Commandments of American Culture – The Asbury Collegian
“Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
“Don’t worry; there are plenty of fish in the sea!
Most of us have heard these pithy sayings at some point in our lives. They often make us roll our eyes, especially if the speaker is dishonest or a well-meaning parent. Besides being cliches that can get on our nerves, what do these sayings tell us about our culture and our values as Americans?
Do they fit into our worldview as Christians?
I first encountered Stan Nussbaum’s perspective on the “Ten Commandments of American Culture” in my Cross-Cultural Engagement class a few weeks ago. The sayings struck me because of how radically Jesus’ opinions would differ from them. America’s focus on pursuing success, becoming trendsetters and creative thinkers, being bold and having a strong work ethic are all good things, but not what brings us meaning or value. . As Christians, our goal is to use our gifts and talents for others, practicing sacrificial love rather than serving our agendas.
“You can’t argue with success.”
This first saying really struck me. We are influenced daily by the belief that success makes us immune to criticism.
Nussbaum states that “success is one of the highest values in American life”. Successful people receive desirable praise and recognition, becoming the individuals we aspire to be based solely on their accomplishments. Yet accomplishments do not make us who we are, nor do they put us above mistakes. Those who are very successful need to be more responsible and hold back.
As followers of Christ, we must remember that our successes do not absolve us of constructive criticism. We are called to be humble, willing to accept feedback from others on our work, and open to growth in all that we do. Success does not determine our worth as a person. Our value comes from our identity in the Lord.
“Just do it.”
This laconic second sentence is one of the most common sayings (and often associated with a well-known brand). Action almost always brings success and progress, prompting the American people to be as busy as possible. Nussbaum states that “too much planning is considered indecisive and possibly a waste of time. [Americans] dislike rules and regulations that prevent action.
Our culture emphasizes being bold and willing to try new things. Yet, as Christians, we recognize the importance of slowing down to reflect on our decisions to be in tune with the Holy Spirit.
How can we discern God’s will for our lives if we always do right?
Impetuous actions do not guarantee success. More often than not, they lead to conflict, heartache and bitter disappointment. The ability to roll with the punches and act before considering a decision does not make us better people. Slowing down to listen to the still, small voice of the Lord does.
“You are only young once.”
Nussbaum interpreted this third saying as trying to do “everything you can while you have the chance” or while you’re still young and not as responsible as adults. Although we are rapidly approaching adulthood, many students still enjoy a relatively relaxed existence (in addition to homework, of course). American culture likes to push its youth to be as adventurous and carefree as possible. Thrill-seeking, risk-taking and all forms of curiosity are strongly encouraged.
Yet, does making the most of our youth just mean using our energy to pursue what we want?
Our faith calls us to be wise with our blessings and to serve others. Excess freedom always leaves us with a God-sized hole in our hearts, and abusing our autonomy will never fill that void. Limits allow us to focus on what is really important. Without the structures created by the limits of our freedom, we would never learn that our actions have consequences. We are called to be selfless, respectful and responsible, regardless of our age, for we are set apart and created in the image of God.
“Time is money.”
The last saying that came to mind was the one referring to time. Americans don’t like wasting their time. Nussbaum states that “Americans are very time conscious and very money conscious. Wasting time is considered unnecessary and frivolous. We feel the effects strongly in our own lives, stressed and in tatters from over-commitment and procrastination. Time is considered an invaluable commodity and our nation is obsessed with productivity, economy and transactional relationships.
Yet, as Christians, we must remember that our time should not be spent working for our own gain, but rather serving others. Investing in relationships with the people around us is essential, even if it can be awkward over time. Followers of Jesus should recognize the benefits of slowing down and prioritizing time with the Lord.
While each of these witty little proverbs touches on valid values relevant to our American culture, we must take them with a “grain of salt” and remember that we look at the world through a different lens. To be disciples of Christ means to be radically different from many of our cultural norms.
We will never be perfectly successful, bold, young or effective in the eyes of the society we live in – and that’s OK.
Our purpose goes far beyond all these things.