“Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth for the evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit…Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” - Matthew 7:17-18, 20. King James Bible
This piece of scripture comes from Jesus Sermon on the Mount. It is part of a passage where Jesus is telling the multitude how they can tell a false prophet when they hear one; by the things they do and say.
Have you ever had the experience of discovering that something you did or said was taken completely differently by someone else? Have you ever assumed that you understood something only to discover later that you had completely misinterpreted what you saw or heard? Have you ever assumed that someone had the same understanding of something that you have, only later to discover that not to be the case?
I have, and no doubt you have as well. It’s part and parcel of the human condition, how we perceive ourselves and our environment, and the difficulty of accurate communication between two or more people, even if they share the same language and the same basic culture. How much worse is the situation when any of these pieces, culture, language, and communication skills are dissimilar?
I was listening to the radio the other day coming in to work. The guest on the talk show was discussing how others around the world perceive us. Now, I have lived overseas, and know that everywhere is not the same as here. I know that I cannot automatically assume that a person in Germany, for instance, will have the same opinions and views on a particular topic as I do. I know that to a person from France, for instance, my views on gun rights and privacy will come across as completely alien.
I try not to insulate myself from the rest of the world. Thanks to the Internet, I am able to read news articles from many countries, getting points of view on topics of interest here in the States that are absent from many of our publications.
Even so, all I see, read, or hear is filtered through the prism of my experience living in the United States. My perceptions are colored by countless “corrections” that I apply unconsciously as part of the culture I grew up in; the experiences I have had, books that I have read, people who have influenced me for good or ill, places I have lived, and my own interpretation of life.
Suddenly, the implications of what he was saying came to me; what would a person, with a different set of “filters”, who knew nothing really of America, American history, American culture, or any other background, how would such a person form an opinion of America? What would that opinion be based on? And what would that opinion be?
How do others see us? What are the “fruits” of our society? And if “by their fruits ye shall know them,” what will others not of our “tree” know about us (or think they know about us), based on our fruits?
It’s easy to say, well, we stand for individual freedom, liberty, democracy, mom and apple pie. But that’s our inner filter talking. And I made at least one error in that general statement as well; we don’t really stand for “democracy”. The United States is not a democracy; it is a democratic republic. That is not just a semantic nicety; the two are not the same thing. Yet many in this country would agree with that first statement without modification.
So if I am the hypothetical “man from Mars”, or more mundanely, a citizen of some other country in the world, how would I obtain a perception of the United States, and where would it come from? We will assume for the moment that I am not obtaining such a point of view from whatever public education system exists in my country, since those will most likely vary depending on the government’s current policy concerning the US.
If I were to ask, “What is the United States’ leading export,” what would be your response? At one time you might have pointed to specific durable goods. There was a time when “made in the USA” was found around the world; a benchmark for quality of workmanship. Those days are pretty much long gone. Today, “made in China” is much more common, and “made in country xyz” is common even here in the United States.
No, today the leading export of the United States (other than debt), is American “culture.” American fashion, American movies, American TV shows, American slang – you find it everywhere. Blue jeans are ubiquitous worldwide. Everyone knows what a Coke is; the taste may vary from country to country but the trademark is known everywhere. People around the globe know Darth Vader, Superman, and who shot JR.
Think about that for a minute. For many people, American culture is what they see in movies, on TV, and read about in books and magazines. They are learning about America through the prism of Hollywood, without the filters you apply when you go see a movie or watch a TV show; without any cultural or historical referents. For many people in the world, what they see is America, whether it’s a movie, a TV show, or CNN Headline News.
These are the fruits of our culture. What do they say about us as Americans?
How about, American’s are a violent people. American cities are ruled by gangs and gangsters. Americans have loose sexual morals. American girls are easy. Americans use foul language on a regular basis. It would not be unusual, in America, for you to witness a crime, a high-speed chase, murder or mayhem at any particular time and place. It would not be unusual for you to be a victim of such either. American cities are deathtraps, where people die from violence on a daily basis. White Americans hate all minorities and treat all who are different from them with contempt. (The source? Hollywood movies, particularly “action-adventure” movies and movies rated PG-13 and R. Also, many TV series as well; “Sex in the City” being a prime example.)
