On Christmas and Temples: how the coming of Jesus challenges us to see ourselves as givers not consumers

I went to temple today. A modern, secular, temple where I was surrounded by hindus, and sikhs, and buddhists, and muslims, and atheists… A temple that today was extra glittery, and sparkly, filled with magic, and crowded; oh so crowded. It was packed with worshippers.


Image: A snapshot from my trip to the temple today where I scored a park in front of this sign…

Temples don’t have to be obviously religious, or even obviously connected to a god. Temples are places where we practice our worship together. They are places where our gods; and the image of our gods, is revealed; when we know where to look. They’re places we go for stories about what the good human life looks like. And Christmas is a time for worship. In his famous This Is Water speech, David Foster Wallace said:

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

In a passage in his novel Infinite Jest, Wallace writes a dialogue between two characters, Steeply and Marathe, about temples and worship and a third person’s ‘worship’ (Tine)… it builds on his fundamental insight about the way us humans work… we’re worshippers. Fanatics. Looking to give our love to something that we hope will love us back.

“Marathe had settled back on his bottom in the chair. ‘Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple.” ’

‘Oh Jesus now here we go again,’ Steeply said.

‘As, if you will give the permission, does this love you speak of, M. Tine’s grand love. It means only the attachment. Tine is attached, fanatically. Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.”

Steeply made motions of weary familiarity. ‘Herrrrrre we go.’

Marathe ignored this. ‘Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.’

‘How are your wife and kids doing, up there, by the way?

You U.S.A’s do not seem to believe that you may choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self.’

Steeply laid a hand between his misdirected breasts: ‘Ohh… Canada….’

Marathe leaned again forward on his stumps. ‘Make amusement all you wish. But choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice.’

So I went to the temple. The temple to probably the most popular god in Australia; the one that promises and promotes a vision of the good life that I even find myself subscribing to; a picture of humanity that teaches: I consume, therefore I am, or perhaps I am therefore I consume. My local Westfield shopping centre. As I walked through throngs of smiling happy people, ate food from the far flung reaches of the planet alongside families who may have come together from even further afield, as the artificial light bounced off tinsel and sequins and Christmas stars and bathed my fellow humans in its soft glow, as carols pumped through the sound system following us on our pilgrimage, and as I spent my dollars on trinkets and baubles designed to express my love for my family this Christmas season, I did feel like I was having something like a religious experience. There is something beautiful about the way the shopping centre can bring people from all walks of life together in a levelish playing field (I mean, I avoided Myer and the expensive looking jewellers today so it’s not totally level, but you don’t know unless you stare at the collection of shopping bags in someone’s trolley or pay close attention to the quality of their shoes and handbag if someone is your equal or not). The shopping centre aisles feel like an equaliser until you really pay attention; digging beneath the hypnosis the centre foists on you as you walk through the doors. But I wasn’t paying attention to this stuff. I was hypnotised. I was bought in; a sucker for the sales pitch put before me by the centre’s preachers. I spent more; gave more of myself; than I’d planned. I’m not sure if I was manipulated because I certainly feel like I did this willingly as an act of greater love for my family. I did, for a moment, wonder how much my experience echoes the experience of people who might wander into church with us tomorrow for Christmas; perhaps ticking off something else on the Christmas checklist.

James K.A Smith, working with the same fundamental picture of the human being as David Foster Wallace, that we’re, fundamentally, worshippers, talks about the shopping centre (or mall, because he’s American) as a modern temple. He describes how the mall-as-temple shapes us and orients us to see the world, and ourselves, in this particular way; as consumers.

This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us. This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires. It compels us to come, not through dire moralisms, but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life… The symbols and colors and images associated with their religious life are readily recognized the world over. The wide circulation of these icons through various mediums even outside the sanctuary invites us to make the pilgrimage in the first place. This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us.

This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires and compels us to come not with dire moralisms but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life. (Yet one should note that it has its own modes of exclusivity too; because of its overwhelming success in converting the nations, it is increasingly difficult to be an infidel.) And it is a mode of evangelism buoyed by a transnational network of evangelists and outreach, all speaking a kind of unified message that puts other, fractured religions to shame. If unity is a testimony to a religion’s truth and power, it will be hard to find a more powerful religion than this catholic faith. And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but in return receive something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season.

This isn’t just a metaphor for Wallace or Smith; they’re actually convinced that participating in life as worshippers shapes us, and what and where we choose to worship has the potential to be very good, or very bad, for us in terms of how we understand ourselves and the world around us. In Smith’s treatment of the ‘mall’ he points out that our experience as shoppers are liturgical; shopping centres work to form our habits in particular ways, forming us as we take part in their vision of the good life, as we participate in the story the marketers are telling us, and so have the rhythms of our lives slightly altered. He points out the shopping centre shapes us so that we think of ourselves as consumers and of consumption as the path to joy, or this good life. Only life as a consumer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It leads us to consume others; it only works if we’re able to be hypnotised to the point that we think the success of our relationships; our families; depends on buying them the right thing, or if we’re able to get past the fact that all the presents we buy at Christmas ultimately don’t deliver the lasting satisfaction we hope for; so we go back day after day, week after week, Christmas after Christmas, looking to scratch this itch. Smith talks about our vain attempts to buy redemption at the shopping centre; to consume our way to happiness; he says it should be evident (because we keep going back) that this is a path that doesn’t satisfy, that never actually delivers a good life and this sort of worship transforms us in harmful ways, but also has us pin our hopes on things we end up sending to landfill:

By our immersion in this liturgy of consumption, we are being trained to both overvalue and undervalue things: we’re being trained to invest them with a meaning and significance as objects of love and desire in which we place disproportionate hopes (Augustine would say we are hoping to enjoy them when we should only be using them) while at the same time treating them (as well as the labor and raw materials that go into them) as easily discarded.— James K.A Smith, Desiring The Kingdom

I know the truth of the ‘landfill’ thing too well, because today as I did my ‘Christmas shopping’ — as I participated in worship Westfield style — I was buying exactly the same present I bought Robyn a few years ago, from the same place, because our kids had destroyed the last one. This stuff is finite; and profoundly geared not to permanently satisfy. How anti-Christmas…

The problem with picking things we’re going to bin as the things we attach ourselves to, and seeing the place we buy them from as our ‘temple’ (whether we know it or not), and participating in Christmas shopping as the ultimate form of modern, consumerist worship, and ourselves as consumers whose happiness depends on our consumption, is that we end up being consumed.

Wallace was aware of the danger of worshipping something like this; things that make us consumers not givers in our sacrifice. In This Is Water he says:

“And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

And then he turns to his own little excursion to the shops, to challenge us to break the way they deform us into selfish people who consume rather than truly love others… he invites us to head into the shopping centre eyes wide open. Into the checkout line where our consumer frustration kicks into gear because in consumer world our fellow shoppers are people in our way, or in competition with us for resources… when you view life as a consumer you tend to view other people a little negatively or judgmentally, and so Wallace invites us to see people differently by paying a different sort of attention; by becoming a different sort of worshipper (this is a passage directly before the bit I quoted above).

“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually 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…”

The goal of this sort of worship; and seeing; for Wallace, wasn’t better consuming but a totally different sort of us; it’s about overturning our tendency to see ourselves as consumers, it’s an invitation to think differently about ourselves, the world, others, and perhaps most importantly what the ‘good life’ looks like as we live in the world with others. Wallace wanted his listeners to free themselves from destructive defaults that come from wrong worship, malforming temples, and harmful attachments. He saw the sort of worship cultivated by temples with an agenda to make us see ourselves as consumers as dangerous, and suggested we had to pay attention in order to escape and to relate to others as givers not consumers. That was his vision of the ‘good life,’ at least as he invited others to see it.

“Look, 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 center of all creation.

This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course 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.”

Seeing the good life; freedom; this way will transform the way you participate in life at your local Westfield; it’s enough to challenge you to think about what you’re doing and to break the hypnosis of the light, and architecture, and sensual bombardment you face when you walk through the doors. But I’m not sure it’s enough to really deliver an answer to that ‘gnawing sense’; that haunting feeling of there being something more out there than Westfield and its retailers can provide for you. The problem with Westfield-as-temple is that what worship there delivers for you are just trinkets and baubles; they’re finite, fleeting, breaking, and boring.

The answer to this problem is in a new sort of worship that changes our sense of who we humans were made to be, how we ideally relate to others, and what a good life really looks like. The answer to this problem is actually to rediscover Christmas not as a consuming holiday, but a giving holy day. When the Apostle Paul wrote about us being worshipping creatures he had a particular picture of the good human life in mind. He had a particular sense of what Christmas is all about in mind too.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 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. — Romans 12:1-2. 

Consumption is a ‘pattern of this world’ and Paul’s answer to this pattern is to change the script; to not be consumers with our bodies, but givers, to be those who ‘offer our bodies as a living sacrifice’… It’s the Christmas story, and a new sense of what a ‘temple’ looks like, that allow us to truly love others, to in Wallace’s words ‘sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways’; to be ‘free’… We need a new temple, new attachments, a new story with a new vision of the good life, in order to become givers at Christmas, rather than destructive consumers. All this, for Paul, is caught up in what Christmas is actually about. It’s amazing how much it’s the anti-thesis of the Westfield ‘gospel’; or Westfield’s implicit and explicit account of what the good life is about; and what Christmas is about. Real worship; worship that doesn’t destroy us; is caught up in worshipping the giver of life. Real worship is caught up with recognising that Christmas is about the word that gave life and light to the world becoming flesh; becoming our temple. The temple isn’t just where we worship; it’s where we meet and see God and the image of the flourishing life; at Westfield that’s the mannequins and the posters and the glitz and glamour, at Christmas it’s the babe born in a stinking stable as a human who’d eventually be nailed to a cross. The Christmas story couldn’t be further from the tinsel and plastic prettiness of the modern Christmas shopping experience. The sacrifice Jesus makes begins in him taking on human form amongst dirty farm animals, first visited by stinking shepherds; it’s a form he still has now, a sacrifice he still makes, on behalf of the dirty and downtrodden who turn to him for hope.

The lie underneath Westfield’s ‘worship’ agenda is that finite things can satisfy the hunger for the infinite that only Christmas can. That Westfield so overtly harnesses and bastardises Christmas for its ends is truly shocking. If worship is, as Wallace puts it, trying to answer that gnawing sense of losing the infinite, Christmas is about us finding what was lost; or rather, it’s about the infinite making himself finite and knowable.

I walked through Westfield and felt empty and hopeless, hopefully people coming to church tomorrow to hear about God with us; who’ll be urged towards this new sort of worship; will walk in and out feeling filled with hope and pushed to love others because our gnawing sense of having lost touch with the infinite is answered when we look to the face of the baby in a manger; the infinite becoming finite as an act of sacrifice for us.

The Christmas story points us to true worship, and true worship is exemplified by those shepherds and later the wise guys from the East who recognised that Jesus really is ‘God With Us’… the real Christmas story stands in stark contrast Westfield’s Christmas; it overthrows Westfield-as-temple, and it points us to a sort of worship-driven ‘good life’ found in following the Christmas king. It makes us givers, not consumers; and involves God giving us life, rather than our false gods consuming us. This is perhaps one of the earliest Christmas Carols (after Mary’s at the birth of Jesus), from Paul in Philippians 2.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2. 

 

 

 

 

Meat and more: You are more, but not less than, your body… and Christmas shows why ‘meat’ matters

“People need to realise it doesn’t matter what living meat skeleton you’re born into; it’s what you feel that defines you.” — Victor (in the video below)

This is Victor. Victor identifies as non-binary, and this BBC video features Victor explaining a little bit of life from a non-binary perspective. It did the rounds on social media recently. It’s an interesting and increasingly common account for what it means to be human. Victor’s account of what it means to be human is this: you are a feeling mind with a meat skeleton; but the real you is the ‘feeling mind’ part — your consciousness — and your body might get in the way. If that happens then feelings (your choice) trump meat (an unchosen thing you’re born with).

It’s true that we are both mind and body, maybe even ‘soul’ and body… and our accounts of what it mean to be human need to reconcile these two realities in a way that helps us make sense of our experience of the world, and in a way that helps us figure out what to do when our bodies and minds seem to be in conflict.

One of the things I’ve spent this year reading about, thinking about, and writing about is how Christians can respond with love and understanding to the growing conversation about gender identity and gender fluidity. A paper our Gospel In Society Today committee (a thing I’m on for the Presbyterian Church of Queensland) has put together on this issue will be released soonish, but this video was one of the stranger and more worrying parts of what is a complicated issue where one’s gender identity is not necessarily as simple as a binary view of either physical sex and gender makes out. Being human is not quite as simple as Victor suggests. Extrapolating an understanding of humanity and what a flourishing human life looks like — what shape our identity takes — from the experience and feelings of particular individuals (or any individuals) is not a great way to do anything (this is also true from the direction of ‘cis-gendered’ people backwards too, where ‘cis’ is a pre-fix for those whose physical sex and gender identities line up). We often have a tendency when dealing with the complexity of human existence to assume our experience is both normal and should be ‘the norm’ and that’s dangerous.

The view of what it means to be human that Victor in this video puts forward is an unfortunate extrapolation from the real felt experience of the few to the many. Your body isn’t just a ‘meat skeleton’ with the real you somehow immaterially enshrined in this skeleton; you are your body. There’s something a bit appealing to this idea, not just as it applies to the gender conversation but because our bodies are limiting when it comes to what we imagine flourishing to look like. I want to be healthy and fit; but my body lets me down in that I get sick and injured. I want to be able to go wherever I want, whenever I want, but my body can only occupy one place at any given moment, and my moments are limited. I want to be immortal, but my body is on the timeline to decay. I do want to be able to escape the constraints of my body; humans yearn for that; particularly we want to escape from the bits of our bodies that are broken and dying. It’s nice to believe that our minds are somehow the real us; that the real us doesn’t decay, disappoint, or die; it’d be nice if our bodies were just meat skeletons that we could augment or change based simply on how we feel without that impacting ‘the real us’ (except as we bring them in line with the real us).

But this idea that we’re just our ‘feelings’… that our bodies don’t really matter… This is the gnostic heresy of the secular age. And it’s not necessarily a great ‘secular’ solution to issues like gender dysphoria or gender identity either (though solutions that don’t deal with us as ’embodied beings,’ the idea that our bodies are able to be ‘unbroken’ via our minds, or that someone can simply ‘think themselves’ into a solution aren’t very useful either, but that’s a rabbit hole for another time). Victor also assumes a radical disconnection between our bodily experience and our minds that doesn’t seem to stack up with modern neuroscience (which suggests what we do with our bodies impacts our minds) either, but again, that’s another rabbit hole.

The secular age is a label philosopher Charles Taylor uses to describe our current western world’s grand organising narrative; its ‘myths’; its account for what human life is; and thus what a flourishing life looks like. The secular age involves the death of the soul as a concept, because it involves switching a view of the world where both the spiritual (or transcendent) and material (or immanent) are real and important for a world where only the material matters. This leaves us with an interesting account of our human experience and what it means to be really human. Our new post-soul way of understanding the world from this immanent viewpoint replaces the ‘soul’ with the mind. We now see ourselves as immanent creatures and any gap, or conflict, between mind and matter in our experience will be left for us to figure out as we come up with a story that explains how to be human.  In this video with Victor it seems this movement involves creating a new duality between mind and matter — or your feelings and your body (how you feel things apart from your senses and the chemical make-up of your brain (and how that might be influenced by the activities of your body) is something not totally fleshed out in Victor’s anthropology).  Victor’s story is a story like this; in Victor’s account human history has been oppressive because we’ve understood physical sex (matter) and gender (mind) as being things that are best held together; or understood as being a single thing when real enlightenment allows us to see them as they truly are — different — so that true freedom is somehow found in transcending our ‘matter’ so that our sense of ourselves is found in our mind. Only, because the transcendent no longer exists as a spiritual account of reality that overlapped the material so that both were true and held in tension;  this transcendence comes from making one part of us less meaningful as we make the other bit more meaningful. Victor sees the material and the mind being, at times, in competition, and as a result says “you are defined by what you feel.”

Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy built from Plato’s understanding of reality. Plato taught there is a ‘spiritual’ world of ‘ideals’ and a ‘material’ world of ‘forms’ and the truest reality is the spiritual one, and the physical stuff is broken, and non-ideal, and to be transcended. Gnostics applied this to Christianity and came up with the belief that our bodies are utterly broken and sinful and awful and dirty and to be transcended. It taught that you were a soul; and that you were lumped with a body. The soul trumped the body. The body was a meat skeleton to be escaped from.

It’s the same story Victor is telling; this idea that you’re much more than a meat skeleton, if you’re even a meat skeleton at all. This ‘meat skeleton’ phrase reminds me of a couple of passages from three of my favourite ‘secular’ stories by three secular age writers; William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut, and David Foster Wallace.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer which explores what might happen if we rely on technology to replace the transcendent. In Neuromancer you can get a chip implanted in your head that allows you to jack-in to cyberspace so that your body exists in the physical world (meatspace) while your mind is in cyberspace. Prostitutes in this world can hire out their bodies while their minds are occupied in the cyber world; so they’re called ‘meat puppets’… which isn’t so different from Victor’s ‘meat-skeleton’ only in Victor’s account your mind is the puppeteer, in control of your meat, not someone else. Case, the protaganist, was a cyber-cowboy (a hacker) who lost his ability to be part of cyber-space but is given it back in order to complete a big hack; he’s torn between two worlds; two realities; the transcendent reality of cyber-space and the physicality of meat-space; without spoiling things too much this para is from near the end of the book:

“No,’ he said, and then it no longer mattered, what he knew, tasting the salt of her mouth where tears had dried. There was a strength that ran in her, something he’d known in Night City and held there, been held by it, held for a while away from time and death, from the relentless Street that hunted them all. It was a place he’d known before; not everyone could take him there, and somehow he always managed to forget it. Something he’d found and lost so many times. It belonged, he knew – he remembered – as she pulled him down, to the meat, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong and blind way, could ever read.” — Neuromancer

Somehow Gibson is convinced that the body matters. Kurt Vonnegut explores the idea that we’re both ‘meat’ and ‘soul’, and that the key to happiness (and to seeing others properly) is about understanding each, then aligning them, in his novel Bluebeard. The main character, artist Rabo Karabekian, moves from this almost gnostic belief that they’re separate and irreconcilable; but that the soul is the true self to something that sees them as working together. So there’s this dialogue, where :

“I can’t help it,” I said. “My soul knows my meat is doing bad things, and is embarrassed. But my meat just keeps right on doing bad, dumb things.”

“Your what and your what?” he said.

“My soul and my meat,” I said.

“They’re separate?” he said.

“I sure hope they are,” I said. I laughed. “I would hate to be responsible for what my meat does.”

I told him, only half joking, about how I imagined the soul of each person, myself included, as being a sort of flexible neon tube inside. All the tube could do was receive news about what was happening with the meat, over which it had no control.

‘”So when people I like do something terrible,” I said, “I just flense them and forgive them.”

“Flense?” he said. “What’s flense?”

