Amusing Ourselves to Death

In 1985, Neil Postman published, to immediate critical acclaim, Amusing Ourselves to Death. For some reason, I did not read it at the time, but it has endured if not grown in value — so say all my friends in cyberspace (about which more later) — so I read it Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share some highlights with you, or if I shared all my highlights (though that is technically easier to do), because phrases I found arresting in context might well be boring in isolation. So here goes.

First, Postman is at great pains to distance himself from the Luddites. He acknowledges major communicative changes in the past, with some of what was lost and gained in each, before exploring how television is toxically different.

  • Regarding the Commandment against idols, “The God of the Jews was to exist in the Word and through the Word, an unprecedented conception requiring the highest order of abstract thinking.”
  • “Although one would not know it from consulting various recent proposals on how to mend the educational system, this point — that reading books and watching television differ entirely in what they imply about learning — is the primary educational issue in America today. America is, in fact, the leading case in point of what may be thought of as the third great crisis of Western education. The first occurred in the fifth century BC, when Athens underwent change from an oral culture to an alphabet-writing culture. To understand what this meant, we must read Plato. The second occurred in the 16th century when Europe underwent a radical transformation as a result of the printing press. To understand what this meant, we must read John Locke. The third is happening now, in America, as a result of electronic revolution, particularly the invention of television. To understand what this means, we must read Marshall McLuhan.”
  • “Each medium, like language itself, makes possible a unique mode of discourse by providing a new orientation for thought, for expression, for sensibility. Which, of course, is what McLuhan meant in saying that the medium is the message. His aphorism, however, is in need of amendment because, as it stands, it may lead one to confuse a message with a metaphor. A message denotes a specific, concrete statement about the world. But the forms of our media, including the symbols to which they permit conversation, do not make such statements. They are rather like metaphors, working by unobtrusive but powerful implication to enforce their special definitions of reality.”
  • “It is my intention in this book to show a great media-metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense.”
  • “[W]e do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities, but by what it claims as significant. Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations.”

There were waystations en route to television land, telegraphy featuring prominently (perhaps as synecdoche), for its obliteration of distance:

  • “Telegraphy … destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse. Among the few who understood this consequence was Henry David Thoreau, who remarked in Walden that ‘We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.… We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through the end of the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.’ … Only four years after Morse opened the nation’s first telegraph line on May 24, 1844, the Associated Press was founded, and news from nowhere, addressed to no one in particular, began to crisscrossing the nation. Wars, crimes, crashes, fires, floods — much of it the social and political equivalent of Adelaide’s whooping cough — became the content of what people called ‘the news of the day.'”

Now that we’re in television land, Postman also is insistent about not floating conspiracy theories about commies or lizard people deliberately using TV to make us stupid. For instance:

  • “The single most important fact about television is that people watch it. Which is why it is called “television.” And what they watch, and like to watch, are moving pictures — millions of them, of short duration and dynamic variety. It is in the nature of the medium that it must suppress the contact of ideas in order to accommodate the requirements of visual interest; that is to say, to accommodate the values of show business.”
  • “What is happening here is the television is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. This information does not mean false information. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information — information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I did not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans have a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say this when the news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result.”

It is a commonplace in Evangelical Protestantism that mediums (I know the plural is properly “media,” but that has accumulated distracting connotations) are neutral. Christianity being something I care about very much, Postman’s Chapter Shuffle off to Bethlehem really hit me:

Though it may be unAmerican to say it, not everything is televisible. Or to put it more precisely, what is televised is transformed from what it was into something else, which may or may not preserve its former essence. For the most part, television preachers have not seriously addressed this matter. They have assumed that what had formally been done at a church or a tent, and face-to-face, can be done on television without loss of meaning, without changing the quality of the religious experience. Perhaps their failure to address the translation issue has its origin in the hubris engendered by the dazzling number of people to whom the television gives them access.
“Television,“ Billy Graham has written, “is the most powerful tool of communication ever devised by man. Each of my primetime specials is now carried by nearly 300 stations across the US and Canada, so that in a single telecast I preach to millions more than Christ did in his lifetime.“ To this, Pat Robertson adds: “To say that the church shouldn’t be involved with television is utter folly. The needs are the same, the message is the same, but the delivery can change.… It would be folly for the church not to get involved with the most formative force in America.“
This is gross technological naïveté. If the delivery is not the same, then the message, quite likely, is not the same. And if the context in which the messages experienced is altogether different from what it was in Jesus’ time, we may assume that it’s social and psychological meaning is different as well.

I believe that I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.

I’ve long not been a fan of televangelists, but I hadn’t thought it through as Postman did. I can’t even say “Aha! He put my intuition into words!”, as I so often feel, because I tacitly bought the idea that mediums are neutral. Maybe the single most important lesson of this book, for me if not for everyone, is that “neutral medium” is rubbish.

And I should have known better all along. Every sick-Sunday or Covidtide streamed Divine Liturgy screamed at me “I am inadequate!” Each was inadequate as “television” and as Christian worship. Every medium shapes all messages it mediates.

To a slightly lesser extent, I care about education. Postman sets forth three commandments of televised education, which I distill:

The three Commandments that form the philosophy of the education which television offers:
– Thou shalt have no prerequisites.
– Thou shalt induce no perplexity.
– Thou shalt avoid exposition like the ten plagues visited upon Egypt.
The name we may properly give to an education without prerequisites, perplexity and exposition is entertainment.

