11 August 2008

The World in the Palm of My Hand

Invader Christian -- Part 5

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4



Could anyone possibly claim that the United States is a more moral nation now than it was in 1980? … Speaking strictly as … Christians, has it really gotten easier to live [a Christian] life in America over the last twenty-five years? Take a look at cable TV, the internet, the bestseller list and the clothes they sell to teenage girls at every department store in this country and try to tell me with a straight face that the answer to that question is, “Yes”. The fact is that after twenty-five years of hellfire-and-damnation political speeches and mobilization efforts, this country is in worse shape now than it was when it all started. (Clark Carlton, “Where the Religious Right Went Wrong”, here)

I have been discussing, beginning here, the undeniable failure of Christians to have any significant effect upon U. S. culture, and the reasons for this. The discussion has been in terms of Reinhold Niebuhr’s book, Christ and Culture. Most Christians, especially those of the ilk which has failed to produce their desired results, accept the idea of “Christ as Transformer of Culture”. My thesis, suggested by Clark Carlton and others, is that this failure is rooted in Christians’ acceptance and adoption of the same methods of “culture warfare” as their opponents. And that is limited to Christians who actually accept that there is a “war” on. The rest are on a relatively permanent R&R, interrupted by occasional periods of work and worship, if they can be bothered by it and if it’s exciting enough (you know, if the music is like what we normally listen to and if the sermons aren’t “boring”).

In previous postings on the topic I was preoccupied with the arts, notably music (and mostly because I’m a trained musician). I suggested that there is an approach to music that is not unlike non-Christian music, even though the content may differ – a little.

But it isn’t just in art that this acceptance of prevailing cultural norms occurs (some of which norms, bear in mind, supposedly need to be reformed). Many aspects of culture, because they are not obviously malignant, are snatched up unquestioningly, uncritically, and even eagerly by Christians. If it isn’t a sin, or at least obviously a sin, a Christian need not tax himself by appraising the spiritual significance (if any) of such things. As P. G. Wodehouse observed: Christians’ minds are best left unstirred.


To pick a seemingly benign example, a Christian needs his cell phone just as much as a non-Christian does. And I won’t deny that it is a need. But what goes unquestioned is whether it should have become a need in the first place. Perhaps it should not have become a need. Don’t worry about it, though: there is no passage in the Bible which emphatically states, “Thou shalt not own cell phones; neither shalt thou organize and live thy life such that cell phones become a necessity.” Go in peace.

On the other hand consider this possibility: so many of the things we need are needed not because they are essentially needful, but because they are accidentally needful. In other words, we need them because of the way we have organized our lives, whether rightly or wrongly. It is that (i.e., how we have organized our lives), not the possession of these needful things, which may be the problem. We don’t tend to reflect upon that possibility. I need this, therefore I must have it. And it is probably true: I do need it. But should I have come to need it? Do I need it because of the way I’ve organized my life? Should I have organized my life such that I created this need? If I need it, what, precisely, do I need it for? Do I really need it, or is it just part of living well in the U.S.A., being on the right side of the “digital divide”?

I suppose the list of questions could go on. But I won’t.

These are not the questions we ask ourselves. And we have some very harsh language for those (legalistic bastards!) who dare suggest that the problem is that we have created these needs by virtue of how we’ve (mis-)organized our lives. It is even worse for those who dare tell us exactly where we’ve gone wrong in organizing our lives.

The problem isn’t that we own cell phones. The problem may just be the acceptance of them as a now-normal part of life. The problem may be that they probably own us. Your average Christian without a cell phone in his pocket or purse, or stuck in his ear is in just as dire a circumstance as a one-armed paper hanger in a wind storm – or a castrated gelding attempting to reproduce. But he isn’t really in dire straits: he has simply organized his life in a certain way; and that’s all. And that organization-of-life requires a cell phone. Or, apparently, whatever happens to be the latest must-have gadget.

This is an important question for a Christian. A Christian – whatever his neighbors may do – must ask himself about the organization of his life. We organize for purposes, unless we are living accidental lives. For what purpose have we organized our lives? What’s our central focus? Have we organized our lives for the conquest of self or for the indulgence of self? For service or for play? More than likely we do not own cell phones because of their great utility in helping us bear the cross. (Maybe that’s not true in your case. Bless you; go with God.)

We want to be reachable, but not for service. We want to be reachable so that we can always be called upon (or to call upon others) to stop at the store for this and that on our way home from work (God forbid we should do without for one night), or so that we can call someone while we’re stuck in traffic (rather than use that gift of free time for prayer, meditation, reflection: we have so few things to pray about because, except for our traffic issues, or finances, or the health of loved ones, there are very few things to pray about) and God forbid we should be – in addition to stuck in traffic – stuck in silence. Not to worry, though: if we’re not on our cell phones, we have our car stereos. (After all, Christians need as much noise as anyone, as long as its Christian noise, of course.)

We especially want to be reachable because we want to make sure our friends and relations can always contact us. But not, again, so that we can be of service to them. Far from it. More than likely we have friends and relations who are planning what can best be described as play dates. (Also more than likely we ourselves have occasion to plan play dates.) We wouldn’t want to be left out for want of a cell phone. (“We tried to reach you, man, but you’re never home. Don’t you listen to your messages? You need a cell phone, dude.”) The world is a playground and when we’re not working we know that someone somewhere is playing; and we don’t want to miss out. (And if it isn’t play, then it’s likely work: Money never sleeps.)

Not that I think things will be better if only we didn’t have cell phones and the like. Indeed, I have a cell phone. The problem is not the possession or use of a cell phone. The problem is how it came to be a need. It may not necessarily have come about legitimately. The problem is not possession but use: they may not always be used legitimately. For example, some have found cell phones to be excellent means of spreading gossip faster than ever.

A diagnostic thought experiment: Saint Paul instructs us to be devoted to prayer (Romans 12.12) and to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5.17). How much time do you spend on the phone (cell or otherwise) or internet, or anything else? How much time do you spend in prayer?

I’m reminded of a time a man of my acquaintance explained why he didn’t own a television. He got the idea from his pastor when he was a kid and television first came out. He, this pastor, was in an appliance store and the salesman was trying to sell him a television set. “What’ll it do for me?” this pastor asked the salesman.

“It’ll put the world in your living room,” the salesman immediately replied.

“Well, then I don’t want it.”

The world in your living room? We can do better than that. I can access the internet with my cell phone. I have the world in the palm of my hand. And it keeps me busy, when I let it.

Part 6

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James Frank SolĂ­s
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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