Clocks and Crucifixes

Boers quotes Jim Forest:

It is a pity we have stripped so many walls of their crucifixes and put up so many clocks in their place. We are surely more punctual than our ancestors, but we are spiritually poorer. Contemplating a crucifix, many of our forebears had a different idea of how to make use of time. A crucifix may not tell the hour, but it offers crucial advice about what to do with the moment we are living in.

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, p. 141

I am not a big fan of crucifixes, but the point is well taken. Perhaps one could see this as a take on the idea of Deuteronomy 6:8-9 about God’s Law:

You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The cross can shape your heart and life without being on your wall, but your mind must never stray very far from it – hence the necessity of regularly reading the Scriptures and attending to the means of grace in general. And remember, he’s not on the cross anymore: he’s wearing the crown.

Eccentric: Having a Different Center

Two quotes for this one. First,

Curtis Almquist oversees the Society of St. John the Evangelist. He once wrote that monks are sometimes seen as eccentric, not merely in the sense that some may seem quirky or odd. He wrote, ‘Rather, I mean eccentric in an etymological sense, as in the Latin eccentricus, meaning “having a different center.”‘

And second,

Ultimately, we cannot rein in technology use with rules, limits, or fences. As Albert Borgmann says, ‘Technology will be appropriated…not when it is enclosed in boundaries but when it is related to a center.’ Elsewhere he notes, ‘The answer is not to find a line, but to remember and invigorate those centers in our lives that encourage our place, our time, and the people around us.’

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, p. 188, 200

That’s another keeper.

Technological Fundamentalism

Berry’s essay ‘Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer’ expresses his preference for a computer-free life without denouncing computers. Not only is such a machine expensive, he explains, but it also means losing the close working relationship that he and his wife cherish. When that essay was published in Harper’s, it attracted a firestorm of controversy and outrage. Berry was caught off guard by the intense reaction and concluded that it reflected ‘technological fundamentalism’; the readers of Harper’s, he observed, wouldn’t abide the questioning of technology use.

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, p. 197

I think I’ll hang on to the phrase ‘technological fundamentalism.’

Critiquing from the Inside

Our culture’s most impressive achievements usually have to do with technology: the space shuttle, advances in digital communications, instant availability of information via the internet. Albert Borgmann speculates that one ‘reason for embracing technology might be the understandable desire to embrace what’s distinctive about our culture. It’s difficult to accept the notion that the things that are most characteristic of our lives should not be most central.’ In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels, such as The First Circle, it is striking how many Soviet citizens were unable to critique the downsides of Stalinism – and not only because of the threat of punishment. Even people imprisoned on false and trumped-up political charges were likely to defend their own country’s political system. When Christian churches dominated medieval culture and their cathedrals commanded city skylines, it was hard to challenge abuses of faith. If technology is at the center of our lives, how frightening it must be to suggest that perhaps there is something wrong at the core of what our civilization regards as most worthwhile.

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, pp. 182-183

Marshall McLuhan, in The Medium is the Massage, wrote,

The poet, the artist, the sleuth – whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely ‘well-adjusted,’ he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists among antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are. This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power, is manifest in the famous story, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ ‘Well-adjusted’ courtiers, having vested interests, saw the Emperor as beautifully appointed. The ‘antisocial’ brat, unaccustomed to the old environment, clearly saw that the Emperor ‘ain’t got nothin’ on.’

Old Testament prophets were Israelites who had been summoned to the courts of Heaven (on earth, as the veil was drawn back before them) before the presence of innumerable angels in festal gathering, before the very presence of God. Isaiah saw the LORD, high and lifted up, with his train filling the heavenly temple. He saw the cherubim. He realized he, and his people, were unclean. He needed an outside-in perspective. He needed to see his own culture through the eyes that were not of his culture.