“It’s what whalers used to do to whale carcasses when they got them on board,” I said. “They would strip off their skin and blubber and meat right down to the skeleton. I do that in my head to people—get rid of all the meat so I can see nothing but their souls. Then I forgive them.”

At this point Rabo is operating with the belief that the soul is the ‘true’ self and the meat gets in the way… but he’s brought back to reality (or to real reality) in the closing words of the book; when he’s forced to see that when he makes art it’s actually his soul and meat working together (in a passage where the critique of trying to hold body and soul apart is a bit similar to some stuff Irenaeus wrote against the Gnostics in the second century). His art studio is a potato barn.

”Your meat made the picture in the potato barn,” she said.

“Sounds right, “ I said. “My soul didn’t know what kind of picture to paint, but my meat sure did.”

“Well then,” she said, “isn’t it time for your soul, which has been ashamed of your meat for so long, to thank your meat for finally doing something wonderful?”

I thought that over. “That sounds right too,” I said.

“You have to actually do it,” she said.

“How?” I said.

“Hold your hand in front of your eye,” she said, “ and look at those strange and clever animals with love and gratitude, and tell them out loud: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

So I did.

I held my hands in front of my eyes, and I said out loud and with all my heart: ‘Thank you, Meat.’”

Oh happy Meat. Oh happy Soul. Oh happy Rabo Karabekian.

David Foster Wallace explores the relationship between the body and something more than the body at the heart of our humanity through the lens of learning to play tennis in both his celebrated essay on Roger Federer published as “Roger Federer as Religious Experience” in the New York Times (but as the title essay Both Flesh and Not in that collection of his articles and essays), and in his novel Infinite Jest which features a tennis playing prodigy as one of the protaganists. Wallace was, himself, a competitive junior tennis player so you sense that some of his insights into what it means to be meat are autobiographical; what’s a bit different is that Wallace seems to assume that you are first your physical body; that meat matters, and even that anything more that is out there is fed and cultivated by what we do with our ‘meat’… what we give ourselves to. With tennis as a bit of a metaphor for the life well lived, he explores the idea that transcendence is found by pushing our well-trained muscle-memoried bodies to new heights via the imagination; our bodies somehow show our minds what is possible because they act as some sort of sub-conscious us. 

“Tennis’s beauty’s infinite roots are self-competitive. You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. Which is why tennis is an essentially tragic enterprise, to improve and grow as a serious junior, with ambitions. You seek to vanquish and transcend the limited self whose limits make the game possible in the first place.” — Infinite Jest

Then when Hal, the tennis prodigy, is being coached. His coach says the key to a sort of ‘flourishing humanity’ starts with our ‘meat’; that we’re meat first:

“‘Boys, what it is is I’ll tell you it’s repetition. First last always. It’s hearing the same motivational stuff over and over till sheer repetitive weight makes it sink down into the gut. It’s making the same pivots and lunges and strokes over and over and over again, at you boys’s age it’s reps for their own sake, putting results on the back burner, why they never give anybody the boot for insufficient progress under fourteen, it’s repetitive movements and motions for their own sake, over and over until the accretive weight of the reps sinks the movements themselves down under your like consciousness into the more nether regions, through repetition they sink and soak into the hardware, the C.P.S. The machine-language. The autonomical part that makes you breathe and sweat. It’s no accident they say you Eat, Sleep, Breathe tennis here. These are autonomical. Accretive means accumulating, through sheer mindless repeated motions. The machine-language of the muscles. Until you can do it without thinking about it, play… The point of repetition is there is no point. Wait until it soaks into the hardware and then see the way this frees up your head. A whole shitload of head-space you don’t need for the mechanics anymore, after they’ve sunk in. Now the mechanics are wired in. Hardwired in. This frees the head in the remarkablest ways. Just wait. You start thinking a whole different way now, playing. The court might as well be inside you. The ball stops being a ball. The ball starts being something that you just know ought to be in the air, spinning. This is when they start getting on you about concentration. Right now of course you have to concentrate, there’s no choice, it’s not wired down into the language yet, you have to think about it every time you do it. But wait till fourteen or fifteen. Then they see you as being at one of the like crucial plateaus. Fifteen, tops. Then the concentration and character shit starts. Then they really come after you. This is the crucial plateau where character starts to matter. Focus, self-consciousness, the chattering head, the cackling voices, the choking-issue, fear versus whatever isn’t fear, self-image, doubts, reluctances, little tight-lipped cold-footed men inside your mind, cackling about fear and doubt, chinks in the mental armor. Now these start to matter. Thirteen at the earliest. Staff looks at a range of thirteen to fifteen. Also the age of manhood-rituals in various cultures. Think about it. Until then, repetition. Until then you might as well be machines, here, is their view. You’re just going through the motions. Think about the phrase: Going Through The Motions. Wiring them into the motherboard. You guys don’t know how good you’ve got it right now.” — Infinite Jest

One of the more powerful things about Infinite Jest is that it explores how the addictions that shape our bodies ultimately shape our humanity; and this sort of tennis training is a sort of ‘rightly directed’ addiction (or is it); it seems better than being addicted to drugs or entertainment… two of the other pictures of meat-shaping (or miss-shaping) habits in the novel.

Somehow, for Wallace, we are inextricably embodied; our meat matters because it shapes everything else about who we are and how we flourish; and when we’re ultimately flourishing it’s because our meat and our minds are meeting; intuitively. When everything comes together in this tennis-as-a-metaphor-for-life thing we no longer notice the ‘dual’ reality.

You’re barely aware you’re doing it. Your body’s doing it for you and the court and Game’s doing it for your body. You’re barely involved. It’s magic, boy. — Infinite Jest

And in a moment on the court where things go wrong; when one’s body betrays you and you slip and fall… that’s when we know that our meat matters; that it’s not something to be left behind when we achieve these magical, transcendent, moments, but part of those moments.

It was a religious moment. I learned what it means to be a body, Jim, just meat wrapped in a sort of flimsy nylon stocking, son, as I fell kneeling and slid toward the stretched net, myself seen by me, frame by frame, torn open. — Infinite Jest

For Wallace our bodies, our ‘meat skeletons’, are actually the key to transcendence; not in departure from them but in that they are the key to truly understanding ourselves. He returns to tennis as a lens for that in his Federer essay, where he explores the idea that watching a tennis player who has achieved the sort of bodily self-mastery described in the novel is actually a religious experience as much as the one that he describes in the injury-inducing slip above, but in the opposite direction. We touch something radically true about ourselves when our bodies are vehicles for something more than just ‘the physical’; when our bodies and souls are in sync.

“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” — Both Flesh and Not

In the footnotes he gives us this exploration of this embodied understanding of our humanity.

There’s a great deal that’s bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits — every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It’s your body that dies, after all.

There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously — it’s just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!,” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot. — Both Flesh and Not

This sort of ‘reconciliation’ he’s talking about is the realisation that we’re not simply minds who have meat attached; but rather that our bodies are inevitably part of our humanity (and part of the limits of our humanity in this secular age), and the best vision of human flourishing he can arrive at from that point is not that real flourishing is about detachment from the body, but rather the body and soul working together to make beautiful tennis. Even if those moments are only fleeting and finite.

Genius is not replicable. Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled. — Both Flesh and Not

For Wallace, watching peak-Federer was a vision of the best that could be achieved in our material world; and hinted at something more. Wallace, more than any other secular age writer, was haunted by ‘the gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing’ (as he put it in This Is Water). Somehow, in Federer and his embodiment (and go read the essay) he finds some sort of solace when it comes to questions of bodily malfunctions, like those we’re confronted with in a broken world filled with broken bodies, like the kid with cancer who tossed the coin in the match he’s writing about, somehow this glimpse of transcendence through the body working in sync with the ‘soul’ and flourishing, somehow that helps Wallace understand what being human; body, mind, and soul, looks like. And it doesn’t come from transcending your ‘meat’ but achieving some sort of transcendence ‘as meat’…  

“[Federer] looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.” — Both Flesh and Not

These writers offer a nice ‘secular’ critique of Victor’s belief that we’re minds who need to transcend our meat skeletons. But the Christmas story is an even better critique; and one that affirms the good and true things Gibson, Vonnegut and Wallace are grasping for as they affirm the importance of our ‘meatiness’.

Christmas (and Irenaeus) as the answer to this modern ‘gnostic’ dilemma

The Christmas story is fundamentally the story of God meeting us in our meatiness… in meatspace… to provide this sort of ‘reconciliation’ between body and soul, and between the transcendent and immanent; this isn’t just ‘reconciliation’ in the David Foster Wallace sense of those fleeting moments in this world where things feel right; but a permanent fix that means that feeling isn’t just fleeting. It’s the sort of change that brings the transcendent, supernatural, ‘soul’ reality and the immanent natural material world of our bodies back into harmony in a way that deals with both our impending meaty death, and the ‘gnawing sense’ of having lost the infinite.

The Christmas story was the answer to old fashioned gnosticism; and is the answer to the fears of the secular age and its searching for a way to make sense of our ‘meat’ and our feelings in some sort of ‘reconciled’ order.

The Christmas story, what Christians call ‘the incarnation’ — where the divine ‘word of God’, Jesus, a person of the Trinity, permanently takes on human flesh — has always been the answer to gnostic tendencies; to our desire to find some key to escape the limits of our dying bodies.

The Christmas story — the story at the heart of Christianity; and indeed the heart of what Christians believe it means to be human and to flourish is a radical critique of both gnosticism and this new ‘mind over matter’ vision of the human body as a ‘meat skeleton’ to transcend.

The Christmas story teaches us that to be truly human is to have a body, and a soul. In the Christmas story we meet the truest human. You’re not just a soul with a body either; despite that apocryphal quote reputedly from C.S Lewis. You’re both. Paradoxically. Always.

The Easter story promises us that one day all our Christmases will come at once and our bodies will be made new, reconciled, and paired perfectly, with our souls. We’ll be flesh and light. And we get a taste of that now as we live out, and live in, the story of Jesus. This is the promise of the Christian story, one Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 15.

The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven.  And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” — 1 Corinthians 15:46-49

This isn’t to disparage our human bodies and the reality of life where our souls and bodies feel conflicted; but to point us to where real reconciliation is found; it’s in the death of death and in our bodies and souls being joined in an imperishable and harmonious way that lines up with the ‘heavenly man’; the one born as a meaty human at Christmas, and raised as a meaty human at Easter.

Gnosticism is actually pretty terrible news for us as humans; it leads to all sorts of awful self-hatred because being ‘meat’ is actually fundamental to our experience of the world and our ability to know things. It’s soul crushing even in its attempt to free us to simply ‘be a soul’… it isn’t a particularly helpful or possible vision of human flourishing whether it’s being pushed by Plato, or the gnostics of the early church (who denied the incarnation because their vision of God wouldn’t be caught dead in a dirty human body), or a modern day ‘non-binary’ philosopher like Victor. We can’t simply escape our bodies or pretend we are something other than our flesh, because we are actually ‘both flesh and not’…

There are very good reasons that gnosticism was viewed as a heresy; it’s actually the same reason that for many years the pre-secular age western world has seen our physical reality and a more transcendent reality both being parts of being truly human. It’s a very good reason it hasn’t been understood as being ‘oppressive’ to link our physical sex with our gender (even if our physical sex is sometimes non-binary, and some individuals do experience gender as less binary than we might). To be human was to be both body and soul; not just a soul with a body. The answer to the experience of individuals with non-binary sex or gender is not to ‘reconcile’ this divide by simply dismissing our bodies as meat to be transcended (or ignored); but rather to hope for soul and body to be brought back together; for those Federer-like moments to be permanent. This was the hope Irenaeus, a guy who wrote Against Heresies as the most substantive critique of gnosticism relied on in countering the belief that the human task was for the soul to leave the dirty body behind.

Irenaeus understood the present human condition as being one where our souls and bodies are ‘separate’ and where our impending death (and constant decay) are part of what creates this divide. His hope was for ‘recapitulation’ or a ‘re-creation’ — an intervention by God to address this divide so that our souls eventually find their right home in a re-created immortal body (Against Heresies Book 2 Chapter 34). We don’t reconcile this separation by denying the reality of body, or soul (or feelings), but by hoping for this re-aligning of the two where the alignment has been affected in our broken world, and the key to this reconciliation is not our own self-mastery of our bodies ala Wallace’s Federer, but the master of body and soul, the maker of our bodies and souls, meeting us in meat space and providing a path to reconciliation with the divine life. That’s the Gospel story; the Christmas story; the story that speaks into what it means to be truly human (even if this all sounds like some weird wizardry or hocus-pocus in our secular age). This was a story the western world took very seriously in understanding what it means to be human for a very long time.

For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. For by no other means could we have attained to incorruptibility and immortality, unless we had been united to incorruptibility and immortality. But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons? — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 3 Chapter 19

Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God—all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 1

Irenaeus fairly boldly declared that the Gospel story properly understood was enough to ‘ruin’ the gnostic account of humanity; and I think the Christmas story, the story of God-becoming-meat, is enough to answer Victors idea that our meat skeletons are unimportant when it comes to who we really are. You are a body. You are a soul. That these two parts of you aren’t always working in harmony doesn’t mean you need to escape your meat; it might mean that your meat and your soul need some work to reconcile them in a way that allows you to ‘flourish’…

We all feel bereft and have that ‘gnawing sense’ that these dead bodies aren’t delivering for us whether we experience that in the form of our gender not lining up with our sex, or the myriad other things that make our bodies feel like less-than-home; but for Irenaeus the answer to the gnostic desire to escape our meat was the picture of God becoming meat to meet us in our humanity and chart a way forward to our ‘meat’ being redeemed and made immortal; his hope is for the time promised by that first Christmas, when our bodies and our souls would be brought in harmony by the one who made both. Our problem is that the human default after our rejection of God’s design for us is this dying brokenness, where our souls and our matter don’t line up. Christmas, the incarnation, is the first step towards the death of death and the reconciling of our bodies and souls… it’s not tennis that gets us there; though tennis might point us there and be a taste of what’s to come.

Hope for humanity, in Irenaeus response to ancient gnosticism, in the Gospel story, and in a response to Victor’s modern attempt to free us to be truly human by separating ‘meat’ and feelings, isn’t found in departing from our meatiness, but in both being ‘reconciled’ and made new without the presence of death, decay, and disappointment. Without the sense of us not being at home in our broken and dying bodies. That’s the hope of Christmas, where the God who made us takes the first step towards having a human body broken and dying for us…

Here’s a bit more Irenaeus to plough through…

“But if the Lord became incarnate for any other order of things, and took flesh of any other substance, He has not then summed up human nature in His own person, nor in that case can He be termed flesh. For flesh has been truly made [to consist in] a transmission of that thing moulded originally from the dust. But if it had been necessary for Him to draw the material [of His body] from another substance, the Father would at the beginning have moulded the material [of flesh] from a different substance [than from what He actually did]. But now the case stands thus, that the Word has saved that which really was [created, viz.,] humanity which had perished, effecting by means of Himself that communion which should be held with it, and seeking out its salvation. But the thing which had perished possessed flesh and blood. For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, moulded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensation of the Lord’s advent took place. He had Himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that thing which had perished. And for this cause the apostle, in the Epistle to the Colossians, says, “And though ye were formerly alienated, and enemies to His knowledge by evil works, yet now ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh, through His death, to present yourselves holy and chaste, and without fault in His sight.” He says, “Ye have been reconciled in the body of His flesh,” because the righteous flesh has reconciled that flesh which was being kept under bondage in sin, and brought it into friendship with God.” — Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 5 Chapter 14

The worship wars (3): porn as deadly (idol) worship

“And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

worship-wars
Last week news broke that two 12 year old boys had sexually assaulted a six year old girl in a bathroom in their school. Twice.

Just contemplate that for a moment. This is awful.

Awful. There’d be societies in the ancient world wearing sackcloth and ashes over that sort of behaviour (and others where that sort of behaviour would be a clear symptom of a huge societal problem — there are a couple of stories with echoes of this in the Bible around the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and then later in Judges).

What gets us to this point? What is it that teaches children to behave this way? If people are worshippers who build cultures on shared objects of worship (one of the implications of the first two posts in this series), if the actions of people within those cultures reveal our gods; our ultimate stories; then what are we worshipping that produces these actions?

What are we teaching our children?

No parent sets out to tell their kids to act like this, and if the model of human habits being a product of our gods and loves, not just our rational thoughts is true, telling kids not to do this won’t actually stop them; they’ll be much more shaped by what we, as a society are doing and what we’re loving.

This is awful. But it’s not the only story like it… and it’s not just kids…

Consider how far our society has progressed, such that the only service for children who perpetrate sexual assault on other children is oversubscribed; the expert in this story says two causes for this prevalence are the sexual abuse of children (who become perpetrators) and the availability of internet pornography.

Consider that the Washington Post published a piece recently that called pornography a “public health crisis” which pointed out that:

“Because so much porn is free and unfiltered on most digital devices, the average age of first viewing porn is estimated by some researchers to be 11. In the absence of a comprehensive sex-education curriculum in many schools, pornography has become de facto sex education for youth. And what are these children looking at? If you have in your mind’s eye a Playboy centerfold with a naked woman smiling in a cornfield, then think again. While “classy” lad mags like Playboy are dispensing with the soft-core nudes of yesteryear, free and widely available pornography is often violent, degrading and extreme.

In a content analysis of best-selling and most-rented porn films, researchers found that 88 percent of analyzed scenes contained physical aggression: generally spanking, gagging, choking or slapping. Verbal aggression occurred in 49 percent of the scenes, most often in the form of calling a woman “bitch” and “slut.” Men perpetrated 70 percent of the aggressive acts, while women were the targets 94 percent of the time.”

Consider this story from a parent recently that compared the ability to access the fantasy world of pornography to the mystical through-the-wardrobe land of Narnia, but showed the real world, habitual, fruits developed by the modern fantasy story.

Consider this ABC story by Collective Shout’s Melinda Tankard Reist about a published study Don’t Send Me That Pic featuring widespread interviews with Australia’s teenage girls, which (the story) features this quote:

Some girls suffer physical injury from porn-inspired sexual acts, including anal sex. The director of a domestic violence centre on the Gold Coast wrote to me a couple of years ago about the increase in porn-related injuries to girls aged 14 and up, from acts including torture:

“In the past few years we have had a huge increase in intimate partner rape of women from 14 to 80+. The biggest common denominator is consumption of porn by the offender. With offenders not able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, believing women are ‘up for it’ 24/7, ascribing to the myth that ‘no means yes and yes means anal’, oblivious to injuries caused and never ever considering consent. We have seen a huge increase in deprivation of liberty, physical injuries, torture, drugging, filming and sharing footage without consent.”

The Australian Psychological Society estimates that adolescent boys are responsible for around 20% of rapes of adult women and between 30% and 50% of all reported sexual assaults of children. Just last week , Emeritus Professor Freda Briggs argued that online pornography is turning children into copycat sexual predators – acting out on other children what they are seeing in porn.

Note the role ‘fantasy’ — the sort of story of desire, that shapes our imaginations, loves, and actions, plays in this quote. Ask yourself what god or gods we are worshipping as a culture that produces behaviour like this.