Or how about, Americans are stupid. Americans are hedonistic and only interested in themselves. Americans are not serious; all they want to do is play, spend money, and have a good time. Americans are spoiled. Americans care more about their dogs and cats than they do about people. (Just watch our reality TV shows and sitcoms.)
Americans are using up all the worlds resources. Americans steal stuff from us and exploit us so that they can live the good life while we live in poverty and misery. American soldiers kill innocent civilians, rape and kill women and children for sport, and torture people on a regular basis. (Why shouldn’t they believe that, we tell them so on a regular basis on our news channels and left-wing Internet blogs.)
And if these are the fruits, what does it say about the tree from which they spring?
According to a recent survey, in 2009, 76% of Americans consider themselves Christian. That’s down, incidentally, from 86% in 1990. The tree, at least the Christian tree, is apparently dying. And no wonder judging from the fruits, from an external viewpoint anyway; from a Christian perspective, the tree is certainly diseased. Newsweek magazine has gone so far as to predict the end of “Christian America.”
And they don’t think that is a bad thing at all.
So, 76% of Americans today consider themselves Christian. How often do they attend church? There have been various studies on that topic as well. According to the Millennium Study, taken in 1999, 43% of Americans claimed to attend religious services at least weekly. Gallup Polls from 1992 to 2003 show an average of around 40% making that claim. This estimate of 40% is widely reported in the media. However, various recent studies also seem to indicate that this number, low as it seems to those of us who do regularly attend church, may be exaggerated.
It seems that people lie to pollsters. This phenomena is known as “social desirability bias.” What that means is that people, when asked a question, will often answer in a manner that will influence the questioner to view them in a favorable light. When it comes to answering polls, which typically give a short number of exact responses, they will sometimes lie in order to have the pollster not think badly about them. Or to influence a poll in the direction they would like it to go or in which they think it should go.
Therefore, a person who thinks they should be going to church more often might tell a pollster they go to church more often than they really do. In studies where the number of people attending church services was actually counted, real attendance was found to be only half the level reported in public opinion polls. This would seem to indicate that instead of 40% of Americans attending worship services each week, the real number is closer to 20%. At best.
Being as most church services last between 1 and 2 hours, the average American who does attend church regularly, is spending around 8 hours a month in worship services. Granted, some spend more time; some have longer services, and then there is Sunday school, individual religious study, etc, but even among regular attendees, many just show up for worship service and leave it at that. We’ll be real generous and call it 10 hours per month, average.
On the other hand, the average American in 2009 watched 153 hours of television a month, according to Nielsen data. This is a truly astounding figure. Assuming a 40 hour work week, most people only work about 173 hours a month. Too bad we don’t get paid for all that television watching!
Of course, that does not include going to movie theaters, watching on-line video, or the latest, mobile subscribers watching video on a mobile phone. These latter attractions still pale before the glory of the home TV set, but they are growing in influence as well. First quarter 2009 data shows average time using the Internet at over 29 hours, well above the average time spent attending worship services.
Which brings us back to the fruits of our tree; what outsiders “see” of American life and where they get their images.
They are watching the same things we are watching, except they are seeing it “unfiltered.” The image they are seeing is not a virtuous, church-going, “Christian” people, full of concern, goodness, and caring for others.
They see “The Simpsons”, “American Gladiator” and “Sex in the City”. They see Al Franken; comedian and US Senator. They see Michael Moore. They see out of control Hollywood stars and starlets that are apparently viewed in the United States as role models for our youth. They see all the filth, and trash, and morally bankrupt rubbish Hollywood puts out year after year, and they say, “this must be what America is like.”
And you know what, it is. This is the fruit of our tree. And just as an apple tree does not bear pineapples, or a peach tree avocados, neither can our popular culture contain that which is not popular in our culture.
If Americans were not watching the trash Hollywood puts out, Hollywood would not be putting it out; they would make something else instead that we would watch, or they would go out of business. 153 hours of television watching per month indicates that they are doing just fine, thank you very much. When the world looks at their one and only view of American life from abroad, what they see is depressingly more real than many of us would like to admit.
That average of 10 hours of religious attendance each month, which is not seen by those abroad, is far outweighed by the 153 hours of television viewing, much of which too, is available to others worldwide.
Jesus said, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” Is it any wonder many in the world, who are religious, look at our country and recoil in horror?