Death Valley Confessions

I had always maintained that God and his divine enterprises, his “kingdom”, were the overarching realities for all of life, but after the inferno that consumed so much of my life (loss of job, money, house, church, and friends) I began to question their relevance for life in the ‘here and now.’ If my life was a house, it burned to the ground. “How could this have happened? Was my life over? I picked through the charred and smoldering pieces, desperate for an answer, for a sign, something that I could use to rebuild and begin again. “Where was God” I asked, “and why hadn’t he protected us?”

The answer to these questions eluded me and over time a chasm opened up. On the one side of the chasm was God and on the other side, the ‘real world.’ The biblical admonition to be, “in the world but not of it” had become an impossibility, for I could no longer occupy both spheres at once. The chasm yawned opened and I fell in, tumbling into the darkness of the void.

The void is emptiness, the total absence of meaning and certainty.

The void is emptiness, the total absence of meaning and certainty. In this way the void is less like going to jail or traveling to another country and more like going to an alien planet. In the void, you are still aware of God but he is no longer familiar – he is different. In the void God is no longer willing or even interested in getting on your wavelength. The one who had once promised a “future and a hope” has now become the source of excruciating pain and disappointment. The void is kind of like Alice’s rabbit hole or Neo’s experience with the Matrix, for in the void reality is distorted and redefined.

There in the void, the questions flood and torture your mind. What will become of me?  Have I lost my spiritual walk?  Have I been living in a daydream all these years only to now awake from my religious slumber? Would I ever return to the life I once lived above the void? As my eyes adjusted to the shadowy darkness, I surveyed the landscape and it was devastating, worse than I had feared. I was looking at “dead bones” on top of “dead bones” and again the questions mounted. Was this all my fault? Had I really gotten it all that wrong? Was not God (his Spirit and his Word) the one who had shaped my dreams and expectations over all these years?

My questions were met with silence and my complaints were denied validation. God, as well as several of my closest friends, refused to consider these painful questions and disturbing complaints. In the void, things like, logic, fairness and sincerity have no meaning. In the void, the rules that govern life “above” do not apply. The void mocks and demolishes each one of our reasons, principles and sentiments. In the void there are no answers or consolation, only confusion. In the void I was disoriented and out of sync, out of sync with my God, myself and with the world around me. Protest and anger was all I had for protection.

“I have been betrayed by the one I had called Lord and savior!”

As the years passed, I came to accept the fact that God and I were locked in a stalemate with neither side backing down, so I decided to settle into my new life “below” the surface. I discovered that life “below” had some real advantages to life “above.” I am convinced that the book of Ecclesiastes, was written from the perspective of life “below.” What I did not realize was that life “below” was not the deepest place. Further and deeper down lay a simmering cauldron of lava. And then one day the cauldron blew. Out of the depths of my heart spewed bitter complaints and cursing, “I have been betrayed by the one I had called Lord and savior!”

I cursed at the heavens but the heavens held their peace, so with my relationship with God in complete disrepair, I did the only thing that I knew to do; I began a studied exploration of the badlands of my soul. I explored the rocky crags of bitterness and descended into the deep crevasses of inexorable fear. I walked the length and breadth of my personal Death Valley, and as I walked I cried out to God, lifting up anguished protests followed by desperate pleas for mercy, “Why God, why have you forsaken me!?”

“What are you counting on?”

I had heard about people with “hardness of heart”, those who had resisted God’s authority even to the point of open rebellion. The symptoms of my hardness had manifested in mistrust and bitter complaints. Gradually, over the course of months and years, without a dramatic breakthrough, there in the midst of these spiritual badlands, a tiny beam of light. The question quite literally came to me in a dream, “What are you counting on?” I thought about the question but I could not see that far into the depths of things – perhaps I was unwilling to look for fear of what I would find, so I decided to go another route.

I remembered this one “trick” that I kept for desperate times like this. Like Charlie Kauffman, I am not above tricking people into loving me, but where would I find these people who would recognize my inherent worth? Before what audience could I display my talent? Then I thought, “Perhaps there is a church in need of a minister . . . I have studied more than most people . . . I must have something to offer . . . something good . . . I just need to refine my message and improve my attitude. Maybe academia and theological discourse could give me the opportunity to shine!”

I had hoped that through the rigors of in-depth study (five years of graduate seminary) and with the right changes to my theology, I could fix the “dead bones” problem and move forward in life. But, while my studies opened up new perspectives, deep down I knew that things were still as I had feared and I was still in Death Valley. And then, a memory stirred. I remembered a conversation, one that I had turned to several times over the last thirty years, a conversation between God and the prophet Ezekiel.

‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’

“The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’” Ezek.37:1-4

Does living by faith mean living in a religious, “make believe land”? Does having faith mean sticking our heads down in the sand of denial or up in the oxygen depleted clouds of delusion? Faith in God is neither a fanatical escape nor a stoic indifference to the fallen order of things. We tend to like things “all or nothing” and “black and white”, but God meets us in the messy middle of our lives and faith refuses to look away from the mess. Faith is not denial or delusion, for it requires that we make an honest assessment of our situation, “behold, there were very many on the surface, and they were very dry.”

The discoveries I have gleaned from my experience in the void and the truth hidden in Ezekiel’s vision, continue to shape my life. The first thing I discovered is that the losses in our lives are neither trivial nor imagined – the “dead bones” are very real. The second thing I discovered is that God is not asking us to play make-believe and he is not downplaying the tragedy, “Now, now, it’s not that bad.” The third thing I am learning is that we will never be able to supply what is chronically missing in our lives or fix what is irreparably broken in this world and that is ok – such work is simply way above our pay grade. How would any of us know the first thing about “dead bones” coming to life?!

Now in answer to the earlier question from my dream, “What are you counting on?” If I am honest, I was always counting on God ‘backing me up’ in the world and giving me an advantage over the heathens. I was counting on a certain contractual deal where, if I faithfully served God, then he would be obliged to give me a privileged “seat at his table.” I was wrong. Somewhere along the way, I had conflated and confused God (along with his Spirit, his Word and his people) with my visionary dreaming and my personal ambitions.

I have learned the hard way that he never meets me in the place I think I should be – he only meets and deals with me in the place where I am.

I was surprised (more like devastated) to learn that despite how spiritual or godly my dreams and ambitions are; God is under no obligation to bring them to pass. And while I still believe that God speaks and that God promises, I have learned the hard way that he never meets me in the place I think I should be – he only meets and deals with me in the place where I am. It turns out that God’s promises are one-part pain and one-part hope. The one-part pain is the fact that even as we speak, “the present form of this world is passing away” and with it all our expectations of what we hoped that world would look like for us (ICo. 7:31).

I am still discovering right up to this minute that God is someone who I am ever discovering but never fully grasping – control and certainty are illusions, deceptive idols of the mind. My notion of God as the one who “backs up” my dreams is worse than useless – it is the source of insufferable heartache. Unfortunately, these notions die-hard, and I am gradually coming around to accept the truth. The truth is that God, the almighty creator and crucified redeemer, is not here to do my biding and he is not interested in doing a ‘fix up job’ on the “old me.” The God of Jesus Christ does not put Band-Aids on the “old creation” – life in Christ is nothing less than new creation! For he says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5)! Notice, he says, “I am making” and not, “I will make.” The only question left is, what does “all” mean?


The Modern “Turn to the Subject”: An Ongoing Study

This piece from SCOTTYTHINKS is a great summary for anyone interested in understanding the “rules” that govern modern thought.


This article represents an ongoing study for me and will be updated from time to time.

Western culture is yet awash in a detrimental subjectivism which stems from the impact of the modern turn to the subject. Before defining that phrase and more, it is important to confess my presuppositions. 

Enlightenment Still?

kant1 Immanuel Kant

As mentioned above, Western culture yet lies awash in Enlightenment philosophy and, indeed, is still in the Enlightenment period (though many subsequent and intervening eras have been spawned in response). While, indeed, Western culture may have been in a postmodern trance for a time in response to the Enlightenment era and the subsequent eras it spawned, postmodernism failed to convincingly “occupy a standpoint (‘the view from nowhere’) from which it [might] survey all possible standpoints and find them all ‘relative,’ while at the same time [claiming] that there is no such standpoint.”[1] That…

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Roid Head Jesus: Confessions of a Religious False Self

This is part 2 of last weeks post: Do You Have to Be So F-ing Condescending?

Christians, like myself, have a long history in America of presuming to be God’s appointed guardians of “the good”, the standard bearers of morality and righteousness! With regards to American politics, Christians have insisted that they are the ones uniquely qualified to “manage the store.” This would explain why in recent decades (the post-Christian era), the church has become defensive and preoccupied with “taking back America for God.” The very thought of relinquishing or even sharing the moral high ground with “the heathens” has been unthinkable and instead of going quietly into the night, some Christians have resorted to doom and gloom rhetoric, self-inflicted martyrdom and an all-out culture war.

