Archives For Worldview & Philosophy

iPhone 6Two significant events took place in the same moment this past week. The first was the release of the iPhone 6. Of course, most of us could argue convincingly that this does not qualify as a “significant event,” but the fact remains that people freak out and line up every time a new iPhone is released. Culturally speaking, it’s a big deal.

The second event was the instant devaluing of our “old” iPhones. (In case I’m about to lose my Android-using readers, keep in mind that everything I say here is true of any smart phone, and any product, really.) My iPhone 5s was exciting, useful, and elegant—until last week. Now it’s outdated. It no longer does what I need it to do, or at least not with the style and speed that I’ve learned to expect this week.

I’m being a bit overdramatic, of course, but while most of us would never say this directly, we feel it deep down a lot more than we’d be willing to admit. This is because our society has successfully trained our desires. We in the church know that “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15), but we still really want the newest technology.

James K. A. Smith explains that this odd tension we feel between what we believe intellectually and what we desire in our guts comes from the “cultural liturgies” that train our hearts. Through powerful mini-narratives (like the one in the video below), through misguided messages about our identity, and through a host of tactile experiences in which we are invited to “taste and see” that Apple is good, we now know—in our hearts if not our heads—that the newest iPhone is essential to human flourishing.

The irony in this is that in teaching us to overvalue things, our techno-idolatrous society also teaches us to undervalue things. Smith explains:

“Hence comes the irony that consumerism, which we often denounce as ‘materialism,’ is quite happy to reduce things to nothingness…On the one hand, this practice invests things with redemptive promise; on the other hand, they can never measure up to that and so must be discarded for new things that hold out the same (unsustainable) promise.”[1]

We always hope the newest phone or gadget will satisfy. But in the end, the thing is never more than a thing, so we quickly realize that our problems aren’t solved with technology. We are kept on the line, however, because as soon as we realize the iPhone 5s hasn’t delivered on its promises, the iPhone 6 is already whispering to us about the inadequacy of the 5s and the joys it can provide. By the time we realize the iPhone 6 can’t bring happiness, the 6s will be saying sweet things in our ears.

Again, this all sounds overdramatic. None of us would admit to buying a smart phone in an attempt to gain happiness. But I challenge you to listen to the ads and images around you. The next time you see an add for a smart phone, ask what you’re being promised. When you find yourself wanting to upgrade your phone early, ask whether you’re intellectually convinced of the superiority of the new phone’s features or whether there’s something more deep-seated and intangible that is drawing you to see your “need” for this new device.

I’ve explained before that a smart phone can be a glorious gift from God, a gift that can compliment our true humanity and serve God’s purposes in this world. But we must always keep a careful eye on our desires. And when we find our desires veering towards idolatry, we must begin retraining our hearts to seek first the kingdom of God.

 

 

[1] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009)100.

To this point, the books we’ve recommended as our book of the “month” have been popular level books—books that the average reader can get through without too much difficulty. This “month,” I’m recommending a book that will require more effort from the average reader, but I think it’s worth it.

The book is Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith and it’s the first in his “Cultural Liturgies” series. I think this is an important book, especially for those of us who are convinced of the importance of “worldview.” Here’s why.

Smith invites his readers to view our familiar world in an unfamiliar way. One poignant example he explores is the shopping mall. We believe the mall is a purely secular location that we visit on our terms to pick up items we need for our own reasons. But Smith paints the mall in a religious light (or rather, reveals the inherently religious nature of the mall, hence the term “cultural liturgies”).

Mall Cathedral

The moment we enter the mall, we gain a sense of transcendence from the vaulted architecture, the skylights, and the lack of windows, which divert our attention from the sea of cars outside and the mundanities of daily life. In this place, time is marked not by the ticking of the clock (which you’ll be hard pressed to find) but by cycle of festivals and celebrations for which the “cathedral” is regularly re-adorned. Oversized photographs on the walls and mannequins in shop windows function as icons, embodying for us a vision of the “good life,” reminding us of what our “worship” will produce and calling us inside to “taste and see.” When we decide to partake of this vision of the good life, we approach the altar, item(s) in hand, and the priestly salesclerk guides us in consummating our worship, sending us out with a benediction (“Thanks, have a great day”).

On one level, this is all nonsense—the mall is not a church. But Desiring the Kingdom argues that this interpretation of the mall is profoundly realistic. The world around us shapes us, not simply at the level of our intellect, but at the level of our desires. Commercials don’t convince us of the logic of buying their products, they appeal to our desires. They make us want it. And in doing so, Smith argues, the marketers are exhibiting a more biblical view of humanity than most churches hold.

Our society recognizes that we are not primarily thinkers. Rather, we are primarily lovers. We do what we do not because we follow our logic in every case, but because we are driven by desire. Think about it: Do you drink Starbucks coffee (or the more obscure and therefore more trendy type of coffee that you consider far superior to Starbucks) because you intellectually believe it is so much better than the alternative that you’re wiling to spend $2 for a small coffee and $5+ for other drinks? No. You drink Starbucks because your desires have been trained, not just for the flavor, but for the atmosphere and experience. It’s not necessarily illogical, but it’s deeper than logic. It’s about a vision of the good life that resides more in our gut than in our brain.

