A Defense of Poetry

The title of this post amuses me. Some of my faithful readers (all three of you) will quickly pass this by, assuming the poetic art form has no relevance for an era of science, for an epoch dominated by the very real concerns of ISIS, illegal immigration, and nude pictures of celebrities. Other readers might find this post simply superfluous. They think poetry needs no defense, that it exists alone and for itself. Yet Ars gratia artis may not be a sufficient justification to read literature or to create it. Plato has long been accused of rejecting poetry for its ability to communicate falsehood—a mischaracterization if ever there was one. But everything we do needs defending; for if we do not think to justify our actions, then no self-reflective thought guides our actions.

In 1579 Sir Philip Sydney composed a response to Renaissance criticisms that English drama was a hotbed of wickedness in his apology, The Defence of Posey. Though no one during the Renaissance had ever witnessed an episode of Game of Thrones, these claims against the stage were understandable for an age that, only a few steps removed from medievalism, mistrusted any representation divorced from the control of the church.

The first of these objections Sydney addresses is that there are supposedly more important things to learn and spend our time on than poetry. Aquinas seems to agree when he asserts in the Summa that poetry is the lowest of sciences, but he redeems poetry from this irrelevance when he asserts that God has used the lowest science to communicate the highest science of theology. After all, it is true that not everyone can read the complex reasoning of the Summa, but everyone can read Narnia. Thus, if God has used literature to communicate eternal truths, it cannot wholly be a waste of time.

The second objection is that fiction is simply a lie. This is Plato’s problem with the Homeric gods, and why he is mistakenly thought to issue a wholesale condemnation of poetry. But Plato’s objection is rooted in the Grecian misunderstanding of Homeric’s verse as truth; but this does not mean he is against literature—especially since he uses literature as a vehicle for his philosophy. We should not confuse the vehicle with its passenger. (Though I have yet failed to meet one, it is possible that some very smart people drive Smart cars.) As Sydney confirms, “shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious?” Is erotic love wrong in marriage simply because others wrongly use it outside of marriage? Is social media an evil because more people use it for evil than for good? (Yes, I’m talking to you.) Wisdom is necessary to discern between right use and wrong.

The final objection, still toted by the fundamentalist inheritors of Puritanism today, is that poetry urges us to think on evil. Through book and screen we witness injustice and corruption, we watch people be murdered, we voyeuristically participate in lovers’ passions. There is some argument to be made here, but we must distinguish between the erotic and the pornographic. The erotic displays beauty, which should point us toward the God who created beauty; the pornographic turns inward, twisting the erotic toward base impulses that only reflect and gratify the self. Sir Guyon of The Fairie Queen, for instance, sees the bathing beauties in the Bower of Blisse and longs to go to them. Jane Eyre wants desperately to marry the already-married Rochester. Both Spenser and Bronte know their readers will be seduced by the imaginative possibilities presented in their narrative and want us rooting for our heroes to give into their bestial natures. But herein lies the point. Poetry can deceive us into accepting its premises and to promote immorality. Few authors are as skilled as Spenser and Bronte to then pull the rug out from under us and reaffirm the Christian truth that we had forgotten in our unreflective consumption of literature. Poetry, therefore, is not morally bankrupt but is itself a form of moral currency to be deposited in our minds.

Perhaps the final objection demands the most attention. Yet the problem seems not to be that we don’t trust stories, as might have been the case in Sydney’s day. After all, how many people do you know who refuse to go to the movies or watch television out of some purist sense of principle? Most people, believers and pagans alike, raptly follow the compelling serials, blockbusters, and trilogies. What is needed then in our day is not a defense of poetry but a defense for good poetry. Anyone with moving brainwaves can watch film (maybe even those with flat-lined brain waves can watch), but it takes effort to watch film well. All can consume, but we must urge reflection as and after we consume.

The first obstacle to properly encountering art is, unfortunately, ourselves. We myopically value only that which we already like. Alexander Pope warns in An Essay on Criticism: “Fondly we think we honour Merit then, / When we but praise Our selves in Other Men.” Everyone thinks they have good taste, just as everyone assumes that God must see the world the way they themselves do. But taste must be cultivated, like intelligence, the muscles, or any other faculty. The more cheeseburgers we chow down, the less we will be able to distinguish between a Cabernet and a Merlot, or between different years of a Pinot. The more Modern Family or even Facing the Giants we watch, the less we will be able to read, understand, and discern the Christian powers at work in Spenser or Bronte. We become what we eat, and this is no more true for our stomach than for our minds and souls.

For the reader still unconvinced of the premises in this treatise, little may be done to compel him to pick up Keats. But for the man who searches eagerly for truth, he may yet find it in the eloquence of poetry. May we then surround ourselves with beauty and contemplate the higher things.

