What would Jesus snapchat? 10 tips for using social media (other than Facebook) as a Christian

Would Jesus use social media?

If he did, what would he post?

If we’re followers of Jesus how should we think about social media? How do we keep tabs on how teenagers are using stuff like Instagram, Snapchat when we can’t even figure Facebook out?

These are, of course, the questions of our age.

I’m going to answer them a little here by making a certain assumption, that I’ll put up front. I’ve written plenty about this elsewhere (including how people who are leaders in churches might help the people they lead think about this stuff). I’m going to assume that we, people, as God’s image bearers, are God’s social media. That God’s people have a track record, beginning in the Old Testament, of using communication mediums to tell people about God, while avoiding the dangers that come from deadly communication mediums (like idol statues). We’re naive when we assume mediums don’t matter, but we’re over-correcting when we assume mediums that can become dangerous shouldn’t be used. Creation itself was meant to reveal God’s divine character and invisible qualities, the fact that we turn God’s creation into images of things he made, and worship those images, isn’t a problem with creation as a communication medium, but with us (see Romans 1:19-25).

There’s been plenty in the news the last few weeks about how people are using Instagram — from models swearing off social media, specifically the ‘crafting’ of an image that isn’t real on social media, to models swearing at their social media followers for not doling out enough likes on their posts.

“I have created an image of myself that I think others feel is unattainable, others look at as a role model, others look at as some type of ‘perfect human’.” — Essena O’Neill

If you believe what teenagers tell you about social media, Instagram is where the action is. It’s where people are crafting an image of themselves for others to see, and where people are finding images to follow — to worship — and to be shaped by. Snapchat, another image based service, is equally interesting, and equally ignored by Christians who talk about this stuff.

“Snapchat is where we can really be ourselves while being attached to our social identity. Without the constant social pressure of a follower count or Facebook friends, I am not constantly having these random people shoved in front of me. Instead, Snapchat is a somewhat intimate network of friends who I don’t care if they see me at a party having fun… If I don’t get any likes on my Instagram photo or Facebook post within 15 minutes you can sure bet I’ll delete it. Snapchat isn’t like that at all and really focuses on creating the Story of a day in your life, not some filtered/altered/handpicked highlight. It’s the real you.” — Andrew Watts, A Teenager’s View on Social Media

One of the interesting things about Instagram and Snapchat, apart from their use of images, is that they don’t rely on the same algorithmic sorting of information that Facebook and Google use. They provide a stream of content unfiltered by an algorithm; except of course for the photos, which are ‘filtered’ first in terms of what images are shared and not shared, and ‘filtered’ in the sense of being made to look good via tweaking, often tweaking via the application of a pre-designed filter which applies an algorithm of effects to a photo. This content comes from people who people have chosen to follow, or, in the case of Instagram, content sorted via hashtags or location from newest to oldest.

Perhaps this shift to these new platforms, by our younger generations, is built on a cynicism about algorithms, and the desire to really be in control of one’s media experience.

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” — Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, describing the Facebook newsfeed philosophy

I think this, in itself, is interesting because it means the reason we’re not confronted with pictures we don’t want to see — or the reason we’re confronted with pictures that cause us outrage — is not down to an algorithm that controls what you see, but is down to your choice in who to follow.

Anyway. Here are ten tips I’m giving to a bunch of teenagers for how to use image-driven social media — mostly not thinking about Facebook — as Christians.

1. Remember that you are God’s Social Media

We were made in God’s image to represent him in his world. That’s what images of God in the ancient world did. We, from the beginning, were meant to be God’s media. That was true for Adam, true for Israel, and is true for us in Christ. God should be made known through us, and through our connection with him and with others. We’re his representatives in his world, re-created in Christ to re-represent him.

You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.


And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.


Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!


We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.


2. Don’t worship, or become an image of, anything else.

Our human tendency is to make ourselves images of anything but God. Our first inclination is to want to be images of ourselves, rather than dependant on God. To be the pattern for life. That’s basically what Essena admitted above in the words “I have created an image of myself”… in replacing God, we actually end up worshipping ourselves, or some dead thing — an idol — and we become what we worship, and we become disconnected from the one who gave us a pattern for life.

All the stuff we know about media and the brain confirms what the Bible says about idolatry. Our brains are shaped by the things we consume, including the mediums we use to consume things. There’s a saying that’s popular in a particular branch of media studies that looks at the effects of different communication mediums being introduced into society: “We shape our tools, and then, they shape us.” Add this to the line that sums up much of what we know about how our brains take shape “neurons that fire together, wire together” and we find that it’s not just the things we present in our media, but the mediums themselves, that shape us. It’s true that we become what we worship — the objects we fix our sight, imagination, and desires on.

… Idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see… Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.

— PSALM 115:4-5, 8

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

— ROMANS 12:2

3. Share Jesus.

If we are communication mediums for whatever we worship, then the way we use mediums will reflect who we are, and communicate what it is we worship. If someone looked at your social media accounts, who would they say you worship? Our job isn’t to try to make images of God, or of things we worship, but to point people to God via our lives, and via what God has made (and how we use it). God’s handiwork  — the stuff he makes, including the people he remakes in Christ — should point people to him, which for us means our ‘good works’ that he has prepared for us to do, as a subset of his creative acts, should show who we are “in Christ Jesus.”

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

— ROMANS 1:20

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.


4. You must decrease. He must increase

Our human tendency is to want to be at the centre. It’s the experience of being creatures whose lives are projections of our own subjectivity — our thoughts, our imagination, our desires, are projected through our actions. The Gospel calls us to re-centre ourselves, and our lives, and our thoughts about others to make Jesus the subject, and the centre of reality, and to point people to him, not ourselves. I like the way John the Baptist describes this experience as he is confronted with the truth about who Jesus is.

He must become greater; I must become less

— JOHN 3:30

This runs counter to the way people in our world use social media to project either ourselves as the ultimate subject of reality, or to present our idols as the subject of our lives and worship.

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others


In a practical sense, this changes the sort of stuff we tend to want to share/project into the world so that we’re not crafting an image of ourselves, but seeking to serve others (which will always, in some sense, involve sharing something of yourself). This Venn Diagram from Wait But Why’s post on 7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook pretty much nails it. Instagram and Snapchat work a little differently to Facebook, but the question is who are your photos pointing to? You? Or Jesus? Who are they serving? You and the image you craft as you ‘worship’? Or Jesus, and others?

5. Don’t Fight.

Nothing looks worse on social media than you arguing with, and grumbling about, other Christians. We’re actually called to be God’s image bearing ‘social media’ together, in and through our relationships with each other as we, together, find our identity in Christ. And arguing and grumbling undermines and so destroys this ‘image’… When we want to fight, Paul’s answer is to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus,” whose approach to status and power is described in Philippians 2, where Paul follows this instruction, and his description of Jesus’ example, with:

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.


We’ll stand out on social media as ‘shining stars’ if we make social media a place where we’re not living for our own name, or glory, but for the sake of others — and where we demonstrate this by not fighting or grumbling.

6. Online is great. Offline is greater.

Heaps of people, mostly old people, are super-negative about social media because it’s disembodied. You’re talking at people through a screen. You stare at screens rather than ‘doing life’ in a very present sense. The place you are physically put is definitely part of reality when you are a finite creature, but we’re called to hold our physical reality in balance with the eternal spiritual reality we’ve become part of. As a Christian, you’re connected to the people in your immediate vicinity, but, paradoxically, you’re also connected with God, by the Holy Spirit, and ‘in Christ’ — and through this connection you’re, in a real sense, connected to every other Christian who has ever lived, and who currently lives. Virtual connections are a pointer to this reality, and a great substitute for the physical presence we will enjoy for eternity. If this is a little too abstract — virtual, online, connections are also a way to overcome some of the limits of being finite, in order to have real and significant relationships. They’re a brilliant new way to make space and time less of an impediment for relationships with people, they become dangerous if they stop us ever being really present with the people in our lives, or if we never anticipate coming face to face with those we ‘commune’ or ‘communicate’ with via these channels.

In the old days, like the Bible days, people wrote letters to overcome the limits space and time place on our communication with others. John wrote letters like this — and they’re obviously valuable because they’re in the Bible and have continued circulating for almost 2,000 years since. He saw the value of letters, but placed a greater relational value on presence, and his letters anticipated this presence.

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

— 2 JOHN 1:12

What are some ways we can use social media to anticipate or invite face to face contact, even if they’re global relationships? One way is to look forward to, or anticipate, a shared eternity through a shared connection with Jesus.

7. God’s Word is the best media.

Everything God made is, in a sense, media. In that it reveals something about him to us. It helps bridge the divide between creator and creature, or writer and audience. God is most clearly revealed in Jesus, who is most clearly revealed, for us, in the Bible, which is all about him.

Whatever media practices, or social media practices, we cultivate will be best, or at least will relate best to our created purpose, if we start with media practices centred on God’s media. Not our own. And these practices are, at least significantly, to occur within our ‘social network’ as God’s people — we’re not called to plug in the headphones and focus on God as individuals as though we’re an island.

Check this out. This is a fairly famous passage from Colossians. It definitely already has a corporate sense in that the ‘dwelling among you richly’ all relies on things we do together. But our tendency is to think this is speaking particularly to us as individuals. That it’s a set of instructions for personal godliness.

“Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

— COLOSSIANS 3:16-17

But this is a problem, at least a little, because we don’t use youse. Everything about these verses is corporate. Let’s play it again, while breaking all sorts of rules — well, one — about english.

“Let the message of Christ dwell among YOUSE richly as YOUSE teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever YOUSE do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

We need to focus on the message of Christ, via multimedia practices, in relationship. God’s media is media we’re to use socially. And this should both come before we pick up ‘social media’ from the world, and it might inform how we use social media. Not in that it will make us boring regurgitators of random Bible verses, but because this message of Christ should soak everything we do and say as Christians.

How can social media help you, and your ‘network’ have the message of Christ dwell among you richly?

8. Prayer is the best social networking

Prayer is how we express that we have become part of the ultimate social network — that we have, in a profound way, been united with the God who made the universe. That we have been brought into the eternal, self-giving, community of the Trinity, and invited to communicate with God, our Father, in a way that is enabled by Son and Spirit. The prayer of Jesus in John 17 is an incredibly profound demonstration of prayer, and explanation of the privilege we now have as pray-ers.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

— JOHN 17:20-21

We are members of this incredible social network, and with that, comes the privilege of communicating in this network — but also the responsibility to pray for those in every other one of our networks. There is not a person you are connected with on social media who you are not instructed to pray for. We’re called to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), for our fellow Christians (which Paul models in Ephesians 1:15-18, and then instructs us to do in Ephesians 6:18-20).

How might social media help you to pray for the people in your life?

9. Use your new imagination to share Jesus on new mediums

There are plenty of pitfalls with adopting new mediums without thinking. But we’ve been adopted into a new ‘network’ in a way that gives us great freedom to act as people with renewed minds, who are being transformed by God’s media. We are creatures of imagination, and we’re invited to use these in creating and participating in media, as God’s media. Giving people a bunch of rules and regulations for how to be ‘good’ social media users is a guaranteed way to make people un-imaginative and inauthentic on social media. It’s a pitfall most social media experts fall into. The formula for success is to be generous, interesting and authentic. So. How might we use snapchat or instagram? Be creative. Tell stories. Throw attention onto others. Celebrate.

I had a great coffee with my mate Dave Miers this week and picked his brain about how he — very intentionally — uses check-ins and hashtags to share bits of what he believes with strangers on Instagram. He’s even had someone come to his church because they started following him on Instagram because he uses relevant local hashtags, and tags photos in excellent local places, while sharing snippets of what he’s thinking or reading in God’s word, or in books he’s reading in those cafes.

10. Tell real(ly thankful) stories

This follows the above. People love stories. We are creatures who live by stories as we create stories. Social media thrives on stories. Most people craft stories that are boring and self-seeking, or tap into some story that we want to imagine ourselves living. I love stuff like the 365 Grateful project that encourages people to cultivate gratitude.

And I reckon gratitude is fantastic. But I think we, as Christians, are called to appropriately direct our gratitude beyond the great people in our lives, and past the ‘universe’ which conspires to give us great experiences — and we’re called to cultivate thankfulness to the God who makes excellent media, who has re-created us to be actors in his story. That’s how we give God’s world its purpose back — how we stop falling into the trap of living for ourselves, or making the mistake of worshipping God’s great media instead of God as the imaginative creator of great media.

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

— 1 TIMOTHY 4:4-5

We cultivate thankfulness in the same way that people are trying to practice gratitude. By expressing it. In real ways. By being thankful for the big things, and small things, God has made. And by using social media to do that — to be thankful for what God has given us, in this world and in Jesus, and by being thankful for the people he has given us as part of our networks. That’s a natural way to soak your life in the message of Christ, and to be God’s workmanship, rather than building your own image via the things you share online.

Dumb Cuneiform, smart tablets: Mixing mediums and crafting messages for the ages

I love this so much. This service, Dumb Cuneiform, takes the messages you send using a frictionless, ephemeral, media transmission service built using modern ‘script’ (code and pixels) — Twitter — and converts them to a solid, long lasting, tangible message written in ancient script (cuneiform etchings). It’s brilliant.

Here’s a couple of paragraphs from my thesis that might explain why I think this is so cool.

“The written word evolved from image to word – the hieroglyphics of Egypt, to the Cuneiform text of Sumeria, to various alphabets. With alphabets came the rise of literature and scribal cultures, and the evolution of new languages. These were applied to changing mediums, from the walls of pyramids, to clay tablets, to papyrus. The rise of papyrus did not signal the end of communication with stone, just as the rise of the written word did not signal the end of visual communication. Communicative texts are produced on a space-time grid – durable media (eg stone inscriptions) emphasise time, while portable media (eg papyrus) emphasise space. This use of a medium is the choice of the communicator based on the situation and intention…

Low levels of literacy meant the first audience for written texts was smaller than a visual or spoken communicative act, but the ease of transmission of a papyrus scroll, as compared to a stone stelae, or clay tablet, transformed the reach of the written word. This reach depended on portability and repetition, or transmission of the message…

The success of any empire is proportionate to the success of its communication program. [Marshall] McLuhan expanded [Harold] Innis’ insight to suggest the empires who coped best with change had the best chance of expansion and longevity because “Any change in the forms or channels of communication, be it writing, roads, carts, ships, stone, papyrus, clay, or parchment, any change whatever has revolutionary social and political consequences.” The kingdoms that coped with this change were the kingdoms that thrived.”

You put stuff in stone if you want it to last, but to be harder to transport than paper, or the spoken word. You put stuff on paper, and make lots of copies, if you want it to spread throughout the borders of your empire (or beyond), and if you want this distribution to happen quickly. There are lots of examples of the rise and fall of empires from history that follow the Innis-McLuhan theory described above. People who grapple with how their messages can be supported by the available mediums are generally more successful than people who don’t. Here’s an example; the success of the Protestant Reformation which is often attributed to the printing press, was in part possible because the media the Reformers used was able to be spread quickly, and supported its basic thesis that people everywhere could, and should, know things about theology (the ‘priesthood of all believers’). The transmission of the key messages of the Reformation was supported by the media the Reformers used to carry these messages. The Catholic Church built big and beautiful churches out of stone, and couldn’t shift media practices — including the choice of medium — without ceding a vital point about lay people and their desire to read stuff in a language other than Latin. The war of these ’empires’ was, in some sense, determined by the media they used to fight it. Your choice of where to put stuff you want to say on the ‘space-time’ grid — timeless or timely — is important.