When will the church realize that the world has grown weary of her, “make you wrong – make us right” scam. The world has rightly interpreted the church’s posturing and angry rhetoric as an attempt to dominate. Sadly, the church has for the most part, refused to recognize the cost for all her cultural crusading; failing to see how in setting herself up as judge over the world, she has forfeited her essential witness to Christ and to his gospel. Whenever the church confuses gospel with political ideology and moral outrage, she becomes just another one of the warring factions shoving their “show” on the rest of society.

As a Christian, I am painfully aware of how I have played the role of judge on the people around me, all the while holding a “get out of jail card” for myself. I have taken cover behind my religious self-image, presuming that my status of “good and godly” entitled me to special consideration, if not from society, at least from God and my fellow Christians. Too often I have played the role of the Pharisee who prays, “Lord, thank you that I am not a sinner like that man over there.” It is time for the church to repent of the “make you wrong – make me right” scam and to become a movement for good, those who bear witness to Jesus Christ, while discovering what it means to “love God and neighbor.” The church, by protecting her own interests, has lost her ability to bear witness to the one who willingly laid down his life for his friends, as well as his enemies.

The motivation for this piece is to uncover or confess “the truth” as in, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”  Now I am not interested in bashing the church – I am the church – and I want the church to be free! Everyone, regardless of class, ethnicity or worldview has to struggle to maintain their existential equilibrium. Maintaining equilibrium within one’s self, one’s social group and one’s environment can be a difficult and painful task. Aside from the countless threats to our physical well-being, most of us are just one personal rejection or failure away from feeling utterly devastated! In order to avoid or decrease personal devastation, we unconsciously create a variety of “survival mechanisms.”

Robert Mulholland in his book, The Deeper Journey, explains how a certain survival mechanism has back-fired on us, the mechanism known as the religious false self (ref. R.F.S.).

“With that I began to realize that underneath the thin veneer of my religiosity lived a pervasive and deeply entrenched self-referencing being which was driven by its own agendas, its own desires, its own purposes, and that no amount of superficial tinkering with the religious façade made any appreciable difference” (The Deeper Journey 23).

Sadly, the R.F.S. is not limited to those whose worldview includes a particular deity, since the non-religious version or “ideological false self” is equally insidious (further proof of how dubious the secular vs. religious dichotomy can be). But what is behind this facade of the R.F.S.?  Mullholland explains that just “underneath the veneer” of the religious false self lies a “pervasive and deeply entrenched self-referencing being.” Can the R.F.S. be reformed or deconstructed? Unfortunately, because the R.F.S. is a “self-referencing being”, it is virtually immune to outside influence and correction. The R.F.S. is blind to its need for renewal and repentance (read: paradigm shifts or “program updates”). A truly “self-referencing person” is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes as being cor curvum in se, the heart turned in upon itself.

There are serious consequences for failing to recognize ones own “tricks”, which is why the proverb cautions us saying, “Keep your heart with all diligence for out of it flows all the issues of life”  (Prov. 4.23).  Failure to watch over ones own secret motives and to reflect on ones deepest affections is like failing to watch over one’s physical health – both can have devastating consequences. Again, the dangers of the R.F.S. is not restricted to those who adhere to a “world religion”, there are atheist friends of mine who can be just as”self-referencing” in their dogmatism and equally accomplished in the “make you wrong” scam. Also, this is not an all or nothing problem. There are days when I live generously with people around me and there are days when I can feel the R.F.S. trying to grab the wheel.

When the self-righteous agendas of the R.F.S. go unchecked in our lives, it not only corrupts our reason and our affections, consequently it distorts and damages our relationships with others. The earliest and most tragic example of this distortion is recorded in the ancient Hebrew’s story of Reshith (raysheeth) or Beginnings. In the story, God is looking for his creature Adam who has come under the influence of reality-distorting “fruit.” God calls, “Where are you?” Adam responds, “I heard you calling and I was afraid because I was naked.” Much has been written about the identity of the fruit but all one needs to now from this story, is told in the telling of the story (i.e. the fruit in question came from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”). The symptoms of the “forbidden” fruit are dramatically portrayed in Adam’s behavior. When you read the story below see if you can identify some of the symptoms that Adam exhibits while under the influence of this “fruit.”

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ge 3:8–13.

