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.

Beyond Postmodernism, or Christ Among the Pagans (Part III)

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they may accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (I Pet. 2.12)

If it is true that we are moving beyond postmodernism into a neo-pagan culture, then the first thing we need to do is to evaluate the values and media of our culture. Further, if it is true that we are living that we are living in a neo-pagan culture, the next thing we must do is realize that we ourselves are neo-pagan too. We, the called out, do not live a-culturally. In a world in which everyone does what is right in his own eyes, the church is to hold a higher standard than the ethical disposition of culture, but we are still very much part of its rituals, its thought-processes, its desires.

Without this self-evaluation, we risk an inability to understand or to connect, and we earn (deserved) ridicule. Despite its frequent claims, the church today is not the same church as in the first century; rather, it is the product of the successes of 1950s and ‘60s Christianity. For instance, the 1950s church believed in a building for every congregation—a structural hold-over from pre-modern Catholicism. (We should note that some churches are starting to stray from this model because of the logistical trappings of budgets and property ownership interfering with their stated church mission). It also attempts to erect a church in every city, a political distinction that carries very little spiritual importance but assumes growth is related to proximity. Many churches hold Sunday evening services, a concept invented during the industrial revolution when the departure from agricultural work and toward factory work required some people to labor on Sundays. None of these are essential to church-iness, yet many Christians defend these elements as if they were sacrosanct. If we continue to maintain the pretension of first-century Christianity, assuming some changeless a-historical identity, we will widen our cultural gap and find ourselves doing 1950s Christianity—and doing it badly.

Some syncretism with the culture is unavoidable—and to an extent, desirable. An impotent a-syncretism leads us down the same road as Tertullian, screaming “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?!” while complete syncretism fades the volume of Christianity to the same level as every other voice. Proper syncretism means taking “from the spoils of Egypt,” those things true, good, and beautiful in culture and abandoning the rest. This was exactly Augustine’s model when it came to studying pagan literature. Knowing we cannot divorce ourselves from culture, he suggested we should use the language of the culture (i.e. art) to convey a more sufficient worldview. Were Augustine living in the 21st century, he would advocate using the language of mass communication (i.e. entertainment) to then communicate the truth of Christ. This does not mean we synchronically embrace change uncritically (nihilistic, revolutionary postmodernity); but neither do we reject change uncritically (as if we were still living in modernity). We should critically examine change and be willing to experiment with new methods of sharing and living out the Gospel. Ideally, we want evolutionary, not revolutionary, change—that is, change that is still anchored to history rather than removed from it. Evolutionary change will not forcefully take over pop culture via Christian sub-cultural media or legislation. It will slowly transform it, baptize it, and use it for the Kingdom through engagement in the overall culture.

In this respect, Christianity is—and should be viewed as—an intellectual movement as much as it is a personal faith. It elevated man out of the ashes of pagan immorality in the first century because it provided a rational view consistent with the understood universe. Being the power to salvation for both Jew and Greek, it consistently remained the dominant worldview for roughly two thousand years of Western culture. And it elevates man even today out of contradictory worldviews that cannot account for the human spiritual and psychological need for purpose and meaning.

What movements need are articulate voices—the minds of educators and the hearts of evangelists—and we will need no less to reintroduce the world to Christianity. We need to restore the role of robust, reasonable faith in each of the academic disciplines and re-educate the culture with the practical results of the Christian worldview. We must show our neighbors that not all beliefs can be equal, just as not all consequences are equal (racial science can lead to eugenics just like Christian dogmatism can lead to tyranny). We must show our neighbors that there needs to be an external standard for our beliefs (otherwise I will be easily led to Buddha or to fascism or to meaninglessness). And we must show our neighbors the anti-humanistic philosophies inherent in New Age Theology, Hinduism, and Marxism and contrast them with the personal God of scripture (for God is love). Most of all, we must show our neighbors a life of love and godliness so that the pagans may see our good deeds and glorify God.

The reintroduction of Christianity doesn’t need rebranding or repackaging. If the problem really is that we haven’t been engaged—that we have been sleeping—then the call is to wake up and to strategically take the message wherever we can. The most immediate solution is to do so personally: with people living next door. The long-term solution is to do so institutionally—at home and in the church.

