Our culture’s most impressive achievements usually have to do with technology: the space shuttle, advances in digital communications, instant availability of information via the internet. Albert Borgmann speculates that one ‘reason for embracing technology might be the understandable desire to embrace what’s distinctive about our culture. It’s difficult to accept the notion that the things that are most characteristic of our lives should not be most central.’ In Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novels, such as The First Circle, it is striking how many Soviet citizens were unable to critique the downsides of Stalinism – and not only because of the threat of punishment. Even people imprisoned on false and trumped-up political charges were likely to defend their own country’s political system. When Christian churches dominated medieval culture and their cathedrals commanded city skylines, it was hard to challenge abuses of faith. If technology is at the center of our lives, how frightening it must be to suggest that perhaps there is something wrong at the core of what our civilization regards as most worthwhile.
-Arthur Boers, Living Into Focus, pp. 182-183
Marshall McLuhan, in The Medium is the Massage, wrote,
The poet, the artist, the sleuth – whoever sharpens our perception tends to be antisocial; rarely ‘well-adjusted,’ he cannot go along with currents and trends. A strange bond often exists among antisocial types in their power to see environments as they really are. This need to interface, to confront environments with a certain antisocial power, is manifest in the famous story, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes.’ ‘Well-adjusted’ courtiers, having vested interests, saw the Emperor as beautifully appointed. The ‘antisocial’ brat, unaccustomed to the old environment, clearly saw that the Emperor ‘ain’t got nothin’ on.’
Old Testament prophets were Israelites who had been summoned to the courts of Heaven (on earth, as the veil was drawn back before them) before the presence of innumerable angels in festal gathering, before the very presence of God. Isaiah saw the LORD, high and lifted up, with his train filling the heavenly temple. He saw the cherubim. He realized he, and his people, were unclean. He needed an outside-in perspective. He needed to see his own culture through the eyes that were not of his culture.
G.K. Chesterton writes this about prophets:
…If we see what is the real trend of humanity, we shall feel it most probable that he was stoned for saying that the grass was green and that the birds sang in spring; for the mission of all the prophets from the beginning has not been so much the pointing out of heavens or hells as primarily the pointing out of the earth.
Religion has had to provide that longest and strangest telescope – the telescope through which we could see the star upon which we dwelt…
This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself…It is a strange thing that men…have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed (from the Introduction to The Defendant).
If anyone is going to speak with a prophetic voice in our time and place we are going to have to get a perspective on our culture that doesn’t come from our culture. We are going to have to, as insiders, look at ourselves from the outside. How are we going to do this? My own focus is on two things: First, counter-cultural church. If the church tightly resembles our culture, we will never be able to critique it, or ourselves. Second, old books, especially the Scriptures.
In Alister McGrath’s biography of C.S. Lewis, he writes,
For Lewis, the reading of literature – above all, the reading of older literature – is an important challenge to some premature judgments based on ‘chronological snobbery.’ Owen Barfield had taught Lewis to be suspicious of those who declaimed the inevitable superiority of the present over the past.
…Lewis argues that a familiarity with the literature of the past provides readers with a standpoint which gives them critical distance from their own era. Thus, it allows them to see ‘the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective.’ The reading of old books enable us to avoid becoming passive captives of the Spirit of the Age by keeping ‘the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds’ (p. 187).
It’s not secret why Lewis and Chesterton were able to point ‘that longest and strangest telescope’ on the world in which they lived. It was because they very often had their feet in another world altogether. Most of that was due to old books. If the sky isn’t rolled back as a scroll for us, if we do not see the heavenly vision of the prophet in the flesh, the closest we will ever get is in old books. The Bible provides 66 of them. And the church, though imperfect, has provided many, many more.