Above All Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World

Above All Earthly Pow'rs: Christ in a Postmodern World

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by David F. Wells

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Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
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Above All Earthly Pow'rs

Christ in a Postmodern World

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-2455-4

Chapter One

Miracles of Modern Splendor

* * *

Her hair was totally 1950s Woolworth perfume clerk. You know — sweet but dumb — she'll marry her way out of the trailer park some day soon. But the dress was early '60s Aeroflot stewardess — you know — that really sad blue the Russians used before they all started wanting to buy Sonys and having Guy Laroche design their Politburo caps. And such makeup! Perfect 70s Mary Quant, with these little PVC floral appliqué earrings that looked like antiskid bathtub stickers from a gay Hollywood tub circa 1956. She really caught the sadness — she was the hippest person there. Totally. Douglas Coupland

We think little about the world. We think about the things that it imposes upon us. We must think about the workplace, about appointments we have made, people we will meet, and jobs that must get done. We must think about car maintenance and train schedules, neighbors and parents, life insurance and taxes, groceries and vacations, dangers and death. We cannot avoid the sudden, painful emptiness left behind by a death, and we would not want to miss the moment when we are allowed to enter a small child's enchanted world. In a thousand ways, every day, we think about the world of which we are a part, the world we experience. We think about what we must give it, do for it, do with it, or do without it, and we think about how we will use it or how we wish we could use it.

We do not, however, often think about the world at a deeper level. We no more wonder about it than we do about the sun or moon. We take it as a given, like the fact that Tuesday has always followed Monday, May has always followed April, summer has always followed winter, and in New England, the Red Sox, as far as memory records, have always faded in fall just as the leaves are coming into their full glory. (It is a funny coincidence: both are dying but only the leaves are worth watching.) There was an interruption in the pattern in 2004, but all Red Sox fans know that normality will soon return!

That the world might have been different from what it is, that it might yet be different, that the West might yet succumb to its own self-induced sicknesses and, like a worn-out old dinosaur, topple over and die, making the species finally extinct, seems inconceivable. Thinking about these things seems as worthless as pondering under what circumstances water might be induced to flow uphill, or time stop its relentless ticking, or ocean tides might be held back from their rhythmic advance toward and retreat from the shore. These things just are. And that is why we do not think more deeply about the world. It just is.

It is as familiar to us as an old pair of shoes. It is true, we live in only one small part of it, we work only one small corner of it, we know only a few of the billions who inhabit the planet, but television and the Internet do much to fill out the picture for us. And, for the most part, it is quite an agreeable circumstance — at least here in the West. It is true that anxiety, loneliness, insecurity, and boredom are our occasional, or even frequent, companions but medical care is at hand, the malls are filled with more goods than even King Midas might have wanted, and ours is a day of manifest liberations from all external authorities except on the boundaries where freedoms cross the line into illegalities. So, we are able to think a lot about ourselves, how we might best beguile away our time, and what will most satisfy our needs. We do not think much about the world or why it is as it is.

The world does not strike us as a particularly dangerous place here in the West. There are pockets of lawlessness, we know, streets that should not be walked at night, and there are new kinds of lawbreakers, like the white-collar thieves who work with computers and who have made our sense of security a little less robust. Yet the West in general and America in particular is to us a place of plenty, of opportunity, and of choices, not a place where we feel greatly endangered. We certainly do not think of it as a place where we can lose our souls. If such thoughts do cross our minds, we would be inclined to suppose that souls are lost by doing large and inhumane acts of evil, not by living in the realm of shallow and empty triviality where so much of our life is moored. We live not out in the depths of what is truly wrong, but on the surfaces where nothing is right or wrong and nothing really matters. Others, however, have not been quite so sanguine about this state of affairs.

Karl Marx had his own (utopian) agenda, of course, but he was remarkably prescient in seeing what was coming in this our Western world where everything solid has melted into air. So, too, was Mahatma Gandhi. He feared the West as well. He thought that the Western acids that dissolve all beliefs and morality would be brought to India by the use of technology. He therefore urged Indians to resist it, especially in the fabric industry, and preserve the old ways of spinning, weaving, and cloth making. By that point, however, India had significantly penetrated the international market and there was no turning back. It was one of the few political setbacks Gandhi suffered which was permanent. What these outside eyes saw, however, is lost on us. They feared the West; we do not. We have no fear of it at all. It is, after all, the hand that feeds us with more affluence, more opportunities, more choices, more miracle drugs, more pleasurable distraction than any civilization has ever known. We are now so much a part of its workings, we are now so addicted to its largesse, that life is inconceivable without these blessings of our modernized world. But what does all of this do to us? That is what we do not think about. That is what we simply think is, as much a part of life as Chevrolets, Time magazine, movies, and pizza are and as unavoidable as the rising sun tomorrow.