G.K. Chesterton writes this about prophets:

…If we see what is the real trend of humanity, we shall feel it most probable that he was stoned for saying that the grass was green and that the birds sang in spring; for the mission of all the prophets from the beginning has not been so much the pointing out of heavens or hells as primarily the pointing out of the earth.

Religion has had to provide that longest and strangest telescope – the telescope through which we could see the star upon which we dwelt…

This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself…It is a strange thing that men…have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed (from the Introduction to The Defendant).

If anyone is going to speak with a prophetic voice in our time and place we are going to have to get a perspective on our culture that doesn’t come from our culture. We are going to have to, as insiders, look at ourselves from the outside. How are we going to do this? My own focus is on two things: First, counter-cultural church. If the church tightly resembles our culture, we will never be able to critique it, or ourselves. Second, old books, especially the Scriptures.

In Alister McGrath’s biography of C.S. Lewis, he writes,

For Lewis, the reading of literature – above all, the reading of older literature – is an important challenge to some premature judgments based on ‘chronological snobbery.’ Owen Barfield had taught Lewis to be suspicious of those who declaimed the inevitable superiority of the present over the past.

…Lewis argues that a familiarity with the literature of the past provides readers with a standpoint which gives them critical distance from their own era. Thus, it allows them to see ‘the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.’ The reading of old books enable us to avoid becoming passive captives of the Spirit of the Age by keeping ‘the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds’ (p. 187).

It’s not secret why Lewis and Chesterton were able to point ‘that longest and strangest telescope’ on the world in which they lived. It was because they very often had their feet in another world altogether. Most of that was due to old books. If the sky isn’t rolled back as a scroll for us, if we do not see the heavenly vision of the prophet in the flesh, the closest we will ever get is in old books. The Bible provides 66 of them. And the church, though imperfect, has provided many, many more.

On Stopping

Boers quotes Donald Nicholl:

The first thing one needs to know about a car, or any machine for that matter, is how to stop it. The same applies to the traffic of our daily lives.

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, p. 139

I don’t have much to add to that quote. I remember a preacher I admire years ago talking about warning labels. He read an absurd warning label from a halloween costume and asked something like this: Why, when the world can, and legally must, warn the world about everything under the sun…Why, then has the church lost her message of warning? They are compelled to do so? Why are we not compelled? Where are the Ezekiels? Where are the watchmen? Why is it expected that the weatherman will warn us of the impending tornado while the church is expected to act as if everything is okay?

We’ve also lost our message of ‘stop.’

We think it’s too simplistic, too narrow minded, to naive. It’s not simplistic to tell a person they must be able to stop a car, or to show them how to do it. Perhaps we need to serve as models of the ability to stop when it comes to technology.

Stopping implies that we have started. We have not abstained totally, nor should we necessarily. But we can recognize when it’s time to turn something off for a time.

Resolution 1: Take a Hike (Living Into Focus)

I will continue to post on Living Into Focus, but I wanted to write this while it was still fresh in my memory.

I came away from the book convicted that I needed to make some changes. The two I’ve settled on so far involve both addition and subtraction. As for subtraction, next week I plan to spend at least one day off the internet. I hadn’t really thought about how engrained the internet is in my habits, but planning a day away put it out in the open. Here’s one example: I have two ‘go to’ biblical commentaries that I use virtually every week – Matthew Henry’s and John Calvin’s. I own hard copies of each, but very rarely use them these days. It’s much ‘easier’ to pull them up online. And I want to say, ‘I can’t study for my sermons without the internet.’ I can. I just don’t want to. The internet opens up amazing possibilities for research, so I’m not bashing it by any means. I am simply reminding myself that every addition means that time for something else is taken away.

That leads to the computer in general. I want to go a day without touching a computer, but that’s even harder. I work on a computer most of the day for my job. I do my biblical studies on a computer. These days I’m lost without Bible Works. I love Bible Works, but I hadn’t realized how dependent I was on it until I thought about trying to go through a few days without it. I actually busted out my Biblia Hebraica tonight just to remind myself what it actually feels like to read a ‘paper’ Hebrew Bible. I’m so used to reading it on Bible Works. Anyway, that hasn’t actually happened yet. That’s next week. On to the main point of the post.