PrintAnd here’s where Smith’s argument gets very important. The world is busy shaping our desires. Meanwhile, the church fights back by filling our minds. We fight love with facts. This is where the worldview approach often falls short. Descartes famous saying, “I think therefore I am,” summarizes our default view of humanity. We are thinking beings. So put the right knowledge into a person’s head and he or she will behave accordingly. And there is some truth here. But we all know it’s not the whole picture. We don’t upgrade to the new iPhone because we believe the new features are worth the price. Our desires have been trained to despise our (months) old iPhone and long for the newest.

Smith’s solution is worship. Our desires are trained through worship, not just ideas. We need to shape our worldview, but we also need to shape our longings. We need formation, not just informationWe need to desire the kingdom. In this regard, Smith advocates liturgy, but in a broad sense. He’s not saying we all have to become “high church” in the sense that we all do responsive reading and observe lent. But he does argue that those things can play an important role in shaping our desires. Biblically speaking, we are whole beings. We’re not disembodied minds, we are embodied creatures. So involving our senses in worship, engraining deep habits and rituals into our routines can help to train our desires. It’s not just about thinking, it’s about worship. It’s about love. The marketers understand this, the church should as well.

That’s Smith’s overall contention, and I’ll warn you that he’s persuasive. As I said, it’s not the easiest book to read, but it’s also not the hardest. Smith intentionally took a middle path: the most scholarly discussions are moved to the footnotes, but the overall discussion is still meant to contribute to higher-level debates. Anyone who has had a year or more of college education should be able to hang with Smith’s arguments, and his writing style continually emphasizes key points.

This book has been very influential for me, and it’s shaping the way I view my role as a Christian, as a parent, as a church member, and as an educator. I would say this is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. Give it a shot.

 

firstworldproblemsAs my wife and I tried to get our girls to bed tonight (just moments ago as I’m writing this), we had a major meltdown. The reason? Both girls got clean sheets on their beds tonight. Our four year old didn’t get the dancing girl sheets she wanted and had to settle for the lady bug sheets. Our two year old didn’t get the lady bug sheets she wanted and had to settle for the dancing girl sheets. So, super rational.

It put a halt to our routine as we tried to shepherd our daughters’ hearts. In the process I made myself cry. I began to tell my older daughter about kids going to bed this very night who have no sheets to crawl into. I told her about her mommy and I going down to Mexico before she was born and building plywood homes for entire families. The families were bigger than ours; the homes were smaller than her bedroom. I told her how there was no paint, no pictures, no carpet. A dirt floor. As I told her this, I couldn’t stop the tears.

There was an element of pity in those tears, certainly. But they were also tears of repentance. Because I started telling her how happy those families were to receive their new homes. I told her how the little girls weren’t sad about their sheets or the size of their home. They were happy little girls. Truly. Jesus loved them and their families loved them too. Working in Mexico, as we’ve done several times, we saw joy in people over whom materialism had far less power. We renounced materialism on those trips and vowed to live joyful lives. Then we went back to having more than anyone could need and settled in once again.

An idol was exposed in my daughters’ hearts tonight. Sure, bed sheets are an odd idol, but our girls’ desire to have their world ordered just so came to the surface. This was a wonderful night because we got to discuss incredibly important issues: the way the world works and the importance of the heart.

firstworldbananaproblemsWe tucked our girls into bed and I started thinking about #firstworldproblems. How silly our materialistic society can be. We announce to our friends and followers:

  • “What is the point of a cellphone if the battery only lasts for 6 hours? #firstworldproblems”
  • “It’s too hot to sleep with a blanket, but I can’t sleep without one! #firstworldproblems”
  • “My towel was already damp when I got out of the shower. #firstworldproblems”

My conversation with my daughter reminded me that #firstworldproblems is more than a joke. Now, I believe it is a joke, and a hilarious one. One step in solving the problem is recognizing how ridiculous these moments of frustration actually are. So we should laugh at ourselves. And yet the idolatry that these moments reveal is serious. It needs to be addressed, not just tweeted.

It’s ridiculous that my daughter cried for her dancing girl sheets. It’s also ridiculous that forgetting my iPhone at home is a serious concern, a tweetable offense (#firstworldproblems).

Tonight, my wife and I are thankful that we got an opportunity to begin weeding out some idolatry in our daughters’ hearts. We’re also thankful that it reminded us about the idolatry in our own. And somehow, I can’t imagine God viewing my impatience with a slow waiter or my insecurity about the car I drive or my disapproval over my neighbor’s rarely-watered lawn as any less absurd, irrational, insane, childish, nonsensical. An idol is an idol, and for God’s glory, it has to go.

 

On a recent trip to Disneyland (thanks to the generosity of my parents), we watched the “holiday” version of Disney’s World of Color in California Adventure. If you’ve never seen World of Color, it’s impressive. For half an hour, jets of water shoot across the lake in California Adventure, embellished with brilliant colors, projections of Disney characters, and accompanied by music.