In this and the following chapter, I want to try to understand our modernized, Western life. And what I am going to be doing is asking how it affects us internally, what living amidst the fruit of all its brilliant ingenuity does to us, and how our experience of it makes us prone to look at the world in certain ways. I do so because it is not possible to live with any degree of authenticity as a Christian unless the modern world is understood to be what, in fact, it is: delicious but dangerous, like the Turkish delight that proved so irresistible and so lethal to one small boy in C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

I am going to try to accomplish this by melding together two kinds of thinking that have often seemed to be antithetical to each other and certainly whose practitioners have usually had little patience with each other. The one kind of analysis has looked only to ideas in offering its analyses of how the modern world has emerged. And specifically, it has attempted to root the modern conception of life in the ideas of the Enlightenment. The other kind of analysis has argued that modern life is an enigma if we do not understand its social processes, its economic capitalism and the social organization that that demands and the modern state which is one of its results. I happen to think that both approaches are right and both are necessary. More than that, I am inclined to think that the Enlightenment ideas would never have taken root as they did without the modernizing of the world. It was the modernizing of the world which gave to Enlightenment ideas their plausibility because the processes of modernization themselves produced an environment which was remarkably similar to the conclusions for which philosophers of the Enlightenment had argued.

I realize that what I am attempting to do will generate some new complexities. It is no small undertaking to develop a good understanding of what has dominated Western thinking. And it is no small task to be able to show how the processes of modernization — capitalism, urbanization, technology, mass communications, and the state — have produced a psychological environment in which certain beliefs and habits seem normal and others do not. To attempt to show the parallels between the two is an even more daunting task. I fear that it might burden readers with a mass of considerations with which they might choose not to be burdened! And yet, it also holds out the best hope for finding some of the answers to many of the questions which we might like answered.

However, before coming to these parallels, I need to think about something which is preliminary to both. It is how we know things. So, I am going to begin by reflecting on how our experience of the world outside becomes a part of our private, interior world. I shall then elaborate on this by illustrating in some detail how the Enlightenment ideas about life have dovetailed with what happens within us as we enter our technological world, learn the art of endless consumption, and foster delusions about the remaking of human life.

Outside In, Inside Out

When we think of "the outside world," we may be thinking of nature or we may be thinking of the world we have created from, or on top of, nature — quite literally in the case of cities, roads, and communications towers. And when we are thinking about what we have done with, and on, nature, we are necessarily thinking about culture, a notion whose meaning has changed quite a lot.

In nineteenth century Europe and Britain, the word culture had an agricultural resonance to it. Cultured people were thought of as men and women who tended the soil of their lives, who worked at self-improvement, especially by immersing themselves in those matters which were thought to improve the human condition: classical music, great literature, high moral discourses, and the pursuit of disinterested goodness through philanthropy or works of mercy. This would produce such an ordering in one's life, it was thought, such refinement in one's manners, that one would become cultured. Thus it was that the words culture and civilization became interchangeable. A cultured person was a civilized person. There was still a remnant of this understanding in the American theologian H. Richard Niebuhr's classic book Christ and Culture, which was published in the 1950s and which bears the distinction of having given us a way of conceptualizing the ways in which Christianity and culture have been related in the past. For him, though, culture was mostly what we would call "high culture" and it was mostly innocent. Let me pursue this idea a little so that we can see how much the word culture has changed in meaning.

The difference between nature and culture, Niebuhr said, is the difference between a river and a canal, between a stone and an arrow, between a moan and words. Culture, he argued, is what human beings make of nature; it is what we impose upon nature by way of cities and transportation systems, or what we make from it by way of artistic artifacts. It is also the social fabric, social organization, and the structure of beliefs in a particular place. At the time when he was writing, America was a more innocent and a far less developed country than it is today. The imposition of our highly technological, densely urbanized way of life on nature is what drastically transforms the meaning of culture. The difference is not simply at its most obvious point — that is, that manual work, in which one is close to nature, is replaced by mechanized and computerized labor in which there may be no direct link to nature. The difference is in what is imposed on nature. It was the coming of our machine age that greatly troubled the German philosopher Oswald Spengler and provoked his 1918 vision of the declining West, and this was something which was not on Niebuhr's mind at all.

