Musings on Discipleship

Here are some thoughts on discipleship triggered by two things:

1. Being asked to give a ‘quick-fire trigger talk’ as part of a Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) gathering of church leaders, youth leaders and others reflecting on contemporary challenges around discipleship. It was a really good day organised by Rick Hill Discipleship Officer of the PCI (and MA grad of IBI), with lots of good input and discussion.

2. Reading Matthew Bates’ outstanding book Salvation by Allegiance Alone.

For various posts on Bates’ important book see:

Nijay Gupta has a fair and warm review here :

Michael Bird has two interviews here and here :

Scot McKnight did a series starting here:

The Gospel Coalition did an unsurprisingly critical review here

The fun part of a short talk is that you get to do what you tell students not to do: make deliberately provocative statements without following the niceties of detailed academic substantiation. The point of the talk is to raise issues and get open discussion going.

This is not to say these are random thoughts. They come from thinking about faith, gospel and works in teaching and preaching over a lot of years.

It’s also drawing on what Bates does with crystal clarity. He articulates a persuasive case for how themes of faith, gospel and works operate within the New Testament – from Jesus to Paul, John and other authors.

Here are 7 thesis statements with brief notes. Feel welcome to comment – whether agree, disagree or discuss …!

  1. THESIS 1: We have a major problem with discipleship in the West – and to be specific within the PCI.

Discipleship is patchy: in prayer, giving, service, training, Bible reading and study, evangelism, and a passion for holiness. Attendance is plummeting within denominations in the post-Christendom era, including the PCI. Membership is getting older. I can’t prove this, but formerly high levels of nominalism within Christendom are now being revealed within post-Christendom. The cultural pressure to ‘go to church’ has evaporated. Perhaps contemporary members are more committed and serious than many in the past? And there are lots of good things happening in various places, but no-one I talk to is bursting with optimism and confidence about the future of the institutional Church.

  1. Tinkering with programmes and courses isn’t going to address the problem

We can easily fall into the trap of imagining that ‘if only’ we got things right, that the Church can return to its former ‘glory’. Getting things right tends to mean things like having more attractive services, youth and children’s programmes, modern buildings etc. But reliance in externals is just rearranging the furniture. Something more fundamental is at issue. Treating symptoms is not going to address the root cause.

Neither is the solution dependence on pragmatic models of ministry. By this I mean adopting models of discipleship based on x principles of how Jesus made disciples and if we do the same mature disciples will result – as if discipleship is a nice easy recipe to follow and if we keep to the instructions – bingo! Some discipleship resources seem to owe more to management strategies for growing a business than they do to the teaching of the New Testament.

  1. That fundamental problem is theological

We need to think primarily theologically when we think about discipleship. So what’s the theological problem? Let me suggest it includes a superstructure of half-formed assumptions and misconceptions about both the content of the gospel and a proper response to the gospel (faith and works).

For various reasons there are deeply embedded and damaging popular misunderstandings of how gospel, faith and works are understood that distort both the way the gospel is talked about and how a proper response to that gospel is framed. This impacts both how discipleship is understood and how it is prioritised and practiced.

  1. The key issue revolves around the word pistis (faith)

What is faith? At what is it directed? How does it ‘work’?

These are very big questions indeed. Just have a read of Galatians for example to see how crucial a place ‘faith’ has within the argument of the letter. ‘Faith’ is clearly the key to Paul’s passionate appeal to the Galatians to come to their senses – but what does he mean by faith?

Popular understandings of the gospel and faith sound a bit like this:

“Have faith in Jesus and your sins are forgiven.”

“Forgiveness is a free gift, apart from works. Just believe in Jesus.’

“Jesus paid the price so I could be free.”

Or an ‘ABC gospel’: Accept. Believe. Confess. For an earlier post on ‘gospel lite’ versions see this.

In all these formulations, believing in Jesus is the key to salvation. As Bates says at one point, they frame faith in problematic ways that:

  • Confuse the content of the gospel (a narrow focus on sin and personal forgiveness)
  • Obscure the nature of true faith (emphasis on mental assent)
  • Misdirect the focus of faith (focus on my faith, my salvation, my choice)
  • Artificially separate the relationship between grace and works (former makes the latter of secondary importance and of no soteriological significance).
  • Mask what Christians are actually saved for (little or no space for the necessity of personal transformation and growth in holiness and Christlikeness).
  1. Faith tends to be set against works

Popular views of faith are imagined to work something like this:

  • Faith is opposed to works due to the ‘anxious Protestant principle’ of not importing works into saving faith.
  • Grace tends to be set against works as well. Grace invites, but does not obligate.
  • Thus works (which is essentially what we are talking about when we talk about discipleship) are artificially detached from both faith and grace
  • Works (discipleship) happen as a fruit of faith: a secondary cause.
  • But the real hard lifting has already been done (forgiveness, salvation, assurance, justification) by faith. Sanctification is secondary.
  • Some propose that ‘works are the fruit of faith’. But this itself is not how the Bible talks about faith – works are intrinsic to saving faith. We are judged ‘according to our works’.
  1. Pistis has a much broader sense of meaning than assent or trust: in both in the Bible and outside it

No-one is rejecting the central place of faith. Take Ephesians 2:8: It is by grace you have been saved through faith. But what does faith mean and how does it work?

Matthew Bates (and others) argue that pistis has a wider semantic range than in popular models outlined above. Pistis includes faithfulness; loyalty; fidelity; or as proposed by Bates as allegiance to the risen Lord. Faith here is best seen as a personal commitment for all of life.

If this is the case, Bates proposes that when it comes to discipleship we would be better off dropping faith language altogether in order to try to get back to what Scripture means by pistis.

