Archives For Worldview & Philosophy

This entry is part 15 of 22 in the seriesBook of the Month

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,

A student once asked his Rabbi, “Teacher, why does the Lord allow evil in the world?” The Rabbi responded, “With such a good question, my son, why would you want to ruin it with an answer?” Despite the Rabbi’s clever response, the question “Why does God allow his children to suffer,” remains an apt one—especially in light of current blows such as crashing economies, threatening epidemics, surrounding wars and rumors of wars. My students also ask me this question in various forms. Their pain behind the question drives me to search for answers—answers not to ruin the theological question or to solve a theoretical paradox but ones to encourage them through real hardships.

Seneca

I have studied the Scriptures to see how certain passages handle problems of suffering. But I also became curious as to how those who did not know Job’s God or Paul’s Christ answered such questions.  One of my favorite extra-biblical responses to the problem of suffering comes from a first-century philosopher by the name of Seneca.[1] One of Seneca’s students put the question like this, “If Providence truly reigns supreme, then why does evil befall the good?”[2] Seneca responds to his student by employing three similes: godly people who suffer are like (1) disciplined children, (2) proven soldiers and (3) victorious athletes.

I will explore the first simile today and the other two tomorrow. Seneca’s approach to this question can help us think through the suffering we encounter. His words aren’t to be taken as Scripture, of course, but he can give us some perspective on what the biblical authors are saying.

 

Disciplined Children

According to Seneca, if Providence (i.e., God) governs the world and cares for humanity, then “evil” should be reinterpreted as divine discipline. This is not discipline in the sense of punishment for human sins, but of training for divine service. God disciplines good people because they are God’s pupils, his legitimate children who seek to imitate their all-glorious Father. Like any good parent, then, God rears his offspring for virtue and fosters character in his sons through suffering.

Therefore, the philosopher continues, rather than God spoiling his children, God parents them with severity so that they may become useful to him. Therefore, one should realize that when good people painfully struggle up a difficult path—while at the same time the wicked coast with pleasure—it is because God “does not make a spoiled pet of a good person.”[3] Rather, “he tests them, hardens them, and fits them for his own service.”

When I read this I was surprised at how similar the argument is to the one in Hebrews 12:

Have you forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons? “My son, do not scorn the Lord’s discipline or give up when he corrects you.” For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts. Endure your suffering as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you do not experience discipline, something all sons have shared in, then you are illegitimate and are not sons. Besides, we have experienced discipline from our earthly fathers and we respected them, shall we not submit ourselves to the Father of spirits and receive life? For they disciplined us for a little while, as seemed good to them, but he does so for our benefit, that we may share in his holiness. Now all discipline seems painful at the time, not joyful. But later it produces the fruit of peace and righteousness for those trained by it. (vv. 5-10, NET Bible)

Tomorrow, I will explore Seneca’s two other similes for godly people enduring suffering: (2) proven soldiers, and (3) victorious athletes.


[1] Seneca was a contemporary of the apostle Paul. He lived in Rome and, like Paul, died by the hand of Nero. Seneca wrote a number of moral essays and epistles that have some striking similarities to statements in the New Testament. So much was this the case, that years later, someone penned letters as written from Paul and Seneca to invent correspondence between the two writers.

[2] See Seneca’s  essay On Providence.

[3] The quotations of Seneca in this article are from John W. Basore’s translation in Seneca: Moral Essays, Vol. 1 (London: Harvard University Press, reprint 2003).

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