The Deity Made Me Do It: Christian Fatalism in American Evangelicalism

When does God make us do things?

A loaded question, to be sure. And one poured over by theologians for millennia. It is not likely that we will solve the problem here. But I have been intrigued by some of the statements I have heard issued from the mouths of evangelicals. 

  • “God doesn’t make mistakes.” This comment has been used as an explanation for every human action, from sinners showing up in church at an exact moment to saints finding their “soulmate” to others justifying their sexual behavior. And while I believe it true that God doesn’t make mistakes, it does not follow that everything which occurs in life is controlled by God and is therefore predetermined.
  • “There is a reason for everything.” I don’t know how many times I have heard this one. It is frequently tossed around, a buzz-phrase designed to mollify our doubts and suffering. Its speaker is often throwing up their hands and resigning themselves to some sort of disappointment. Rarely does the speaker realize that they themselves may be the reason.
  • “God causes everything for good.” Such is an alternative statement to the one above with some slight modifications. I understand the good intentions of this sentiment, but it is a misquoted, misused verse, hacked up and hackneyed to mean that God is the cause of all things—Hitler, the Khmer Rouge, and ISIS among them—with a definitive end game in mind. Though I assent to the telos of history, I cannot fully embrace the unscriptural notion that God intentionally causes wickedness in order to create good.

To assume God is the originator of all human events ignores the power of evil, and by extension must presume that God is unjust. As I said, we won’t be able to outdo the Augustinians or the Thomists here, who have wrestled with this quandary ad infinitum. But, in a few short moments, I hope to crack a little light into the very real darkness of Christian fatalism.

Though not a popular label, Christian fatalism holds that God manipulates every event in our lives, from what clothes we wear in the morning each day to where we will ultimately die. He does this, presumably, because He knows more than we do and because He wants each and every event to work out in our favor. As soothing as this concept sounds, I think it foolishness to hold that this is the rhyme and reason of every act in the universe, as if we were all Trumans in our own carefully-orchestrated Show. However, neither do I believe the universe is governed by luck (this is perhaps the keenest of oxymorons). Chance appears to be just as brutal, though maybe not as oppressive, as the notion of the divine dictator. If nothing is providential, then God is indifferent, choosing not to intervene in human history—something which scripture would vehemently reject.

The first and most superficial response is the ever-popular retort, “What about free will?” as if this forever solves the predestination issue. (I have heard this red herring in more theological debates than I care to rehearse.) We who stand against the Calvinist tradition argue for free will incessantly while at the same time not acknowledging there is less said about free will in scripture than about predestination and God’s sovereignty. The concept of the human will as we know it wasn’t even fully codified until St. Augustine in the fifth century. Nevertheless, it remains true that human choice runs throughout holy writ. Individual agency is at the heart of God’s love for us. As Horace aptly stated, “To save a man against his will is the same as killing him.”

Within the context of God’s purposes, He certainly works within natural evil to create positive results (Rom. 8.28). It also seems clear that for those who love Him, God has special purposes in mind. But we must remember that the Good is not always clear to our way of thinking. To reach the Good, we may have to endure natural evil. Oppositely, what we believe is the Good (for instance, personal popularity) may be the very thing that creates evil.

I hope I am not too apophatic with my theology here, but I do think we frequently misunderstand the Good in favor of whatever we think is good for me. We trust that God doesn’t lead us toward evil (2 Cor. 10.13, Jas. 1.13-15). And we have faith that God is the originator of all good gifts (Jas 1.17). But we must first learn to discern good gifts. Did God give me the job that made me work longer hours and lose touch with my children? On one level, the job was a blessing and what I did with it cursed myself; but on another level, had my priorities been family and not money, then I might have initially refused the job offer because of its pitfall as a filial distraction.

The Western church would do well to recall that the Christian ethos—up until the 20th century—was in enduring suffering, not escaping it. This is something that our Eastern brethren have learned far too well, centuries before we even remembered to forget it. After all, success—in finances, in one’s career, even in ministry—can be a trap rather than an indicator of God’s favor. Our prayers for relief rather than for endurance, or for success rather than for godliness, may be robbing us of transformation. God, out of His great providence, will sometimes give us the desires of our heart. Even if those desires will lead us away from him, they reveal that we were never truly close to Him anyway. Our vision of God and His purposes, therefore, must be tempered by the active power in the Word.