It’s horrid.

Pornography: worship gone wrong

This is worship gone wrong. Pornography is a form of worship — an evil counter-form of worship that is claiming the hearts and habits of men and women in our world, and destroying families, and individuals.

In Christian circles, for thousands of years, churches who have sought to raise little worshippers (such is our view of how the desires that centre our humanity operate) have catechised their children; believing that teaching a child how to worship is the key to teaching a child how to live. That, say, the golden rule, works best when you have in view the life and death of the one from whose lips it came, who also called us to love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbours as we love ourselves… then modelled that with a couple of pieces of timber and some horrid spikes on an awful hill outside Jerusalem.

Worship matters. Teaching our kids how to worship matters. And our society is teaching our kids how to worship.

It’s porn doing the teaching. If you want to know what’s catechising our kids… claiming their imaginations… shaping their desires… look no further than what is streaming into their eyes via their smart phones and internet connections. And it’s not just the kids. Is it.

The Wall Street Journal ran a story this week (you may have to google this phrase to get in behind the paywall) from a Jewish Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Pamela Anderson (yes, that Pamela Anderson), calling for people to snap out of blindly pursuing satisfaction through pornography (more on their suggested solution later). It contained this observation about the current reality…

“Put another way, we are a guinea-pig generation for an experiment in mass debasement that few of us would have ever consented to, and whose full nefarious impact may not be known for years. How many families will suffer? How many marriages will implode? How many talented men will scrap their most important relationships and careers for a brief onanistic thrill? How many children will propel, warp-speed, into the dark side of adult sexuality by forced exposure to their fathers’ profanations?

The statistics already available are terrifying. According to data provided by the American Psychological Association, porn consumption rates are between 50% and 99% among men and 30% to 86% among women, with the former group often reporting less satisfactory intimate lives with their wives or girlfriends as a result of the consumption. By contrast, many female fans of pornography tend to prefer a less explicit variety, and report that it improves their sexual relationships.

We’re catechising them. Only it’s not the story of the Gospel that’s shaping them. It’s the story of cheap pornography; which leads us to view one another as meat puppets for our own personal sexual gratification.

Pornography is worship.

False worship. But worship.

The god of uninhibited sexual pleasure isn’t a new God — there’s plenty in the Old and New Testaments about sex and idolatry (and the idolatry of sex)… but if you’re looking for an enemy in the war for people’s worship — their loves — and looking for a demonstration of the truth that we are worshippers whose lives are profoundly shaped by our loves and habits, then pornography is it.

Pornography is worship.

Awful. Habit shaping, story changing, insidious, idolatrous, deadly, worship. And it is powerful. It offers a powerfully corrupt vision of the ‘good life’ that many buy into; that the good life is an orgasm brought about no matter the cost. The cheaper for you, and the more expensive for someone else the better. What an awful story to habitually participate yourself into believing.

It’s not old hymns or modern praise songs that are the enemy in the worship wars; it’s not whether we partake in the sacraments daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or at all, that we should be putting our energy into when it comes to deciding who and how we worship. It’s insidious gods like the idols behind porn — the worship of one’s own sexual gratification and the pursuit of an orgasm as though that’s our fundamental telos, be it by ourselves in darkness or shame; or in the relationships we destroy in the pursuit of the stories we see played out in pixels. Porn kills. It’s worship. And it so perfectly fits the paradigm described in the first two posts of this series. That we’re worshippers. And what we worship shapes us as we participate in the ‘liturgies’ of whatever ultimate love story we’re living in. Porn offers a terrible ultimate love story, and it’s terribly destructive.

The war for your worship  involves your heart, your imagination, and your habits: porn attempts to claim all three

So far in this little series I’ve argued that we are, by nature, worshipping beings; that we bear the image of the object of our worship, and that seeing the worship wars as a civil war — a conflict within the church about how we gather (and the style of music we sing), profoundly misunderstands the real enemy and what’s really at stake in the war that’s raging for who and how all people worship. In this post I’ll explore what I think the major strength of James K.A Smith’s work in his three recent books on this stuff is for those wanting to engage in the worship war and fight on the good side, not the evil side, in the next I’ll make some suggestions about where I think Smith’s answer to his diagnosis goes somewhere I wouldn’t (especially because of a slight difference in what I think ‘worship’ is, and how it relates to Sunday gatherings of Christians).

Smith suggests that as worshipping creatures we are liturgical creatures; and by this he means we’re actually more shaped by our practices than we realise. Our actions aren’t just things that flow out of our beliefs and loves, but shape them. Liturgy, our habits, have the capacity to both form and deform us; to make us more like Jesus, or make us more like our idols.

Porn is worship; and it deforms us. It takes us away from being the people we were made to be, and from worshipping the God we were made to worship. We see this because it leads to destruction; not love.

This insight has a nice little overlap with the discipline of media ecology and a famous maxim about media practices and tools: “we shape our tools, and thereafter they shape us”… Introduce a new piece of technology to an environment, a technology that changes our habits, and not only will we potentially do more with that tool, it will change the way we do things and so change us. Think about someone whose job is to get rid of a concrete slab. A sledgehammer is effective and gives you big arm muscles, a jackhammer is effective and gives you a tough stomach, a remote controlled piece of high powered digging machinery is super effective and you only have to use your thumbs. Holediggers over the ages look very different. We’re shaped by our habits. Now picture the hole digging thing as ‘communicating information’ and think about the changes from pen and ink, to typewriter, to printing press, to internet… This isn’t just true of hole digging and communication — our lives and identities, our loves, who we are and the stories we tell ourselves are profoundly shaped by our habits. What we do doesn’t just reflect who we are; it shapes who we are. We cultivate the type of person we want to become based on our image of the good human life, which is based, in turn, upon the stories we tell ourselves. As Smith puts it:

Liturgies work affectively and aesthetically—they grab hold of our guts through the power of image, story, and metaphor. That’s why the most powerful liturgies are attuned to our embodiment; they speak to our senses; they get under our skin. The way to the heart is through the body, you could say.

“Liturgy,” as I’m using the word, is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for. They carry within them a kind of ultimate orientation. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

Porn makes for terrible, deadly, effective liturgy. It is powerfully wired to do exactly what Smith says liturgy does; but with horrible and destructive results. It tells a terrible story about our bodies, our sexuality, our relationships, our telos, and our humanity. The stakes are high.  This is about who you are. And who we are as a society. That’s why it’s legitimate for us to draw causal links between our practices, the virtues they demonstrate to our kids, and the way our kids then behave. If kids are sexually assaulting other kids in the playground there’s something very wrong with how we adults are conscripting their imaginations, their love and their worship. We’re losing the war, as a culture and as the church. Here’s perhaps the tightest summary about the way Smith calls us to observe and participate in the world (and to understand ourselves as participants).

If you are what you love, and your ultimate loves are formed and aimed by your immersion in practices and cultural rituals, then such practices fundamentally shape who you are. At stake here is your very identity, your fundamental allegiances, your core convictions and passions that center both your self-understanding and your way of life. In other words, this contest of cultural practices is a competition for your heart—the center of the human person designed for God, as Augustine reminded us. More precisely, at stake in the formation of your loves is your religious and spiritual identity, which is manifested not only in what you think or what you believe but in what you do—and what those practices do to you…

We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love. As we’ve seen, it’s not a question of whether you worship but what you worship—which is why John Calvin refers to the human heart as an “idol factory.” We can’t not worship because we can’t not love something as ultimate…

Our idolatries, then, are more liturgical than theological. Our most alluring idols are less intellectual inventions and more affective projections—they are the fruit of disordered wants, not just misunderstanding or ignorance. Instead of being on guard for false teachings and analyzing culture in order to sift out the distorting messages, we need to recognize that there are rival liturgies everywhere. — You Are What You Love, James K.A Smith

When we believe the story porn tells us, and reinforce it by our addicted, habitual, practices, it kills us. It rewires our brains, literally, it corrupts our imaginations and so damages our relationships (and the imagination and relationships of our children), it changes our understanding of the purpose of our existence as we’re captured and addicted (chemically) to a particular sort of stimulus that functions on the law of diminishing returns so that we always want more, more twisted, more extreme, and in capturing us like this it does what David Foster Wallace, and the writers of the Old Testament, and Paul in Romans 1, and so God, warn us it will do, as an idol, it eats us alive. Till we’re a shell of the image we were meant to be. And we die.

In Romans 1, Paul says this sort of thing is exactly what we should expect when we replace worshipping the God who made us with the gods we make from good things he made. You worship sex, and pursue orgasm with every fiber of your being via whatever object necessary — including porn — and it’s going to end up messing you up. And messing up your view of other people; whether you love them or use them. What is pornography if not the desires of our hearts being captured by images made (by the power of airbrushing, cosmetic surgery, and photoshop) to look like a mortal human being

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.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:22-25

The end result of this false worship isn’t just the messy consequences now — which Paul says God gives us (perhaps to teach us a lesson) — but death. False worship all leads to one place. It leads to destructive and deadly relationships with each other (note the testimony of girls in our schools and those awful news stories), and it leads to death. Only that doesn’t stop us, such is the lure of our idols and the power of liturgy, even bad liturgy, to claim our hearts and imaginations. Paul specifically mentions both the desires of our hearts and our depraved minds in this description of the human condition.

“Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” — Romans 1:32

How do we fix this? How do you ‘fight the new drug’ as one anti-porn platform calls us to do, if we’re natural born worshippers?

Three ways to change your worship (and maybe kick the porn habit)

1. The Pamela Anderson solution – worship yourself in different ways (bad)

The Anderson/Boteach story in the Wall Street Journal that I quoted way back at the top does a great job of highlighting the insidious, pervasive, and perverted impact that pornography is having on the lives of individuals, families, and thus our culture. But it offers a terrible and ultimately doomed solution — especially if we are worshippers and what we worship determines our fate. It’s no good just replacing one form of worship of self with another — say, the worship of our sexual pleasure, freedom, and the liturgy of pursuing orgasm, with the worship of our healthy self-autonomy, discipline, and the liturgy of pursuing self-mastery. As the narrator (or Tyler Durden) in the movie Fight Club so eloquently put it: “self improvement is masturbation”…

Here’s the Anderson/Boteach solution:

“The ubiquity of porn is an outgrowth of the sexual revolution that began a half-century ago and which, with gender rights and freedoms now having been established, has arguably run its course. Now is the time for an epochal shift in our private and public lives. Call it a “sensual revolution.”

The sensual revolution would replace pornography with eroticism—the alloying of sex with love, of physicality with personality, of the body’s mechanics with imagination, of orgasmic release with binding relationships. In an age where public disapproval is no longer an obstacle to personal disgrace, we must turn instead to the appeal of self-interest.

Simply put, we must educate ourselves and our children to understand that porn is for losers—a boring, wasteful and dead-end outlet for people too lazy to reap the ample rewards of healthy sexuality.”

If everything in this series so far is legit, or close to being right, this will not work. This is a call to do what is actually best for yourself by educating yourself about harm.

It does not replace the story that gets us to where we are. It relies on the understanding of the human being as a brain on a stick who will think themselves to better solutions. Thinking alone won’t combat the sort of chemical addiction our brains develop to release-via-orgasm attached to the fantasy world of pornography. We need better worship; including better liturgy; built on better loves; and the love at the centre of this solution is the same love that gets us to porn. The love of self, and the love of sex. It’s just the 2.0 version of the same idol. But it does seem better, so if you’re going to do anything and you don’t buy the whole Christian thing but have read this far… this is a start. And the second way might work too…

2. The David Foster Wallace/Fight The New Drug solution — worship others in sacrificial ways (better, but still theologically deadly)

David Foster Wallace’s response to observing that everybody worships and to noticing the destructive ‘eat you alive’ power of worshipping the wrong stuff, was to call us to question our default self-seeking settings. To change the story by paying attention to the world outside ourselves and leaving the isolation of ruling our “tiny skull-sized kingdoms” where we think of ourselves “alone at the centre of all creation” in order to participate more fully in reality; a shared, corporate, reality filled with other people who matter. His sort of observation is what drives the sort of altruistic response to the pornofication of our world that we see championed by organisations like Fight the New Drug and Collective Shout, where you don’t have to be a Christian to sign up; you just have to recognise the harm that a self-centred view of the world — self-worship — creates.

This way of fighting in the worship wars against pornography is a call to worship a less destructive, but perhaps no more transcendent/out of this world god. It still leaves you with a ‘created thing’ as a God, just not yourself. And it provides you with a new story, and perhaps a new set of liturgies based not just on self-discipline but self-sacrifice, and discipline oriented towards not harming others in your habits.

Here’s perhaps my favourite part of This Is Water; paired with the Gospel story of the self-giving king who connects us to the infinite thing we’ve lost, the call to petty little self-sacrifices is incredibly powerful, and oh so close to being a brilliant liturgical framework. Practice this self-sacrifice until it’s your new default.

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. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

This sort of approach — this fight against the default — is to take up the other half of the Fight Club narrator’s mantra: “self-improvement is masturbation, self-destruction is real change“— it’s to die to yourself and your desires in order to give some sort of life to others. So Fight the New Drug provides a tool kit for doing just this — tools for embracing self-discipline, a change of habits, and a new story (and a new hashtag, because #pornkillslove). It wants you to get the facts but it also wants you to think about your loves and your habits so that you can fight and thus destroy that part of you that leaves you consuming other people. It’s a good, albeit, imperfect solution reflecting a reasonable understanding of how people work — but if habits aren’t tied coherently to our ultimate loves, they aren’t shaping us in any particularly identity shifting way, they aren’t liturgy in the sense described above, and if our ultimate love is still a ‘created thing’ then we’re in just as much trouble according to Romans 1.

While we’re on Fight Club and ‘created things’, if you’ll indulge a tangent… Fight Club shares the same understanding of the idolatrous human condition — our life as worshippers — as Wallace and Smith and these three posts. In the scene where the narrator’s apartment is disintegrating before his eyes, the things that consumed his desires go up in smoke; demonstrating to him that their value wasn’t (and isn’t) actually ultimate. He makes these observations about the stuff and the meaning we instill in our stuff… and he shows that our idolatrous consumption isn’t just tied to sex and porn. There are other narratives where we’ve created a liturgy for ourselves; whether its the porn habit, or the IKEA accumulation habit…

Something which was a bomb, a big bomb, had blasted my clever Njurunda coffee tables in the shape of a lime green yin and an orange yang that fit together to make a circle. Well they were splinters, now. My Haparanda sofa group with the orange slip covers, design by Erika Pekkari, it was trash, now. And I wasn’t the only slave to my nesting instinct. The people I know who used to sit in the bathroom with pornography, now they sit in the bathroom with their IKEA furniture catalogue. We all have the same Johanneshov armchair in the Strinne green stripe pattern. Mine fell fifteen stories, burning, into a fountain.

You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you. — Fight Club, Narrator

Self-improvement via self-discipline even if it’s self-sacrifice for the sake of others will only get you so far because it’s still the worship of a created thing; of images made to look like mortal human beings. It won’t answer that gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing; it won’t really meet the need we’re grasping for because our telos as humans involves us looking for the right thing to worship, because it’s not the right thing to worship (even if it involves right habits of worship). It doesn’t ultimately change our story or our loves so that our ultimate love is not something that should be loved after first loving the Lord your God with all your heart. We’re definitely called to love our neighbour as we love ourselves and that should change our approach to pornography, but the first bit Jesus says is the most important bit.

Pornography is worship. Deadly worship. But worshipping ourselves (loving ourselves ultimately) or others (loving our neighbours ultimately) isn’t actually less deadly (though it might be less damaging to people around you). If you really don’t buy the God stuff then just go immerse yourself in This Is Water on repeat for a few hours and then habitually look for myriad petty little ways to serve others with your life. It’ll change the world.

3. Change what you worship via the ‘expulsive power of a new affection’ (good)

Smith’s understanding of the human being as a worshipping being isn’t new. It’s not revolutionary. It’s the understanding put forward by the Old Testament, the New Testament, the inter-testamental literature, the early church, Augustine, the Reformers, and the Puritans. It’s not a revolution. It’s our buy-in to the enlightenment-modernist-cartesian concept of the person as only or primarily a ‘thinking thing’ that makes it seem ground breaking. But if all these people are right then you don’t think your way out of a terrible and destructive pattern of deadly idolatry; or even simply act your way out of it using accountability software, tracking, or even self-flagellation… you worship your way out.

You don’t combat wrong worship by fixating on the thing you’re trying to stop being consumed by, or by fixating on some other idol instead.

We combat wrong worship with right worship.

The real worship war is against porn and other idols. You fight porn, and other idols, with Jesus. By worshipping Jesus. By taking on the challenge from Jesus to first “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength and all your mind” (Luke 10:27). God is after all the bits of you that porn claims. Your heart. Your imagination. Your habits. Your very self.

This fight will involve the habits, certainly, a new liturgy to combat and replace the old one. It’ll involve us being those who participate in true worship where we ‘offer ourselves as a living sacrifice’ tied to a renewing of the mind away from the patterns of this world (Romans 12:1-3, ultimately this is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit, at least according to Romans 8). The next post in this series will consider some alternative liturgies, or an alternative framework for understanding liturgy to both the liturgies of idolatry and the solutions put forward by Smith.

But first it involves a new story, a new understanding of our telos and identity, that we’re being conformed into the image of Jesus, and a new love that fires our imagination and desires and occupies our worship such that the idols we’re at war with fall into disrepair and fade away into disuse like so many ancient temples. In our world there are temples that have been torn down by conquerers who hold rival religious beliefs — like ISIS is doing in Syria — and temples that have simply been abandoned because not only did nobody see their value any more, the gods the temples housed have been replaced by new loves in the hearts of the people who built them. That’s what we have to do to fight porn — to fight in the worship wars — love Jesus more, and believe he offers something better than a finite number of orgasms in response to a real human person magically (cursedly) reduced to some flesh coloured pixels on a screen.

We need what the 19th century Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers called the expulsive power of a new affection” — a love that pushes all other loves out of God’s rightful place as the object of our worship. It’s not enough just to show that our worldly idol-emperors — like pornography — have no clothes (see what I did there)m we also have to replace them with something plausibly better and truer and more satisfying.

“And it is the same in the great world. We shall never be able to arrest any of its leading pursuits, by a naked demonstration of their vanity. It is quite in vain to think of stopping one of these pursuits in any way else, but by stimulating to another. In attempting to bring a worldly man intent and busied with the prosecution of his objects to a dead stand, we have not merely to encounter the charm which he annexes to these objects – but we have to encounter the pleasure which he feels in the very prosecution of them. It is not enough, then, that we dissipate the charm, by a moral, and eloquent, and affecting exposure of its illusiveness. We must address to the eye of his mind another object, with a charm powerful enough to dispossess the first of its influences, and to engage him in some other prosecution as full of interest, and hope, and congenial activity, as the former…

To obliterate all our present affections by simply expunging them, and so as to leave the seat of them unoccupied, would be to destroy the old character, and to substitute no new character in its place… The love of God and the love of the world, are two affections, not merely in a state of rivalship, but in a state of enmity – and that so irreconcilable, that they cannot dwell together in the same bosom. We have already affirmed how impossible it were for the heart, by any innate elasticity of its own, to cast the world away from it; and thus reduce itself to a wilderness. The heart is not so constituted; and the only way to dispossess it of an old affection, is by the expulsive power of a new one. ” — Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection

For Chalmers that new affection is best if it is the God revealed in the Gospel. The one who made, rules, and will judge the world. The one who gives life to dead people by laying down his life as the ultimate act of love.