In brief, the gospel is about the good news of Jesus the resurrected Lord and King. The gospel is therefore first and foremost Christology that calls for a response in faith to a person (not an abstract idea). Salvation is past present and future, lived out in hope of resurrection life in the new creation.

In Jesus’ teaching, discipleship is right action in light of his authority. Faith in Jesus = allegiance to Jesus the king. And this sense of allegiance fits the sense of pistis in wider Greco-Roman culture in NT times. A sense of fidelity and loyalty

Bates proposes it has three inter-related themes.

  1. Mental assent – the story of the gospel is true
  2. Confession of loyalty to the risen King
  3. Embodied fidelity – life lived as a citizen of the kingdom

John Barclay comes into the story here with his magnificent book Paul and the Gift that I posted on here and here and here.

He has shown how grace in the NT world is more subtle and complex than theological systems (both Protestant and Catholic) have often allowed. Certainly for Paul there is no problem in expecting grace involves reciprocity. Whereas ‘gracism’ that says that free grace ‘requires nothing’ is an alien concept to the NT.

This is not to say that salvation is not utterly and completely due to the grace of God. We cannot save ourselves. There is forgiveness and new life in the Spirit through confessing and repenting – turning to Jesus Christ in faith. But God’s grace is not opposed to a response of embodied obedience. Grace is not opposed to works, it leads to works shaped by loyalty and action in the world. It is opposed to merit.

  1. How faith, gospel and works are understood will impact discipleship

How we understand gospel, faith and works (and discipleship fits in the category of works) will have practical implications for how we think about evangelism and discipleship.

However you read the NT, any idea of ‘easy believism’, or ‘cheap grace’ is utterly alien. Both Calvinists and others should agree on this. Believers have assurance built on the person and work of Jesus, but since only God knows all we should be wary of offering any blanket easy reassurance.

How I read the NT is that there is a very high expectation of moral transformation. For Paul and Luke especially this is built on the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit. Maybe a basic starting point for discipleship in local churches is to aim high rather than settle for basic and often misleading indicators like church attendance …

What does ‘successful’ discipleship look like? And how can what goes on at church foster development towards that goal and vision?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

What is the place of joy and laughter in the Christian life?

You might read this question and think several things:

You might think, ‘But joy is not equivalent to humour and laughter’.

And of course you’d be right. Joy, in a New Testament sense is a hopeful rejoicing in light of the gospel, whatever particular circumstances we find ourselves in (Philippians 4:4). There is joy even, or particularly, in the midst of suffering and persecution. But I’d like to maintain that it all nigh but impossible to be joyful and for that joy not to find expression in humour and laughter, in some form of visible delight at life and in others.

You might think this is a rather silly and trivial question for this normally deeply serious and intellectual blog (!)

I’d like to suggest that it is perhaps one of the most serious and important theological questions we can think about.

You might think that this is a naïve question that could make those who struggle with depression and other mental health issues feel even worse for rarely ever feeling joyful.

Yes, that is a possibility, but I’m not suggesting a law or required behaviour. Joy and laughter cannot and should not be forced.

So here are some admittedly superficial musings on joy and the Christian life. They take two forms.

One is ‘ON SERIOUSNESS’  – where life is just too grave, earnest and significant to be distracted from what is truly important (this post)

One is ‘ON JOY’ – for joy to be a visible, tangible and frequent characteristic of a mature Christian faith (next post)

Feel welcome to add your own comments for either side.

ON SERIOUSNESS

Humour and joy are not exactly what come to mind listening to the news each day. The world is a very serious place. Here’s a particularly cheery vision of the future to brighten your day.

Is it therefore a sign of triviality to find joy and laughter in the midst of what can seem overwhelming darkness? A type of naïve superficiality indicative of a moral and intellectual failure to engage with the realities of the world? A retreat into self-absorbed self-delusion where we fool ourselves that the world is not as bad as it seems while amusing ourselves to death? (to paraphrase the late Neil Postman)

There are many Christians who say ‘Yes’ to these last three questions. They may not have worked out a formal ‘theology of non-joy’ but their theology is visible in their lives and faces and worship. (Like the old joke about Presbyterians being people of deep deep joy – so deep it never surfaces).

Such Christians are resolutely serious – there is, after all, much ministry to be done which has eternal consequences. There is much pain and suffering to try to alleviate – and to endure. There is much sin and injustice to confront. All this doesn’t leave much room for the self-indulgent superficiality of laughter.

After all, the Bible is not exactly a joke book. Indeed, from Genesis 1-11 onwards, much of its power and relevance comes from its stark unsentimental realism about the world and human nature. The history of Israel is true to our world of violence, power-politics, human pride, injustice and forced displacement. The wisdom literature of the OT faces the darkness and ambivalence of our human experience head on.

Jesus is the ‘man of sorrows’ and apocalyptic prophet of the kingdom of God – not a slick, easy on the ear, joke a minute preacher. The climax of the biblical narrative leads to a crucified Messiah. Darkness and evil are confronted at the cross. One day in the future all will be judged by a perfect and righteous God. Christian mission has therefore eternal consequences.

I can think of many sober and serious Christians I’ve known. Mostly I can think of their rather grim faces. (There is an Ulster saying about someone having a face like a Lurgan Spade. It was used to cut peat in the bog and was long and thin).

And I freely admit to belonging to this tribe at times – of sometimes despairing of hope when looking at the state of the world and man’s inhumanity to man – let alone my own sins and failures. It seems to me that without Christian hope, the only logical attitude to life would be nihilism. Atheist optimism seems to me to be whistling in the dark.

