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FIRST-PERSON: An animist automobile?

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Let me take you through a classroom exercise I’ve been using in recent years. First, list all the cars (makes, not models) you know. To put a finer point on it, list cars with enough international standing to have fielded a U.S. dealership. If you take ten or fifteen minutes, you can probably name three or four dozen — from Ford to Toyota to Fiat to Mercedes.

Now, sketch a map of the world. (It can be very rough, with South America as an inverted triangle and the Mediterranean as a cave, with a couple of stalactites — Italy and Greece — hanging from the roof.) Once you have something distinguishable from an amoeba or Belgian lace, start transferring those car names to their birthplaces. (Yes, they make Volkswagens in Brazil and Mercedes in Alabama, but put those brands in Germany.)

Once you’re done, you’ll see that great masses of the earth have no home-grown, world-class automobile. Nothing in South America. Nothing in Africa. Nothing in South Asia. Nothing in the Middle East. What gives?

Some say that the warm southern climes make people sleepy and less inclined to become crackerjack engineers. Others say the happenstance of geography and the concentration of natural resources gave northerners a head start on the production of guns, with which they were able to dominate and retard culture in the Southern Hemisphere. Still others push theories of racial superiority. I think they’re all wrong. I think it’s religion.

Francis Schaeffer may have planted the seed of this conviction in my mind when he wrote his “How Should We Then Live?” This past summer, I used a selection from the video version in a class down at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. While reviewing footage, I came across the image of a Swiss Air 747 traversing the skies while Schaeffer reflected on the intellectual and spiritual background required for the production of such a flying behemoth (this one produced in Everett, Wash.).

But back to our car production map. Let’s see where they originate. Here’s a sampling: U.S. — Ford, GM, Chrysler; U.K. — Rolls, MG, Bentley; Sweden — Volvo, Saab; France — Peugeot, Citroen, Renault; Italy — Fiat, Ferrari, Lamborghini; Germany — Mercedes, BMW, Porsche. Leaving NATO countries, we come to Japan (Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi) and Korea (Hyundai, Kia, Daewoo). How shall we connect the dots?

First, it seems that traditionally Protestant countries dominate, whether through American Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, through English Anglicans, or through German and Swedish Lutherans. (Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” has a say about this.) Second, the Roman Catholics are represented in France and Italy. (In his book, “The Joy of Sports,” Catholic philosopher and theologian Michael Novak offers some interesting observations about the difference between a Protestant car, such as the stolid Mercedes and Volvo, and the Catholic car, such as the sporty Ferrari and Alfa Romeo.

Does the proliferation of cars in traditionally Buddhist Japan and Korea confuse things? I don’t think so, for those are the two Buddhist countries which have had overwhelming U.S. influence during the era of car manufacture. The recent film, “The Last Samurai,” bemoans that influence in 19th century Japan, and, of course, the U.S. essentially wrote the Japanese, post-World War II constitution. As for Korea, the US has won and continues to secure their freedom against incursions from the North.

Non-westernized Buddhist countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia have not been able to muster the science and technology and sustain the industrial base to produce a marketable automobile. The same goes for Hindu India, the Islamic region from Morocco to Pakistan, and any of the animist cultures, whether in sub-Saharan Africa, in the aboriginal districts of Australia, or among the Indian tribes of North America. Atheists are not very good at automobile manufacture either. Yes, Soviet Russia had its Lada and Czekoslovakia its Skoda, but these were tough sells on the international market. When the old Warsaw Pact ventured to sell a car in America — in the form of the Yugo — it became something of a joke.

Speaking of Russia and Yugoslavia, I think it’s interesting that the traditional form of Christianity you find there is not industry-friendly. Somehow, the Orthodox Church does not encourage the sort of research and development necessary for automobile design and production. No one rushes out to buy a Romanian or Greek car.

Of course, the production of automobiles (or jet airliners or computers or artificial hearts) is not a sure indicator of a nation’s spiritual well being. Primitive folks can be holier than cosmopolitan sophisticates. But primitive folks surely do appreciate those medical air lifts and those finely-engineered water pumps, which bring desperately-needed water to their villages.

I’m merely suggesting a point against the cultural relativists, against those who would have you think that religion and irreligion are irrelevant to cultural vitality. Animism can no more produce an EMT rig than it can produce a United States of America. The same goes for Islam, atheism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Worldviews matter.

Of course, I’m not saying that the leading automobile engineers are warmly evangelical or even Christian. And I’m not saying that these producing nations boast bulging churches on Sunday morning. Secularism has taken its toll. Christian culture is basically a cut flower in the West. But there is no denying its root system and the fact that you can still make out traces of color in the petals.

Is it the work ethic and integrity of Christian workers? Is it their willingness to defer pleasure and save, thus producing capital necessary for the growth of industry? Is it belief in an orderly Creation as a precondition for serious science? Is it the free play of ideas in cultures devoted to religious liberty, those convinced that the only meaningful conversion comes through persuasion and not coercion? Is it a matter of religious toleration, based on the confidence that God will call out and advance His church against even the hell gates of false religion? Yes to all of these, and more. And so Christian culture calls out to the world, “Want a lift?”
Mark Coppenger, at [email protected], is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. His commentaries appear biweekly in the Illinois Baptist newsjournal.

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