The first symptom we see in Adam is what appears to be an irrational fear (“I heard the sound of you . . . I was afraid . . . and I hid myself”). If we were doing a psych analysis on Adam, we would say that the creature was likely suffering from acute paranoia. As the story unfolds, God inquires of Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?” Adam does not answer the question, the implication here is that no one told Adam that he was “naked” (i.e., inadequate and shameful) – Adam apparently told himself this! The name for this condition is, self-loathing. Lastly as God attempts to get to the bottom of the crisis, he asks Adam if he had eaten the forbidden fruit, to which Adam replies, “The woman . . .” This symptom of failing to take responsibility for one’s actions is called “blame-shifting” or what we have called “running the scam.” When asked a yes or no question, “Did you eat it?” Adam simply shifted the blame onto the woman, who then proceeded to shift it on to the snake.

This ancient myth is a profound depiction of human nature struggling to maintain its equilibrium in the face of fear, shame and blame. Adam’s world began unraveling the moment he acquired this new “knowledge.” The “knowledge of good and evil” turned Adam into a judge, for he immediately began to judge everything. Adam judged himself, “I am naked,” Adam judged God, (“You’re a threat!”), Adam judged the woman, “She gave it to me!” It is this last symptom of blame and judging that we have been talking about these last months. We must not allow the gift of the Beginnings story to be wasted on misguided debates about when or how the beginning happened. Like all good myths, the purpose is to find yourself in the story. I am Adam. I am hiding in the bushes, under the influence of a reality-distorting “knowledge”, a “knowledge” which has turned me into a judge! The tragedy of this story is that Adam has become an R.F.S. and his world will never be the same!

I want to conclude our series by considering something truly hopeful and redemptive, something we might think “too good to be true”  – the hope of life beyond our scams, judgments and false selves. As children of “Adam”, we have seen how capable we are of deluding ourselves, while simultaneously marginalizing the “other.” But consider the possibility that Jesus Christ was not a R.F.S. – he is no mere peddler of D.I.Y. religion or ideology. Despite the fact that millions of people have used his image and name for their own agendas, Christ himself is not the author of our religious scams. Christ is the author of the new heart and the one who gives sight to “the blind.” Christ is the one who breaks the spell of the R.F.S., freeing us from our compulsive need to judge the shit out of everything, as well as from the tyranny of being judged! Paul refers to this Christ as a “life-giving spirit”, which means that he can create something new in the human soul, a new orientation toward God and neighbor!




“Do You Have to Be So F-ing Condescending?” Part One

I originally intended this to be my last post for the year 2015 and here we are in the third week of May!  So if there was a theme that captured the “big idea” for this web site, The OC, it would be, “Reflecting, Questioning and Unlearning.” This particular project has been a thing of mine for roughly the last ten or fifteen years. This post is part one of two parts (the post went long) and as always it is intended to stimulate dialog so please chime in!

As I mentioned in the last post, many years ago I was fortunate to have a certain college prof. whose influence helped to dramatically change the course of my life. Wess was one of those teachers who understood his craft in terms of empowering students to learn how to think and not just what to think. From his lectures I found new confidence to test and challenge the status quo, the courage to head into the uncharted territory of repentance (i.e. from the Greek meaning, “change one’s mind!”).  Wess, would say, “we must learn to recognize the scams we are running.” He went on to say that while there are many types of scams such as, ‘make you weak – make me strong,’ ‘make you dumb – make me smart’, the most basic formula of the scam is, ‘make you wrong – make me right.’

I think it is time for those of us who self-apply, “student of Jesus Christ” to own up to our favorite scam, the one that we run on our “unbelieving” neighbors. Personally speaking, I have become increasingly sympathetic with those for whom religion has come to represent ignorance and bigotry. That said, in spite of the chronic hypocrisy of people like myself, I am convinced that the biggest problem that we face as earthlings is not uniquely “religious.”  In fact, while religious people are famous for perfecting the “art of the scam”, they are certainly not the sole perpetrators of it. If we are honest, we can agree with Wess, we are all running the ‘make you wrong – make me right’ scam on the people around us. Sometime today or at least this week, you will run it on someone you work with or live with!

Perhaps the “scam” originated in our primal instincts for survival and self-preservation, the knee-jerk tendency to think and act from the “fight or flight” dilemma. Today in 21st century, western civilization, the ‘make you wrong’ scam has less to do with survival than with our drives for social acceptance and our quest for material acquisition. Regardless of its origin, the scam appears to be hard-wired into the circuit board of our brains. Whether it is the moral “right or wrong” or  the political “left or right”, the code remains the same. The “scam” is a simple binary, an either-or opposition, which cannot endure complexity, nuance or humility. You could say that binary thinking is  our natural default setting, the setting which falls well below the higher levels of critical thought – “Will that be Coke or Pepsi?”

