Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (8) on Gender

This is a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This is a second excerpt from Chapter Six, JUST WAR, PACIFISM, AND GENDER.

This is a longish post – but worth bearing with I suggest. These are important and relevant themes for Christians trying to negotiate the modern minefield of gender and sex.

In this excerpt Brock and Hauerwas discuss the contemporary fragmentation of previously accepted ideas about gender. Below, we break into a discussion about how we understand masculinity and femininity. Hauerwas treads a wise path here – he wants to resist elevation of relative cultural forms of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ identity and roles (the popular equating of ‘biblical’ gender roles with mid-20th century American family values among some strands of evangelicalism for example), But he also wants to acknowledge the sheer variety of what it means to be ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ and the difficulty in defining what each means.

Brock links this to contemporary battles over gender and the current rejection of gender distinction in favour of a swirling kaleidoscope of gender identities where nothing is fixed. Both men agree that dismissing the essential differences between male and female (the rejection of heteronormativity) is a false step.

SH: Well I’ve always distrusted those kinds of descriptions [defined ideas of masculinity and femininity] because they so invite either biological determinism or social constructivism of one kind or the other. Men and women have bodies that are specific and also different. What forms that difference takes, I think, is open to unbelievable variation. I don’t know that there’s any one Christian way of displaying what that difference should look like. I would hope that Christians wouldn’t necessarily underwrite the modes of what counts for feminine and masculine in the various societies that they find themselves.

BB: If I am hearing you rightly, it sounds like you think that not only do they never end, but these negotiations about the force of gender should never end. But also, conceptually speaking, one way to end the discussion is to deny that there is a distinction at all.

SH: Right! There is a distinction.

BB: We just don’t know how appropriately to acknowledge and respect it. What we do know is that it is patriarchal and imperialistic to have a claim about distinction at all in the new ideology. Such claims ought to be resisted. The so called rejection of heteronormativity, in other words, you think is a misguided solution?

SH: Absolutely. (186)

Brock then develops the conversation, astutely describing the current status quo in the West – how Christians after long being cultural ‘insiders’ are finding themselves as cultural ‘outsiders’. The new sexual morality can, I think, be seen as a particularly strong form of liberation ideology – throwing off the shackles of oppressive patriarchy and its restrictive and judgemental power structures in favour of freedom of the individual to express their identity in whatever way is true to their inner self – whether male, female, transgender, queer or whatever. Such is the momentum of the new morality that Brock is surely right to observe that there will be less and less legal space for dissent from the new consensus.

In other words, a question facing the Church in a post-Christendom West is what will it mean to be faithful disciples of Jesus in a culture that increasingly sees Christian beliefs about sex and gender as morally and legally objectionable?

BB: … But Christians now are having to learn what it means to be on the wrong side of a rapidly changing moral convention. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the realm of sexuality, which encompasses the problems related to gender violence as well as a long history of violent suppression of same-sex relationships and other formerly marginalized expressions of human sexuality. We are rapidly reaching the conclusion of the first phase of the transition that started in the 1960s with the coming out of marginal lifestyles that had been vigorously excluded for centuries and is concluding with their being near the center of the cultural mainstream. It’s a transition from one moral regime to another. It will probably for a little while longer be possible to get away with saying, “It’s not clear to me if gay relationships can be called marriage,” for instance. But pretty soon this will be seen as by definition a bigoted or an unjust belief and if Christian theologians want to explore such positions they are going to have to do so on the wrong side of the moral, legal and cultural law. (187)

In this new landscape, Brock asks Hauerwas what advice he has for Christians living in unmapped territory. Hauerwas’ response implies a willingness to speak and take the consequences – allied to his oft articulated criticism of the failure of Christian marital practices and their destructive conformity to Western culture.