So when is a good truly a Good? An existential approach can be helpful here, mistrustful as I am of the assumptions of existentialism. When experiencing a good, be it an open parking spot on a hot and hurried day, an admission to the college of one’s choice, or an amazing wife beyond one’s imaginings, we should attribute it to Christ—even if we cannot be certain that God dropped that particular blessing in one’s lap. Seeing the work of God where it may be always beats being unable to see the work of God where it is. Yet I also believe it true that if we deliberately choose to be moved by the Spirit of God, He will move us where He wills. I don’t mind thinking that God used me in a particular place and time when I have decided I want Him to use me. But in this I have to be careful because God is also not bound by what I think about Him. Therefore, if He wants to use me—as either a partner in good works or as a cautionary tale—He will do so.

My fear is that Christian fatalism will become fatalistic. In other words, if we hold that God is responsible for everything that happens, then all of life is inevitably reduced to destruction. While final apocalyptic cataclysm is certain, God’s ultimate joy is not in chaos but in creation. Thus, our souls are not simply to be redeemed and translated to the heavens but are to first be sanctified and to be transformed. If this is not true, then we should, as the fourteenth century poem Piers Plowman suggests, pray for death immediately after baptism. Sanctification and transformation are lifelong processes leading us deeper into Christ and preparing our souls for the ecstasies of eternity.

Fatalism resigns itself to evil without addressing it. It gives up with the hope that something like the Second Coming will eventually redress all wrongs. This is indeed the residual substance of our Hope, but such Hope should stir us to confront darkness with the light—without the giddy expectation that it’s all going to burn anyway. An apathetic faith is, in the final analysis, a pathetic faith.

A Fear of Gravity

It has often been remarked that most people are only one or two steps away from insanity—and the rest of them are already there. The Cheshire Cat famously stated, “We’re all mad here,” and I don’t think he was just talking about the residents of Wonderland. If that’s so, then I suppose I my own quirks are sufficient soil on which to grow some serious crazy. Plenty of people around the world share phobias of public speaking, heights, and spiders; these are relatively common, and, unless they are relentlessly tortured by a maniacal Nurse Ratchet, they will not likely be pushed over the edge into lunacy. Those closest to me know about my distaste of stickers and balloons, my unhealthy aversion to lettuce, and my childhood terror of clowns. But few yet know my greatest psychological terror.

I fear the abyss.

I close my eyes and see the unfathomable blue expanse under the sea, unable to fix my eyes on the ocean floor. I see a dusty horizon in every direction, and no sun to point the way home. I close my eyes and see the blackness of the galactic sea without the beauty of the stars to stir me to awe. I am immersed in the endless expanse of nothingness. I call out to the deep only to have my voice swallowed in the darkness. Believing no one or nothing knows me.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity tells the story of a medical doctor adrift in space completely alone. The film’s technical effects were so terrifying that if I had seen it in IMAX I likely would have passed out. He puts to pictures what Donald Miller does—in his penchant for over-the-top descriptions and histrionic pathology—in Blue Like Jazz: the feeling of utter isolation. The story’s metaphysical turns transform this into a naturalistic tale of our relationship with God. Its secular premises notwithstanding, the film is successful because it captures what I think is the perennial dread of humanity. The forever fall becomes a symbol for loneliness.

What we choose to do with this existential angst is up to us. Midway through the story, having survived unlikely odds against supersonic space debris, burning space stations, and disorienting flips through space, Dr. Stone feels all the weight of being in the paralyzing reality of non-being. She comes to the fulcrum of life when she must choose between fading quietly away in the cold and isolated cosmos or defiantly proclaiming the worth of her existence. It is when she comes to grip with her broken self that she gains courage for survival.

The film records the story of the fall (or, if you theologians prefer, The Fall). But it looks at life from only one side of the glass: the descent. Yet we spend most of our lives trying to ascend: to reach beyond the dreariness of life, to amount to something more than our past, to create a something to confront the nothing. Throughout the twin poles of the West, both the Greeks and the Hebrews have tried to build civilization by climbing either Mount Parnassas or Mount Sinai. They tried to touch divinity and become something more than mortal. The fall, in other words, has never been a sufficient destination for humanity, and we strive to raise ourselves and climb the heights. But who has ever truly ascended and remained among the Lethean waters? We raise children only to have them abandon us; we labor for thirty years only to receive a gold watch; we invest our energies in people only to see them disappoint us; we ruin ourselves through error and sin. Gravity inevitably takes all our dreams and dashes them to earth.

Thus, I think there is a much deeper anxiety at work in gravity than just the fear of heights or of the abyss. We can all imagine the limitlessness of the ocean or of space, but none but a handful of us will ever find ourselves in the outer reaches of those frontiers. I think it is more accurate that we look at the sum total of our lives and find the emptiness. I imagine we will find that what we build has been, like Ozymandias, pulled down into the sands of time. I fear middle age is the period of life I will spend regretting my aspirations.

