Why generous pluralism is a better ideal than idealistic purism and provides a better future for our broad church (or why I resigned from GIST)

This week I resigned from a committee I’d been on since 2011, I was at the time of resigning, the longest serving current member. I resigned because I did not and could not agree with the statement the committee issued on the same sex marriage postal survey, and I wanted to freely and in good faith publicly say why I think it is wrong, and to stand by my previously published stance on the plebiscite.

Our two-fold purpose is to equip believers in Presbyterian Church of Queensland congregations to:
a) live faithfully for Jesus in a secular society and
b) engage in gospel-hearted apologetics that point to the great hope we have in Jesus.

The Gospel In Society Today Committee’s statement of purpose,

In short, I did not think the committee’s paper fulfilled either aspects of its charter — it is not ‘Gospel-hearted apologetics’ in that there is nothing in it that engages particularly well with the world beyond the church in such a way that a case for marriage as Christians understand it might convince our neighbours of the goodness of marriage, or the goodness of Jesus who fulfils marriage in a particular way; nor do I believe it effectively equipped believers to live faithfully for Jesus in a secular society; instead, it equipped believers who were already going to vote a particular way to keep voting that way and to have some Gospel-centred reasoning to do so. I’m not convinced the way it encourages people to vote or speak about that vote, or understand the situation grapples well with our secular context; as someone not committed to a no vote already, I found the paper unpersuasive even after a significant review process.

But there was also a deeper reason for my resignation (resigning over just one paper would not be a sensible course of action) — this paper reflects a particular approach to political engagement in a fractured and complicated world that I do not support, and there was no evidence the committee would adopt an alternative strategy. I resigned because the committee failed to practice the generous pluralism that I believe the church should be practicing inside and outside our communities (on issues that aren’t matters of doctrine — there’s a difference between polytheism and pluralism). I had asked for our committee to put forward the views of each member of the committee rather than the majority, because the committee’s remit is to ‘equip believers in our churches to engage in Gospel-hearted apologetics’ and ‘to live faithfully for Jesus in a secular society’ — and I believe part of that is equipping believers to operate as generously as possible with people we disagree with in these complicated times.

The statement issued by the committee is no Nashville Statement; it is an attempt to be generous to those we disagree with, without offering a solution to a disagreement that accommodates all parties (or even as many parties as imaginable); it is also an idealistic document, and so as it seeks to push for an ideal outcome it represents a failure to listen and engage well with other people who hold other views — be they in our churches, or in the community at large. It is this failure to listen that led me to believe my energy would be better spent elsewhere, but also that leads me to so strongly disagree with the paper that I am publishing this piece.

This is not, I believe, the way forward for the church in a complicated and contested secular world; it will damage our witness and it represents the same spirit to push towards an ideal ‘black and white’ solution in a world that is increasingly complicated. I’m proud of this same committee’s nuanced work on sexuality and gender elsewhere, and don’t believe this paper reflects the same careful listening engagement with the world beyond the church and the desires of the people we are engaging with (and how those desires might be more fulfilled in knowing the love of Jesus). By not understanding these desires (not listening) our speech will not be heard but dismissed. This paper is meant to serve an internal purpose for members of our churches (so to persuade people to vote no), but it is also published externally on our website without any clarification that it is not to be read as an example of Gospel centered apologetics, so one must conclude if one reads it online, that this is a paper that serves both purposes of the committee.

I’m not the only voice speaking out in favour of pluralism, nor am I claiming to be its smartest or best spokesperson. John Inazu’s book Confident Pluralism and his interview in Cardus’ Comment magazine gave me a language to describe what I believe is not just the best but the only real way forward in what Charles Taylor calls our ‘secular age’ — where the public square is a contested space accommodating many religious and non religious views. If we want to resist the harder form of secularism which seeks to exclude all religious views from the public square, it seems to me that we either need a monotheistic theocracy (but whose?) or a pluralistic democracy that accommodates as many views as possible or acceptable; and this requires a certain amount of imagination and a sacrifice of idealism. The thing is, for many of us who’ve been brought up in an environment that defaults to the hard secular where the sexual revolution is assumed (ie anyone under about 38, or those who are a bit older but did degrees in the social sciences), we’ve already, generally, had to contest for our beliefs and adopt something like a pluralism. There are ways to prevent pluralism — like home schooling or insularly focused Christian education, but if people have grown up in a ‘public’ not stewarded by a particular stream of Christianity that deliberately excludes listening to the world, or if they are not particularly combative and idealistic types who have played the culture wars game from early in their childhood, then they are likely to have adopted something that looks pluralistic.

Here’s a quote from John Inazu’s interview with James K.A Smith, from Comment:

“JKAS: What have you learned since your book has come out? Would you already do something differently based on how it’s been received, whether by religious or non-religious audiences?

JI: What’s particularly true of millennial audiences, whether religious or secular, is that, as a descriptive matter, the reality of pluralism is already well-ingrained in their lives. This is their existence, so it’s not surprising to them that we have deep differences and we encounter people who are quite unlike us, because that’s how most of them have lived their lives. That’s less true with older generations.

Where I’ve seen the most resistance from the religious side of things is with a concern about getting too close to people who don’t share our values. That has always struck me as odd because the gospel example here is Jesus going into very messy spaces and being the light in those spaces.”

But it’s also not just Inazu who has spoken of pluralism; it’s also John Stackhouse in a recent piece for the ABC Religion and Ethics portal. In a piece titled Christians and Politics: Getting Beyond ‘All’ or ‘Nothing’, Stackhouse says:

“In the light of this reality, we can see now that there are three kinds of people who undertake political action.

The ideologue has it easiest. He simply asks himself, in any situation on any issue, what’s ultimately right. Then he does everything he can to realize that ideal. That’s the way many Christians today are engaging in political action, whether on the left, right, or whatever. If we believe that abortion is wrong, then we work to outlaw it. If we think that gay marriage is consonant with Christian values, then we should make it legal. Graphic movies, globalization, immigration, climate change – whatever it is that we believe is right on any issue we simply seek to universalize by whatever means are available.

The pragmatist also starts with the question of what’s ultimately right. But then she carefully appraises the situation and works for what she deems is currently possible. If abortion is wrong, but the best she can do is get a ban on partial-birth abortions, she works for that. If gay marriage is wrong, but the best she can do is see “civil unions” instituted instead, then that’s what she aims at.

The pluralist asks about what’s ultimately right and what’s currently possible. But he interposes a third, admittedly odd, question between those two: What is penultimately right? Might it be God’s will that what is ultimately right not prevail immediately? The pluralist Christian might have strong views about x. He also is pragmatic enough to know that a total ban on alternatives to his views of x is politically inconceivable in his society. But he is also willing to consider the possibility that in God’s providence, it is better for there to be more than one view of x allowed in society. He might see that, yes, ultimately God’s will is to get rid of this or that, but penultimately it serves God’s purposes for society to allow this or that to remain. He doesn’t always come to that conclusion, to be sure, and often acts just like the pragmatist. But he at least asks that question, and sometimes acts differently as a result.”

Now, it’s interesting to me, particularly in the process that led to my resignation from the committee to consider how the dynamic between these three camps plays out within Christian community (it’s also interesting to consider how these three categories mesh with three I suggested using the metaphor of hands — clean hands, dirty hands, and busy hands in a post a while back); I’ll go out on a limb here and say idealism is always partisan, and so we need to be extremely careful when speaking as an institutional church if  we choose to pursue idealism in the secular political sphere (especially on issues of conscience where there are arguably many possible faithful ways to respond to a situation with an imagination that rejects the status quo served up to us by others); while pluralism is the way to maintain clean hands as an institution in that model.

The idealistic stream of Christianity will see the pluralist as not just compromising politically but theologically, because while the pluralist will be operating with perhaps something like a retrieval ethic, the idealist will operate with something more like a creational ethic or a deontological ethic or a divine command ethic and so see their path as clearly the right way, and thus other paths as wrong. The pragmatist will have sympathies in both directions, and the pluralist will seek to accommodate all these views so long as they still recognise the truth the idealists want to uphold (if they don’t they’ve become ‘polytheists’). I predict the church, generally (and specifically in our denominational context) will face a certain amount of problems if not be damaged beyond repair if we put idealists in charge and they tolerate pragmatists but exclude pluralists — especially if those who have grown up needing to be pluralists to hold their faith. A push to idealism rather than confident, or generous, pluralism, will alienate the younger members of our church who are typically not yet in leadership (and this dynamic has played out in the Nashville Statement), and it will ultimately lead to something like the Benedict Option, a withdrawal from the pluralistic public square into our own parallel institutions and private ‘public’.

It’s interesting to me that GIST fought so hard against withdrawing from the Marriage Act, because, in part, the government recognises marriage contracts entered into by the parties getting married and conducted by a recognised celebrant according to our marriage rites — so there is already a difference between how we view marriage and how the state does — pluralism — but has now reverted to arguing that the government doesn’t just recognise marriage according to a broader definition than we hold but promotes and affirms particular types according to a particular definition. I know that was our argument because it was the one I spoke to in the discussion at our General Assembly.

Here’s my last smarter person that me making the case for pluralism in these times, New York Times columnist David Brooks in his review of the Benedict Option. He opens by describing two types of Christians not three — and Stackhouse’s pragmatist and pluralist categories fall into the ‘ironist’ category.

“Faith seems to come in two personalities, the purist and the ironist. Purists believe that everything in the world is part of a harmonious whole. All questions point ultimately to a single answer. If we orient our lives toward this pure ideal, and get everybody else to, we will move gradually toward perfection.

The ironists believe that this harmony may be available in the next world but not, unfortunately, in this one. In this world, the pieces don’t quite fit together and virtues often conflict: liberty versus equality, justice versus mercy, tolerance versus order. For the ironist, ultimate truth exists, but day-to-day life is often about balance and trade-offs. There is no unified, all-encompassing system for correct living. For the ironists, like Reinhold Niebuhr or Isaiah Berlin, those purists who aim to be higher than the angels often end up lower than the beasts.”

If the purists run the show we’re going to end up with a very pure church that ultimately excludes most impure people ever feeling loved enough, or understood enough, to bother listening to what we have to say. Purists are necessary though to keep us from polytheism or losing the ideals. Here’s more from Brooks:

“My big problem with Rod [Dreher] is that he answers secular purism with religious purism. By retreating to neat homogeneous monocultures, most separatists will end up doing what all self-segregationists do, fostering narrowness, prejudice and moral arrogance. They will close off the dynamic creativity of a living faith. 

There is a beautiful cohesion to the monastic vocation. But most people are dragged willy-nilly into life — with all its contradictions and complexities. Many who experience faith experience it most vividly within the web of their rival loves — different communities, jobs, dilemmas. They have faith in their faith. It gives them a way of being within the realities of a messy and impure world.

The right response to the moment is not the Benedict Option, it is Orthodox Pluralism. It is to surrender to some orthodoxy that will overthrow the superficial obsessions of the self and put one’s life in contact with a transcendent ideal. But it is also to reject the notion that that ideal can be easily translated into a pure, homogenized path. It is, on the contrary, to throw oneself more deeply into friendship with complexity, with different believers and atheists, liberals and conservatives, the dissimilar and unalike.”

Brooks uses ‘Orthodox’ to qualify pluralism, Inazu ‘Confident’; I’ve settled on ‘generous’ (see my review of the Benedict Option for why).

If our denomination puts the idealists/purists in power without an ethos of including the pluralists (a functional pluralism) they will always by definition exclude the pluralists; whereas if we adopt a pluralistic approach to the public square (and to how we give voice to those who disagree with us within the camp of orthodoxy) then we will necessarily also give space to the pluralists. The choice we are faced with is a choice between a broad church and a narrow one. What’s interesting is that pluralism actually becomes an ideal in itself; one of the reasons I resigned is that I am fundamentally an idealist about pluralism, once it became clear this would not be our posture or strategy, I could no longer participate (because I was excluded, but also because I am an idealist and saw the purist-idealism as an uncompromising error).

So this is a relatively long preamble to establish why I think the position adopted by GIST (idealism/purism) and how it was resolved within the committee (idealism/purism/no pluralism) is deeply problematic and a strategic misfire in our bid to engage the world with ‘gospel hearted apologetics’.

Generous pluralism and ‘living faithfully for Jesus in a secular society’ and ‘engaging in gospel-hearted apologetics’ in a polytheistic world

GIST’s philosophy of ministry acknowledges that we live in a ‘secular society’ but maintain some sort of difference from that society by ‘living faithfully for Jesus’. The idealism that Stackhouse speaks of, or purism that Brooks speaks of, will fail if society is truly secular.

Idealism will fail us because at the heart of idealism is not simply a commitment to monotheism as the option we faithfully choose amongst many contested options in the broader public, but as the option the broader public should also choose as the temporal best (following Stackhouse’s definitions). So we get, in the GIST statement, sentences like, which holds out a sort of ideal around marriage (rather than a ‘faithful life’ within a secular society):

“Ultimately if we want to see our society return wholeheartedly to God’s design for marriage, we need people to embrace God’s solution to the sin which has led society away from it.” — GIST Statement on Same Sex Marriage Plebiscite

It seems unlikely to me that this ideal of society returning wholeheartedly to God’s design for marriage (essentially a Christian society) is possible this side of the return of Jesus (which is why I’m a pluralist), and I am confused about this being an ideal that we are to pursue as Christians.