This service, Dumb Cuneiform, is fun because it invites us to ask questions about how we use media now, and what sort of messages we have become more likely to send via our digital media channels because they work to collapse the obstacles of space (digital messages occupy no physical space — they’re not paper or stone), and time (we can fling things across the globe instantly, they last in some sense, forever), and so cost. The ‘new media grid’ means messages are cheap to produce and last forever, but this means, too, that many more messages are produced and so nobody cares about, or can pay attention to, everything an ’empire’ writes — or everything you write. This service tips the scales back. It takes 2 weeks, and the process of etching and baking a tablet takes significantly more time than belting out a tweet.

You tweet stuff if you want to get it out fast, but to not last much beyond the average time the tweet stays on the first page of your follower’s twitter feed (unless you get your tweet favourited, which is a move towards permanence). This service is fun because it turns the nature of Twitter on its head, and maybe asks us to consider just how vapid our communication has become.

How are you using modern mediums to build something timeless — as the empire builders of the past did?

What would the internet look like if people started crafting their tweets as if they were going to be etched in stone?

A video to help give you a sense of how we do church

Chances are you’re reading this because you’re my friend, you may have worked with me, gone to school with me, you might always have that nagging suspicion about my sanity because I work for a church.

Are you one of the many Aussies who grew up going to a church run school, or who occasionally got dragged along to Sunday school by a friend, or relative? Are you a little bit curious about why, given your experience of church, anyone bothers getting out of bed on a Sunday to hang around with a bunch of people they don’t really know, who they probably have no good reason to love?

We’d love to help answer this curiosity, and so, this video is something our church Media Team put together to help re-introduce the idea of church. Most churches have moved on from the sort of church you might have experienced in your childhood. We’re mostly only 10 years behind the curve now when it comes to technology and our ability to understand and make culture. But hopefully we’re catching up.

If you haven’t been to church for a while, and don’t know what to expect if ever you ‘darken the doors’ of a church now, or don’t know what it is that churches that aren’t the church you might remember from your school years, or Sunday school as a kid, here’s a little run through of how and why we do things the way we do at our church.

You might be watching this video because you work for a church and you’re trying to figure out what you have to say about your church, or what you can offer the people around you. I quite like this as a departure from some of our previous ‘vision videos’ where we describe who we are in terms of what we want to achieve. I was very involved in some of those, this time around, my version of this video involved a talking smart fridge of the future. I think we can all agree this is a better video because it didn’t go with that idea.

If you haven’t been for a while, and you live in Brisbane, then why not come check us out one Sunday — or, if you’re not in Brisbane, or nowhere near South Bank, Carina, or Springfield (where Creek Road churches meet) let me know where you live and I’ll introduce you to a church near you.

Why I now side with Paul, not Eutychus

On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead. Paul went down, threw himself on the young man and put his arms around him. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “He’s alive!” Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate. After talking until daylight, he left. The people took the young man home alive and were greatly comforted. — Acts 20:7-12

St. Eutychus: Where being boring kills.

When I changed the name of this site from nathanintownsville to st-eutychus, I did it because I thought the story of Eutychus falling out the window in Acts — to his death — was hilarious. Eutychus will eternally be known as the guy bored to death by Paul’s preaching. Paul. Potentially the most effective teacher ever to have lived. In my reading of the story, for the sake of the title, he fell into the trap of preaching too long. A trap, as a PR hack who wrote pithy 500 word press releases for a living, that I genuinely believed was deadly.

So what’s happened. Somehow in recent times the tagline of this site should almost be read as an indicative — this is the place where you might come to be drowned in words, lulled to sleep, and might fall from a window to your death. Where being boring kills. Yes.

This is deliberate. I’m raging agains the TL:DR; machine. If you want short, punchy, simplistic and inane reactive viral fodder, then, well, pith off.

I’m raging against this machine because I think Eutychus was wrong. I think being bored kills. I think Eutychus should have worked harder to pay attention to Paul, and to the world — he should have known the dangers of sitting on a window sill, in a dimly lit room, listening to someone speak for hours.

We’ve lost the ability to pay attention, and the only way we’ll gain it is to start paying attention. Copious attention. To the world, to the Gospel, to the people around us. TL:DR; (too long didn’t read) is at least as much an indictment of our collective failure to pay attention as it is on poor content that is too long and convoluted.

Sure, a thing might not be worth your attention — that’s on you to figure out, and your attention is yours to give. I’m writing as an attempt to pay attention to things myself. To notice. To seek understanding. To avoid knee-jerk outrage in response to whatever is going on in the world, and to try to understand the world as people see it, and the world as I believe people should see it. Attention is what is required to live well, and love well. It’s what prevents outrage, and what causes someone to bother with fact checking before sharing something designed to create outrage. Any pithy thing I ever do write — anything under 2,000 words, the posts I typically see shared the most — is always, always, the product of thinking I’ve extensively outlined, out loud, here already, at much greater length.

At the end of the day, I write about things that interest me, that I hope, over time, might prove of interest or value to others. You don’t need to pay attention to me or what I write. That’s fine — I don’t check stats, this stopped being about my ego or my ‘brand’ a long time ago. But I do feel like I need to keep explaining the shift of gears in this corner of the interwebs.

You don’t need to read everything I write — not even my wife or mother do that (I think dad might, hi dad) — but if I could leave you with one plea. One desperate, heartfelt, plea:

Please pay attention.

To the world.

To others.

Give it generously.

Lavish it in droves.

Use your brain, and your eyes, but think about what you’re filling them with. Ask yourself why we fill a 24-hour news cycle with 10 second grabs from spokespeople forced to reduce complex issues into a memorable zinger. Ask what that’s doing to our media, our politics, and our ability to be civil. Ask yourself why we’ve got a 24 hour news cycle that we then pad out with input from multiple devices, feeding us those same 10 second lines from those same glib speakers. Read Nicholas Carr’s famous piece Is Google Making Us Stupid. In his book, The Shallows, Carr says:

“Media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

The internet has the capacity to stop us concentrating, and contemplating — other words for paying attention.

And then he says, according to neuroscientists and because our brains are ‘plastic’ — they change as we use them…

“We become, neurologically, what we think”

The Psalmist behind Psalm 115 says:

But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but cannot see…

Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

We become what we behold. And what we behold isn’t just the messages we pay attention to, but the mediums that deliver them too.

Paul, in Romans, says:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Things in this world shape us. Things external to us. You might believe you’re in control of this shaping, but the only way to be in control is to pay attention — Christian or not — testing and approving of how you live and the decisions you make is what keeps you in the driver’s seat for your brain, and what keeps us able to live well in this world.

Ask yourself if you really believe that we become what we behold — then ponder why media theorists, theologians, and neuroscientists all agree that the information we consume, and the way we consume it, has the power to shape the way we think and physically re-shape our brains and communication.

Maybe a ten second sound bite or a seven hundred word opinion piece isn’t enough to do justice on any real issues in this world. And maybe consuming these things and thinking they do our thinking for us is starting to cost us our ability to see the world well, and thus live in it well. Maybe you’ve got to read ten seven hundred word opinion pieces, or one seven thousand word opinion piece to really know what’s going on, and to react appropriately.

That’s what I think. That’s why I’ve switched camps from Eutychus to Paul. Paul was also a nice guy. He didn’t punish Eutychus for not paying attention, he saw what happened and picked him up.

And then he talked some more. From midnight to dawn. That’s a lot of words. Because sometimes its words that give life.

St. Eutychus: Where being bored kills.



Re-Enchanting the World: Episode 1 — Heroic Space: DC’s Gotham v Marvel’s New York; Or, things I thought about while playing Spider-Man 2 with my son

In which I ask why Marvel Comics sets its stories in real cities, while DC creates anonymous every-cities. And consider what this does to us as participants in the narrative.

Image Credit: Screenshot from Amazing Spider-Man 2, US Gamer, Amazing Spider-Man 2 Review

I’ve somehow managed to get my 2 year old son obsessed with Spider-Man. It wasn’t hard. I’ve always loved Spider-Man’s off-the-wall (or on-the-wall) antics, and there’s something about the playful red/blue/web aesthetic that I just enjoy. I also love that clichéd line “with great power comes great responsibility”… I was never all that into Spider-Man myself. I was an avid reader of The Phantom as a kid.

Xavi and I have been watching The Ultimate Spider-Man together. A pretty fun cartoon. Mostly it’s fun for me. He has a Spider-Man figurine that he takes to bed. And so, I thought it’d be fun for me to grab a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on the PS4. And it has been fun. Though mostly for me.

In the last few years I’ve enjoyed the resurgence of comic book worlds in TV and Cinema. I love the Marvel Universe (except for the relatively insipid Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D). I thought Nolan’s Batman trilogy was great, and Arrow and The Flash are TV favourites in our household. Robyn isn’t so sure about Gotham. But I like its gritty gangster vibe, and its introductions of villains from Batman’s world have drawn me back into the Batman mythos a bit.

As I was swinging from building to building as New York’s friendly, neighbourhood, Spider-Man, it got me wondering — why is it that Marvel’s universe co-opts real world cities as a back-drop for its stories, while DC has invented the likes of Gotham, Metropolis, Central City and Starling City? What is gained through this decision? What is lost?

I’ve been thinking a bit about questions of place and story lately. And I’ll get to a bit of theological unpacking of these questions in some subsequent posts.

I while back I posted a bunch of lectures from TV show-runner extraordinaire Dan Harmon (of Community fame) about how stories work (and some stuff from Ira Glass and Kurt Vonnegut). The shape of stories Harmon talks about in those lectures is pretty much the shape of every comic book story ever created (and every story ever told), and he said this, which I think is true:

“Sooner or later, we need to be someone, because if we are not inside a character, then we are not inside the story.” — Dan Harmon

Video games obviously make this process easier by giving you a character to play. Eyes to see through. An avatar. They bring us into the story via a character — other stories through other mediums have to do this in other ways, and as a result of web-slinging my way around New York, I’m wondering what role place plays in getting us inside a character. Do we get into a story, and into a character, quicker if the setting is one we know, or one that exists in our world, or does an ‘every-city’ do the job faster?

I’m also wondering what role comic books — or fantasy in general — plays in giving us a picture of a re-enchanted world. A world where good and evil are locked in a battle, not just in a natural sense, but supernaturally. I’m wondering how they might teach us something about compelling story-telling that helps us help people see the world truly.

All this. Just as a result of playing a video game about a comic book character…

Our Disenchanted world

I’ve been reading quite a bit of James K.A Smith lately. One of the ideas at the heart of much of his writing is that our modernist, ‘secular,’ world is a disenchanted world. A flat world that has lost a sense of meaning beyond the physical reality. He suggests that in moving to an epistemology (method of knowing stuff), ontology (understanding of what stuff ‘being’ ‘stuff’ is), and a philosophy (materialism, the way we bring these two together), that emphasises the material world above all else we’ve collapsed any transcendent (stuff beyond us, and our senses, and ‘ultimate’ stuff) reality into an immanent (stuff around us, that we experience and observe) reality. That is: we don’t ask questions about supernatural stuff. About magic. About God or gods — because all that really matters is what we (collectively, and individually) see, hear, feel, and experience.

The effect of this has been to disenchant the world — which has an impact on our art and culture as much as it does on the way we think about knowing, and the sciences. Our art becomes less enchanting. Our stories, even our ‘myths’ — not untrue stories, but the stories we live by — become more worried about the immanent.

But. Maybe the world isn’t as disenchanted as it appears to be. And maybe superhero stories are an invitation for us to consider our desire to be enchanted. One of Smith’s books I’ve been reading is How (Not) To Be Secular its a short commentary on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. in it, Smith says:

Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.

One of the ways out of a disenchanted world, via these haunted remains, is through the arts — and — specifically, through stories. Comic books are a type of art (even if high art types might criticise them as being ‘pop’ culture). They’re also a type of story particularly given to doing this work because they’re visual stories, not just words on a page. They’re also, often, an ‘epic’ sort of story capable of functioning as myth, and with a hero designed for us to care about, and identify with (but more on heroes in the next episode). Both the Marvel and DC universes, via their comic books, but also their multimedia platforms represent a billion dollar sector churning out stories people want to immerse themselves in as they read, watch, and play.

“The cinema has never before seen anything quite like the “Marvel cinematic universe”. This sometimes tightly, sometimes loosely connected skein of films and television shows draw on characters the comic-book publisher (now also a movie company owned by Disney) has been developing for decades. Begun in 2008 with “Iron Man”, its exercise in extended mythopoeia now consists of 11 feature films and three television shows, with many more to come… The studio has successfully explored a range of trappings and stylings for its superheroes, putting them in character pieces and ensembles, setting their stories in outer space and in congressional hearings, playing them for thrills, or laughs, or both. There has, though, been something of an amped-up sameiness to the recent offerings, with third acts dominated by variations on the theme of a large-flying-object-laying-waste-to-a-city-with-possible-world-changing-conseqences.” — Ant Man: The Smaller Picture, Economist

These stories matter. The settings matter — these cities that are laid waste matter. The ‘laying waste’ matters within those worlds, it has potential consequences that we largely ignore as viewers, but the authors are no longer interested in letting us ignore, nor are they interested in ignoring them as storytellers who are world building — that’s what that word ‘mythopoeia’ means in the quote above.

These stories are also a window into the way people experience the haunting of our ‘immanent’ world at a ‘pop’ level. They are art. Pop art. I don’t think ‘pop’ should carry any sense of snobbery, because what this really means is that its a popular way that people in western society get their little taste of enchantment. Even if the way these comic universes are set up (as we’ll see) are often products of an immanent view of the world.

Just briefly, as a bit of an answer for anyone who has bothered to read this far who is still thinking “what’s the point” of all this — the point is this. Too often our methodologies as Christians, the way we speak the Gospel and live it — buys into this immanent frame, and produces a sort of immanent Christianity that never touches the transcendent, or gets close to this haunting sense people have. One of our goals, as Christians who believe in a supernatural — something beyond our senses — and an archetypal hero — must surely be to give people a new vocabulary, and a new way of seeing the world. Our task in speaking into the secular world — the stories we tell — are stories, or ‘myths’ that are ‘enchanted’ and true.

Now. Back to the question at hand. What difference does it make to the story if its set in the “real” world, or in a created world? Are we most likely to see the world as enchanted if the ‘myths’ or stories we live by that give us models for action, and help us think through meaning are set in the real world, in real cities, or in fictional every-cities? What is more relatable?

