Theodore Dalrymple on the best way to produce shallow and superficial people

self promotion

No one seems to have noticed, that a loss of a sense of shame means a loss of privacy; a loss of privacy means a loss of intimacy; and a loss intimacy means a loss of depth. There is, in fact, no better way to produce shallow and superficial people than to let them live their lives entirely in the open, without concealment of anything.

Theodore Dalrymple: Our Culture, What’s Left of it

Jürgen Habermas on the Biblical ethics of love and modernity

” Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love.  To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.” Jürgen Habermas

The Challenge of Discipling the Fragmented Self

The Christian faith at different times during its history has had to confront differing concepts of individuality, each of which deeply shapes how we do ministry and which presents the Church with unique challenges. The Church of the early medieval period ministered in a culture with a very different understanding of self. Our modern day sense of radical individuality would have seemed strange to medieval individuals. The early medieval individual saw themselves as part of a great chain of being.

Europe was Christianized not soul by soul, but rather by decree as rulers declared their kingdom’s Christian. This sounds unusual to us, but not so to a culture with a weak idea of personal freedom and individuality. The entire shape, structure and apparatus of the medieval Church was built around this collective idea of culture and faith.

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Richard Sennett notes in his book the Fall of Public Man that as our culture secularised, instead of looking for meaning in the transcendent realm, we looked to the immanent and the immediate. Relationships became one the main arenas to which we looked for a sense of purpose. In contemporary culture the world of relationships, of sex, friendship, family, and marriage must now provide the solace and transcendence that God and religion did in the past. Sennett writes

‘When the relations cannot bear these burdens, we conclude there is something wrong with the relationship, rather than with the unspoken expectations.’

This is one of the factors behind the contemporary high divorce rate. A spouse must be intimate best friend, provide the emotional support of a therapist, be a supplier of constant sexual fulfilment, posses the economic security of a banker, and the moral guidance of a priest, whilst allowing enough relational distance so as not to impinge on their lovers personal autonomy.

As I read Sennett I began to wonder if we had done the same thing to the Church. Do we now attend Church with unrealistic expectations? Today there is a set of expectations that float around in which Church is meant to be mind blowing, to offer us incredible worship, life changing preaching, transforming community, intimate relationships, and awe inspiring opportunities for service. Ministers and Pastors feel this pressure, and increasingly their time is taken shaping Churches which promise us the world if we only will attend. This dynamic does not fulfil the great commission to make disciples, instead it only creates fickle consumers of religious goods and services and insecure, anxious and exhausted Pastors.

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The Myth of Modernist Christians VS Postmodern Christians

For the last ten to fifteen years a great fallacy has clouded debate around the future of the Church in the West. The fallacy goes something like this. At some stage (depending on who you talk to), but most likely in the nineteen nineties the post modern era began. All of a sudden everything changed and a line was drawn in history. On one side were the postmodernists and on the other the modernists. The modernists were enslaved to a highly cerebral, hegemonic view of the world. They were obsessed with progress and holding the world at a cold calculated distance. They were beholden to technology, and if they were religious were either dogmatic fundamentalists or materialist liberals. They hated anything non-Western or from the past, and lived in Le Corbusier designed buildings where they almost suffocated on their own sense of hubris.

Then there was the postmodernists and apparently they were coming so we had to be ready, or had to become postmodern ourselves. The young were postmodern and the future was postmodern. The postmodernists were everything that the modernists were not, they loved spirituality instead of religion, were embracing of the non-West, the past, and anything experiential. They had piercings and hated objective truth. The implications were clear, soon Western culture would morph into a giant rave where we would find ourselves dancing to tribal techno with an dreadlocked Austrian backpacker/Yoga practitioner named Helga.

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New Media, Authority and Information

The New Media landscape offers us unparalleled access to information. This can be great for research, at our finger tips are now all kinds of fantastic resources with which aid our faith development. There is however a danger in simply finding information which simply affirms what we want to believe.

Gaga vs the Queen, plus why lyrics don’t really matter anymore in pop music

Currently I am co-writting an article on Lady Gaga with Doug Groothius. So I am not going to write too much here, but the above picture seems to be one of those photos which struck me as emblematic. It is like the baton being passed from one era of Western Culture to another. The Queen who represents the proceeding centuries of convention and tradition in which it was determined that a handful of people deserved privilege.

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What Charles Darwin Can Teach Us about Young Adults Leaving the Church

I recently read Nick Spencer’s book Darwin and God, which is not so much about evolutionary theory, but uses Darwin as an example of the way so many prominent Brits lost their faiths during the Nineteenth century. Despite Darwin living so long ago, and in such a different culture, there are some strong parallels between Darwin’s eventual loss of faith and the phenomenon of young adults leaving faith today. 

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Yes you are a Bad Person

Most of us are aware that our cultures ethics are in flux. Sure we know this about the red flag issues of the day around sexuality, genetics and technology. But we are probably less aware of the way that contemporary culture is reshaping our everyday ethics, the tiny little beliefs that we pick up, that end up having a tremendous effect upon our behaviour; catchphrases and mantras that seem benign but which speak of a radical shift in our worldviews.