Since popular culture is what we’re already swimming in, then we should pay particular attention toward our teens and young adults, who are the targets of pop cultural media. People watch Family Guy, Game of Thrones, and Twilight not because of prurient elements but simply because the stories are entertaining. Entertainment is the key: it taps into the human condition of comedy and tragedy, which is why it is so universally attractive to all people. And as entertainment has always existed, though perhaps not to the volume it is set at today, we have several options.

On the one hand, we can vainly attempt to keep our children from consuming bad art and entertainment. This tactic should be employed at home for some things that have no value: mindless productions like Jackass and Kick Ass (generally all things having to do with the posterior that motivate us to behave like beasts), reality shows, and nearly everything on music television. By itself, however, censorship will have no effect, especially if they can consume entertainment at a friend’s house. And when they are grown, they will consume whatever they want with little regard for its impact on their minds, hearts, and souls.

Or we can try to create our own morally-upright sub-culture. We can further insulate ourselves by reading Christian fiction or even by creating Christian film. But morally-upright culture, without proper artistic education, will just become morally-upright, bad art.While I enjoy films like Facing the Giants for its God-centered characters and practical moral living, its horribly bad acting and overly optimistic plotlines eliminate it for contention as serious art. It may be good but it is not beautiful—and therefore is not good. Its Christian moral message is undercut by its un-Christian lack of excellence. But The Dark Knight can be even more Christo-centric than Fireproof if we search for the God-given truth at work within it that makes it good—and therefore beautiful and true. But we cannot merely watch The Dark Knight for entertainment purposes nor Facing the Giant for its family-friendly viewing. Insulating ourselves will still keep us from having a seat at the intellectual discussion.

We would do best, I believe, to train our children and students to identify worldviews and teach them how to analyze and defeat them. But we will have to change the way we think. We need to enjoy thinking analytically. If entertainment is available without thought, we need to cultivate ourselves so that thinking is entertaining. We will need to look at every experience with our children as a potential moment for instruction. We will also have to change the way we live. We weep and wail about Noah because someone might believe it or because it is not faithful to the Biblical narrative or because we feel our faith is under attack. But do we know the worldview behind the film? Are we robustly engaged in not only its faithful adherence to scripture but also in what ideas emanate from the story? Better, what worldview are we living out at home? Worrying about the state of the culture is nowhere near as effective as examining the state of our homes: evaluating how much TV we consume, how we make ethical decisions, if we play an instrument and encourage our children to do so, if we read good books, and the like. By first saving ourselves from cultural decay, we will (forgive the cliché) transform the world.

While we don’t need to rebrand our faith, we do need to re-envision how we practice it. We need first of all to listen (really listen) to the voices of culture expressed in music and film. This will require us to selectively filter through the noise to find those harmonies that communicate the truth. And since all truth is God’s truth, we should be able to then connect Philip the Evangelist to Philip Seymour Hoffman, George Lucas to St. George, and Plato to Plotinus. We should also become active participants in the cultural dialogue, using our talents to create and disseminate morally-upright, beautiful art as a means of glorifying God. Make music, write hymns for use in worship, write poetry, teach classes. These creative talents are not only beneficial to mankind, but they are essential for developing analytical skills within ourselves that will also help us to reason lovingly with the unbeliever. This is not easy; just like learning a foreign language takes time, so too will disciplining ourselves to be salt and light. But through the process and on the journey we become useful tools for the Kingdom, relevant to the world and beautiful reflections of God.

The problem is not the media. The problem is not that we need more Christian media. The problem is that we are men and women without culture. We are only going to become cultured people when we learn to apply the grace of Christ to every aspect of our lives. When we do this well, as Paul and his successors in the centuries after him did, the Parthenon will crumble once again and in its place will stand a vibrant church.

*                                    *                                    *

This essay is a conclusion of a series of essays on postmodernism and neo-paganism. While some of what is written is original to me, many of these insights come from John Mark Reynolds, the writers and thinkers at Biola University, and the countless authors studying worldviews and laboring to gain an authentic Christian voice in culture. It is to them that I owe these thoughts and my thanks.