It turns out this is a debate that goes as far back as CS Lewis and Tolkien, who both wrote about the importance of ‘faery stories’ and creating worlds shot through with meaning. Worlds where the transcendent was not collapsed into the immanent. Worlds where magic still happened. Enchanted worlds. Worlds that could speak to those haunted parts of our minds and help us see meaning in our own world. So we’ll unpack that a bit too. My basic thesis is that Tolkien advocates a DC approach to story telling, while Lewis would adopt Marvel’s approach. So, for example, the humans in Narnia are citizens of earth who arrive in the enchanted world of Narnia through a wardrobe, while the humans of Middle Earth are natives of this alternative, still overtly enchanted, world.

Although, Lewis understood that enchanted stories needed to take place a little beyond our little immanent bubbles of reality. Beyond our own place — our own city.

“It is not difficult to see why those who wish to visit strange regions in search of such beauty, awe, or terror as the actual world does not supply have increasingly been driven to other planets or stars. It is the result of increasing geographical knowledge. The less known the real world is, the more plausibly your marvels can be located near at hand.” — CS Lewis, On Science Fiction

The effect of dislocation into these enchanted places was meant, for Lewis, to help people carry that experience into their everyday reality. To re-enchant the world.

“He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.” — CS Lewis, On Three Ways of Writing for Children

But are comic books really the equivalent of the Lewis/Tolkien approach to faery stories? Can we really think these forms of pop culture can do what the literary work of two of the 20th century’s most prodigious literary geniuses were able to do? Is there any comparison between DC’s Gotham and Tolkien’s Middle Earth? Or Marvel’s New York and Lewis’ London? Or even perhaps Marvel’s Asgard and Lewis’ Narnia?

In the next couple of posts I’ll unpack what Tolkien and Lewis teach us about building worlds embedded with meaning, and I’ll consider the role of heroes within these world building stories. Who knows when those posts will be finished. For now lets continue on this question of what sort of place, or setting, provides the quickest path to re-enchantment. A real city, enchanted, or an ‘enchanted’ city we’re invited to see as a city we belong to…

Comics and the “real” world

Comics, as stories, are an interesting lens through which to unpack the values of the world that produces them, and they also play a part in shaping the world we live in. Comic book characters are no longer reduced to two dimensional avatars that move through panel by panel, they’re now brought to life in TV shows, Movies, and video games. We can, as I’ve experienced this week, see the world — our world — through their eyes, and so seeing, can be invited to re-see our world differently through our own eyes.

It’s interesting that in their current iterations the significant difference between DC and Marvel is that, thanks to the aesthetic of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, DC products tend to be darker, and grittier than Marvel’s, and ultimately, despite Superman coming from another planet, I think they’re somewhat less overtly enchanted or magical than Marvel. Marvel’s cinematic universe — with the exception of the new Netflix Daredevil series (and we’ll discuss it in a subsequent post) operates in a world soaked in vivid colour. Neither comic universe really engages in the magical realm quite so much as Lewis or Tolkien. Whether its New York or Gotham or Metropolis, these stories still occur in something close to the real world. And yet the ‘enchantment’ of the superhero still needs to be explained, this is truer in Marvel’s universe — Batman (DC) and Ironman (Marvel) both operate as functions of their wealth, and the opportunity created by such wealth, Superman (DC) and Thor (Marvel) are both ‘out of this world’ heroes from above, bringing a sense of enchantment to earth, while the rest of Marvel’s heroes are essentially ‘enchanted’ when the immanent world backfires, or, when science misfires. The ‘enchantments’ are largely not enchantments at all, but products of immanence (the question of whether God/gods exists in these universes is an interesting one that I’ll unpack a bit later too). As my friend Craig Hamilton put it when I asked him (and others) the question that drove this investigation:

“The DC universe is about the ideal whereas Marvel is about struggling to live up to an ideal. DC heroes are almost pure archetypes while Marvel are heroes with feet of clay. Even Batman isn’t a brooding vigilante he’s The World’s Greatest Detective. Marvel has a fearful, suspicious stance towards technology and science that DC doesn’t have. Most of Marvel’s heroes and villains are the result of science gone wrong. The Fantastic Four, Spider-man, Hulk. It’s fear of radiation that creates all these heroes. And they’re fundamentally flawed characters in a way that DC heroes aren’t. Sure Superman has kryptonite and Green Lantern’s ring didn’t work on yellow for a while, but that’s totally different to Tony Stark being an alcoholic weapons manufacturer or Peter Parker being responsible for his Uncle’s murder and being driven by that guilt forever while continuing to make stupid decisions and needing to fix his mistakes.” — Craig Hamilton

The X-Men, a Marvel franchise, are another example of enchantment via immanence — super powers developed via mutation, rather than enchantment being a natural product of a world that includes an accepted, and largely unquestioned, transcendent reality (ala Gandalf and Aslan).

Regardless of the origin of the powers of the hero, these stories have always had a mythic quality, the ability, via a sort of enchantment, to function as myth and cause us to understand our ‘immanent’ reality differently.They’ve always had this sort of power. Regardless of their setting — but a really interesting example of the differences between Marvel’s real world stories and DC’s stories that come from fictional cities set within the real world, came in World War II.

While being perennially dismissed as juvenile, comic books functioned as powerful propaganda in World War II, which took place just as superheroes were emerging as icons. DC Comics Superman and Batman, who existed in their own fictional ‘every-cities’ took part in the war effort by modelling an ideal citizenship — a citizenship of responsible consumption — cracking down on petty crime and irresponsible use of resources back home, while Marvel’s characters, especially Captain America, coming as they did from real cities, were able to participate in the war effort.

The question of setting is already playing a part in the way comic book stories function as ‘myth’ stories that shape us. Stories that use a sense of enchantment to reshape the lives of the people and cultures who both read them and produce them. What’s interesting in the question of setting, is that regardless of universe, all the action is really taking place in one city. Vancouver.

Or, rather, New York. “Every City” or not, comic book drama takes place in that great city.

That great city: Gotham, Metropolis and New York

“Originally I was going to call Gotham City “Civic City.” Then I tried “Capital City,” then “Coast City.” Then I flipped through the New York City phone book and spotted the name “Gotham Jewelers” and said, “That’s it,” Gotham City. We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it. Of course, Gotham is another name for New York.” — Batman Writer/Co-creator, Bill Finger

“The difference between Gotham and Metropolis succinctly summarizes the differences between the two superheroes. As current Batman editor Dennis O’Neil put it: ‘Gotham is Manhattan below Fourteenth Street at 3 a.m., November 28 in a cold year. Metropolis is Manhattan between Fourteenth and One Hundred and Tenth Streets on the brightest, sunniest July day of the year'” — Dennis O’Neil, Batman Writer, cited in ‘Metropolis is New York by Day, Gotham City is New York by Night,’ BarryPopkik.com

The locus of superhero comics was then, as it largely remains, New York. Writers and artists living in the city depict it in their work — so successfully that superhero stories set in any other city may require a certain degree of justification for their choice of locale.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader


But why New York? Making an ‘every-city’ based on New York is interesting, because it’s already an every-city.

“The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described his reactions on arriving in the city in the essay ‘New York in 1941’: “…New York (and this is the source of its charm and its peculiar fascination) was then a city where anything seemed possible. Like the urban fabric, the social and cultural fabric was riddled with holes. All you had to do was pick one and slip through if, like Alice, you wanted to get to the other side of the looking glass and find worlds so enchanting that they seemed unreal.” This is the New York (or Gotham City, or Metropolis) that dominates the superhero story and has become its almost inevitable milieu. New York draws together an impressive wealth of signs, all of which the comic-reader is adept at deciphering. It is a city that signifies all cities, and, more specifically, all modern cities, since the city itself is one of the signs of modernity… New York is a sign in fictional discourse for the imminence of such possibilities — simultaneously a forest of urban signs and an endlessly wiped slate on which unlimited designs can be inscribed — cop shows, thrillers, comedies, “ethnic” movies… and cyclical adventures of costumed heroes as diverse as Bob Kane’s Batman and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.” — Richard Reynolds, ‘Masked Heroes,’ The Superhero Reader

What’s interesting is that these comic universes — even these comic New Yorks — have to grapple with questions of the relationship between people and place. Both people in these worlds — and the impact they have on the places they occupy, and the impact these places have on the people who occupy them, and the people and events outside the world and the impacts these people have on the fictional, enchanted universe of these stories. A question that flows from this is what do these ‘enchanted’ places do to people in the real world — via the power of story.


What places do to people, what people do to places

“Batman is integrally linked to his city, the city he has sworn to protect. In every sense of the word, he is a true avatar of Gotham. And Gotham City itself is an avatar, not only of the dreams of its fictional architects, but of our collective urban paranoia.” — Jimmy Stamp, ‘Batman, Gotham City, and an Overzealous Architecture Historian With a Working Knowledge of Explosives,’ Life Without Buildings

There’s a sense amongst the literature on Batman, especially the Dark Knight Batman, that Gotham’s dysfunctionality is, at least in part, due to the sort of person, or sort of hero, he is. His ‘myth’ — his power as a symbol — is built on fear. He wears a mask. He strikes fear into the hearts of those who do wrong in the city, and yet, this perpetuates a kind of criminal in Gotham who needs to be fearless (or insane) to operate. It’s a vicious cycle. Batman is shaped by his city, and thereafter he shapes his city.

In the real world, as readers or viewers visiting Gotham, the city has the capacity to both embody our fears about criminals unchecked by conscience, and the ‘worst’ of city life. If the writers of Batman have quite deliberately based their ‘enchanted’ city on New York’s worst districts, at night, then this fictional place starts to reinforce certain fears in us, as we read. The Dark Knight is a certain sort of post-modern hero who turns the table on the way this ‘enchantment’ works from being light and magical to being dark, if not a dark art, or sorcery, at the very least a sort of defence against the dark arts that comes from us seeing humanity reflected at its worst through the magic mirror, rather than at its best in the, albeit masked, visage of the superhero.

“Since its inception, Gotham City has been presented as the embodiment of the urban fears that helped give rise to the American suburbs, the safe havens from the city that they are. Gotham City has always been a dark place, full of steam and rats and crime. A city of graveyards and gargoyles; alleys and asylums. Gotham is a nightmare, a distorted metropolis that corrupts the souls of good men.”— Jimmy Stamp, ‘Batman, Gotham City, and an Overzealous Architecture Historian With a Working Knowledge of Explosives,’ Life Without Buildings

Architecture, real or enchanted, shapes the people who ‘live’ in it. It makes us feel. It’s a form of art, and thus, able to enchant. Or haunt. As my web-slinging avatar flew through the streets of New York, and as the impressively animated city was corrupted, burned, and blown up by bad guys, and an hyper-vigilant anti-hero agency, I felt things about the destruction of the city. I don’t know if this felt ‘realer’ because it was New York, a city I’ve never visited, but the setting was part of the story. It helped it touch some haunted part of me, or put me in touch with something enchanting. It got me asking the sort of questions that led me to read a bunch of stuff and write these posts.

“Architecture influences the lives of human beings. City dwellers react to the architectural forms and spaces which they encounter: specific consequences may be looked for in their thoughts, feelings and actions. Their response to Architecture is usually subconscious. Designers themselves are usually unconscious of the effects which their creations will produce.” — Hugh Ferris, An Architect/deliniator from New York from his book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow

Comic book architecture also reacts and responds to the real world. It has to, to keep us engaged. This becomes part of the motivation (apart from a desire to do-over a stupid plot line) for a comic book trope called retconning. The “retcon” is a portmanteau of retroactive continuity. It’s a sort of on the fly editing of a back story to account for a change in the present. From what I’ve read in the last couple of days, Frank Miller’s introduction of the Dark Knight version of Batman was an incredibly powerful and effective retcon, with a fitting story. It was a retcon that took place because of a cultural shift. It enabled Batman to be interestingly post-modern, asking new questions in storylines and for us as readers (but more on this in a future episode). Apparently Superman started off as something of a Robin Hood, who robbed from the rich and was a little anti-establishment, but as soon as World War II kicked off he became the face of the ideal American. These retcons seem necessary. But some are dumb. Other retcons, or changes, are forced because of physical changes in the real world — like the 9-11 destruction of the Twin Towers. There are other changes that are less retconny and more trendy.

“Miller’s revisionary realism is only another version of what comic books often accomplish in the narrative, a literal revising of the facts of a comic book character’s history on the basis of recent interpretation. Take, for example, the design of Superman’s home planet, Krypton. The rendering of a “futuristic” world looks very different today than the rendering done in 1938. Today, however, Krypton is portrayed anew and is expected to be understood by readers as the true rendition of how Krypton has always looked. — Geoff Klock, The Revisionary Superhero Narrative

But places are also, increasingly, affected by the events that take place inside the comic book universe. This is interesting because it makes the stories set therein simultaneously ‘realer’ in that there is an effect following a cause, and less real, in that the ‘real’ version of the city is increasingly removed from the story version. A story-teller particularly committed to their craft would have to start literally blowing up cityscapes to keep a continuity between the real world and the story world. Over time, the change inflicted on the physical landscape in the story could make the events more distant from us, if they didn’t become opportunities to present us with new questions. It’s funny that in one sense, Marvel’s New York is moving closer to DC’s, especially Dark Knight DC’s, Gotham.

One of the profoundly cool things about Netflix’s version of Daredevil is that it happens in the same Marvel universe as the films. And this becomes part of the story. The events shape the people. There’s continuity — which according to Reynold’s in a book called Superheroes: An Analysis of Popular Culture’s Modern Myths  — is a thing that Marvel’s Stan Lee introduced into the world of comics as a key innovation in what he identifies as the Silver Age of Comics (these ‘ages’ are contested a bit). So it’s true to Marvel’s DNA. This continuity is interesting because Daredevil, via Netflix, has a sort of gritty aesthetic more at home in Gotham. Daredevil’s New York is gritty. And its grittiness is a result — a direct result — of the wanton destruction of New York in The Avengers. Daredevil confronts the fallout of the destruction of this city so prominently featured as the landscape for Marvel’s epic cinematic universe. This universe, a universe grappling with the destruction wrought upon it by these conflicts, and changing as our real world changes too, becomes the backdrop for increasingly complex stories, stories where we’re haunted by both our very immanent reality, and the real, physical, consequences of decisions made in the real world, but where we’re also haunted by a lingering sense of the transcendent, and the idea that even now, though we might deny it, our world is shot through with meaning. The Marvel Universe is becoming even more ‘fallen’ in a Biblical sense, as the impact of human, and super-human, failings are felt at an environmental level. Marvel’s universe, like DC’s, and like our own, is frustrated and groaning as a result of sin. But this makes the world meaningful, and real.

CS Lewis wrote a book called The Discarded Image in which he explores how our modern approach to knowledge displaced the idea that there is meaning beyond the material. He writes about the medieval model of the world, a world imbued with all sorts of meaning. A world which functions as a backdrop for stories — art — that is more enchanting than the art we produce as a result. We start handicapped, like a runner 20 metres behind the start line, because we’ve lost our sense that the everyday forest is enchanted already. Our fictional forests are as bland as the run of the mill forest of the medieval model. Our comic book villains are less magical, and our heroes are the product of science experiments gone wrong. They’re not the sorts about whom bards might sing.