Here’s why. I think this sort of wholehearted pursuit of God’s design for marriage was an ideal in Israel (but the sense that the ideal is not actually possible is found in God’s accommodation of divorce in the law of Moses, though he hates it and it falls short of the lifelong one flesh union). I think this ultimately is a form of the pursuit of monotheism for all in society; a noble ideal formed by an eschatology where every knee will one day bow to Jesus (Philippians 2). Israel was to pursue a sort of societal monotheism — this is why they were commanded to destroy all idols and idolatrous alters — utterly — when coming into the land (Deuteronomy 4-7) and to keep themselves from idols. There is no place for polytheism — or idolatry — within the people of God (and yet the divorce laws recognise there is a place for ‘non-ideal’ broken relationships and dealing with sin to retrieve certain good outcomes). Israel was to be monotheistic and to guard the boundaries of monotheism within its civic laws. We aren’t in Israel any more — but the church is the kingdom of God, and we as worshippers of Jesus are called to monotheism in how we approach life, this is why I believe it’s important that the church upholds God’s good design for marriage in a contested public square as part of our faithful witness to God’s goodness.

Now, while an Israelite was to destroy idols when coming into the land, and Christians are to ‘keep ourselves from idols’, outside of Israel our monotheism as Christians manifests itself in the Great Commission — the pursuit of worshippers of God — disciples — through worshipping God. When Paul hits the polytheistic city of Athens as a monotheist he adopts a pluralist strategy; one based on listening to the views of the people in Athens, on understanding their idolatrous impulses, and of confidently redirecting those impulses to the true and living God. His confidence is that when the Gospel is presented as a monotheistic truth in a pluralistic culture God will work to draw people back to his design for life.

Societal shifts towards God’s design have happened historically (think Constantine and Rome), and they do happen through Christians living and proclaiming the Gospel, but I’m not entirely sure that a Christian society should be our aim rather than a society of Christians (and the difference is how people who aren’t Christians are accommodated in the laws and institutions of each — ie whether the culture is pluralistic or monotheistic). Ancient cultures were also profoundly different to our individualistic, ‘democratised’ age in that the way to convert a culture was either to conquer it (think Babylon and Israel — or the spread of Babylonian religion to the hearts of most of those they captured (but not all Israel), or Rome and the imperial cult), or to convert the king. Kings functioned as high priests of the civic religion and the very image of God, and so to convert a king was to turn the hearts of the people to a different God (think Jonah in Nineveh, or Nebuchadnezzar’s response and edicts after witnessing God’s work in Daniel, and to some extent, Constantine in Rome). It is pretty unlikely that a society wide shift like this will happen when there isn’t a close connection to the ‘civil law’ and the religion of a nation.

“How then should Christians seek to influence the laws of the state in this area? In terms of voting the answer to this seems relatively straightforward. Since we’re being asked by the state what in our view would be best for our society, and seeing as God’s good design for marriage is best not just for Christians but for all people and for our society generally; we are encouraging Christians to vote ‘no’ in this plebiscite.” — The GIST Paper

I would argue this approach to voting is only straightforward if you adopt a purist-idealist position and reject pluralism as a valid good. That it isn’t actually straightforward that the best thing for our society is that non-Christians be conformed to our vision of human flourishing, and so our definition of marriage, without the telos — or purpose — of human flourishing and marriage as part of that being established first.

I’d also say this is an odd interpretation of what we are being asked. The question is not ‘what would be best for society’ — to approach it that way automatically leads to adopting an ‘idealist’ position; it begs the question. What we are being asked, literally, is “should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?” In a secular society that’s an entirely more complicated question about what communities and views a secular government should recognise in its framework. The government’s responsibility is to provide the maximum amount of compromise or breadth for its citizens that can be held by consensus. It’s a tough gig. The government’s definition of marriage, including no-fault divorce, is already different from the Christian view. I marry people according to the rites of the Presbyterian Church which includes and articulates a vision of marriage connected to the telos of marriage — the relationship between Jesus and the church; the government’s definition of marriage is broader than mine, but includes mine.

This is the point at which I disagree significantly with the paper (I also disagree with the way it treats recognition as affirmation, fails to listen to, understand, and respond to the ‘human rights’ argument for same sex marriage by simply blithely dismissing it, and how it sees secular laws as establishing ideals rather than minimums (the state can and does pursue ideals through incentives and campaigns, but there are no incentives being offered to gay couples to marry that they do not already receive). The law is a blunt instrument that recognises things held as common assumptions of the minimum standards of life together, like ‘robbery is wrong’ and governments can incentivise not-robbing with welfare payments, and prevent the evil of robbery by incentivising or subsidising local governments or businesses introducing better lighting and security. Ethics aren’t formed so much by law but by the development of ideals and virtues (and arguably this happens through narratives not law, which is why so much of the Old Testament law is actually narrative even in the little explanations of different rules).

Generous Pluralism, the GIST Paper, and the Priesthood of all believers

This GIST paper was adopted after a lengthy review process, and through much discussion including three face to face meetings and deliberation by flying minute. Throughout the course of the discussion (and before it) it became clear that there were different views about what ‘faithfully living for Jesus in a secular society’ looks like; and so what equipping believers to do that looks like. I suggested we put forward the best case for different responses (an alternative to the majority view, and for it to be clear who held it and who did not, on the committee. In the discussions around the paper the majority of the committee held that we did not want to “give credence” to views other than the no vote being what equips believers to live faithfully for Jesus; even while acknowledging that my position was legitimately within our doctrinal and polity frameworks. This was ultimately why I resigned.

I don’t believe this decision to exclude a possible way to live faithfully for Jesus (and what I think is the best way) fulfils the committee’s charter if there are actually legitimate faithful ways to abstain or vote yes.

I also this fails a fundamentally Reformed principle in how we think of believers, and this principle is part of why I think a confident or generous pluralism within the church, and within the boundaries of orthodoxy, is the best way to equip believers. A confident pluralism isn’t built on the idea that all ideas are equally valid, but rather that we can be confident that the truth will persuade those who are persuaded by truth. That we can be confident, in disagreement, that a priesthood of all believers do not need a priestly or papal authority to interpret Scripture and the times for them. Believing that such a committee writes to equip such a priesthood of all believers (those our charter claims we serve), and that they should apply their wisdom, submit to scripture, and participate in the world according to conscience is the best way to equip believers to live faithfully.

A position of generous pluralism applied to a secular society outside the church probably leads to abstaining, and possibly to voting yes, depending on your ethic (how much a retrieval ethic plays into your thinking and how much you think the law affirms or normalises rather than recognising and retrieving good things from relationships that already exist (where children already exist).

Because a confident, or generous, pluralism relies on the priesthood of all believers and trusts that Christians should come to their own position assessing truth claims in response to Scripture I’m relatively comfortable with space being made for people to hear views other than mine. An example of this is that I host the GIST website, free of charge, on my private server at my cost. People are reading their views at my expense, and I will keep doing this as an act of hospitality though I believe their views are wrong. I also host and only lightly moderate comments and critical responses to things I write. This is a commitment I have to listening, to dialogue, to hospitality, to accommodation of others, to the priesthood of all believers (and a confidence that the truth will persuade those who it persuades), and to pluralism — and the lack of this commitment from others on the committee is in favour of purism-idealism, is fundamentally, why I resigned from the committee.

While the GIST paper tries to hold the created order (or ‘marriage as a creation ordinance)’ in tension with the resurrection; following the Oliver O’Donovan ‘resurrection and moral order’ model (and this was part of our discussions as a committee); the problem with creational ethics (or arguments from God’s design/natural order) that establish a universal good for all people, even non-Christians, is that they do not, in my opinion, sufficiently recognise the supremacy of Jesus or how Jesus fulfils the law and the prophets (because ‘moral law’ is still law we find in the written law of Moses that Jesus claims is written about him). This is a point at which I diverge slightly from the capital R reformed tradition, but where I think I am probably prepared to argue I’m standing in the traditions of the Reformers (sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers).

Turning to the Reformers for a model of a political theology from our secular context is interesting; the governments operating around the Reformation (for example the German nobility, or Calvin’s Geneva) were not secular but sectarian; and, for example, Luther wrote to the German nobility to call them to act as priests as part of the priesthood of all believers, rather than be led by the pope (a vital thing to convince them of if he was going to make space for the reformation). It’s fair to say that Calvin and Luther weren’t pluralists, they played the sectarian game at the expense of Catholicism or other forms of later Protestantism (see Luther’s Against The Peasants, and of course, his awful treatise on the Jews). When someone claims their political theology is consistent with the Reformed tradition and seeks to apply it to a secular democracy, I get a little concerned.

“It is pure invention that pope, bishops, priests and monks are to be called the “spiritual estate”; princes, lords, artisans, and farmers the “temporal estate.” That is indeed a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy. Yet no one should be frightened by it; and for this reason — viz., that all Christians are truly of the “spiritual estate,” and there is among them no difference at all but that of office, as Paul says in I Corinthians 12:12, We are all one body, yet every member has its own work, where by it serves every other, all because we have one baptism, one Gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians; for baptism, Gospel and faith alone make us “spiritual” and a Christian people…

Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood, as St. Peter says in I Peter 2:9, “Ye are a royal priesthood, a priestly kingdom,” and the book of Revelation says, Rev. 5:10 “Thou hast made us by Thy blood to be priests and kings.”

This is an interesting paper from Luther in that it doesn’t provide any sort of model for interacting with a government that is secular or not as faithful as any other members of the priesthood of all believers — instead what his political theology in his context is about is a government he treats as Christian being coerced by a church he holds to be the anti-Christ.

The Reformation was built on an epistemic humility that comes from the challenging of human authority and tradition. Where the GIST committee, in its deliberation, appealed to the Reformed category of a ‘Creation Ordinance’, I’d want to appeal to the Reformed approach to scriptures that sees everything fulfilled in Jesus — even the creation ordinances like work, Sabbath, and marriage. It’s reasonably easy to establish that Jesus is our rest and Lord of the Sabbath, that his resurrection restores our ability to work in a way that is no longer frustrated (1 Cor 15:58, Ephesians 2) — that there’s a telos or purpose to these creation ordinances that is best fulfilled in Christ, so that they can’t universally be understood by idolatrous humans without Jesus, and yet our arguments about protecting marriage or upholding marriage is that we are upholding God’s good design for all people. GIST’s paper is infinitely better than anything the ACL or the Coalition for Marriage is putting out that only argues from creation, in that it includes the infinite — by incorporating the resurrection; but the idea of a creation ordinance that should push us away from accommodating others via a public, generous, pluralism is an idealism that I would argue fails to accommodate the relationship between creation and its redeemer, and the telos of marriage (which doesn’t exist in the new creation except as the relationship between us and Jesus) (Matt 22, Rev 21).

A Confession

I’d served this committee for seven years. In the first two years I was in a minority (with another member) with a majority holding to a different sort of idealism; an idealism not built on the Gospel, but on God’s law or the ‘whole counsel of God’ (with no sense of how God’s whole counsel is fulfilled in Jesus). We orchestrated a changing of the guard on this committee that was not generous or pluralistic; we excluded a voice from the committee that was a legitimate representation of members of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland.

We pursued a platform narrower than the breadth of the church and so alienated a percentage of our members; I’ve come to regret this, while being proud of our record (and despite the committee being returned unopposed year on year since). I don’t think excluding voices is the best way to fulfil our charter, but rather a poly-phonic approach where a range of faithful options are given to the faithful — our priesthood — in order to be weighed up. This will be a challenge within the assembly of Queensland where there is a large amount of accord, but a much larger challenge within the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, which is broader (and more fractured).

Conclusion

At present in the Presbyterian denomination our committees are operating like priests or bishops; sending missives to our churches that carry a sort of authority they should not be granted in our polity; I understand the efficiencies created by governance and operations via committee, but if Luther’s priesthood of all believers is truly a fundamental principle of Reformed operation in the world we should be more comfortable and confident that people being transformed by the Spirit and facing the complexity of life in our secular world will act according to conscience and in submission to God’s word, but might operate faithfully as Christians anywhere between idealism, pragmatism and pluralism, as purists or ironists; and if we put the purist-idealists in charge (or our committees function from that framework) we might significantly narrow the church and limit our voice and imagination; cutting off opportunities for Gospel-hearted apologetics from those who might walk through our idol-saturated streets and engage differently with our idol worshipping neighbours.

God, Telstra, and the iPhone: What’s going to make your life magic again?

kim-dong-kyu-phone

Illustration by Kim Dong-kyu Based on: Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar David Friedrich (1818). From: Technology Nearly Killed Me, Andrew Sullivan, New York Mag, Sep 2016

 

 

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — Arthur C. Clarke

There’s a new Telstra ad that I love because it is beautiful, but that I feel overpromises on what technology can (and does) deliver; in fact, I think it misleads, and invites us to put our hope in the wrong places. But it is a beautiful ad that taps into some deep human desires.

“See? We live in a magical world. We never have to wake up from our dreams. Our restless minds now free to wonder at the wonder of technology; at the magic we’ve created. Possibilities are like stars now infinite constellations fuelled by pure imagination; leading to one destination – to you, to thrive.” — Telstra

The world doesn’t feel as magical as it used to. That’s part of the central thesis of award winning philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Telstra’s marketing gurus seem to have tapped into the haunting sense of loss we have because of the evacuation of magic, or something ‘transcendent’ from our view of the world by suggesting technology itself is the way back; like somehow the answer to our longing for something more than the material is more material, just cleverer, just with the illusion of magic (because part of the evacuation of magic from the world is the belief that anything that looks magical is actually an illusion, which is why we call magicians illusionists now).