Postman’s concluding chapter not only brings back a lot of stuff for a curtain call, but summarizes colorfully:

An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan. Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist the prison when the gates begin to close around us. We are not likely, for example, to be indifferent to the voices of the Sakharovs and the Timmermans and the Walesas. We take arms against such a sea of troubles, buttressed by the spirit of Milton, Bacon, Voltaire, Göethe and Jefferson. But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusement. To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?

What I suggest here is a solution is what all does Huxley suggested as well. And I can do no better than he. He believed with H.G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.

Now for a bit of critique.

Television is still with us, but with a fourth broadcast network (Fox, which I recall being announced on NPR in April 1988 — recalled because (a) I was driving a rented Camry around San Francisco and down Highway 1, and (b) I thought it was a stupid idea for which Rupert Murdoch would pay dearly) and countless cable offerings. I don’t think this changes anything. The news is as stupid or stupider than ever, and has us broken into tribes to boot. So much for a peaceful Huxleyan world — and for my ability to spot a good money-making idea when I see it.

But we also can control television, which means relying on it for entertainment — which is all it’s good for — and nothing else. We can only do it at the family level, though, which means we still swim in polluted waters when we step out into the work-world.

Computers, however, Postman underestimated — perhaps because he did not foresee the “technology” of ARPANET expanding to the public and becoming virtually its own “medium.” I am aware of its potential for harm, pornography having become ubiquitous, for instance (and the emergence of “ethically-source porn” and the happy “sex workers” to replace unhappy, exploited “prostitutes”, both to make sensitive wankers feel better about their vice), but I dare say, from personal experience and experiment, that it is concurrently a great power for good. I have Anglophone “friends” around the world as a result, for instance.

Dare I say that the world awaits a treatment of the internet equal in stature to Postman’s treatment of television? Or perhaps it’s here and I just haven’t read it. There are definitely efforts being made to write it.


Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.

Immanuel Kant

You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.

W.H. Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening, November 1937

The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

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The times, they are a changin’

1

The history of greed, venality, stupidity, cruelty and violence is long because that part of human nature is ineradicable. As the 20th century demonstrated, it is better to bet on a liberal society’s capacity to temper these flaws and iniquities than on a utopia’s false promise to eradicate them. Those promises end being written in blood.

… [C]ycles of history run their course. By 2008 it was clear that the world economic system was seriously skewed. Bailed out, it staggered on until now, accompanied by growing anger in Western societies.

… All the grotesque needed, to be revealed as such, was for time to stop.

Roger Cohen, No Return to the ‘Old Dispensation’. The grotesque did stop, but has it been recognized sufficiently for us to actually change entrenched behavior when some kind of normalcy is again permitted?

I loved this whole column, by the way. So sorry if you can’t get to it — I don’t know how much, if anything, a non-subscriber can see.

2

Are we inherently gullible? Research says no: Most adults have well-functioning machinery for detecting baloney, but there’s a common bug in the machine. Faced with a novel idea or new circumstances, we gravitate to information that fits our already existing beliefs. As Sherlock Holmes put the problem: “Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” This bug has always been exploited by people seeking money, power — or both. But with the rise of social media, the world’s propagandists, con artists and grifters find their search for suckers easier than ever.

Witness the grubby exercise known as “#Plandemic.” [A conspiracy theory video now banned from social media — after infecting 8 million brains.] …

People believe in a “#Plandemic” because it fits into existing convictions. A lot of people already believe — not without reason — that pharmaceutical companies cash in on suffering. Many people have heard that government labs do research on biological weapons. All true. Government has hemorrhaged credibility in recent years — even with regard to veteran public servants such as Fauci. All of these mind-sets are potential vectors for the viral #plandemic.

Americans need to understand that they are being actively targeted for disinformation campaigns by people and forces pursuing their own agendas. Conspiracy-monger Alex Jones wants to sell them overpriced nutritional supplements. Anti-vaxxers are hawking books and miracle cures. Vladimir Putin and the mandarins of Beijing are pushing the decline of the United States and the death of the Western alliance.

Some want your money. Some want your mind. Citizenship in the Internet era demands a heightened commitment to mental hygiene and skepticism. We have to learn that the information that fits neatly into our preconceptions is precisely the information we must be wary of. And even in these wild times, we must heed the late Carl Sagan, who preached that“extraordinary claims” — like grand conspiracies and healing microbes — “require extraordinary proof.”

David Von Drehle, Why people believe in a ‘plandemic’.

Take a look at the next-to-last paragraph. Someone’s missing: Steve Bannon, who pledged to “flood the zone with shit” to neutralize truth-telling about Trump.

3

Fourteen years ago, Rod Dreher introduced us to Crunchy Cons. Now his friend Tara Isablla Burton, with a degree in theology but a fairly short history of personally “faithing,” thinks Christianity Gets Weird, and wants New York Times readers to know about it.

Because of her audience, or perhaps via her editors, I find a lot of her wording and characterizations weirdly “off” and off-putting. I’m familiar with the sort of phenomenon she’s talking about, and I’d have to say that although she’s in the right ballpark, she’s not just “way out in left field” but somewhere in the bleacher seats much of the time. For instance.

  1. I would not affirm either half of “old-school forms of worship as a way of escaping” anything. “Escaping” is an unduly negative spin on something fundamentally sane.
  2. Her characterization of “mainline Protestant denominations like Episcopalianism and Lutheranism” was painted with a mighty broad brush.
  3. What is “weekly membership” (emphasis added) in reference to Roman Catholic churches with Latin Mass?