In every period the Model of the Universe which is accepted by the great thinkers helps to provide what we may call a backcloth for the arts. But this backcloth is highly selective. It takes over from the total Model only what is intelligible to a layman and only what makes some appeal to imagination and emotion. Thus our own backcloth contains plenty of Freud and little of Einstein. The medieval backcloth contains the order and influences of the planets, but not much about epicycles and eccentrics. Nor does the backcloth always respond very quickly to great changes in the scientific and philosophical level. Furthermore, and apart from actual omissions in the backcloth version of the Model, there will usually be a difference of another kind. We may call it a difference of status. The great masters do not take any Model quite so seriously as the rest of us. They know that it is, after all, only a model, possibly replaceable. — CS Lewis, The Discarded Image

Romans 1 suggests we suppress the transcendent reality of our world, and exchange the transcendent supernatural God, in whom we exist, for a bunch of immanent gods — worshipping created things. Romans 1 shows that the world, as it was intended to be, is an enchanted space where we should be coming face to face with the divine, and its only our deliberate blinkers, our wilful intent to not see, to not be enchanted, that leaves our world more two dimensional than a comic strip universe (a world where meaning and enchantment still exist).

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. — Romans 1:18-23

Enchanting stories: Stories that bridge the gap between the immanent and transcendent

The contemplation of the actual Metropolis as a whole cannot but lead us at last to the realization of a human population unconsciously reacting to forms which came into existence without conscious design. A hope, however, may begin to define itself in our minds. May there not yet arise, perhaps in another generation, architects who, appreciating the influence unconsciously received, will learn consciously to direct it?” — Hugh Ferris, from The Metropolis of Tomorrow

Breaking this ‘suppression’ and the blindness that comes with it requires the world to become enchanted again, in some sense this requires the enchanted worlds that teach us that our world, too, is enchanted, to become more compellingly enchanted. That’ll help. It also involves us shifting our model for understanding the real world, to include the transcendant. This is another one of those vicious cycles. Our models are influenced by art and story, just as they influence art and story. Paul’s answer to the world broken by our fascination with the immanent in Romans 1 is a story, the story about how the transcendent one broke through. How God took the first step. How he provided a hero. Here’s a spoiler. The answer at the end of this series, wherever it leads, is going to be Jesus, because Jesus, in the incarnation, is the perfect character (a character almost every superhero, but especially Superman, rips off in some way). This isn’t your typical Jesus juke. I think it’s true in a profound and enchanting way.

But the answer is also us telling better, more enchanting, stories. Learning something from DC and Marvel, sure, but looking back to times when the world was more enchanted, or to those who engaged, deliberately, in the construction of enchanted worlds. Whose approach to ‘architecture’ or to world-building was an intentional attempt to direct us not just to something enchanting, but something truer than true about our own world. Stories require people (heroes) doing things in places, over time. So the next two episodes will explore that. But now. Some James K.A Smith on why we need stories.

“So what does this have to do with stories? Well, our hearts traffic in stories. Not only are we lovers, we are also story-tellers (and story-listeners). As the novelist David Foster Wallace once put it, “We need narrative like we need space-time; it’s a built-in thing”. We are narrative animals whose very orientation to the world is most fundamentally shaped by stories. Indeed, it tends to be stories that capture our imagination—stories that seep into our heart and aim our love. We’re less convinced by arguments than moved by stories… The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that stories are so fundamental to our identity that we don’t know what to do without one. As he puts it, I can’t answer the question, “What ought I to do?” unless I have already answered aprior question, “Of which story am I a part?” It is a story that provides the moral map of our universe…

Stories, then, are not just nice little entertainments to jazz up the material; stories are not just some supplementary way of making content “interesting.” No, we learn through stories because we know by stories. Indeed, we know things in stories that we couldn’t know any other way: there is an irreducibility of narrative knowledge that eludes translation and paraphrase…

So it is crucial that the task of Christian schooling is nested in a story—in the narrative arc of the biblical drama of God’s faithfulness to creation and to his people. It is crucial that the story of God in Christ redeeming the world be the very air we breathe, the scaffolding around us… we constantly need to look for ways to tell that story, and to teach in stories, because story is the first language of love. If hearts are going to be aimed toward God’s kingdom, they’ll be won over by good storytellers.” — James K.A Smith, Learning (by) Stories


So. What difference does it make if the story is set in real New York or New York in a mask? Perhaps not much. What matters is how enchanting the story is, or how much the use of the city is able to haunt us by pointing us to some truth beyond ourselves. To get us to remove the mask, or the blinkers, we wear that stop us truly seeing the world around us as enchanted, and shot through with meaning. A place where we might meet real heroes, and even behold the divine.

SNIPPET // CS Lewis’ rule for literary criticism

I’m reading a bit of stuff CS Lewis wrote on writing, in this case an essay called On Science Fiction. He has this little gem of a rule buried in the essay.


“Of articles I have read on the subject [science fiction writing] (and I expect I have missed many) I do not find that I can make any use. For one thing, most were not very well informed. For another, many were by people who clearly hated the kind they wrote about. It is very dangerous to write about a kind you hate. Hatred obscures all distinctions. I don’t like detective stories and therefore all detective stories look very much alike to me: if I wrote about them I should therefore infallibly write drivel. Criticism of kinds as distinct from criticism of works, cannot of course be avoided… But it is, I think, the most subjective and least reliable type of criticism. Above all, it should not masquerade as criticism of individual works. Many reviews are useless because, while purporting to condemn the book, they only reveal the reviewer’s dislike of the kind to which it belongs. Let bad tragedies be censured by those who love tragedy, and bad detective stories by those who love the detective story. Then we shall learn their real faults. Otherwise we shall find epics blamed for not being novels, farces for not being high comedies, novels by James for lacking the swift action of Smollett.

“Who wants to hear a particular claret abused by a fanatical teetotaller, or a particular woman by a confirmed misogynist”

“Even if it is a vice to read science fiction, those who cannot understand the very temptation to that vice will not be likely to tell us anything of value about it. Just as I, for instance, who have no taste for cards, could not find anything very useful to say by way of warning against deep play. They will be like the frigid preaching chastity, misers warning us against prodigality, cowards denouncing rashness.”

“Do not criticise what you have no taste for without great caution. And, above all, do not ever criticise what you simply can’t stand. I will lay all the cards on the table. I have long since discovered my own private phobia: the thing I can’t bear in literature, the thing which makes me profoundly uncomfortable, is the representation of anything like a quasi love affair between two children. It embarrases and nauseates me. But of course I regard this not as a charter to write slashing reviews of books in which the hated theme occurs, but as a warning not to pass judgment on them at all. For my reaction is unreasonable: such child-loves quite certainly occur in real life and I can give no reason why they should not be represented in art… And I would venture to advise all who are attempting to become critics to adopt the same principle. A violent and actually resentful reaction to all books of a certain kind, or to situations of a certain kind, is a danger signal. For I am convinced that good adverse criticism is the most difficult thing we have to do. I would advise everyone to begin it under the most favourable conditions: this is, where you thoroughly know and heartily like the thing the author is trying to do, and have enjoyed many books where it was done well. Then you will have some chance of really showing that he has failed and perhaps even of showing why. But if our real reaction to a book is ‘Ugh! I just can’t bear this sort of thing,’ then I think we shall not be able to diagnose whatever real faults it has. We may labour to conceal our emotion, but we shall end in a welter of emotive, unanalysed, vogue-words — ‘arch,’ ‘facetious,’ bogus,’ adolescent,’ immature,’ and the rest. When we really know what is wrong we need none of these.”

How to ‘exegete’ a place

Image: A town crier in the public square, From this fun post about why they dress the way they did

Next week I’m taking a group of students from my old stomping ground, Queensland Theological College, to my new stomping ground, South Brisbane. I had to think of something that a wet behind the ears graduate church planter person could possibly hope to offer these guys that is valuable. And that isn’t just grunt work like door-knocking (the bane of college missions, I can say this now that I’m a graduate and a minister, not a whining student — don’t treat college mission students like an army of grunts who really need to learn how to doorknock or do some suitably mundane thing, make mission interesting and helpful). So we’re going out on an excursion to South Brisbane to exegete the suburb. To read the culture. To think about how we might speak the Gospel into this culture, and live the Gospel as part of this culture. (So, maybe I’m getting them to do my market research, but at least it’ll be fun — as you’ll see below, it’s really just going to involve them drinking coffee and using their eyes and ears).

In Christian parlance we use the word ‘exegete’ to describe the task of reading, interpreting, and understanding a text. In my circles this means interpreting a passage using a framework that we bring to each text — where we ask what God is saying in that passage through the person who wrote it to the people he’s saying it to, the people who first read it, and by extension, us. We ask how it fits in the bigger picture of God’s story, The Bible (Biblical theology), particularly with a view to how it helps us understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and how it fits with what we know about who God is via the rest of the Bible (systematic theology). We’re guided by trying to understand the historical context, including the language originally used (Hebrew, and Greek). We’re guided by trying to understand the literary context — the genre, the author, the audience. Exegesis is really important for drawing sound conclusions from the Bible in order to point people to the truth it contains.

Good preaching, good evangelism, requires good exegesis. A good understanding of God’s word, and the Gospel.

Exegesis. It’s a good word. Even if it sounds a bit fancy pantsy.

Good evangelism also requires good listening. Good loving of the people we’re speaking to. Not just belting people on the head with what we think.

To be good proclaimers of the Gospel we need to conduct an exercise similar to the exercise we conduct with God’s text, the Bible, with the people we speak to. We need to exegete the culture we hope to speak to — just as loving God’s word leads us to carefully interpret it, loving the people we hope to speak to leads us to carefully interpret them. Exegesis is a sort of attentive listening. We can’t just bring our own pre-conceived agenda to a text, reading it on our terms and bringing our own meaning (that’s called eisegesis). That’s not treating the text with respect. In the same way, we can’t simply shout (or speak) our message to the people around us. We need to listen to, and respect, the people we’re speaking to in order to love them, as much as we need to tell them our good news in order to love them. And we’ll tell them our good news, about the life changing death and resurrection of Jesus in a way that makes it clearly good news if we understand them better.

We need to exegete the people in the places we’re sent to share the Gospel. The best, clearest, picture of what this looks like is found in Paul’s visit to Athens. It’s there in the text of Acts 17, but it’s also beneath the text (and we can make this picture richer through good exegesis). This post isn’t ultimately exploring Paul’s methodology in Acts, its trying to give a guide to what applying this methodology might look like in our time and place. But I’ve bolded the bits here I think are really important for building our own model. The odd bits I’ve bolded in his speech at the Areopagus are where Paul quotes important philosophers and poets from the world of his hearers (and his own world — one is a philosopher from Tarsus). Paul carefully splits his audience by quoting some people he knows appeal to certain thinkers, and then showing some inconsistencies in the tests they’re trying to apply to his message  — his good news — about ‘Jesus and the resurrection’…  Even as Luke writes he demonstrates, himself, a familiarity with the lay of the land in Athens and with who was who in the Athenian zoo. He knows what parts of Paul’s time in Athens are significant to observe and record for the sake of those looking to Paul’s methodology for a model for our own presentation of this good news.

While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus,where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else [note: Paul is articulating a common, stoic, belief about God here, as well as a Jewish/Christian belief]. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ [Paul is quoting sources his audience is familiar with, though the ‘in him we live and move and have our being’ also has Old Testament roots]

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others. — Acts 17:16-34

Paul’s evangelism is pretty savvy. It’s savviness doesn’t guarantee wholesale conversion, but this is Paul speaking in an environment that is hostile to Christianity, and because he lovingly pays attention to the people he is speaking to, and takes the time to connect, he gets a hearing for the Gospel, and some people, by God’s grace, and through the work of the Spirit, hear what he has to say and believe. They’re left wanting to hear more about Jesus and the resurrection.

Anyway. How might we do a Paul? Do we need to read ancient philosophers? Or was Paul doing something more like watching reality TV and being an astute observer of culture? It would be easy to make this sound hard, but I suspect as a Tarsus born Roman citizen, as well as being an educated Jew, Paul was simply bringing who he was and what he knew to the act of lovingly and carefully observing the people he spoke to. It’s not rocket science. Evangelism is simply a matter of carefully listening to the people you love, in order to lovingly offer the Gospel as a better path to human flourishing. That’s what Paul does. He says you guys really want to find God. You long for that. Well here he is.

Our modern idols might not be statues — but they tap into, and represent — similar longings, and are part of similar frameworks or philosophies. We’re creatures of desire. Part of presenting the Gospel is understanding these desires as they take shape in different places. You could do worse than checking out the TV guide for the Lifestyle Channel. But desires manifest themselves differently in different places and amongst different demographics. Place is important. Paul operates differently in Athens, Corinth, and Jerusalem (though both require a careful exegesis of where he is, and he’s equally lovingly incisive in each place).

This isn’t hard. We invent all sorts of labels for this, like contextualisation. But what we really mean by this is loving the other person. Listening. Understanding. And doing this before we speak. The only reason that’s hard is because our default is still to put ourselves and our truth first. We’re meant to put Jesus first, and then the other. That’s meant to flavour how we speak. So Paul says in Philippians 2:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” — Philippians 2:1-5

Listening well, loving well, involves humility. Christ shaped humility. That’s part of living out and speaking the Gospel. It’s the humility that leads us to put others first in the way we speak about Jesus. Because the way we live and the way we speak should line up. Like they did for Paul, in Athens, and in Corinth, where he ‘resolved to know nothing but Jesus and him crucified’ and later says:

I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. — 1 Corinthians 4:17

As I mentioned in a recent post, I love the idea from philosopher Iris Murdoch that loving goodness, virtue even, requires us to unselfishly try to truly see the world around us, and to understand what drives the people around us in order to understand them in a good and loving way. That’s what Paul does, and its at the heart of a virtuous approach to sharing the good news (and its why bashing people over the head with what we believe about them, rather than engaging with what people believe about themselves is frankly an unloving way to undermine our message by through methods that don’t match up).

“…goodness is connected with knowledge; not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one’s eyes but of a certain and perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.” — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

I collected some advice from smart people on social media, and I’d written a thing on ‘exegeting a place’ a few years back with my public relations hat still on, which turned out to actually be somewhat sage advice. So. Here’s what I’ll be asking this team of students to ponder as they wonder the streets of South Brisbane (bonus points if you’re a QTC student reading this ahead of time.  The reason I’m posting this now is to ask you, the hive mind/brains trust to suggest better questions to ask when reading a place.

Questions to ask when exegeting a place

I reckon these are some good questions to guide us in ‘walking around’ and ‘looking carefully at the objects of worship’ in a place.


Where do the people here come from? Are they locals? Do they work here? Or is this a ‘third place’ (somewhere they come to play, rest, eat)? What are people doing with their time? Are the cars parked on the road new or run down? What demographics of people are here?

How does life here match the stats? Where would you find stats about this area? See if you can find some. What stands out? How would you find out about the future of this area? Who could you talk to to understand life here?