It used to be that life was magical; that every thing had some sort of spiritual significance, whether there were gods everywhere behind every event, like a poor harvest or a pregnancy, or in monotheistic cultures everything existed in some way within the life and will of the infinite God; Christians in particular believe that the material world, what Taylor calls the ‘immanent’ world, is somehow given life and significance (or more ultimate meaning) by its connection to the creator, and by Jesus, the creator’s creating and sustaining ‘word’ (transcendent) made flesh (immanent). Colossians 1 has a good example of this view of the world:

For in [Jesus] all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” — Colossians 1:16-17

C.S Lewis didn’t just write fairy tales for kids and a bunch of Christian reflections on life; he also published academic work on literature, including a book called The Discarded Image which looked at how older generations viewed the world this way; as enchanted, and how that fuelled their creativity, their art, their literature, and so better answered the longings of the human heart for some sort of enchantment, he argued (in 1964) that we’ve lost something as moderns who have kicked the sense of the transcendent out of our world and settled just for the stuff we can see and taste and touch as ‘reality’ and our source of meaning; C.S Lewis would be a little suspicious of Telstra’s advertising I suspect. Even the best technology — the most luxurious things we can fill our house with — he said were a certain sort of ugly, precisely because of this lack of symbolism, or significance, pointing to anything beyond itself (and so we have modern, and post-modern, art, often wallowing in this milieu, and so soulless and empty).

“Luxury and material splendour in the modern world need be connected with nothing but money and are also, more often than not, very ugly. But what a medieval man saw in royal or feudal courts and imagined as being outstripped in ‘ faerie’ and far outstripped in Heaven, was not so. The architecture, arms, crowns, clothes, horses, and music were nearly all beautiful. They were all symbolical or significant-of sanctity, authority, valour, noble lineage or, at the very worst, of power. They were associated, as modern luxury is not, with graciousness and courtesy. They could therefore be ingenuously admired without degradation for the admirer.” — C.S Lewis, The Discarded Image

 

James K.A. Smith wrote an accessible commentary on Taylor’s massive tome called How (Not) To Be Secular, here are two key ideas from his work:

“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…There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power. Things can do stuff.”

 

“Taylor names and identifies what some of our best novelists, poets, and artists attest to: that our age is haunted. On the one hand, we live under a brass heaven, ensconced in immanence. We live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence. Even what Taylor calls the “immanent frame” is haunted.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) to be Secular

The implications of these quotes are interesting when read against Telstra’s ad; a campaign designed to reconnect us with the magic we long for, via machines.

The first is interesting because it explains why we look to technology — machines — to enchant our lives; if matter is all that matters, if everything (the universe) is basically one big machine of cause and effect, filled with little machines (us), who make machines (technology) then we’re now likely to rely on technology to give us any sense of what we’ve lost because they’re the closest we get to matter with a soul; other than us, and we get to program the soul into them so they serve us. The second point explains why we want them to serve us by delivering the experience of ‘magic’; because that’s precisely what we’ve lost, and what we long for, and what we’re haunted by. We want matter to matter more than it does; we want a transcendent reality that stretches beyond us; this might be, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, because God has set eternity on the hearts of humanity, but it might just be that we wish magic was real.

If Taylor is right then I don’t think machines; perhaps especially smartphones and screens; will deliver the answer our haunted selves are looking for, they might actually make the haunting worse; especially if all the science looking at what technology use does to our brains and relationships is true; and on this you should definitely read the Andrew Sullivan piece, Technology Almost Killed Me where that picture at the top of this post comes from; Sullivan is one of the world’s most famous bloggers, he went a year without tech, precisely because he felt he was losing himself into a totally ‘immanent’ way of life, and he wanted some transcendence; he found that silence, not distracting technological bombardment, was where something ‘magical’ could truly be found… he looks at how our western world has progressively killed the silence which used to enchant us, and in doing so have ensure our haunted longings for something more, for the infinite reality that silence throws us towards, are not truly satiated.

“The smartphone revolution of the past decade can be seen in some ways simply as the final twist of this ratchet, in which those few remaining redoubts of quiet — the tiny cracks of inactivity in our lives — are being methodically filled with more stimulus and noise.

And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.

Except, of course, there is the option of a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement. There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace. From the moment I entered a church in my childhood, I understood that this place was different becauseit was so quiet. The Mass itself was full of silences — those liturgical pauses that would never do in a theater, those minutes of quiet after communion when we were encouraged to get lost in prayer, those liturgical spaces that seemed to insist that we are in no hurry here. And this silence demarcated what we once understood as the sacred, marking a space beyond the secular world of noise and business and shopping.”

The inability for technology to really scratch the haunting itch of the loss of the transcendent, that it doesn’t truly ‘enchant’ our world or make our lives feel magical, has fuelled technologist David Rose, who’s committed to creating enchanting technology because he thinks most technology doesn’t live up to the Arthur C. Clarke quote, he wrote a book called Enchanted Objects trying to articulate a vision for the sort of technology that might do this, it’s a compelling read, particularly (I think) for this analysis on the problem with the ideas that screens can deliver the enchantment Telstra promises.

“I HAVE A recurring nightmare. It is years into the future. All the wonderful everyday objects we once treasured have disappeared, gobbled up by an unstoppable interface: a slim slab of black glass. Books, calculators, clocks, compasses, maps, musical instruments, pencils, and paintbrushes, all are gone. The artifacts, tools, toys, and appliances we love and rely on today have converged into this slice of shiny glass, its face filled with tiny, inscrutable icons that now define and control our lives. In my nightmare the landscape beyond the slab is barren. Desks are decluttered and paperless. Pens are nowhere to be found. We no longer carry wallets or keys or wear watches. Heirloom objects have been digitized and then atomized. Framed photos, sports trophies, lovely cameras with leather straps, creased maps, spinning globes and compasses, even binoculars and books—the signifiers of our past and triggers of our memory—have been consumed by the cold glass interface and blinking search field. Future life looks like a Dwell magazine photo shoot. Rectilinear spaces, devoid of people. No furniture. No objects. Just hard, intersecting planes—Corbusier’s Utopia. The lack of objects has had an icy effect on us. Human relationships, too, have become more transactional, sharply punctuated, thin and curt. Less nostalgic. Fewer objects exist to trigger storytelling—no old photo albums or clumsy watercolors made while traveling someplace in the Caribbean. Marc Andreessen, the inventor of the Netscape browser, said, “Software is eating the world.” Smartphones are the pixelated plates where software dines. Often when I awake from this nightmare, I think of my grandfather Otto and know the future doesn’t have to be dominated by the slab. Grandfather was a meticulous architect and woodworker. His basement workshop had many more tools than a typical iPad has apps…”

… Today’s gadgets are the antithesis of Grandfather Otto’s sharp chisel or Frodo’s knowing sword. The smartphone is a confusing and feature-crammed techno-version of the Swiss Army knife, impressive only because it is so compact. It is awkward to use, impolite, interruptive, and doesn’t offer a good interface for much of anything. The smartphone is a jealous companion, turning us into blue-faced zombies, as we incessantly stare into its screen every waking minute of the day. It took some time for me to understand why the smartphone, while convenient and useful for some tasks, is a dead end as the human-computer interface. The reason, once I saw it, is blindingly obvious: it has little respect for humanity. What enchants the objects of fantasy and folklore, by contrast, is their ability to fulfill human drives with emotional engagement and élan. Frodo does not value Sting simply because it has a good grip and a sharp edge; he values it for safety and protection, perhaps the most primal drive. Dick Tracy was not a guy prone to wasting time and money on expensive personal accessories such as wristwatches, but he valued his two-way wrist communicator because it granted him a degree of telepathy—with it, he could instantly connect with others and do his work better. Stopping crime. Saving lives.

— David Rose, Enchanted Objects

He looked to our ‘enchanted’ stories; stories that have the sort of view of the world that Lewis (and his friend Tolkien) looked back to from the past and created in the more recent past… but it’s possible he missed the heart of what these writers (and J.K Rowling) were doing.

What’s the secret to creating technology that is attuned to the needs and wants of humans? The answer can be found in the popular stories and characters we absorb in childhood and that run through our cultural bloodstream: Greek myths, romantic folktales, comic book heroes, Tolkien’s wizards and elves, Harry Potter’s entourage, Disney’s sorcerers, James Bond, and Dr. Evil. They all employ enchanted tools and objects that help them fulfill fundamental human drives.

He does understand that technology will only work if it speaks to fundamental human desires; he’s not going to these stories as books containing “fanciful, ephemeral wishes, but rather persistent, essential human ones,” which he lists as omniscience, telepathy, safekeeping, immortality, teleportation, and expression. Basically, to use Taylor’s terminology, we’re in want of something that will pull us from the immanent into transcendence. Rose does just enough to kill Telstra’s claims that connectivity via a piece of glass can give us what our haunted hearts desire, and the technology he writes about as alternatives, like a magic cabinet that has a built in screen with a skype connection to a matching cabinet, which glows when the person at the other end of the line is nearby and allows instant and convenient conversation; well, that’s pretty great and does fan some of the flames of my heart (and could one day make my wallet lighter). The problem will always be that immanent objects — the product of coding and engineering — will only ever leave us trapped in the immanent world, the ‘brass heaven,’ haunted by a sense that there might be something more to life and relationships than that which can be encoded in bits and bytes made up of 1s and 0s. The problem will always be that eternity is written on our hearts; if only, like the writer of Ecclesiastes, we knew where to look to scratch that itch. This writer, who after his journey through life trying to sort the immanent out from the transcendent, concluded:

So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.” — Ecclesiastes 9:1-2

He doesn’t take this to the negative sort of place you might expect…

You who are young, be happy while you are young,
    and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
    and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
    God will bring you into judgment.
 So then, banish anxiety from your heart
    and cast off the troubles of your body,
    for youth and vigor are meaningless.

Remember your Creator
    in the days of your youth,

— Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:1

Then he says:

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
    and the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
    and the wheel broken at the well,
and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
    and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

— Ecclesiastes 12:6-7

This is what we’re to do in our ‘immanent’ existence; the fleeting ‘breath’ that this writer reflects on time and time again that is unfortunately often translated as ‘meaningless’… we’re meant to reach out towards the God who gave us breath, knowing that as he puts it at the start of his summing up in Ecclesiastes 9: “the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands“… now… If only we knew where to look to see God’s hands. If only there were some way to scratch where we itch… if only there were some way to bridge between the immanent and the transcendent; to satisfy those deep desires that the writer of Ecclesiastes, Telstra and David Rose are searching for — the ability to see the world as meaningful beyond the material, to give us existence beyond ‘breathiness’ so that we become immortal.

Oh that’s right. According to two thousand years of Christians, and the book we live by… We do.

Paul says some more good stuff about Jesus in Colossians 1; about the implications of that time we see the hands of God; hands nailed to ugly planks of wood by barbaric spikes, these hands Paul says hold the cosmos together became very ‘immanent’ and are the ultimate enchanted objects that deliver on our wildest imaginings. Paul says:

And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” — Colossians 1:18-20

That’s more magical than an iThing (as nice as they are) don’t let Telstra, or anyone, sell you short. You can enjoy the sort of life you so deeply desire and are haunted by. You can enjoy life that is more than just immanent, more than just heading towards the dust of the grave, you can enjoy life that’s more than a little bit magical.

 

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 (2): You are how you worship

“One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.” — Stanley Hauerwas

worship-wars

In part 1 I suggested that we’re worshipping beings, and we become what we worship, and that this should help us understand that the real worship wars are about what worship really is, and so they aren’t so much about song selection, or music styles, but represent a choice between life and death, as we choose between God and idols.

The worship war — the real worship war — is not first a war about how we worship on a Sunday, but who we worship with our whole lives; and when it’s a war about how, it’s a more complicated question than song choices, it’s about what, or who, is conscripting our desires and imaginations, and how our desires and imaginations are being conscripted, daily, by our acts of worship — our habitual ‘liturgies’. You become what or who you worship as your desires align with the values dictated by your god, and the telos caught up with the salvation narrative that god offers; you become what you worship; and part of that involves a becoming how you worship.

Colossians 3 is something of a call to worship, to break the Romans 1 default, and to worship Jesus — and it starts with the heart, and the imagination (in that I’m not sure ‘rational knowing’ will ever allow us to grasp ‘things above’), but this involves the re-conscripting of our loves via our actions as we “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). This is what worship looks like (and it involves music)…

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:11-17

That last bit is vital. For Paul, it seems, everything we do has the potential to be worship — whether its that we offer our whole lives as living sacrifices to God, or do everything in his name, he blows the idea of worship way beyond Sundays (and far beyond music and the sacraments).