Amidst all of the beauty and holiday cheer of the event, one line stood out to me. The show features a rendition of the song “Joy to the World.” You know the song:

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come,
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing!”

This Christmas song announces the hope that shapes our lives as Christians.But in Disney’s version, the song doesn’t get past the first four words. Over and over it repeats the words, “Joy to the world!” But nothing else is said.

I don’t want to criticize Disney for not being Christian enough. They’ve never claimed to be speaking on behalf of the Christian faith (yet sometimes they actually have presented Christian truths explicitly). But I find their rendition of “Joy to the World” fascinating because it dips into a Christian hope without acknowledging the Christian basis for that hope.

In the Christian story, joy is announced to the world. Why? Because the Lord, the King of all the earth, has come. This joy can be realized if we would all welcome this King, preparing room in our hearts, so to speak.

In the Disney version, the phrase “joy to the world” becomes nothing more than a vague wish. There is no basis. There is no reason for joy. The song simply wishes joy to be spread to the world. What is a confident announcement of joy in the Christian tradition becomes nothing more than a fleeting sentiment in the secular world.

What this secularization of “Joy to the World” does is conjure up the feelings of the Christian hope without actually tapping into that hope itself. In secularizing hope, we strip it of its power and repackage it as an innocuous and sentimental holiday greeting. (Incidentally, the same thing happens to the phrase “peace on earth,” which is also taken directly from the Christmas story.)

I thoroughly enjoyed the show, and I’d recommend it to anyone who has a chance to see it. But let’s all remember that there are no substitutes for the joy announced to the world on Christmas Day. The secularists in our midst are indeed wishing for joy to the world, but we alone have a basis for announcing that joy—we have the answer they are looking for.

 

Seneca

Yesterday, I introduced the topic of suffering. Specifically, I raised the age old question, “Why does God allow his children to suffer?” And although I have spent a lot of time looking into the Bible’s answer to this question, in yesterday’s post I explored one of three similes that Seneca, a first-century philosopher, gave in order to explain why the godly suffer. Yesterday’s simile was of the godly as “disciplined children.” Today I will continue by looking at two other similes: “proven soldiers” and “victorious athletes.”

 

Proven Soldiers

Seneca compares the godly who suffer to proven soldiers. Whereas the raw recruit turns pale at even the thought of a wound, the veteran warrior looks undaunted upon his own gore, for he knows that his blood has often been the price of his victory. “In like manner, God hardens, reviews, and disciplines those whom he approves, those whom he loves.” For this reason, the philosopher argues, God actually afflicts the greatest of all people with illness, sorrows and misfortune. These situations are compliments rather than curses, evidence that this child has been deemed worthy of God’s purpose. Furthermore, through suffering, God makes his children to be a pattern for others: in fact, they are even born in order to teach others how to endure hardships.

When good people suffer, then, their hardships serve as affirmation of their character and as an opportunity for growth. In a phrase that echoes Romans 5:3-4 and James 1:2-4, Seneca states “Fire tests gold, misfortune brave men.” So also, returning to the military metaphor, Seneca says that Fortune chooses to confront the courageous rather than to waste time by contesting the weak. Lady Fortune cries out:

Why should I choose that cowardly fellow as my adversary? He will straightway drop his weapons; against him I have no need of all my power—he will be routed by a paltry threat; he cannot bear even the sight of my face…I am ashamed to meet a man who is so ready to be beaten.

Therefore, while Fortune disdainfully passes these people by, she seeks worthy opponents—the brave, the stubborn, the unbending—those against whom she can flex all her might.[1]

 

Victorious Athletes

Having used the similes of disciplined children and proven soldiers, Seneca appeals to the experience of athletes.[2] He claims that the great person cannot be approved without an encounter with suffering. Those who are truly misfortunate, then, are those who have never been misfortunate. Without hardship “no one will know what you can do—not even yourself.” He continues by likening untested character to a runner who races in the Olympic Games without any other contestant. How absurd! This person may gain the prize, but he did not win the race; he may have the crown, but he does not posses the victory (coronam habes, victoriam non habes).

 

Conclusion

Finally, like a good teacher, Seneca answers his student’s questions with more questions:

How can I know with what spirit you will face poverty, if you always wallow in wealth? How can I know with what firmness you will face disgrace and ill fame…if you attain to old age amidst rounds of applause rather than through pain?

Of course, Seneca’s teaching does not serve as a substitute for the Holy Scriptures. But his examples can complement them. And without “ruining the question with an answer,” perhaps Seneca’s similes can encourage my students and even you in the midst of divine fatherly discipline, battles with hardships and marathons through suffering.



[1] Cf. Robert Service’s “The Law of the Yukon”: This is the law of the Yukon, and ever she makes it plain: “Send not your foolish and feeble, send me your strong and sane—Strong for the red rage of battle; sane for I harry them sore; Send me men girt for the combat, men who are grit to the core; Swift as the panther in triumph, fierce as the bear in defeat. Sired of a bulldog parent, steeled in the furnace heat. Send me the best of your breeding, lend me your chosen ones; Them will I take to my bosom, them will I call my sons…”

[2] Cf. Heb 12:1-3; 1 Cor 9:24-27,