But the teaser is great:

Modern life is ugly, brutal and barren. Maybe you should try a Latin Mass.

And near the conclusion, she gives a characterization I can endorse:

Like the hipster obsession with ‘authenticity’ that marked the mid-2010s, the rise of Weird Christianity reflects America’s unfulfilled desire for, well, something real.

That “something real” is, in the best cases (and I suspect they are many), God.

Flaws aside, I welcome anyone using a prominent platform like the New York Times Magazine to shout out that “the fusion of ethnonationalism, unfettered capitalism and Republican Party politics that has come to define the modern white evangelical movement” is not the whole of American Christianity. Not even close.

UPDATE:

Rod Dreher on Sunday published the full text of Tara Isabella Burton’s interview of him. She got in a couple of well-formed, open-ended questions, and he really ran with thim. For my money, that interview is better than TIB’s NYT story, but TIB was casting the net wider than Catholic and Orthodox converts.

This, for me, was Rod’s best point in the interview:

The phrase “Christian values” has been worn as smooth as an old penny by overuse, especially in the mouths of political preachers. Look, I’m a theological, cultural, and political conservative, but I admit that it has become hard, almost impossible, to find the language to talk meaningfully about what it means to believe and act as a Christian. This is not a Trump-era thing; Walker Percy was lamenting the same thing forty years ago, at least. I think the term “Christian values” has become meaningless. It is taken as shorthand for opposing the Sexual Revolution, and all it entails — abortion, sexual permissiveness, gay marriage, and so forth. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that to be a faithful Christian does require one to oppose the Sexual Revolution, primarily because the Sexual Revolution offers a radically anti-Christian anthropology. But then, so does modernity — and this is an anti-Christian anthropology that clashes with the historic faith in all kinds of ways. I’m thinking of the way we relate to technology and to the economy.

You want to clear a room of Christians, both liberal and conservative? Tell them that giving smartphones with Internet access to their kids is one of the worst things you can do from the standpoint of living by Christian values. Oh, nobody wants to hear that! But it’s true — and it’s not true because this or that verse in the Bible says so. It’s true because of the narrative that comes embedded in that particular technology. It’s not an easy thing to explain, which is why so many Christians, both of the left and the right, think that “Christian values” means whatever their preferred political party’s preferred program is.

[Philip Rieff wrote that] “Barbarism is not some primitive technology and naive cosmologies, but a sophisticated cutting off of the inhibiting authority of the past.” This is perfectly true. This is why the dominant form of religion today is, to use sociologist Christian Smith’s phrase, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” It’s crap. It’s what people believe when they want the psychological comfort of believing in God, but without having to sacrifice anything. It’s the final step before total apostasy. In another generation, America is going to be like Europe in this way.

But something might change. The problem with the phrase “Christian values” is that it reinforces the belief that Christianity is nothing more than a moral code. If that’s all Christianity is, then to hell with it. The great thing about ancient, weird, traditional Christianity is that it is a lifeline to the premodern world. It reminds us of what really exists behind this veil of modern selfishness and banality and evil.

Weird Christianity: The Rod Dreher Interview.

That’s about as deep as I’ve ever read Rod going. Good stuff.

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

Instrumentalizing God

For decades, I endured periodic sermons and political rants disguised as prayers. Because of who and where I was, and the few loose political affiliations I had, those sermons and rants almost all ranged from right to further right.

And because I thought God shouldn’t be instrumentalized and that prayer shouldn’t be pretext, I hated them, much as I hated “worship” that was really pep-talk-cum-pop-concert.

I’m pleased to report that who and where I am has changed, that my political affiliations are even fewer, and that it’s much better now. That’s a separate story.

I say all that to note this: A “letter to God” in the New York Times Opinion section. That letter struck me in places as being a left version of those pretextual prayers. But it’s not. Whatever its faults are, they seem outweighed by its merits, especially this week.

(Be it noted that George Yancy is not George Yancey.)

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

An anniversary and a testimonial

Today is the 52nd anniversary of my high school graduation.

It might sound odd to remember that, but high school was formative for me because, almost impetuously, my parents and I agreed that I should go to a Christian (specifically Evangelical) boarding school. So off I went at age 14 (specifically, Labor Day 1963) to forge a life somewhat separate from my parents — an experience most of my contemporaries postponed for another four years. By that point in my life, living in dormitories was “old hat,” college “same old, same old.”

I should qualify the preceding paragraph by noting that only 40% of my school was boarding students. The other 60% was commuters from the nearby Evangelical Jerusalem: Wheaton, Illinois. I suspect that Wheaton Academy itself was “old hat” for my commuter classmates, many of whom had attended Wheaton Christian Grammar School, whereas I had attended public schools to that point in my life (with my parents requesting some exemptions to let me observe Evangelical taboos about, say, dancing — public schools were not yet required to teach fornication).

We Evangelicals, of course, were very focused on the Scriptures (which we received from the historic Church pretty much unacknowledged) because they, in theory, were our final authority. But those Scriptures are many (66 by Evangelical count, more than that historically) and varied. The inability to fully harmonize them, or to credibly discern the science of cosmic creation therein, leads some Evangelicals to the shipwreck of faith.