And there certainly is a type of ‘Christian’ joy that is a sign of triviality and self-indulgence. Where life is focused around ‘me’ and what makes me happy. Where I am in my own little bubble and either unable or unwilling to step outside it to listen to and help others. Where I am joyful if I have all I want and miserable if I don’t. Where God is there to meet all my needs and faith is little more than a resource to help me live a more fulfilled and happy life.

This is a pseudo-faith that finds happiness in a lack of engagement with a holy God, a lack of worship, a lack of repentance,  a lack of lament, a lack of mission, a lack of self-sacrifice and a lack of service.

In contrast, authentic Christian faith is genuinely a serious business.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

A vote for Trump is reckless irresponsibility

If the Brexit vote in the UK taught us anything, it is that (very) surprising things can and do happen at election time. Sure it was going to be a close-run thing but the overwhelming consensus was that a Remain vote would fairly comfortably win the day. What was missed was the momentum was with Leave and the rest is (unfolding, messy and chaotic) history.

There are parallels – most have not seriously thought Trump could win, yet he has the momentum entering polling week. It is now more conceivable than ever that Donald J Trump could become the President of the United States of America.

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Very thoughtful, non-American Christian commentators like John Stackhouse have argued that a vote for a third party in order to send a message to the main parties or to avoid contamination of voting for two awful candidates is basically a cop-out, ethically and politically.

He may be right. He also says this:

In this election, American friends of mine are supporting Donald Trump. They want above all to see the next president appoint a more conservative Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade and protect Christians from an encroaching political correctness especially on matters of sexuality and bioethics.

They are well aware of Mr. Trump’s manifest deficits and they know that they are taking the longest of political shots by trusting in a man who has (one wants to put this gently in a decidedly un-gentle campaign) no very strong record as a political conservative, a defender of the unborn, or as a keeper of promises.

Still, they reason, Mrs. Clinton will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mr. Trump. And I can respect that.

And Prof Stackhouse adds

Other American friends of mine are supporting Hillary Clinton. They want above all to see an experienced, moderate politician in the White House who will do some things they like and some things they don’t, but will not put much at risk that isn’t already at risk and likely will do some good in the process.

They are well aware of Mrs. Clinton’s deficits, manifest or otherwise, and they know that they are going to have to swallow some bitter pills.

Still, they reason, Mr. Trump will definitely be worse. And so they intend to vote for Mrs. Clinton. And I can respect that.

I am not as sanguine about respecting a vote by a Christian for Trump or Clinton within a sort of “equivalence of badness”. I can only see a vote for Trump by a Christian as being a form of reckless irresponsibility.

It is patently obvious that Trump is utterly unqualified to be President. He has none of the virtues required and all of the vices you do not want to see in a person representing one of the greatest experiments in liberal democracy in recent Western history, that has, with many faults, worked.

John Stackhouse is right to say that a Christian voting for Trump is taking ‘the longest of long shots’ that he might – just might –  show some integrity and values that could inform policy around political conservatism, defence of the unborn or keeping his election promises. There is little or no evidence Trump is going to do any of these things.

What we do know for sure is: he is a liar and bully; a man without any signs of integrity; who breaks promises; gropes women, admits it, then tries to intimidate and threaten to sue women who says he did; uses his power for selfish ends; who is running of a platform of ugly potentially violent nationalism; inchoate rage; not so incipient racism; and a ‘towering’ vanity that verges towards megalomania.

The idea that, whatever happens on Tuesday, that such a man could get within sight of the White House should be deeply deeply troubling to all who care about America.

I have huge affection for the country. Yes it has manifest flaws, deep inequalities, a history shaped by violence and an addiction to unsustainable ruthless capitalism (and Ryder Cup fans who lack civility). But show me a nation that does not have parallel problems, if on a smaller scale. I live in the Republic of Ireland and we are a tiny little place but do a pretty good job on political corruption, injustice, a history of violence, inequality and a neglect of the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.

So this is not American bashing. It is an expression of horror that Christians, and especially well known Christian leaders, can come up with arguments defending the indefensible of voting for Trump.

Again and again in media reports we are told that ‘evangelicals’ are a key support group for Trump. I am not naive enough to believe that this is generally true. Those labelled ‘evangelical’ are likely very nominally connected to that label. Many evangelical Christians I know in the States are most definitely not voting for Trump – they are as appalled by him as others around the world.

But the fact remains that a lot of committed evangelical Christians are supporting Trump. I can only see this as a failure of discipleship – where a combination of loyalty to Republicanism and antipathy to the Democrats ‘trumps’ the bigger and more important moral duty to keep a man like Trump out of power.

And, such Christians may not realise it (but they should), their stance does nothing but harm the wider mission and reputation of the church outside America.

That evangelical Christians – who are called to follow a crucified Messiah and who are to be shaped by love for God, love for neighbour (where the neighbour is an enemy other than us), love for the foreigner, the weak and the vulnerable, who are to be people or peace and reconciliation – are labelled as supporters of a man of hate and division gives Christians a bad name globally.

The first duty of Christians in America is not to America .. it is to act in a way worthy of Jesus Christ and his gospel and for the good of the church catholic. And that means, I suggest, not voting for Donald Trump.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

You Are What You Love 8 : the demanding vocation of teaching for formation

9781587433801This is the final post on Jamie Smith’s sparklingly written You Are What You Love (YAWYL for short).

I say sparkling since it shines with elegant prose that simultaneously delivers original, creative and often dazzling insights.

And he’s on top form when it comes to teaching for formation.

Smith talks about his becoming a heretic regarding teaching at higher level. He was coming at it from post-graduate study, implictly assuming that his 18 year old students were “graduate-students-in-waiting.” As a teacher his was never to impose on their independence (and culturally accepted goal “to become prodigious consumers”)

Smith’s ‘conversion’ was to realise that his approach to teaching these young people was inimical to formation. They were not remotely ready suddently to be who he had assumed they were. His ‘heresy’ was to come to the point where he saw teaching as having “a sense of what the students ought to be.”