My first resolution was to spend more time outside – really outside. My wife was game for this one, so Sunday evening we started what I hope will become a tradition. We went on a hike through a ‘nature’ trail. (I put ‘nature’ in parenthesis because I’m not really sure I like that word). Some of Boers points about the ‘gift’ nature of creation struck home big time.

At one point on our walk, we began to hear an owl hooting. (I haven’t seen an owl since I was a small child). My daughters starting hooting at the owl and the owl hooted back. It was fun. Then another owl started hooting and we were in the middle of an owl conversation. It was purely a gift; unexpected; unasked for; but wonderful.

Next, we saw an Elephant Tree, which looks like this:

It’s more impressive in person. I thought it looked more like a rhino.

Finally, on the way out, we found ourselves in the middle of a massive display by a big cluster of fireflies. I can’t tell you the last time I saw a firefly. It had been years. It was my children’s first opportunity to catch fireflies. And it will always be a wonderful memory. It was a gift: totally unexpected.

So there are my first two resolutions. One involves engaging in a focal practice. The other involves taking some time away from the internet. I’ll report on number 2 after I actually do it. As I was writing this post I started reading the comments on chapter 8. It looks like I made add the practice of handwriting letters to the list.

On Video Games: Incarnation or Disincarnation?

Brian shares a quote and comments:

“Yet computer games remove us from reality and morality. They teach us the attractions of causing pain without recognizing responsibility or consequences.” [Living Into Focus, pp.] 102-103

I would love to discuss the validity and ramifications of this idea more.

Why not? This is my first ever post about video games. Let me know if this line of thought makes sense to anyone other than myself…

The quote above made me think about something I haven’t thought about for a while. For the life of me I cannot remember where I got the idea or why I have even thought of it before. I thought I must have written about it in the past, but my internet searches have come up empty. But I digress. The subject is ‘dis-incarnation.‘ I am sure that the idea (for me) was lifted from some source, but I can’t remember who or what, so I can’t give proper credit.

[Update: Three brief points I would like to clarify: 1) I could have, and perhaps should have, used the word ‘excarnation’ instead of ‘disincarnation.’ If the post gets a significant number of views I will probably change it. 2) Note that nowhere do I make any explicit conclusions about any sort of inherent evil or sinfulness in video games. 3) I am not even remotely thinking about anything other than video games (someone asked me if I intended board games as well: no, I don’t. I wasn’t thinking of anything other than video games in this post).]

I do, however, have this quote:

Human nature, or the condition of having a material body and participating in the change and suffering of the creation, was that from which man had to be delivered, but not that by which he would be delivered (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, p. 76).

The quote, of course, relates to some form of gnosticism. In context it is actually about Marcionism, but that’s not important for our subject. I am totally removing it from its context to relate it to another subject.

Pelikan’s point was that Marcionism got it wrong. A suffering existence in this world is not simply what we look to be delivered from, it is actually what we are delivered by. This is true on the macro scale as it is through Christ’s suffering that we are redeemed. It is also true, according to the apostle Paul, on the micro scale:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Rom. 8:16-17).

You can read my take on that specific passage HERE.

Dis-incarnation seeks to take the human existence in general, and suffering in particular, out of the equation. It seeks to spiritualize rather than embody, to mystify rather than to flesh out, to be removed rather than engaged. My question is, Do video games do this? I say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’

In one sense video games are extremely engaging. They demand the attention of the whole person (mind and body). They can, at times, engage every aspect of the soul: mind, will, and affections. They often involve person-to-person interaction as well. Likewise there is a sense in which they directly involve incarnation, as we, via technology, seek to incarnate ourselves into a game. Here comes the rub.