There is a different and much more historic way to approach Scripture, and it always amuses me when the New Atheists and their ilk presume that the Evangelical (shared closely with Fundamentalists) approach is the exclusively correct one — before using it to rip such Christian faith to shreds — a presumption betraying an ignorance so profound that they really should just shut up.

* * *

As I write, early in the morning, I’m still re-orienting from a very intense weekend wherein my Orthodox Christian parish Church was consecrated by our Bishop with the assistance of multiple priests and with me leading the singing of unfamiliar hymns proper to a consecration. My Christian pilgrimage has taken me there, deep into the historic roots of Christianity and thus a long way from Evangelicalism, for Evangelicalism is rooted mostly in the frontier revivalist vein of the Second Great Awakening of some 200 years ago.

Over my intense weekend, I made the acquaintance of a professional who joined his son, a recent Purdue graduate who was active in our parish, for the consecration and following Liturgy and banquet. His professional specialty is the same as one of my Wheaton Academy classmates, whose practice has grown large and, by what reputation I knew, very prominent.

I asked our guest if he knew of it, and it turned out he knew it, thought very highly of it, and almost joined it after interviewing with my classmate, his son and his daughter-in-law, all professionals in that field. He confirmed the practice’s excellence, and confirmed my impression that my classmate is still “very tightly wound” (my characterization) — adding some praise of the family’s Evangelical and charitable involvement as well, for it sounds as if the large practice is still owned and controlled largely or entirely by my classmate’s family and presumably has yielded considerable wealth.

Such thoughts of my classmate, and of my different Christian path, brought back to mind our different “life verses” (an ironically extrabiblical bit of Evangelical youth piety). Any time I say “life verse” from now on, you may gloss it as “important Bible verses favored by or associated with this person.”

My classmate’s life verse at the time seemed to be II Timothy 1:7: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” That always seemed to me (though I don’t know my classmate’s mind) like the outward-looking verse of a doer, and my classmate has done a lot — enough that I felt like a slacker in comparison until I went back to school at age 30 for some graduate work of my own. He himself uttered that verse as a life verse (or close to it); the association isn’t my projection.

I’m pretty sure I never declared any “life verse,” but I believe I wrote by my signature in schoolmates’ yearbooks “Ephesians 3:17-19” which reads (in the King James Version):

That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.

That always seemed to be to contrast with my classmate’s verse — in my favor, of course, or I could have changed.

I was also quite taken by Hebrews 5:12 – 6:3:

For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. For every one that useth milk is unskilful in the word of righteousness: for he is a babe. But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.

Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this will we do, if God permit.

This puzzled and challenged me, as “laying again (and again, and again, and again) the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God” seemed rather the whole point of our revivalist (remember: Second Great Awakening) “altar calls,” and I thought “the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment” were very deep — meaty, not milky.

Finally, although it may (though I think not) have first obsessed me somewhat later than high school, Romans 12:2: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” What makes me think it may have grabbed me later than high school is that I pretty much translated that to “thinking Christianly” (which “mind” justifies better than does the untranslatable Greek nous), and I think that “translation” came in college or even a bit later still.

All three of my passages/”life verses” seem to me introspective, or at least relatively so — “figuring stuff out” more than “doing,” and sinking roots more than (to use the modern barbarianism) “moving fast and breaking things.”

* * *

I don’t know if the best way to characterize our different verses, mine and my classmates, is as acorns, as in “mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow.” That metaphor seems like the idea that encouraged us Evangelical lads and lasses, very wet behind the ears, presumptuously to grasp the nettle by picking a life verse anyway.

I tend to think a better organic metaphor is “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree,” or even Immanuel Kant‘s “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

Scriptures are many and varied. There’s no scriptural reason why one should be guided primarily by II Timothy 1, another by Ephesians 3, Romans 12, and Hebrews 5 and 6. I suspect we latch onto verses because of how our twigs were bent by our DNA, our upbringing and such — even our our gut flora, as science seems to be finding. But I don’t think relativisticly that Evangelicalism is the “right” Christian tradition for my classmate, Orthodoxy for me, because of such things.

I believe there is a deeper human nature to which Orthodoxy responds fully and of which Evangelicalism at its rare best only dreams of. Orthodox Christianity is what I was dreaming of unawares as I dreamed of  being rooted and grounded in love, filled with all the fullness of God, going onto perfection, renewing my nous.

That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just

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You can read most of my more impromptu stuff at here. It should work in your RSS aggregator, like Feedly, should you want to make a habit of it.

I highly recommend blot.im as a crazy-easy alternative to Twitter (if you’re just looking to get your stuff “out there” and not pick fights).

Venerating God, Worshiping Nothing

I’ve been an Orthodox Christian now for a bit more than 21 years. During that time, I’ve heard (and enjoyed hearing) some things that struck me as cute quips or snappy evangelistic comebacks.

One, which I thought of as just a snappy comeback to the charge that we Orthodox “worship icons,” went like this:

You just don’t know what worship is. We’re merely venerating the saints or the events depicted in those icons. We worship only God.

Maybe you merely venerate God and worship nothing.

“Venerate God and worship nothing” struck me as true of my former tradition after my experience of Orthodoxy.

The experience of real worship had been a strong draw to Orthodoxy, a fulfillment of a long longing, and the answer to my trouble-making in “Worship Committees” and such, about un-worshipful gospel songs — songs directed to one another rather than to God.

Let’s take just one example, far from the worst:

I serve a risen savior, He’s in the world today.
I know that He is living, whatever men may say.
In all the world around me, I see His loving care,
and every time I need Him, He’s always there.
He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s weary way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart.
You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!