SH: … My basic advice is to say what you think you can say honestly and clearly. I think also the word “courage” is probably going to be necessary, because the demand given the Supreme Court decision for recognition of gay marriage is just going to be a presumption that you just have to accept.  I can’t accept it, as much as I would like to. If you think that marriage is an institution in Christianity that has a unitary and sacramental end, I cannot also see how it doesn’t have the procreative end. It doesn’t mean that every marriage has to be procreative. But marriage as an institution does. I am more than ready to acknowledge that gay people can be as good as parents— if not better— than nongay people. The question is, finally, where do you get children from? For me, it’s not going to turn on any one biblical text. It’s really an ontological question that involves the navel. I just wish that Christian marital practices were sufficient to sustain the acknowledgment of significant gay committed relationships, but our practices are awful, because romantic conceptions of marriage have just destroyed us.  (188-9)

What Hauerwas is talking about in the that last sentence, is how, once Christians have often joined the world in how they have viewed and practiced marriage. Namely, in idolising the idea of the family of 2.2 children as the ideal Christian vocation, we have made almost incomprehensible that marriage and sex are not essential to live a completely fulfilled life. In treating marriage as a private relationship of mutual happiness, we have bought in to modern ideas of romance and individualism. I have written elsewhere that “If marriage is nothing more than a union of two people ‘in love’ with each other, then the church’s reluctance to grant this status to homosexual couples seems arbitrary, hypocritical and prejudiced. It also makes a breakup more likely when this mutually enhancing relationship goes wrong.”

The exchange on gender closes with these interesting observations by Brock about Christian defence of marriage.

BB: Christianly speaking it [marriage] has to be a gift that the church, both men and women in it, are so vulnerable here. But I think that vulnerability produces an anxiety that is easily displaced into the debates in which we are so angrily embroiled, about protecting the traditional family from interlopers, namely from people with sexualities that are different. As if the disarray of the old patriarchal ordering. of domestic relations was the gays fault! I think the great demonic twist of this historical moment is the lack of exemplars that I was talking about earlier. There seems to be a kind of white- knuckle approach to marriage that came to be the norm over the last thirty or forty years. We’re going to hang on to something that doesn’t seem to be working with the collapse of that old patriarchal model. The new twist is that the white- knucklers now are being called violently bigoted, and it’s just leading to chaos. (191-2)

The conversation closes with Brock asking SH his response to the question of how Christians can live up to the strong moral claims of their faith that ‘that produce, or should produce, countercultural living.’

Hauerwas admits he does not know the answers – but he knows where to look: – in the Great Tradition of the Church and in prayer to God.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

The idolisation of love

What do you live for? What most in this world gives your life meaning and purpose and joy? I suspect many people would answer those questions with the word ‘love’.

angelo_bronzino
Angelo Bronzino: Venus, Cupide and The Time (Allegory of Lust) Cover Image of Love: A History

I’m beginning to read the philosopher Simon May’s Love: a History. Published in 2011, it has rave reviews. His prose is outstanding. Here’s a taster.

In the wasteland of Western idols, only love survives intact. (4)

Elsewhere he sums up exactly what he means by this. And what he says below is bang on – the worship of love itself; love the goal to deliver our hopes and dreams; love as that which lives on after death, giving meaning to life.

In my book – Love: A History – I attempt to trace how love came to be the new god. And not any old god – say, one of those self-seeking, lustful, capricious and frankly evil Greek gods – but rather the spitting image of the Christian God.  In other words, love – genuine love – has come to be seen as all-good, unconditioned, unchanging, selfless in showing concern for the wellbeing of loved ones, and our chief bulwark against suffering and loss.  Today love has arguably become the only truly universal religion in the West – including in the United States.

I can remember well the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana in 1997 – the national and public outpouring of grief and simultaneous divinisation of love as that which gave her sudden death eternal significance. But you could pick any big public funeral – perhaps you can think of some? ‘Love’ takes over: on its own it is everywhere invoked in the face of death as that in itself which gives hope and meaning.

And this zinger from May,

Whereas becoming even a fairly competent artist or gardener or editor or plumber or banker or singer is dearly purchased with long effort and then only by the few with sufficient talent, love is a democracy of salvation open to all.

May’s book has three (ambitious) aims:

1. To show how, in Western thought, love came to play God; to be understood as the virtue that gives ultimate meaningful and significance to life.

2. To trace historically how genuine love came to be seen as unconditional.

3. To develop and present an alternative theory of love that sees it

“as a harbinger of the sacred without pretending that it is an all powerful solution to the problem of finding meaning, security and happiness in life.” (13)

Looks promising and provocative. I’m not going to post through it but will check in now and then.