A classic example is the statement, ‘I am not a bad person I just do bad/stupid things’. I hear this all the time, both as a pastor, and in the media. As a culture we are building a division between our actions and what they say about us as people. Throughout most of history our action have been an indicator of our character, but today we wish to maintain a pristine character, whilst doing what the heck we want. Such a belief, is deeply linked to the idea of self esteem, the belief that we are all inherently good no matter what we do, that what is important is not moral integrity, but the health of our self esteem.

Such a viewpoint is radically at odds with scripture, which states that Human are inherently broken, that we make wrong, and sometime evil decisions, which in turn lead to terrible actions. We cannot disconnect our actions from who we are, they speak volumes of our character. The attitudes of the heart spill out into real time, with real consequences.

The book of Proverbs does not so much distinguish between those who are evil or who do wrong, and those who do good, but rather those who do wrong and those who are wise. To be wise, to ensure that both our actions and character align, we must start in a place of humility accepting our brokenness, our habit to chose wrong over right. Then we are in a position to move into relationship with him who is truly good, whose actions speak of his goodness, his justice and his love. Thus the bad news for contemporary culture is that we are our actions, but the good news is that Christ whose actions spoke of his goodness, offers us his grace and his transforming love.

The Pornography of Violence

The New York magazine film critic David Edelstein, after watching Saw, Hostel, Wolf Creek and The Devils’ Rejects, coined the term torture porn. A genre of films which go far beyond the old Nightmare on Elm Street horror fare, which revel, in an almost erotic fashion, the torture and degradation of characters in the most brutal ways. Just like its sexual cousin, torture pornography’s error is the sin of distance. The audience delights in the violence whilst maintaining a distance from what is happening on the screen. The actual consequences and horror of violence are mediated through a film, thus there is no consequence for the audience. This is violence and debasement as a consumer experience. And just as women are objectified in so much sexual pornography, in torture porn, it is the victims which are objectified, reduced to mere conduits of our sadistic hunger.

Torture porn is not the only realm in which our appetite for sadism has grown, just look across the spectrum of popular culture. Witness the rise of television shows such as dexter in which a serial killer becomes the hero, or here in Australia the Underbelly series in which actual brutal underworld killings become sunday night  mini series entertainment. Look at the rise of MMA as spectator sport. Or the millions of hours clocked up by millions of users on single shooter and other violent video games. It seems that our appetite for violence, degradation and torture seems endless at the beginning of the twenty first century. Even reality television, which may not show actual violence, still is built upon a sold foundation of humiliation, shame and exposure.

Even sexual pornography now reflects our culture’s fixation on violence and degradation. Hugh Hefner made pornography mainstream in the fifties when he launched Playboy magazine. Hefner’s business model was based on the idea that men wanted to see attractive women naked. A concept which now seems quaint and passe. Just take a listen to Rihanna’s recent single S and M, or Wynter Gordon’s chart topper Dirty Talk, songs primarily bought by tween girls.

Journalist Christ Hedges in his book Empire of Illusion explores the way in which spectacle and entertainment have overtaken contemporary culture. Hedges notes the massive growth of pornography in contemporary life, something most of us are aware of. But what is particularly disturbing in Hedges’ findings, is the way in which pornography is no longer really about sex, but rather degradation and violence. Hedges observes that

‘The most successful porn films keep pushing the physical and emotional boundaries of the women onscreen and incorporate an expanding array of physically and verbally abusive acts.”

As Hedges was writing his stomach churning expose of the contemporary adult entertainment industry, the Abu Gharib images were released, showing the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners of war by guards at the prison facility. The images to Hedges looked almost indistinguishable from the content of hardcore pornography. In some of the photos the guards had deliberately recreated scenes from pornographic films, shockingly many of the images featured female guards, forcing male prisoners to simulate the most humiliating sexual acts. The cultural effect of porn had moved beyond just the objectification of women, to the objectification of all. Hedges writes,

The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy…It is the language of absolute control, total domination..and humiliating submission. It is a world without pity. It is about reducing other human beings to commodities, to objects.

In such a culture pedophillia runs rampant, domestic violence is a plague. The poor are reduced to mere statistics, the victims of war become collateral damage, the mentally ill public nuisances. In such a culture, devoid of empathy, gossip and scandal replace public discourse, screens becomes distancing objects, giving us the illusion that they remove our culpability. We become filled with lust, not just a lust for the flesh, but to see others dominated, crushed, and humiliated. Others become tools of our will. 

Fourteen hundred years ago, a culture existed which matched our appetite for violence, and our lack of empathy. The Roman circus was the pinnacle of this appetite for violence. One day as the crowd bayed for blood, a lone clear voice screamed ‘stop!’. A Christian monk from the east, named Telemachus implored the crowd to turn away from it’s blood worship and towards the one true God. Telemachus was inspired by a different vision of humanity’s worth, an dangerous belief, that we were created in the image of a loving God, and that therefore every human life was sacred, reflecting back to us the handiwork of God. Telemachus was promptly killed by the enraged crowd, but his death so moved the watching Emperor, that he ordered the end of the Gladiatorial battles.

How we need another Telemachus today. A strong clear voice, to scream ‘stop’.


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