God is third person singular, a topic of discussion, not a second person singular Thee/Thou or You/Your, an object of worship. And there’s way too much “I.”

Hand me a contemporary Christian “hymnbook,” or whatever they call them these days, and I could go on all day and all night.

But my objections to that sort of thing fell on deaf ears because some people liked those songs.

If there is any of that—singing about God to each other rather than singing to God—in Orthodox services, it has escaped my notice for 21 years. And I love that absence.

But given the insensate response to my concerns within my Protestant context, all I felt comfortable saying about Orthodox worship to non-Orthodox was “come and see,” hoping that my invitee would experience the fulfillment I experienced. “Venerate God and worship nothing” was insider talk, not really useful.

Or so I thought. My reticence ended Thursday, December 13, around 5:30 PM.

After running an errand and catching the evening news, I listened to podcasts as I drove to a meeting an hour away. A particular podcast brought home to me that the quip about veneration and worship is literally true in an objective sense, not just as an allegation about subjective intentions.

That was a revelation, though probably not a life-altering epiphany for me as I’m already Orthodox. But it may be a life-altering epiphany for you.

I’ve transcribed much of that podcast for you, though I’d encourage you to pour a coffee (or whatever) and savor the less than 14 minutes it takes to hear all of The Sacrifice of Worship, spoken in Father Stephen Freeman’s deeply reflective, gentle southern drawl.

My convention in transcribing the podcast is that italics represent emphasis in Father Stephen’s delivery, whereas boldface represents my added emphasis:

… Sacrifice itself was part of the universal language of of ancient religion … This was worship.

Today, “sacrifice” has passed into more generalized cultural metaphors that have nothing to do with worship, and “worship,” the word itself, has become a vague concept, generally associated with prayer and praise and hymn-singing. And as such, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish what many contemporary Christians describe as worship from the treatment of various rock, sport and entertainment stars, or patriotism and ideological fetishism.

At a large gathering of some tens of thousands, hands are lifted in the air, people are singing, the music swells — and if I stop the description at that point, it is possible that this is a moment of praise and worship. But if, however, I note that the venue was a concert, then it’s mere adulation of a celebrity. But … the bare bones, what I call the “grammar” of the action — is utterly the same …◊

So fast-forward now to the setting of an Orthodox Church. Here, there are numerous icons of holy men and women, saints, adorning the Church. Candles and lamps burn before them. A non-Orthodox contemporary Christian, visiting for the first time, becomes distinctly uncomfortable and thinks to himself “they are worshiping saints!

Somehow, the psychological confusion that is contemporary culture can distinguish between the worship of God and the adulation of celebrities, but accuses traditional Christianity — that is, Orthodox Christianity — of violating the second and third commandments.

What we have is a clash of grammars.

So I suggest a working definition for contemporary worship. It would be this. It would mean “any number of activities, including singing, dancing, waving hands, shouting, weeping, when in a religious setting. The same actions in a non-religious setting are not worship.

But in the grammar of Orthodoxy — and, may I say, in the grammar of scripture — worship has a different definition. Worship may be defined, just as it was in Abraham’s day [when Abraham progressed toward sacrifice of Isaac], … as the offering of a sacrifice to a deity.

The trouble comes when one grammar seeks to understand the other. That which the Orthodox render to saints and holy objects, such as relics, the cross, icons and such, is understood to be honor or veneration, for no sacrifices are ever offered to saints as though they were gods. Note this carefully

This distinction is difficult for contemporary Christians because the notion of sacrifice in its original meaning has been lost. It is certainly the case than honor and veneration are given to God, but they do not of themselves constitute worship.

The contemporary road map of religion consists almost exclusively of various psychological states. The honor given a rock star is understood to differ from that given to God based on the intention within the person who is giving the honor. To the outside observer, the actions might appear indistinguishable. But, we’re told, God knows the heart and so God can tell the difference between the two.

Sacrifice has largely disappeared from the experience of contemporary Christianity. The Protestant Reformation mounted something of a frontal assault on medieval Catholicism’s treatment of the Eucharist as a sacrificial offering … [Catholic counter-arguments] fell on deaf ears — at least for the reason that the ears wanted to be deaf …

I jump in here to note that the Orthodox view of the Eucharist is essentially identical with that of Roman Catholicism, which the Reformers and their spiritual progeny rejected. Father Stephen makes that point himself, but in a way that seemed a digression from my point in this blog.

… [In contemporary Christianity] “Do this in remembrance of me” becomes a mere memorial and then simply becomes a means of forgetting …

The Mystery of our salvation as well as they Mystery that we described as “worship” is found within the sacrifice of Christ. Abraham and all of ancient Israel would have understood worship to largely be identical with sacrifice … Christians of the first millennium-and-a-half understood that the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharistic offering was the central act of worship. Their hymns and psalms happened as part of that context …

We continue to offer the bloodless sacrifice‡ of Christ’s death. It is the single perfect offering of all of humanity, made through the person of God’s Son ….

By a strange twist of history, the praise that took its meaning from the sacrifice itself by analogy came to displace the sacrifice and made praise itself the essential element of worship.

As hungry as my Protestant self was for real worship, my understanding of it did indeed stop at, essentially, “praise of God and to God, with no calculated sentimentality and no focus on one another in our songs and hymns.” Praise to God was my “essential element of worship.” Worship wasn’t “about me.”