A recent U2 lyric puts it this way:

You think it’s easier
To put your finger on the trouble
When the trouble is you
And you think it’s easier
To know your own tricks
Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do (U2, The Troubles)

Binary formulas, “either-or”, “left-right”, “faith or reason”, “right-wrong” thinking destroys our ability to humbly reflect and creatively engage beyond the ready-made categories dictated by instinct and manipulated by advertisers. As John Stewart has noted (I cannot encourage you strongly enough to take time with the interview below) our political discourse has been high-jacked by this binary formula of “red-blue” and “left-right”. Stewart notes that news outlets consistently frame political discourse as if it were a rugby match. The match is between two clearly defined teams who are competing for cultural relevance and political dominance. The two “teams” take many different pairings: religious versus atheist, conservative versus liberal, black versus white or any one of the countless other combinations. John Stewart, in his interview with Rachel Maddow, describes this news formula, where every issue is reduced to the binary formula of – blue or red!

If Stewart is right, we have been conditioned like Pavlovian dogs to begin salivating whenever the “right-wrong / left-right” bell begins to ring. The problem facing us today is not simply the conspiratorial fact that we are simply being manipulated and indoctrinated by these external forces of media, the government, the church etc. The deeper problem, as Slavoj Zizek tells us in his, The Perverts Guide to Ideology, is that we actually prefer this binary thinking and reductionist discourse. We take comfort in the false security we derive from simplifying the mind-numbing complexities of the world into easy to manage categories. And we especially like the feeling of lining up on the “right” side of the “right-wrong” scam.

I started out on a journey of faith over thirty years ago and during that time I have probably unlearned as much as I have learned but surprisingly, the unlearning has not led me to either disavow or discredit the wisdom or the inspired texts of my religious tradition. The problem, I discovered, was not with the text or the “leaders” but with me, the reader and the follower. In fact, just this week, I was telling a friend of mine how when I first started out as a teen, I learned to read the scripture in a perverse way. I would read the text, all the while assuring myself that the author was describing someone else, someone other than me. When I would read the moral commandments, I did so from the comfort and security of one sitting just beyond the reach of the text’s searchlight. I had become, as Wess Pinkham would say, “double-dipped”, since my religious cover would not allow me to hear and therefore, consider the word for myself. And unfortunately over time, I had simply become “tone deaf” to the message.

The logic of my preferred “reading method” went something like this, I am a “good Christian” and I am on the side of “the good” and “the right”, over and against my fellow non-Christians, those who are basically godless and immoral (or at least not “good” like I am). I naturally concluded that I was the moral superior to my heathen neighbors. I had comforted myself with the notion that the problems of this world were always, “out there.” Many years later, I discovered that the cure to these self-righteous delusions were literally contained in the very scriptures I had been misreading and I gradually began to accept the painful truth that I was the one who the author was addressing when describing the condition of spiritual “blindness.”

“Some of you accuse others of doing wrong. But there is no excuse for what you do. When you judge others, you condemn yourselves, because you are guilty of doing the very same things.” Rom 2:1 ESV (that, of course, did not apply to me)

Stay tuned next week for . . . “Do You Have to Be So F-ing Condescending” Part Two!

You Are The Journey You Don’t Have to Take

My old friend and mentor, Wes Pinkham, who was also one of the best professors to ever grace a lectern, used to say, “remember, you are the journey you don’t have to take.” Generally speaking, we westerners favor a more linear sort of logic, so when we hear, “You are the journey you don’t have to take”, it tends to sound like Yoda-speak or what the Dude would call, “some kind of eastern thing.” My initial reaction to Wess’ statement was  like the cashier at the Taco joint who says to me, “I just don’t have a button for that on my screen.” Now if we put Wess’ quote in formula form it would read, A=B and not C, where A = you, B = journey and C = something external to you.

I recently shared Wess’ quote with a friend and I could tell from his reaction that he really wanted to like it but something in the quote had obviously troubled him. I suspect that what made my friend uneasy was its implicit rejection of a widely held viewpoint, what Wess refers to as, “do in order to be” (i.e., I do X in order to be Y).  The problem, according to Wess,  with the ‘do in order to be’ formula is that it represents a categorical rejection of God’s gift and his promise. God says, “You are my child and I am your Father” but we typically say, “You must first act like your Father’s child before you can rightly call him, ‘my father’.” Wess would insist that this is simply backwards and wrongheaded, for with God the indicative always precedes the imperative and when this order is reversed, the results are disasterous.