Are the people working or running businesses here busy? Optimistic? Happy? Satisfied?


What would it be like to live here? Where are the key places/nodes? Transport? Services?

Count the cranes in the skyline. Investigate. What are they here for? What is being built? How does this make locals feel? How might it shake up the fabric of this area?

Where are the marketplaces where ideas are discussed? What are the idols? What are the longings that create these idols? What are the “common objects of love” here? The things that bring people here, and bring people together? Where are people forming community? Where is shared life happening within this community/place? What are the ‘rituals’? What are the ‘festivals’? What is the default spiritual practice?


What is ‘life’ like? What’s On? What’s trending? What looks new? What looks old? What looks run down? What looks empty? What looks popular? What art is being produced, displayed, and celebrated here? What are people photographing in this location online (Instagram etc)? What are they reviewing on trip advisor? Beanhunter? Urban Spoon? What are they saying?

What are people spending money on? What are people giving time and attention to?


What are the loves driving people in this place? What are the obvious needs? What stories do you imagine people living in this setting? Where are the ‘philosophers’ behind these stories? What is being advertised on location specific ads here (advertisers do demographic research so you don’t have to)? What does local media talk about (find a copy of the West Ender)? What is the history of this place, how is it present in the present?


What observations can you make about this place that would help shape how you proclaim the Gospel here? What sort of things would you do in this community to help people hear about Jesus and the resurrection?

On outrage: Contemplation, rightly-ordered love, and loving attention as an ‘outrageous’ response to outrageous events

This is the last in a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged, then the link between a dead lion and Planned Parenthood — our disordered hearts, we considered the purpose of outrage, then some ancient Greek visions of virtue.

Remember Cecil the Lion?

How about Kony 2012?

What about Aylan Kurdi?

How quickly do we move on from that which outrages?

Cecil the Lion was a shot almost two months ago. His was the story that sparked this series in which I consider why we get outraged, what our tendency towards outrage might teach us about the world and our humanity, and what a more virtuous, loving, and constructive response to our disordered world might look like.

It turns out that outrage has a shelf life. The dentist who shot Cecil is going back to work this week. It also turns out that there’s a saturation point where people stop caring about information released in chunks (probably including this series of posts — but hey, I like to write for the “long tail” not the cheap virality of a sensationalist piece). So onwards into this question of outrage, and how we respond virtuously — with love — to those at the heart of outrageous events — be they victims or perpetrators. Because I think it’s this sort of radical love for people at both sides of something outrageous that defines a Christian response to disorder in the world. Here’s what Jesus says…

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:43-48

But what is love? What is love in the face of disorder?

Love and Virtue as attention seeking understanding in a virtually connected world

In the first few posts in this series I’ve basically suggested that outrageous events should propel us towards God and acting virtuously not towards forming lynch mobs or misdirected anger.

How then, should we define what is ‘good’ or virtuous— not just for ourselves, but for the community we’re part of? And what is this ‘community’ in the global age? Aristotle’s view of virtue was very much limited to proximity, you could only be concerned about those in your sphere, and only be assessed as a virtuous/moral agent based on how you treated people in your orbit. This obviously worked in his media culture which was transitioning from exclusively oral to oral and written. You found out about disorder as you experienced it, immediately, or as you were told, a long time after the fact. The media landscape we live in has fundamentally changed because space and time aren’t the limiting factors they once were for us in terms of forming communities or connections with people around the globe, or for being confronted with disorder and given the capacity to respond.

We may feel like solving world events is beyond our control, but the changing nature of ‘connectedness’ or community doesn’t just bring more awareness of problems, it brings more opportunities for us to communicate, relate, and love, beyond geographic boundaries. A solution to something outrageous may involve us sacrificially directing our attention, or love. This direction of love may involve activism, it may involve a movement towards physical proximity via a flight (we’re also more geographically connected than ever before), it may involve us giving money…

But the new media landscape means we’re actually bombarded with outrageous events, almost faster than we can possibly receive them, let alone respond to them. And there’s still plenty we don’t see because media agencies filter the least palatable material from global conflict and disaster so that we don’t have to see things as they really are.

If Aristotle was right about our moral responsibility resting with causes that we’re proximate to, and able to change, what is our moral responsibility when our new connected landscape means we’re just a mouse click away from outrageous events, and potentially a mouse-click away from a solution to these outrageous events?

What does virtuous or moral action look like in this connected and obviously disordered world? What do we need to do in order to be loving? And how do we decide what to love? It’s a question I grappled with in a more specific sense when people were changing their profiles to a ن in response to ISIS persecuting Christians, and tried to apply practically here. But it’s still a question I’m trying to unpack a little more.

In the last post in this series I looked at how Aristotle’s concept of virtue and arete (moral excellence) and the form of virtue promoted in the New Testament revolved around contemplation and knowing, the sort of contemplation and knowing that produces right actions. I’m going to suggest here that contemplation and knowing, via the application of loving attention, is the first virtuous act that we should bring to the table when we’re trying to respond to outrageously disordered events in the world, and that this should form the basis of whatever moral actions we take in response (and this will necessarily mean ‘outrage’ and forming an outraged mob is not the right, loving, response. This sort of love is the foundational virtue we should bring to the table, and because I’m a Christian, I’m going to suggest this love should be understood as “Christlike love.”

And I’m going to suggest that the act of love is an act of giving true attention, whether you’re a Christian or not.

From Aristotle to Augustine: Love, contemplation, and order

A few posts back, I suggested that most of the disorder we’re responding to the world is a result of our disordered hearts — our disordered love — hearts that orient humanity towards self-love at the expense of others. Virtue, or re-ordered love, will necessarily break this default pattern and seek order, rather than disorder. There are non-Christian accounts of virtue that seek to break this default, which I’ll get to below, but there’s also a sense that current visions of virtue, in the secular west, are derived from Christian moral philosophers who spent time reflecting on thinkers like Aristotle. If you were handing out jerseys to people who were influential thinkers on this front, after Aristotle and the New Testament, Augustine would definitely get a run in the team. People are still unpacking the implications of the stuff he wrote 1,600 years after he wrote it.

Augustine pinpointed the source of disorder in the world — the sort previously attributed to self-loving hearts — to hearts that reject God’s purposes for creation and humanity because they are hearts that love things in the wrong order. Disorder is a product of us paying attention to, and seeking satisfaction in, things that are not capable of satisfying our desires because they aren’t God. He saw the path to virtue as involving re-orienting, and re-ordering our love of objects in this world — people or otherwise — by loving God first, and having our love for other things ordered by this love.

And thus beauty, which is indeed God’s handiwork, but only a temporal, carnal, and lower kind of good, is not fitly loved in preference to God, the eternal, spiritual, and unchangeable good.  When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing.  For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love:  it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately.  It is this which some one has briefly said in these verses in praise of the Creator:  “These are Thine, they are good, because Thou art good who didst create them.  There is in them nothing of ours, unless the sin we commit when we forget the order of things, and instead of Thee love that which Thou hast made.”

But if the Creator is truly loved, that is, if He Himself is loved and not another thing in His stead, He cannot be evilly loved; for love itself is to be ordinately loved, because we do well to love that which, when we love it, makes us live well and virtuously.  So that it seems to me that it is a brief but true definition of virtue to say, it is the order of love; and on this account, in the Canticles, the bride of Christ, the city of God, sings, “Order love within me.” — Augustine, City of God, Book 15, Chapter 22

Then, in On Christian Doctrine, basically his version of the sort of ethical/rhetorical work which envisaged the ideal person as the ideal orator or teacher (following in the tradition of people like Cicero who spelled out his own vision of the virtuous person as a seer, knower, and speaker of truth in works like On The Ideal Orator (De Oratore)), Augustine wrote:

“Now he is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves less or more which ought to be loved equally. No sinner is to be loved as a sinner; and every man is to be loved as a man for God’s sake; but God is to be loved for His own sake. And if God is to be loved more than any man, each man ought to love God more than himself.”— Augustine, On Christian Doctrine I. 27. 28

When it came to defining what love actually means, Augustine started with the love he saw on display within the Trinity from person to person of the Trinity. His understanding of what love looks like was built from the Trinity up, and so, in a thing he wrote reflecting on the Trinity, called De Trinitate, he unpacked a series of links between knowledge, love, and the will. After establishing this same point about God being the first object of our love, saying “so God is to be loved, not this and that good, but the good itself…” he turns to how this sort of love shapes and defines a mind so that it can be called “good” — our minds, he suggests, are shaped by the things we love, and the things we love are the things we seek, and I’d suggest this seeking, for Augustine, is a sort of attempting to understand a thing accurately within our mind.

And to what can it turn itself that it may become a good mind, except to the good which it loves, and seeks, and obtains? And if it turns itself back again from this, and becomes not good, then by the very act of turning away from the good, unless that good remain in it from which it turns away, it cannot again turn itself back…

For Augustine, truly loving God (and by extension true loving) was a matter of seeking to truly know God in our own minds, by applying our minds to knowing and perceiving God (and by extension, whatever it is we seek to love).

But who loves what he does not know? For it is possible something may be known and not loved: but I ask whether it is possible that what is not known can be loved; since if it cannot, then no one loves God before he knows Him. And what is it to know God except to behold Him and steadfastly perceive Him with the mind?

The sort of love Augustine pictures here — both directed at God and others — is a love that seeks to know the mind of the other, not simply a love that loves another on our own terms. It essentially seeks to picture, or understand, the mind of the other within the mind of the self. This process begins with trying to understand God’s mind, and one’s own mind…

What, then, is love, except a certain life which couples or seeks to couple together some two things, namely, him that loves, and that which is loved? And this is so even in outward and carnal loves. But that we may drink in something more pure and clear, let us tread down the flesh and ascend to the mind. What does the mind love in a friend except the mind?

For the mind cannot love itself, except also it know itself; for how can it love what it does not know? Or if any body says that the mind, from either general or special knowledge, believes itself of such a character as it has by experience found others to be and therefore loves itself, he speaks most foolishly. For whence does a mind know another mind, if it does not know itself?”

For Augustine, perhaps unlike Aristotle, this sort of mindful love occurs as a response to seeing, paying attention to, and knowing those you love, but can also come through hearing about some other person removed from your immediate proximity…

For whence is the ardor of brotherly love kindled in me, when I hear that some man has borne bitter torments for the excellence and steadfastness of faith? And if that man is shown to me with the finger, I am eager to join myself to him, to become acquainted with him, to bind him to myself in friendship. And accordingly, if opportunity offers, I draw near, I address him, I converse with him, I express my goodwill towards him in what words I can, and wish that in him too in turn should be brought to pass and expressed goodwill towards me; and I endeavour after a spiritual embrace in the way of belief, since I cannot search out so quickly and discern altogether his innermost heart…

But those things themselves we either touch if present by the bodily sense, or if absent remember their images as fixed in our memory, or picture, in the way of likeness to them, such things as we ourselves also, if we wished and were able, would laboriously build up: figuring in the mind after one fashion the images of bodies, or seeing bodies through the body; but after another, grasping by simple intelligence what is above the eye of the mind, viz., the reasons and the unspeakably beautiful skill of such forms

This, of course, is interesting where we now hear and see things that we are not physically proximate to almost instantly. For Augustine this hearing could take place generations after the fact, and could also happen as someone received word about the plight of a person who seemed a world away. Our senses are now bombarded in a manner that does away with physical proximity, or time, as a barrier for knowledge. We form images of others — and see images of others — faster than ever before. Faster than we can possible process and understand with the sort of attention Augustine relished. The answer to navigating the complex mix of disorder that hits our eyes, I suspect, is caught up with rightly ordering our loves, and rightly understanding ourselves and our capacity to respond with love to others. We need to choose to weigh up the needs of those who can be pointed out to us by a finger, or who we see with our own eyes, and those whose presence is mediated to us via a screen, and presented to us via algorithms designed to hold our attention by presenting us with things we are likely to be outraged by — be it the dead squirrel in our yard, a dead lion, dead unborn children, or a dead child tragically washed up on a beach, or any number of meaningful or trivial things — the algorithm has an interest in fanning the flames of our hearts, and stoking our imaginations, in order to grip our attention.

This sort of bombardment of things to love, or respond to, leaves us in an interesting web of relationships with those we know and those we don’t.

It’s complicated.

Virtue as love, and love as the acts that flow from unselfish true seeing by paying attention

What’s the best we can hope to do amidst this complication? I think it’s caught up with the idea of the ethical life being the virtuous life — the life that isn’t as much focused on responding out of a sense of duty, but simply caught up with the idea of responding as a virtuous agent. Responding to whatever it is we see with a rightly ordered love. A love, for Christians, that starts with loving God, but moves to loving our (global) neighbour (or enemy) as we love ourselves. And I think the way to love, at least in this complicated world, is to love by paying attention in order to see things, and people, truly.

I think this model actually works without God too. Because I think it’s the most virtuous initial response to something happening a world away, because this true seeing underpins truly loving actions. It helps us know what is best. This is the sort of ‘good’ life that David Foster Wallace called people to live in his speech This Is Water

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: the only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship… — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

I think it’s a really nice picture of what I understand to be a model of virtuous living without God, and even a model for life with God. David Foster Wallace is the secular world’s CS Lewis. The beauty of his writing, be it fiction or non-fiction, is that it practices the sort of virtue described in This Is Water. He notices things. This virtuous attention to detail, an attempt to describe things and people as they really are, not just as you’d like them to be, is a virtuous and loving approach to writing, and to life. It means we must pay attention to things other than ourselves.

This idea of attention as virtue is interesting, it was a seed planted for me when I was reading something comparing two of my favourite writers— David Foster Wallace and Nicholson Baker — as I grappled with what it is I like about their writing, and the thing I like is that they are attentive to, and bring out, detail. The thing these guys might have in common is that they share a vision of goodness or virtue with novelist/moral philosopher Iris Murdoch. There’s an essay that examines the moral philosophy of This Is Water that suggests a link to Murdoch’s framework, and Baker is an avowed fan. I like the idea that novelists (like Wallace, Baker, and Murdoch) can teach us how to see and perceive the world morally, by asking us moral questions but also by inviting us to pay attention to life through the eyes of their characters, here’s a little paragraph from a Slate article about Baker, its the paragraph that sent me off to read Iris Murdoch because it intrigued me… For context, this comes as the piece discusses Baker’s expressed desire to preserve factoids and articles marked for deletion on Wikipedia (you can read Baker’s Wikipedia essay here).

“That same instinct for preservation underpins the way Baker writes. Ever since his first essays and stories appeared in the early ‘80s, he has always been noting things deemed non-notable by others, gently urging them towards us with his precise, delightful language.  His style is deeply moral—not in a preachy sense, but in the sense that it emerges from the way he sees the world. His ethics are absorbed into his aesthetics, and vice versa.

In all this there is the flavor of one of Baker’s favorite authors, Iris Murdoch, who centered her moral philosophy on the idea of “loving attention”—the idea that looking at a person or situation with intense care and imaginative sympathy is, in her words, “the characteristic and proper mark of the moral agent.” The lovingly precise descriptions Baker offers of even the most fleeting things that he comes across are a way of doing justice to those things—of honoring their dignity, if that’s not too grand and religious-sounding a phrase to use. (Baker is an atheist, and also a pacifist.)”

