Monday, January 19, 2009

Big Box 1: Why is it dying?

In "The Death of the Big Box," Donn Johnson notes how increasing social decentralization is fragmenting education, and wonders what the effect this will have on the Faith:

Is the same process at work in spiritual formation? Is there a decline in the "big box" method of spiritual formation? The big box of a church building at a set time and place with assigned teachers and preachers? Are all the alternative offerings basically good things? Or do they risk creating truncated Christians who gravitate to places and pastor that validate their opinions and make them feel good? The cultural dominance of the church in the culture is long-dead, and that's probably a pretty good thing because we in the clergy and institutional denominations have not done that good of a job stewarding our affluence. George Barna's recent post illustrates how American Christians are living a far more ala carte style of theology and belief than ever before. Where churches and denominations used to cohesively define and clarify belief, we have become a nation of belief-grazers who assemble a mash-mash of beliefs and preferences that are not always coherent or consistent, and we know that and don't really care.

Before we consider the practical implications of this phenomenon, we should consider its causes. What roads lies before us depends on what road we are on, and what road we are on depends on what road we have taken. Elsewhere, I have written about the theoretical underpinnings of decentralization/fragmentation. See

Refusing to let the Culture Dictate our Lives",

"Institution or Body?",

"Square Circles and Nominalist Christians",

"Is Denominational Leadership no longer Important?",

"Understanding Nominalism Part I,

"Understanding Nominalism 2,

"Barna on Designer Faith" and

Understanding Nominalism 3.

Others have written with far more depth and eloquence: for example, S. Joel Garver, "Nominalism and the 'Modern.'" Of course the great-grandaddy of them all is Alasdair MacIntyre. If you haven't read his classic description of decay and bricolage in After Virtue, here it is:

Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally, a Know-Knothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remaining scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive movement and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all they possess are fragments; a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiement; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books; single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and carred. None the less all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived name of physics, chemistry and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory, and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very partial knowledge of each. Children learn by heart surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorms of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realises that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything they do and say conforms to certain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to understand what they are doing have been lost, perhaps irretrivably.... the actual world which we inhabit, the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the world which I described. What we possess, if this view is true, are the fragments of a conceptual scheme, parts of which now lack those contexts from which their significance derived. We possess indeed simulacra of morality, we continue to use many of the key expressions. But we have--very largely, if not entirely--lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical, of morality. (MacIntyre, After Virtue, pp. 1-2)

If MacIntyre is right, the increasing fragmentation in education that Donn has identified is a result of the larger fragmentation of a conceptural scheme. MacIntyre gives a geneological account of this fragmentation in his great work, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.

One final detail remains before we can address Donn's post. How shall we understand "big box?" This will be the subject of my next post.

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