Contrary to Wess’ saying, some would contend that our relationship with God begins with our obedience to his imperative, such as the command to believe God’s Word. Wess would argue that faith or belief is always a response to the already accomplished and already given gift (grace) of God. Thus, there is no ‘saving faith’ only faith in the God who saves. The writer of Hebrews seems to concur with Wess when he writes, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” Is there really any question which comes first, imperative commandment or indicative sonship?  The Hebrew’s quote tells us that God instructs and disciplines those who he has already accepted as his actual children and not some orphans who are auditioning for the part. This is what Karl Barth referred to as the “cannot earn quality” of grace.

Wess’s A=B and not C formula reminds me of a scene from the Disney animation classic, The Lion King. In the story, Simba’s father Mufasa is killed by his brother Scar. Scar then deceives Simba into believing that he was responsible for his father’s death and Simba ran away in shame into exile. Years later, one night Simba had a vision – he saw his reflection in a pool of water and superimposed on his image was the image of his father Mufasa. Mufasa spoke to Simba in thre vision and said, “You have forgotten who you are. You are my son and now that you have become who you are, you must take your place in the circle of life!” Notice that Mufasa did not say to Simba, “You must become my son” but rather, “You are my son (indicative) now take your place (imperative)!” This is a great illustration of how the God deals with us as his children. The Father has given us an identity by conferring on us an unshakable, unconditional relationship, “my child”, “my people”, “my bride.” It is only from the security bound up in the indicative “you are” that God speaks his relational imperatives, “therefore you should . . . you must.” The right sequence, indicative followed by imperative, is critical!

Like Simba, when we forget who we are and we forget who our Father is, we end up going on a quest to “find ourselves.”  One of the ways that we search for our elusive “self” is by shopping – there are religious shoppers, career shoppers, pleasure shoppers, relationship shoppers etc. My experience with American religion aka, churchscape, is that it encourages spiritual consumerism, shopping for the best deal we can find on religious goods and religious experiences. Sadly, the spiritual consumer eventually falls prey to the religious marketers who are peddeling some form of the ‘do in order to be’ gospel. But this Easter Sunday, we need to remind one another why Jesus Christ has come, why he was killed and why his resurrection is such a BFD!

Jesus Christ was made to suffer because he dared to live from his God-given identity. As with Christ so it is with us today – “religious authority” and “political authority” would try and define by insisting that they alone are qualified to tell us who we “really are.” The religious and the political leaders of Jesus’ day said, “You are the Messiah only if we say you are the Messiah!” These men were scandalized by Christ’s radical formula, A=B and not C (Jesus = Messiah and not what you think he should do!).  On the cross it looked like these men would have the last word, for there is usually no rebuttal to death. As it turned out, “God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”

The promise of the risen Christ to us today is, “I have come to rescue you from the tyranny of ‘do in order to be.’ I want you to know what it is to live from the security of my Father’s love and acceptance. I want you to have the confidence of living from the indicative promise, “you are my child, and I am your Father.” This is the gospel, that in Christ we are now God’s actual children, not orphans auditioning for the part; we are the ‘household of God’ we do not build, we are his Body we do not create and we are the church we do not go to! Wess was right,”you are the journey you don’t have to take, for there is nowhere to go . . . just someone to be“!

What Do Holiday Coffee Cups and ISIS Have in Common?

The answer to the above question, in a word, is ideology. The terrorism group called ISIS and the recent “holiday cup” brew-ha are both thoroughly ideological.

One definition of ideology is, “the imaginary relationship of individuals to the real conditions of their existence”.  A more popular and accessible term for ideology is “worldview.” Your worldview  is basically the “lens” that you look through to see and interpret the world around you. Not surprisingly, the era known as ‘the information era’ has become and increasingly ideological age. And because the world is becoming increasingly ideological, it helps to understand just how ideology and worldview works (see Slavoj Žižek excellent film on the subject).

Here are some common worldview slogans that you may have seen on the highway today: “Proud to be a Christian American”, “Everyday is Earth Day,” “If it feels good, do it!”, “I work for my family, not yours. Get a job”, “Make peace not war” etc. The problem, of course, with these  bumper sticker maxims is that they are virtually unassailable, since no one is ever required to defend the veracity of these slogans, at least not in any thoughtful way. Ideology is similar to religion in that for it to work well, it requires a faith “buy in” from its adherents. Ideology is the “big story” (capitalism, democracy, moralism, liberalism etc.) that provides us with a map for navigating the world. Unfortunately, because these ideological “maps” provide give us a sense of what is real and true, we end up becoming deeply attached to them. Over time our worldview become dogmatic, rigid, and myopic. This dogmatism is not reserved for the explicitly religious, as we have seen in the case of terrorism groups, such as ISIS, the line between religious dogma and political ideology is intentionally blurred or erased.