Despite our efforts, we never find exactly what it is we’re looking for. Yet we are in good company, it seems, as none of our spiritual forebears received what they had been promised (Heb. 11.39). The writer points out that loss is the means to life, and the fall is not its end.

It is a short descent from eccentricity to awkwardness to unreality and finally to madness. I have observed that fear is the common factor in each of these steps. Fear is what irrationally compels us to control our worlds and escape our fates. Yet faith, which looks surprisingly akin to madness, follows a somewhat similar path. Every great believer has been thought crazy by others. The difference is that the faithful allow God to control their world, and they courageously accept their destiny. The distances crossed to spread the Gospel, the torments endured by persecutors, and the insensibility of our individual vocations are frequently often otherworldly—if not downright insane. But that does not stop the faithful from climbing the ascent. In other words, we can fear gravity, or we can let it drive us heavenward. It is here that faith is made complete in action, in creation, in the accomplishment of something worthy in the Kingdom of God.

Fire From the Sky

It was a clichéd night: dark and stormy and all that stuff. Rain poured all around us, lightning lit up the sky, and thunder roared in our ears.

An hour before midnight, chaos unleashed itself in our home. Having just watched Ken Burns’ World War II documentary, I assumed a German bomb had exploded next door. The Lady Fullman rose quickly to check on the kids, and within seconds the smoke detectors screamed throughout the house. Running through the hallways and bedrooms and finding nothing, the smoke seeping from the AC vents drove us up in the attic. Sure enough, directly above the kids’ bedroom, we saw flames licking the walls and reaching up toward the roof. Maternal instincts in overdrive, she flew down the ladder and evacuated the boys, ignoring the water pouring in from their bedroom ceiling. I called 911 and happily greeted the fire department minutes later.

They were to discover that lightning tore through our roof, ripped through an air duct, struck the interior wall of the attic, and started a fire. But because the attic was unvented and we sprung for spray-foam insulation four months before, the fire had no real fuel and burned itself out. The water that poured in from the softball-sized hole in the roof and drained down the AC vent was arrested in buckets and totes—both in the attic and downstairs in the bedroom, quickly mitigating any damage to the drywall or to the carpets. And what was anticipated to be a night changing out buckets every hour turned out to be a night of quiet rest as the rain unexpectedly passed. In short, what could have been a complete disaster for our family turned out to be a miraculous display of God’s protection and providence.

There were plenty of repairs to be done, no doubt, but each of those was rapidly taken care of in turn. A night without AC isn’t so bad, even in Alabama, on a cool summer evening after a storm. A morning without electricity is fine when none of the fuses have fried. Two days without internet waiting for a new modem is a small price to pay for the safety of one’s family and the stability of one’s house. And even if those outcomes had been worse, we had so many offers from our church family of meals, clothes, places to sleep, and prayers to be prayed.

People continually asked us how we were doing. I wished I could have answered in a way that was meaningful. But I struggled expressing our emotional state beyond the clichés.
   “We were so blessed.”
   “It really was a best-case scenario.”
   “God is good.”

These statements are all true, and I do not mean to minimize their significance. Ours is a story to be told wherein only God can claim glory. But these responses fail to capture the gratitude of a near-miss nor the intensity of our relief. Sometimes even poets, professors, and pathologists lack the necessary words and the requisite hindsight to understand the magnitude of a terrifying event like a house fire. Sometimes silence is a far better answer than words. Job speaks for a long time while God remains still.

But there was another lightning bolt that descended from the skies that night. And ever since, the poker that has stoked the embers in my mind has been the whispered words of a nine-year-old. Before he went to bed (for the second time) that night, our oldest son asked us why God allowed the lightning to strike our house. I didn’t think one in the morning a fit time for a theology lesson, and I wanted him to think about the immense blessing we’d been given—not the inconvenience of being rudely wakened or sitting outside in a storm. But I quietly asked myself why He didn’t let it burn to the ground.

A family goes to sleep at night and dies in a choking blaze. Another family escapes death but loses their house and belongings to the fire. Ours is physically, psychically, and fiscally unscathed. We bless God for his protection and providence, yet someone else curses him for their destitution. And if we were in their position, might we not do the same thing?

We are slow to bless and we are quick to curse. But I remember that God is slow to anger, and though his justice seems slow he has a plan. He has no interest in condemnation, and he is intensely moved by the suffering of people. It is we who rush to judgment: of others, of ourselves, of God. James and John ask Jesus if they should not call fire from the sky and destroy some Samaritans, but the Christ doesn’t work that way. I cannot claim to fathom the divine mysteries, but I do believe this: if God is not directly responsible for suffering, then suffering exists because we live in a fallen world. But we can take confidence because he is there to walk us through it. Conversely, if God is directly responsible for suffering, then we can still have confidence because he is using suffering for his own higher purposes—and he is still there to walk us through it.

