If there really is no transcendent source of the good to which the will is naturally drawn, but only the power of the will to decide what ends it desires – by which to create and determine itself for itself – then no human project can be said to be inherently irrational, or (for that matter) inherently abominable. If freedom of the will is our supreme value, after all, then it is for all intents and purposes our god. And certain kinds of gods (as our pagan forebears understood) expect to be fed. (David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, p. 227)
For unknown reasons, the gust of energy that had swept me up and fizzed me around all summer had dropped me hard, mid-October, into a drizzle of sadness that stretched endlessly in every direction: with a very few exceptions . . . I hated being around people, couldn’t pay attention to what anyone was saying, couldn’t talk to clients, couldn’t tag my pieces, couldn’t ride the subway, all human activity seemed pointless, incomprehensible, some blackly swarming ant hill in the wilderness, there was not a squeak of light anywhere I looked, the antidepressants I’d been dutifully swallowing for eight weeks hadn’t helped a bit, nor had the ones before that (but then, I’d tried them all; apparently I was among the twenty percent of unfortunates who didn’t get the daisy fields and the butterflies but the Severe Headaches and the Suicidal Thoughts); and though the darkness sometimes lifted just enough so I could construe my surroundings, familiar shapes solidifying like bedroom furniture at dawn, my relief was never more than temporary because somehow the full morning never came, things always went black before I could orient myself and there I was again with ink poured in my eyes, guttering around in the dark. (Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch, p. 512)
A taste, perhaps, of why she won the fiction Pulitzer this year.
The idea that worship is a matter of mood, of setting aside the mundane world in which we live in an attempt to attain a higher plane or more “spiritual” mood or state of mind is inherently dualistic and assumes a sacred/ secular dichotomy that is not found in the Christian Scriptures. This concept of spirituality combines elements of mysticism and paganism, but is essentially a notion derived from the Greek dualistic perspective that underpinned the Alexandrian world-view, which has afflicted the Christian Church from the beginning (and our society at large as well). It is this Greek dualistic heritage that is the source of pietism, which mood worship is a good example of. Spirituality, biblically speaking, is not an attempt to escape from or rise above this mundane world in any sense, but rather the proper dedication of this mundane world to the service of God. (Stephen C. Perks, The Christian Passover: Agape Feast or Ritual Abuse? pp. 12–13)
As liturgical forms, content, and styles of celebration are changed, we must ask probing questions of any liturgical material. What theology is being prayed? What experience of (what) God is being promoted? What in the story of Christ is being proclaimed? What understanding of the church is being generated? What attitude toward the creation is being cultivated? What relationship to the world is being strategized? What kind of worship is being made possible? What kind of hospitality is being extended? How are new Christians being made? What values are being instilled? What doctrines are being expressed? Cultural anthropologists have learned through case studies that a change of ritual forms can bring about a change of doctrine. Such data need to be taken seriously lest the community of faith gain the whole world and lost its soul. (Frank C. Senn, New Creation: A Liturgical Worldview, p. xi)
In A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis offers this remarkable – and in the context of his loss, excruciating – insight into the gift of otherness in marriage (it can be extended to other relationships as well):
I must think more about H. and less about myself.
Yes, that sounds very well. But there’s a snag. I am thinking about her nearly always. Thinking of the H. facts – real words, looks, laughs, and actions of hers. But it is my own mind that selects and groups them. Already, less than a month after her death, I can feel the slow, insidious beginning of a process that will make the H. I think of into a more and more imaginary woman. Founded on fact, no doubt. I shall put in nothing fictitious (or I hope I shan’t). But won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own? The reality is no longer there to check me, to pull me up short, as the real H. so often did, so unexpectedly, by being so thoroughly herself and not me.
The most precious gift that marriage gave me was this constant impact of something very close and intimate yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real. Is all that work to be undone? Is what I shall still call H. to sink back horribly into being not much more than one of my old bachelor pipe-dreams? Oh my dear, my dear, come back for one moment and drive that miserable phantom away. Oh God, God, why did you take such trouble to force this creature out of its shell if it is now doomed to crawl back – to be sucked back – into it?
(A Grief Observed, pp. 18–19)
I give you Lane Filler of Newsday: “Isn’t it about time for God 2.0?”
And the response of a local pastor . . .
The title of Lane Filler’s opinion piece from last evening betrays perhaps more than he realizes. “God 2.0” would (Filler tells us) be an upgrade – but the real question is, who’s producing and/or testing these various iterations? If, as Filler assumes, the iterations originate with us humans, then we should ask who’s competent to decide the features of “God 2.0.” The answer in Filler’s piece is clear enough: an enlightened “we” who “now know better” than all the religious simpletons still stuck in beta. This enlightened caste looms large in Filler’s article – note the flurry of first person plural pronouns. He’s a deep and earnest believer in their pronouncements. He should be. He counts himself in their blessed number.