Are we really incarnating ourselves? Is it possible to be incarnate digitally? Is it possible to have an incarnation into a (bodiless) digital body? Conundrum. I immediately object to my own line of reasoning. What about books? Aren’t books a form of incarnation? Aren’t they a form of incarnation (say embodiment if incarnation is too theologically loaded a word) into a non-physical environment of words and story? Don’t video games draw out similar passions and emotional experiences as books? I don’t know if I can answer my own objection. Let’s try.

Let me tell you a story about why I started playing the guitar: South Park was big when I was a teenager. I haven’t watched it in years. But several years ago I caught some reruns on a normal TV station (edited with bleeps!). I happened to catch the episode about Guitar Hero. (Incidentally I had been playing guitar hero). The South Park kids were obsessed with playing the game. In the midst of one of their gaming marathons, one of the dads begins to rock out on a real guitar to show them that he can actually play songs on a real guitar. They are indifferent. They continue with their game (which ends disappointingly!).

I got the message. Why would you play Guitar Hero when you could spend that time actually learning to play the guitar? I went and bought a guitar the next day and made a rash vow (nod to Chesterton) to learn to play it (and get rid of Guitar Hero). And I did. And I’m thankful. It’s not the same, and we all know it. Both Guitar Hero and an actual guitar involve skills. But one is truly incarnate (in the sense of truly embodied, though not divine); the other is dis-incarnate. One is hardwood reality; the other is pure fantasy. One is to gather around the living room and make melodies; the other is to gather around the TV and push buttons. One is tangible yet soulful; the other is neither (at least in the fullest sense).

If that is the case with guitars, how much more so with violence. Here’s the answer to my own objection above. First, if we are incarnating ourselves into video games, then we are guilty of the sin of the characters we embody. Not so with a book, because we do not ’embody’ the characters (generally speaking). No one is going to own up to this idea that we sin in our characters’ sinning. Which means that we have to deny that we are incarnating ourselves into the games. And if that is the case, then we are in the process of dis-incarnation – abandoning our fleshly existence for a digital quasi-reality. Books not only have spines, they have flesh and bones. What about games? Have they moved you to tears? Compelled you to love your neighbor? Caused you to strive to be a better flesh and bones (and soul) human being?

Those are my (very rough) musings. My thoughts need some major refining. I would also add that violent games (especially relating to war) tend to be used to fill some innate need in aggressive males. And I try to remind young guys that there are real battles to be fought in their own lives, even outside of military contexts. Spiritual warfare is a reality. Video games might even be a part of it. Thoughts?

‘Living Into Focus’ Discussion: Part 3 (Ch. 8ff.)

Here is our thread for continued discussion of Living Into Focus by Arthur Boers. Here we’ll start covering chapter 8 and see how far we can get before the comments get crowded enough to make another thread. I found chapters 8-10 to be one of the most (maybe the most) thought-provoking sections of the entire book. This should be interesting.

I am enjoying reading the comments and sharing thoughts. It has been edifying.

On Civilization Outrunning Culture

Ken Myers shares an extremely interesting quote from Oliver O’Donovan (see his original post HERE). I remember also that he mentioned the same quote somewhere in All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes. Regardless, here is the quote:

The word ‘tradition,’ like koinonia, refers both to an action and a possession. In the first sense it is the activity by which one shares in the community, receiving and contributing. In the second sense it is the reserve of practices and communicative patterns received from the past — but only those which continue to command recognition, that is, which have been effectively communicated down to the present time. The essential thing about tradition is that it creates social continuity. It binds the communal action of the present moment to the communal actions of past moments. What we often call ‘traditionalism,’ the revival of lapsed tradition, is, properly speaking, a kind of innovation, making a new beginning out of an old model. This may or may not be sensible in any given instance, but it is not a tradition. The claim of tradition is not the claim of the past over the present, but the claim of the present to that continuity with the past which enables common action to be conceived and executed.