Jesus is better than porn. It sounds twee, but that’s a better answer than Wallace or Anderson and the Rabbi offer because it involves a better and more fulfilling type of worship and we are worshipping beings. Porn is a terrible liturgy because sexual pleasure is a terrible, finite, god and your pursuit of it will leave you disappointed and ultimately eat you alive.

Jesus is better than porn and more satisfying, even, than sensuality. It’s time our practices, and the lives of our community, reflected that in such a way that the lives of children (and adults) both inside and outside our communities are better for it.

Enough is enough. Don’t just kick your porn habit; get a Jesus habit. In the next post I’ll ponder how we might do just that.

The real worship wars (1): You are what you worship

“You are what you love… You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice” —David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

Image Credit: davidhardie.com

Here’s a confession. It irks me when people call music ‘worship’ or music leaders ‘worship pastors’; not because music is not worship but because worship is so much more, and our terminology matters (so does music). What irks me more, even than this, is that we’ve spent so much time in the ‘worship wars’ fighting about whether to pursue contemporary or traditional styles of worship that we’ve missed the real worship war.

If you google the phrase ‘worship wars’ you’ll find a whole bunch of stuff about music in church, and different styles of church service. There were some shots fired in the worship wars by the Gospel Coalition recently (it’s so unlike them to be combative), which, because I’m irked by the terminology slippage of the word worship, irked me enough to get me to kickstart this series that has been in my head for some time.

Worship is more than music. It’s even more than the liturgy involved in your Sunday ‘worship service’ (including the sacraments). Worship is bigger than Sunday, and until we see that, we’re going to lose the worship wars to the real opponents. Idols and Satan.

There is a real battle going on when it comes to our worship, but the question isn’t so much about music on a Sunday or the aesthetics and regularity of the sacraments (though aesthetics matter too).

I’m going to spend a couple of posts on what I think the real worship war looks like, and where our attention should be focused in what is a real battle for the lives of people in our churches and our world.

To “Arr” is pirate, to worship is human

Everybody worships. We are born worshippers, and as secular novelist/philosopher David Foster Wallace puts it in the most excellent This Is Water, the only choice we really get as humans is the choice of what to worship; that defines everything else about us.

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…

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

What if this is the worship war that matters, not a choice of style of worship — or music — within the church, but the competition for your heart and your service?

Only, what if it’s not a choice? What if what we worship is determined for us by our participation in this great worship war, where different objects of worship are competing for our love and our attention? What if those default patterns aren’t just products of our decision to worship, but form it? What if we worship from the hands (the habits), to the heart (the desires), to the head (the imagination), rather than from the rational mind down? What if it’s harder than DFW thought?

What worship is

So if worship isn’t music or the Sunday service — but rather, those are aspects of our worship — what is it?

I’m going to make the case that worship is the whole-hearted, whole-handed, and whole-headed, attempt to reflect on, and so reflect, the image of our god(s) as we bow to and serve them with our whole being. When it comes to the God of the Bible, and our worship of him, our worship is what leads us to glorify him as we bear his image in his world. The New Testament uses two Greek words for worship: proskuneo and latreuo; roughly translated as ‘bow down’ and ‘serve’. The Old Testament pairs these (in the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint) in Exodus 20:4-5, the first commandment:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

We’re consciously worshipping creatures; we pick a god and that choice shapes us. That’s part of what separates us from the animals (although they too declare the glory of God, with the rest of the heavens); we’re made to be oriented to God, via worship, and part of the sinful human condition is that we orient ourselves to all sorts of other stuff instead. The image we bear in this world reflects the God we worship, and so, we become what we worship with our hearts, hands, and minds.

We’re made to bear God’s image, and so his first commandment to Israel is about worshipping him — not the stuff or animals he made. We’re made to bear God’s image, and yet we keep exchanging God for other images; and that’s deadly. Paul describes the human condition — our defective worship — in Romans 1 (and I’m suggesting ‘glorified him as God’ is synonymous with worship).

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.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. — Romans 1:21-25

Now let’s just pause for a minute.

Do you think Paul, here, is talking about people singing songs about rabbits? Or sex? Or some other created thing? Or about people going bird watching on a Sunday?

Now. He might well be talking about these activities as forms of worship but the sort of worship he’s talking about is actually the orientation of our desires, and imaginations such that our habits and lives reflect the object of our love. A nature-worshipper might well sing about the beauty of creation and go bird-watching on a Sunday, and that might refresh them, but they keep finding ways to practice their love for nature all week ’round; cause that’s what worship is. A sex-worshipper will sing songs about sex, but will also consume magazine articles about sex, pursue sex, and ultimately, desire as much sex, and as many orgasms, as possible in their finite life on this mortal coil. Worship can’t just be about the songs we sing — or Sunday morning — its about the desires of our hearts, and the practices of our hands that cultivate those desires and inform our thinking as we live lives that express our fanatical service to these gods. In David Foster Wallace’s sprawling novel, Infinite Jest, two characters, Marathe and Steeply discuss this aspect of our humanity — our fundamental need to worship, and the reality that we do so without choosing consciously if we don’t consciously choose…

“Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple… Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith…”

“Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you… You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self… choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice… This, is it not the choice of the most supreme importance?” — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

You are what you worship

We all grow attached to things — become fanatical worshippers of some god; and this happens whether we’re conscious of it or not as we are lured into worship by different visions of the good human life; different stories we’d like to see ourselves living in. As a result of our hearts and imaginations being conscripted, we start practicing new liturgies — new habits — which reinforce this conscription. That’s the pattern of the rest of Romans 1; defective worship leads to defective lives (and defective lives lead to defective worship).

Idolatry — the worship of other gods, or the making of gods out of good things God made — has transforming power with damaging consequences. The Old Testament is full of warnings about these consequences but the concept of becoming what you worship is never far from the surface of these consequences; worship dumb, dead, stuff and instead of being the living people of the living God you’ll be dumb, dead, stuff. Or as the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 115:

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

 They have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but cannot walk,
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

The thing that’s truly beautiful (and truly tragic) about David Foster Wallace’s insight into worship is that he highlights how even as our idol worship delivers it doesn’t ever satisfy. Worship sex, pursue orgasm after orgasm, and your god will give you what you want (Romans 1 promises that too); but you’ll spiral into awful objectification or addiction (the next post in this series will consider pornography as a form of worship). That’s true of almost all our idols; as we attain the thing we desire we find it doesn’t scratch the itch we thought it would, or that we become so detached from flourishing patterns of humanity and relationships that we are utterly destroyed. We become what we worship, or, as DFW puts it:

If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you… Worship power-you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart-you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

He also observes the spiralling effect that comes with worship of things that aren’t God (and so aren’t really able to satisfy what he calls the ‘gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing’). This dovetails with the Psalmist’s observation that we become what we behold; what we worship. The Bible differs on its assessment of the morality of these default behaviours; it’s not just that this sort of worship of something other than God is sinful, it’s the heart of all our sinful acts.

“Look, 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.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

At the end of This Is Water, a truly profound assessment of the human condition, Wallace asks the students he’s speaking to to consider their habits, to consider living a life that runs counter to this default. He does this, in part, by challenging the narrative behind these defaults by urging us to pay attention to what’s going on in the lives of those around us

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. — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

This is liturgy — or worship — of a particular kind, but he’s really just urging people to switch idols, moving from a selfish worship of self, to a self-emptying worship of other people. His narrative here is a form of humanism (unless you take his advice to worship some spiritual thing). It won’t answer the gnawing sense he identifies, and it won’t achieve the aim he suggests (eerily, given his end), that it might.

None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

He’s right though. The worship wars are a matter of life and death. What you choose to worship will give you life, or take your life. To win the worship wars — where the real enemy is actually death — we need to take up a better story one that captures our desires and imaginations, and adopt habits consistent with that story; lest our loves lead us to death. That seems to be Paul’s agenda in much of his writing in the New Testament, where he speaks specifically of worship (in a way both similar to DFW, but grounded in a different story), and of a story that changes the orientation of our hearts, minds, and habits.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  — Romans 12:1-2

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things… — Colossians 3:1-2 (we’ll see below how this relates to our habits, and is perhaps the product of our habits).

Paul’s approach to worship differs from DFW’s because his story connects us to something transcendent; something beyond ourselves; something above, something infinite. It’s built from a better story — the story of the transcendent God who both calls us to worship him alone, and makes himself knowable in the ultimate act of love and sacrifice in Jesus’ divinity; and who provides the model of the ultimate worshipper in Jesus’ humanity.

The worship wars are a competition for our loves, a conflict based on what story we live — and thus a conflict that shapes our destiny; the end of our story. Will we live, and live in the light of eternity, like Paul, or live, and face death with the gnawing, nagging, sense of having lost eternity, like DFW, or simply choose the default rat race setting of life for ourselves, and so destroy those around us for the sake of our very temporary happiness, while being shaped and destroyed by whatever it is we’ve chosen to worship.

We’ll see next post that the worship wars are not so much about the songs we sing in church, or the sacraments, or even church on a Sunday, but about much more. The stakes are much higher than a Sunday runsheet, or who gets in the band.

What do you love? What are you prepared to die for? Will it give you life? This is where the real action is in the worship wars;

“You are what you love… You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice” — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Reading the Bible (and life) as the story of God ‘re-creating’ and ‘re-vivifying’ broken images of God: Part 1 — By the rivers of Babylon

In which, over a two part epic, I quote significant chunks of Babylonian religious propaganda to make the case that we should understand being made in the ‘image of God’ as a call to play a part in representing God in his world, while our idolatrous hearts keep leading us to play that part for idols.

This post is fairly epic in size, but the good news is, I’ve split it in two. Ok. So here’s a fun way to read the Bible, in sum, think of this as the TL:DR; version of what follows:

  1. The Bible is the story of God giving life to his image bearers — making living images or idols to represent himself — and then restoring life to those images when they stop serving that function. Part of this restoration involves the image being ‘revivified’ — given life, breath, and a function — near or through water. This vivification, or revivification, happens through a ritual ceremony that was a ceremony used throughout the ancient world to give and restore life to broken idol statues.
  2. God’s people are meant to function for him the way idol statues function for the other gods of the ancient world — to represent the presence of his kingdom, to, in a sense, manifest his rule and give legitimacy to it.
  3. The flip side of this reading is that the stuff in the Bible about not making idols to represent God is actually a pointer to the truth that only the living God can make representatives of himself, that share his qualities, because all things that are made by makers reflect their maker. The problem with the gods of the nations — gods of stone, shaped from the human imagination but based on things that God made — is that its an overturning of the created order, in which it is God who makes images (humans), not humans who make gods.

God creates his images (and gives them breath and a purpose, near water)

Creation as ‘giving something a function’…

Old Testament scholar John Walton has written a bunch of stuff about how the Genesis creation account relates to its ancient near eastern context. One really important point he makes is that we, as modern readers, bring modern concerns to the text as well as modern notions of what it means ‘to be’ (a modern ontology). We think ‘being’ is meaningfully tied to questions of what substance a thing is made of, our ontology is material. This wasn’t the case in the ancient world, nor, (just to give you a sense of how this question plays out significantly in different times, while we might take our modern thinking for granted) for some time after that. The Greeks, for example, as described in Plato, saw being as a thing reflecting some perfect infinite form, and a thing’s ‘being’ was measured, in some way, against this ideal. The significance of this, in the Greek world, was that people often separated a thing’s physicality from its ‘ideal form’ — prioritising the ‘spiritual’ over the physical. This question matters more than we think it might. In the world the Bible came from, existence was tied not to its material essence, or a thing’s ‘ideal form’, but to the function it was given within a system of functioning things. The ancient world had what Walton calls a ‘functional ontology’… Here’s a quote where he explains what this means:

“WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR SOMETHING to exist? It might seem like an odd question with perhaps an obvious answer, but it is not as simple as it may seem. For example, when we say that a chair exists, we are expressing a conclusion on the basis of an assumption that certain properties of the chair define it as existing. Without getting bogged down in philosophy, in our contemporary ways of thinking, a chair exists because it is material. We can detect it with our senses (particularly sight and touch). The question of existence and the previous examples introduce a concept that philosophers refer to as “ontology.” Most people do not use the word ontology on a regular basis, and so it can be confusing, but the concept it expresses is relatively simple. The ontology of X is what it means for X to exist… When we speak of cosmic ontology these days, it can be seen that our culture views existence, and therefore meaning, in material terms… Since in our culture we believe that existence is material, we consequently believe that to create something means to bring its material properties into existence. Thus our discussions of origins tend to focus on material origins.

If we are going to understand a creation account from the ancient world we must understand what they meant by “creation,” and to do that we must consider their cosmic ontology instead of supplying our own. What did it mean to someone in the ancient world to say that the world existed?

People in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system. Here I do not refer to an ordered system in scientific terms, but an ordered system in human terms, that is, in relation to society and culture… In this sort of functional ontology, the sun does not exist by virtue of its material properties, or even by its function as a burning ball of gas. Rather it exists by virtue of the role that it has in its sphere of existence, particularly in the way that it functions for humankind and human society… In a functional ontology, to bring something into existence would require giving it a function or a role in an ordered system, rather than giving it material properties… Unless people (or gods) are there to benefit from functions, existence is not achieved. Unless something is integrated into a working, ordered system, it does not exist… Consequently, the actual creative act is to assign something its functioning role in the ordered system. That is what brings it into existence.” — John Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate

Walton obviously takes a position on how this affects the way we read the nature of ‘creation’ in Genesis 1, but that’s a red herring in this discussion. His observation is borne out through a study of the sort of things ‘created’ and what is said of them throughout the Bible (it’s always linked to function, rather than form), and also in texts apart from the Bible — other creation accounts, and other stories about people ‘creating’ things in the Ancient world. I think its fair to say this ‘ontology’ is not disputed, and you might have to take it to whatever conclusions are necessary when it comes to how to read the Genesis accounts as they relate to our ‘material ontology’ and the questions we might want Genesis to answer. I’m going to go in a very different direction though, and specifically consider the questions this creates for us when Genesis talks about us. Humans. Where we’re made in God’s ‘image’ and likeness. I think the likeness part captures a sense that we share some qualities of God in how we operate in the world, we reflect him, but the ‘image’ part is also functional and is tied to us representing him.

I’m suggesting that to be made in God’s image in the sense in which Genesis (and the rest of the Bible talks about it), is not just to be something, but also to do something. And that something is caught up with the idea that we are the living, speaking, God’s living, speaking, statues, in the same way that dead and dumb statues represented dead and dumb gods.

The Hebrew word for image selem is often translated as idol, both later in the Old Testament (rarely, because there are a few different words used), and elsewhere in the ancient near east (frequently, like, this is a very common word for how the nations describe their statues), it does come up a few times like:

Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When you cross over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their figured stones, and destroy all their molten images and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. — Numbers 33:51-53

“You also took the fine jewellery I gave you, the jewellery made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them.” — Ezekiel 16:17

The verbs used for God’s creation of humanity in Genesis 1 and 2 are later used when talking about the forming of idols, or to refer back to God’s creation of humankind.

There’s a consensus emerging amongst a stream of good Bible scholars — people who believe the Bible is God’s word, and is about Jesus — that Genesis 1-2 should be read as the story of God creating his cosmic temple, a place for him to dwell, and rest, and be worshipped. I don’t think this is controversial. This is the ‘ordered system’ then that we are placed in and given the function we’re given as ‘images’… The word for ‘image’ in Hebrew, selem, has an ancient near eastern link to the word used elsewhere for idol statue, salmu. We’ve added vowel sounds to Hebrew, which was traditionally just written as consonants, so slm. 

There are some steps to notice in what happens as God makes an image of himself in Genesis 2.

  1. Formed and fashioned, near water (and symbolically, in a sense, moved through water, it’s interesting that God places the man in the garden twice, once before the mention of the water, and once after) (Genesis 2:6, 8, 10-15)
  2. Inspired, or given ‘breath’ so that it the image is vivified. It is to be thought of as a living representation of the God whose image it bears. (Genesis 2:7)
  3. Declared fit for purpose within a system, and via connection to God. (Genesis 1:26-31)
  4. Placed (or enthroned) in the Temple/garden sanctuary and given a job within the Temple. (Genesis 2:8-9, 15
  5. The images are provided for with food and drink. (Genesis 2:16-17)
  6. The image fulfills a function in representing the God behind the image (Genesis 2:19-20)

These steps are pretty much a summary of the steps required for people to create images of God in the ancient world. The sequencing is interesting here because 3 actually happens in Genesis 1, and then Genesis 2 zooms in to sequentially cover 1-2 and 4-5. Genesis 1 also supplies the sense in which 5 happens. God creates and rules by speaking good things (and a good system) into being. God creates humans to rule over the things he has made — especially the other living things — as his images. And in Genesis 2, Adam ‘names the animals’ by speaking their names into being, and thus rules them — in the Ancient Near East, to name something was to express your authority over it.

Humans are meant to serve as God’s images in his temple — his living breathing representatives.

The creation, and re-creation, of images of God in the ancient world

The notion of ‘images of God’ in the ancient world, outside the Bible, was linked to the role the king of an ancient nation would play in being the representative of that nation’s god as both priest and king of the nation’s cult. Here are some things written about a couple of kings. The image of the king, and the image of the nation’s god were so closely tied that the king of a successful nation almost always became God.

“He [the king] alone is the image of Enlil, attentive to the voice of the people, to the counsel of the land.” — EPIC OF TUKULTI-NINURTA

 

“The King’s image, made brilliant like the heavenly stars, was set up before the eyes of the God Enlil”  — A HYMN DEDICATED TO SULGI OF UR

 

He created his royal image with a likeness of his own countenance and placed it before the God Ninurta.”— INSCRIPTION DESCRIBING ASSURNASIRPAL, KING OF ASSYRIA

Some of the words in this bit are going to seem foreign — because they are. Not just foreign, but ancient. Just let those bits wash over you, but as you read (if you read the chunks of quotes from inscriptions) try to notice the similarities, and the differences, to how the Bible describes the making of an image of God. The Genesis account comes from a world much closer to these tablets than to our modern world. What’s really striking, I think, is how much the conclusion from the first section, and those steps present in making an image of God (and supplying a function), is supported in the ancient world — and what sort of comparison is struck between the Bible’s story of God’s creation of humanity, and the ancient, human, stories of how people were to make images of God. Those same 6 steps are there, with a couple of key subversions, in an ancient Babylonian ritual called Mîs-pî, where images are created, given the job of representing the god(s) who made the universe, and enthroned. Here’s the text of the ritual. There’s heaps of stuff here that sounds like it could be said about the God of the Bible, what’s interesting is what changes if you remember that this is a person speaking to the gods, about the creation of an image of a god. An image that is a statue where they need to create a sort of cognitive dissonance because the statue does not breathe or move, which brings into question just how powerful these gods are. The king/image-creator would say (the times ‘statue’ appears from here on in are ‘salmu’):

Ea, Ṧamaš, and Asalluḫi, the great gods, who judge the heavens and the earth, who determine the destinies, who fix decisions, who make sanctuaries great, who set the foundations of the throne daises, who lay out the plan, who outline the ordinances, who apportion the lots, who watch over sanctuaries, who keep the rites pure, who creates the rites of purification, it is in your hands to determine fates, to draw plans, you alone establish the fate of life, you alone draw the plans of life, you alone make the decisions of life, you inspect all the throne daises of god and goddess, you alone are the great gods who direct, the decisions of the heavens and earth, of springs and seas, your utterance is life, your pronouncement is well-being, the work of your mouth is life itself,  you alone bestride the farthest heavens, you dispel evil (and) establish the good, you loosen the evil portents and signs, disturbing and bad dreams, who cut through the cord of evil. I am the chief exorcist who <knows> the pure rites of Eridu, I have poured out water; I have cleansed the ground for you;  I have set up pure thrones for your sitting; I have dedicated clean red garments for you; I have set up the pure offering arrangements for you; I poured out for you a pure libation; I set up for you an adakurru-bowl with našpu-beer.