You are what you love 5 : ‘Guard your Heart’ (how Christian baptism and marriage are subversive)

9781587433801In chapter 5 ‘Guard your heart’ of his provocative book You Are What You Love, Jamie Smith moves the focus to how to build in ‘habits of love’ into our home lives (‘liturgies of home’)

To recap: God is love; we are made in his image; we are only able to love because God first loved us; we are lovers before we are thinkers; our loves are much more the core of our being – they order and orientate our lives; but our love needs training and directing, especially in a culture of ever demanding competition for our loves.

I wondered earlier if Smith was putting too much weight on Christian liturgy reforming our loves … in this chapter he deals head on with that sort of criticism by proposing that household liturgies are vital in recalibrating our hearts.  And, he proposes, as they work well ‘household liturgies’ will “propel us back into the Liturgy of the body of Christ.”

What’s he mean by ‘household liturgies’? In brief, Christian practices that can give shape to how we order our home. He discusses two practices – baptism and marriage.

Baptism: a sign and seal of God’s loving initiative and grace; bringing us into the household (people) of God. A people where all boundaries are broken of social class, money, bloodlines etc. It signals a new social reality.

Baptism and families – Smith is Reformed and works at Calvin College. Here he takes the paedobaptist approach of how the congregation promise to love, pray, instruct and encourage the baby being baptised. The church has a solemn responsibility to be a family community.

So the ‘Christian  family’ is drastically relativised – it ‘belongs’ within – and exists for – the wider community of the church. The real sin of family life today, says Smith, is

“the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God.” (116)

Does this sound a bit weird to you? Perhaps it does, but I am with him 100%. The modern family is the ideal, the marketer’s target, the route to happiness and fulfilment, the self-sufficient unit of consumption, the core of the American dream of independence. It is to be alone, the means by which to inculcate values and produce good citizens ….

But a Christian view of the family releases a lot of that unrealistic burden – it takes a loving community to raise a child. So, says Smith, one of the biggest decisions Christian parents can take around faith formation is being part of a Church that lives by the gospel narrative.

A personal note here from a parent who has just become an empty nester … we have a profound sense of gratitude to the community of our local church which has been, and is, a wonderful community in which our children were raised.

Similarly with Christian marriage: it needs to speak of a radically subversive story to that of our consumer culture. The rising stats of marriage are not somehow a sign that marriage is being more deeply valued. Quite the opposite. The modern wedding industry speaks of narcissistic self-obsession. In the USA it generates c $50 billion annually. [Here in Ireland I read recently that the average cost of a wedding is   €25,000, including the honeymoon].

I’d better avoid starting a sentence here with “In my day ..” .. Smith himself has a nice ability to pen withering prose .. the boom in the marriage industry is matched by the boom in the divorce industry.

Our interest is in the spectacle of the wedding – the event in which we get to be center stage, display our love, and invite others into our romance in a way they’ll never forget … weddings are caught up in the dynamics of “mutual display”: what’s important is being seen. It’s why we spend more time fixate on the spectacular flash of the wedding event than on the long slog of sustaining a marriage.

But the implicit mythology of Wedding Inc. also reflects how we approach marriage. Indeed, the myths we load into weddings almost doom marriages to fail. Weddings are centered on the romantic ‘coupling’ of two star-crossed lovers, as if marriage were an extended exercise of staring deep into one another’s eyes – with benefits. But even then, a spouse is one who sees me, will meet my needs, will fulfil my wants, will “complete me”. Even our romantic coupling becomes a form of self-love. (120)

He refers to Banksy’s image of the modern married couple

banksyIn contrast, a properly theological view of marriage is as locating human love within God’s love; existing for him and for others – marriage as mission, marriage as witness together to God’s kingdom; marriage as a calling and vocation that involves self-giving and sacrifice.

And therefore, Christian marriages need to be recalibrated and redirected back to their calling and purpose – and this happens within the community of believers of which they are a part, and withi which the couple serve – sharing their love with others.

I like to think of  a healthy Christian marriage as ‘porous’ … allowing and welcoming others in. Not impermeable, shutting others out in a selfish hermetic community.