Smith does not reference Stanley Hauerwas here, but he has much to say on this theme (as with many others – and that’s meant at a compliment!).

“As a way to challenge such a [liberal] view of freedom, I start my classes by telling my students that I do not teach in a manner that is meant to help them make up their own minds. Instead, I tell them that I do not believe they have minds worth making up until they have been trained by me. I realize such a statement is deeply offensive to students since it exhibits a complete lack of pedagogic sensitivities. Yet I cannot imagine any teacher who is serious who would allow students to make up their own minds.”

‘Christian Schooling or Making Students Dysfunctional?’ in Sanctify Them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified. Bloomsbury T&T Clark 2nd Edition. 2016

But this of course is a whole new ball game compared to most higher education for it immediately involves the teacher in a much higher and demanding goal – the formation of people of virtue.

Since education is a formative project, aimed at the Good, the True and the Beautiful, then the teacher is a steward of transcendence who needs not only to know the Good but also to teach from that conviction. (159)

And yet most teachers have gone through their own formation process – an intensive secular “novitate”. One that assumes education is ‘for’ very specific things:

implicit in the dominant models of education is a modern, secuarlist narrative that prizes autonomy as the ultimate good. Thus the goal of education is reduced to “critical thinking,” which only turns out to be an empty, vacuous way of saying that education will simply enable young people to choose whatever “good” they see fit. In this picture, “freedom” requires the loss of a telos, since any stipulation of “the Good” impinges on the autonomy of the individual. In other words, such a model of education actually precludes virtue. (159)

This is of direct and urgent relevance into the UK and Irish university sector, just as much as in the USA. Pragmatism, employability, value for money, and raising as much income from students (and their families) as possible is what education is in danger (or has already) of becoming all about. An instrumental vision of education as purely a means to an end.

These depressing programmes (no longer available online) on ‘Queen’s: A University Challenged’ were broadcast on the BBC on the decline of Queen’s University of Belfast. A combination of a lack of Govt funding and ruthlessly pragmatic educrats who value education only by its monetary worth are eviserating the original vision of a once fine University.

Rather than academic life being valued by how much funding the teacher can attract, what if the primary task of the teacher is to be a former of people? And if this is the case, teachers first need be formed themselves. In other words, says Smith, educational reform begins with the teachers.

Smith offers some practical suggestions for (Christian) faculty development:

  • be committed to communities of formative Christian worship
  • build communal (team) practices
    • eat together
    • pray together
    • sing together
    • live life together – rejoice and grieve and walk with one another.
    • think and read together (It’s actually this one that is the most difficult. Business is ever demanding – there is rarely time to share ideas, discuss and learn what each member of the teaching team has been learning and reading and writing, visit each other’s classes to hear another teacher’s heart and passion (not just teaching ability).
  • Serve students – lead by example. Show hospitality. Pray for them and with them.

I’m very glad to be part of a team and work in a College that does much of this – that students and observers continually notice the depth of community and warmth of relationships at work. Smith would say (rightly) that such a context does not happen by accident – it is a habit that takes practice (and can’t be taken for granted).

 

You are what you love 6: fearful youth ministry?

9781587433801In chapter 6 of his passionate book You Are What You Love, Jamie Smith takes his argument (we are what we love) and asks some very relevant questions about how Christians tend to do education – right across schools, youth groups, Sunday School, youth ministries etc

How can we form and educate young people so that they know the gospel in their bones?

What if education weren’t first and foremost about what we know but what we love?

He’s inviting readers to see young people (and all of us) as ‘ritual creatures’ – hungry for rites that give them rhythms of life to live by.

His passion here is education as moral formation – forming not just informing. An engaged, embodied type of learning that catches imaginations, hearts and minds and lodges deep within.

This is the longest chapter in the book and most of it is a fairly devastating critique of a lot of contemporary American youth ministry (and it is very American here).

Smith is scathing of the formulaic alternative youth ministry services, detached from the rest of the church in a cool hangout loft, upbeat band, triumphant praise songs, introspective closed-eye meditation sections, fronted by comedic hip leaders and teachers with a vaguely moralistic or therapeutic message.

All of this, says Smith, is in the (desperate) attempt to make Christianity not seem boring and that following Jesus can be fun. The culture is an enforced

“unrelenting scripted happiness, trying hard to be a place people want to be.”

The wrappings of the latest technology, use of film, Christianised music around a vaguely biblical content are in effect trying to get people to swallow Christianity in a palatable wrapping .. like a medicine.

The whole programme, he argues, is “run on fear” (144). Of fear that children will grow up and leave the church out of boredom.

This turn in modern youth ministry, he argues, was based on two disastrous decisions.

1. To stratify the body of Christ into generational segments. It moved youth ministry into effectively a parachurch setting even within the church. Such a shift denied the catholicity and unity of the body of Christ as described in Ephesians 4:4-6. It has fostered destructive habits as the youth segment meets by itself detached from the richness and diversity of the wider body.

2. Contemporary youth ministry has become almost entirely expressivist. It actually reflects a pragmatic last ditch effort to keep members of the evangelical club. It has ceded formation to secular liturgies (146). It reflects a dichotomy: a formulaic emotive experience followed by a short message that in effect demonstrates a lack of confidence in the gospel and Bible to form people. It is still entrapped in a Cartesian framework of assuming formation happens via depositing of the message in people’s brains. The preliminaries are just to get people there to listen briefly to the message.