Murdoch unpacks this vision of virtue and morality in a book called The Sovereignty of Good, like Baker, and perhaps like DFW (nobody can really pinpoint exactly where he landed on the God question), Murdoch sees no need for God to form part of defining morality.

It’s hard for me to go this many words, in any written thing, without quoting Cicero, so here’s how he defined virtue. Which I think is important too. Especially the “habit” bit.

“A habit accompanied by, or arising out of, deliberate choice, and based upon free and conscious action”

Murdoch agrees, but suggests this habit starts with the application of the senses, and the mind, to things beyond ourselves. A conscious act of “unselfing”…

“The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking. The difficulty is to keep the attention fixed on the real situation and to prevent it from returning surreptitiously to the self with consolations of self-pity, resentment, fantasy, and despair…  Of course virtue is good habit and dutiful action. But the background condition of such habit and such action, in human beings, is a just mode of vision and a good quality of consciousness. It is a task to come to see the world as it is.”

“But I would suggest that, at the level of serious common sense and of an ordinary non-philosophical reflection about the nature of morals, it is perfectly obvious that goodness is connected with knowledge; not with impersonal quasi-scientific knowledge of the ordinary world, whatever that may be, but with a refined and honest perception of what is really the case, a patient and just discernment and exploration of what confronts one, which is the result not simply of opening one’s eyes but of a certain and perfectly familiar kind of moral discipline.”

“Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the ‘unself,’ to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness, in the light of the idea of perfection. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. ‘Good is a transcendent reality,’ means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is.” — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

This fits with how Augustine, and the “Augustinian Tradition” understood love based on God’s love within the Trinity, and towards creation, or, as Oliver O’Donovan puts it: “The term by which the Augustinian tradition expressed the idea of an originally committed attention is “love.” This idea of “love as committed attention” means true seeing involves both understanding and being oriented towards a right response. This, I’d suggest, is what virtue looks like in the face of outrageous events in a disordered world. First knowing who we are, and who we are to love, and then acting according to our judgment from this basis. Or, as O’Donovan explains it…

“To know any thing is to grasp its inherent intelligibility, which is its good: but to grasp its intelligibility is to grasp it and, in grasping it, to cling to it in love…”Thinking morally” is a much wider activity than thinking toward decision. It includes an attention to the world which is both affective and evaluative…Our whole world of beings and events is known to us only as we love and hate. At the root of moral thought is a necessary taking stock of the world. a discrimination prior to any decision we may subsequently make to influence the world. We shall call this taking stock “moral reflection,” to distinguish it from moral deliberation, which is directed toward decision. The metaphors contained in these two words suggest the distinction: `reflection” is “turning back” to look on something that is already there, an existing reality, “behind you,” as it were; “deliberation” is “weighing up,” facing an alternative, looking at possible courses of action that have not yet occurred…Moral reflection is not without a practical significance but it is nor oriented to any action in particular, but to the task of existence itself. In reflection we answer the question ‘how shall we live?” not “what shall we do?”

“By relating ourselves cognitively and affectively to the good and evil that we see within the created world around us, we adopt a posture that is the source of all our actions, but is not itself another action, or a summary of actions, but an affirmation of what we are.” — Oliver O’Donovan, Common Objects of Love

David Foster Wallace thought this sort of seeing of the world necessarily produced a freedom from the selfish default, and simultaneously tapped us in to some deeper sense of connection with “some infinite thing” — I’d suggest this infinite thing is caught up with our created telos — the purpose and sense of the divine written on every human heart.

“… The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

So how does this seeing, this giving of committed attention, work? What governs how we understand what we see via our attention, and how we respond? It’s all caught up with the narrative we use to see our lives — the equipment we have for processing outrage — and this is a product of what we worship — what we place at the centre of the narrative.

David Foster Wallace also understood this act of deciding how to see the world as an act of worship, and something which frees us to decide what it is to worship — the thing, other than ourselves (and for some, the self) that helps us not just see the world, but how to interact with it well. This sense of true seeing and true acting being based in something other than ourself is important if we are self-aware enough to believe that we shouldn’t be setting the universal standard of our own accord. And our selfish default, when we recognise it, should be enough to prevent that sort of self-belief. It’s what

Virtuous seeing begins with a realisation that we are people-in-community, or people-in-relationship, not just selves running around existing in isolation. Christian moral philosopher Stanley Hauerwas says:

“The self is fundamentally a social self. We are not individuals who come into contact with others and then decide our various levels of social involvement. We are not “I’s” who decide to identify with certain “we’s”; we are first of all “we’s” who discover our “I’s” through learning to recognise the others as similar and different from ourselves. Our individuality is possible only because we are first of all social beings. After all, the “self” names not a thing, but a relation. I know who I am only in relation to others, and, indeed, who I am is a relation with others.” — Stanley Hauerwas

Hauerwas sees ethics about truly seeing the world, but he locates our ability to do this in looking beyond ourselves to a bigger story, starting with God’s story and what it says about us…

Ethics… is not primarily about rules and principles, rather it is about how the self must be transformed to see the world truthfully. For Christians, such seeing develops through schooling in a narrative which teaches us how to use the language of sin not only about others, but about ourselves

This “language of sin” stuff is really, in one sense, a description of the realisation of our default selfishness, and also the realisation that left to our own devices, we produce outrageous events, we don’t just witness them. The narrative Hauerwas calls us to find ourselves in is the Gospel narrative, the narrative that rewires our default, and reorients our sense of self through that commandment Augustine loved so much (and the one from the start, the words of Jesus that call us to love our enemies).

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.” — Jesus, Matthew 22:37-38

Seeing and acting is the basis for Christian loving that follows in the footsteps of Jesus. It’s what we’re called to do as “children of God” in 1 John. It’s how “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!… This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. — 1 John 3:1, 16-18

For Christians, our response to the outrage we see in the world is meant to mirror God’s response to the outrage he saw in the world, and our lives, sacrificial, costly, getting amongst the mess because we are motivated by love. Love isn’t just about attention, or “words and speech” — outpourings of outrage from behind a keyboard. It’s hard stuff that costs us. Actions. Truth. True seeing leads to true actions, and true seeing, linked with the truth of the Christian narrative — both the outrageous truth it reveals about us, and the outrageous love shown to us to change our narrative — reshapes the way we respond to outrage. We pay attention to the stories and the people involved because they have dignity and are worthy of love, and seeing truly is important for true actions. We avoid outrage and knee jerk reactions. We extend grace and love to those who are disordered, because we were once disordered, and we extend grace and love to those who are victims of disorder, because that too, is how God first loved us.

This doesn’t necessarily help us when there are 1,000 things commanding our attention and our pity, responding to this bombardment involves:

  1. Prayer as our attention is drawn to things, which costs us time, but takes us to the one who can provide solutions, and we’re confident of this because of the solution we found in our own lives,
  2. Seeking truth, and being known to be credible givers of attention, rather than simply believing every unverified rumour shared on social media, and gives us pause to check the truth of what we say before we say it, or post it,
  3. This means looking for truth beyond the headlines and the soundbites. Paying the sort of attention to detail we see in the work of virtuous novelists to the characters in these stories.
  4. Continuing to pay attention long after the attention span of the self-loving community moves on. How many people still have ن pictures as Facebook profile pictures? How many people are still crying out for justice against Kony? How many people care about dead lions? How many people are going to care about Syrian refugees in six months when they might actually be arriving on our shores.
  5. Speaking truth, and thinking about the nexus between love as committed attention and action, and considering what actions might be appropriate for us in the communities we belong to.
  6. It involves discipline and discernment. Knowing our limits and avoiding being desensitised to the chaotic disorder in our world, we actually can’t respond to everything, and outrage will be just about every where we look, so we may need to moderate where we look based on where we are able to act, though this doesn’t mean being interested by geographic proximity, rather it involves being limited by where we’re able to respond. That we can respond with prayer does significantly broaden the geographic scope.
  7. It involves costly action in response.

It’s worth checking out this Centre of Public Christianity interview with the ABC’s Scott Stephens about the moral responsibility that comes from disturbing images.

Here’s the CPX blurb.

“Scott Stephens argues that, in a visually saturated culture, images can both move us and dull us to the plight of others. There exists then a moral dimension to our exposure to images that requires a careful and intentional response.”

His name was Aylan Kurdi

Just a heads up — there’s an image at the end of this post that’s incredibly shocking. But that’s absolutely the point and you need to see it.


I have a three year old daughter. Her name is Sophia. I love people to know about her, to hear about her, and to meet her. Because she is a delight. A living breathing smile. Mostly. A picture of much that is good about the world. A delight, but at times, a terror. Her behaviour is so typical of the mixed bag of humanity, one moment she’s cuddling her little sister, the next she’s sitting on her little brother. The same voice that sings beautifully jangled jingles from Disney movies and Colin Buchanan, and Playschool, is occasionally used for dishonesty, but also for honest apologies and that sweet phrase “I love you”… I’ll never tire of that. I see so much of what is good about life and humanity in my kids, and I hope others do too.

Kids are precious. My three year old is precious to me. But she’s not just a terror, she (and my other two children), terrify me. Or more specifically, the thought of something horrific happening to them terrifies me. I’m a significantly more anxious person now that I’m a parent. I’ve taken to caring more for my own well being simply because I want to be around for longer, but there’s this enhanced sense, or an enhancement of my senses, that comes with this new role, and responsibility, to keep my progeny safe and breathing, and to give them whatever I can (but not whatever they think they want) to enable them to flourish in this world. I want them to seek refuge in their home, in me and my wife, and ultimately in God. My children need refuge, they need a home, they need security. And I want to provide that through whatever means possible.

I say this all because despite my heart being so caught up with the delight, and the terror, of parenting, I can’t begin to fathom the life of parents whose existence is so fraught that they must risk their own lives, and the lives of their children, to seek refuge elsewhere. Families like the Syrian family of three year old Aylan Kurdi, whose body just washed up on the shores of Turkey.

We need to do better. The international refugee crisis is a massive and complex issue. There’s no easy solution. But the thing that will stop us finding solutions is the comfort that comes from not being confronted by these issues.

I was trying really hard not to see the picture of Aylan on social media today because I knew it would make me feel incredibly uncomfortable. And it did. But I’m thankful for the people sharing it because me feeling comfortable, and others feeling comfortable, with not paying attention is what stops change happening.

This is Aylan Kurdi. He was three years old. Just like my Sophia. And his parents wanted the best possible life for him. Just like I do for my kids, and if you have kids, just like I hope you do for yours.

This is Aylan Kurdi, who will no longer delight his parents, but instead will bring them grief as their terror is realised. Their very worst fear. UPDATE: It turns out his mother and brother also drowned. Tragedy upon tragedy. Grief upon grief.

This is Aylan Kurdi on the shore of a Turkish beach. Shores where the Gospel washed up with the Apostle Paul back in the first century. Shores close to the churches who received John’s letter of Revelation.

I hate death. And this is a universal tragedy. It transcends religious belief and it feels trite to get all preachy in response. But I have nowhere to turn but God when this sort of tragedy happens. Nowhere but God and his promises for a better, death-free world. No thing to turn to but writing, the attempt to articulate my hope for a better future — as an alternative to grief and despair.

Here’s what John records as a promise from Jesus at the end of his letter, in chapters 21 and 22.

“I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place[a] of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new…
…He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Yes. Come Lord Jesus.

But in the mean time, we can do better, but only if we are confronted with pictures and stories like this and forced from our comfort.

On outrage: some ancient visions of virtue

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged, then the link between a dead lion and Planned Parenthood — our disordered hearts, we considered the purpose of outrage.

So how do we put outrage in its place? How do we prevent ourselves from becoming defined by our outrage, and whatever it is we’re outraged about at any given moment? How do we respond rightly —love rightly — when we are confronted by or experience disorder? What stops us getting outraged and allows us to offer love as a corrective and comfort?

I think the answer to all these questions is tied up in being people, or communities, of character — or virtue — which means figuring out what it means to be good, or loving in a disordered but increasingly outraged world. If we talk of outrage having a purpose, or telos, in helping us live in and understand things about the world, we’re already sounding like little Aristotles.

Aristotle, arete, divine contemplation, and internet outrage

Aristotle might seem pretty irrelevant to figuring out why we react with outrage, whether its constructive, and what a more virtuous response might look like, but while he’s an old dead Greek guy, his understanding of ethics, telos, and virtue were influential for influential Christian thinkers like Augustine, and even influential secular moral philosophers. So it’s worth getting our moral bearings by looking at some of his thinking first.

The ancient Greek’s had this word arete which carried the sense of excellence, in a sort of moral sense. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics its most often translated as virtue. In Aristotle’s exploration of what exactly virtue is, he ultimately settled on contemplation or the pursuit of knowledge as the highest virtue, the telos of human intelligence. According to Aristotle, virtues in other aspects of life involved identifying the ‘mean’ between two extremes” — you could only do this with a mind capable of choosing what the right course of action involved.

“Virtue then is a settled disposition of the mind determining the choice of actions and emotions, consisting essentially in the observance of the mean relative to us, this being determined by principle, that is, as the prudent man would determine it.

For example, the effect of excellence in the eye is that the eye is good and functions well; since having good eyes means having good sight. Similarly excellence in a horse makes it a good horse, and also good at galloping, at carrying its rider, and at facing the enemy.  If therefore this is true of all things, excellence or virtue in a man will be the disposition which renders him a good man and also which will cause him to perform his function well.” — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 6

This is why it is a hard task to be good, for it is hard to find the middle point in anything: for instance, not everybody can find the center of a circle, but only someone who knows geometry. So also anybody can become angry—that is easy, and so it is to give and spend money; but to be angry with or give money to the right person, and to the right amount, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way—this is not within everybody’s power and is not easy; so that to do these things properly is rare, praiseworthy, and noble. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2, Chapter 9

Modern moral philosophers can’t really speak of virtue without speaking of love, and earlier I put forward the conclusion I’m working towards earlier — back in post one of this mini-series (talk about giving the game away) — that virtue looks like loving attention. Aristotle isn’t so interested in love as the supreme virtue, certainly not when it comes to charting a virtuous response to the disordered world, when that disorder is beyond our ability to influence (he was writing before clicktivism), but he does lay a platform for the idea that virtue and attention, or contemplation, overlap, and this sense that moral excellence (arete) is tied up with us living out our purpose/function, our telos.

Aristotle has his own version of the dead squirrel, he limits the span of our virtuous giving of attention, or deliberation, to that which we can effectively change through our own actions.