I libated for you wine and best beer. Because the completion of the rites of the great gods and the direction of the plan of the purification rite rest with you, on this day be present: for this statue which stands before you ceremoniously grant him the destiny that his mouth may eat, that his ears might hear. May the god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside! — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

After this had been recited, the king would “set up a libation for the gods Kusu, Ningirima, Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusigbanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim,” and ritually carry some incense and a torch past the image of these gods that had already been created. Then, the king would approach the new image that was being given life (vivified).

“You purify him with the egubbû-basin and (then) perform the Mīs Pî ritual, you set up a libation and the āšipu-priest stands to the left of that god. You recite three times the incantation “When the god was made” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The words of this incantation make it clear, or attempt to, that these statues are the products of all these other gods. Ignore all the funny types of Babylonian stone, and notice where those names of the gods mentioned above come up. And their ‘involvement’ as makers, but the key bits that are bolded. This is an exercise in overcoming the knowledge that these images are crafted by people, and can’t actually do what they symbolise.

“When the god was fashioned, the pure statue completed, and the god appeared in all the lands, then bearing an awe-inspiring radiance totally suited to rule with perfect strength; surrounded on all sides with splendour, endowed with a sparkling-pure appearance, he appears magnificently, the statue shines brilliantly; in the heavens, it was crafted; on earth, it was crafted. This statue was crafted in the entire heavens and earth… this statue grew up in the forest (of) Tir-ḫašur (ḫašur-cedar); this statue went out from a mountain, the pure place; the statue is the product of gods and humans; the statue (has) eyes that Ninkura has made; the statue (has) … that Ninagal has made; the statue (has) features that Ninzadim has made; the statue is of gold and silver that Kusibanda has made; [the statue ] that Ninildu has made; [the statue ] that Ninzadim has made; this statue of ḫulālu-stone, ḫulāl īni-stone, muššaru-stone, pappardillû-stone, pappardildillû-stone, ḫulālu parrû elmešu, by the skill of the gurgurru-craftsman, this statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, Ninzadim have made,  this statue cannot smell incense without the ‘Opening of the Mouth’ ceremony. It cannot eat food nor drink water…” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

These eyes can’t see. These features can’t do what they represent — see, or smell, or hear. These gods are made of gold and silver. These gods are statues. They are made by craftsmen, not gods. And here’s the ritual that ‘opens’ its mouth, that gives it life and breath and the ability to manifest the presence of the god it represents.

Water of the Apsû, brought from the midst of Eridu, water of the Tigris, water of the Euphrates, brought from a pure place: tamarisk, soapwort, heart of palm, šalālu-reed, multi-colored marsh reed, seven small palms, juniper, (and) white cedar throw into it; in the garden of the canal of the pure orchard build a bīt rimki. Bring him out to the canal of the pure orchard, to the bīt rimki. Bring out this statue before Shamash. Put again at their place the adze that was driven (into the wood), the chisel that carved it, the saw that cut it, and the master craftsmen who prepared it. With a scarf bind their hands; with a tamarisk knife cut off the fists of the stoneworkers who touched him. This is the statue that Ninkura, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, (and) Ninzadim made. Kusu, the chief purification priest of Enlil, has purified it with a holy-water-basin, censer, and torch with his pure hands. Asalluḫi, the son of Eridu, made it resplendent. The apkallu and the abriqqu-priest of Eridu have opened your mouth twice seven times with syrup, ghee, cedar, (and) cypress.

May this god become pure like heaven, clean like the earth, bright like the center of heaven. May the evil tongue stand aside.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

The ceremonial ‘cutting off the hands’ of the stoneworkers to ritually deny human involvement fascinates me. The whole process to this point has been so very human. The king has been in the driving seat both in terms of speaking life into the god, via the incantations, and in terms of organising the design and creation of the god. This human involvement is clear from the number of “I did X” statements. It’s a very human process and this little ritual shows how much the idol maker must operate with a weird doublethink, the “I made this, it is my god” thing that Isaiah nails when he talks about how idol makers cook their food over half a lump of burning wood, and worship the other half. I say ‘ceremonial’ because tthe knife is wooden so I don’t think they actually chopped the hands off. After this ritual the statue is ‘commissioned’ by this prayer, and then carried to its temple.

“In the ear of this god you shall say the following: “Among your brothers you are counted,” you shall whisper into his left ear. “From this day let your fate be counted as divinity; among your brother gods may you be counted; draw near to the king who restored you; approach your temple…. To the land where you were created be reconciled.” — Mîs-pî Ritual Tablet

Notice the water mentioned at the start, is ‘water of the Apsû,’ the Apsû is the divine source of water in the ancient near east so this is ‘divine water’ from the mids of the god Eridu, which is said to come from two rivers. This water is brought into the place where this ritual happens, a ritual that happens in a garden-canal area in a ‘pure orchard,’ you may have identified all six of those elements of the Genesis creation narrative I mentioned above too, but check this out.

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin and onyx are also there.) The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the EuphratesThe Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” — Genesis 2:10-15

This, then the subsequent creation of Eve, is how God places his images in his Garden/sanctuary/temple. To ‘work it and take care of it’ — and, for bonus points, the two verbs translated as ‘work it and take care of it’ are later used, and only ever used in this pairing, or construction, as describing the role of the priests in God’s temple. It’s also interesting that when God essentially ‘re-creates’ humanity, his images, a few chapters later through Noah, his family, and the waters of the flood, much of the same process repeats.

But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and the livestock that were with him in the ark, and he sent a wind over the earth, and the waters receded. Now the springs of the deep and the floodgates of the heavens had been closed, and the rain had stopped falling from the sky. The water receded steadily from the earth. At the end of the hundred and fifty days the water had gone down, and on the seventeenth day of the seventh month the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat… Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it. So Noah came out, together with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. All the animals and all the creatures that move along the ground and all the birds—everything that moves on land—came out of the ark, one kind after another.  Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and, taking some of all the clean animals and cleanbirds, he sacrificed burnt offerings on it.” — Genesis 8:1-3, 16-20

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything. — Genesis 9:1-3

Here, God re-creates humanity in his image. We see God:

  1. Forming a new people for himself through water (6:1-8:4),
  2. Placing them where the ark — his vessel for salvation — lands on a mountain (8:4, 16),
  3. Giving them a function in this cosmic system — he gives Noah and his family the job he gave his image bearers in Genesis 1 (8:17, 9:1)
  4. Providing food for them (9:3).

And we see Noah and his family ‘representing God’ — even if temporarily, as he builds an altar/sanctuary (8:20), and then as he, ‘a man of the soil,’ gardens, like Adam did (9:20).

There are also plenty of connections here to the later creation of Israel, through the waters of the red sea and the Exodus, to be placed in the Promised Land with it pictured as a rich, fruitful land marked by flowing water… When God speaks of his creation of Israel he talks in terms of creating a nation of priests, he does that through the waters of the exodus, and he moves them from Egypt to the Promised land (where, as they’re about to enter the land, he makes it very clear they’re not to follow any sorts of images given life by empty man-conducted rituals.

Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” — Exodus 19:5-6

Note the similarities here to the things humanity was meant to rule, and read it remembering who humans are meant to be.

You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars—all the heavenly array—do not be enticedinto bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven. But as for you, the Lord took you and brought you out of the iron-smelting furnace, out of Egypt, to be the people of his inheritance, as you now are.

The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan; but you are about to cross over and take possession of that good land. Be careful not to forget the covenant of the Lord your God that he made with you; do not make for yourselves an idol in the form of anything the Lord your God has forbidden. For the Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God. — Deuteronomy 4:15-24

Just as Israel is about to be placed, like a divine image, in the promised land — a new Eden — there’s this reminder of who they’re to be, and a warning that if they do turn away from God, they’ll end up captured and taken into exile — God’s images removed from this temple — where they’ll worship ‘man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell’ (Deut 4:25-28).

Images broken by exile, restored through waters

Ok. Here’s an extra fun part. When an image — as in the statue in a temple — was captured by an enemy army and taken into exile it lost its power. The God behind it was emptied, the statue was de-vivified. When nations went against nation they went after the idol statues in their temples. Statues functioned a bit like a flag in a game of capture the flag, if a nation held another nation’s statue of their god it was meant to show how little power the nation and its king had, and the king couldn’t exactly say ‘hey that statue is a fraud’ because the statue guaranteed the king’s own power — oh, yeah, the story of the capture of the Ark of the Covenant and its little power struggle with Dagon in 1 Samuel 5 is a fun example of this. If ever a nation captured back its statue, or if the winning nation wanted to take the power and prestige of the god behind the statue as a means to control the captured nation then the statue had to be re-vivified using a pretty similar ceremony, essentially following those same steps (this is fun background to read when we see foreign kings allowing Israel to restore the temple or practice their religion during exile).

There was a king of Assyria, Esarhaddon (he gets a mention in the Bible, in 2 Kings 19), who, famously restored the idols he’d captured in one of his conquests. I say ‘famously’ because Esarhaddon had his restoration of the Babylonian gods he (and his family) had captured inscribed in stone to shore up his own personal claims to divinity. Here are some bits of what he says in the inscription. In this you get a picture of the role the king played when it came to setting up an image of god, and the kind of kudos that came with it. The TL:DR; version, if you want to skip this quote, is that the king claimed divine right to create gods, found the craftsmen to do it, then decorated the image with gold and jewels to make them ‘more radiant than before,’ before conducting the same ceremony conducted to give them life in the beginning.

“When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… When in heaven and on earth signs favourable for the renewal of the statue of the gods occurred, then I, Esarhaddon, king of the universe, king of the Land of Ashur, the apple of Ashur’s eye, the beloved of the great gods, with the great intelligence and vast understanding, which the great Nudimmud, the wise man of the gods, bestowed on me, with the wisdom which Ashur and Marduk entrusted to me when they made me aware of the renewal of the the statue of the great gods, with lifting of hands, prayers, and supplication, I prayed to the divinities Ashur, king of the gods and to the great Lord Marduk: “Whose right is it, O great gods, to create gods and goddesses in a place where man dare not trespass? This task of refurbishing the statues, which you have constantly been allotting to me by oracle, is difficult! Is it the right of death and blind human beings who are ignorant of themselves and remain in ignorance throughout their lives? The making of images of the gods and goddesses is your right, it is in your hands, so I beseech you, create the gods, and in your exalted holy of holies may what you yourselves have in your heart be brought about in accordance with your unalterable word. Endow the skilled craftsmen whom you ordered to complete this task with as high an understanding as Ea, their creator. Teach them skills by your exalted word; make all their handiwork succeed through the craft of Ninshiku… When in the reign of an earlier king there were ill omens, the city offended its gods and was destroyed at their command. It was me, Esarhaddon, whom they chose to restore everything to its rightful place, to calm their anger, to assuage their wrath. You, Marduk, entrusted the protection of the land of Assur to me. The Gods of Babylon meanwhile told me to rebuild their shrines and renew the proper religious observances of their palace, Esagila. I called up all my workmen and conscripted all the people of Babylonia. I set them to work, digging up the ground and carrying the earth away in baskets… With red gold, the product of Arallu, ore from the mountains, I decorated their images. With splendid ornaments and precious jewelry I adorned their necks and filled their breasts, exactly as the great lord Marduk wanted and as pleased queen Sarpanitu. They the artisans made the statues of their great divinity even more artistic than before. They made them extremely beautiful and they provided them with an awe-inspiring force, and they made them shine like the sun… I, Esarhaddon, led the great god in procession. I processed with joy before him. I brought him joyfully into the heart of Babylon, the city of their honour. Into the orchards, among the canals and parterres of the temple E-kar-zaginna, the pure place, they entered by means of the office of the apkallu, mouth washing, mouth opening, washing and purification, before the stars of heaven, before Ea, Samas, Asalluhi, Belit-ili, Kusu, Ninigirim, Ninkurra, Ninagal, Kusibanda, Ninildu, and Ninzadim.” — Esarhaddon Inscription

It’s a bunch of foreign ‘super-powers’ like Esarhaddon who cart Israel off into exile, and gods like those he decorates in jewellery that Israel are so enamoured by, who so capture their hearts, to their peril. Not only are the Israelites taken into exile, as a result of worshipping stone idols dressed in fancy stones, they are ‘de-vivified’ — they lose the essence of their life as they lose connection with the life giver. They need restoration. Isaiah nails the ‘man made’ nature of the nation’s gods, and their destructive capacity, so too Psalm 115. Their idolatry leaves them exiled, and with hearts of stone. No longer living images of the living god in his temple, but dying images of dead gods captured by the foreign kings.

Here’s the thing — to bring this all home to 21st century you and me — we are all Esarhaddons. We don’t have ‘kings’ and ‘national cults’, but we all build pretty idols and become ensnared by them. Our hearts are led astray. We think we’re super impressive, we make life all about us, and our idols, though they don’t speak, are the things we look to, apart from God, for a sense of self worth or a picture of success. They guarantee our self-rule. Only. They destroy us. Because they take us away from God. That tendency you have to put yourself at the centre of the universe, the ‘Lord,’ as David Foster Wallace puts it, ruling your own skull shaped kingdom, that is going to kill you.

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive… 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.”

David Foster Wallace is right about the destructive power of worship, but wrong that there is anything other than God the creator who won’t ‘eat you alive’ — there’s only one right option. And the worship of self, which provides this apparent freedom, actually enslaves. We become what we behold. We cut ourselves off from the voice that set creation into being, and that’s why, to pinch another phrase from that famous DFW speech, we have that sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. We are, as a result of our worship of things other than God, in exile from God. De-vivified. In need of new breath. In need of re-imaging so we might re-imagine life as God’s people, his images, again. So that we might speak, and taste, and see, and smell, the world the way we were made to, not the way our senses are dulled as we pursue hollow gods.

Israel’s situation, in exile, is dire. They are images waiting to be restored. That Psalm made famous by Bony M, which, somewhat poetically, pictures those waters the Babylonians believe brought life to their statues, picture Israel losing their lives, and their identity and their ability to speak, or sing, as they were meant to — as God’s representatives.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy. — Psalm 137:1-6

The hope expressed by the prophets, especially Ezekiel, is that life will be restored to God’s people, that they’ll function as his images again. Re-vivified (given life and breath), re-commissioned, and replaced in his temple, through water, with God providing them with food. See how many of the six elements of Genesis 2 you can spot here.

“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you. I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.” — Ezekiel 36:24-30

Or, in chapter 37…

Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”… I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’” — Ezekiel 37:11-14, 21-28

 

Where and how this restoration happens is part 2.

Confessions of a politically religiously motivated radical who wants to see the world as we know it come to its end

I am a religious radical. I confess that my religious beliefs are my primary motivation for how I live in this world, and I believe my actions to be consistent with bringing about the end of the world as we know it. But. Don’t panic.

dontpanic

In How (Not) to be Secular, Christian Philosopher James K.A Smith unpacks fellow philosopher Charles Taylor’s theory that the modern, secular, world has collapsed everything supernatural into a sort of ‘rational’ natural basket.

“It is a mainstay of secularization theory that modernity “disenchants” the world — evacuates it of spirits and various ghosts in the machine. Diseases are not demonic, mental illness is no longer possession, the body is no longer ensouled. Generally disenchantment is taken to simply be a matter of naturalization: the magical “spiritual” world is dissolved and we are left with the machinations of matter…So the modern self, in contrast to this premodern, porous self, is a buffered self, insulated and isolated in its interiority, “giving its own autonomous order to its life”” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) to be Secular

Or, as Douglas Adams put it in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. 

“My universe is my eyes and my ears. Anything else is hearsay.”
― Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

To me, Douglas Adams is a bit like the Lewis/Tolkien of this sort of disenchanted world, perhaps even a bit like the wise teacher in the Bible’s Ecclesiastes. Adams built a fictional cosmos in The Hitchhikers Guide that allows him to fantastically weave his way through the big questions, and implications, of a disenchanted world, giving that helpful piece of advice — “DON’T PANIC” — for anyone who comes to the conclusion that life has no meaning, or that its meaning is 42 (an incorrect answer to “what is 6 times 9”). His point, at one point discussed in a little dialogue between Zaphod and Arthur, is that a world devoid of meaning from beyond itself is a world where a belief in, or search for, a sort of ‘transcendent’ meaning — or any meaning at all — is meaningless, and inaccessible.

“But nothing! Think about it. The Meaning of Life! We get our fingers on that we can hold every shrink in the Galaxy up to ransom, and that’s worth a bundle. I owe mine a mint.”

Arthur took a deep breath without much enthusiasm.

“Alright,” he said, “but where do we start? How should I know? They say the Ultimate Answer or whatever is Forty-two, how am I supposed to know what the question is? It could be anything. I mean, what’s six times seven?”

Zaphod looked at him hard for a moment. Then his eyes blazed with excitement.

“Forty-two!” he cried.

Arthur wiped his palm across his forehead.

“Yes,” he said patiently, “I know that.”

Zaphod’s faces fell.

“I’m just saying that the question could be anything at all,” said Arthur, “and I don’t see how I am meant to know.” — Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

One of the implications of this shift is in how we think of the way people are motivated to make choices or decisions. Where, in the past, people saw themselves as actors in a divinely created cosmic play, their position placed, determined, and directed by God’s mysterious plans, now, people assume life is a smorgasbord of choices and we are our own agents, able to place ourselves wherever we want (so we’re more mobile than ever, in terms of social status, education, and physical location, able to determine the course our own life takes, and directing ourselves via our own ethical framework or set of moral rules (sometimes with socially constructed frameworks that make sure other people, or as many other people as possible, enjoy these same freedoms). In this new script every action is ‘political’ because every person is a monarch. According to this new script, no actions are ‘religious’ — even if they are — because religion is just one choice we make among many, and we choose one religion among many equally (in)valid options. Religion, in this secular script, cannot, and should not, be spoken of as a motivating factor for action — because it gets dangerous when it is. In this script religion is, rather, a consequence of action, of choice, rather than a motivator.