Beyond Postmodernism, or Can You Hear Me Now? (Part II)

Every now and then I find myself in one of those important discussions that ends like this:

“That’s really just someone’s opinion.”

“That works for you, and that’s great, but I just don’t believe it.”

“That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.”

Existential Modernism told us that since there is no truth we must find our own truth. Postmodernism rightly divined that if there is no truth then even the truths we individually discover are meaningless fictions. They saw through the guise that truth is intrinsic; because when compared to each other, my truth will eventually contradict your truth—in which case they are not truths at all. Where postmodernism has failed is to erect a logistical, palpable, and true alternative to the no-truth hypothesis.

One cannot rationally hold the premise that there is no truth and life has no meaning. This is the difference between a negative belief and a positive action. I may intellectually assent to the notion that there is no truth, but I still look both ways before crossing the street. I may say that life is meaningless, but I still violently protect my right to existence. If I truly believe I am no more than the sum of my atoms, then why do I seek meaning in the first place? If I am nothing but matter, then I have suddenly achieved the ultimate meaning in the physicality of my existence. I have already found meaning. But for none of us is this answer sufficient. We still attempt to find meaning in our jobs, our families, our politics, our beliefs. Nature abhors a vacuum—especially an intellectual one. Because we cannot live in cognitive dissonance indefinitely, we must choose meaning or meaninglessness. Those of us who do not select madness or suicide will elect to find meaning.

The good news is that Western culture at large still hopes for meaning and still believes in hope. For the Greeks hope was an emotional disease that would ruin you (see the story of Pandora’s box), yet the world of postmodernity has an expectation of something (or someone) greater than themselves: a hero, love, God, etc. Everyone is still searching for something. I want to believe in a spiritual extrinsic reality. I want to have something to anchor my thoughts and to direct my desires. But, as Bono popularized some years ago, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

The bad news is that most people will resist older modes of thought. While much financial success has been made with the Percy Jackson series, I have a hard time envisioning any fanboy actually bowing before idols of Olympus. And while Christianity still has a prominent foothold in the worldview of Western culture, many have rejected it as an insufficient narrative for guiding one’s life. Instead, people will turn to new ways of thinking—which are really just modifications of the old ways. New Age theology, as one popular example, blends pop psychology and ancient mysticism, and even if it doesn’t directly embrace the Greco-Roman pantheon at least accepts the notion that the deities we worship are a matter of individual preference.

As we examine both cultural and generational shifts, we may conclude that what exists beyond postmodernism, then, is really just neo-paganism. If I hold that nothing matters metaphysically but my own individual beliefs, I can select my own gods. If every culture develops its own religion, then presumably each individual needs its own creed as well. As a system, Christianity claims one god among a multitude of gods, and while I don’t have to worship Allah or Apollo it is altogether reasonable if you want to do so.

Note the assumption present that no god/truth is exclusively real or true. The statements above are not originally postmodern; they’ve been around since antiquity. People today who argue those positions are not postmodern; they’re just bad thinkers.

What is unique about neo-paganism, in contradistinction to its origins in antiquity, is that it is a spirituality without sacrament. What gave the Oracle at Delphi power in addition to the collective faith in its truthful predictions was the sacrifice of its adherents. But wearing a cross without devoting one’s self to a church—its doctrines, rules, and practices—is a faithless faith. The spiritually uncommitted instinctively know there is no real meaning (or comprehensibility, for that matter) in literal self-worship, but there is at least something psychologically satisfying in acknowledging something external.

Because there is no sacrament, therefore, many of the spiritually unreligious will abdicate their personal faith in service to the state. In this way, many neo-pagans resemble their Greco-Roman forbearers for whom faith was not as important as national loyalty. And this is true for both sides of the aisle today: the smaller one’s religion and religious expression, the greater the role one gives to politics. The recent cultural rush to abandon one’s independence and self-reliance in order to receive goodies from government is a frightening but natural byproduct of neo-paganism. My personal faith in the unseen cannot viably compete with the objective reality of a seen president, law, or activist cause. My personal faith rooted in subjectivity cannot overpower the collective, equally subjective experience of groupthink, and thus I will quickly retreat from my faith in the presence of peer pressure. Neo-paganism is a weakly mixed wine and thus is a breeding ground for tyranny.

