Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Jedi Knights and Christmas

Over the years, there have been any number of analyses of the Star Wars universe and its philosophical and religious heritages. My concern in this blog is not these deep issues. For this Christmas there is a different concern. In my recent blog on Huxley and Brave New World I wrote that Huxley wrote his future with Christianity dead and buried. Back in the 1980s Oz Guinness (a Christian apologist and analyst) wrote the Grave Digger File which contained a number of observations about how the culture of that period in time was shaping Christianity. Many of those sociological characteristics were related to technological change (TV evangelists, drive through churches etc).

The “gravedigger thesis” (which gave the book its original title) is the notion that the Christian faith is the single strongest contributor to the rise of the modern world, yet the church has fallen captive to the modern world it helped to create. So as the church accommodates to the world uncritically, it becomes its own gravedigger. There are parallel versions of the same idea in Cotton Mather as well as Karl Marx. For Mather, early Puritanism created prosperity, only for prosperity to undermine Puritanism. I would argue that only such a wide-ranging analysis does justice to the full raft of problems we are facing today. Without taking such cultural analysis into account, other proposed remedies will always fall short of our hopes and prayers. 

I thought at the time I read this book his reading of the times was rather profound. And though I don't agree with everything his says but he is a voice worth hearing. His telling point I think is one he has been bashing on about for more than twenty years. The following quote from the same interview linked above refers to a newer book he was promoting in 2010 that took up the gravedigger thesis again.

The chief challenge for the church in our time could be summarized in three words: integrity, credibility, and civility. This book is about the first, and our need to recover a faith that can prevail with the integrity and effectiveness in the advanced modern era. Everyone mentions rightly that the church is exploding in the Global South, while failing badly in Europe and faltering in the US. But the church in the Global South is largely pre-modern, and the major reason for the weakness of the church in the West is captivity to the spirit and systems of the modern world. Put differently, much of the church in the West is in a profound Babylonian captivity. It has become deeply worldly, like the European church before the Reformation. (ibid).

The point that generally in pre- (advanced) technological societies Christianity is thriving but collapsing in the advanced technological societies is a critical issue. So as I write this and think about how to connect young people to a faith that is 2000 years old, ringing through my ears comes the voice of Hans Solo.

Han Solo: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

Luke Skywalker: You don't believe in the Force, do you?

Han Solo: Kid, I've flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything to make me believe there's one all-powerful force controlling everything. There's no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.

In the same movie Darth Vader is challenged with the same question.

Is Christianity in danger of becoming a hokey religion in a technological age? How do we communicate a grander story - the story even.

In a discussion group where I first opened my thinking on this topic, Jason Carroll made these points 

  • It used to be that it was enough to function in the world if one could simply read and write, and maybe a little math. Not so now, we need data processing skills, much higher levels of thinking processes and the ability to integrate and assimilate information quickly.
  • In a sense, ancient texts require a totally different kind of "literacy". The ancient texts are about story, poetry, allegory and so on, and our children (not to mentions reams of adults who are catching up with the technology) are not "literate" in a way that helps them engage with the text. They are technologically literate but not epistemologically literate; they only know how to gather, process and disseminate information, and they don't know how to draw truth from text because no one has taught them that truth can come from a text, and even if they did, no one has taught them how. 
  • Since the invention of the printing press we have engaged the text as a written text rather than an oral one. Prior to that, with low literacy rates and limited access to written materials, believers engaged the text orally and communally in the setting of worship. 
The reformation in Europe was simultaneously a renewal movement that restored a more Biblical Christianity but intertwined within that it adopted the latest technologies available - the printing press - combining it with a theological innovation, that believers should read the text for themselves in their own native languages (and not hear it in a foreign one (Latin).

Clearly, then there are multiple factors at play. 1. As people gain knowledge about their world and power technologically they feel more in control, more independent and thus less dependent on a God. 2. Access and use of technologies changes how we think - more and more things become utilitarian. Questions of life become centred on whether it is valuable or useful not. Less survival more choice. A sense of background ethics or principles get in the way of necessary decisions. Consumerism fits in here, we don't see a problem with all the stuff we buy. 3. We instill in our lives a sense that we are where we are because of our work and eliminate from our lives a sense of grace and mercy - but for some chance, we would have been born poor in India  or Brazil or Africa. 4. We have no long view - how do we live with a small footprint? 

How not to be a hokey religion?

Shrinking back from a Christianity that engages with the world and scientific knowledge leads to a god of the gaps - a god which inevitably shrinks -Bonhoeffer, in a letter that he wrote in 1944: wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved.^[3]

So retreating from science or from a technological society is not useful, as we have seen in recent history but but as Guinness warns simply embracing technology it on its terms is wrong and will lead us astray. The quest is to embrace it and subvert it. For me our thinking of technology must come under Romans 12.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

There is a need to test technology by the standards of Christianity - does it do good or put differently: I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matt 25:35-36)

I am challenged by the idea Paul presents in Colossians (NIV).
The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Dwell on that...
 reconcile to himself all things ... things created and things technological, what is it to redeem, to reconcile technology to Jesus?

But how, how do we begin this conversation? How do we promote a literacy in Churches of the text we have of narrative, of poetry, of theology? Do we need to change the form that Church takes? Less lecture more hacker space where we take a passage and pull it apart and learn how to apply it to our lives? How do we begin to bridge the gap between text literacy and media/technological literacy - within a Christian context? Relying on a single Pastor or even a team if your Church is rich enough I don't think has the muscle. We need leading because history shows that quickly enough groups wander off in all directions but Pastors are increasing too separate from the world their congregations inhabit.

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