What Niebuhr did not ponder is the stunning commercial success that industrialization has brought, and this is what has begun to change the meaning of culture. The avalanche of commercial images and sounds under which we now live was just gathering force in Niebuhr's day. The "commercial," Stuart and Elizabeth Ewen argue, "reaches out to sell more than a service or product; it sells a way of understanding the world." This has infused an altogether different quality into culture.

If, then, culture is still, in Stuart Ewen's words, "the accumulated understanding by which a given people live and maintain themselves in a given society," we nevertheless need to enlarge our view of it beyond Niebuhr's thought that it is what we make of nature, or build upon it, to include what takes place within those who live within the artificial environment we have made. Culture includes all of those ways of looking at life, the habits of mind, that become typical and normative in a given context. It is what resonates within ourselves with modern societies with their highly sophisticated systems for the production of goods and services, centered around our cities, all made efficient by technology, all tied together by unprecedented lines of communication and information, and all of which are dominated by giant bureaucracies both corporate and governmental. Society is external to us but it is also the world we inhabit mentally and psychologically. We have no way of thinking about life, or about ourselves, except in the context of this external world. It is this world which impinges on us, makes demands of us, sometimes alarms us, sustains us, and occupies us. It is this world that envelops us in a myriad of images in terms of which we think of existence, by which we respond to it, through which we communicate with others. And so many of these images by which we understand ourselves are commercial in nature. This has consequences for everything from fashion to politics to religion.

We can now begin to see where some of the building blocks lie in what we know. This external world becomes the inescapable "other" in our knowing. Our consciousness is wrought through a complex interaction between our interior and exterior worlds, between the "I" within us and the world by which we are surrounded. In many important respects, this world provides us with the ways in which we think of ourselves. And, to some extent, we provide the ways in which that outside world is ordered and experienced. For example, a materialistic scientist and an animist who believes that trees have souls comparable to his own will look at the same trees rather differently. The difference lies not in the trees, but in the interpretive framework in which they are understood. Similarly, the world as we know it is not simply given to us, and it does not impose itself on all people in the same way, but neither is our knowledge a private, free-floating creation which is merely prompted by this external world — be it the creation or a text — as some postmoderns want to claim. There is, instead, a delicate choreography which takes place in which what is external is grasped and understood by what is internal, and what is internal lives much of its time within the boundaries of what is external. The exact relation between the internal and external, of course, has become an increasingly consternated debate across a number of disciplines today, from philosophy to theology to literature and even into law and science.

And there is a third factor in our knowing which also needs to be considered. In addition to the dance carried on between the internal and external worlds, our consciousness is also wrought by the means we have for engaging the world outside of ourselves. Eileen Powers' classic study Medieval People contains a chapter in which we follow Bodo, the peasant, from his home into the fields of the medieval estate on which he lives. The way he sees life could not be more different from the way life is viewed today by someone, say, working in a corporation in a city office building. And that difference has to do not only with a changed worldview, and not only with a drastically changed world to view, but also with the passing of the horse-drawn plow and its replacement by omnipresent technology and our greatly magnified channels of knowledge and perception. The computer, along with other technology, subtly changes how we see the world, what we think we can do with life, and how we go about doing that. The extension of ourselves that is possible through the computer, and even through television, gives us ways of thinking about life that would not have crossed Bodo's mind.

It is true, of course, that within this larger meaning of culture there are the smaller units of, for example, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and generation: smaller groups that have their own ways of looking at life and their own agendas as to what they want from it. The amount and degree of differentiation here appear to be growing. For example, the census of the United States taken in 1950 offered only two racial categories: "white" and "nonwhite." With each succeeding decade, however, the number of choices increased until in the 2000 Census the number had grown to twelve in order to accommodate the gathering importance of racial difference. There is also the growing bonding of kin we see in the new expressions of tribalism — nationalistic, ethnic, and generational. It is these smaller units of meaning within which people belong in their minds which has led some to think that they constitute the building blocks for a postmodern understanding of the world in which meaning can never be the same for any two of these groups — or maybe even for two people. That, however, has to assume a level of disengagement from the wider culture that is today simply impossible.

While it is true, then, that there are smaller worlds of meaning and special interest groups, we should not lose sight of the fact that they always exist within a larger, homogenized world. In this world we are increasingly linked together by information and computers, products and e-mails, movies and music. This produces an all-embracing world culture, one in which an American pop star like Michael Jackson can have a more avid following in Japan than in the United States, and Britons can enjoy Oprah Winfrey just as much as Americans can. Coca Cola and pizza, American movies and rock music, are universal. It is this larger umbrella of (pop) culture under which everyone lives in the West.


Excerpted from Above All Earthly Pow'rs by DAVID F. WELLS Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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