The paradigm command of tradition is, ‘Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.’ It appears to our eyes to be concerned with the duties of children, but this is a mistake. The duties of children are purely responsive to the duty of parents to be to their children what their parents were to them. This is a command addressed to adults, whose existence in the world is not self-posited but the fruit of an act of cultural transmission, which they have a duty to sustain. The act of transmission puts us all in the place of receiver and communicator at once. The household is envisaged as the primary unit of cultural transmission, the ‘father and the mother’ as representing every existing social practice which it is important to carry on. Only so can community sustain itself within its environment, ‘the land which the Lord your God gives you.’ No social survival in any land can be imagined without a stable cultural environment across generations. By tradition society identifies itself from one historical moment to the next, and so continues to act as itself. . .

The peculiar value of art to tradition lies in its capacity to elicit recognitions, reminding us of the sources of our cultural objects within the structures of natural necessity. This power of reminiscence we call ‘beauty,’ and it arises from the coincidence of natural order with artificial form. Both poles, the natural and the conventional, are essential to an art form, that the evocation of the one within the other may be experienced. Formal qualities are as important as substantive references in evoking the presence of nature in culture. A poem may allude to springtime, or a tune may imitate birdsong. But an abstract fugue evokes nature, too, by exploring the power of repetition in difference, and a sonnet by its balance of thesis development, and resolution.

— from Oliver O’Donovan, Common Objects of Love: Moral Reflection and the Shaping of Community (Eerdmans, 2002)

In the previous post (HERE), we noted Martin Luther King, Jr.’s comment about modern America (in his day): “We have allowed our civilization to outrun our culture” (from Keep Moving from this Mountain, HERE). As soon as I read that line, my mind immediately went to O’Donovan’s application of the fifth commandment. Civilization outrunning culture is what happens when people (I do not say children only) do not honor their fathers and mothers.

This entails more than a simple lip service to our biological parents. It involves what O’Donovan calls ‘cultural transmission.’ We are moving at such a pace that culture is here and gone before there is any chance of transmission. Hence there is little stability. Hence how can we expect to thrive?

I think this might be pressing the fifth commandment to its interpretational limits. Yet I think it is a valid interpretation for this reason: most people, including myself, generally refer to the 10 Commandments in Exodus 20. We forget that they are restated, during Moses’ summary sermon, in Deuteronomy 5. The fifth commandment is restated in 5:16:

Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

Now, if you are familiar with Deuteronomy, then you probably know what follows chapter 5 – the famous ‘Shema’ of Deuteronomy 6. Deuteronomy 6 is the great chapter focusing on the central doctrine and practice of Israel. Any careful reading will also reveal that it is Israel’s central text relating to the subject of ‘cultural transmission.’ Chapter 6 begins with the words,

Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long (vv. 1-2).

Next comes the ‘Shema,’ followed by these words:

 And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (vv. 6-9).

Thus far my justification for the validity of this application.

Culture-building involves progress. I often refer to C.S. Lewis’ point that progress entails both a starting point and a destination. Progress builds on what has come before, and builds toward a goal or destination. Therefore, when we cut ourselves off from tradition and from the ‘ancient paths’ we eliminate the very possibility of progress. We may be doing something entirely new, but it does not entail progress. In fact, I think, it entails regress, as though we were starting from scratch when the wisdom of the running centuries awaits to be built upon. This is why I detest the idea of ‘creating a new church.’ I have dear friends who have bought into this notion. They want ‘a new idea of church.’ They are letting their civilization outrun their culture. In fact, they are essentially abandoning culture. They do not believe in cultural transmission. They are good (albeit passe) post-moderns who think we have to ditch everything and start over. Yet they will be offended when someone ditches them and does it their own way. But I digress.

Let me make a quick point of this. In regards to technology, which is the context of our posts as of late, we must be careful that we are using our gadgets to build upon what we have rather than to start over. And if we are using them to build, we must be careful that we are not using them as bulldozers to tear down the progress that has already been made. Can we pour the new wine of technology into old wineskins without the wineskins bursting? We must be very careful. This will take wisdom; likely ancient wisdom.