As for Deliberation, do people deliberate about everything—are all things possible objects of deliberation—or are there some things about which deliberation is impossible? The term ‘object of deliberation’ presumably must not be taken to include things about which a fool or a madman might deliberate, but to mean what a sensible person would deliberate about…

Well then, nobody deliberates about things eternal, such as the order of the universe, or the incommensurability of the diagonal and the side, of a square. Nor yet about things that change but follow a regular process, whether from necessity or by nature or through some other cause: such phenomena for instance as the solstices and the sunrise. Nor about irregular occurrences, such as droughts and rains. Nor about the results of chance, such as finding a hidden treasure. The reason why we do not deliberate about these things is that none of them can be effected by our agency. We deliberate about things that are in our control and are attainable by action…

But we do not deliberate about all human affairs without exception either: for example, no Lacedaemonian deliberates about the best form of government for Scythia; but any particular set of men deliberates about the things attainable by their own actions. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 4

Our ability to love, a bit like our ability to contemplate, deliberate, or give our attention to something is limited by proximity and our capacity, beyond a certain number of relationships that involve real love, Aristotle reckoned we just loved what we got from people, be it something in return, or just the pleasure of their company.

It is not possible to have many friends in the full meaning of the word friendship, any more than it is to be in love with many people at once(love indeed seems to be an excessive state of emotion, such as is naturally felt towards one person only); and it is not easy for the same person to like a number of people at once, nor indeed perhaps can good men be found in large numbers. Also for perfect friendship you must get to know a man thoroughly, and become intimate with him, which is a very difficult thing to do. But it is possible to like a number of persons for their utility and pleasantness, for useful and pleasant people are plentiful, and the benefits they confer can be enjoyed at once. — Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 8

There was a sort of love Aristotle thought you might offer to people outside this sphere, more an analogy to this love, a virtuous ‘mean’ that involved a “habit of approving or reprehending properly” — the person who does this will be “similarly affable to those whom he does not, and to those whom he does know, this is a sort of loving attention, the appropriate application of one’s attention and efforts based on your assessment of your ability to both relate to a person, and control an outcome in the situation.

Aristotle believed that the exercise of our intellect through contemplation is both what separates us from the animal kingdom, and takes us closest to the divine (or is the activity of the “divinest part of us.” Contemplation is the path to real happiness, and to imitating God and thus, to being favoured by the gods.

And it seems likely that the man who pursues intellectual activity, and who cultivates his intellect and keeps that in the best condition, is also the man most beloved of the gods. For if, as is generally believed, the gods exercise some superintendence over human affairs, then it will be reasonable to suppose that they take pleasure in that part of man which is best and most akin to themselves, namely the intellect, and that they recompense with their favours those men who esteem and honour this most, because these care for the things dear to themselves, and act rightly and nobly. Now it is clear that all these attributes belong most of all to the wise man. He therefore is most beloved by the gods; and if so, he is naturally most happy. Here is another proof that the wise man is the happiest. Aristot. Nic. Eth. 10.8

Arete and the Christian

Arete features prominently in Aristotle, so you’d expect other ethical texts from the ancient world to play with it a bit. It’s worth noting, briefly, that Aristotle would not have treated Jesus like a virtuous person. Jesus might have the ability to contemplate the divine mind, but his life — especially his humility (including his failure to pursue personal honour), and his giving up of power and status for the sake of the weak, means Jesus is everything Aristotle’s vision of arete is not. This sharp distinction between Aristotle and Jesus is important, because it might help us understand the way the New Testament — Paul and Peter specifically — use arete. For Paul, arete is not the act of contemplation, but the focus of our contemplation… the bolded words in the following passages are, in the Greek, arete (or αρετη).

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. — Philippians 4:8-9

For Peter, arete is the character of God, and God’s people exist to proclaim these ‘excellencies’… contemplation is a means to this end, first we think about God’s excellencies, then we proclaim them…

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  — 1 Peter 2:9

Peter brings these together in his second letter. Our knowledge of God, through his glory and arete is what we need in order to add arete to our faith. This sort of knowledge based arete is the basis for our virtuous living and our productivity (remember, Aristotle linked arete to efficiency and our ability to achieve our telos.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. – 2 Peter 1:5-9

It’s interesting that in terms of a progression from arete, Peter moves from arete to knowledge, to self-control, all the way to love, which Peter, unlike Aristotle, seems to see as the ultimate virtue (amongst other virtues). It’s interesting that like Aristotle he sees arete as very closely linked to the divine nature. For Aristotle, the contemplative life is virtuous because it enables the contemplator to figure out the virtuous mean in any situation, for Paul and Peter, the contemplative life is about reflecting on the character of the God who reveals himself in Jesus, and this reflection on God’s nature (and our ability to participate in it) pushes us towards being effective and productive “in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Peter seems to place love as both fundamental to God’s nature, and the telos of the virtuous, arete displaying, human.

But what is love? And how does our understanding of love start with God’s nature (and how do we then apply this understanding of love to the question of outrage (especially if the purpose of outrage is also potentially, to point us from human shortcomings and disorder to God and his nature)?


On outrage: The end of outrage

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged, then the link between a dead lion and Planned Parenthood — our disordered hearts.


Let’s assume for a moment that this tendency towards outrage is natural. That it has a purpose. And lets go further, and assume that because this tendency towards outrage still exists in the human condition, it serves some purpose.

If you’re a materialist, someone who wants a natural explanation for every observable phenomenon, this purpose might be something to do with survival. It may serve some sort of sociological function to limit harmful behaviours by ostracising harmful people.

If you’re open to the possibility of a divine creator, this purpose might be connected to our purpose as people, or some sort of in built purpose in creation. It doesn’t really matter which perspective you come at it from, its interesting to consider why we get outraged, and why we’re so keen to promote our outrage as more worthy than the outrage of another.

It’s possible that we experience outrage in a disordered way because of our disordered, self-loving, selves, and that rightly ordered outrage is not an end in itself, but a means, serving to point us beyond ourselves, not to join a lynch mob, but to pay proper loving attention to something other than us. Perhaps rightly ordered outrage helps us live virtuously in community, helping us see, or feel, truth. If this is the case, then it might be that playing the hierarchy of outrage game —where we suggest certain forms of outrage are less legitimate than others — hampers the purpose of our hard-wired outrage reaction to disorder, because it stops us paying attention, but the game might be necessary in order for us to look to whatever it is that is the root cause of disorder in our world.

Why is our knee-jerk response to disorder to passionately respond as though that disorder should not be happening? Is part of that gnawing sense that David Foster Wallace spoke of, that something isn’t right with this world.

I can’t really answer how outrage fits into a natural view of the world, that’s not the framework I use to view the world, but I think I can suggest a way that outrage-as-natural fits into a Christian view of the world.

We experience outrage because the world isn’t what it was made to be. It is disordered.

This outrage manifests itself in vigilantism or an angry internet mob because we aren’t who we were made to be.

These ideas actually link X, Y, and Z, establishing a consistent hierarchy of outrage, in a way that doesn’t make us pit them against each other. We should be outraged at the disorder we experience in the world, and in ourselves.

The Christian framework works with a hierarchy of outrage because it points us to the ultimate disorder, the disorder behind the disorder, and the ultimate sources of outrage, and invites us to see and experience all other disorder from this perspective. The dead squirrel, the dead lion, dead babies, and all other expressions of disorder in this world are the result of our shared rejection of God’s good design for the world, and his good gift of life. But this shared rejection of God’s good design, while outrageous, is not the archetypal outrage at the top of the hierarchy.

The greatest outrage in this world isn’t that we kill animals, or each other, its that we, because of our self-love, killed God. Our lack of respect for life and breath extended to the life-giver. The disordered events on a skull-shaped hill outside Jerusalem, where a blameless man fell victim to an outraged lynch mob who did not care about life and breath, truly sits atop the hierarchy of outrage.

“With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last”

This should give us a perspective when it comes to all the other outrages. It should explain the human condition. Of course we have total disregard for the lives of animals and babies — of course we’re annoyed when we’re called to pay attention to these things, to respond with the sort of loving attention that costs us something — humanity was so outraged when God asked us to pay loving attention to him, through Jesus, that it executed him.

If you want to play a rhetorical trump card in the my outrage is better than your outrage game, this is it. God came into that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. In fact, we killed him.

This is the real disorder in the world, this is the culmination of our rejection of the creator’s design, this is where we’re meant to feel outrage at the state of things most keenly — this is what joins the dots to help us see our disordered, self-loving, approach to God-given life.

And here’s how this hierarchy of outrage might work, in line with God’s purpose for outrage…  The Cross is outrageous, and God would be well within his rights to be outraged, and form a lynch mob of his own — which he will. It’s called judgment — but God also responds to this outrage selflessly, by offering a kind of loving attention to those he should be outraged at. Those outrageous words Jesus speaks from the Cross are for all of us, who by nature, form part of the lynch mob that wants to kill God.

Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.

This is outrageous love. This is love that is not ordered around the love of self, but the love of others. It is love that is not disordered because it does not damage. Outrage that is not disordered, because it is not damaging or costly to the other, is outrage that is forgiving, that seeks to take the cost upon the self.

The events of the Cross are also part of how the God who created an ordered world sets about making the world right. The cross is a promissory note to this end, where God sends his divine son to take the disorder of the world upon himself — his life senselessly taken — in a moment when very few in the world were outraged the way they should have been.

This pattern of selfless love displayed by Jesus, and this vision for a world where disorder will be re-ordered, is what might help us process disorder and outrage now. It might see us looking for disorder beyond our own backyard too, because the re-ordering is global, and its not finished until its all been put right. As long as there are disordered things that are causing us outrage, we know there are things that need to be put right. Outrage, then, should spur us towards a better response, a re-ordering response. A loving response that is not self-loving, but others-loving, and ultimately, creator-loving.

For Christians, this puts our outrage at others in perspective, because until we were united with Jesus, sheltering with him, in and through his death, where he payed loving attention to us, so that we might pay loving attention to him, joining him in his restored life, we were part of the outraged crowd that crucified him.

For non-Christians, those standing apart from Jesus, ignoring God, and wilfully ignoring the Cross, the sense of outrage we experience at disorder in the world is just a finite taste of the infinite, unquenchable outrage, that God feels about that moment in history when the heavens were torn apart, when divine life entered the world and was brutally extinguished (however briefly), God sees you as part of the crowd taking part in that most senseless of all slaughters.

This is truly outrageous.

So perhaps outrage is a natural part of our response to a disordered world, but if it exists to push us towards God, and the good life, we need a vision for what this good life looks like, we need framework for understanding virtue, and paying proper attention to people and things, in a way that helps us put X, Y, and Z in their right place.

On outrage: Connecting squirrels, lions, babies, with our disordered hearts

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness, then whether we have a moral obligation to notice or pay attention to disorder, and where we might or might not be culpable for failing to be outraged.


Maybe our innate tendency towards outrage, in the light of our innate tendency towards damaging self-love, should lead us to primarily be outraged at our own hearts, and this should help us moderate our outrage at others, and ask questions about how outrageous disorder might be a result of our shared human condition.

Perhaps our innate tendency towards outrage has the capacity to teach us something of value about ourselves, and our world. That things aren’t right. Perhaps our tendency to play the hierarchy of outrage game, weighing our outrage against others, is because we want to stay ignorant, we don’t want to have to care about too many things, perhaps, instead, we should be searching for the ultimate form of disorder that links these different disorders together.

Our self-love.

Let’s consider the possibility that the death of Cecil the Lion and the revelations from Planned Parenthood aren’t so much competing issues, but two issues that indicate something broken about our humanity, and how we engage with the world God made and the good things he gave life to — be it animals, or people.

Perhaps both stories teach us something about our world’s disordered picture of life and breath. Both lions and people (and even squirrels) receive their breath and life from God. I wrote lots about life and breath recently… but, in sum, if God is the source of all life and existence then every heart beat happens because he wills it, as a generous gift he gives. And any wanton disregard for a beating heart is a wanton disregard for the one who wills that heart to beat.

Perhaps rather than suggesting that X and Y are in tension or competition, we should hold them together as two pieces of outrageous evidence that the world is disordered. This should be especially easy for Christians because our understanding of the world, shaped by the story of the Bible, supplies a framework for observing and understanding the disorder at play in both stories.

Human relationships with animals probably weren’t meant to look like hunting and beheading them for sport…

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so…” — Genesis 1:29-30

It’s significant that when Genesis 2 records the intimate act of creation, what brings humanity to life is this same breath…

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. — Genesis 2:7

Human relationships with humans certainly weren’t meant to involve hunting or dismembering other humans either.

Both these stories, X and Y, point to the same fundamental disorder in the world. Both are worthy of our outrage, but perhaps this outrage would be more appropriately directed at the kind of world where life, breath, and the giver of life and breath are treated with such disdain, and the kind of people who treat life and the life-giver with such disdain as a result of self-interest. Whether its our desire to plunge an arrow into a beautifully crafted apex predator, because we recognise and want to possess that beauty as a trophy representing our own place in the food chain, or the desire to wantonly disregard the potential humanity of a living thing with a living, beating, heart in order to turn a profit… there is something wrong with these situations.

It’s not just X and Y that show that we are broken. Our desire to hunt down the people at the heart of X and Y, whether to shame them, or when we literally call for their hanging, reveals that there is something wrong with all humanity. Humans have walked away from God’s commitment to life and breath. Be it hunters who want trophies, clinics who want to pad out the bottom line, or online vigilantes who take part in lynch mobs. Our tendency towards merciless outrage reveals this just as much as our tendency to commit outrageous acts. Our tendency to join lynch mobs reveals that the capacity for darkness doesn’t just lie in the hearts of the hunter, but in all of us. In you. In me.

Might outrage serve some purpose to push us beyond simply thinking about ourselves? Might it connect us to something bigger than self? n 

On outrage: Disorder and our self-loving attention deficit

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention, next, we considered that social media works to show us things calculated to appeal to our selfishness.


Should I pay attention to dead lions? Or dead humans?


It’s silly to pretend this is a dichotomy. That we cannot appropriately care about, talk about, and share stories about, both. But the question of outrage is also a question of attention — a question of which outrage inducing disorder we should pay attention to.

One of the realities of the internet is that there are more things, more outlets, more media, grappling for our attention than ever before. We’ve never been more aware that our attention is finite than we are now. But it’s a cop-out to suggest that this noisy environment provides an excuse for ignorance, as much as its a cop-out to suggest that in such a noisy, confusing, environment we only have the capacity to care about one thing, so all these examples of disorder should be weighed against each other. Remembering back to our outrage equation where X is Cecil the Lion, Y is Planned Parenthood, and Z is our outrage. Can we only care about X, or Y? And is Z the right response if people try to care about what we think is the wrong thing to be giving loving attention to?

No. We can almost certainly pay attention to, X and Y at the same time. Z, our outrage, might also be a product of both, a response to disorder generally, rather than specifically. I’m able to love both my wife and my children, how I apply my time and attention in these relationships is a matter of wisdom and circumstances, and applying that attention is almost always the result of deciding not to pay attention to myself (unless I give attention based on what I think I might get in return).

But what about people who only choose to care about X, or Y, as if their attention is finite, or perhaps because they are ignorant of one or the other, or worse, through wilful ignorance. At what point does ignorance involve the sort of culpability that legitimately invites an outraged response? When is ignorance a failure to love?

