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Anti-Nihilism Device

I’ve been reading The Opposite of Loneliness by the late Marina Keegan. She was a Yale grad who died in a car accident shortly after her graduation. The book is a collection of her short stories and essays.

One thing that stands out about her essays is the sense of isolation she felt. But I won’t go there in this post. Instead, I want to share a line that struck me in her little essay, Putting the ‘Fun’ back in Eschatology. You can read the whole thing online HERE.

She is wrestling with things she’s learning in her science classes – mainly with the ‘fact’ that the sun is eventually going to burn out and die. She comforts herself with thoughts that NASA will eventually perfect space travel and come up with solutions for living in a sunless galaxy. Here’s the quote:

It’s natural selection on a Universal scale. “The Origin of the Aliens,” one could say; a survival of the fittest planets. Planets capable of evolving life intelligent enough to leave before the lights go out. I suppose that without a God, NASA is my anti-nihilism.

In his novel Generation X, Douglas Coupland coins the term “anti-victim device.” An anti-victim device, according to Coupland, is “a small fashion accessory worn on an otherwise conservative outfit which announces to the world that one still has a spark of individuality burning inside.” Think of a conservative Southern girl with a lower-back tattoo or a nose ring. She may be straight laced in a lot of ways, but watch out. She’s got a wild side too. She’s taking jiu-jitsu lessons too.

Keegan saw NASA as her anti-nihilism device. That’s different from an anti-victim device, but kind of similar too. An anti-nihilism device says, ‘Yeah, I know the sun is going to burn out and everything’s going to freeze, but I’ve got hope.’ And notice she qualifies this with the key phrase – “without God.”

Without God, everyone has to have anti-nihilism devices. Christians tends to call these things idols. An anti-nihilism device is the thing you go to for ultimate hope when you realize there’s really nothing to live for. No reason not to be an anarchist, a nihilist, to just fall into total despair and do whatever you want.

Chuck Palahniuk has started calling himself an ‘optimistic nihilist.’ That’s a nihilist with blinders on. King Solomon was right folks. Without God, life under the sun doesn’t make sense. And the sun eventually burns out anyway. Some folks need to turn NASA into God. Others turn their their careers, their families, their favorite sports team, whatever into gods. They have to have something to brighten their day when the sun is burning out.

Life-Lie

I heard Tim Keller use this quote in a talk recently and thought that it was worth saving and sharing. From the Norweigian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play, Wild Duck:

If you take the life lie from an average man, you take away his happiness as well.

From Wikipedia (see ‘Wild Duck’ link above):

Different translations use different words for the “life-lie”. In Eva le Gallienne’s translation, Relling says “I try to discover the Basic Lie – the pet illusion – that makes life possible; and then I foster it.” He also says “No, no; that’s what I said: the Basic Lie that makes life possible.”

The Sovereignty of Technology

The United States is the most radical society in the world. It is in the process of conducting a vast, uncontrolled experiment which poses the question, Can a society preserve any of its traditional virtues by submitting all of its institutions to the sovereignty of technology?

Neil Postman, The Conservative Outlook, from Conscientious Objections, p. 107

I don’t think Postman phrases his question perfectly. The question should probably more along the lines of ‘Can a society preserve any of its traditional virtues as it submits all of its institutions to the sovereignty of technology?’

When posed that way, the question becomes a little more tricky. First, we have to ask the question of whether or not technology has truly become sovereign in our culture. Does technology have supreme and ultimate power? I answer yes and no.

Technology has become sovereign in the sense that we elevate its worth and often declare it to be infallible. Technology has not become sovereign in the sense that they are generally, as McLuhan said, ‘extensions of man.’ They are means through which we express our own self-conceived sovereignty, extend our reach, increase our comfortability, and impose our will and desires on others. In other words, to paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13, they allow us to inflate ourselves and impose ourselves on others. In this sense, man is sovereign and technology is his scepter and herald.

But, again, Postman has a point. As has often been said, by Henry David Thoreau, McLuhan, and Postman himself, the danger is that we tend to become tools of our tools. And, as we do, to quote C.S. Lewis, when we turn something into a god, it will become a demon. When we make idols out of man-made things, God will give us over to our plunderers, and they will do what plunderers do: plunder (see Judges 2).

So the ultimate answer is, No, we can’t hold to traditional values as we submit our institutions to the sovereignty of technology. This has been demonstrated clearly in recent decades. But the problem is just as much with individuals as with institutions. And the problem isn’t really technology itself. Five hundred years ago all of the West’s institutions submitted to the sovereignty of the printed word on account of the newly invented technology of the printing press. Was that a bad thing? Did that ruin the culture? I guess it depends on who you ask. Haters of Martin Luther and Protestantism might think it ruined the culture. I do not count myself among them.

The problem is with our idolatrous desire to exalt gods that are no gods. Turn something into a god and it will become a demon. Technology under the lordship of Christ is technology kept in its place. But in order to keep technology under his lordship, we must be under it first.

I would also add that being a ‘conservative,’ in Postman’s thinking, means fighting to conserve tradition. That doesn’t equate to a lot of things modern ‘conservatives’ fight for. Anyhow, we must be careful that we don’t exalt ‘traditional values’ too highly either. Our culture’s traditional values are no god. They may be good or bad, and some are definitely good, but they are no god. Hence the need to constantly go back to the Word of God, which is always timely.

Ministering Before Idols

  • Ezekiel 44:12 Because they ministered to them before their idols and became a stumbling block of iniquity to the house of Israel, therefore I have sworn concerning them, declares the Lord GOD, and they shall bear their punishment.