This is back to Taylor’s ‘excarnation’

Underneath such ‘liturgies’ is in effect a secular vision of the good life. Desires are not being formed for God and his kingdom, but are framed around  consumerist rituals and self-concern. These are liturgies of narcissism and egoism.

This is a form of Christian ministry that has given up on incarnation in liturgy and spiritual disciplines. Discipleship in much American youth ministry equals “being fired up for Jesus” (146). Where the ideal disciple is by definition an extrovert.

“As if discipleship were synonymous with fostering an exuberant, perky, cheerful, hurray-for-jesus disposition” 147

Did I mention he is scathing?

His bugbear here is that such undimensional ministry excludes and misinforms and disenchants – anyone who does not fit in cannot be a proper disciple.

I’d add that this sort of cultural conformity (to upbeat relentless optimism) is particularly American. It reminds me of one of the many great lines by Dumbledore in Harry Potter where talking to Uncle Vernon he says

“I would assume that you were going to offer me refreshment, but the evidence so far suggests that that would be optimistic to the point of foolishness.” 

And from here Smith goes to liturgy and Book of Common prayer. I’ll come back to that in another post.

Good point to pause and ask ..

Does this picture of youth ministry sound familiar to you? Do you agree that a lot of youth ministry can be run by fear? That it has, in effect, sold its soul to the world in an attempt to be relevant? And actually does not work in forming disciples?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

 

 

 

 

You are what you love 2 (or how to develop your love life)

9781587433801Chapter 2 of James K A Smith’s book is ‘You might not love what you think’

If the first question of discipleship is ‘What do you love?’, a possible problem arises: ‘Do you actually love what you think you love?’

He tells the story of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker  – where characters are given the terrifying choice of entering the Room where their deepest desires will be revealed. What if their conscious choice is not what they are given? The lesson being explored is whether what we think actually aligns with what we want. What we really desire is revealed in our daily life and habits not necessarily in what we say or think we love.

And Smith also goes to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty where Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham (why are all Lester’s ‘losers’? – see Fargo) pursues ‘freedom’ – including in the form of Angela, the teenage friend of his daughter. Without ruining the plot, at a critical moment, Lester finds out that he doesn’t actually want what he thought he wanted.

In essence, Smith is arguing that a holistic approach to discipleship needs to appreciate how we are formed by all sorts of unconscious influences, desires and habits that “orientate our being-in-the-world.” (33). He refers to modern psychology that suggests that 95% of what we do in the world is unconscious habit (‘second nature’), only 5% is the result of deliberate choices.

He argues that ‘virtues’ are on the unconscious register – these are acquired habits that dispose to act in certain ways (36). Good character isn’t accidental – it is a web of accumulated dispositions. These can be acquired intentionally by upbringing, training and practice, but also unintentionally.

How?

Smith says we engage in formative routines and habits all that time but rarely recognize what is going on – indeed we are surrounded and immersed in environments (‘liturgies’) that have their own formative power to train our loves.

So, he argues, we learn to love rival kingdoms because we are participating in rival liturgies. Just assuming that ‘we are what we think’ is reductionistic and naïve – it misses the reality of who we are and how we love.

So Smith is writing as a sort of ‘wake up call’ – to see things as they really are. The rest of the chapter is about how to read these secular liturgies. He unpacks the spirituality of the shopping mall – an intensely religious centre at the heart of everyday life.

(I get my students to do an assignment around visiting a big shopping centre and analyzing the beliefs and practices at work. It seems utterly normal and benign, yet is full of ‘theology’ and ‘liturgy’ and the attracting power of ‘loves’).

shopping-mall

Interior of İstinye Park shopping center in the İstinye quarter of Istanbul, Turkey with 291 stores, 85,250 sqm of retail area, and four levels of underground parking. Sep 8, 2012.

Back to Smith: in brief what is going on in the mall?

  • It is not trying to engage our thinking, but it is not neutral
  • It is interested in what we love – it is aimed at our hearts. Nice line – “Victoria’s secret is that she’s actually after your heart.” (41)
  • Architecture (see back to this post on ‘Brandscapes’):
    • familiar and homogenous – we feel at home whatever city or even country we are in (the picture above in Turkey could be virtually anywhere)
    • large atriums and foyers welcome the faithful pilgrims; funneling them into the worship centre
    • High vaulted ceilings, open to the sky, bright lights, calming music draw people into a space cut off from the outside world – he makes a nice point about how the walls hide the surrounding moat of cars and distractions of the outside world. You are brought into a sanctuary, retreat and escape. (42)
    • You are ushered into a sort of timeless zone, comfortable peaceful space with its own rhythm.
    • The space has its own calendar of remembrances and festivals – one morphing into the other during the year: a ceaseless litany of holidays and special days (with new ones being created regularly) in order to draw in more pilgrims.
    • The structure parallels the great Medieval Cathedrals with side chapels for devotion
    • Rich iconography lines the walls and windows – manniquins inviting us to imitate them – ideals of perfection representing the good life.
    • This is all packaged in themes of compelling beauty – inviting us to participate in this life that can be ours.
    • Inside the ‘chapels’, us ‘seekers’ are welcomed unconditionally as we look for something that will give us joy, satisfaction and pleasure
    • The consummation of our worship is a transaction of exchange and communion – we leave with something ‘concrete’, more tangible than feelings

“Released by the priest with a benediction, we make our way out of the chapel in a kind of denouement, not necessarily with the intention of leaving (our awareness of time has been muted), but rather to continue contemplation and be invited into another chapel. Who could resist the tangible realities of the good life so abundantly and invitingly offered?” (45).

We are not intellectually reasoning ‘this stuff will make me happy’ because, if we did think about it much, we would quickly know that no it won’t. But by endless repetition I’m ‘covertly conscripted’ / my loves have been automated / I have been formed by secular liturgies that are loaded with meaning.