Part of that wisdom is that we must honor our fathers and mothers. If we are using technology to cast off all traditional forms, then we are missing the mark. If we are using it in such a way that it honors the spirit of the fifth commandment, then I think we are making progress. The can of worms is now open; I’ve made zero concrete applications; I’ve only established a principle. It’s enough to think about for a while.

The main point for the time being is that we cannot be set on ‘Go, go, go!’ When we put the pedal to the metal we let our civilization outrun our culture. And this means that the beauty of culture is left in the dust. Is it any wonder that we are all busy and dizzy and feeling rather unclean?

“We have allowed our technology to outdistance our theology” (Living Into Focus)

In the comments on our discussion of Living Into Focus, Brian listed this quote:

It is easy to find ourselves in the predicament Martin Luther King Jr long ago described: ‘We have allowed our technology to outrun our theology’ (p. 69).

I also found that quote thought-provoking, and decided to do some digging. The footnote mentions that the Martin Luther King Jr. quote came from a secondary source (Richard Lischer, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence, p. 17). Interestingly, the quote is actually on page 16 of that book (at least that’s how Google lists it) and does not cite where the phrase came from. (Footnotes can be an interesting adventure). It appears that the ‘quotation’ is actually a paraphrase of “We have allowed our technology to outdistance our theology” (perhaps MLJ said it different ways at different times). Anyway, I do believe I found the original written source of the idea. It comes from a talk MLJ gave at a Jewish synagogue in Hollywood, California in 1965 (I’ve provided a link below).

The context of the quote is actually better than the quote itself, which is saying something:

I’m talking about practical materialism — the notion that causes individuals to live as if material values are the only values and concerns in life. Each of us lives in two realms, the “within” and the “without.” The within of our lives is somehow found in the realm of ends, the without in the realm of means. The within of our [lives], the bottom — that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion for which at best we live. The without of our lives is that realm of instrumentalities, techniques, mechanisms by which we live. Now the great temptation of life and the great tragedy of life is that so often we allow the without of our lives to absorb the within of our lives. The great tragedy of life is that too often we allow the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. And how much of our modern life can be summarized in that arresting dictum of the poet Thoreau, “Improved means to an unimproved end?” We have allowed our civilization to outrun our culture; we have allowed our technology to outdistance our theology and for this reason we find ourselves caught up with many problems. Through our scientific genius we made of the world a neighborhood, but we failed through moral commitment to make of it a brotherhood, and so we’ve ended up with guided missiles and misguided men. And the great challenge is to move out of the mountain of practical materialism and move on to another and higher mountain which recognizes somehow that we must live by and toward the basic ends of life. We must move on to that mountain which says in substance, “What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world of means — airplanes, televisions, electric lights — and lose the end: the soul?”

-Martin Luther King, Jr., Keep Moving From This Mountain, (emphasis added) Available Online HERE

In the sermon, MLK is going after the ideologies of his times. He likens these ideologies to ‘mountains’ that we need to ‘move on from.’ The particular mountain dealt with in the above paragraph is ‘practical materialism.’ Could this really be any more relevant? It’s more relevant now than it was then to be sure. Especially poignant is the line:

Through our scientific genius we made of the world a neighborhood, but we failed through moral commitment to make of it a brotherhood, and so we’ve ended up with guided missiles and misguided men.

To paraphrase, we have a global village, but not a global family. We have guided missiles and misguided men. That’s the kind of wordsmithy paradox that gets me going. Equally good is the idea that civilization has outrun culture.

I am playing around, at the moment, with working out some thinking about the paradox of our concern with climate change in relation to the fact that we are unconcerned with how culture itself (a climate to be sure) is changing. Tomorrow I am going to post something on the fifth commandment that is relevant to this point.

But, for now, I am curious if my commenters have any ideas for such wordsmithy paradoxes related to technology and modern culture(?). Let me know if you have any thoughts.