My mind has slipped further from that night. The emotions fade and the vibrancy of the moment atrophies into memory. The ecstasy of waking up in the morning with my family all in the same room has been replaced with the return to normalcy. The joy of taking a check from the insurance adjuster within two hours of surveying the damage is an important moment, to be sure, but not an emotion one can live on in perpetuity. They are now embedded as part of history, as flashes of a life lived, and reminders of His starring role in my story.

I wonder sometimes what I would have done if the outcome had changed. Were things just a little different, or if the events had altered slightly, I hope I would still have the courage to know that it is well with my soul. For even if we had lost it all, God would still be God and He would still be Good.

Sometimes, all you can say is, “God.”

Divine Laughter

As students enter campus for the first time or return for another semester, I am cognizant of the enormity of my vocation. It has been said that the purpose of education is to train the next generation. If this is true, then the purpose of Christian education is to redeem the next generation. We who labor in this field are tasked not only with escorting students across the bridge from childhood to adulthood, from uncertainty to clarity, from awkwardness to confidence. But we are also tasked with leading them out of the world to lives of holiness, from purposeless to meaning, from falsehood to truth.

This is no easy task, and I have often felt the burden of it rather than its opportunity. I look at my students so like myself and realize that many people are taking life very seriously—sometimes because their lives are deadly serious. Many people are struggling, many people are hurting. Everyone, says the epigram qua cliché, is fighting a battle. But sometimes, our hurts are exaggerated because we think they should be.

Our thought processes are incurably negative most of the time. Listen to the conversations around you; the majority of them are critical, filled with aggravation and anxiety, muddled with despair. We define ourselves through conflict not benediction. When talking about our lives we are quick to share our miseries but slow to count our blessings. We see the frustrations but not what God is doing with those frustrations. One of the earlier Seven Deadly Sins was accedia, despair, and it is a transgression nearly all of us in the West fall prey to. Though we have forgotten, the church fathers knew that myopic eyes foster myopathy of the soul.

Everyone is fighting a battle: real or imagined. There isn’t much you can do to alleviate those burdens. But, I have discovered, you can always make them laugh.

I am no great humorist. Yet I have an uncanny ability in the classroom of drawing nervous laughter from my students. I am intentionally self-deprecating and take every occasion to make them feel awkward (though not, I hope, in a creepy way). My favorite brand of humor is cringe-comedy in the vein of Meet the Parents and The Office; but outside the classroom I fear imitating this brand might make me fewer friends than I desire.

The American ethos is one of devoted materialism, and so we mistake laughter with mere adolescent frivolity. We love security; this, I think, is the reason we pursue wealth and not simply because we love stuff. We indulge in luxury to not feel alone. To feel like we have meaning. Not to feel powerful but at least not to feel powerless. Our eyes are firmly fixed in front of us to see either the path we are laying towards our own destiny or the prizes we want along the way. Here I recall that all of Shakespeare’s villains are men who cannot laugh. Iago, Don John, Malvolio (whose name means “evil wish”). They are men so concerned with ambition and recreating the world in their own image that they cannot bear to see other people happy. This is not to say that Americans are unable to laugh, but it is of the nervous variety—and we can all agree Americans appear to be perennially unhappy.

I have always loved to laugh. But I have come to the conclusion that, much like my fellow citizens, my humor and my laughter were always covering up something, hiding the very secret part of me that was too serious, too worried, too concerned with those parts of life we are all afraid will overwhelm us. And rather than face the darkness, we feebly mock it—as if burlesque will somehow push the inevitable confrontation away, or at least delay it for a season. For this reason the Proverbs frequently condemn the mocker: his cynicism leaves undone the holy task of pursuing wisdom and ordering his own life. His humorous sham is only a farce peppered with caricature. He points out the contradictory chaos of life but derides at a distance.

The Soviet theorist Mikhail Bakhtin introduced the concept of carnival (an impressive and dangerous thought in 1920s totalitarian Russia) to reconsider our social hierarchies. Carnival challenges us to laugh at society’s institutions, at our cultural constructs, at the “correct” way of doing things. As admirable—and sometimes necessary—as this goal is, it only reverses the binaries of life. In a very postmodern way, it mocks order and exalts chaos, replaces the hegemony with heterodoxy, uplifts the underdog above his rulers. But all it can do is point out society’s flaws; it cannot give us something to believe in. It is criticism without construction—and any peewit can criticize. Seeing through everything as through a window, as C.S. Lewis prophetically opined in The Abolition of Man, means seeing nothing at all.