And Smith says similar ‘liturgical’ unpacking can be done of all sorts of everyday rituals

  • A stadium as a temple of nationalism and militarism
  • Smartphones – in terms of content we look at and the rituals that tie us umbilicially to them – we see how they are loaded with an egocentric vision of life where I am the centre of the universe.

So what is the ‘ultimate story’ (or I would say gospel) of consumerism in the mall?

[much of what he says here about the ‘good news’ of consumerism is not new (see posts on consumerism here and especially those on William Cavanaugh) – but it is helpfully and creatively put together with the idea of liturgy

1. I’m broken, therefore I shop.

Consumerism pretends to offer a picture of unbridled endless optimism. Far from it – underneath the message is you are imperfect (‘sinner’) who needs fixing. These visions of happiness, friendship, sexiness, contentment and joy (the good life) – are not yours. You know it and so do we. You need redemption and we can provide it.

2. I shop with others.

While consumerism is associated with individualism and self-interest, it also, says Smith, is a social phenomenon – but one that fosters competition not community; objectification rather than other-regarding love. We compare ourselves to others as measured against mall’s perfect image of what we ‘should’ be.

3. I shop (and shop and shop) and therefore I am.

The market’s liturgy is an invitation to redemption – to a solution to our brokenness. Shopping as therapy and healing, a path to joy and overcoming sadness and ourselves – whether body shape, looks, clothes, cool technology. But, as Smith reminds us, the ‘secret’ of bright shiny happy consumerism is that nothing it offers is meant to last. The thrill dissipates fast – and we are back in the cycle of the next fix. A pattern not only of aquisition but of relentless consumption. The ‘unseen’ side of the story is all the discarded ‘good’s that are now useless. Consumerism reduces things to nothingness. Nothing has lasting value. In the process we are being trained to overinvest in things than cannot deliver, while at the same time wastefully devaluing things that become tomorrow’s rubbish.

4. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

By this Smith means the dark side of consumerism. The mall deliberately insulates the pilgrims from the inconvenient truths about their worship. Behind the perfect shiny mythic façade is a way of life that is unsustainable globally, as well as being built on the backs of the poor in the majority world. The image is as if the goods on sale have magically arrived from nowhere and been made by no-one. The mall cuts all connections between consumer and the person who actually made the thing in question. Issues of ethics and fair treatment of workers are airbrushed out of existence. The dream is an unending and ‘costless’ provision of absolutetly anything we desire. This is the American way after all. The vast waste and environmental cost is hidden away out of sight. Don’t ask, don’t tell, just consume – be happy.

None of this ‘gospel’ is announced or explained in written form. It is ‘caught rather than taught’. Because we like to think we are thinking beings, we imagine sin and temptation as a rational choice that we will have time and space to decide upon.  Rather, says Smith, we have disordered loves and poorly shaped habits. We need –re-formation in our lives.

Smith suggests a couple of ways to approach this:

We need to reimagine temptation and sin – not just as rational intentional choices – but often sin is the result of vices – badly ordered habits and practices.

To begin to reorder our love lives, we first need to become aware of the daily liturgies in our lives. He mentions the Ignatian Daily Examen :

  • Find time to pause for reflection on the rituals and rhythms of your life
  • What are the things that do something to you?

What vision of the good life is carried in those liturgies?

What story if embedded in those cultural practices?

What kind of person do they want you to become?

To what kingdom are they orientated?

What does this cultural liturgy want you to love?

And as we become more attuned to the presence and power of these liturgies, we then can begin to consider engaging in counter-liturgies within Christian worship … as a powerful way to be reformed in our loves and imaginations.

 Any examples of a daily liturgy in your life come to mind?

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.

St Stephen’s Day and the Christian paradox of powerlessness

The last few months haven’t been conducive to much blogging. And how enjoyable to have a restful and quiet day today this St Stephen’s Day.

And, in case this is the last post of 2014, warm greetings to everyone who has passed through here in 2014 and very best wishes for 2015!

Growing up in the North, the 26th was always ‘Boxing Day’ – I never really knew why. As a boy I always vaguely associated it with the sport of boxing but, confusingly, boxing never seemed to be on TV. Apparently (well, according to Wikipedia anyway) it has to do with a Victorian custom of giving a ‘Christmas box’ to tradesmen and servants.

Which also helps to explain why a British custom like ‘Boxing Day’ is never mentioned in the Republic of Ireland. In the ‘South’, it is always St Stephen’s Day – and a far better name too.

At first glance, locating the day of the first Christian martyr the day after the birth of the Messiah appears to be a rather crude mistake. Birth, joy, fulfilled promise, and hope one day followed by mercilessness, violence and execution the next?

Yet, whoever it was who got to choose St Stephen’s Day was inspired. For this day is an immediate reminder of how, while the Word has become flesh, the world into which the Word entered remains (until its final restoration) a broken, hostile, political and violent place.

Incarnation was followed by the weeping of mothers in Bethlehem for their slaughtered children. The birth of the Christ-child led to Mary and Joseph fleeing for their lives.

Deeply woven into the essence of the Christian faith is the ‘paradox of powerlessness’ – how God’s purposes are worked out in weakness, suffering and non-violence.

The Christmas story itself is full of such paradox. Jesus’ life and ministry is full of such paradox. And the cross is the place where that paradox climaxes in the violent death of God’s Son, Israel’s promised glorious liberator.

And the witness and lives of disciples of Jesus ever after are also to display that paradox.

