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Fiction in a Buffered World

I’m slowly making my way through Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age.

One of the interesting distinctions Taylor makes about our culture versus past cultures is this: He says before the Renaissance, Western people lived in a “porous universe.” This means that they were vulnerable to outside spiritual forces, They were vulnerable to God. The universe, and the self, could be penetrated by things outside it.

He argues that we are now living in a “buffered universe.” In the age of the ‘self,’ we are isolated and cannot be penetrated by external forces in the same way.  We are not vulnerable to “the world of the spirits and powers” in the same way that our ancestors were.

To put it in another way: Western culture was once enchanted. Now it is disenchanted.

Think of Martin Luther praying to St. Anne during a lightning storm. Most modern Westerners now attribute lightning to merely natural causes. What’s the use of praying to anybody? Just check the weather report before you head out next time.

Let me tie this thought to something else. A while ago, I watched a talk by Alan Jacobs that related to his. You can watch it HERE. He makes a lot of points about fiction in the talk. I’ll let you watch it if you’re interested. I just want to give him credit for the line of thought.

In the age of the buffered self, people do not want to be told what to do. One of the hallmarks of post-modernity was/is rejection of authority and institutions. With this being the case, there were more and more instances happening of people coming to faith, or their faith being sustained, through fiction. C.S. Lewis reading George MacDonald’s book Phantastes is the classic example of this.

In a buffered age, God often uses means other than preachers to penetrate people’s souls. And preachers should take note of this and try to use those things as well. This is no different than the prophet Nathan using a story about someone stealing a sheep to confront King David’s adultery. David was buffered. He was most vulnerable (or porous) while he was listening to a story.

Entertainment (whether fiction books, or movies, or documentaries, or whatever) is a tool through which the buffered self can become porous. It is our primary means of enchanting the disenchanted. This means we need to look for ways to take the things we are consuming and use them to point people to the truth. To point people to Christ. That’s what Seeing Christ in Fight Club is going to focus on.

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