In the last few pages of this chapter Smith then sketches his ideas and experiences of inculcating these values within family life. He asks

What does it look like to parent lovers? What does it look like to curate a household as a formative space to direct our desires? How can a home be a place to (re)calibrat our hearts? (127)

  • Love
  • worship
  • music
  • imagination
  • Christian calendar: family rituals linked to the cycle of the Christian year
  • Fasting
  • Serving others together
  • Enacted symbolism
  • Prayer
  • Eating together
  • Thankfulness
  • Creativity – a Sabbath slow down from hyper-consumerism and technology

Obviously all of this is contextual to each family. But the point is that ‘heart formation’ is far deeper than a surface bit of religion now and then ….

All of this is to build connections to the ‘liturgy of the home’ with the liturgy of the church in which the home belongs. Without this sort of integration there will be a lack of authenticity … and ‘doing a bit of church’ on a Sunday is mere nominalism unless it is embedded in daily life liturgies that flow from the gospel story that we claim to believe ….

Comments, as ever, welcome

You are what you love (or How to Develop Your Love Life)

YOU ARE WHAT YOU LOVE by James K A Smith

This is a book I’ve been looking forward to reading. I’m trying to do some work on love in the Bible and later this year I’ll be teaching a course on Faith and Contemporary Culture that spends quite a bit of time thinking about what we love, what Augustine teaches on love, and how it all works out in a consumer culture that is relentlessly after our hearts as it bombards us with things to desire & love (and therefore buy).

What do you think? Maybe more students would take the class if I called it ‘How to Develop your Love Life’?

Anyway, these are exactly the sort of themes that Jamie Smith is exploring in You are what you love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. I’m going to work through the book.

Here I’m summarising – feel welcome to comment. How persuasive do you find his proposal? Are we primarily lovers before we are thinkers?

In the opening chapter he asks questions like these

What is discipleship?

How does spiritual growth and transformation happen?

What has the church got to do with either?

More fundamentally, who are you? What are human beings?

His answers are different to standard replies of how learning and discipleship work. Drawing from his Desiring the Kingdom, You Are What You Love is a manifesto for rethinking our thinking from modern paradigms that don’t work.

Modern enlightenment rationalism tells us you are what you think. It imagines us as primarily intellects. Discipleship is depositing the right information in our brains and assuming learning and change will happen. This tends to have an anthropology that we are little more than ‘brains on a stick’. Descartes “I think therefore I am” taken to its logical end …

But, says Smith, this is neither true to what we are nor does it tend to work very well as a model for Christian discipleship.

Rather, we are lovers before we are thinkers. “You are what you love” means that we are what we worship and we worship what we love. We are what we desire and want. We are creatures of the heart more than the head. (Prov 4.23)

“So discipleship is more a matter of hungering and thirsting than of knowing and believing.” (2)

Jesus is not lecturer-in-chief teaching students with text-heavy powerpoint slides. This is a ‘banking’ model of learning. As if action happens via a ‘withdrawal’ from this bank of information. This imagines our actions as the outcome of pure rational intentional and planned abstract choice …! Sanctification by information transfer. (4) As if character change happens by filling our intellectual wells with biblical knowledge.

For Smith we are not just ‘thinking things’. What if the problem is NOT just our lack of knowledge?

He’s not saying thinking is bad for you – heck this book represents a lot of hard thinking. He is arguing that thinking is very limited in and of itself.

What we also need to recognise who we are – we are not ‘just’ thinkers, we are far more shaped and defined by what we desire, by what we want, by what we love. The centre of human personhood is not so much the abstract intellect, but ‘the gut-regions of the heart’.

Augustine got this many centuries ago.

“You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you”.

Three things to note:

  1. We are made by God, for relationship with him. To be fully human we need to find ourselves in relationship to the One by whom, and for whom we are created.
  2. We are made for something. We are made for a particular purpose, an end, a telos. We are teleological creatures.
  3. The heart is the centre of our longings and desires – not a modern sentimental, soppy idea of the heart, but the core of our most fundamental longings “a visceral subconscious orientation to the world” (8). We are made to love.

This is no intellectual puzzle to master, but more a craving, hungering, thirsting for meaning and purpose and identity.