Do we minister to the people before their idols? This means that we share their idols. It means that we are either in willful rebellion or that we are oblivious to our shared idolatry.

Matthew Henry comments,

Those who have been treacherous are degraded and put lower those Levites—or priests who were carried down the stream of the apostasy of Israel formerly, who went astray from God after their idols (v. 10), who had complied with the idolatrous kings of Israel or Judah, who ministered to them before their idols (v. 12), bowed with them in the house of Rimmon, or set up altars for them, as Urijah did for Ahaz, and so caused the house of Israel to fall into iniquity, led them to sin and hardened them in sin; for, if the priests go astray, many will follow their pernicious ways.


In my mind, I saw three things as I read this verse today: 1) A mega-church preacher standing in front of a plasma screen, 2) a health and wealth preacher standing in front of a million dollar stage setup, an 3) I’ll leave you to guess at the other one…

The good news is that Christ too ministers before our idols; but, rather than endorsing them, he tears them down and replaces them. He is our true Icon (Col. 1:15).

Image from stuffchristianculturelikes.com

On Exercise as Worship

At sunrise thirty young people ran out into the clearing; they fanned out, their faces turned towards the sun, and began to bend down, to drop to their knees, to bow, to lie flat on their faces, to stretch out their arms, to lift up their hands, and then to drop back down on their knees again. All this lasted for a quarter of an hour.

From a distance you might have thought they were praying.

In this age, no one is surprised if people cherish their bodies patiently and attentively every day of their lives.

But they would be jeered at if they paid the same regard to their souls.

No, these people are not praying. They are doing their morning exercises.

-Alexander Solzhenitsyn, At the Start of the Day, from Stories and Prose Poems, p. 216

I went on a Solzhenitsyn binge a while back. I didn’t write much about it. But tonight, before the kids went to bed, we all huddled up while I read some of his poems (they’re really small meditations on various life events). This one struck me afresh. Perhaps it is because I’ve started a new exercise program. After dropping a bunch of weight a few years ago, I’ve tried to stay in good shape for a while now; but I’ve become rededicated. I find that physical discipline has helped my spiritual discipline tremendously over the years. At least, in my experience, physical discipline sets a rhythm that can be conducive to spiritual discipline. But I’ve always fought to keep priorities straight, keeping in minds the words of the apostle:

For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come (1 Tim. 4:8, KJV).

Solzhenitsyn reminds us just how much exercise can look like worship. He never denies that it is profitable. He only points out the great paradox that people will often admire physical exercise and discipline without giving any thought to spiritual devotion, or even jeering at those who are spiritually disciplined. If someone raise their hands up during yoga class, hooray. But if someone raises them up in worship, not so much. We lack balance.

Are we as active in the spiritual gymnasium of the Means of Grace as we are in the gyms of this world? As we long for a certain body type, a certain physique, a certain look, do we long to be built up spiritually into the image of Christ? If not, when we bow down, and prostrate ourselves, and raise our hands up in exercise, we really are involved in a sort of idolatrous prayer. When we press up heavy weights on the bench press or in the squat rack, we are only living out a strange parable – that the weight will always be there. No spotter can ease our burdens. The burden of the self-worshiper is so great that it will weigh him, and pound  him, down to the very depths.  As we meticulously plan each meal as though it were a holy sacrament offered up to the god of self, in remembrance of the law of macronutrients,  do we remember that man does not live by bread alone? Do we remember that as the body is meant to live on food, so the soul is meant to live on Christ?

For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.

This is not to devalue physical exercise. Rather, it is to value it by putting it in its proper place. As Lewis was fond of saying, if you turn something into a god it will become a demon. Find balance.

Finite Focus (Living Into Focus)

Tom Vanderbilt notes that the more info one is faced with, the less respect and attention one gives. Walter Kirn claims that ‘researchers estimate that the average city dweller is exposed to 5,000 ads per day, up from 2,000 per day three decades ago.’ We are inundated. It becomes hard to know what is important, what is a priority, what is crucial. As we add distracting technologies into our lives, the flood grows. The truth, as Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton remind us, is that we all have limits to our ability to pay attention; it is a ‘finite resource. At any given moment we are incapable of focusing on more than a few bits of information at a time.’

-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, p. 85

Focus is finite. I like that phrase.

My mind goes to my incessant desire to multitask. My job demands it. My schedule demanded it for the past two years.

Sunday, while driving two hours to preach at a rural church, I followed my regular routine. I downloaded a C.S. Lewis book to listen to during the drive. I stopped at my regular gas stop. There’s a TV at the pump. It mostly shows commercials, but it reminds me of Back to the Future 2, which makes it interesting. I was already multitasking: driving and listening to my MP3 player. Then I found that I couldn’t hear my MP3 player over the ads on the gas pump TV. I don’t even know why I just told that story. It seems related to the subject somehow.

We are not God. There is a God, and I am not him. I therefore am not infinite, and never will be. Why can’t I accept that fact? Because, as Calvin says, the human heart is an idol-factory. So, herein lies a paradox. The sooner I accept that my ability to focus is finite, the more productive it will be, for it will be working within the context in which it is meant to work. Focus entails acknowledging that I am limited. I am not omniscient, I am not omnipotent. I do not have the power to gain all knowledge. I do not have the resources to hear every prayer from every human being at one in the same time. I am not God. Time constrains me, space constrains me, weakness constrains me.

Find your limits, confess your limits, work within your limits; then you will have freedom. The freedom of marriage comes from making a commitment to limit yourself to one spouse. Intimacy comes only after such a commitment has been made. Such is also the case with focus. You will find depth when you are willing to limit the subjects of your thoughts. You will find intimacy with ideas when you commit to focusing on those ideas.