As the beloved Robin Williams tragically reminded us, even humor is not a sufficient shield against pain. Laughter is an analgesic for a broken humanity, but not its antidote. Yet divine laughter, the ability to transcend the trauma of life, allows us to see this world and the next through the eyes of the merciful Father. In laughter is the essence of wonder, of the acceptance of forces outside one’s body, the resignation that life, though at times tragic, is ultimately a comedy. For death, the final tragedy, is never final in Christ.

The vision of God is what leads us to look up from our myopic navel-gazing, to look within, around, and above. Scripture should not simply mold the desires of our flesh but turn the direction of our eyes off the fixed path. It should not merely give us more versatile solutions for modern living but spark an awe that creates more questions than answers. In this sense, laughter is the most holy activity we can participate in. In this sense, when we laugh we are most like God.

I resolve to spend this next school year learning to laugh, teaching my students the glee of life, being silly with my sons. But more than this, I resolve to laugh in a way that reflects the joyous gaiety of Christ. I resolve to live out my vocation with intention—and so doing, with chortling amusement as I lead my students away from ignorance to knowledge. For it is the Christ who bridges us from fear to joy, from mourning to dancing, from death to life.

Stop Reading This Blog: Social Media and the Downfall of Western Civilization

If you dare to know what people are thinking these days, check your Twitter feed.

But you may find that people’s thoughts are nowhere near as deep as you think—especially when reduced to 140 characters.

Perhaps that is an unfair characterization. After all, the whole purpose of social media is connectivity, that Higgs boson of the twenty-first century technological world. And without a doubt, connections are being made constantly across cyberspace. Acquaintances can become Friends who become Followers who can post pictures, video, and blogs—both micro and macro. In any given hour you can find photos of kids, dogs, and food—not to mention political rants and Jesus tweets. As I saw one person write recently, “I think, therefore I post” (which is a really bad philosophy).

We did not need this superfluous data a short decade ago; now, it seems, we cannot do without it. Education has been replaced by information. I am no exception; we do this to feel connected. But if you are like me, you are frequently discouraged to find the superficial outweighing the essential. This could lead us to the wrong conclusion that everyone is superficial, but it is probably more right to conclude that much of what we value is superficial. Social media is a double-edged sword of cursing and blessing. At a snapshot view, it is a helpful resource and a chaos of confusion. It allows artistic expression and dissemination, the publication of fresh ideas, the power of community. But it also fosters immaturity in the excessive exposure of one’s self and others; and though through it ideas may spread quickly, they are rarely the best ideas. Connectivity means nothing without communication, which itself means nothing without understanding.

Orwell predicted a world of total connectivity: instant changes to dictionaries, television screens in every home, broadcasts of immediate news updates from the front. The first time reader of 1984 rarely responds with a mere shrug of the shoulder; a fearful awe at the truth of its predictions dominates the mind. Though we have yet to erase historical data and rewrite our narratives of the past (we assume), Wikipedia, our go-to source for information has as its stated policy not truth but “verifiability.” Though we have yet to see exercise fascists watching us through the screens to make sure we’re doing our push-ups right, the health and physical fitness of the individual has now become a national concern. Though we have yet to create an atmosphere of endless war, the ubiquitous and elusive terror has made perpetual conflict a palpable reality.

These observations are in themselves controversial, and it is controversy that makes social media so interesting and simultaneously so damaging to a culture of manners. Men and women are less likely to behave like ladies and gentlemen the more immersed they are in cyberspace. The very essence of web-surfing separates the mind from the body, and when the body is not in danger of physical danger or social stigma the mind lapses into complacency.

For example, it was once considered a faux pas of polite society to discuss religion or politics, but they are the now main fare of posts, feeds, and tweets. Many people feel compelled to share their view of government. Yet they do not think about the consequences of their words on their audience, whom are also removed from the threat of discomfort. No one stops to ask, why should my political beliefs, built and entrenched for years, miraculously change one day because of your daily rant? What rational justification could you possibly provide for me to change my convictions simply because you wrote up a diatribe on Facebook? Many of these same people express virulent religious opinions as well, transforming into Jesus Tweeters and People Haters.

But perhaps we should consider social media as grassroots advocacy. It is presumably here, among the masses, that true change can occur. Social media, it may be argued, is not unlike the Athenian marketplace, occurring in real time and across the globe. Politics and religion were the great subjects of classical Athens, and so should they be on Facebook. In cyberspace, ideas are exchanged freely and everyone is given the opportunity to opine on important subjects. One thought is shared, and it sparks a hundred thoughts in a hundred different friends. We need only point to the (ahem) successes of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. (Sorry, that was a cheap shot.)