I wasn’t wrong, but far short. So are you if praise (or a sermon) is your essential element of worship.

An implication of this is that if your church “serves communion” only rarely, then at best you worship only rarely. If your church treats the communion elements only as a remembering-with-props, then you worship never.†

And sacrifice properly speaking is a ritual or rite. As Father Stephen said in his opening (part of the initial ellipsis in the transcription above):

When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, in Genesis 22, there was no questioning on Abraham’s part about what was intended. He understood precisely what was involved in such a thing.

There was wood to be gathered, an altar of stones to be constructed, the victim was to be bound, and then the slitting of its throat, the gushing forth of blood, all consummated in the burning fires of the now-completed offering.‡

You cannot turn your contemporary Christian church’s wafers and grape juice, prepared in the church kitchen by who-knows-who the night before and dumped down the disposal after the service, into the Christian Eucharistic sacrifice, the true body and blood of Christ, just by fervently thinking of it that way.µ

You need, at a minimum, to be in a Church with an epiklesis, and that’s part of a whole package.

If you are as I was, then right about now you’re saying “Father Stephen called this the grammar of scripture. Now put up or shut up. Show it to me in The Book.”

Okay:

16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?
17 For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.
18 Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar?
19 What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing?
20 But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.
21 Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.

I Corinthians 10.

Satisfied? Now what are you going to do about it? Do you care enough to forsake your praise services and find a Church that worships?

* * *

Notes:

◊ Thus it is especially ironic that they accuse us, the Orthodox, of worshiping things that aren’t God because they don’t notice the difference—a difference that I didn’t notice, either, in a way that I could articulate before now. Mea culpa! We do bring baggage into the Church with us!

† Another implication is that Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans and the handful of Reformed congregations that have adopted weekly communion are not my focus here. I’m not indifferent to the differences among us, but sussing those out is not my task for today, if ever.

‡ As I labored over this blog, some more personal implications of my “revelation” emerged, such as freshened appreciation for the shed blood of Christ once-for-all, the predicate of our now-bloodless Eucharistic sacrifice. The desire to preach to others is rarely what I get out of Fr. Stephen.

µ Maybe it’s even prepared in a commissary: I and thousands of others engaged in that sort of “communion” on New Year’s Eve 1970-71 in at Assembly Hall in Champaign-Urbana, under Intervarsity Christian Fellowship auspices, so shallow was our parachurch understanding, so feckless those few present who knew better.

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Friday, 9/7/18

1

Evelyn Waugh’s gently satirical Scott-King’s Modern Europe follows the declining career of a classics teacher at Granchester, a fictional English public school. Granchester is “entirely respectable” but in need of a bit of modernizing, at least in the opinion of its pragmatic headmaster, who is attuned to consumer demands. The story ends with a poignant conversation between Scott-King and the headmaster:

“You know,” [the headmaster] said, “we are starting this year with fifteen fewer classical specialists than we had last term?”

“I thought that would be about the number.”

“As you know I’m an old Greats man myself. I deplore it as much as you do. But what are we to do? Parents are not interested in producing the ‘complete man’ any more. They want to qualify their boys for jobs in the modern world. You can hardly blame them, can you?”

“Oh yes,” said Scott-King. “I can and do.”

“I always say you are a much more important man here than I am. One couldn’t conceive of Granchester without Scott-King. But has it ever occurred to you that a time may come when there will be no more classical boys at all?”

“Oh yes. Often.”

“What I was going to suggest was—I wonder if you will consider taking some other subject as well as the classics? History, for example, preferably economic history?”

“No, headmaster.”

“But, you know, there may be something of a crisis ahead.”

“Yes, headmaster.”

“Then what do you intend to do?”

“If you approve, headmaster, I will stay as I am here as long as any boy wants to read the classics. I think it would be very wicked indeed to do anything to fit a boy for the modern world.”

“It’s a short-sighted view, Scott-King.”

“There, headmaster, with all respect, I differ from you profoundly. I think it the most long-sighted view it is possible to take.”

Richard Gamble, To Be Unfit for the Modern World.

2

Midway through Revelation, John sees a pantomime of the Gospel’s beginning, enacted in the sky (Rev. 12). There’s a woman clothed with the sun, standing on the moon, crowned with twelve stars, laboring to bring a boy into the world. Near her is a dragon, ready to devour the infant …

We’ve seen plenty of sea monsters over the past few centuries, from the de-Christianization purge of the French Revolution to the personality cult of today’s North Korea. Even cuddly liberal house pets can turn into monsters. But oppressive political regimes aren’t the only threat. The dragon always calls monsters from the sea and monsters from the land, monsters of the state and monsters of the church.

Easy examples come to mind: Compromised German churches under the Nazis; Orthodox priests double-timing as KGB agents. But there are land beasts closer to home: Churches that support the fascism of the new sexual regime and persecute traditionalists; churches that cheer on every American war without asking whether it’s just or unjust; churches that serve as court prophets of humanistic internationalism; churches that serve as court prophets of humanistic nationalism.

Revelation unmasks the satanic monsters that lurk behind the veil of power, and it reminds us that sea monsters are never alone. Whenever a thuggish state tramples on the faithful, there will be thuggish pseudo-saints nearby, piously cheering it on.

Peter J. Leithart

3

Any discussion of the family must presuppose that it can be defined. That definition until recent times has always been accepted to be the natural or traditional family. It’s not possible to talk about alternative families, different kinds of families without first having a primary model.