I’m more interested, though, in his underlying assumption: that the God versions originate with us. I wonder if he’s even aware that this assumption – without which his entire essay is nonsense – is an unproven dogma of materialist atheism. If there is no God and we’re all just making up this religion thing as we go, then there could be such a thing as “God 2.0.” If, on the other hand, we’re not making God but rather He made us, then we don’t get to decide who He is, how He needs to change, or what He’s allowed or not allowed to say and do. In fact, something like real humility might be in order.
The resolution of this “if” question is crucial to everything Filler wants to say, yet he never mentions it – whether from ignorance or hubris, it’s hard to tell. I for one couldn’t care less what he likes about his “God 2.0” until he can show that it’s more than a religious fantasy, a bit of shareware he likes to run when he yearns “for more morality and spirituality.”
Early in his recent work, The Great and Holy War, Philip Jenkins explores the religious apocalyptic and millenarian expectations that swirled around World War I, on both sides of the conflict. His analysis of what happened when these expectations were dashed is extremely sobering. While some, he says, simply renounced their hopes, “others found grounds for rededication, as expectations were transferred into the secular realm.” Disillusionment with the dreams of the mainline churches led to fresh pursuit of those dreams through political channels:
Wartime dreams and expectations found new forms of expression that often bypassed the mainline churches. In Europe, this spiritual meltdown led directly to the interwar rise of extremist and totalitarian movements, as the shifting role of churches in national affairs opened the way to pseudo religions and secular political cults. These movements freely exploited supernatural hopes and fears to justify totalitarianism and state worship, aggression, and scapegoating. They offered a new world, to be achieved by whatever means proved necessary. . . . Both Nazis and Communists drew freely on popular millenarian traditions, and mimicked the rituals and iconography of the discredited churches. The two nations with the most aggressive ideologies of holy nationhood and holy struggle in 1914 were Germany and Russia, both of which would by the 1930s claim a vanguard role in new messianic movements seeking global dominance.
The sleep of religion brings forth monsters.
(Jenkins, pp. 19–20)
I’m reading through The Qur’an: The Basics by Massimo Campanini, and so far have found it quite useful as a concise introduction to Islamic belief and practice. Here’s a sample (I hope to post more):
Islam is predominantly an anti-dogmatic religion, with just two general assumptions. There is a very basic profession of faith, and an absence of an ecclesiastical judge and a central doctrinal authority. In fact, the only principle to which all Muslims can agree is the assertion of the profession of faith “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”. This is the indispensable belief. Everything else, at least from a theoretical perspective, is supererogatory or more than what is required. The study of theology is inessential. Instead, what binds Muslims is the practice of acts of worship, the “five pillars” consisting of the profession of faith, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and charity. In fact, Islam is really an orthopraxy. In order to be saved it is necessary to act.
The fact that there are no sacraments in Islam and that dogma is resolved in orthopraxy renders a priestly class redundant. The connection between God and the believer is direct and immediate. The function of priests is replaced in Islam by ‘ulama’, experts in law and the religious sciences who are appointed jurists and theologians rather than priests. This means that an expert jurist may express legal opinions that are not binding on everyone but only on those who adhere to the school of law of that jurist. However, Muslims say with pride that they do not have a Church, and instead have consistently accepted the widest possible scope for debate and subjective and personal opinion.
(Campanini, The Qur’an, pp. 7–8)
And now, before I end, I am going to venture on a guess as to how this section [on social morality and societal implementation of the “Golden Rule”] has affected any who have read it. My guess is that there are some Leftist people among them who are very angry that it has not gone further in that direction, and some people of an opposite sort who are angry because they think it has gone much too far. If so, that brings us right up against the real snag in all this drawing up of blueprints for a Christian society. Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party. We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or – a Judge. I am just the same. There are bits in this section that I wanted to leave out. And that is why nothing whatever is going to come of such talks unless we go a much longer way round. A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it: and we are not going to want it until we become fully Christian. I may repeat “Do as you would be done by” till I am black in the face, but I cannot really carry it out till I love my neighbour as myself: and I cannot learn to love my neighbour as myself till I learn to love God: and I cannot learn to love God except by learning to obey Him. And so, as I warned you, we are driven on to something more inward – driven on from social matters to religious matters. For the longest way round is the shortest way home. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp. 82–83)
I’ve never lived in any generation but my own, but I imagine it’s always been a challenge for Christian parents to help their sons and daughters be in the world but not of it, to be “all things to all people” for the sake of the gospel while refusing to consent when enticed by sinners. I’m sure generations of Christian youth have tried to figure out how to “fit in” with worldling friends (and with “worldly” peers in the church) while maintaining their Christian principles. Jesus has not called us to live in a Christian ghetto (as if any space is purer because only Christians inhabit it), but He has told us firmly to keep ourselves “unstained from the world” – and how are we to do this while rubbing shoulders with real sinners every day? I’m sure it’s never been easy.
