Dissonance and Harmony

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It is amazing to me how many distractions and stimuli one encounters throughout a single day. Just to remain an active and vibrant participant in the world, one is assaulted on every level by demands from every corner. Nowhere in history have our attentions been in such demand. The requirement asked by this civilization is totalitarian, in that it demands the whole person and nothing less. It demands attention and obedience to things which aren’t in our best interest, and entice us to go after unsatisfying ideas.

Just consider the way we pursue the idea of happiness: from Covergirl to suburbia and the latest social media trends. Every day seeds are sown. And these seeds eventually come to fruition into ideas and concrete realities in our lives. The gluttony of Image–images of happiness, of wealth, of normalcy, of beauty, value and worth; images of relationship and what love is, what family is, of what man is, and what woman is–these images stimulate our minds, and spur our imaginations into pursuing ideas–and actions, consequently–which have nothing to do with reality. They really concern nothing but fleeting social phenomena–intangible spirits of the age of men.IMG_1854

Just look at how we live: expending our interests on people whom we’ve never met and who do not desire our relationship or friendship. We are always thinking about how powerful or attractive we look in comparison to others, others who are thinking the same thing about themselves. We settle for mediocrity because we’ve never experienced anything but the mediocre. We watch vines and Instagram videos and follow miserable people in Hollywood while we ourselves age and make steps toward death. We are spending more and more time concerned with our own comfort than with the next generation’s wellbeing. We are so worried about our own personal identities that we don’t know who it is we live amongst. Who are they? Do you know them? Get your eyes off yourself! We are sleepers in a fog, trudging onward in tragic dissonance, content to live in our personal ghettos.

Meanwhile unbounded, unexplored territory remains undiscovered. Relationships sit like ships in dry dock, in disrepair and abandon. Personal territory remains like buried treasure–always near the surface but never exposed to the light of day for it to glimmer. Human value everywhere is brimming, but we’re content to sit on our couch or to pursue our mediocre dreams. There is dissonance in the beauty of our words and ideas and the disaster and ugliness–the brutality–of their outworking. In Chekhov’s words, we live badly, my friends.

Are we surprised when people fail to and grow and thrive in this toxicity? Are we surprised at unhappy marriages and broken homes? Are we surprised by relationships marked by severe dysfunction and falseness? Are we surprised that men no longer want to grow up, or that women no longer want to attach themselves to these men? Further, how can we be surprised when this unhappiness, brokenness, dysfunction, and falseness breeds more of the same? Why are we surprised when, after all the in-depth studies have been analyzed, the books written, and the papers reviewed, that people are more miserable, lost and alone than ever before? Our world is a reflection of our inner lives and a consequence of where we have put our treasure. It is a reflection of our spiritual and intellectual health. Do an inventory of yours. Is it a ruin? Is it a declining urban sprawl? A thriving hamlet? A void and faceless suburban development?

fullsizeoutput_1bPursue excellence and things of worth. Build one another up in the same way you want. Help others grow and mature the same way in which you desire. I’m astounded how I forget so much on a daily basis and become distracted by non-sense and substitutions for life and relationship. We must think differently. It is simple but it is not easy. But If we invest into contrary ideas–ideas which cut to the marrow of life–we will not be satisfied with ourselves. We are too often satisfied, not in a content and peaceful sort of way, but in a lazy acceptance. The world pushes people to ‘love’ themselves and accept themselves for who they are as final and complete. ‘This is just who I am’. What drivel. If I truly love myself, I want myself to learn, to stretch and develop into someone who is better attuned to living. If one is living, one must be changing. And one does not change through running away.

However, the sort of development needed to grow doesn’t occur in a vacuum through the sheer force of will. True growth doesn’t occur naturally by default. And it cannot occur in isolation. It does not happen through reading a whole lot of cognitive self-help ideas. It happens when lives mix and mingle. A popular lie is that we must rid ourselves of any baggage and inhibiting responsibilities and grow ourselves–freely. ‘I just have to do what’s right for me’ becomes the mantra to absolve people from their responsibility to face their situation, their actions, and which shields them from the wake of destruction of their choices. There is no freedom in ignoring the responsibility of our choices, actions, and the resulting consequences on others.

So go out and explore this vast, unexplored territory. Take responsibility for it, and begin to love it. Van Gogh said, “what is done in love is done well”. Love–in the sense of agape–is fertile. You will begin to uproot and plant new seeds.

Soaked Heads

The Church does not lack for information. We are not hungry souls emerging from the Dark Ages–yearning with the appetite for knowledge and education to feed our eager minds and hearts. Nah, we’re drowning in it. We’ve gorged ourselves on so much information, know-how, DIY’s, hacks, lectures, TED talks, and memes that we’re in serious need of a good vomit so we can evacuate the mind for real instruction.