Tyranny also thrives in such an environment because a man who will tailor his spirituality to his own specifications is interested primarily in comfortability and entertainment. Fiction is, as under postmodernism, more palpable than reality. Disneyland, Las Vegas, and Middle Earth are not just more palpable but potentially more real in people’s minds than Newark. People experience genuine depression because they would rather live on Pandora instead of earth. Neo-paganism is perfect for the video game generation because it is an experienced-based, pleasure-seeking worldview of affluence and personal peace. Marx was wrong: the opiate of the masses was not religion but television. The sensationalist drama of House of Cards will trump the ritual in a house of worship every time.

Christians who are understandably depressed at the spiritual state of affairs in our nation have no one to blame, unfortunately, but themselves. We too are developing a religion of comfort—not simply in our watering down of the Word but in our laid-back approach to the urgency and relevance of the Gospel. We are spiritually-religious neo-pagans ourselves, which a snippet history of American culture may reveal.

In the eighteenth century Enlightenment thinking beat back Christianity in the intellectual world by advocating a paradigm of science over faith. To some degree this was necessary, as a faith misunderstood is sometimes more deleterious than no faith at all. Thus, atheists like Thomas Paine gave rational arguments for the necessity of American liberty, leading the cause of freedom. Secularists like Thomas Jefferson with his miracle-free Bible and philosophers like Immanuel Kant and David Hume argued against supernaturalism. Yet even while these secular advances were taking place (some of them very essential), Christianity numerically retained the social structures of culture. Homes and families were “Christian” with a Christian worldview and ethic because the church still held an influential hold on cultural thinking. The state supported the idea of a Christian nation not because it was morally right but because its people were Christian.

Because we found comfort in numbers, we felt we did not need to engage the scientific discussions of the nineteenth century and so marginalized ourselves. Countless examples of our technological fears include pamphlets with supporting proof texts in Scripture for the steam engine, or reactions against the steam engine, made stereotypically famous in the statement, “If God had meant man to travel at 60mph, he would have given him wheels.” Because Christianity did not emphasize the intellectual component of its existence, the academy became more secularized. We succumbed in this battle—yet this battle may be the most important.

Today, the secular academy has filtered down through pop culture in ways we have not been equipped to understand and combat. This increased exponentially with the advent of radio, television, and the internet. These technologies are not the cause of our marginalization; throughout most of the twentieth century, Christians chose not to employ these technologies as a direct expression of our faith because of our institutional reluctance toward change. Consequently, the worldviews that are disseminated through these technologies have gained a prominent foothold in our culture. The church has virtually no place in the cultural discussion, even if it does hold a claim on individual households. The state is no longer a support of Christianity because of the shift in demographic electoral politics. As an institution Christianity is pushed further and further to the periphery. We possess hope because postmodern idealists desire spirituality, but this is not enough. Simply because anti-intellectuals in popular culture agree with one of our claims does not mean we are having, or are going to have, success. All it means is that we agree with anti-intellectuals. What we need is to engage the intellectuals and cause them to recognize the reality of philosophical supernaturalism.

Yet because we now have come to acknowledge our obsolescence in the world, we have simultaneously developed a culture of despair. Too often Christians sit around and complain that we are losing. We should remember that faithful Christians are not guaranteed even in a Christian culture (see medieval Europe). We are always losing the culture wars. Yesterday, we were losing to intellectual modernists; today, we’re losing to anti-intellectual postmodernists. But it is we who have reduced ourselves from the equation; it is we who have removed ourselves from the intellectual discussion. Christianity, like neo-paganism, without effective action is demoralizing and meaningless. Despair will only be overcome when we take action. We will need to rearticulate the Christian worldview and live it on a daily basis. But the goal must be Christ for the world—not Christ merely for the culture. The culture will reform in time and more organically as long as the church keeps its focus on the message and intent of the cross.

How we do that is the subject of our next post. Until then, dear reader, keep the faith.