I think, however, that this challenge has become far more challenging since the invention of TV and the Internet, mostly because of how these media have changed social interaction. It used to be that youth related to their peers largely on the basis of shared experience. Bobby and Joe played on the same baseball team. Mary and Jane lived on the same block and went to the same school. Tom, Dick, and Harry shared a paper route or a fort in the woods. Sally and Betty entered the same contest in the local fair. And so forth.
Since the invention of TV and the Internet, North Americans have found themselves confronted with an array of entertainment options unheard of in the history of the world. These options are just a push of a button (or a voice command) away at all times, and one rarely meets a person who doesn’t indulge a huge weekly diet of TV shows, popular music, web surfing, movies, etc. It’s probably safe to say that most people spend most of their leisure hours consuming popular entertainment – and this means the common currency of social interactions is no longer (in most cases) shared life experiences but rather shared entertainment preferences. To “fit in” among their peers, your kids won’t be able to talk about stuff they’ve done and are doing with the other kids; they’ll have to be able to talk about the music the other kids are listening to, or the movies they’re watching, or whatever their new favorite TV show happens to be.
This has complicated Christian parenting. Whether your kids’ friends are mostly Christians or mostly non-Christians, the social dynamic is the same: either share the entertainment of other children, or be left out on the fringes.
What if a parent believes that the entertainment preferences of other children are objectionable? Or what if a parent believes that entertainment itself is a problem – that too much time sitting and being entertained is bad for children developmentally, morally, and spiritually? How do you talk this through with your 10-year-old son or your 16-year-old daughter? “No, you can’t watch that movie, even though it means you won’t be able to join in on any of your friends’ conversations for the next month. Just stand at the margins and listen, and hope they don’t ask you why your parents won’t let you see it.” (This is not, by the way, a social problem confined to children.)
I’d like to offer a few words of advice to Christian parents who find themselves and their kids in this awkward spot.
1. Be okay with being different, and talk about this a lot with your children. Followers of Jesus are going to be different, really different – some might even say weird. If you’re different for good reasons, remember that the smile of Christ is worth a million human frowns, and the worth of wisdom is more than all treasures (Prov 3:13–18). We do tend to forget or minimize this.
2. Be careful, though, not to give your kids the impression that Christian faithfulness requires a low view of culture. On the contrary, to love Christ is to love Him as Creator, and to love Him as Creator is to love culture as something He created. God made people to make things, including books, films, music, and machines; and because we love God and people made in His image, we should love both the process and the products of human making. We should not love the ways sin has distorted human making, and certainly some cultural products are morally repugnant in form and/or content; but we must always be careful to love the created goodness under the evils and distortions of sin.
3. If your kids come home and tell you that their friends have watched something or listened to something, consider watching it or listening to it with your kids, and then talking about it. Don’t just turn your children over to whatever the latest entertainment choice of their peers happens to be, but on the other hand don’t simply bar them (especially as they become older and more discerning) from seeing and hearing what their peers are seeing and hearing. Sit with them and teach them discernment. Help them develop critical filters. How does this cultural product show us that its creator is made in the image of the Creator? What sort of story is being told? What ideas are being communicated? Is it beautiful? Is it true? Is it good? Is it realistic? Does it show the brokenness of the world and the reality of human sin? Does it glorify sin? Does it gesture toward a hope of redemption? And many more talking points such as these.
4. Do real things with your kids and invite their friends along. This may be the most important way to push back against the entertainment glut in contemporary society. Give your kids and their friends something better to talk about than the latest top-40 hit or the most recent piece of drivel out of Hollywood. Take them camping, fishing, boating, or footballing. Send them out in the woods without their iPods. Sit them down, read them something (short!), and then discuss it. Make real-time memories.
The way to keep our children from being lemmings in the wake of the entertainment industry is to give them something better to love: a life of the spirit, mind, and body and a life in community that are better and more delightful than sitting mindlessly in front of the TV or Internet for hours on end. This will require a lot more work than using the electronic babysitter, and at times it will require great courage and determination from the whole family – but then, when has great value ever come without great effort?