“It is folly to say you know what is happening to other people. Only they know, if they exist. They have their own Universes of their own eyes and ears.”  — Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

There’s been a bit of a secular paradox at play in the reportage of the Parramatta shooting. On the one hand, the government, and a bunch of secular spokespeople, are very keen to eradicate the clear and present danger presented by ‘radicalisation’ — so keen that they’ll throw all sorts of religions into the mix as potential sources for dangerous radicalisation (see Michael Jensen’s piece on the ABC), they’ll even throw poor people like the hypothetical “Karen” under the radicalisation bus in order to protect the masses from these ills. If you break the Internet’s First Commandment “Never read the comments” on that article you’ll see that the discussion sort of proves the point of Jensen’s piece, any religious belief, taken seriously, is dismissed as dangerous.

On the other hand, when speaking of the Parramatta shooting, reporters do not speak of the event as ‘religiously motivated’ but ‘politically motivated’…

“We believe his actions were politically motivated and therefore linked to terrorism.” — NSW Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione, ‘Teen Shooting Linked to Terrorism

The shooter was ‘politically motivated’ by people he met in a religious place. A place of worship. I’m not claiming that his actions were a necessary product of the religion he aligned himself with by faith, but they were almost certainly a product of his faith. Of his understanding of the world and its end. Obviously there’s a massive link between religion and politics for most people of faith, for good or for ill, but I can’t help but think this plays into a narrative that isolates people of faith and robs us of the dignity that comes from being able to make choices about how we understand life and are understood. As a person of faith, putting myself in the shoes of someone who might be robbed of dignity in this sense, I’d like to offer a few alternatives for ‘deradicalisation’ that don’t involve ‘depersonalisation’… I’d like to suggest that the secular narrative being used to disenchant this narrative with a view to de-radicalising it (making these actions politically motivated (immanent) rather than religiously motivated (transcendent) might actually be counter-productive because it might reinforce a sense that the secular west is not interested in understanding those who don’t subscribe to its disenchanted story. I’d like to suggest that perhaps, even within a secular frame, what would be productive, virtuous, and just response would be to treat the perpetrator — and others — as human agents, giving them the dignity of understanding their choices and motivations, without thinking that doing so would either ‘radicalise’ other like minded people, or insult those who share a similar way of seeing the world as ‘enchanted’ and meaningful through eyes and ears of faith. Maybe a better way forward would be to invite those who share an ‘enchanted’ view of the world — be they Muslims, or people of other faiths — to enter dialogue in the public square that offers alternative ways of seeing the world and its end, through better stories (without shouting them down in angry comment threads).

Secularisation: an exercise in not seeing the emperor’s old clothes

Secularisation in its modern, disenchanted form, and especially the secularist narrative playing out in the analysis of the action of people of faith ends up being a deliberate attempt not to see things as they really are, but also, not to see people as they truly wish to be seen. It fails to give people dignity because it denies them the robes they choose to give context to their actions. When a person of faith acts in a way motivated by that faith the secular narrative is that this is ‘political,’ a category I certainly wouldn’t put first in describing my own actions.

This new narrative is disingenuous and unloving. It doesn’t love ‘political’ actors — or perpetrators — with the kind of just love that requires us to pay real attention to the motivations for action and decide on reasonable and just consequences or solutions. It dehumanises those who do not share the new narrative. It robs a religious person of dignity, stripping their life of the meaning they have ‘chosen’. In this it both undermines the secularist narrative of ‘choice,’ and also deliberately holds ignorance and arrogance in tension — it’s deliberately ignorant, in failing to consider possibilities beyond one’s own ‘eyes and ears’ or beyond a consensus reached by many eyes and ears, and part of this ignorance manifests itself in an arrogant failure to listen to narratives that don’t fit this dominant view. It’s a failure to listen, and a failure to see, other people as they wish to be seen, and perhaps the world as it should be seen.

If the old view of the world was one where the universe was fully clothed in rich, enchanting, meaning, where it was vividly coloured and beautifully formed so that both the emperor wearing the clothes was special, but the designer was clearly a good and creative genius who wished this to be the case, then the new version of the world is one where we, the new emperors, are naked and left to construct an outfit, and dignity, for ourselves.

The secularist assumption is that its those who have stripped off their old clothing who are dressed, while those who hang on to the idea of an enchanted world given meaning by a divine creator, are naked and foolish.

The secular status quo runs a real risk of dehumanising people according to its own account of meaningful humanism, where our sense of what it means to be a person with dignity, a monarch, a ruler of our own tiny kingdom, is caught up in making the decision about how to live and to channel David Foster Wallace, what to worship. In This Is Water, Wallace points out that our new default is to worship things within the world, immanent things, things that will ultimately eat us alive, and that our secular age is structured in such a way that it wants to keep us exercising our freedom, so long as its directed at these immanent things. So long as we don’t rock the boat. But he ponders whether or not this default is really freedom, or if freedom might lie elsewhere, in questioning the default narrative, and the default ‘secular’ gods.

“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.” — David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

 

A radical story — motivated by a view of the end of the world

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. 

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.” 
― Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe

As he explores Taylor’s understanding of The Secular Age, Smith mentions that part of the movement from an ‘enchanted’ or spiritual sense of reality was a depersonalising move from describing the world as a divine creation (as it had been understood right up to modern times), to simply ‘nature’… a neutral and unthinking thing, at best governed by ‘natural law’…

“The shift from cosmos to universe — from “creation” to “nature” — makes it possible to now imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself, an autonomous, independent “meaning” that is unhooked from any sort of transcendent dependence… Now, from the vantage point of secular humanism, this new interest in nature can look like the next logical step on the way to pure immanence: first distinguish God/nature, then disenchant, then be happy and content with just nature and hence affirm the autonomy and sufficiency of nature. Such a story about the “autonomization” of nature posits a contrast or dichotomy between belief in God and interest in “nature-for-itself”…

Part of the fallout of such a metaphysical shift is the loss of final causality (a cause that attracts or “pulls”), eclipsing any teleology for things/nature. Understanding something is no longer a matter of understanding its “essence” and hence its telos (end). Instead we get the “mechanistic” universe that we still inhabit today, in which efficient causality (a cause that “pushes”) is the only causality and can only be discerned by empirical observation. This, of course, is precisely the assumption behind the scientific method as a way of divining the efficient causes of things, not by discerning “essence” but by empirical observation of patterns, etc. The result is nothing short of “a new understanding of being, according to which, all intrinsic purposes having been expelled, final causation drops out, and efficient causation alone remains””— James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

I can understand why people choose to see the world this way though. The universe is vast and intimidating. Douglas Adams goes on and on about infinity in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and its to explore just how uncomfortable a view of the universe is if it is very infinite, and we are very finite. There’s this thing in the story called the Total Perspective Vortex which promises to show anyone who attaches their mind to its probes just how small they really are. Trin Tragula built the machine to annoy his wife, but when he plugged her into it, it had disastrous consequences.

“To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.”

“For when you are put into the Vortex you are given just one momentary glimpse of the entire unimaginable infinity of creation, and somewhere in it a tiny little marker, a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot, which says “You are here.” ― Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe

This is what happens when we strip the universe of enchantment, of meaning beyond the physical. Suddenly the sheer, immanent, physicality of the universe is intimidating, rather than comforting. It’s better to think of it as uncaring, and uninvolved, and as without an ‘end’ at that point, so that we don’t have to worry about getting the ‘end’ wrong, given our new freedom to choose how to live in it. Robbing the world of an ‘end’ — a telos in the old Greek sense — a purpose — in itself, means we are in the driver’s seat when it comes to creating meaning. We understand the world as we experience it with our eyes and ears, and we, within the world, are free to come up with our own vision for how things should be, and what things are for, and we’re free to direct our own lives. If people come up with some approach to their own life — an understanding of their own purpose, or ‘end’ that is tied to some broader purpose in the universe, some other director giving things purpose, especially a divine purpose, we treat them with suspicion.

And looking around at all the alternative understandings of the purpose of the world posited by religious people — including some Christians — I share a fair amount of this suspicion. I can totally understand why we’d want to take the shortcut of robbing people of their dignity by stripping them of their metaphorical clothes and leaving them naked. Exposing them and their folly for all to see. But when I put myself in the shoes of those seen as ‘exposed’ it leaves me feeling a little empathy for the religiously motivated person. It leaves me thinking that perhaps this strategy might leave other people of faith, who feel the same way about the world, feeling naked and foolish. Which is a brilliant ‘deradicalisation’ strategy. Except that it’s not. Especially if the ‘secular west’ has a habit of pushing the sorts of people who have faith to the margins, away from the benefits of the ‘secular defaults’ which builds a further degree of resentment.

Let’s come back to that alternative strategy — inviting those who share an ‘enchanted’ view of the world to the table to discuss solutions to radicalisation, rather than excluding us by lumping us all in together as potential dangerous radicals who want to see the end of the world as we know it.

For those who see and experience the world as shot through with meaning, the vastness of the universe helps build self-esteem. The universe is the stage in a divine cosmic drama that tells the story of the value of human life to the creator of the universe — one vaster than the universe itself. In this drama, especially the Christian version, the creator of all this steps onto the stage, and takes part in the drama, by laying down his life for the actors he made. The cross of Jesus is a new Total Perspective Vortex that puts us at the centre of a vast and infinite world. It gives the world a new end, both in an understanding of its purpose — as the ground upon which God became incarnate, made himself human, died, and promised to redeem — and it gives us a new understanding of how it all ends. Jesus, by his resurrection, promised to be the ultimate and final solution for this world, inviting those who follow him to ‘take up their cross’ becoming part of the picture of what the end of the world looks like. Eating with a radical Christian should be like eating at the restaurant at the end of the universe — you should see and taste the end of the world.

I confess, I totally buy into this ‘enchanted’ vision of the world. I believe the world is ‘shot through with meaning’ – that it’s a divine creation, carefully maintained, damaged by our selfish ‘default’ following lives and crying out for a solution. I pray God brings that solution every time I say anything remotely like the Lord’s Prayer. Prayer is an incantation of sorts, an act of enchantment, and this is the prayer of a ‘radical’ who follows the God-man.

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’” — The Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:9-13

This is a radical prayer for the world as we know it to end, for the world to meet its end — the kingdom of God. I suspect if our politicians knew what they were asking for when they prayed these words the attempt to further disenchant our ‘politics’ by removing ‘religion’ would gather steam.

I’m a religiously motivated Christian radical. I want to bring about this end. I want to confront people with this story and I want them to see that without it they’re actually naked.

This is what being a Christian radical looks like.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. — Romans 12

It’s interesting that this largely matches up with how Christians were perceived to be living in the early church, in the Roman Empire. Pliny, a Roman governor, wrote to his friend, the emperor, Trajan, asking how he should deal with the Christian radicals popping up all over the empire and threatening to end the world as they knew it. The Roman world was also a world shot through with meaning — where Gods existed within the cosmos, and men (emperors) could become gods. Christians threatened this status quo, as we now threaten the secular defaults of our age. Pliny describes their radical behaviour as:

“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.” — Pliny, Letter to Trajan

It was concern for the status quo that motivated Pliny’s query, and Trajan’s response that Pliny was right to put these Christians to death if they wouldn’t worship his divine image, this was his litmus test for deciding who to execute, he spared those who “worshipped your [Trajan’s divine] image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ” — because people who did this were no threat to the established order. Here’s why he says he wrote — because the enchantment/superstition that led Christians to act radically like this was spreading.

“For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.” — Pliny, Letter to Trajan

People will do all sorts of things in the thrall of a compelling story, be it secularism, or your garden variety secular -isms like communism, materialism (but perhaps not naturalism, unless its paired with something else — or threatened by something else, which is why it’s a compelling antidote to enchantment). People will die for a secular ‘-ism’, just as they will for a religion (or a religious -ism like Judaism or Mormonism), an enchanted story.

Religious stories don’t just enchant life, but death as well. Often they involve some picture of martyrdom, which is closely tied to our sense of the world’s end, and how it the world. An interesting working definition of a ‘radical’ might not just be someone who is prepared to live by their story, but to die by it.

Being a Christian radical also means martyrdom — death to self — not just in the David Foster Wallace sense of death to the default in order to love others — but perhaps even in a literal sense, laying down our lives to give life to others. This is where our ‘enchanted story’ is fundamentally better for the world than any of the others. Jesus produces a different sort of radical, and a different sort of martyr. The diners at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe are horrified by how willing their meal — a sentient cow — is to die for their good, their food and entertainment, and yet, its this same willingness that Christians have historically shown in the face of death so that others might see the way the world ends. This same horror, for a secular citizen, extends to the idea that anybody might throw away their immanent existence — assumed to be their only existence — for the sake of some ‘religious’ notion.

“Good evening,” it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, “I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body? It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters into a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them.

Its gaze was met by looks of startled bewilderment from Arthur and Trillian, a resigned shrug from Ford Prefect and naked hunger from Zaphod Beeblebrox.

“Something off the shoulder perhaps?” suggested the animal. “Braised in a white wine sauce?”

“Er, your shoulder?” said Arthur in a horrified whisper.

“But naturally my shoulder, sir,” mooed the animal contentedly, “nobody else’s is mine to offer.”…

“You mean this animal actually wants us to eat it?” whispered Trillian to Ford.

“Me?” said Ford, with a glazed look in his eyes. “I don’t mean anything.”

“That’s absolutely horrible,” exclaimed Arthur, “the most revolting thing I’ve ever heard.”

“What’s the problem, Earthman?” said Zaphod, now transferring his attention to the animal’s enormous rump.

“I just don’t want to eat an animal that’s standing there inviting me to,” said Arthur. “It’s heartless.”

“Better than eating an animal that doesn’t want to be eaten,” said Zaphod.

I’m totally on board with being terrified by the sort of martyrdom that comes at the cost of others, but I can’t get my head around being opposed to a deliberate exercise of freedom that takes that sort of freedom David Foster Wallace identified to ‘sacrifice’ for others ‘over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day’ to its radical conclusion. It’s this sort of exercise of freedom, as he rightly identifies, that helps people see the world through different eyes. But it’s when we connect this freedom to the Christian story — where the infinite God steps into his finite creation as a man, and lovingly sacrifices himself for us — that we are no longer haunted by that “gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing” because in the ‘incarnation’ — in God becoming flesh — the transcendent and immanent are revealed at once in vivid colour. We see the emperor in his truly magnificent clothes as the God-Man hangs naked on the Cross, exposed in order to re-dress us. This story answers that ‘gnawing sense’ of having lost touch with the infinite, because in it the infinite one finds us, and draws us to him. It’s this story that gives us enchanted eyes and ears by which we now see the world, and imagine a better end  — both in terms of a better purpose, and a better future.

This new way of seeing is what brings the political and religious together. It’s what gives a deeper meaning to a radical life and death. It’s people living this radical story that best displays the enchanting and compelling power of this story. The Cross isn’t just our Total Perspective Vortex, it’s our Restaurant at the End of the Universe. When we stand near it — reliving it by living it each day,  through our words and practices as extensions of our story, as we practice dying to self each day, is what gives people the taste of the end of the world that Douglas Adams could only dream of meaningfully depicting in a secular sense by inventing time and space travel.

Tertullian, a guy from the early church, showed what it looks like to be both religiously and politically motivated at the same time when he wrote to the Roman government, the same government that kept executing Christians

“It is our battle to be summoned to your tribunals that there, under fear of execution, we may battle for the truth. But the day is won when the object of the struggle is gained.  This victory of ours gives us the glory of pleasing God, and the spoil of life eternal. But we are overcome. Yes, when we have obtained our wishes. Therefore we conquer in dying; we go forth victorious at the very time we are subdued…

…Nor does your cruelty, however exquisite, avail you; it is rather a temptation to us.  The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.” — Tertullian, Apology

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.”

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?

Snippet // David Foster Wallace on humans as creatures who worship

This is still, I think, one of the better things David Foster Wallace said or wrote, from the much lauded 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.

Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things – if they are where you tap real meaning in life – then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

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’m working on trying to write something about how we’ve collapsed what it means to be human into whatever we make it mean for us in our own mind. Maybe one day this thing will see the light of day. Maybe it won’t. But this is powerful stuff.

 

7 tips from David Foster Wallace (and others) on writing well

I think I’ve mentioned my DFW fanboyism once or twice before… I love the way he writes, and the way he thinks about writing, and the way he talks about thinking about writing. So. This book — Quack This Way —  a transcript of an hour long chat between David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner, the author of the dictionary of usage that he reviewed, quite famously, is fantastic. In it DFW shares a bunch of his thinking about writing, distilled here for your edification.

I love this description of his own view of his deficiencies as a writer. I think, because I can relate to it…

“My main deficit, at least in terms of nonfiction prose, is I have difficulty of being as clear as I want to be. I have various tricks for working around that and making it kind of charming to watch somebody trying to be clear, but the fact of the matter is, I can’t be clear and compressed in the way that, say, parts of the preface of your dictionary that I liked very much are clear and compressed.”

And I have a strange phobia that there’s a crucial point and I haven’t transmitted it satisfactorily, so I have to say it again a different way and then later on again a different way. And I think I lean . . . There’s a Poe thing, right? “One out of one hundred things is discussed at great length because it really is obscure. Ninety-nine out of one hundred things are obscure because they’re discussed at more length than they need to be.”

I also really enjoyed reading this account of his famous essay Tense Present — the aforementioned review of Garner’s dictionary. It was commissioned by The New Republic, but DFW was so excited by his review that it blew out the assigned word limit and deadline. I can totally relate to that. Then. Harper’s magazine ran half of what DFW wrote, finally, DFW published the whole, unabridged, 62-page behemoth in his Consider the Lobster (a great collection of essays). Here’s his reflections on this little series of events. Those of you who know how I feel about word limits will know why I love DFW and his writing (and why this post is so long).

BAG: “Were you happier with the full-length version that appeared in Consider the Lobster than you were with the one that appeared as “Tense Present” in Harper’s?

DFW:  Well, sure. Harper’s cuts real well. This is part of the problem with what I do: I end up giving them five times as much as they can use sometimes. With the Harper’s piece, it was maybe twice as much. Which means I need magazines that cut real well, or editors who cut real well. Harper’s, they cut it okay, but they cut out most of the things that for them were dry or academic, which was actually the meat. They left in, like, pants analogies that were funny and zingy, but the actual essay is meant to advance a certain kind of argument through both fairly meticulous—not scholarly because it’s more pop than that—and fairly sedulous argumentation, and zingy, pop, informal things, and they cut out a lot of the sedulous stuff. The Harper’s article is probably more fun to read. The version that’s in the book, I think, is a heck of a lot better, pace the terrible capitalization and ital versus [rolling eyes] tone-quote question.”

Anyway. Here are some selected gems about writing from Quack This Way.

1. Writing is about communicating to somebody who can’t read your mind… with a goal to making reading as close to effortless as possible

“In the broadest possible sense, writing well means to communicate clearly and interestingly and in a way that feels alive to the reader. Where there’s some kind of relationship between the writer and the reader—even though it’s mediated by a kind of text—there’s an electricity about it.”