In all seriousness, however, there are several problems intrinsic to the interaction of social media and culture. The first problem is logistical: we scan hypertext. Our eyes have been trained, whether we’re reading journalistic media or social media, to scan through information for keywords. We read but we don’t absorb, and seldom do we ruminate on what we read. Thus, we are emotionally stirred by a post and we respond out of frustration or even anger, and we haven’t even really read what was posted. Genuine conversation cannot occur in an environment where people do not—or cannot—listen.

The next is that social media mimics the Athenian marketplace without the intellectual or rhetorical rigor of Athens. It is true that debate is the cornerstone of a republic. The heart of democracy rests in an educated and informed electorate. But in a technologically-integrated world where I can record my thoughts instantly, I do not have to be thoughtful—or even literate. Further, the physical distance and perceived anonymity of social media gives me the freedom (and with it a new, almost addictive motivation) to write whatever comes into my head, whether those thoughts are constructive, destructive, or just plain stupid.

I write this, hopefully without nearly as much pretention as it sounds. Some are intellectually gifted. Far fewer are rhetorically gifted. Some have the ability to reason and to think through important issues. Far fewer can articulate them clearly. Without careful consideration and communication, we are likely to cause more problems than we are to solve them. We care too greatly about whom we might offend, or we don’t care at all whom we might offend. Most people fall into one of two extremes, and if our goal is to get Like’s or comments, we will not likely heed the man of moderation.

These problems replicate themselves in religious conversation as well. There is currently a very powerful movement on the blogosphere to reform Christianity. To my knowledge, no one has yet noticed it nor defined it. We are nevertheless experiencing a phenomenon in which everyone (including yours truly) is actively writing, filming, and posting to make the Church into a better version of herself. These kinds of movements come around only once every couple centuries: the Nicene Council, the ascension of Charlemagne, the following of St. Francis and the rise of mysticism, the Protestant Reformation. Countless writers seem to be contributing to the discussion of women’s roles, leadership, youth, political organization, homosexuality and, of course, social media. And slowly (though in reality at lightspeed in the context of history), people are starting to question the roles of faith, religion, and spirituality in contemporary life. Pagans are hearing new Christian ideas and are listening. Lifelong Christians are reconsidering the practices of the Church and asking if they are really in line with the teachings of Christ. Because the marketplace is open, so too are minds.

Many of these ideas are good, far more are not. And, chances are, without the classical virtue of moderation and the Christian virtue of love, this conversation may even direct the Church’s pendulum swing from one extreme to another. The Church may currently be corrupt and inept, but swinging the pendulum the other way will only twist her from the right to the left. Without wisdom in pursuit of truth, we are still adrift.

Ok, so I really don’t think social media is going to be the downfall of the West. Alas, these are the pitfalls of cultural transitions. These days were prophesied to come—as they come in every generation. Yet we can rejoice that a conversation is at least taking place. We can look with pride on people young and old who are trying to have a positive influence in the history of Christianity. We can feel confident in that the gates of hell will not prevail against God’s armies.

If you dare to know what people are thinking these days, check your Twitter feed. But do so at your peril. Chances are you may think something you don’t care to think.

Ritual Cleansing

One of the more enduring, though not necessarily endearing, contributions of twentieth-century Modernism is the rejection of tradition. It was assumed, somewhat erroneously, that tradition existed only for itself. Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” critiques the axiom, “Good fences make good neighbors,” a refrain his friend constantly repeats yet doesn’t seem to understand. He suggests that the reasons we do what we do are arbitrary and meaningless, or that those reasons might have been true for previous generations but now hold no purpose in the modern world.

What Frost and his contemporaries missed is that rituals, from meeting once a year to fix a fence to meeting once a week to worship, help us make sense of the world around us. Disorder and confusion are common features of human life, and rituals impart order and meaning to the question of chaos. When frustrated with my job, I can take to my weekly mowing, ease my stress, and create beauty. When finding myself in the middle of a rough week, I can look forward to Friday nacho night with the family. When confronted with doubt, I can sing with the congregation, “On Christ the solid rock I stand.”

These are small gestures, surely, and many would agree that they are psychological anchors for a drifting mind. But if these little actions work for the individual struggling from week to week, why would they not work for society struggling to make sense of itself? If rituals help us make sense of the world around us, why do we not more readily embrace them?