Sundays will never be enough for us if the very air that we breathe, and the culture we live in, crackles with the addictive unseen liturgies of counterfeit gods, like ionised air in a lightning storm, so we live just waiting for death from above to zap us. Worship, proper worship, of the real God, is what keeps us alive; and keeps us from idols (or expels the idols from our hearts). Worship shapes us because it teaches us to love; that’s the thesis of a trilogy of books from James K.A. Smith, summed up best in this quote:

Worship is the “imagination station” that incubates our loves and longings so that our cultural endeavours are indexed toward God and his kingdom. If you are passionate about seeking justice, renewing culture, and taking up your vocation to unfurl all of creation’s potential, you need to invest in the formation of your imagination. You need to curate your heart. You need to worship well. Because you are what you love. And you worship what you love. And you might not love what you think. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

One of the things I love most of all about Smith’s trilogy Imagining the Kingdom, Desiring the Kingdom, and recently You Are What You Love is that he causes us to rethink the belief that people are primarily ‘thinking things’ — that the best way to persuade or change, to evangelise or disciple, is via a well reasoned argument. Smith calls us to a more incarnate Christianity, pointing out, with philosopher Charles Taylor, that us Protestant types have contributed to the disenchantment of the world via our commitment to a model of humanity that emphasises head-on-a-stick rationalism where it’s what we know that counts.

“Critical of the ways such an enchanted, sacramental understanding of the world had lapsed into sheer superstition, the later Reformers emphasized the simple hearing of the Word, the message of the gospel, and the arid simplicity of Christian worship. The result was a process of excarnation—of disembodying the Christian faith, turning it into a “heady” affair that could be boiled down to a message and grasped with the mind. To use a phrase that we considered above, this was Christianity reduced to something for brains-on-a-stick.” — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

Guilty as charged. And he’s right. The rational model of humanity doesn’t hold water. When was the last time you thought your way into a significant change of behaviour without your habits, desires, and loves, already pulling you to change your mind?

Smith’s argument, especially clearly stated in You Are What You Love is that we actually love or worship our way into change and this happens via our habits before it happens via our rational capacity. This has been true in my experience; and in my observation of the way justifications spring up to defend emotional attachments or loves (healthy or otherwise). It accounts for why we get addicted to behaviours that are destructive and make no rational sense. We admit this anthropology freely when we talk about love. An advert just popped up on my TV claiming “Love is never wrong”… The way we think about the world is shaped by what we love. By the time our head catches up, our hands and hearts have already well and truly persuaded and changed us. And this change seeps into us from all over the place, 24-7, as we’re called to worship all sorts of gods by participating in all sorts of liturgies; the habits that form our loves. These happen throughout our lives, without us noticing, so that we’re conscripted into worshipping all sorts of stuff in the place of God. I think this is caught up with being made in the image of God, and is evident in Biblical warnings about the effects, on the image we bear, of choosing to worship other gods or ourselves.

Smith’s answer, then, for us is to push us to a better, richer, fuller, more incarnate approach to worship. Only, it’s a Sunday-heavy model, and in many ways it just seems to buy into the same old, same old, worship wars; even while acknowledging that the real war is one we fight every time we head to the shops, or turn on the TV, and while saying this:

Obviously an hour and a half on Sunday morning is not sufficient to rehabituate hearts that are daily immersed in rival liturgies. Yes, gathered, congregational worship is the heart of discipleship, but this doesn’t mean that communal worship is the entirety of discipleship. While communal worship calibrates the heart in necessary, fundamental ways, we need to take the opportunity to cultivate kingdom-oriented liturgies throughout the week… The capital-L Liturgy of Sunday morning should generate lowercase-l liturgies that govern our existence throughout the rest of the week. Our discipleship practices from Monday through Saturday shouldn’t simply focus on Bible knowledge acquisition—we aren’t, after all, liturgical animals on Sunday and thinking things for the rest of the week. Rather, our day-to-day practices need to extend and amplify the formative power of our weekly worship practices by weaving them into our everyday liturgies. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

Worship is not just music (but it includes it), or church on Sundays (but includes it), or the sacraments (but includes them)

Music matters, because as part of worship, it forms us; it shapes our loves, our imagination, and our ethics. I loved this Hauerwas quote that I saw on Facebook this week:

“One reason why we Christians argue so much about which hymn to sing, which liturgy to follow, which way to worship is that the commandments teach us to believe that bad liturgy eventually leads to bad ethics. You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend.”

Music matters. But to call a music pastor a worship pastor is to concede defeat in a much bigger conflict — the conflict for our hearts; and for the image we bear in the world (and so whether we live, or die, or invite people to life or death).

Part of Smith’s proffered solution to the 24/7 worship wars is built on a return to meaningful Sunday worship in the historic narrative traditions of the church. What we do together on a Sunday matters. The sacraments matter. But sacraments and singing — corporate liturgy in a Sunday ‘worship’ service (which is a bit of a tautology because worship, in one sense, means service) — are not the full extent of worship, or even corporate worship (the stuff we do with the people of God). And here’s where I depart from Smith a bit; because most of the solutions he offers to our liturgy-soaked world; a world full of idolatrous habits and loves that sings to us like a siren hoping to dash us against rocks; focus on re-connecting to the historic traditions of Sunday-centric corporate worship. Especially the sacraments.

If the biblical narrative of God’s redemption were just information we needed to know, the Lord could have simply given us a book and a whole lot of homework. But since the ascension of Christ, the people of God have been called to gather as a body around the Word and the Lord’s Table, to pray and sing, to confess and give thanks, to lift up our hearts so they can be taken up and re-formed by the formative grace of God that is carried in the rites of Christian worship. — James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love

I think he’s right that heaps of us need to repent of a pretty anaemic view of the place of the sacraments, because they are habits that teach us and remind us of a story, and so shape our loves; but we need more than that. But I’m not sure that the church Paul wrote to in Colossae limited themselves to a worship session on a Sunday morning; not if they were anything like the church in Acts 2.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. — Acts 2:42-47

Is it possible we shot ourselves in the foot a bit in the worship wars when we reduced the shared Christian life to Sundays, and shrunk the meaning of the word worship so that it focused on a particular set of corporate practices enacted one day a week?

What would it look like to see worship — corporate worship even — as an everyday activity, not just something we do once a week?

How might we do it in such a way that an every day practice is enriching and incarnate, without being weird and cultish?

In this series I want to consider what the worship wars might look like if we take up the challenge of worshipping with our whole selves, our whole lives; having our imagination and desires captured by the Gospel story as we habitually put it into practice, or put it into practice until worshipping God becomes habitual. First I’ll flesh out the model habits/desires/head model of worship to give a couple more examples, apart from Smith’s relatively high brow examples of the shopping centre, cinema, and university, of where the battlefields in the modern worship wars really are…

We need to habituate the whole week with worship. We’re at war 24/7. There’s a battle raging for our hearts and imaginations — for our love, for our worship, all the time.  Just as every thing we encounter is an opportunity to worship a false God, to be shaped bit-by-bit into the image of our idols, participating in idolatrous pictures of human flourishing, every thing we encounter, every person we meet, every experience, is an opportunity to worship the true God and participate in his story; being shaped to meet his created purpose for us. Good created things have a purpose apart from idolatry, and have a purpose in the worship wars. 

Educating loves: A morning in Brisbane with James KA Smith

There aren’t many writers whose works I’ve devoured with the enthusiasm with which I’ve devoured James K.A. Smith’s work in the last few years. He has a way of both articulating and stretching the way I think, and his theological framework has rich potential in ways he hasn’t even begun to tap into yet in his writing. I’m finding it incredibly useful not just in thinking about how we evangelise and disciple, but how I deal with people pastorally. So I’m thankful for him, and I was thrilled to interview him recently for the Bible Society’s Eternity newspaper, and then to meet him in Brisbane yesterday as he spoke at a symposium at the Christian Heritage College; as a pastor I was a little out of place in a conference full of education practitioners, but I very much enjoyed the conference.

While I’m not an ‘educator’, I’m passionate about education  — Christians need to figure out how to live well, and speak well, in the world; and I’m increasingly on board with Christian education, despite being pretty happy with my public school/secular university educations. This is all to say I think this matters. We’ve got to teach our kids to engage well with the world for its sake, not keep them in a bubble for their own (here’s the transcript of a talk I gave on why and how we should approach getting educated). And I don’t think reformed evangelicals like me have done a great job of doing this — the schools my denomination is involved, around the country, with charge such high fees that they can’t possibly be achieving this end for anyone but the very wealthy.

Smith’s talk, summarised below, won’t be new to those who’ve read his books or watched other talks on YouTube, but it’s always nice to hear someone in the flesh, and, when meeting them, to find out they’re both humble and willing to speak to people who approach them (even it it’s for weird ‘selfie’ requests).

Any bits of this summary that don’t make sense are a failure of my fingers to keep pace, and lots of this is as close as possible to direct quotes, while other bits are summaries.

Higher Education: What’s love got to do with it? Longings, desires and human flourishing. 

Smith’s ‘axiom’: Every pedagogy implicitly assumes an anthropology.

Every philosophy of education/strategy assumes implicitly/tacitly some model of what human beings are, and therefore what learners are.

The university has assumed an anthropology that is a lot newer than we might realize, that is contingent and challengable. Christian teaching and learning should work from a different model.

The water in which higher education swims is largely, now, a German production. The assumptions about what a university should be are post-enlightenment, 18th-19th German education, which became a model exported into the US, UK, and probably Australia. As an enlightenment institution the assumed model of the human person is the “thinking thing” model — the university model assumes humans are primarily brains on a stick. The task of education and the university is the depositing of beliefs into the intellectual recepticles of thinking things in order to equip them for a particular task. You get the prioritizing of the brain that is then wedded to a utilitarian/pragmatic view of what education is for. Universities become credentialing facilities for brains on a stick.

This is not what universities were meant for. It’s not why they started. And we’re free to challenge this model. This model has been ratified by government bureaucracies as ‘the way a university should be’…

The university had a very different beginning, and a very different anthropology. It assumed a very different model of what learners were. The Desire for God and the Love of Learning a good book — a history of the pre-modern foundations of the university. Takes the history of Jesuit influences on education in Paris, and shows that it was meant to be an incubator for hearts and minds to learn to love the right things, in the right way, for the right reasons. To make people lovers of God who become image bearers in and for the world around them.

If we’re going to push back against the paradigms of the university because we have history on our side. There is an older version of the university we’re trying to recover.

A more biblical anthropology

Instead of imagining that humans are a static brain on the stick waiting for an information dump.

Let’s imagine that there’s a dynamic orienting of ourselves to some other thing — we’re always aimed at something, we’re always clawing our way towards some ends, some goal, some ultimate vision of the good life. There’s an existential dynamism about us. To be human is to be ‘after’ something. This is a very ancient picture of the human person. Certainly Aristotelian. Every human being is oriented towards a telos. Oriented to an ultimate end.

Augustine captures this as well. The ancient Greek heritage is seized upon by the church. The ‘centrality of the heart’ as the fulcrum of this drive towards something else.

“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” — Augustine, Confessions

Augustine makes a normative ‘design’ claim — we are made ‘for’ something. Human flourishing is found when we find our flourishing and end in the one who made us and is calling us. To be human is to become creatures whose hearts find rest in the one who has made us and is calling us; finding what you are made for.

The task of a Christian education is to help people find what they are made for.

The seat for this is not just the intellect. He doesn’t say ‘our minds are puzzled until they know you’ — it’s about the heart. Throughout his corpus Augustine emphasizes the ‘seat’ of the heart, because formation is not just a question of knowledge, but of love. The most holistic form of education will help us love what we’re made to love. The centre of the human person is the heart.

Desire = love

Love, learning, longing, craving: are synonyms.

We need to get over the distinction between eros and agape.

The problem isn’t desire per say, but the direction of it. Agape might be best understood as rightly directed eros. Christian agape is the right orientation of our ‘erotic’ centre, which is actually made for God.

This restlessness — every human creature is created as a lover. With this engine of desire that drives us towards something ultimate. But that’s no guarantee that they find their end in the one that has made them. The effect of the fall; of sin; brokenness, is not that we turn off love, but that we start loving the wrong things in the wrong way. We take created things and vault them up as if they were the creator. We absolutise them and seize upon them as if they were something ultimate. Idolatry. The dynamics of idolatry are not primarily intellectual; they are erotic. We desire the wrong things in the wrong way. These things aren’t wrong in themselves. If you love them in a way ordered by your love for the creator, that’s ‘rightly ordered love’…

How do I learn to love?

If I am what I love, and if you are what you love, then the crucial question is how does my heart get aimed? How does this orientation happen?

We’ve not always had the best resources at our disposal in the protestant tradition. You learn to love by practice. Your ultimate longings are not just the outcome of ideas and beliefs deposited in your mind. They are more like habits that you acquire through being immersed in rituals and routines that train your loves at an unconscious level.

Your loves are more ‘caught’ than ‘taught’ — there’s a problem with this expression that we have a narrow view of what teaching is.

What would teaching look like if we did it like this?

The indexing of our desires towards something ultimate is not just about what you know or believe, it’s a disposition that arrives from the rituals and practices that you are immersed in. They find your way to your heart through your body. You are conscripted into ways of life that come from your practices.

We’re taught to love in all sorts of places that are not schools. This kind of learning of a passion — this acquisition of a heart’s disposition happens in a holistic experience where we are immersed in a story of what the good life looks like; of what flourishing looks like.

All kinds of institutions and practices are ‘pedagogies of desire’ that are training us to love something that is not ultimate. These things get hold of us in tactile, visceral, experiences that conscript our hearts without us realising.

