Category Smashing: Why Our Culture Hates Labels

Hello My Name is Name Tag RedHave You Noticed That Our Culture Hates Categories?

There is a strong underlying disdain for clear-cut, single-item categories and labels for things.  What used to be “cars” and “trucks” is now “hybrids,” “cross-overs” and “SUV’s”.  Old music genres like “classical” and “rock” have now been outmoded by creative new crossbreeds like “trip-hop” and “acid-jazz.”  I recently shot a music video for a band whose self-described style was “post-melodic death-core!” (i.e. “heavy metal” for the over-40 crowd).

It’s All About The Hyphen

One of the hallmarks of the modernist experience in contrast to the postmodern experience is that modernism embraces clear, rational categories to the exclusion of the mysterious and ambiguous.  Postmoderns can’t stand this seemingly arrogant and corner-on-the-market view of reality so they overreact and avoid all categories like the plague.  Michael Stipe famously summed up this viewpoint when he said in relation to his sexual orientation, “my feeling is that labels are for canned food.”   Labels are out.  Hybrids are in.  We live in a post-categorical climate.

Another nail in the coffin of categories is the modern distrust of words.  Images have kicked words to the curb through the simple dominance of the home television set but also we’ve been trained to distrust words in general thanks to decades of political scandals, corporate double-speak, historical revisionism, and the politically correct trend of re-wording definitions into new “less-offense” versions. “I’m not a janitor, I’m an ‘institutional hygiene consultant.’”  Crimes have become “temporary insanity,” stealing has become “misaligned financial jurisdiction,” and lunch-lady’s everywhere are enjoying their new title of “educational nutrition-systems analyst.”  Some of these efforts are worthwhile and attempt to rightly correct derogatory insinuations but the overall result to grind the meaning of word descriptors into nothingness.  This trend is an over-compensation.

What Does This Mean for Christians and Church Leaders?

There are certainly some opportunities and challenges for us living in the post-categorical age.  There has been wide-sweeping acceptance of swapping the label of “Christian” for “Christ-follower” (ironically that’s still a label).  Denominations are still going strong but in the younger generation there is more fluidity and temporal irony when you hear them talk about their church affiliation.  It’s like when a first-year college student tells you what school he or she is going to and it’s a community college; “I’m going to XYZ Community College this year but after that I’m transferring to ___ University.”  Permanence, classification and exclusivity are soooo 1980s!

The benefit of loose-category affiliation is that it does make it more difficult to hide behind a label as a safety umbrella.  When you can’t stand being labeled as anything so outdated as “Lutheran” or “evangelical,” you are forced to think through your most cherished beliefs a little farther than someone who is just looking to coast and use their denomination as a way out of thinking for themselves.  The flip side however is that if you never join a category or label you might never actually have to decide about anything!  In “Bobos In Paradise” David Brooks calls this the “ever-widening spectrum of possibilities”.  When your buffet of spiritual options widens endlessly before you it ultimately flattens and cheapens any beliefs that require an exclusion of their opposites.  For instance, you can’t be a “Christian-Buddhist-Agnostic” because each component of those three beliefs requires disbelieving a core component of the other!  It’s ultimately not a hybrid-belief system it’s a stillborn-belief system.  This obvious paradox doesn’t seem to matter in today’s world however.  Making your own hybrid un-category is really popular.

For church leaders it’s hard to get commitment from a generation that distrusts institutions and never commits to anything except the priority of being uncommitted!  There are certainly exceptions but the bottom line is that if you never risk being “labeled” then you will only invest your energy in yourself. As church leaders we have to help the technological/online/spiritually-homeless generation understand the beauty of believing exclusive claims, making commitments outside themselves and sticking with the hard truths instead of disposing of them when things get uncomfortable.

Jesus Was a Category-Smasher.

By the way, Jesus loved turning labels upside down and disrupting the institutional status-quo.  He upturned the day’s categories and stood concepts like “the Sabbath” on their heads!  What do we learn from Jesus about choosing labels and categories?

Future-church demands as few labels as possible. As church leaders we wield extraordinary power about choosing which labels and categories are Biblical and indispensible and which labels are superfluous, counter-productive or extra-Biblical.  It may be exciting or risky at times but we can certainly assume that it will be a messy but worthwhile adventure.