 

“In my experience with students—talented students of writing—the most important thing for them to remember is that someone who is not them and cannot read their mind is going to have to read this.”

Part of this involves punctuating to control how fast or slow a reader digests what you’ve written. Not just for meaning (though they’re related).

Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.   One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.

I believe psycholinguists, as part of neuro-science, spend . . . I mean, they hook little sensors up to readers’ eyes and study this stuff. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that when you’re not punctuating effectively for your genre, or when you fail to supply sufficient transitions, you are upping the amount of effort the reader has to make in order . . . forget appreciate . . . simply to understand what it is that you are communicating.

The goal is a frictionless experience for the reader…

One of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favourable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader. That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it—the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention. Does that make sense?

Because writing is about a relationship —  a communion — a communication — between writer and reader. Except when it’s used for something more sinister.

Well, you get down to certain axioms about what the language is and what it ought to be used for. And you and I, I think, are essentially gooey-hearted humanists, and we want it to vivify and facilitate . . . we want it to help inter-human relationships of various sorts. But language is also a tool of persuasion. Propaganda, right? We have a president who apparently doesn’t need to use the language well because as he’s speaking, behind us are little banners—talk about Orwellian—“Fighting the War on Terrorism.” Right? Have you seen this? These press conferences? No longer do we need a president who’s an example of an articulate, thoughtful person because we’ve got behind him this sort of almost hypnotic set of messages that someone has discovered that, with some base, those actually work better at creating a favorable impression than having a well-spoken, apparently thoughtful president.

2. …and your reader doesn’t care what you have to say. So, write to communicate, not to simply express yourself

“In the real writing world, one of the axioms is that the reader doesn’t care about you. You know, the fact that this is you means absolutely nothing to them. The fact is, what can they get from this document that is going to require time, and perhaps money, for them to read? It’s a very different paradigm to come at writing from.

This means if you want to do the relationship stuff you have to be the one who cares about the other person, giving them a reason to read or listen —  DFW suggests this is the difference between ‘communicative’ and ‘expressive’ writing…

“… there’s a real difference between writing where you’re communicating to somebody, the same way I’m trying to communicate with you, versus writing that’s almost a well-structured diary entry where the point is [singing] “This is me, this is me!” and it’s going out into the world.

What I talk about is that one of the things that’s good about writing and practicing writing is it’s a great remedy for my natural self-involvement and self-centeredness. Right? “I am the center of my own world, my thoughts and feelings are more immediate, therefore . . . ” I mean we all know the drill, right? When students snap to the fact that there’s such a thing as a really bad writer, a pretty good writer, a great writer—when they start wanting to get better—they start realizing that really learning how to write effectively is, in fact, probably more of a matter of spirit than it is of intellect. I think probably even of verbal facility. And the spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”

Thinking this way about writing — and trying to improve as a writer — could also make you a better person all round…

“It’s true, I think, that a lot of the muscles you use, skills you use, in trying to get better as a writer, are skills and muscles that pay off in ways that don’t immediately seem to have to do with writing simply because language and interpersonal communication is to a large extent . . . it’s our world, right?”

This also changes the way you open a piece of writing (and structure it from there through to the end).

A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Right? Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: why should you spend your time reading this? Right? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

The middle should work . . . It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other—and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Right? Like, “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument—and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.

3. Read lots, but read with an eye on the mechanics, or anatomy, not just the style of what you like.

DFW trots out a bit of advice that I’ve seen elsewhere —  don’t just read stuff you like, sit down and write it out. It’s a bit like dissecting a specimen in a laboratory.

“Probably the second biggest one is learning to pay attention in different ways. Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you’re like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you’ll actually learn what’s going on.”

 

It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh, that was pretty good . . . ,” but you don’t get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them. And so that was just a random exercise that I could think of. I didn’t know other people . . . I know James Jones had a writing teacher who made them retype great books, but I think the book was right there and they were just retyping. They were supposed to learn through their hands, or something kind of flaky.

Hunter Thompson did it with The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, Cicero did it for speeches and poetry he admired, Nicholson Baker, one of my other favourite essayists/authors does it… apparently Robert Louis Stevenson also suggested it.

Here’s Cicero.

“For my part, in the daily exercises of youth, I used chiefly to set myself that task which I knew Gaius Carbo, my old enemy, was wont to practise : this was to set myself some poetry, the most impressive to be found, or to read as much of some speech as I could keep in my memory, and then to declaim upon the actual subject-matter of my reading, choosing as far as possible different words. But later I noticed this defect in my method, that those words which best befitted each subject, and were the most elegant and in fact the best, had been already seized upon by Ennius, if it was on his poetry that I was practising, or by Gracchus,” if I chanced to have set myself a speech of his. Thus I saw that to employ the same expressions profited me nothing, while to employ others was a positive hindrance, in that I was forming the habit of using the less appropriate. Afterwards I resolved, — and this practice I followed when somewhat older, — to translate freely Greek speeches of the most eminent orators. The result of reading these was that, in rendering into Latin what I had read in Greek, I not only found myself using the best words — and yet quite familiar ones — but also coining by analogy certain words such as would be new to our people, provided only they were appropriate.” —  Cicero

Both Desiderius Erasmus, in the 16th century, and more recently, Nicholson Baker, suggest when you find stuff you like you should copy them down into a book of memorable writing, a Commonplace book, which you can read more about in Tom Standage’s Writing On The Wall. I like the idea that this blog functions as something like a commonplace book, as well as a filing cabinet. And I’m thinking about typing quotes out rather than just copying and pasting. But I think there’s also, potentially a link between writing stuff out by hand, rather than typing, and getting a better sense of the way the words flow together. I’ll chuck some more stuff about Erasmus, and from Nicholson Baker, in the comments.

4. There are infinite possibilities to create something with words. You can always get better. So practice. 

“The fact of the matter is that good writing isn’t a science. It’s an art, and the horizon is infinite. You can always get better.”

“Writing well in the sense of writing something interesting and urgent and alive, that actually has calories in it for the reader—the reader walks away having benefited from the 45 minutes she put into reading the thing—maybe isn’t hard for a certain few. I mean, maybe John Updike’s first drafts are these incredible . . . Apparently Bertrand Russell could just simply sit down and do this. I don’t know anyone who can do that. For me, the cliché that “Writing that appears effortless takes the most work” has been borne out through very unpleasant experience.

it becomes very tempting to go, “Oh, what’s good? Okay, look at that guy over there: that’s good.” Just be aware that that guy is looking at other people and going, “No, no, that’s good.” And like any kind of infinitely rich art, or any infinitely rich medium, like language, the possibilities for improvement are infinite and so are the possibilities for screwing up and ceasing to be good in the ways you want to be good.

So probably the smart thing to say is, if you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—not all of whom are modern . . . I mean, if you are willing to make allowances for the way English has changed, you can go way, way back with this—becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.

So probably the smart thing to say is that lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”

5. Write slow so you think carefully

I don’t do this (or the next tip), I don’t draft much at all. I write too much and then I chip away until I’ve got something approaching something that I’m happy with. I hit publish, and I move on.

But getting an insight into how great writers write is always interesting.

BAG: So you don’t put much stock in that, the mechanical typing of it, as opposed to really mentally trying to recreate something?

DFW:  Here though, I mean I’m 43, and we get into the weird age thing because for my students, many of whom compose on a typewriter, that might actually be a useful exercise. The writing writing that I do is longhand.

BAG:   You write everything in longhand?

DFW:  Well, the first two or three drafts are always longhand, yeah. Only because I went through this school where they made me write a lot and it was right before computers became ubiquitous. And I just find that it makes me . . . I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention. Like, is the clause that I just . . . does this make sense, what I just said? Which is very difficult, at least for me, to keep in mind when I’m actually writing the thing, unless something slows me down.

Apparently CS Lewis also wrote using pen and ink, not a type writer. Here’s a quote from Alister McGrath’s biography, and another from the preface to a published collection of his letters.

“Lewis actively chose not to type. This mechanical mode of writing, he believed, interfered with the creative process in that the incessant clacking of the typewriter keys dulled the writer’s appreciation of the rhythms and cadences of the English language.”

 

“Lewis learned to write with a nib pen, dipped into an inkwell every four or five words. When he was an undergraduate at Oxford he began using fountain pens, but he gave them up after several years and resumed writing with a nib pen, a practice he carried on for the rest of his life.

When Lewis dictated letters to me, he always had me read them aloud afterwards. He told me that in writing letters, as well as books, he always “whispered the words aloud.” Pausing to dip the pen in an inkwell provided exactly the rhythm needed.”

Both of these quotes feature in this post by Tony Reinke.

I think DFW and CS Lewis occupy similar positions in the literary stratosphere, both are particularly, in my mind, attuned to thinking about the human condition, Lewis as a Christian, and DFW as someone faced with the crushing and overwhelming nature of life without God. His stuff on humanity is always particularly rich. Which is part of why I love his writing. DFW listed The Screwtape Letters as his favourite book in this list. Here’s a stunningly poignant obituary from DFW’s friend Jonathan Franzen that discusses, in a way, the relationship between Screwtape and DFW’s suicide. And I think shows a little of how despite similarities, Lewis and Wallace took such divergent paths in life (this little piece that looked at what happened to Lewis’s self-reflection upon his conversion to Christianity —  it faded as he found his identity elsewhere —  in contrast to Wallace’s self-insight that may or may not have contributed to his death is pretty interesting reading alongside the Franzen piece). But I digress. Into some pretty dark territory. Lewis — via his discovery of value through the love of God poured out at the cross —  offers a better way out of darkness than Wallace found (at least, according to Franzen).

6. Figure out how your writing process gives your writing structure (and how it varies based on what you are writing).

BAG:   When you’re writing nonfiction, how do you go about research and then organizing your thoughts when you’re writing a long essay?

DFW:  I find it very difficult. The truth is that most of the nonfiction pieces I do are at least partly experiential. They involve going to a place, talking to people, taking notes. My fondest wish is that no one would have the kind of process I have with it. I end up taking a hundred times more notes than I need.   My first draft usually approximates somebody in the midst of an epileptic seizure. It’s usually about the second or the third draft where I begin having any idea of actually what this thing is about. So my own way of doing it, it’s not very economical in terms of time. It is just doing it over and over and over again and throwing stuff away and, you know, whining and crying to friends and stuff and then going back and trying it over again. I think there are very few professional writers—and certainly very few people who are doing things like having to supply good briefs or opinions in the law—who would want to or could afford to go through a process like that.   My process appears to be getting precipitate out of an enormous amount of solution. I wish it weren’t. I heartily advise people not to develop a process like that. I can get away with it because I don’t do many nonfiction pieces. I couldn’t make a living doing them because just one takes me six months

Everybody is different. I don’t discover the structure except by writing sentences because I can’t think structurally well enough. But I know plenty of good nonfiction writers. Some actually use Roman-numeral outlines, and they wouldn’t even know how to begin without it.   If you really ask writers, at least most of the ones I know—and people are always interested and want to know what you do—most of them are habits or tics or superstitions we picked up between the ages of 15 and 25, often in school. I think at a certain point, part of one’s linguistic nervous system gets hardened over that time or something, but it’s all different.

I would think for argumentative writing it would be very difficult, at a certain point, not to put it into some kind of outline form.

Well, but I do very few straight-out argumentative things. The stuff that I do is part narrative, part argumentative, part meditative, part experiential. The closest I’ve come to actual argumentative pieces are book reviews, and I mean straight-out, you-got-300-words book reviews. And at a certain draft, at a certain point in those drafts, I always make an outline. But that’s because I’ve got 300 words, which for me is very tight. How am I going to make it tight?

7. Don’t confuse complexity with intelligence. Pick good words that give clarity and humanity to your writing.

“…a lot of people with PhDs are stupid, and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be. I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency, and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning.”

He spends a bit of time exploring why so many people who are qualified as ‘writers’ — writing in all sorts of professional capacities — are so bad at writing (even if they’re very good at reading). It’s touched on a little in the quote above, and expanded below.

Now, this is presuming that you’ve got a reader who is bright, literate, well-educated, and paying attention. Given the amount of verbosity—particularly in bureaucratic, institutional, legal, and scientific writing, including the stuff that gets published—indicates to me that there are certain audiences that aren’t especially bothered by this. Why that is I don’t know except that a lot of them tend to be audiences composed of professionals who went through a long apprenticeship that meant reading huge amounts of this kind of stuff, and they sort of got brainwashed or maybe inured to it in some way. From the point of view, like you, of somebody who just loves the language and thinks it’s hard enough to be clear anyway, in the default case the fewest words, each of which is the smallest and plainest possible, is usually the best policy.

I love some of the stuff he says about jargon – political, advertising, and legalese style communication where new, non-plain, dialects are used. Based on agendas other than communication-for-human-relationships.

One answer is the fact that people, unless they’re paying attention, tend to confuse fanciness with intelligence or authority. For me, I’ve noodled about this a fair amount because a lot of this sort of language afflicts me. My guess is this: officialese, as spoken by officials, is meant to empty the communication of a certain level of humanity. On purpose.

My guess is one of the reasons why we as a people tolerate, or even expect, this officialese is that we associate it with a different form of communication than interpersonal—Dave and Bryan talking together. That the people who are speaking are in many senses speaking not as human beings but as the larynx and tongue of a larger set of people, responsibilities, laws, regulations, whatever. And that is probably why, even though it’s dreadfully ugly to the ear and why if you think hard about it, “Keep your personal belongings in visual contact at all times” is actually likely to be understood by a smaller percentage of people than, “Please keep an eye on your stuff at all times.” Nevertheless, there are imperatives behind using the language that way. And some of it is to be antihuman.

And, lastly, I love that he points out that clarity, achieved largely via plain language, also comes through elegance and craftsmanship, where the interest of the reader is paramount.

BAG:   Let me ask you this. If plain language is a good thing, why is it also a good thing to have an ample vocabulary?

DFW:  Well, for a couple of reasons.   One, plain language doesn’t mean all little, monosyllabic words. The general rule of thumb is you use the very smallest word that will do in a particular situation. Sometimes the situation you’re describing is specific and technical, and a small word won’t do.   Probably the other big thing is that there’s this thing called “elegant variation.” You have to be able . . . In order for your sentences not to make the reader’s eyes glaze over, you can’t simply use the same core set of words, particularly important nouns and verbs, over and over and over again. You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips. And usually, though not in the sense of memorizing vocab words like we were kids, but having a larger vocabulary is usually the best way to do that. The best. Having a good vocabulary ups the chances that we’re going to be able to know the right word, even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.

 

 

 

 

David Foster Wallace talks about entertainment, and about writing

I am a huge fan of David Foster Wallace. I really enjoyed this little video where he talks about the kind of entertainment we consume, and it led me down the rabbit hole to this second, longer, interview. I love the stuff he says in the second video about the pacing of writing, and how you pace writing to shape the pace a reader reads. I read somewhere else that he wrote everything out using pen and paper (so too, apparently, did CS Lewis).

 

DFW: I don’t write quickly at all. And the stuff goes through draft, after draft, after draft. Although I know when it gets to a point that sounds real to me, part of the realness has to do with speed, and being a little bit of a control freak about how fast the reader is reading stuff, wanting some stuff to be read fairly slowly and to have a kind of echoey resonance to it, and wanting other stuff to seem breathless, and headlong, and kind of speedy.

Question: What techniques do you use to make a reader read faster or slower?

DFW: I think, probably, the easiest one is just how long the sentences are.

If you can do a sentence that is kind of a run on, but you can do the grammar such that the reader never gets lost, but also never quite really gets to stop. Then you get that kind of breathless quality. The trick with that is you can do a little bit of that and at least for me it’s cool, but if you do too much of and the reader gets fatigued and kind of pissed off. And so, there’s a certain matter of varying speeds.

I don’t know. People talk about the metrics of poetry a whole lot, but there’s no language for this as far as I know. I don’t know how people talk about the complexity and kind of, in terms of the physics of reading, the rapidity with which you read and process sentences.”

“When you’re writing stuff you get to a point where it just sounds right. And I think one of the ways it sounds right is when it just gets some sort of drum beat to it.”

Interview: Another thing that occurred to me about the occasional longish sentence that people come across in your work… you’re very aware of us as living in a media culture, besieged with lots of messages and bits of information. Could it be that a long sentence is a way of keeping at bay distractions. You can’t very well say “oh honey, I’ll be with you in a minute just let me finish this sentence” if the sentence has another few hundred words to go.

DFW: The sexy thing to say would be yes… I could say that sounds really plausible to me, and we could riff about that a certain amount. The fact of the matter is that writing it, for me, is so much less sophisticated, and primitive. So much of it goes by ear or stomach. And I think that to the extent that I’m interested in attention or fragmentation it has way more to do with the way things are structured or not structured or divided up or having different facets. The sentence thing has a whole lot to do with the fact that a whole lot of people, it sounds very gooey, but it’s true, who write… I started reading very young, and one of the reasons I started reading very young is because for whatever reason, I was lonely. And one of the things I went to books for was a relationship. Now a weird kind. I never really thought I was talking to a person. But there was the sense of an intelligence there. Or another human thing that I was communing with… And I think a lot of the stuff with the sentences… Like. I’ll grin when people laugh about the long sentence thing. I don’t think. Like in some sense, I don’t really get it. Yeah. I’ve got some long sentences. But I think it’s mostly, I don’t know about anyone else, but the way that I think. I don’t think in sentences.

Interview: What do you think in?

DFW: Like a not as good Joycean tumble. I don’t think I’m very interested in reproducing the form of that, the way like stream of consciousness does, but I think I’m interested in trying to induce the feeling of that, a little bit, at least sometimes. Truth be told, when the thing about long sentences gets a big laugh, what it makes me think of is that I’ve screwed up. Because if the grammar of the sentence is ok. If the sentence is structured right. Really the reader shouldn’t even notice that it’s a long sentence. And so, probably I’m just not doing it as well as I could. It’s not a stylistic thing, and I don’t think I have any cognitive program about it.”

3 essays you should read that will help you understand media and the world better

I know. I know. Not much happening in these parts at present. But this isn’t just a token effort. I’ve been reading a bit around that Facebook series I still have to finish (with, incidentally, a list of recommended reading). Anyway. I love long form writing – the sort of thing that is shorter than a book, but longer than your typical magazine feature, and I’ve found these essays particularly useful for thinking about media, and thus, thinking about the world explained by the media people produce. None of these are new. But they are good.

David Foster Wallace, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, 1993

This is a fun essay from one of my favourite writers that looks at what an addiction to irony in pop culture does to public discourse. It was written way back in 1993. David Foster Wallace, like Kurt Vonnegut and Nicholson Baker (who essentially ‘reviewed’ wikipedia, and who also reviewed a book about a guy who wrote a book about reading the dictionary), can make a book review of a dictionary something entirely readable and enjoyable (PDF).

E Unibus Pluram is part celebration of post-modern pop culture conventions, part navel gazing, but it is chock full of insights about our relationship with the screens in our lives.