The competition for Christian education is not public education, it’s less the other sorts of institutions, it’s an array of cultural institutions and practices that we didn’t even realize are pedagogies of desire that are teaching them to long for pedagogies of desire. Secular liturgies.

Every time Smith’s kids ask to go to the mall they ask to go to the temple. Which means his ideas, in some small way, are sinking in for his kids… The mall is one of the most religious sites in the city. It wants you to love something ultimate. The mall pictures for you a vision of the good life that captures your imagination and your longings; you don’t even realise you’ve been conscripted to the vision of the good life based on ‘stuff’; the gospel of consumerism. Nobody thinks their way into consumerism, there’s no good argument for it. You are conscripted into it. The mall has a model of outreach called ‘marketing’ — marketing knows that you’re lovers and desirers. Marketing doesn’t give you information. It’s hard to watch an ad about a product and acquire information about it; what happens is you see a product embedded in a story. This story pictures for you a vision of the good life, and you start, over time, to picture yourself in that life. You don’t even realise you’re learning to love something else. The repetition, the immersion, conscripts you into a rival gospel. If I ask you — there’s a disconnect between what we know and what we love — if I ask you “what do you love” — you’ll give me the right answer: “I love God”… there can be a gap between what we know we believe because we underestimate the impact our desires have, and our conscription to other desires, that get in the way.

What we’re really talking about is rehabituation. Love as we’re describing it here isn’t an emotion, or a feeling, it’s a habit.

We use the word ‘habit’ in a way that is different to the philosophers, and how it has been used historically; the habit is actually the internal disposition/the inclination to some end, we acquire through different rhythms and routines. Putting the left sock on first every time is a practice, a ritual, they inscribe in you a habitual disposition; you become the kind of person whose default leans in that direction. To have a habit is to be so disposed towards doing something that you do it without even thinking about it.

Your loves, your most fundamental inclinations of your heart, aren’t just trickled down, but are caught bottom up from something that inscribes in you a disposition. Secular liturgies teach us to love certain goods; Christian education should be about a rehabituation of the heart. You can’t think your way to new habits. If I’ve acquired disoriented habits of love and longing because they were caught through the practices I’ve been involved in, I can’t think my way out; I have to practice them. This lecture won’t give you new habits, a book won’t give you a new habit; the best that might happen is an idea might become the catalyst to a commitment to a new habituation that will move you towards a love of God.

If your fundamental loves are shaped by the practices you are immersed in; we need to realize you can be being habituated without realising it. Realising that the world is not a neutral place can be the beginning of the rehabituation. You can be acquiring dispositions without recognizing it. How does this affect those who teach? What are the ways we pick up habits that shape us as we teach.

We are creatures of habit, who are made to love, and our loves are shaped and acquired through the rhythms and practices we are immersed in; none of this is a surprise to God. What does God do? He’s an incarnating God who meets us where we are and comes to us not just with a message, or the information that we need, we see that the Gospel is an invitation for us to find ourselves anew in a community, which is the body of Christ, an invitation to be welcomed into a reforming body; a reforming community of practice, animated by the power of the Holy Spirit who gives us new rituals by which we might habituate ourselves into a new way of living in the world.

If we have a negative take on rituals and liturgies; the devil gets all the good ones. Cultures are more than happy to offer us rituals. You can’t undo the deformative power of cultural practices by giving people new ideas. It won’t work. We’re desirers, not just thinking things. One of the ways we’ve gone wrong is that we thought the way to fight the fire of cultural deformation was through intellectual formation. What you need is Christ-oriented, spirited, reformation. Fighting fire with fire. Inviting people into communities of practice and liturgies that are reforming our hearts. It has to be an invitation for the whole person to learn to love again; it has to meet us as whole creatures.

Worldview? Smith has two cheers for the concept of world view…

The goal of a gospel centered approach to education isn’t just a narrow focus on soul rescue, or a particular understanding of ministry; God’s concern is as wide as the world itself. There is no learning that isn’t animated by some confession, outlook, or perspective on things. A Christian education brings the Gospel to bear on all of creation; there is no education that isn’t confessional. I’m all for that.

My only pushback on worldview paradigms; it tends to do all this in an intellectualist way; equipping people with a view, and ideas, to see the world so they can act in it in a particular way. It has tended to miss all of the dynamics of habituation, deformation and reformation of habit. We need more than ‘worldview’ — with all of that right emphasis in place, we need to see that a holistic, radical, Christian education will also take into consideration the heart. Reformation is a shift in our centre of gravity.

Scandal of the Evangelical Mind — Mark Noll — what happened in that movement was that nothing pushed back on the basic Germanic model of education. It basically said Christians can play that game too. We did. Plantinga, Wolterstorff, etc. A bunch of scholars showed we could play that game, but this isn’t entirely the game we should want to play, even if we value research.

A shift in the centre of gravity that expands from informational perspectives so that the scope of our concern includes the gut.

We’re remembering something about the university that the university forgot in modernity.

“The glory of God is a human being fully alive” — Iraneus.

Packer once co-authored a book Christianity: The True Humanism. The power of the Gospel is that we learn how to be human again. Jesus shows us what it looks like to be human. A Christian education should be a way to realise human flourishing. In our age the opportunity may be that Christian colleges and universities are the last outpost to remind us how to be human.

The practices of worship have a missional power about them. It’s important that we frame them so they don’t become superstitious. If these practices are animated by the Spirit there can be certain virtue in going through the emotions.

The kind of liturgies; there’s always going to be something about words. Posture, bodily posture, captures and teaches us something. Practices can have a dynamic that we don’t realise.

Q&A

If we know all this, in Christian schools, how do we not ‘indoctrinate’ so that we engage with the free will of the person?

We need to be honest and up front about why we do what we do, and what we’re inviting people into. The freedom moment is in choosing to come here, where you’ll be committing yourself to these practices… there’s a lot of room to work out ‘Lord I believe, help me in my unbelief’…

Practice hospitality. Really, really, important. What does it look like for us to welcome other faiths into what is an unapologetically Christian project?

Indoctrination is a particularly ‘intellectual’ project. It’s a risk of every mode of education. That sort of institution is less inclined to be upfront and honest about what you’re being inducted into.

How do we physically shape our learning institutions to enable the sort of ‘learning’ in community that you spoke about?

Architecture: the material environments of where we learn will foster the way we see the world, the way we do community, etc. Thinking about how the material conditions of a space foster community would be one thing. Micro-rituals have macro significance. The university might have a thousand different routines that collectively constitute an ethos. It has to be a concert between all the teaching and cultural spaces; they have to be animated by the same story so people don’t feel like they’re inhabiting different worlds as they move around, but nor should things just ‘repeat’ — there’s no ‘extra curricular’ there’s just ‘co curricular’… nothing in here is meant to undercut curriculum. All the gears of an institution, ideally, move in concert with each other.

The Persecution Complex: Everyone has a ‘religious’ agenda, even the secularists

There is always an agenda.

Every person has one. Every group. Every ideology. Mostly every person. But sometimes we can cobble together around an object of common love and push a shared agenda. Usually in doing that there’s a bunch of compromise. So Catholics Anglicans, and even Muslims can come together for certain moral causes while sharing very different — fundamentally different — reasons for doing so. And the union at that point is only as good as the sharing of ‘the agenda’…

This week the Presbyterian Church of New South Wales is in the news because they appear to be worried about ‘the homosexual agenda’ (at least that’s how the story frames it, and they can frame it that way because we Presbyterians used the words “the homosexual agenda”). The lede of this story proclaims:

“Sydney’s most expensive private school has asked the Presbyterian Church for advice on what the church describes as the “homosexual agenda”, in the event that a same-sex couple wanted to enrol their child at the school.”

When I hear the words “the homosexual agenda,” I picture a secret cabal that programs the universal homosexual response to every issue with the end goal of making everybody gay; but I fear the setters of the “gay agenda” may sometimes be as at odds with members of the gay community as the Australian Christian Lobby are with some Christians; and I’d rather listen to what people are asking for and figure out why than simply label every issue someone raises as part of a bigger agenda (though I admit things almost always are part of some bigger agenda).

As an aside, before the story about Scots falls too far into the background — I find it profound that a school that charges more than $30,000 a year is more worried about homosexuality than greed, or the idolatry of education…

I’ve always found it odd when Christians speak of a ‘gay agenda’ — not because I don’t think there are groups out there who have united around a common cause — but because it seems an easy way to not listen to people, or to dismiss a ‘counter-agenda’ simply on the basis of an ad hominem style “well, we know they are simply representing their own interest” dismissal. There are groups like GLAAD and Australian Marriage Equality who are out there trying to further ‘an’ agenda, just as there’s a National LGBTI Health Alliance. These groups definitely advocate particular ‘agendas’ for the sake of their community. And probably with good reason. I’m not sure we can ever treat agendas as totally homogenous (even for individuals, because we often have agendas that compete for our time and attention, and with each other in contradictory ways).

We seem to use ‘agenda’ as a pejorative — a reason not to listen — especially if it competes with our own agenda (though because an agenda is a thing we treat as a negative we always want to pretend we are unbiased, either with no agenda or an agenda purely for the common good). That a position is put forward by people with ‘agendas’ is an odd reason to push back rather than listen. And an even worse reason to exclude their position from a place in the metaphorical ‘public table’… That we disagree with an agenda is also not a great reason to exclude it from this public table unless we can show it isn’t for the common good, or rather, that it causes harm. So. For example. We get enough people behind agendas that rule out murder or other common objects that we consider ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ — and that would rule out pro-murder agenda should it ever appear on the scene. And that’s good. It’s also why the worst thing you can do to an alternative agenda is suggest that it is actually harmful (and that’s the strategy people are adopting over and over again to silence the church).

Perhaps the ‘homosexual agenda’ is simply an attempt by a community within our civil society to provide a better life for homosexual people according to a particular vision of what it looks like for people to thrive or flourish. It’s not nefarious or secret. Even if there are people setting some sort of agenda in meetings somewhere. It’s consistent with a view of the world and the human person and what ‘good’ is. And so agendas aren’t just to be dismissed out of hand because we have a different view. We have to work out how to live at peace with one another. There’s another constructive reason I think we should listen to people that I’ll outline below that lines up with our ‘Christian agenda’… Agendas are everywhere. But to speak of ‘agendas’ as though they’re the product of some cabal somewhere rather than just a product of our humanity is odd, and an exercise in ‘othering’ rather than listening. We all have agendas. There’s a homosexual agenda to provide better health and happiness for homosexual people (including to push for marriage/social inclusion/safety for LGBTIQA people). There’s also a ‘queer’ agenda (articulated quite directly in various places by Roz Ward from Safe Schools) that would like sexual fluidity to be the norm; for us all to be queer, which rather undermines the idea that to be queer is to be different; it is possible that this agenda might say some interesting and valuable things that we should listen to in order to understand the queer community too…

We can’t be naive about agendas that are operating around us. But nor is an ‘agenda’ in and of itself a bad thing, and a secular society probably has the responsibility to accommodate as many competing and conflicting agendas as possible.

Our agendas are set by our worship

Let’s try replacing the idea of an agenda with the idea of all of us being homo liturgicus — creatures who worship.

Let’s assume that each of us worships something, and that this object of worship orients our hearts, minds, and lives. That it captures our imaginations and our desires. Let’s assume our worship supplies our agenda. Whoever we are. We’re pushed out into the world with an ‘agenda’ — a picture of human flourishing; first for ourselves, as worshippers, but then for others, as image bearers of our objects of worship who are living breathing ambassadors of our chosen deity. Let’s also assume that most of us think love for other things is ordered by our love for the thing we love ultimately. That all of us order our love, and understand love, based on this object of worship. So the thing that is first in my heart defines not just how I love other things or people in my life but what I think love looks like when I direct it to them. If I love money above all else, then that frames how I treat money, but it also means I show love for others by giving them money, or not taking money from them unfairly. If I love my sexuality above all else, if my fundamental desire is for sex and freedom to pursue sex and identity where I see fit, then the way I love others involves either sex (drawing them in to a shared act of worship) or fighting for their sexual freedom. That’s the gay agenda. Or one of them.

Here’s how James K.A Smith puts it in You Are What You Love:

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.

To be human is to be a liturgical animal, a creature whose loves are shaped by our worship. And worship isn’t optional. Even a writer like David Foster Wallace, who had no theological agenda, recognized that to be human is to worship.

 

Every idol has an agenda. There is no space that contains people that is a ‘worship free’ zone. Every time we gather at a table with others, each person’s agenda, in some way, is driven by whatever they view as ‘ultimate’ — the ultimate picture of the ideal person, the ideal community, the ideal shared way of life.

Truly ‘secular’ space isn’t freed from religion and thus ‘neutral’ — it allows space for these competing agendas, and works toward a ‘common’ good. Often these agendas will have very different visions of good — but sometimes they’ll dovetail; like in the case of Roz Ward whose (self acknowledged) Marxist agenda saw her views align with others in the LGBTIQA community, and educators, who want to make schools safer for LGBTIQA students. But though Ward is a member of the LGBTIQA community her particular Marxist/Queer agenda is at odds with other members of the ‘T’ community like Catherine McGregor, who says she believes strongly that gender being a binary thing is important or she wouldn’t have transitioned… We always line our agendas up with others for convenience, but that allegience will only take us so far if we don’t share a common object of worship (not just love).