In our enthusiasm with our ability to create and distribute huge amounts of information, we have assembled an array of isolated data so separated from each other that they have lost all meaning within the whole. Now we are merely an army of specialists who have no sense of where our fields of interest intersects with anything else. From here I will refer you to Clausewitz:

Thus it has come about that our theoretical and critical literature, instead of giving plain, straightforward arguments in which the author at least always knows what he is saying and the reader what he is reading, is crammed with jargon, ending at obscure crossroads where the author loses its readers. Sometimes these books are even worse: they are just hollow shells. The author himself no longer knows just what he is thinking and soothes himself with obscure ideas which would not satisfy him if expressed in plain speech.

I think perhaps we have moved to the opposite extreme: In Clausewitz’s day the literature tended to be gaseous and bombastic. No modern today would have the concentration to endure them. But we live in a reduction of ideas. Given the copious volume of information facing us, we must restrict it into bite-size chunks that we can easily digest. Now, either we repeat religious maxims–pithy statements–or preponderous theological constructs, which leave the listener more confused, as essential ideas become broken more and more into smaller, isolated incidents. We subsist off trite memes which only scratch at the surface of meaning and do not plunge into its depths. They act as a feather brushing across the mind and heart, inspiring a sense of knowledge, but without any actual effect. There is no intimate interaction in the mind; no wrestling, no struggle or compromise, no resolution. There is nothing to bring about a lasting change. It creates the impression of change because the listener has glimpsed something true. But he has not known it. The difference is far and wide.

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Here’s a pretty picture to break up the text!

 

Education  is not information. Education and learning can only be accomplished in the context of relationship. It is probably the most inefficient way of developing a person’s understanding. Knowledge is only as useful as far as one is able and willing to communicate and relate it to others. The Church hasn’t lost influence through being wrong, but because it has lost its effectual voice. We must understand our times on every level, and be prepared to understand men and women when we meet them. We cannot steep our heads in scripture and spiritual influences and expect that we will be effective in a world we do not know.

No king but Caesar

“…we must first repent of our worship of the state, of country, of national ideals, of capitalism, of social justice–of our own ideas.”

The nature of the Church’s relationship with political process reveals an ugly side of her condition. The last election cycle proved that the Church–at least in these United States–is just as hopeless, desperate and blind as everyone else. Rather than being at the vanguard of presenting truth and the gospel, the Church went about the business of politics with fervor. Sadly, my compatriots, we are fixated on a small branch of a much larger problem. Our problems to contend with are not flesh and blood.

On one hand we all affirm that we must not put our trust in men; politicians, princes, kings, etc. The Church as a whole is very adept at paying this lip service. On the other hand we take such a keen interest in all workings in politics and throw so much weight–moral and emotional–behind the acquisition of power that it reeks of hypocrisy. We lie when we say we don’t trust in politics because our actions tell another story altogether.

But, we say, we have an obligation to do our part and take a stand and oppose evil and preach truth! That is true and probably truer than we can imagine. The problem among Christians is we are no different from how the world approaches their own political responsibility: the imposition of a moral imperative. To move people, the world must inspire a moral responsibility. Just the act of creating moral choices, or throwing a light of moral question among christians, causes all sorts of raucous as everyone scrambles to find themselves on the right side of the ‘dilemma’. In politics no such dilemma or imperative exists.

When God does not reside in the heart of men, politics become essential. The political arena is a sideshow of men’s balance of power. Power is unbecoming of Christians. Force and domination are methods of the world. Christ did not come as someone powerful to overthrow and establish through domination. The Mission is accomplished subtly, through every God’s children displaying the gospel as light and salt to the lost world. Any use of force or power or domination do ‘disseminate’ God’s word is a false use of our gifts and a misappropriation of that Mission and mandate. Nowhere are we given a different example.

Our Mission goes so far beyond the flashy display of the political process that it should be cause almost for a complete disillusionment from the exchange and groping for power. The world would have us believe that elections and political action and involvement is very important. Why? First, to the world politics present the surest route to what he needs. It is the best option of all earthly endeavors. It can be dangerous to the Christian because it eliminates any distinction in their approach. When we are just as vehement, vitriolic, or dogmatic, fearful and angry as everyone else we lose any ability to offer a different story than the loud narrative of the social propaganda machine. Second, it provides false, enticing ideas of creating change and improving our world. It’s an illusion of progress, to use the phrase of Ellul. The kingdom of God will not arrive on the wings of capitalism, or social reform, or on ideas of equality.

We are explicitly told that change and restoration of the kingdom will not come through physical manifestation, through man’s material effort. The mistake of Israel and the Jews in their response to the Son of God is notorious. Action, violence, policies, reforms, those are the things which get things done. Counterintuitively, the kingdom is none of those things.