After providing a brief survey of the nature of sit-com humour (back in the 90s), DFW makes this interesting point that gels with all the media ecology stuff you might have paid attention to in that mega-long Facebook series (the premise – the media we consume shapes us in ways we don’t always notice).

“If television can invite Joe Briefcase into itself via in-gags and irony, it can ease that painful tension between Joe’s need to transcend the crowd and his status as Audience member. For to the extent that TV can flatter Joe about “seeing through” the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of outdated values, it can induce in him precisely the feeling of canny superiority it’s taught him to crave, and can keep him dependent on the cynical TV-watching that alone affords this feeling.”

He puts on his prophetic hat a little – remember this is pre-smart phone, pre-flat screen, pre-internet TV…

“The appeal of watching television has always involved fantasy. Contemporary TV, I’ve claimed, has gotten vastly better at enabling the viewer’s fantasy that he can transcend the limitations of individual human experience, that he can be inside the set, imago’d, “anyone, anywhere.” Since the limitations of being one human being involve certain restrictions on the number of different experiences possible to us in a given period of time, it’s arguable that the biggest TV-tech “advances” of recent years have done little but abet this fantasy of escape from the defining limits of being human.”

Neil Postman, Five things we need to know about technology, 1998

Neil Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death which is something of an extended treatment of these aforementioned ideas from David Foster Wallace, combined with a connection to the work of Marshall McLuhan (who coined the term “the medium is the message” – amongst other things).

Postman wrote this nice warning against whole-heartedly embracing technological developments without paying heed to the cost. His ideas, in sum:

“First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price. Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners. Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on. Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates. And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.”

The fifth point is the most interesting.

“Our enthusiasm for technology can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its beneficence can be a false absolute. The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder, to remember that technology is not part of God’s plan but a product of human creativity and hubris, and that its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.”

J.R.R Tolkein, On Fairy Stories, 1947

This one is a slight change of pace. I hadn’t heard of it until I read a footnote in TheoMedia, but it has come up a couple of times since. It’s worth a read, partly our of curiosity, but partly because if you want to be a story teller it pays to learn from master story tellers… What I really like about this essay (and about the others above) is the link they make between media-making, and media-consumption, and what it means to be human. DFW was an Atheist, Neil Postman was Jewish, and Tolkein a Catholic – but each has something profoundly true to say about our humanity and how it is shaped by what we consume and create.

“Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology. But Language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power—upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.”

 

“The human mind is capable of forming mental images of things not actually present. The faculty of conceiving the images is (or was) naturally called Imagination. But in recent times, in technical not normal language, Imagination has often been held to be something higher than the mere image-making, ascribed to the operations of Fancy (a reduced and depreciatory form of the older word Fantasy); an attempt is thus made to restrict, I should say misapply, Imagination to “the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality.”

Ridiculous though it may be for one so ill-instructed to have an opinion on this critical matter, I venture to think the verbal distinction philologically inappropriate, and the analysis inaccurate. The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. The perception of the image, the grasp of its implications, and the control, which are necessary to a successful expression, may vary in vividness and strength: but this is a difference of degree in Imagination, not a difference in kind. The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result.”

Those bits are good. These bits are absolute gold.

To many, Fantasy, this sub-creative art which plays strange tricks with the world and all that is in it, combining nouns and redistributing adjectives, has seemed suspect, if not illegitimate. To some it has seemed at least a childish folly, a thing only for peoples or for persons in their youth. As for its legitimacy I will say no more than to quote a brief passage from a letter I once wrote to a man who described myth and fairy-story as “lies”; though to do him justice he was kind enough and confused enough to call fairy-story-making “Breathing a lie through Silver.”

“Dear Sir,” I said—Although now long estranged,

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.
Disgraced he may be, yet is not de-throned,
and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned:
Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seed of dragons—’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made.”

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion…

 

Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be ill done. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came. But of what human thing in this fallen world is that not true? Men have conceived not only of elves, but they have imagined gods, and worshipped them, even worshipped those most deformed by their authors’ own evil. But they have made false gods out of other materials: their notions, their banners, their monies; even their sciences and their social and economic theories have demanded human sacrifice. Abusus non tollit usum. Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.

His epilogue is insanely good. I’ve already quoted heaps of him. I know. But this is eminently quotable, and I am guessing you’re not going to click the link and read the whole thing, so here is an only ever-so-slightly abridged version of his concluding remarks.


Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality, or are flowing into it…

The peculiar quality of the ”joy” in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth. It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, “Is it true?” The answer to this question that I gave at first was (quite rightly): “If you have built your little world well, yes: it is true in that world.” That is enough for the artist (or the artist part of the artist). But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairystory, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, selfcontained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be “primarily” true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed. It is not difficult, for one is not called upon to try and conceive anything of a quality unknown. The joy would have exactly the same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the “turn” in a fairy-story gives: such joy has the very taste of primary truth. (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks forward (or backward: the direction in this regard is unimportant) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is preeminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.

But in God’s kingdom the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man. Story, fantasy, still go on, and should go on. The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the “happy ending.” The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

An unapologetic plug for Unapologetic

I started reading this book last night. Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

I’m only two chapters in – but one of those chapters is just about the best chapter on the human condition I’ve ever read.

It is sensational. It’s brash. It’s frenetic. It’s honest. It’s compelling.

The writing moves like a bullet train, but hits like a freight train. It’s a dizzying stream of consciousness treatment of what it means to be human.

Here’s a little video Francis Spufford put together about why he wrote the book.

Atheist mega-brain Alain De Botton called it his book of 2012

“As a non-Christian, indeed a committed atheist, I was worried about how I’d feel about this book but it pulled off a rare feat: making Christianity seem appealing to those who have no interest in ever being Christians. A number of Christian writers have over the past decade tried to write books defending their faith against the onslaughts of the new atheists – but they’ve generally failed. Spufford understands that the trick isn’t to try to convince the reader that Christianity is true but rather to show why it’s interesting, wise and sometimes consoling.”

Here’s a couple of quotes – they’re potentially offensive – which sin should be.

“If I say the word ‘sin’ to you, I’m basically buggered (as we like to say in the Church of England). It’s going to sound as if I’m bizarrely opposed to pleasure, and because of the continuing link between ‘sin’ and sex, it will seem likely that at the root of my problem with pleasure is a problem with sex. For us, it refers to something much more like the human tendency, the human propensity, to f*** up. Or let’s add one more word: the human propensity to f*** things up, because what we’re talking about here is not just our tendency to lurch and stumble and screw up by accident, our passive role as agents of entropy. It’s our active inclination to break stuff, ‘stuff’ here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch.”

 

The HPtFtU is bad news, and like all bad news is not very welcome, especially if you let yourself take seriously the implication that we actually want the destructive things we do, that they are not just an accident that keeps happening to poor little us, but part of our nature; that we are truly cruel as well as truly tender, truly loving and at the same time truly likely to take a quick nasty little pleasure in wasting or breaking love, scorching it knowingly up as the fuel for some hotter or more exciting feeling.

 

But HPtFtU is in here, not out there. The bad news is bad news about us, not just about other people. And when the conviction of it settles in, when we reach one of those stages of our lives where the sorrow of our failure hangs in our chests like a weight, and waking up in the morning is painful because every time the memory of what’s wrong has to ooze back over the lovely blankness of the night – you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever been there – then, the idea that it would help to cling to a cosy sense of victimhood seems as silly as it would be to try and fight off the flu by waving a toy lightsaber. I’ve found that admitting there’s some black in the colour-chart of my psyche doesn’t invite the blot of dark to swell, or give a partial truth more gloomy power over me than it should have, but the opposite. Admitting there’s some black in the mixture makes it matter less. It makes it easier to pay attention to the mixedness of the rest. It helps you stop wasting your time on denial, and therefore helps you stop ricocheting between unrealistic self-praise and unrealistic self-blame. It helps you be kind to yourself.

 

First you have to go through; and while you do, while you’re struggling with the first raw realisation of the degree to which you’ve f***ed (things) up, in one of the louder or quieter crises of adult life, there is no resolution to be had, no comfy scheme of order to hold on to. The essence of the experience I’m trying to talk about in this chapter is that it’s chaotic. You stop making sense to yourself. You find that you aren’t what you thought you were, but something much more multiple and mysterious and self-subverting, and this discovery doesn’t propel you to a new understanding of things, it propels you into a state where you don’t understand anything at all. Unable to believe the comfortable things you used to believe about yourself, you entertain a sequence of changing caricatures as your self-image. By turns your reflection in the mirror of your imagination nonsensically grins, scowls, howls, yawns, gazes back inert as a lump of putty: decomposes into pixels that have forgotten the reason for their mutual attachment. Here is a description of the state from a Hebrew poem 2,600 years old: ‘I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.’

 

For what do we do with the knowledge that we’ve f***ed up, that we no longer make sense to ourselves? Turn to face each other, for a start. A community of acknowledged f***-ups ought at least in theory to be kinder to one another. And there are things we can use our imperfection for, once we admit it: structures that can be built from unreliable parts and yet be reliable themselves, like the constitutional order of the American republic, or the scientific method, or the internet. But there’s a limit to what we can do for each other, a limit to how much of each other’s HPtFtU we can ever manage to bear – even just to bear to hear about – while it often feels as if there’s no limit to how far or how long the ripples of our multitudinous f***-ups can keep travelling, or how intricately they can go on colliding and encroaching and causing collateral damage in other lives. Think of the consequences of John Newton’s HPtFtU, still fresh and vigorous after two hundred years. In this case, and in plenty of others where the harm is ongoing, it wouldn’t even be right to ask for help with the aftermath of doing the harm. Should John Newton’s victims have been asked to make him feel better about what he’d done to them? I think not. We have to attend to justice as well as mercy, and we’re finite creatures, with limited powers to make good what’s been broken. With the best will in the world, we can’t always take the weight of other people’s bad stuff, we can’t often lean in and lift it off them. The crack in everything is here to stay. So one thing we do instead, when we’ve f***ed up, when we no longer make sense to ourselves, is to turn towards the space where the possibility exists that there might be someone to hear us who is not one of the parties to our endless, million-sided, multigenerational suit against each other. To turn towards a space in which there is quite possibly no one – in which, we think as we find ourselves doing it, that there probably is no one. And we say: Hello? Hello? I don’t think I can stand this any more. I don’t think I can bear it. Not another night like last night. Not another morning like this morning. Hello? A little help in here, please?

This sort of anthropology – this understanding of the human condition – this experience – is not uncommon, nor is it beyond the reach of the modern atheist – this reminded me of a David Foster Wallace essay on movie director David Lynch, David Lynch Keeps His Head, which is one of the essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments.

“I’m going to claim that evil is what David Lynch’s movies are essentially about, and that Lynch’s explorations of human beings’ various relationships to evil are, if idiosyncratic and Expressionistic, nevertheless sensitive and insightful and true. I’m going to submit that the real “moral problem” a lot of us cinéastes have with Lynch is that we find his truths morally uncomfortable, and that we do not like, when watching movies, to be made uncomfortable.

The fact is that David Lynch treats the subject of evil better than just about anybody else making movies today—better and also differently. His movies aren’t anti-moral, but they are definitely anti-formulaic. Evil-ridden though his filmic world is, please notice that responsibility for evil never in his films devolves easily onto greedy corporations or corrupt politicians or faceless serial kooks. Lynch is not interested in the devolution of responsibility, and he’s not interested in moral judgments of characters. Rather, he’s interested in the psychic spaces in which people are capable of evil. He is interested in Darkness. And Darkness, in David Lynch’s movies, always wears more than one face. Darkness is in everything, all the time—not “lurking below” or “lying in wait” or “hovering on the horizon”: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, love, redemption (since these phenomena are also, in Lynch’s work, forces and spirits), etc. In fact, in a Lynchian moral scheme it doesn’t make much sense to talk about either Darkness or about Light in isolation from its opposite. It’s not just that evil is “implied by” good or Darkness by Light or whatever, but that the evil stuff is contained within the good stuff, encoded in it.

DFW says Lynch movies work to make the viewer uncomfortable because they force the viewer to identify with people who turn out to be a mixture of light and dark. But they’re very dark. Which reveals something about us – something like the realisation Francis Spufford describes above.

“And I emphatically do not like to be made uncomfortable when I go to see a movie. I like my heroes virtuous and my victims pathetic and my villains’ villainy clearly established and primly disapproved by both plot and camera. When I go to movies that have various kinds of hideousness in them, I like to have my own fundamental difference from sadists and fascists and voyeurs and psychos and Bad People unambiguously confirmed and assured by those movies. I like to judge. I like to be allowed to root for Justice To Be Done without the slight squirmy suspicion (so prevalent and depressing in real moral life) that Justice probably wouldn’t be all that keen on certain parts of my character, either.”

I submit that we also, as an audience, really like the idea of secret and scandalous immoralities unearthed and dragged into the light and exposed. We like this stuff because secrets’ exposure in a movie creates in us impressions of epistemological privilege of “penetrating the civilised surface of everyday life to discover the strange, perverse passions beneath.” This isn’t surprising: knowledge is power, and we (I, anyway) like to feel powerful. But we also like the idea of “secrets,” “of malevolent forces at work beneath…” so much because we like to see confirmed our fervent hope that most bad and seamy stuff really is secret, “locked away” or “under the surface.” We hope fervently that this is so because we need to be able to believe that our own hideousnesses and Darknesses are secret. Otherwise we get uncomfortable. And, as part of an audience, if a movie is structured in such a way that the distinction between surface/Light/good and secret/Dark/evil is messed with—in other words, not a structure whereby Dark Secrets are winched ex machina up to the Lit Surface to be purified by my judgment, but rather a structure in which Respectable Surfaces and Seamy Undersides are mingled, integrated, literally mixed up—I am going to be made acutely uncomfortable. And in response to my discomfort I’m going to do one of two things: I’m either going to find some way to punish the movie for making me uncomfortable, or I’m going to find a way to interpret the movie that eliminates as much of the discomfort as possible.”

Or, Spufford might offer a third way – one might confront that darkness head on. Which is why that chapter is one of the most compelling things I’ve read on the human condition.

 

Three (or six) videos about life under the sun

I like these videos a lot. I come back to them occasionally. They have pretty huge explanatory power – but they are all sort of depressing and without lasting hope.

Life is amazing. And improbably. And amazingly improbable. And we all have different ways of dealing with the improbable hand we’ve been dealt.

This has been the pursuit of smart people since before the smart guy in Ecclesiastes (in the Bible) – but there haven’t been any particularly new answers. Life as we experience it is a vapour. Nothing is new.

These come from smart people: Ze Frank (The Time You Have – but seriously, check out his animal videos), Leonard Read (I, Pencil) and David Foster Wallace (This is Water).

They all kind of remind me of the Wisdom literature – which I spent a fair bit of time reading for my thesis thing. They’re also a bit like sermons. Sermons about what it means to be human.

This is Water

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaVrn1Sz0H8

The video misses what I think is the most pertinent point Wallace made in the speech. Which was given to a bunch of graduating students.

“This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

He’s so close to nailing the Christian understanding of idolatry.

But here are the other two…

The Time You Have in Jelly Beans

I, Pencil

I, Pencil does get a little bit theological.

There is a fact still more astounding: The absence of a master mind, of anyone dictating or forcibly directing these countless actions which bring me into being. No trace of such a person can be found. Instead, we find the Invisible Handat work.

… Since only God can make a tree, I insist that only God could make me. Man can no more direct these millions of know-hows to bring me into being than he can put molecules together to create a tree.

I tried to find an equally compelling video about life following Jesus – because his arrival on earth changes up the vapour verdict of Ecclesiastes, provides a different understanding of the “water” that surrounds us, that we breathe in, that defines our reality, provides a different way for us to think about our jelly beans or days on the earth, and how to spend them, and his amazingly improbable life – God made man, murdered and resurrected to redefine our humanity – is a greater story than the improbable and amazing story of the pencil. Or any human ingenuity.

The best I’ve got is this one – a sermon Jam from David Platt.

This one isn’t bad either. I don’t mind the “sermon jam” as a genre.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2e5H-LSzkU

And Francis Chan’s “God is Better” is a nice counter point to “This is Water”…

Art criticism imitating life: The Dunning-Kruger Effect, Modern Art, and the importance of a frame

If there’s one truth I’ve learned in my time on the Internet it’s that people will be at least 25% meaner behind a keyboard. Unless they put their real name to what they’re writing, but even then they’re probably 10% meaner because so much of communication occurs outside the words we use.

But this is just hilarious.

David Foster Wallace is considered by many to be one of the written voices of his generation. His essays regularly (and posthumously) appear in lists of the best essays ever written. He wrote some books. Including a book called Infinite Jest.

Somebody posted the first page of the book to Yahoo questions asking for “feedback”… hilarity ensued.

“This needs some serious work… your writing is not formal… it is written in informal language that imitates the qualities commonly believed to be characteristic of formal language.

I recommend checking out “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B White… that should help to clear a few things up.”

And another:

“You know your story needs more work, so you don’t need anyone to tell you what you already know.”

And another…

“No discernible voice/tone in this writing. Rambling descriptions. I, frankly, do not care where each and every person is seated. I don’t care what shoe you’re wearing.
If you take out all the unnecessary details, you’d be left with about seven words.”

Something similar happened on Flickr, when a photo by the pioneer of photo-journalism, Henri Cartier-Bresson, was put up in a “Deleteme” thread – where “good photographers” comment on the work of budding photographers by voting to save or delete the photo.

In this case this photo was roundly condemned, and advice was distributed to the photographer (for some reason this photo has been flagged as inappropriate and you have to log in to Flickr to see the thread)…

Here’s the photo.

Some of the comments:

“hard to tell at this size but is everything meant to be moving in this shot, all seems blurred”

“so small
so blurry
to better show a sense of movement SOMETHING has to be in sharp focus”

“This looks contrived, which is not a bad thing. If this is a planned shot, it just didn’t come out right. If you can round up Mario, I would do it again. This time put the camera on a tripod and use the smallest aperture possible to get the best DoF. What I would hope for is that the railings are sharp and that mario on the bike shows a blur. Must have the foreground sharp, though. Without that, the image will never fly.”

There are a couple of things going on in these situations for me – one is the idea that an artist’s name or reputation is enough to turn something substandard into something that people will describe as a “masterpiece,” while the other is that there’s a big difference between being educated and believing you’re educated – all these “experts” on both forums are assessing these works based solely on their own personal preferences developed by their own environment and experience.

Those two examples of this phenomenon at play – Dunning-Kruger meets the internet forum meets modern art – came from Kottke.org, and remind me of this little story, where Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most famous violinists played one of the world’s most expensive violins (with a $3 million plus price tag), at a train station, and nobody noticed. This was an experiment conducted by the Washington Post and covered in this story.

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.

The Washington Post piece points out the truth underlying the responses to the written works of David Foster Wallace, and the picture by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Context is king. Art requires a frame. Something to point out why people should sit up and take notice, this is the only truth that keeps the doors of the Gallery of Modern Art open – a frame provides a point of reference.

“When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explains, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence . . .”

He was, in short, art without a frame. Which, it turns out, may have a lot to do with what happened — or, more precisely, what didn’t happen — on January 12.”

Fascinating stuff.