We shouldn’t ‘fear’ agendas, or try to silence them simply because our ‘agenda’ may happen to be true, or simply because we believe it leads to good things, and other view. True secularism is about figuring out how competing agendas — competing visions of human flourishing (and personal flourishing) — views including our own — might exist side by side. But we should be prepared, as a society, to discern what agendas involve harm, and that might bring many agendas together, and we should, as Christians, consider how much it is possible for us to share agendas — or platforms — with other idolatrous views in order to respond to a particular idolatrous view as though the harms can be easily ordered simply because some moral visions line up with our own.

 

Why we should listen to, and how we should live alongside, other agendas

It has always interested me that Paul, as a faithful Jew who no doubt loved Deuteronomy 7 and its call to purity from idols, didn’t walk through Athens with a sledgehammer, but with open eyes and ears. And that when he speaks, he speaks in a way that articulates the Gospel as the answer to the imagination and desire of the Athenians, and the Athenian Agenda. I think this is because he’s carrying out the Christian agenda — which is no less than the Deuteronomic agenda to topple idols. But the thing that topples idols is a toppling of stone hearts formed by the worship stone idols, that comes from the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26), who comes via Jesus. Make no mistake. Paul topples the idols of Athens in the hearts of those who turn to God. But he’s happy not to topple them for anyone else. He’s happy to be another voice in the marketplace of ideas and in the courtroom that decides which gods have legitimacy — the areopagus.

Our agenda, as Christians, is clear. It’s to worship God, and in doing so, to bear his image. To glorify him. And the result of doing that faithfully looks, I think, a lot like what we are re-created to do as Christians. Our new cultural mandate. The Great Commission. This sets the agenda for us.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” — Matthew 28:19-20

We’re Great Commission people; sent out into a world full of worshippers who are being formed into the image of their idols. Discipled by counter-liturgies. Pursuing counter-agendas.

One way we fulfil the great commission is, I think, by listening well to the world we live in and seeing the universal human desires at the heart of people’s agendas — seeing where God’s design is being distorted by idolatry so that we can invite people to rediscover the telos — the purpose and fulfilment — of that desire in having their loves and desires ordered around Jesus. Listening and understanding is also, in itself, an act of love. Its a way that we can show people we care; that we want to understand their wants and needs, and that we want to live at piece not conscript their desires and imaginations in order to force a conversion. Attempting to make people live as though they worship God isn’t our job — and trying to do that is bound to be frustrated anyway given that Romans 1 says people love and worship what they love and worship because God has given their thoughts and desires over to their idolatry.

Instead of dismissing the ‘homosexual agenda’ perhaps we should listen to what objects of common good those pushing that agenda are pushing for — like more safety for kids who don’t fit the norm — but we should also listen for the desire for love, intimacy, and a sense of satisfying identity that people are craving so that we can connect those desires with where God designed them to be ultimately fulfilled. Not in sex. But in an intimate relationship with our creator.

And listening informs our speech. We aren’t called to speak to caricatures, but to people. People who worship. And our message must be one that replaces a false god with the real one; or rather; God does away with these idols via our preaching with what Thomas Chalmers calls The Expulsive Power of a New Affection; a sermon in which he points out our task is not simply to fill an empty space in a person’s heart with a new God, but to replace an old object of worship with a new, better, more complete, God.

“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…”

This act of ‘encountering the charm’ and the ‘pleasure’ in order to dissipate them means listening well to what is driving other agendas, and observing what they do and don’t deliver; not simply dismissing them. In a secular world it means (so long as we have a place at the table) finding a place at the table for agendas we disagree with even when we believe all such idolatry leads to eternal harm; because we have no tool to fight idolatry but the Gospel. Silencing or dismissing other agendas rather than generously engaging with the people behind them isn’t love. Everyone has an agenda. Maybe we should start being more open about our own, and more worried about who we’re worshipping and what we’re seen to be worshipping if we make morality or natural law our tool for taking down idols — not the Gospel of Jesus.

An interview with James KA Smith

JKAS2

There is no author who has been more formative for me in the last 18 months than James K.A Smith.

I’ve enjoyed his work and found it stimulating (there’s lots of it though, he’s prolific).

I’ve written 10s of thousands of words about the Marvel universe (Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, and Episode 4, plus my review of Daredevil season 2) playing with his (and Charles Taylor’s) insights on the “secular age” and how (not) to be secular. I’ve reviewed video games from this paradigm too. I think one of our massive challenges is figuring out how we can re-enchant the world for people before we even begin to talk to them about the nature and character of God.

Our current sermon series at church on being made in the image of God (and living as God’s images who are being transformed into the image of Christ) is profoundly impacted by his latest You Are What You Love (though the series was already well underway before it came out, and his influence is really an amalgam of his Imagining The Kingdom and Desiring The Kingdom which You Are What You Love summarises). 

You could say I’m a fan. So it was super fun to interview him for Eternity.

Here are a couple of nice highlights. But read the whole thing.

We inhabit the world as an “immanent frame” – a self-contained, self-sufficient “nature” that we presume is undisturbed by transcendence or eternity. [And Taylor points out that this is the water in which even believers swim – we don’t realise how disenchanted our belief has become.] The “buffered” self then is kind of a mirror of this: in an enchanted world, the self was “porous” – open to spirits and the Spirit, to demons and God. In a disenchanted world, the self is (allegedly) secured from such incursions…

The arts refuse the kind of flattened, brain-on-a-stick temptation of modernity. Well, at least good art does. There are all kinds of terribly bad art that is horribly didactic and just tries to offer “pretty” modes of transmission for some “message”. And unfortunately a lot of that bad art calls itself “Christian” art.

But good art – art that is allusive, oblique, suggestive, evocative, imaginative, art that traffics in mystery – living with that kind of art can re-enchant the world for us. It can become the wallpaper of our experience; it can be woven into our daily rhythms. The films of Terence Malick, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the poetry of Les Murray, the paintings of Mako Fujimura – these are all avenues of enchantment that will help us to resist the disenchantment and commodification of a commercialist, consumeristic culture.

This interview was organised via Christian Heritage College and the Associated Christian Schools Leaders Retreat, who are hosting James at a few events in July. I’m going to the Learning and Loves one.

ACS Leaders Retreat

Program and Registration details —ACS Leaders Retreat 2016

Learning and Loves: Re-Imagining Christian Education

Details and Registration details — http://www.chc.edu.au/about-us/conferences/chc-research-symposium/

Millis Dinner — How (Not) To Be Secular: Cultural Engagement In A Pluralist Age

Registration — http://www.chc.edu.au/about-us/conferences/chc-research-symposium/registration-jamie-smith-symposium/

 

Slaying the dragon: Video games, fairy tales, and seeing life in this world as it really is

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” — G.K Chesterton

“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”  — J.R.R Tolkien, On Fairy Stories

We are, throughout, in another world. What makes the world valuable is not, of course, mere multiplication of the marvellous either for cosmic effect… or for mere astonishment, but its quality, its flavour. If good novels are comments on life, good stories of this sort (which are very much rarer) are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience. Hence the difficulty of discussing them at all with those who refuse to be taken out of what they call ‘real life’ — which means, perhaps, the groove through some far wider area of possible experience to which our senses and our biological, social, or economic interests usually confine us — or, if taken, can see nothing outside it but aching boredom or sickening monstrosity. They shudder and ask to go home.” — CS Lewis, On Science Fiction

“Most people think of games as power fantasies—escapism that makes people feel heroic and accomplished. That Dragon, Cancer has the opposite effect.” — Drew Dixon, That Dragon, Cancer teaches players to long for renewal amidst defeat

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A video game made me cry.

I cry at the drop of a hat these days; well; I feel like crying at the drop of a hat. But this game pulled me in and then kicked me in the feels. It’s called Fallout 4. You might have heard of it. But. Be warned. There be spoilers.

Actually. Two video games made me cry. The one that really had the tears flowing — that didn’t just kick me in the feels, but headlocked me and threw me into some sort of MMA style submission hold — is an independent release called That Dragon, Cancer.

Why did these games make me cry? They have a couple of things in common — both games take place in beautifully rendered, coherent, worlds. These environments are the product of the sort of mythopoeic world-creation that’d have both C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien feeling pretty excited about the capacity for video games to get us in touch with the enchanted reality we really live in. Both games rely heavily on story-telling; we’re carried along on a journey that pulls on the heart strings quite deliberately — even though Fallout 4 is in a sandboxy open world where you’ve got some freedom, while That Dragon, Cancer requires you to click your way from A to B in a very linear manner. Both games — and here’s the rub — hit me in the feels because of what they do with parenting, and loss. Though there’s also a stark difference here which made the impact of That Dragon, Cancer longer lasting for me; in that it is the real story of creator Ryan Green, and his wife Amy, and the loss of their beautiful son Joel. It’s an enchanting story because even amidst the clinical science and the very raw, real, emotions on display from the Green family, and others who’ve battled the dragon, there is a sense that Joel’s story plays out against a transcendent backdrop. This life, this cancer, is not all there is — it’s a dragon to be fought as part of a bigger, spiritual, narrative that is much bigger than simply the Greens versus a horrible and confronting bunch of aggressive cells.

Fallout 4 is pure post-apocalyptic fiction told in a completely ‘immanent’ frame. There’s no real ‘enchantment’ here. Just the ability to explore and craft your way to recovery, building villages for survivors of the nuclear apocalypse while hunting for your abducted son, Shaun. Everything is very ‘tactile’ in a sort of digital way. You scrounge through debris looking for duct tape so that you can upgrade a weapon; you can salvage components from just about anything to use it to build your settlements or upgrade your mechanical armour. I can’t walk into Bunnings or the hardware aisle of a department store now without subliminally thinking ‘jackpot.’  Everything is subject to the laws of cause and effect, and you’re the author of your own destiny. You’re, as you play, in control of your story. The one spanner in the works is that it turns out Shaun was pulled from the grasp of your murdered wife a significant number of years before you’re cryogenically defrosted, many more than you thought, and he’s much older than you. He’s the game’s ‘father’ figure; and now the head of the potentially nefarious ‘Institute,’ the organisation responsible for his abduction and your wife’s death. What you do with this information, and with Shaun, changes the course of the game.

father

Image: “I, Father, am your son” — an awkward reunion in Fallout 4

My virtual self was convinced of the evils of The Institute, and pretty upset that Shaun wasn’t the little kid I’d been searching for; so I shot my son. For the greater good. My finger hovered over the trigger button for quite a while. This was the sort of ethical dilemma that video games now confront us with as they draw us into their worlds — into their ‘narrative frames’ — I shot ‘father’ because any relationship I thought I had with the character was based on lies. He was a manipulator, and his organisation was a threat to the better vision of the future that I was building in the Fallout 4 world. But I felt conflicted doing it.

It helped that the Fallout world is both purely digital, with no real world crossover, and purely immanent — the consequences of my actions were going to change that world, but the flow on effects would only be in the chain of causality in the ‘immanent’ world, there was no cost to my digital soul because in the post-apocalyptic rubble there’s very little room for faith. Those of faith were members of strange post-doomsday doomsday cults. The landscape is littered with abandoned churches that at best are home to a few post-human irradiated ghouls. I wore a clerical robe for much of my time wandering through the landscape, but the hope I brought came from slaying mutant cockroaches and liberating civilians from the grasp of some over-sized mutants. With a custom-made automatic shotgun.

Fallout’s world is our ‘disenchanted’ reality on steroids. This little paragraph from Dreyfuss and Kelly’s All Things Shining a philosophical treatise on the evacuation of ‘meaning’ and lustre from post-modern life, could easily describe the sort of world you inhabit as your character. There’s nothing remotely shiny — physical or metaphorical — about the Fallout world.

“The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s Medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away.” — Hubert Dreyfuss & Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining

Fallout didn’t end up teaching me much about myself; I enjoyed the scavenging and building of settlements for others more than I enjoyed picking which faction to side with in the bid for some sort of restorative revolution. I felt things about the loss of my son — while pursuing him — but when confronted with the reality, I made a very ‘immanent’ decision; one that benefited my digital minions and my wasteland idealism. One that fit my nobel cleric’s vision of the end times best. I just wanted my people to live another day… so when that happened, I was happy. Happy enough to hang up the shotgun, which I named THE DELIVERER, and start pottering around in my settlement with a robotic barman.

That was Fallout 4. Perhaps the perfect story — or at least ‘a’ story — for the disenchanted ‘secular’ age; where transcendent questions are secondary. That Dragon, Cancer is the reverse. The ‘sciency’ immanent questions are very much the present reality, but there’s something bigger at play. A dragon that needs killing. A dragon we’d like to see killed, as fellow citizens of this world.

“Fear is cancer’s preservative. Cancer’s embalming oil. You’re a snake. A serpent. A dragon with snuffed out coal on his breath. Melting.”

“Whenever I ask sciency questions I nod my head. Digesting every Latin word, hoping it will stick to my ribs, become part of me. That if I ask enough questions, that maybe I could get my brains around this cancer.”

If only cancer could be killed simply by understanding it. If only we could think it gone.

