A Prodigal Culture



noun: zeitgeist

the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.

(I love this word and have always wanted to actually use it in a sentence.)

The hardest period of history to understand is the one you are living through. That is why C. S. Lewis recommended that we read old books. Old books meaning classical books that have stood the test of time. The reason is they help you see things about your own culture and the prevailing ideas that A.) aren’t new or  B.) aren’t as solid a truth as the culture wants you to think.

It goes without saying that we are living in some crazy times as Christians in America. We are seeing the moral landscape change right before our very eyes.  Now you can read all kinds of books by social scientist, theologians, social psychologist  and historians (side note: am I the only one that can’t spell psychologist.  I start with “p”, hit the “y” button, most of the time throw in an “h”, and pray spell checker can decipher my effort) to help gain a perspective on what exactly might be going on in the minds and hearts of people today, but you’re busy and in the immortal words of Kimberly Wilkins, aka Sweet Brown,

So how do we wrap our minds around what we seeing going on in our schools, communities, government, and the culture at large?  One thing I always try to do is find one analogy or metaphor to help me hang my hat on. It helps me quickly center my thinking and gives me a starting point.  You could say, “people are just crazy” and yes, maybe that would be right in some sense, but it doesn’t give you a way to understand people or culture so that you can engage them more effectively. So I want to give you two of those analogies (one now and one at a later time) that have been hugely helpful to me as I think through the zeitgeist of American culture today.

The first, if you are following along at home, you can probably guess from the title of the post where the first analogy comes from.  The Prodigal Son is a well known parable found in the Gospel of Luke chapter 15.  It is so well known that most people outside the church have probably heard it at sometime as well.

Summary: Rich kid, demands from his father his portion of the inheritance, takes all his money and goes away, squanders it on “extravagant living”, famine, money runs out, works with pigs, starving, wants to eat what pigs eat, comes to senses, home, father running, extravagant love by father, celebration, and brooding older brother.  You remember right? This is also the formula for half of all early country songs before 1990’s pop country came along.

Now imagine that the Father equals the Judeo/Christian ethic that this country was founded on. (Listen, no analogies are complete.  I am also not saying that this is what Jesus meant when He told this parable.  I am just applying some general lessons from the parable.  This is not the meaning of this story in the Bible.  Jesus wasn’t thinking about America when he told this story.  I know that.  I know.  I am painting and my brush is broad.)

Prodigal Son equals our current culture. 

See what we have done as a collective culture, a Prodigal culture, is to say sarcastically,

“Thank you Dad for all your rules, and morals, and gender pronouns.  I really appreciate the way you were able to use morals to help constrain evil in the world and make us really rich as a society and culture. That whole capitalism thing seemed to work really well when we were guarded and guided by a sense of community and restraint.  That whole checks and balances thing in government, nice stuff.  And that whole, Life, Liberty, and Happiness thing? That’s kind of what I came to talk to you about.  Can I have what you ‘owe’ me because I am ready to pursue that?”

We are a nation that now assumes the blessings of the father and the inheritance of the father are things we can have and do with what we want. We have taken the blessings that a Judeo/Christian ethic provides a nation, the common grace that follows that kind of belief, and we are headed to a distant country to live extravagantly, making it rain like a rapper in a music video. 

There is more extravagant living that our culture wants to do.  There is a lot to be tried when you leave the safety and protection of the home.  The famine hasn’t come yet, but it will. It always does. I am afraid there will be a pig pin and some lean years ahead.

We are a culture pursuing life, liberty, and happiness without the restraining and guiding understanding that those things are endowed,you know, by a Creator. He’s pretty important in this whole equation. 

The prodigal son forgot that too.  He forgot that his inheritance came from someone, and it came from something, namely, work, discipline, and restraint. He didn’t seem to think about the fact that at some point the money runs out. And our culture too, doesn’t seem to realize that our freedoms and blessing call for personal restraint.

And like the prodigal son, this prodigal culture needs to come to itself. It needs to be awakened to its foolishness.  But sadly, I don’t think we are there yet.  The culture is still on its way to that distant country and is still smiling with its money bag.

So that’s my analogy.  It helps me keep a grip on what I see going on politically, culturally, and in government.

As a Church we still need to pursue people, be building a culture of our own that shows a better way, and always hope and watch for the prodigal’s return. And when and if it happens be more like the Father and less like the older brother.




About Todd Van Dyke

Father, Husband, Son, and most of all lover of Christ.
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