The heart is the chamber of our love – and it is our love which orientate our lives and point us towards some end or purpose. It is this which we are committed to and shape our lives around.

chSo it is not a question of whether we will love, it is much more a question of what we love. We can’t NOT love. We can’t not be committed to something. We can’t not be on a journey to somewhere. We can’t not desire some kingdom.

Now here’s the key thing – much of this operates at a subconscious level. It is often unarticulated. We are creatures of imagination and story – we are captivated and motivated by a vision of the good life – whatever that good life is for each one of us.

Habit and Virtue

In Colossians 3:12-14 Paul says ‘put on love’ over the other virtues

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

If virtues are good moral habits – an internal disposition that works itself out in practice – then to become virtuous is to internalize the law so that it is followed as a matter of habit, a sort of second nature that works without thinking as result of the person we are. In this sense Paul talks about fulfilling the law in love … it is part of who you are as a person.

How to acquire such virtues? Not through thinking says Smith (17). Virtue is acquired affectively. Law is easier to follow since it is outward and measureable. Rather:

  • Through imitation: Paul in 1 Cor 11.1, follow me as I follow Christ. Phil 3:17 – follow my example.
  • Through routines, habits, being enacted over and over again. Since virtues are not natural, they need to be embedded in discipline.

If love is a virtue, then love is a habit that can be practiced and improved and developed.

So how to re-calibrate the heart and point it in the right direction? (19)

Discipleship, says Smith, is a re-habituation of your loves. A reformation of your love life. Here’s a definition of discipleship you don’t hear very often:

“The learning that is fundamental to Christian formation is affective and erotic, a matter of ‘aiming’ our loves, of orientating our desire to God and what God desires for his creation.” (19)

If the heart is like an erotic (eros here as desire, not sexual) compass – an aiming device – then how aim it in the right direction? We need to recognize that our desires are learned and if love is a habit, then through imitation and practice our hearts can be recalibrated. Not necessarily through learning new information, but through practices that form the habits of how we love.

For our desires and longings certainly need to be re-directed. They are already pointing somewhere. We are trained every day to love something – we live in a world that is in competition for our heart.

Smith uses “liturgies” here for these secular cultural practices since love is really a matter of worship. Calvin called the heart an idol factory. Luther “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is your god.” (23). Our idols are not intellectual ideas – they tend to be affective desires. We all worship something.

Smith goes back to Colossians 315-17. How are our love lives to be reformed and re-directed? This is where the church comes in – desires are reformed within a worshipping community.

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

The ‘virtue’ of love is ‘put on’ by letting the word of Christ dwell in us, by teaching and admonishing one another, by corporate practices  …

Christian worship (not just singing songs) is counter-cultural to secular liturgies that attempt (and succeed) in capturing our hearts and imaginations. We cannot counter their power by abstract information – we can reform our habits of love. “Learning to love takes practice.” (25)

And this sets up how later he will return to how re-learning to love is a corporate exercise, not a lone spiritual pilgrimage.

But before that, he shifts attention in the next chapter to consider those secular liturgies that are competing for our love and commitment.

A Christian case against Brexit

My friend Joshua Searle, who is tutor in theology and public thought at Spurgeon’s College, London makes the case against Brexit in Christian Today ..

Here’s a clip or two – click on the link to read the whole article:

The EU is currently under a concerted attack by an unholy alliance of communists, hardline demagogues and neo-Nazi parties. Right-wing political parties and associations such as PEGIDA in Germany, UKIP in England, the National Front in France, and Geert Wilder’s neo-fascist, Islamophobic Party for Freedom in the Netherlands are on the rise. In Slovakia the ultra-nationalist fascist Marian Kotleba refers to foreigners and refugees as “parasites”. Kotleba, who despises the EU, has recently won a significant regional election in Slovakia. He was head of a banned neo-Nazi party which allegedly celebrates Adolf Hitler’s birthday and looks back nostalgically on the Nazi puppet state that ruled Slovakia during World War II.

 

I’m now afraid that these extremists are winning and that those of us who believe in solidarity, peace and reconciliation among the nations are going to lose. We are about to enter a new age in which nationalism triumphs over solidarity.

We might think that we are now living in a civilised world and that we can take peace for granted, but this would be a huge mistake. The EU does not get the credit it deserves for preserving peace among nations that for centuries before had been cutting each others’ throats.