Family First (New Zealand) board member Bruce Logan, quoted by Carolyn Moynihan.

Family First faces loss of charitable status because it advocates for the traditional family, whereas New Zealand now has thrown open “family,” which means that Family First advocates (drum roll) discriminaaaaaation! How could that possibly be a permissible charitable purpose.

QED

4

Someone wrote the other day:

Unlike the many, many online commentators who are extremely performative in their iconoclasm (yet somehow always managing to comfort the powerful), [Fredrik] deBoer is truly orthogonal to established ideologies.

That packs in quite a lot, and it seems like a good description of why many folks want to encounter deBoer.

Thursday, he did it again, in self-care is just another set of expectations you’ll never realize. It defies my summarization, but it seems to me that we’d miss a lot if we thought only about self-care when we read it. It applies to more than that, as I assume he intended.

5

We sang many hymns together. For the most part, our hymns served collectively to frame what would prove to be the centerpiece of our Sunday services: the sermon that—I now recognize—replaced centuries-old liturgical worship with something akin to a classroom whose lessons were punctuated by a soundtrack.

The hymns employed within that frame, by and large, fell into two categories: preparation for the sermon and altar call. Most were sentimental and didactic, speaking to the choir—as it were—while pretending to speak to God. That is also how most of our public prayer worked—with the pastor overtly addressing God while more pointedly admonishing the flock.

In any case, one hymn stood profoundly apart from the others, as it seemed to me more like prayer than any other utterance we made; it was, moreover, a prayer that I found myself praying as I sang the words. That hymn, “Be Thou My Vision,” therefore has always moved me.

Poet Scott Cairns, in Image Journal.

6

Deneen said he lead at Notre Dame a class on the idea of utopia, from ancient days until now. At the end, he polled the class to ask them which society of those he presented would they least want to live in, and which they would most want to live in. They all said 1984 is the one they wouldn’t want to live in. But which would they choose? A handful chose the world Wendell Berry presents in Hannah Coulter. But about half the class said Brave New World.

“It was stunning that they saw it as a utopia,” Deneen said. “That’s liberalism succeeding, and that’s liberalism failing.”

Rod Dreher (emphasis in original).

Notre Dame (My emphasis).

This came to mind as I read Nicholas Zinos, Erotic Love and the Totalitarian State, which agrees with me that Huxley got sex in dystopia better than Orwell, and who introduced me to One Evening in 2217, a 1906 classic available as part of a collection of Red Star Tales: A Century of Russian and Soviet Science Fiction, in English translation.

I find Brave New World scarily prophetic — so far, more so every time I read it.

7

It is perfectly necessary and routine for hired and appointed officials to give advice that runs contrary to a president’s wishes and instincts. It is perfectly legitimate to try to guard any president against his worst defects of judgment and character, and such stories are the stuff of all White House memoirs. And it is necessary for advisers and attorneys to warn a president about the constitutional and moral limits that should restrain his ambitions.

What is disturbing about the Times op-ed author is that he or she admits not to doing the above, but to actively subverting the agenda of the president on policy questions that were hotly debated and thrashed out publicly in the campaign, questions on which this adviser’s side arguably lost the popular debate.

And yet, one shouldn’t feel too bad for Trump. It is President Trump’s inability to hire and staff his campaign and his administration with competent and ethical people willing and able to translate the ideologically heterodox promises of his campaign into workable policy that gives this resistance staying power, and that constantly humiliates him in the press. Trump has not hired enough of the best people. He’s hired too many self-flatterers, grifters, and people who proudly identify with the swamp. If he can’t get out of his own way, no one else will either.

Kevin D. Williamson

8

If you prick him, does he not explode? If you stroke him, does he not purr?

The testimony of the tell-alls is remarkably consistent. Some around Trump are completely corrupted by the access to power. But others — who might have served in any Republican administration — spend much of their time preventing the president from doing stupid and dangerous things.

Michael Gerson, We are a superpower run by a simpleton.

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Friday Potpourri 8/24/18

1

Do you support religious liberty or LGBT individuals? It needn’t be an either–or proposition. Just as many who identify as LGBT hold conservative values, so many religious social conservatives count LGBT individuals among their beloved friends, family, and colleagues. This allows conservatives to take a compassionate, solution-oriented approach to addressing the problems faced by LGBT individuals. Such an approach can negate the need to treat sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class.

Andrew Koppelman, an LGBT advocate [and Northwestern University Law professor], admits that blanket denial of service for LGBT people is rare:

Hardly any of these cases have occurred: a handful in a country of 300 million people. In all of them, the people who objected to the law were asked directly to facilitate same-sex relationships, by providing wedding, adoption, or artificial insemination services, counseling, or rental of bedrooms. There have been no claims of a right to simply refuse to deal with gay people.

Our society is already fairly tolerant, with next to no cases of people flat-out denying service to LGBT individuals solely on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. What the Left often fails to realize is that true tolerance cuts both ways. Existing SOGI policies should be narrowly interpreted so that they act as shields against truly discriminatory practices, not as swords to punish religious beliefs. This approach promotes mutual tolerance and penalizes no persons for either their identity or their beliefs.

Monica Burke and Jared Eckert, Don’t Typecast Conservatives: They, Too, Respect the Dignity of LGBT Persons, at National Review online.