When we succumb to the notion that politics and elections–because they are useful–are therefore vital, we forget the subtle and small voice who reassures us who our author and finisher is. We run apt to give in to fear when these processes seem to go against us. We become lazy when the processes turn in our favor. We lose our voice to proclaim our mandate. We fail our Mission. We marginalize God’s promise.

How would we as Christians act if we lived in Spain in 1936? faced between fascists on the right and communists on the left–the only two choices given by the world–how would we act? Would we throw ourselves to one side or the other, electing for a less evil choice? Would we remove all choices out of moral indignation? Or would we see beyond the violent tumult to live a more substantial truth?

The truth is most of us, from those on the left and right, have succumbed to a flagrant worship of idols. To approach elections and political action with any degree of perspective we must first repent of our worship of the state, of country, of national ideals, of capitalism, of social justice–of our own ideas. We must be violent with the idols in our own lives–iconoclasts in the highest degree. We must stop playing games with each other. When our hearts fall away from Christ, politics and elections become vital. If you cannot approach an election with freedom, peace, and detachment, you probably should abstain from voting. Do nothing unless it is in faith.

I do not propose some emotional or logical scheme to arrive at a very convenient answer that makes everyone feel good about their decision. What so many influential christians do is regurgitate a whole lot of scripture, pontificate on a moral plane, evoke God’s mercy and throw all hope behind a candidate, party, or platform. It’s a very elaborate way of beginning with a conviction, running it through a bath of piety, and presenting a political choice all whitewashed in sanctimonious drivel. It might as well be a witch’s brew. Not only does it miss the point entirely, but it demeans the word of God by attaching it to a means of worldly power. It poisons whatever political action we may choose to do. It also leads us astray, giving way to the potential to be very disappointed in God for allowing our moral choice to fail. If our cause was righteous why did it ultimately fail? God failed his people. No such thing!

Every election is an opportunity as Christians to preach the gospel. Rarely are we given such stark moments to present truth in such revolutionary and contrary terms to our fellow men and women who are full of fear. Everybody is running around anxiously, in anger and turmoil, because their ideals, to which their hope is bound, are at stake. Everything is caught up in the actions of men. Christians on the other hand, should be calmly and faithfully going about our own business, giving our opinions in humility. Our opinions and political ideals are detached from our hope and vitality because we are not bound to the world!

Have we forgotten how he led the captives out of Egypt, through the wilderness? Have we forgotten how his Son defeated the enemy? Have we so lost hope in our God and ignored the Spirit so effectively, that our political discussions only mention him as a last resort and as an afterthought; attaching him as a footnote to support our own convictions?

We think the world is in need of saving grace and repentance. We think our enemy is the world’s position on who gets to go into which bathroom. But we must first begin with ourselves: a radical repentance and change in our approach to politics and involvement in elections. It isn’t our involvement itself that is at issue. It’s the degree to which our hearts are invested in the enterprise. It reflects foremost a spiritual poverty, which is revealed in a fervent, impassioned yearning in the process of men.

Abandonment

“It is never because a person is convinced intellectually that he crosses over into the existential”

“We may well resign ourselves to it. The Church does not exist, either at the level of freedom, or at that of the proclamation of the Gospel message, or at the level of intellectual responsibility…True, the Church is in Christ. That I deeply believe. But nothing of her truth, properly so called, is making its appearance in the world today. We have to make a choice. Either there is no God, and Jesus is a human model, in which case I see no reason to bother with the Church; or else we have come up against the stone wall of the silence of God, and our prayer is lost in the void of his decision not to be there any longer…All the assembling of biblical passages to prove to me that this is not possible does not alter one whit the easily observed mediocrity of the Church.”

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It doesn’t take special insight to sense Jacque Ellul’s pain and frustration eking into the page of his work Hope in the Time of Abandonment. Without making a properly lengthy introduction to the book, his favorite by his admission, I will say it is a true gem and one any Christian should consider. At least any Christian who has taken a few askant looks around the room to see if anyone else is uncomfortable with this pained dissonance that we call Christendom. Few Church leaders are as pessimistic of the state of things. Again it does not require a study of any depth by experts to see the Church is desperately mediocre. But Ellul does so expertly and with passion. He does not ignore strong scientific and philosophical evidence, but his emotions are not atrophied. He is a believer and he also feels too. Where the Spirit does not move we are left to contrive and construct, heap upon heap. The Church has heaped a massive assemblage of religious artifacts and techniques. We are in so much danger of blindness. If we look the situation squarely on, we either give up in despair or we do something radically different. Every heart knows and senses the Absence.

However, I have not heard anyone give a greater explanation for the Hope within. Neither have I found a stronger encouragement and challenge to the Church. We are called to so much more, and we cannot allow ourselves to be fooled by “the master of ceremonies, the real conductor of the orchestra, the archangel of mediocrity and confusion.”