I do not believe that the EU is free from the seduction of anti-Christian forces. But in the light of its role in facilitating peace and reconciliation in Europe, I would tentatively argue the EU was established in the providence of the “God of peace” in order to promote peace, security and the general welfare of the world. The EU offers a model of international solidarity and a bulwark against xenophobia, nationalism, fascism and racism.

…..

I do feel a Christian obligation to warn of the dire consequences that would ensue from a Brexit. Sir Edward Grey said almost exactly 100 years ago: “The lamps are going out all over Europe and we shall not see them lit again in our life-time.” I’m afraid there is now a risk that we are about to enter another period of prolonged political and spiritual darkness in Europe.

There is a real danger that politicians are not spiritually equipped to grasp the cultural or geo-political consequences of withdrawing from the EU. Many Christians, too, do not have a proper understanding of the tectonic spiritual shifts that are taking place in the world.

I hope readers will at least consider carefully the case I’ve tried to make about why, from a Christian perspective, it is essential that solidarity and hope prevail over nationalism and fear.

Transforming post-Catholic Ireland

Over at her blog Gladys Ganiel has a summary of a book launch event ‘author meets critics’ (of which Gladys had invited me to be one) in TCD about her recent book, Transforming post-Catholic Ireland: religious practice in late modernity (OUP).

9780198745785

My sense from reading Gladys is that she is arguing that present religious practice in post-Catholic Ireland is an improvement on the past. Three big arguments of the book are that:

  • Increased diversity in the religious market gives increased space for personal transformation; space is created on the margins where people can work for religious, social and political transformation.
  • The prevalence of extra institutional religion counters hard secularisation theories: it exists as an intermediate space between pure individualism detached from church all together and institutional religious expression. Extra-institutional religion is not totally free-floating, it happens in relationship and community, often with a concern for social justice.
  • Gladys argues extra institutional religion has potential to contribute to reconciliation more than other traditional institutional Christian churches.

Stories of individuals told in the book ring true to the diverse, blurred and sometimes contradictory religious landscape of contemporary Ireland. They brought to mind some very recent conversations with friends

  • someone who while still involved locally in a church that he gives thanks for, describes himself as an ‘exile’ within the institutional church. It is an alien place; he is a ‘stranger’ in the midst.
  • two recent separate conversations with friends who both struggle with the irrelevance gap between church and their high pressure, competitive and intense worlds of work. Spirituality, for both, is found ‘extra-institutionally’
  • a friend brought up in a conservative Protestant denomination, with little or no natural contact with Catholicism, Irish culture or identity – now finding a richness and depth within Catholic spirituality and enjoying a silent retreat in a Jesuit centre near Dublin
  • friends who have journeyed away from the Catholic Church, drawn to a more personal, warm, inclusive and less sacramental expression of Christianity within an evangelical community church

How would you describe your relationship with institutional Christianity I wonder? Or, to put it another way, where most do you find authenticity, spiritual refreshment, spiritual growth and learning? Where most do you find space for building relationships across boundaries and opportunities to work for justice?

However you read Gladys’ book, the trends and stories within it pose questions to historic denominations in particular – and whose membership is in relatively rapid decline.

One response may be to decry ‘extra-institutional’ spirituality as a sign of an individualism shaped by consumerism – religious shopping for the I-generation. A spirituality that all too comfortably side-steps the demands of Christian discipleship – accountability, community, costly mission, a willingness to be rejected and marginalised?

But such a response locates the ‘problem’ externally – with those pesky individualists who don’t go along with the status quo. It ignores their passion for serving others, for social justice and a pursuit of community.

The better response to a book like this (for churches) is to look within; to listen; to reflect on practice that, in Christendom, meant that churches became what Gladys calls religious ‘public utilities’ dispensing services to all while relegating personal faith and authentic living of the Christian life to the background.

I think there are fruits of such self-examination, listening and reflection on practice within some churches in Ireland. Perhaps you know and have experience of some. Places where there is space for diversity; personal transformation; community; a passion for social justice.

And it’s here that I find sociological categories too general and abstract. For behind such descriptions of behaviour lie beliefs that motivate and shape that behaviour. That’s why contemporary debates about the nature of the gospel and how it plays out within the Christian life are so important ….