Karen Swallow Prior’s question about moral culpability and wilful ignorance is a good one. Ignorance isn’t just a lack of knowledge, it’s a lack of attention. You can’t know things without paying attention to things. But what should we be giving our attention to?

The truth is, I suspect, that everyone actually has a central organising principle, or default setting, or internal algorithm, for choosing what to pay loving attention to — ironically its also the primary source of disorder in the world, causing the outrageous events we experience, and what causes us to wilfully choose ignorance — the love of self. Our primary concern is paying loving attention to ourselves, and having others pay attention to us, above all else. We place self-love as true north on our moral compass. But if this love is misguided and damaging, every direction we take using this compass has the potential to cause damage, because every step we take from that point will be misguided. We need something, or someone, to realign this moral compass, and that happens when something, or someone, realigns or re-orders, our love away from “self” and towards “others”… shared outrage about external things does this, at least in part. If you rely on your default setting you’ll only spend your time burying dead squirrels. It’s, at least in part, an act of un-selfing, of love even, when someone online chooses to care about something that goes beyond their own self-interest — to choose a lion over a squirrel — its just that when we choose a particular form of outrage we’re choosing a disordered way of love.

But what about choosing ignorance? Choosing to ignore Y because we’re exclusively giving attention to X, or vice versa. When we wilfully choose not to pay attention when it is put before us —  be it squirrel, lion, or babies— does this choice bring with it a not just some culpability for some of the disorder in the world, but that awkward, uncomfortable, feeling that we are culpable?

And is it possible that when we play the hierarchy of outrage game to dismiss the outrage of others, and the disorder behind the outrage, its because their outrage has brought something to our attention that we want to be able to blissfully ignore, and its easier to shift the focus to something a little more generic, that we can ignore again because it is less immediate. At this point, the hierarchy of outrage game is a refusal to pay attention, or to offer love, in response to a legitimate issue, even if that issue is a symptom. Its a bit like me telling my son he can’t have a bandaid for a graze because I know the solution to the graze, ultimately, is for me to teach him to ride his bike. Bandaid solutions aren’t complete solutions, but they can be part of loving, attentive, treatment for something.

One of the things outrage, especially outrage-at-outrage, does do is point us to a to a problem with our default setting, to our selfish desire to remain ignorant. The desire the squirrel-algorithm exploits. Faced with the choice between ignorance and discomfort, we’ll choose comfortable ignorance more often than not (or have it chosen for us by an algorithm). The algorithmic approach to creating a filter bubble to contain our attention just reflects what we already do, and what we already know about the world. Ignorance is bliss. We’d rather not love some people, or some created things, if doing so will cost us our comfort.

If we are going to make an unselfish decision to focus attention on some person or thing other than ourselves, is it enough to avoid culpability that a person makes this more moral choice, or does culpability result in any choice other than the most optimal choice. Can someone be culpable for giving loving attention to X, if Y is greater than X? How do we assess whether X or Y is greater when we all bring different ethical frameworks to the table? We all approach ethical questions from our own personal vision goodness and virtue. I do believe that there’s often an objective measure that distinguishes the morality of X from Y, but we all make assessments on objective truths using brains riddled with baggage and bias. Its possible, given this subjectivity that a more constructive approach to these competing visions is to find a way to establish a common picture of virtue and vice, that advances the cause of both X and Y, while avoiding Z.

On outrage: Dead squirrels and the algorithmic distribution of news and attention

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue. First, we considered that outrage might be a disordered form of loving attention

“…a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” — Mark Zuckerberg, cited in the New York Times, When the internet thinks it knows you.

It used to be that media moguls would set an editorial agenda based on what they thought would sell papers. Well. They still do. It’s just a dying method for presenting an audience with ‘news’ via media.

That’s what news is. It’s how media works. The traditional broadcast media functions with an editorial agenda and a business agenda built on providing content that is relevant and of interest to its audience. It’s kind of our fault if these businesses choose not to show us shocking and harrowing things from across the globe, but tend to spend more time on dead squirrel issues, or even cute warm fuzzies if you watch The Project. We get the media we deserve.

Now, our media consumption is shaped by the people we connect to, and sources we allow, but more subliminally, its shaped by algorithms designed to give us exactly what it appears we want based on our habits.

The internet as we know and experience it is built on our desires and our curated network of relationships. The platforms we use online make their money by matching up our desires with solutions, or content.

Major platforms like Google and Facebook earn their keep based on shaping an experience of the Internet that is the experience of the Internet that most appeals to you. Our algorithmic experience of the Internet is a subjective experience, not an objective one. It becomes more objective only as we seek out truth through the application of our attention and our minds, going beyond what has been called the “filter bubble.”

These algorithms are coded to care about, or present to us, what they calculate matters to us in an immediate attention-hooking way, rather than what might be said to matter objectively. This filter bubble means we’re likely to be served things that engage our emotions, or even outrage us, based on how an algorithm understands who we are.

The filter bubble means we’re unlikely to be confronted with all the things that matter objectively, or even subjectively to others, if they compete with the subjective things that matter to us. Or as Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, put it when describing how Facebook decides what to put in your newsfeed (see above)… dead squirrels.

The media is like a mirror being held up to the things we care about. The media, including social media, plays a part in determining what we get outraged about, and now, also, where we get outraged about it.

This filter bubble raises a question about our moral culpability for attention, or inattention, are we really to blame for being outraged at the wrong thing if the thing we’re predisposed seeing is not X or Y, dead lions, or dead babies, but dead squirrels? What is our responsibility, as online citizens, if we’re aware of X and Y, when the default setting is ignorance?

It’s interesting how the question of attention, and default settings features in David Foster Wallace’s famous insights from This Is Water, a speech in which he is arguably extrapolating from and applying Iris Murdoch’s system of virtuous loving attention… He suggests our ignorance is the product of our decision to worship some thing, to give it our attention, and often that thing is our self.

The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

I wonder if our tendency towards outrage in the face of disorder is also a product of a “constant gnawing sense,” but in this case its the sense of paradise lost. Of a world without disorder. But more on this soon…

I’m interested too, in the idea of being morally culpable for not knowing, or not being outraged — for not paying attention — to something beyond whatever else we do know about or are outraged about. Is it immoral to only care about a dead squirrel when there are lions and babies out there? Is it immoral to care about a lion, if you’re unaware of the babies? If we know about the babies, and know that most people only know about squirrels, is it immoral not to raise people’s attention via our own outrage? Are we culpable for never moving beyond the default settings? For not looking beyond our backyard, and paying attention to those in our neighbourhood, or around the globe? Where do we draw a line?

Karen Swallow Prior wrote this helpful opinion piece, Is Cecil the lion more devastating than the Planned Parenthood videos?, for the Washington Post, asking this sort of question about the relationship between ignorance and culpability. She particularly emphasised wilful ignorance, but what about algorithmic or default ignorance?

On social media, many have connected the two stories through mutual finger-pointing at the perceived lack of outrage for one story or the other. But there is a stronger connection between the two events.

While elective abortion and trophy hunting are different issues surrounded by different ethical and political questions, both news stories offer — regardless of one’s views on either issue — an opportunity to consider the moral responsibility that comes with knowledge — and the moral responsibility that comes with willful ignorance…

…So perhaps the more important question is, when does one become morally culpable for ignorance?

… We readily accept that with knowledge comes responsibility. But both the Planned Parenthood and the lion slaying controversies show that at some point, even our willful ignorance confers the weight of moral responsibility.

How do ignorance, and the alternative, loving attention, work in terms of morality and ethics in a new media world? Do we need to deliberately seek knowledge, seek to pay attention to things, beyond a dead squirrel to be acting with virtue? Our eyes have the capacity to be more globally connected than ever before thanks to the Internet, but our hearts and minds are still as self-interested as ever. Does outrage serve some sort of ethical purpose in that it forces us, and others, to pay attention to things beyond ourselves, or is it simply an expression of selfishness, a knee-jerk defence when something attacks what we hold to be sacred, what we have chosen to worship with our attention?

Outrage seems to be one of the natural responses to paying attention to the disorder in our world. Just what can we give our attention to? Just how much attention do we have to go around?

On outrage: outrage as disordered love

People are arguing about whether one can be outraged about a dead lion, when they could, alternatively, be outraged about dead babies. I think they’re arguing about the wrong thing, and outraged about the wrong thing, and we should be thankful that people aren’t just outraged about dead squirrels. Ultimately the questions that matter are the questions of what you are paying attention to, and how you’re doing that…

This is a series of posts exploring the nature of outrage, the internet, the human condition, and virtue

If you’re one of those people that struggles with how long the stuff I write is, now is your moment to be thankful. This post started off as a 7,000 word rambling journey through a series of connected thoughts.

Our world is broken. It is full of chaos. It appears, from our experience, to be disordered. Humans are part of this disorder, and we don’t like disorder. When we’re confronted with disorder it seems like our natural response is to get outraged. We use media, including the internet, to see, and give attention to disorder, and increasingly, we use media to express our outrage (as a means of drawing attention to disorder).

But how do we weigh up what to give our attention to?

How do we decide where to direct our outrage, and how to feel about the outrage of others, and if outrage itself is something to be outraged about?

If outrage itself has the capacity to become outrageous, then what’s an alternative, virtuous response to disorder?

On outrage, love, and attention

I think outrage both a human response to disorder, and a disordered form of love.

It’s disordered because unless we’re outraged about exactly the right thing, we simply create more disorder through misdirected outrage. Most of our love is disordered, because its the product of disordered hearts and minds. Love that isn’t disordered is love that doesn’t damage, and outrage causes damage.

It’s love, because it’s an attempt to give appropriate attention to something that matters. To love someone, or some thing, is to pay them, or it, attention that seeks this sort of understanding.

So, for example, the outrage about the shooting of Cecil the Lion is an expression of love, and a paying attention to, something beautiful that God made, but it is disordered because it results in an online lynch mob, hunting the hunter and literally calling for his hanging.

And, I’m suggesting that both our capacity for outrage, and our capacity to love — are tied up with what it means to be really human, and further, that what it means to be human is not a question we simply answer by our self for our self, but a question of shared humanity, humanity-in-relationship. Here’s a nice little quote from moral philosopher Iris Murdoch.

One might at this point pause and consider the picture of human personality, or the soul, which has been emerging. It is in the capacity to love, that is, to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists. The freedom which is a proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion. What I have called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centered aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called will, or willing belongs to this system. What counteracts this system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love. — Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good

I wonder if our natural tendency towards outrage has a purpose, and is linked to our capacity to love. I wonder too, if there is a right thing to direct our outrage at, that makes outrage something not disordered, but a right response to disorder. I suspect the problem with the way we experience outrage is that we direct it at symptoms rather than an underlying cause, and we direct it at symptoms in the place of other forms of more constructive, loving, attention.

Does outrage serve a (good) purpose? And how do we decide what to be outraged about when faced with multiple examples of disorder?

These are questions that will be explored in the posts in this series. I wonder if the way we experience outrage, and the way we pursue the perfect thing to be outraged at, while trying to establish what this article My outrage is better than your outrage, in the Atlantic calls a “hierarchy of outrage” represents this inbuilt quest for the perfect thing to be outraged at, which means outrage itself might have a particular function or purpose that serves human flourishing. Perhaps this attempt to establish a hierarchy of outrage is actually our attempt to locate exactly what it is we should universally be outraged at…

The Internet launders outrage and returns it to us as validation, in the form of likes and stars and hearts. The greatest return comes from a strong and superior point of view, on high moral ground. And there is, fortunately and unfortunately, always higher moral ground. Even when a dentist kills an adorable lion, and everyone is upset about it, there’s better outrage ground to be won. The most widely accepted hierarchy of outrage seems to be: Single animal injured < single animal killed < multiple animals killed < systematic killing of animals < systematic oppression/torture of people < systematic killing of humans < end of all life due to uninhabitable planet.

I’m asking these questions, like many others, in light of the outpouring of public, global, outrage at the death of Cecil the Lion, and, like many Christians, in the light of the apparent lack of public, global, outrage at some revelations about the way Planned Parenthood treat aborted foetuses.

There’s an additional factor in the hierarchy of outrage that we need to consider, and that is when outrage itself, or the way it manifests, becomes something we’re outraged (rightly) about. Here’s a little outrage equation. With a current real life example.

X = The death of Cecil the Lion
Y = The revelation that Planned Parenthood aren’t just offering abortion services where a life deemed to be ‘non-human’ is ended, they are selling the bi-products of this procedure to third parties as ‘human’ parts for commercial gain.
Z = People are outraged that others are outraged about X, but not about Y.

This tendency towards outrage is damaging. Not just to the people at the heart of the kerfuffle. It’s a trend. Check out Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed for a sense of how harmful). The dentist who shot Cecil the Lion has become the latest victim of the Internet’s outrage cycle and shame culture. Did you know that PETA literally called for his hanging? Our outrage causes us to form online lynch mobs, harming those who raise our ire, and ourselves and our society, in the process.

The logic appears to go something like when Y is of greater moral value than X, we should not be outraged about X, but Y, so Z. But is this equation too simplistic? Perhaps we are right to search for an ultimate outrage, but we’re wrong to suggest that forms of outrage that might be explained by this outrage are illegitimate. Maybe all the things in our “hierarchy of outrage” are worth being outraged about, but maybe its because they’re all symptoms of a common ill.  Is it possible we should be outraged at both X and Y, and that this outrage should form part of our outrage at disordered life in this world, that our hierarchy of outrage is too small if we limit it to assessing symptoms, and that our sense of the right response to disorder in the world is outrage might be analogous to noticing symptoms, getting a diagnosis, but not treating the condition.

As the landscape for these moral, or ethical, conversations, the internet — and especially “social” media — seems to amplify our predisposition to get outraged, while giving us a new and increasingly dangerous and permanent platform to voice our outrage at the expense of a new sort of victim. It enables us to operate with a hierarchy of outrage like never before, it gives us the capacity to get outraged at low, or no, cost to ourselves but at huge cost to the victims of the mob. The internet is a shame culture. There’s a great article on Slate, responding to Ronson’s book, that explores the implications of this shift, and this piece titled The new puritan shame culture is also worth a read.

Outrage has never been cheaper. Where once you had to actually physically attend a protest to show that you were outraged. Now you click a button on a website, or fire off an e-petition. This isn’t a new idea. See Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker from 2010. But this was in the early days of online outrage, it looked at the bed we were making for ourselves, now we’re seeing what it is like to lie in this bed.

One thing that is inevitably true is that in the midst of our outrage, the internet and its collective mob, has a great tendency to forget the humanity of the person or people causing the outrage be they hunters, or abortion advocates and practitioners. The victims (the perpetrators of villainous acts) of public shaming are now legion, and our culture is shifting along with our media. This raises questions about what it looks like to be a virtuous citizen of this new landscape…

This series is an attempt to help chart a course through X, Y, and Z, by offering a version of virtue, or the good life, that works in the internet’s shame culture, and in our disordered world. Next, I’ll look at how the new media landscape shapes what it is we’re likely to pay attention to, ignore, or miss — the role social media plays in making outrage outrageous.