Rembrandt, The Stoning of Stephen

Rembrandt, The Stoning of Stephen

As a follower of a crucified Messiah, Stephen deeply understood that paradox. He knew that the purposes of God will encounter violent opposition. He knew that a powerful experience of God’s Spirit was more likely to lead to death and persecution than to comfort, ease and peace. He knew that a deeply Christian response to injustice, violence and persecution was not to take up the sword in response, but, like his Lord, to pray for those who were about to take his life.

So self-evident is this paradox of powerlessness in the life and teaching of Jesus, in the life of Stephen, in the life and teaching of Paul and the rest of the NT writers, that it remains remarkable to me how many Christians, when they have a choice, routinely disregard the path of peace and non-violence for one of power, war and force.

Here’s a quote from a fine book I’m reviewing by Jeremy Gabrielson, Paul’s Non-Violent Gospel: the theological politics of peace in Paul’s life and letters:

non-violence in its many expressions is not merely an ethical implication of the gospel, but is itself constitutive of the politics of the gospel … This gospel challenges the status quo of the (Roman) political order but not in a directly subversive way. Rather, it creates an alternative political body that seeks to overcome evil and enmity not by subduing it (as Romans and their opponents would have it), but by reciprocating good for evil. Such a strategy does not promise to be effective, not does it promise to achieve desirable results by gentler means. Rather, Christian obedience to the command of Jesus to turn the other cheek and to love the enemy heralds to the cosmos that in God’s kingdom “the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history”.

It is as if the paradox of powerlessness is, when push comes to shove, seen as unreal, idealistic, naive and impractical in the ‘real world’.

The refusal to embrace the paradox of powerlessness is, I suggest, the greatest and most destructive temptation for the church, and for each individual Christian. For, at heart, it is a matter of faith and trust – in whom or what do we trust? In the foolishness of God and the power of his cross or in our own ability to protect ourselves and enforce our will on others?

The failure of Christendom through which we in the West are now navigating – where the [Western] church was in a position of authority and power for centuries to shape culture and impose its will – lies in its disconnect with the witness of people like Stephen (and ultimately his Lord).

I don’t think it is any co-incidence that the church is growing and vibrant and expanding globally in the very places where Christians experience and embrace the paradox of powerlessness; places where they are poor, excluded, persecuted and marginalised.

Yes of course these are not good things in themselves. Yes, we should work and pray against such injustice and violence. Like Pope Francis, we should speak out for and seek to help those enduring terrible suffering.

But we should also pray for God’s Spirit to empower believers to endure suffering in the name of Christ. That in their very powerlessness that the power of the gospel would be made manifest. That in their love for enemies, the love of God would triumph over evil.

And what we pray for others, we need also to pray in faith for ourselves this St Stephen’s Day.

The Christian Consumer: eschatology

In this final chapter of The Christian Consumer Laura Hartman turns her attention to how God’s ultimate purpose for the created world can shape consumption in the here and now.

Two Christian practices embody eschatological hope Sabbath keeping and Eucharist.

Sabbath

In the discussion she brings in Marva Dawn (who we had the privilege of hosting during an IBI Summer Institute some years ago – a wonderful theologian and godly woman of faith). She talks about the Sabbath as a ‘weekly eschatological party’ that anticipates ‘the future, eternal consummation of Joy.’ Sabbath keeping can lead to new habits of consumption.

– humility to put human agendas and frantic economic activity in their proper place. Rest from the gods of commerce.

– trusting in God’s provision and resisting the idolatry inherent in our consumption. For Dawn this works out as a simple daily lifestyle of lessened consumption, with a sense of celebration on the Sabbath. A rejoicing in community.

– For other Christians, Sabbath keeping is tied to justice as we imagine a better world. Jesus and doing good on the Sabbath comes to mind here. Hartman quotes Catholic, Lutheran and others in Sabbath keeping as far more than personal rest and renewal, but as a template or vision of social justice.

Eucharist

Eucharist for many Christians is associated with fasting and simplicity – the ‘meal’ itself is minimal, full of spiritual significance rather than an abundance of food. Yet it is also a feast, associated with the agape meals of the first Christians. Joy, hope and meaning come through participation in minimal physical consumption. A ‘savoured consumption’ or ‘sensuous asceticism’.

This is a sacrament God’s grace by which believers are united in Christ. It is backward looking to Christ’s death, but it also looks forward to Christ’s return and ‘a glimpse of a redeemed world’.

It offers a present experience of a future reality – a healed world of equality and peace in the presence of Christ. Hartman suggests, rightly I think, that this most fundamental Christian activity has profound implications for the way we consume:

– sharing food together

– a community equality, recipients of God’s bounteous grace

– deeper spiritual truth and hope beyond the mere material here and now

– Christ-like lives of self-denial and self-sacrifice in the service of others

– consumption that enriches and blesses rather than consumption which enslaves and destroys

Hartman has looked at four lenses of consumption from a Christian perspective

1. Avoiding Sin

2. To Embrace Creation

3. Love of neighbour

4. To Envision the Future

She concludes the book that at the heart of consumerism is a distorted view of human nature that sells the lie that we are what we own [192]. A Christian view of consumption offers a different anthropology.

– we are prone to sin but are called to renounce it

– we can delight in creation

– we are neighbours who are called to love others

– we are citizens of the new creation who are called to align our lives with the kingdom of God.

This is a right and constructive theological response. Hartman is reminding us that (as in all things of course!) we need to think theologically about the world around us. There are no simple solutions to hyper-consumerism, but Christians are called to a way of wisdom and discernment framed by the richness and depth of Christian revelation and tradition.

As she says, we do not face this challenge empty-handed.