It’s unclear to me still whether That Dragon, Cancer has a happy ending. Joel dies. You know that from the beginning. From the marketing. You’ve got to be prepared to ride that rollercoaster with the family before investing yourself. Joel dies. And yet. He lives. And not just in digital form — though it’s beautiful that Ryan and Amy were able to ‘incarnate’ and preserve Joel’s memory in the bits and bytes of his story in a lasting way. Joel lives because Joel’s family put their faith in Jesus. Joel lives, waiting for that time when Jesus returns to slay the dragon once and for all.

I can’t remember the first time I fell apart while playing. Joel’s polygonal face in game play very readily blurred into the visage of my son. I was destroyed by empathy with every click, as I moved through the journey from early stages, to treatment, to diagnosis, to prognosis, to desparate fight, to Joels’ death. One of the big moments for me was the moment you see Ryan’s immanent world collapse. The moment where asking all the great science questions in the world isn’t going to cut it. The moment where the immanent world collapses, or can’t support us, and we’re left grasping towards the transcendent, and really asking “where are you God?”, “where are you when kids like his, maybe like mine, are getting cancer?”

Does God really care? Or as Ryan asks at one point:

“If Joel does die, will Jesus even care? Will he weep for him? Or for me? I think greater than my fear of death, is my fear of insignificance.”

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Ryan and Amy ask those questions. And carry us with sensitivity and beauty and grace through their journey towards answering them. They don’t find all the answers, but they find reason to hope. They find meaning in faith — not just in the latin names of Joel’s dragon-like cells, or in the treatment. They find beauty in moments of pain, and things to be thankful for. They are amazing, and though they’re a world away I love them for it; and I long to spend at least some of my eternity with them and their pancake-loving son. Their story enchanted me. Here are some of the closing words from Amy to Ryan. I know I lost it at this point — I know it made me confront the ‘dragon’ and shake my fist at it, and its master death and Satan. I know it made me place more of my hope and trust in the one who will end the dragon’s grip on this world.

 

“So here we are. And the air is emptier without his laugh, and yet our hearts are still full, though with a different drink. And this ride we’ve been on for so long is silent. And so also is the Lord. And so we sit here in this new silence. And long for the noise to start again. And long for the music to start again, and for the disc to spin again. Even if it means going round and round for many more years. For at least we would be moving and Joel would be laughing, here on earth. And not only in heaven. I sense that his silence is only because he is drawing his breath. And now we know love and longing, empty and full, all in one moment. And I am grateful that we loved him well. And that we miss him well.” — Amy Green, That Dragon, Cancer

 

We’re waiting, with Ryan and Amy, Joel’s parents. Waiting amidst pain. Waiting in longing. Waiting in hope. Waiting for that day when Joel’s ‘words’ at the end of the game become reality — “you made it too“… Waiting for our faith to become sight.

And I’m glad they’ve shared some of their waiting with us, and all of their faith, and hope, and love for Joel, and their abiding trust in Jesus through the pain. I’m glad I ‘played’ my way through their story, and that my world was expanded by their experience — by Joel’s love for water, and ducks, and dogs, and pancakes, and by his family’s love for him. I love the final scene of the game — an imagination of reunion. Final reunion. A picture of Joel in the new creation. Cancer dead. Family restored. It’s more compelling than the reunion in Fallout, and ultimately, despite the multi-million dollar difference in budgets for rendering the world — and despite the pain being real — I’d rather live in Ryan and Amy’s world, which is more vivid and real, than in Fallout’s post-apocalyptic flatness and grey. I’d rather face these real questions — real pain, real mess, than that moment — real or virtual — of indecision about what preferred immanent solution I want to pursue with the pull of a lever, or a trigger, as I seek an effect I might cause. I’d rather live in an enchanted world than a disenchanted world where only ‘scientific’ questions have any bearing on the future of my family. I’d rather not feel like I’m in control — because I have no answer in the face of tragedy if I am. I can’t slay the dragons in this world on my own.

So why does this matter? Why overthink video games — no matter how profound — in this way? Stories matter. The worlds our stories occupy matters. Because we’re shaped, profoundly, by story. Especially stories we participate in — which gives video games incredible power. This quote from James Smith could well be contrasting the approach to the world found in Fallout 4 and in That Dragon, Cancer.

“Instead, we should say that we have a “feel” for the world that is informed by stories that dispose us to inhabit the world as either a bounteous but broken gift of the gracious Creator or a closed system of scarcity and competition; and as a result, either I will just “naturally” be disposed to see others as neighbors, as image-bearers of God, whose very faces call to me in a way that is transcendent, or I will have a “take” on others as competitors, threats, impositions on my autonomy.” — James K.A Smith, Imagining the Kingdom

Fallout 4 relies on the premise that you can be totally in control of everything — put the right machines together, make the right choices, control the world and your environment just right — and you’ll live, not just you, but the society you’re building. That Dragon, Cancer makes it clear this promise is a baldfaced lie. It doesn’t matter how good you are at pulling levers, or knowing stuff — the monster will take down the machines every time. Hope is found somewhere beyond the machine. These games and their questions of loss, and children, and control, are interesting examples of the two ways of seeing the world and ourselves that Charles Taylor talks about in A Secular Age and James K.A Smith summarises for us in How (Not) To Be Secular:

“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. But Taylor’s account of disenchantment has a different accent, suggesting that this is primarily a shift in the location of meaning, moving it from “the world” into “the mind.” Significance no longer inheres in things; rather, meaning and significance are a property of minds who perceive meaning internally… Meaning is now located in agents. Only once this shift is in place can the proverbial brain-in-a-vat scenario gain any currency; only once meaning is located in minds can we worry that someone or something could completely dupe us about the meaning of the world by manipulating our brains… There is a kind of blurring of boundaries so that it is not only personal agents that have causal power Things can do stuff.” — How (Not) To Be Secular

Fallout 4 and its world of things and control — even its ‘hauntedness’ — is set in a secular world. Even the disease — and the very visible scarring of people and ghouls — is the result of the nuclear apocalypse. That Dragon, Cancer presents us with the reality that the world is broken, and asks ‘is there more to this disease than we might grapple with via science’… these stories, these worlds, leave us with a very different understanding of ourselves, and our limits.

At this point Taylor introduces a key concept to describe the premodern self: prior to this disenchantment and the retreat of meaning into an interior “mind,” the human agent was seen as porous. Just as premodern nature is always already intermixed with its beyond, and just as things are intermixed with mind and meaning, so the premodern self’s porosity means the self is essentially vulnerable (and hence also “healable”). To be human is to be essentially open to an outside (whether benevolent or malevolent), open to blessing or curse, possession or grace. “This sense of vulnerability,” Taylor concludes, “is one of the principal features which have gone with disenchantment”… 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”  — How (Not) To Be Secular

My character in Fallout was most definitely buffered — protected by his isolation, never getting too close to those in the settlements, separated from the world by my mech-suit, totally and symbolically insulated and isolated from the nuclear affects of the world. Even my pet dog was called ‘Dogmeat’ — perhaps to prevent any sort of attachment. Totally buffered. Totally autonomous. Totally in control — which is, ultimately, why I shot my son. Because I preferred my own ‘ordering’ of the world to his proposal, and wasn’t going to sign up. While the Greens, in That Dragon, Cancer couldn’t be buffered even if they tried. They didn’t just have to be completely open to some sort of transcendent blessing amidst their vulnerability, in making the game and consciously ‘unbuffering’ — both seeking contributions from other affected families, and involving ‘players’ like me in their story — they’ve remained vulnerable and connected. There’s a real path towards healing for them. Not in terms of tackling the dragon — Jesus will ultimately do that, and science might help along the way. The path to healing is one consistent with a transcendent world, and the picture of the enchanted, and enchanting, future we see in Revelation. What I’ve really learned in these games, as I’ve played, is that when you’re being beaten and buffeted about by what life in this world throws at you, an unbuffered self actually, counter-intuitively, has more to protect it than the buffered self. We aren’t in control. We need others. We need hope. We need transcendence. We need more than what ‘is’ in this material world. More than Dogmeat, or friendmeat. We need a dragon slayer.

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City,the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bridebeautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” — Revelation 21:1-5

Re-Enchanting the World: Episode 2 — The mission to re-image-ine the world

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

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Image Credit: Marvel.com

Before I explore a little more on the nature of the heroes of our modern myths — especially the characters from Marvel and DC’s universes, and the question of how, or what, sort of ‘worlds’ we might find in art, stories, and our imaginations, in order to re-enchant the one we live in, I thought I’d lay out a little more of what I’m thinking behind this series of posts, and describe the dilemma a little more concretely.

Is imagination dead — or did we make that up?

In the last post I quoted C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image — in which he explores the movement from a medieval view of the world that was entirely ‘enchanted’ and mystical outside of the realm of fiction. He speaks, in this passage, of the way even the commonplace, the natural, was a means by which people imagined something beyond themselves, and of the damage done to our means of seeing when we only really see things for what they are, and for our own sake.

“Luxury and material splendour in the modern world need be connected with nothing but money and are also, more often than not, very ugly. But what a medieval man saw in royal or feudal courts and imagined as being outstripped in ‘ faerie’ and far outstripped in Heaven, was not so. The architecture, arms, crowns, clothes, horses, and music were nearly all beautiful. They were all symbolical or significant-of sanctity, authority, valour, noble lineage or, at the very worst, of power. They were associated, as modern luxury is not, with graciousness and courtesy. They could therefore be ingenuously admired without degradation for the admirer.” — C.S Lewis, The Discarded Image

In this sort of world, art and story help make these symbols sing. Stories operated as a bridge between the earthly reality and heaven. They help draw out this sense of meaning and enchantment.

The death of this way of seeing the world — and stories — in both the world, and the church, presents an interesting challenge for Christians. In Colossians 3, Paul tells the church to:

“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. “

Paul wants us to see the unseeable with our hearts and minds. He wants us to imagine.

How do we do this without a bridge? How do we do this in a world that tells us both that this is nonsense, that ‘things above’ are nonsense, and so seeing anything but the world as it is, is a waste of time — thus devaluing both stories, and a sort of meaning through enchantment. How do we re-build this bridge and make this sort of setting of heart and mind possible for ourselves, and invite others to join us? That’s the challenge at the heart of this little series, even if it might at times seem to mostly be about superheroes.

This sort of approach to finding meaning in the world wasn’t a medieval invention, this was how most people everywhere saw the world right up until the enlightenment and the dawn of the scientific age (a transition C.S Lewis, and others, pinpoint as involving a movement from seeing the world as a creation to seeing the world as ‘nature’. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly are a couple of secular philosophers who make similar observations about the ‘disenchanted’ world to C.S Lewis (and James K.A. Smith and Charles Taylor), while suggesting to think secular thinking necessarily ‘disenchants’ is to buy into a hollow form of secularism.Dreyfus and Kelly think there’s much to learn and admire from ancient thinkers that keeps us from nihilism, or an empty and hollow experience of the world. They wrote a book called All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, in which they chart this movement towards disenchantment.

“The Greeks of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists, their world was the opposite of our contemporary nihilistic age. How did the West descend from Homer’s enchanted world, filled as it was with wonder and gratitude, to the disenchanted world we now inhabit? To pose the question this way is to mock the traditional story of the West. At least since Hegel, in the early nineteenth century, the narrative of Western history has been one of progress. We have learned to think of the Enlightenment, or some more recent period, as the pinnacle of this steady advance. The self-sufficiency of freedom, the lucidity of reason, and the security of a world completely explained and controlled: all these indicate history’s advance…” — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

In All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfuss and Sean Kelly describe the way that stories like the Odyssey and The Oresteia functioned in Ancient Greece to shape the way people saw and participated in the world such that stories function to help define art as: any workmanship created to focus our attention on meaning or enchantment in the world.

The Oresteia manifested and focused for all Athenians what they were up to as Athenians. Heidigger calls anything that performs this focusing function a work of art. The Greek Temple is his primary example of artwork working.
Like the temple, the Odyssey was a work of art for the Homeric Greeks. It was the sacred work, in other words, that manifested and focused the practices paradigmatic for the Homeric world. The Odyssey disclosed the existential space in which shining heroes like Odysseus and Achilles and shining examples of the erotic like Helen, as well as bad guys like the suitors, made sense as possible ways of life. When sung about, these figures gave direction and meaning to the lives of the ordinary Greeks in Homer’s world… The paradigmatic works of art for an age let certain ways of life shine forth. But in doing so they cover up what is worthy in other—radically different—ways of life. Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to. Works of art in this sense do not represent something else—the way a photograph of one’s children represents them… they gather practices together to focus and manifest a way of life. When works of art shine, they illuminate and glamorize a way of life, and all other things shine in their light. A work of art embodies the truth of its world. — Dreyfus & Kelly, All Things Shining

The death of ‘enchantment’ could easily have become — and perhaps in some senses has become — the death of the imagination. If everything that happens is reduced to the ‘natural’ — to chains of cause and effect — we lose a sense of mystery or ‘enchantment’ when amazing things happen because we approach these amazing things trying to figure out what lever has been pulled to produce that particular result. When we have an explanation we potentially simultaneously lose a sense of enchantment, wonder, gratitude, and potentially imagination — All Things Shining doesn’t argue that this is necessary, just that it is possible and logical, and does happen.

