Yarzab.