Archives For Worldview

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 Now it’s outdated.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.

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.

 

Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins

The world is a vampire sent to drain; secret destroyers hold you up to the flames. So says Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins, and it’s not easy to prove him wrong.

Every human being simply shows up on earth. No orientation, no training. We just find ourselves here and have to make sense of it all. At some point, we develop an opinion on the type of place this is. Is it dark and dangerous, or bright and exciting? Do we live in a cesspool or a playground?

I hear the cesspool view voiced from most pulpits—religious or secular. Christians understandably look at the evil and temptations that press and pull from every direction and rightly see these evil influences for what they are. Beware: there is much in our modern culture that would lead us astray. But secular prophets see the darkness of our world as well. Billy Corgan is one voice among many. “Welcome to the cruel world…don’t know how we’ve lasted here so long,” mourns Ben Harper. Rage Against the Machine adds a more aggressively sinister note: “There’ll be no shelter here, the front line is everywhere.”

Zack De La Rocha of Rage Against the Machine

We could pile on near-infinite examples from the cultural worlds of music, film, literature, visual art, dance, etc. The point is universally understood: this world is a dark and dangerous place. The only people who seem to deny the darkness of this world are kitschy filmmakers and storytellers who delight in showing the fluffy side of life to the exclusion of, well, reality. Sadly, many of the worst offenders in this regard are Christians trying to maintain a positive outlook. Even the darkest people on the planet (think Marilyn Manson or even Charles Manson) aren’t denying that the world is full of darkness, they’re simply embracing it.

So that settles it, right? We live in a cesspool. Tread lightly and keep your eyes on the sky. We’ll be rescued from this mess in due time.

This conclusion would be entirely justified were it not for one key player in the affairs of this world: God. If the world is a cesspool, it’s His cesspool. It’s His earth that the forces of darkness have desecrated, and the Bible assures us that He is not ready to throw it away in disgust.

Nor has God gone missing from the world He made. We see God’s presence in this world just moments after sin entered the picture and wrenched the world from its God-ordained intention. No sooner had Adam and Eve fashioned makeshift garments to hide the effects of their sin than “they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden” (Gen. 3:8). And He has never truly left.

The Bible records humanity’s struggle with sin and the seemingly inevitable spread of darkness into every area of cultural production. But never forget that the Bible tells a joyful story. It’s a story infused with hope at every turn. A story in which the True Creator is always working, sometimes when and where we least expect Him.

He is the God who takes the distorted culture that shaped a crown out of thorns and a cross out of once-living trees and turns those malevolent cultural productions into symbols of hope and triumph. He is the God who turns the chief of sinners into an exemplary grace-proclaiming missionary (1 Tim. 1:15). The God who makes the broken into a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). The God who is ultimately making all things new (Rev. 21:5).

PlaygroundBecause of God’s continued involvement in His world, the world is more than a cesspool. Because of God’s ongoing delight in the works of His hands, this world remains a playground. We would do well to play with an appropriate soberness and a continuing dependence on God, but the human culture that fills our world still reflects the God whose grace permeates all of life, try as we might to distance Him from the things we make.

God did not redeem our world by staying as far as possible from the stains that now adorn the fabric of the universe. He entered into the world as-is, showing us that the stain is distinct from the fabric, and in doing so He subtly invites us onto this potentially dangerous playground to find the light and joy and affirm it wherever it may still be found.

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