There are alternative expressions of the imagination if imagination is what we use to construct meaning in our world, and look for the means by which we might create, or re-create, things that transform our world for the better. But our modern dilemma is we don’t see the world the way people in the past saw it, we’ve moved from seeing it as a cosmos, or creation, pointing to something greater than itself, to being a universe guided by ‘nature.’James K.A. Smith describes this challenge:

“The emergence of the secular is also bound up with the production of a new option — the possibility of exclusive humanism as a viable social imaginary — a way of constructing meaning and significance without any reference to the divine or transcendence. So it wasn’t enough for us to stop believing in the gods; we also had to be able to imagine significance within an immanent frame, to imagine modes of meaning that did not depend on transcendence.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

He expands on this dilemma a bit later…

“In contrast to this, the modern imaginary finds us in a “universe” that has its own kind of order, but it is an immanent order of natural laws rather than any sort of hierarchy of being… 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.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

And again…

“It’s not enough to ask how we got permission to stop believing in God; we need to also inquire about what emerged to replace such belief. Because it’s not that our secular age is an age of disbelief; it’s an age of believing otherwise. We can’t tolerate living in a world without meaning. So if the transcendence that previously gave significance to the world is lost, we need a new account of meaning — a new “imaginary” that enables us to imagine a meaningful life within this now self-sufficient universe of gas and fire. That “replacement” imaginary is what Taylor calls “exclusive humanism”…

“…we all do “spontaneously imagine” ourselves in a cosmic context, and it’s that which Taylor is after: “I’m interested,” he says, in “how our sense of things, our cosmic imaginary, in other words, our whole background understanding and feel of the world has been transformed… Taylor encapsulates this imaginary-shift as the move from a “cosmos” to a “universe” — the move of spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an ordered, layered, hierarchical, shepherded place to spontaneously imagining our cosmic environment as an infinite, cavernous, anonymous space… One can understand the trajectory that leads from this cosmic imaginary to materialism; if the immanent is going to be self-sufficient, as it were, then the material has to be all there is.” — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

The search for meaning beyond the transcendent or ‘super-natural’ will still involve imagination— All Things Shining is a perfect example of such a quest for meaning (so too, Douglas Adams and the answers he gives for this quest in the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), but this move — as those examples demonstrate —  has an impact on the stories we tell ourselves, the way we imagine ourselves, and, as a result it changes the images we present as ourselves.

The arts and the aesthetic become a way of working out “the feeling that there is something inadequate in our way of life, that we live by an order which represses what is really important… The result is an immanent space to try to satisfy a lost longing for transcendence; in short, this creates a “place to go for modern unbelief” without having to settle for the utterly flattened world of mechanism or utilitarianism — but also without having to return to religion proper. And so we get the new sacred spaces of modernity: the concert hall as temple; the museum as chapel; tourism as the new pilgrimage. — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

Imagination still operates, even if it operates with a different sense of wonder. We all become mini-Archimedes, our imagination is limited by the cause-effect nexus. Real change to the world as we experience it is simply a matter of finding the way to bring about that change in a material sense — a natural sense. We start seeing the world as a machine — subject to natural, physical, laws, and ourselves as machinists, inventors, or mechanics. The world can be moved and tweaked, and re-cast. So long as we find the right way to shift the gears. We are in control.

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” — Archimedes

And yet, in the face of the ‘infinite, cavernous, anonymous space’ we are very small. Very, very, small. And so too are the changes we can hope to make on the world. So too, becomes our sense of what we know and understand about the way the world works. Because we are oh so very finite. A fleeting breath in the scheme of eternal space and time. Even though we’re so minute, we still — by nature — are beings that crave meaning, a sense of a bigger picture, and we’re people who want to interpret information using some sort of system. This realisation that we are finite, and the belief that the material world is all there is, does not necessarily kill our ability to experience wonder at the vastness, beauty, and complexity of the world — but these are things that must be incorporated, via imagination, into a “way of constructing meaning.” A belief that there is ‘no meaning’ is actually an imaginative construction, not in the sense that it is made up, but in the sense that it is the thing we tell ourselves about meaning in this world. But how do we choose this system? How is this imagination shaped? It is shaped, in part, by the way we see the world — but it also shapes the way we see the world. Could it be that it actually comes down to the question of what way of seeing the world is the ‘shiniest’…

Christian philosopher David Bentley Hart suggests all of us intuitively construct and ‘imagine’ meaning on the basis of a system we think is the most beautiful (according to whatever aesthetic we adopt – be that a sort of Occham’s Razoresque elegant simplicity, the beauty of the explanatory power of the scientific method, or a more mysterious or ‘enchanted’ approach to the world that includes a transcendent creator standing behind, or guaranteeing, existence). Or, as he says it:

“If one adopts the position of a certain account of how being, knowledge, and language are related, that is one’s position – ultimately because one finds the particular depiction of the world it affords especially compelling, even inevitable, for reasons that are finally aesthetic.” — David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

Our imagination is a way of assessing truth claims about the world through a sort of aesthetic lens. Enchanted world or not, there is some part of our thought process by which we assess, participate in, and finally, shape the world.

Dreyfus & Kelly, Smith, Taylor, and Hart would all seem to agree on this point: we underplay the role that imagination plays when it comes to living in, and understanding, the world to our detriment. Imagination is, in some way, what anchors us, but also what propels us. If we want to restore something mysterious and ‘other’ about the world we need to see it with a renewed imagination — this will require, I think, four things from us:

  1. A re-image-ination of ourselves,
  2. this, in turn, will require that we learn from art depicting a new sort of hero who is both grounded in reality, and who seeks to transform it,
  3. the ability to create and appreciate other-worldy stories which help us see our own world (and forests) in a re-enchanted way, and,
  4. if we really do see the world as a ‘machine’ a deus in machina (God entering the ‘machine’, as opposed to the deus ex machina — God from the machine) which completely changes the nature of the field we’re playing on. An unexpected entry in the story which ultimately saves us from ourselves, and pulls us into a new way of seeing and imagining.

I’ll suggest in the next few posts that the comic book universes of Marvel and DC both provide something akin to each of these (though in a deus ex machina way, not a deus in machina way), so too do the worlds of Tolkien and Lewis’ faery stories. They certainly provide a model that provides for what I think is an interesting conversation partner in this meandering effort. Even if I’m only writing to myself by now…

An invitation to image-ination

Imagination is on display right from the first moments of the Christian story.

When God says “Let there be light” this is an act of imagination that produces an act of creativity. The world itself is an expression of God’s imagination, and, rightly understood plays a role as one of Heidigger’s ‘works of art’, remember, that quote from All Things Shining: “Temples, cathedrals, epics, plays, and other works of art focus and hold up to a culture what counts as a life worth aspiring to.” There’s a really compelling theory from Biblical Scholar John Walton that encourages us to read Genesis 1-2 as God setting up his cosmic temple, an ‘artwork’ that points us to him, and gives us a place in which to truly know God, and through that, to truly know ourselves, and truly fulfil our function as his divine image bearers.

The world of the Bible is a world ‘shot through’ with meaning. An enchanted world in which, when we rightly understand the world, we encounter the transcendent and experience it as natural. A natural world that in its natural state — before we trash it and ourselves — was meant to point us to the character and nature of God.

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” — Romans 1:20

Here’s a thing. In Ephesians, Paul uses these same Greek words ποίημα and κτίζω to talk about humanity. Our job, as God’s creations — his artwork — his images in his cosmic temple — is to focus people on the life we were created to live, and the imagination we were created to see and transform the world with.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. — Ephesians 2:10

 

What seeing the world this way requires is imagination. But imagination isn’t just the thing that leads us to see the world as ‘enchanted,’ or to create enchanted worlds in our stories and art — imagination is required to see the world we live in as it is, and as it could be, and to work towards transforming it. Imagination is the thing that underpins creativity  — in a sense its also the thing underpinning God’s creativity in creating the world when he speaks, a thing that he has pictured is created, and he can declare it good and fit for a purpose according to his imagined design. In creation, God is able to turn his imagination into actuality.

 

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” — Genesis 1:26

Part of this likeness is expressed in creating via imagination just as God did in creating the world. In Genesis 2, Adam demonstrates his God-given imagination by co-creating with God, he invents names for the animals God made in Genesis 1, ruling over them and bearing God’s image through an act of imagination.

Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.” — Genesis 2:19-20

As Genesis plays out, into a line of genealogies, one of the thing the narrator notes is that people make art — or use their imaginations — as they spread throughout the world.

His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes.  Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah.” — Genesis 4:21-22

The problem is we stuffed up this job. Our imaginations failed us. Instead of imaginatively acting as representatives of the living God, we imagined dead things were god. We imagined God did not exist. We stuffed the world. We stuffed our heads. We lost our ability to imagine properly.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. — Romans 1:21-23

This exchange had a cost. For us and for the world. Part of the cost is our inability to imagine — or to see the world clearly — to see it as shot through with meaning. To have any sense of the transcendent. We’re left with little old immanent us, in our little, contracted, immanent world, living little immanent lives when we were made for the infinite, we were made to make beauty, and life, and carry the image of the one who made us into his world, not trash it and trash the world.

A re-invitation to image-ination

The implications of this failure to imagine — or to image-ine — have an impact on the planet. And, subsequently, on our ability to know God’s nature from creation, because creation no longer reveals who he is. It reveals how we’ve damaged it.

The Gospel — where we meet Jesus — is an invitation back to seeing the world with imaginative eyes, and seeing our role in the world and the way we might be part of its transformation so that it does what it was made to do through our co-creating. Through our imagination. Especially through our imaginative and deliberate carrying of God’s image.

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God… For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  — Romans 8:19-21, 29

God’s children — his image bearing imaginators — arrive on the scene again through Christ. The one who truly acts in an imaginative way to spread God’s presence through the world, by living out a more beautiful story, and inviting us to be a part of it. Over the next few posts in this series I’ll continue unpacking the idea that our story is better and more enchanted than worldly alternatives — our story of the transcendent becoming immanent — is more compelling than any other. And part of re-enchanting the world is really believing this to be true.

If the world has become machine-like for some, any ‘gods from the machine’ (deus ex machina) that provide happy endings in our stories come from below, not from above. They’re products of an immanent world. Our God comes into the machine and re-enchants it. It’s no longer good enough to experience the natural as black and white. It is re-cast in vivid colour. It is a pointer to the sort of God who acts to shape a good world, gives it to us, sees us trash it, and then acts to re-shape and re-claim and re-imagine and re-enchant it by sacrificing himself. Stepping into the story and laying down his life. Just when it looks like those in favour of the ‘immanent frame’ have won out — as a person of the Triune-God-in-the-flesh is nailed to a very physical cross — the transcendent triumphs.

The Christian story is a story of people being rescued from themselves, and from the consequences of our actions by God coming into the machine — a Deus In Machina (but we’ll get to that in a subsequent episode).

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. — Colossians 1:14-20

This is Paul’s version of this story. An invitation to imagine again. To see the world as enchanted and held together by God again. To see it — and ourselves — as shining art, not created by our flawed hands, but by God’s perfect hands marred by nails and blood, that lights the way for people to live better, fuller, more wondrous lives, and to be invited to start re-imagining and re-creating again. Our calling, in the light of this story, is to imitate its hero (and we’ll get to this next episode). But in short, Paul’s words towards before this passage, and then at the end of Colossians are a pretty good place to start when it comes to figuring out what an ‘enchanting’ life looks like.

For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. — Colossians 1:9-12

… you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised,barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. — Colossians 3:9-14

Our job is to offer a better story. To tell this better story. To help people see the world anew, and aright (and we’ll get to this, too, in a subsequent episode. Nothing like a cliffhanger).

Our job is to re-cast the world such that our story is more satisfying and compelling than alternatives. To re-enchant the machine, by using the complex beauty of the machine and its intended use to point to the inventor. We do this by living the story, and believing it to be beautiful and enchanting.

Taylor suggests that those who convert to unbelief “because of science” are less convinced by data and more moved by the form of the story that science tells and the self-image that comes with it (rationality = maturity). Moreover, the faith that they left was often worth leaving. If Taylor is right, it seems to suggest that the Christian response to such converts to unbelief is not to have an argument about the data or “evidences” but rather to offer an alternative story that offers a more robust, complex understanding of the Christian faith. — James K.A Smith, How (Not) To Be Secular

Though he’s talking more about how Christians should frame their attempts to persuade others of the truth of Christianiy — which necessarily involves a movement from a dis-enchanted world, to an enchanted one, Hart essentially thinks that the thing required to break people out of the immanent frame is not more, or mere, rationality. It’s a more beautiful truth. Whatever is most beautiful — the best story — that makes sense of the most data, that is what people should believe.

“What Christian thought offers the world is not a set of “rational” arguments that (suppressing certain of their premises) force assent from others by leaving them, like the interlocutors of Socrates, at a loss for words; rather, it stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity – and the rhetorical richness of its idiom. Making its appeal first to the eye and heart, as the only way it may “command” assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty… Christian thought has no stake in the “pure” rationality to which dialectic seems to appeal – the Christian ratio, its Logos, is a crucified Jew – and cannot choose but be “rhetorical” in form; but it must then be possible to conceive of a rhetoric that is peace, and a truth that is beauty.” — David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite

This, I think, is what this description of what it looks like for our self to be renewed in knowledge in the image of its creator — to re-imagine, and re-image, the world by telling a beautiful and enchanting story that helps people see with the world with both their eyes and hearts.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do,whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:15-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Disenchanted world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comics and the “real” world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That great city: Gotham, Metropolis and New York

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

What places do to people, what people do to places

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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