This is not to say the West completely lacks rituals. Graduations, weddings, funerals, and holidays all seem to coalesce neighbors around a communal event. But the meaning of these rituals is often unclear or redefined by each individual. Memorial Day was intended for people to honor the fallen dead. Gravestone decorations were prepared and placed on markers as sober commemorations of those who served. Today, it is a barbecue day commemorating the beginning of summer. And beginning summer is much more entertaining than walking around a cemetery. Because we lack the capacity for reflective and meditative thinking in a high-def world, we miss out on what earlier generations, even in death, still speak to us.

Or take the wedding ceremony as another example. The postmodern wedding largely still contains steadfast commonalities with its modern and premodern counterparts: the giving of rings, exchange of vows, etc. But each couple, in their quest to make their experience unique, often eschew custom for individuality. My ceremony must be more memorable or special in some way than my friends’ before me (the same is becoming true of engagements and, mysteriously, even among high schoolers in the timeless act of asking each other to the prom). Perhaps growing up in a movie culture where each story has to be exceptional and distinct from another at the box office, so too do we want our stories to be exceptional and distinct as portrayed in the movies.

Death is one final milestone for which custom and culture would benefit us greatly. Indeed, we have so fully removed the finality and uncleanliness of death from our lives that we haven’t the first clue of how to cope with it. Bereavement among the Jews is spelled out in detail, as the avelut allows people to mourn successively in multiple stages. During this time, how one behaves—and how others behave toward the mourner—are highly structured from seven days to one month to twelve months. Here social customs are clear and unchanging. One could easily make the argument that such a tradition forces people to play roles they might not want to play; but then again, we don’t like many of the social roles we are forced to play anyway. In this fashion, at least, the mourner can be slowly and methodically reintroduced to the world. The modern alternative is confusing, taking the form of employees immediately returning to work, experiencing delayed grief that may take years to overcome.

When we remove custom in favor of the individual’s wants, the focus turns inward on the individual—but focusing on one’s self is never fulfilling. Culture cannot exist when life centers around me. Each individual cannot play the central role in the story of humanity. But traditions give us meaning by not only connecting us to that larger story, but by teaching us how to act.

Let us take, for instance, the Amish, who have a ritual they call rumspringa, made well known thanks to the TLC reality series Breaking Amish and the 2002 documentary The Devil’s Playground. Under this code, a sixteen-year-old is allowed to experience life among “the English.” Some of them remain at home, work, but live very American lives, including adopting English fashions, driving cars, and sometimes partying. During this time, young people are allowed to pursue their own interests and eventually come to a decision about when and if they are going to formally join the Amish faith.

If you are a devout Amish parent, this is no doubt a risky venture. What if my child went off into the spiritual wilderness and never came home? Some parents forget that this is always a problem, and that there are better and worse ways of helping one’s children navigate the spiritual waters on their own. However, the Amish technique has two immediate benefits. First of all, it allows the child to experience the world and to develop into his or her own faith. If and when they return, they are doing so with their eyes wide open and fully aware of what kind of commitment they are making. Secondly, it also gives parents a set date for when they must let go and allow their children to make their own way—regardless of the consequences.

Because we English have no such cultural procedure, we have grown befuddled with various milestones that seem to have different meanings for different families. We have two different legal ages for voting and drinking, transitional ages for high school and college students, and self-discovery ages for people in their mid-twenties. Indeed, it seems that we expect people in their late-twenties to early-thirties to finally “settle down” and “grow up.” And this is assuming everything goes smoothly. Whether because of a bad economy or because of poor life choices or because there was a blood moon this month, thirty-year-old children are still living with their parents so the children can continue to live a comfortable lifestyle and so the parents can still have a say in their children’s decisions. No doubt these thirty-year-olds claim to feel the pressure to grow up, but they just haven’t decided what they are going to do with their lives.

It is an unfortunate consequence of our democratic philosophies that social decisions are made solely by individuals without much input from culture. Two centuries ago, major life decisions were influenced by the community or the family. If my dad was a blacksmith, I was probably going to be a blacksmith. One century ago, social stigma and social pressure pushed people into doing the right thing. If I wanted to not marry and procreate, cultural norms dictated I should. In this century, I can do whatever I want so long as I don’t hurt someone else.

Far be it for me to romanticize a past in which the individual had few choices. The “right thing” was not always what culture said it was. But the collective decisions of those who came before us became traditions and influenced us in such a way that we had a strong idea of what roads we should take. Today, because we have an entire interstate system to travel, many people are overwhelmed with the options and cannot decide on a path and see it through.

I dare not advocate we become Amish. Holy living does not mean retreating from the world into a quiet enclave without temptation or distraction—for both temptation and distraction will still find us, as the desert fathers attested. What I would urge strongly is an intentional participation in cultural traditions and an intentional creation of family practices. Perhaps then we would better know how to face dying. Perhaps then we would better know how to face living.