As we see in the clip below (Starbuck’s “Anti-Christmas” Holiday Cup Rant), one of the bi-products of our brave new, social media world is that more and more people are ready-willing-and-able to post their “easy answer” and their moral outrage to any one of life’s impossible dilemmas. Millions of talking heads now have their own microphone, stage, and audience (Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, You Tube, etc.)!  The problem is not with free speech per se – the problem is that the shape of our discourse is becoming less personal, and more competitive and reductionist. It turns out that the rise of “artificial intelligence” predicted by countless, future-dystopia, sci-fi books and films, has not manifested the way we had expected, with the “rise of the machines.” The binary narratives binary politics in this country, when processed through the grid of social media has unleashed a Matrix-like wasteland, where people every time we hear a certain political “bell” ring, we begin salivating on our Facebook page.

The emergence of ideological social media has manifested in the “rise of a billion ideologues”, those who presume to be able to diagnose societies ills and prescribe the solution to the rest of us in a single Tweet. This “artificial intelligence” is an apt description for this vast and growing army of social watchdogs and cultural prophets, fueled with indignation, and armed with unlimited sources of data. The information age has bred an army of zealots and ideologues, secular and religious crusaders who won’t rest until they have either “Made America Great” or have exhausted their moral outrage by cursing at the darkness (the darkness that dwells in the hearts of all those . . . evil doers . . . over there.).  Hell hath no fury like the zeal of an political ideologue! Welcome to the Matrix, where people are being used up my the media and politicians just as those religious crusaders got used up in their campaign a thousand years ago.

So what does ideology have to do with the corruption of our public discourse? Well, have you noticed how many news stories are based on binary-oppositions today: rich-poor, black-white, blue-red, theist-atheist, gay-straight? As John Stewart makes clear in his two-part interview with Rachel Maddow a few years back, news stories are intentionally designed by network producers to appeal to the lowest level of thought. As Stewart explains, it’s like looking at a sporting-match and your mind has to quickly figure out which uniform your team is wearing so that you can root for the “right team.” In this ideological-social-media age, reductionistic journalism follows the lowest level of thinking, the “us vs. them” formula. It is this binary formula that fuels outrage, tribalism and demagoguery. This is the formula that we are most vulnerable to, the one that helps us feel safe and right and incredulous at “wrong.” This is the formula that TV producers are using to “hook” you and reel you in. This is the formula they know will increase their viewers and drive up ratings.

But as Zizek reminds us, we are not innocent victims for ideology is not something that is simply foisted upon us from outside. Ideology has become our preferred “setting” for engaging and interpreting the world. It is time that we stop blaming the political hacks on TV for corrupting our minds and undermining our discourse. Our worldview is very much like the physical sense of sight, in that in the act of seeing, we naturally lose sight of the “lens” that we are looking through (our eyes or or eyeglasses). Also, like our physical eyes, we fail to recognize when a slow-growing cataract is starting to impair our vision. Organized religion is notorious for developing such “blind spots” but unfortunately, secular ideology does not fare better in this regard. This is why, when engaging any one of the countless worldviews (capitalism, socialism, nationalism, militarism, pacifism, moralism, hedonism, liberalism, conservatism, pragmatism, etc.), we must keep in mind  that every one of these ideological systems is essentially a ‘faith proposal.’

We all have opinions as well as deeply held convictions; but given the fact that these convictions are often not shared or appreciated by the people around us, how are we to live together? Given the complexity of the world and the relative bias of all competing ideologies, how can we honestly believe that “me and my group” is qualified (over and against “them”) to prescribe what kind of world the rest of us ought to live in? The problem with this recent election now the reaction to the election is that they are both working of a narrative of “moral outrage.” Trump ran on a populist message of, “Washington insiders don’t care about you, but I do!” and now the “Resistance” group is rallying around the message, “Trump is an enemy of the good. He does not care about you but we do!” Do we really believe that we can overthrow outrage with outrage?  What makes someone’s anger and outrage morally superior to another? Who is qualified to diagnose what exactly “needs fixing” in this world (certainly this social commentator is not immune)?  Are we even interested in conversing with those who think so differently than ourselves? Are we willing to listen to dissenting viewpoints to gain understanding or are we only interested in discrediting so that our viewpoints are advanced with the least amount of resistance?