We can consume both Christianly and well. [193]

Learning from Rory and maintaining vocation in a googleized world

Golfers, being hopeless optimists that their once-off best-ever score really represents their ‘normal’ game, are always desperately hoping and searching for a ‘secret’ of success; some new club, or thought or drill that will give them that edge – and make them a wee bit more like the pros on TV. [Hence they are endlessly suckered into spending hundreds on the latest cool driver or new fangled putter. Heck, you used to be able to buy whole sets of clubs for what one high-tech driver costs these days – but I digress.]

Anyway, this is to explain the numerous jokes out there about ditching the wife / girlfriend as a route to golfing nirvana, for it sure seems to have ‘worked’ for Rory. The moment the lovely Caroline departed, Rory’s fortunes have soared to new heights. 4 victories including 2 Major Championships, the WGC at FIrestone and the British PGA at Wentworth (flagship event of the European Tour), all done with stunning flair and breathtaking talent, have swept him back to the top of the world rankings. Once again, the statistical parallels (4 Majors by 25 etc) are being drawn with Nicklaus and Woods and you don’t more exalted company in the golfing pantheon than that.

As the wunderkind says himself, he’s been able to devote himself single mindedly to his profession in a way he hasn’t done before (or maybe not in the same sustained way). There is a new steel in Rory and a determined focus that seems to have released his remarkable free-flowing confidence to a point where he has just swept all the very best tough and prodigiously talented pros in the world aside. Over the last three weeks it has been a joy to watch  Rory give his very best (especially for a Holywood Golf Club man!).

All this sort of links to musings on technology, Google, and distraction in a world of Too Much Information (TMI).

It was significant that after his first 2014 win at Wentworth in May, Rory said he’d put away the laptop and switched off his phone (well at least for a while). Not being a celebrity world-famous golfer (or blogger, or theologian etc!) I can’t begin to imagine the pervasive clamour for your attention from a seemingly infinite number of people, both in the flesh and globally via the digital superhighway.

In a way that Nicklaus, and perhaps not even Woods, had to deal with, Rory lives in and has to negotiate living his life transparently under the fish-eye lens of social media and a voracious global media. As a ‘digital native’ he has participated freely in that world (in a way that a digital-settler like me can’t really get). But I wonder if his remarkable burst of success is in part the result of putting the babble of that ‘unreal’ world to one side and focusing on his ‘vocation’. Rather than it controlling him, perhaps he’s gained some degree of control over it. I hope so – and if so Rory, keep going! For I suspect it will be his ability to pursue his ‘vocation’ that will determine how close to Woods and Nicklaus he gets. As Roger Federer says, there is a lot of background ‘noise’ that is best ignored.

It is people with a clear sense of purpose and a determination to pursue their personal mission who tend to make the greatest impact in life. That focus is not only mental but physical. Rory has put in intensive work preparing his body to be in peak condition to thrash the ball repeatedly way over 300 yrds. Focus, discipline and training – these are words that come to mind with Rory these days.

Paul of course used sporting metaphors to describe his single-minded determination to preach the gospel whatever the cost.

25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. 27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. 1 Cor 9:25-7

Now I suspect every ‘age’ has bemoaned technological change and how it will ruin the (better) ways things were. I’m not going there. Take GOOGLE. I love Google search, Google Maps and reluctantly can’t do without gmail (prefer Outlook). Google docs are great for team interaction and I’m getting into Google Scholar. Google earth is fun. And Google books are deadly handy to get a preview of a work that you don’t have access to.

What Google does is bring the world to our fingertips in a way unimaginable to any previous human generation. Google’s mission statement is to organise the world’s information and make  it universally accessible and useful – a vastly ambitious goal which it is fulfilling brilliantly, rapidly and rather creepily. Its mysterious algorithims work invisibly to give us instantaneous results to any search. We have access to infinite information without getting off our derriéries.

But to what purpose? How can we process and filter TMI without drowning under a tsunami of data?

Have you ever found yourself spending far more time than you expected when planning to buy something fairly mundane? Maybe somewhere to stay on a trip? After looking at Tripadvisor and reading 25 (conflicting) reviews, you try Hotel.Com and a couple of other sites to get different options. One night’s stay becomes a navigation of 50 people’s opinions …all very interesting, often useful but also a time-consuming distraction.

And let’s not be naive, Google isn’t in business for fun, however much fun it supposedly is to be a ‘Googler’. Its main source of income is advertising and that stream of income is the driving force behind Google’s ‘open information’ culture. It’s been said that one of the dangers of the Web 3.0 is how it serves us. We are at the centre of our universe as Google serves us up with all our possible desires based on its predictive knowledge of our online habits. And I’m not going to get into Google’s virtual omniscience about everything you and I do on the web ….

And that reference to the French posterior is no small point. continuous googling is passive activity. Remember this wee saying ? As we spend more and more hours sitting looking at a screen we become fatter and and more unhealthy. There is an inherent mind / body dualism in the Google universe that echoes Gnosticism. The abstract (information, data) is what really matters. The body is relevant simply to tap buttons and click a mouse and soon I’m sure that won’t even be necessary either. But we are not disembodied minds, we are physical beings; mind, body, spirit.

There is no small irony in me writing this on a computer screen in WordPress that I opened with Google. I’m not anti-technology. But I do wonder how can Christians learn from Rory and pursue vocation through focus, discipline and training in a Googleized world?

How do you? Where is the googlized world distracting you and seducing you into running aimlessly? Where are you wasting your time in an e-world, consuming time and energy in trivia? How much time do you sit passively consuming someone else’s work via a screen? Do you suffer from paralysis by analysis due to too much information? How often do you just ‘google it’ to get the answer rather than think and pray about a situation?

What can you and I do to counter a sort of creeping Google gnosticism that relegates physical exercise and activity to a lower order behaviour?

Comments, as ever, welcome.