2

Writing of the Colorado Civil Right Commission, which is pursuing Jack Phillips again at the behest of Transgender Troll, Esq.:

[T]he governor makes all appointments to the commission unilaterally and the commissioners don’t have to be attorneys or have virtually any other qualifications except that a majority must be from a traditionally discriminated class, which as of 2008 included sexual orientation and transgender status.

But there is also no requirement for diversity of class, thus, the governor could appoint a majority or even all commissioners who openly identify as LGBT and seek a seat on the commission specifically because of that identification. Religion is also a traditionally protected class, so I’d love to see a future governor appoint a majority of commissioners who are specifically Christian and watch how fast the Democrats would try to shut down the Commission then.

Jenna Ellis. Or we could, maybe, try that better way.

3

Will we try the way of coercion or of civil society?

Unlike some of my fellow conservatives, I resist the idea that SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) anti-discrimination laws are part of a conspiracy to eradicate authentic Christianity. I say that even though the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was quite explicitly bigoted against Jack Phillips and so blinded by ideology as to be incapable of acknowledging that they were not punishing a homophobe but trying to coerce a conscientious artist into creating a work of art to celebrate what his conscience could not celebrate.

No, the impetus for SOGI laws lies in the felt need of “sexual minorities” for explicit affirmation — and some outrage, real or confected, when they get toleration instead of whole-hearted affirmation in every corner of civil society they choose to visit.

It’s heartening to me that some progressives of good will are starting to see, if not exactly what I see, at least that the stick of anti-discrimination laws is producing some real injustices.

4

We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.

Screwtape, to Wormwood, via Shane Morris.

5

A Catholic priest who had finished morning prayers inside an Indiana church earlier this week said he was attacked by a man who told him, “This is for all the little kids.”

Then, he said, he blacked out.

The priest, Rev. Basil John Hutsko, was knocked unconscious by an unknown person about 9 a.m. Monday at St. Michael Byzantine Catholic Church in Merrillville, Indiana, police told the Chicago Tribune.

Hutsko, who was taken to a hospital, was left with bruises on his face and body.

(USA Today, 8/24/18)

6

Cynthia Nixon’s challenge to New York governor Andrew Cuomo nudges the thinking adult toward that least conservative of all political sentiments: “Couldn’t be any worse.”

Things can always be worse.

But it is not obvious how or why Nixon, a celebrity neophyte, would be worse than Cuomo, a corrupt and incompetent heir to a half-assed political legacy. Nixon at least can boast of being an excellent actress — what exactly is it Andrew Cuomo is good at? Choosing his parents?

Of course she’s a naïf, and a borderline jackass. She’s new to this. But clearing the bar of “preferable to Andrew Cuomo” is not that difficult.

This is a new day in politics, and nobody is quite sure how it will shake out.

Kevin D. Williamson, who’s fun to read even when writing of matters of no immediate personal concern.

7

Last Thursday, hundreds of newspapers nationwide simultaneously published editorials attacking Mr. Trump in the guise of promoting a free press. The president regularly accuses news outlets of biased coverage ….

Jason Riley, WSJ (emphasis added).

Trump calls the press “Enemies of the People” and purveyors of “fake news.” His followers curse, flip-off and menace the press. Riley’s bland version is the sort of “nothing to see here; move along now” spin that makes me say the Wall Street Journal, no less than the New York Times, is a bit unhinged.

8

The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, in his wonderful little book For the Life of the World, defines secularism as the negation of man as a “worshipping being”. He correctly points out that many secularists “believe in God” (heck, as I often tell my students, “even Satan believes in God”), and that they may even have a sense of the spiritual and a semblance of a prayer life. Overt, full-blown, ideological atheism is still a minority position in America. But what makes these believers in God “secular” is their denial of the important of man as “homo adorans”. They deny that the very essence of what it means to be human involves giving “true worship” to God or that such worship constitutes the very perfection of who we are. Liturgy is thus robbed of any divine meaning or significance (for good reason do we call it “the Divine Liturgy”) and it is reduced in stature to a mere ritualized projection of our own subjective “tastes” in matters religious, on an equal footing with my preferences for Bourbon over Scotch, and Quarter Pounders over Big Macs: de gustibus non est disputandum.

And the secular ethos cuts across all ideological spectrums in the Church and deep into her soul ….

Larry Chapp in a letter to Rod Dreher. Right about now, I’m feeling pretty good about “homo adorans” in the header of this blog.

* * * * *

Our lives were meant to be written in code, indecipherable to onlookers except through the cipher of Jesus.

Greg Coles.

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Small, dull, boring, trite, trendy, and commonplace

[I]n order to fix the situation, the [Roman Catholic] bishops in Germany need to get rid of those “monumental church buildings” and appoint lay people to lead Communion services and whatnot, preferably in small ugly buildings that, by their sheer depressing lack of visual appeal (combined, one can only hope, with wretchedly bad music inspired by 1960s rock and a total absence of anything recognizable as art), will paradoxically reveal God’s glory by showing so piercingly what He isn’t: small, dull, boring, trite, trendy, and commonplace. After all, that’s been the approach in America’s Catholic churches since the end of the Second Vatican Council, and you can see how well it’s working here.

(Erin Manning, It usually ends in tears; or, the situation of the Church in Germany)

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It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition.

A man … is only a bigot if he cannot understand that his dogma is a dogma, even if it is true.

(G.K. Chesterton) Be of good courage, you who are called “bigots” by those who are unable to conceive seriously the alternatives to their dogmas.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.