Now of course, the ideologue will insist that his or her particular worldview is purely “rational” and “logical” and “enlightened” but the nature of ideological arguments is that they tend to be self-referencing and reinforcing. For example, in the case of pragmatism, the person who identifies the “problem” is the one who is often rewarded with the task of prescribing the solution (we call this job security). That’s just how ideology and institutions work. Militarism identifies “military problems” and offers “military solutions”; moralism is in the business of prescribing moral solutions to moral dilemmas. In other words, our personal worldview tends to show us the kind of world that we had already expected to see. With so many competing worldviews colliding on our cultural landscape and vying for out attention, “culture wars” are inevitable.

 . . . our personal worldview ends up showing us the kind of world that we had already expected to see.

As I’ve noted above, pragmatism is defined as “an approach that assesses the truth or meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application.” In other words, the gospel according to pragmatism is simply, “truth is what works!” When pragmatism ceases to be a “tool” and becomes a “narrative” navigating all of life, it has crossed over into ideology.  The pragmatist ideologue would insist that life is essentially a series of problems, which demand “practical solutions.” There is certainly some truth in that statement and no one would argue that solving problems is a necessary part of every day life. The problem is with the dogmatic or ideological version of pragma.

I’ve chosen pragmatism as an example because it seemed like the least controversial among all the “isms”. As we’ve noted, pragma is a great cognitive tool, proven time and again to be useful for solving all kinds of problems, typically physical and mechanical ones such as a lunar landings and leaky faucets. However, when ‘practicality and solutions’ becomes our worldview it can become utterly tyrannical. Let’s not forget that the German “leader” was a self-labeled pragmatist, which is why Hitler’s last genocide policy was aptly named, “The Final Solution.” Pragmatism is a useful tool but a horrible world-view, for as the saying goes, “He who is good with hammer tends to see nails everywhere.”

The movie, “The Mosquito Coast” (see below), starring Harrison Ford and River Phoenix, shows how ideology (pragmatism, nationalism and “freedom”) can be used to justify megalomania, and tyranny. Ford’s character is the ideologue, who’s cruelty and intolerance is aimed at those who do not share his view of things. His contempt for others extended to anyone, including his family, who fail to properly affirm and support him and his “solution-driven” regime. Can you find any of these tendencies in the way your neighbor cherishes and defends his favorite ideology? Here is a harder question, can you find any of these tendencies in yourself?

In recent years I have begun paying closer attention to the nature of ideology and the affects of social media. I have come to the place in my life were I am tired of being manipulated by the those people who profit from my engagement. I have no interest in being “great again” and I don’t want to be a part of any “resistance” fueled moral outrage and driven by a fear of the future. I want to escape the tyranny of the binary of “are you for him or against him?” I want to be a part of a movement that will defy the dominant narrative of the political left and right. I want to be part of a civil discourse that is more humble, less fearful, less cynical and more civil. This movement, one that ignores the dominant narrative would certainly start with humble beginnings. We would have to be willing to develop some new habits of mind and tongue. We would have to learn how to identify all the hooks and traps that are designed to keep us captive to dominant narrative of political binaries. We must learn to resist the temptation to line up in one of the two polarizing camps, “for him, or against him.” In my circle of friends and family, those who tend to be ideologically driven, naturally expect me to join them in their angst and moral outrage at the “awful injustices” in their world (usually inspired by some scandal or controversy that they recently saw on TV or their favorite blog site). To this person I have this reply, “I am sorry, but I am not necessarily compelled to fight for your personal preferences and I am not obliged to commit my anger and insecurities in service to your pet peeves.”

In Mosquito Coast, Allie Fox, living in 1980’s America was driven by his ideological zeal to “get off the grid” of society. Thirty plus years later, “the grid” has grown astronomically, in ways that we could not have imagined even ten years ago. Life off the digital grid is the equivalent of moving to a South American jungle. What then are our options today?  In order to recover a less competitive, more humane engagement and a more generous and civil discourse, should we simply stop engaging each other and the issues? The Facebook solution of “unfriending” has taught us to be increasingly idiosyncratic and even narcissistic – “What we need around here is more people like me.”  There are no easy formulas to recovering a discourse that is both thoughtful and civil – changing the cultural ethos is hard work. The fact of the matter is that we will never recover civil discourse until we sincerely learn to value it.