Sociological analysis can helpfully describe and interpret trends, but as a Christian I want to argue that spiritual renewal and authenticity comes from a nexus of things like grace, the good news of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, the empowering and transforming work of the Spirit, repentance, faith, humility, love, self-sacrifice,  care for the powerless and oppressed and so on.

In other words, is the search for authentic spirituality within extra-institutional spaces really a quest and longing for ‘the church to be the church’?

The Coldest of Cold Capitalist Hearts

Watched Nightcrawler (2014, directed by Dan Gilroy) the other day.

Spoilers ahead!

nightcrawler-posterJake Gyllenhaal (Lou Bloom) is a sublimely sinister guy on the make. There is an unnatural stillness in the way he stares and talks; like someone who instinctively knows they scare normal people and has learnt to try to minimise the creep effect.

He’s already ‘fallen’ when the movie begins – he starts bad and gets a lot worse. This is the story of his evolution from petty thief to finding his true ‘calling’ – a descent into the netherworld of ‘first on the scene’ news chasers.

This is a vocation of heartless voyeurism sold to the masses who consume others’ suffering from the comfort of their sofas.

Lou falls into his new career literally by accident. Out of curiosity he stops are a car crash and sees a film crew at work, catching the blood and pain for TV and he’s hooked. The next step is a low budget camcorder and radio and a relentless determination to work long night hours.

Lou is completely free of conscience or remorse, he will do (and does) virtually anything to get the video story.

He blags he way into the local TV news station where Rene Russo is the producer desperate for ratings who will take his material no questions asked – apart from ‘Are we going to get sued if we show this?’

A ‘Viewer Discretion Advised’ tag is added to the graphic stuff just to spark viewer desire.

So develops a symbiotic relationship but one where the power gradually shifts to Lou due to the quality of his ‘product’ and the need of the buyer (Russo).

Never slow to exploit an opportunity, Lou uses his power to coerce Russo into a sexual relationship (the film goes curiously coy here – just was well) as well as negotiating better pay and conditions. She’s outraged, exclaiming that friends don’t force each other to have sex. But of course, Lou doesn’t do friendship or ethics.

While Nightcrawler isn’t a great film, there are echoes of Taxi Driver. But where De Niro’s Travis Bickle raged violently against the world, Lou is consumed with calculating self-interest. He has a business plan and plots a route to profitability while manipulating the violence of others to his own advantage.

Lou is capitalism personified and his is the coldest of cold capitalist hearts.

The ‘virtue’ of ‘pure’ capitalism is that it marginalises and makes irrelevant things like compassion and mercy and social justice.

Lou knows that death, violence, fear, disaster and blood sells – and sells well. He knows how to produce what the market wants and is willing to put in the hours because he believes that “good things come to those who work their asses off”.

He also knows that the key to market success is creating a restless, unquenchable desire for more – and more.

And so the stakes continue to get raised – how can Lou top the last bloody offering to the masses? Without new product both he and Russo are going to be out of work.

And this leads to the climatic set-piece where Lou stage-manages certain death and violence between LA cops and drug dealers all simply for the lens of his (new bigger and better) camera.

It’s not often you see a film that follows capitalism all the way down to its logical end.

Lou has no ethics because ethics get in the way of what the market wants. Any competition – either in the form of other news chasers (Bill Paxton) or his Lou’s expendable partner with an inconvenient conscience – are ruthlessly eliminated.

In capitalism everything can commodified; here it is human suffering that is for sale. Lou’s competitive edge is that he is willing to go further than anyone else to exploit that market opportunity.

Lou’s genius is that he is able to offer the market a new choice – one that consumers willingly select. He can’t force anyone to watch what he films, but he knows the desire is there freely to choose to see real blood, murder, fear and tragedy – and his vocation is to oblige.

I liked how the film kept its nerve to the end. Lou’s aggressive entrepreneurial drive bears fruit. He is in the process of becoming a ‘self-made man’; a ‘success’ in business and ‘respected’ because he knows how to earn money and keep the corporate machine (TV station in this case) and himself in profit.

If ever a movie exposes the ludicrous idea that capitalism is a benign ‘neutral’ force and that markets should just be left to themselves to deliver the best of all possible worlds, this is it.

Comments, as ever, welcome.