Dismaland, Ashley Madison and Duplicitous Fantasy

Dismaland

A friend of mine recently told me that his wife was often depressed by “looking at Instagram and seeing how happy every couple seemed.” The endless array of beautifully posed people, gleefully posting about their #blessed, #best and #NBD adventures on beaches and balconies, discouraged her. Compared with the carefree, happy-as-can-be photos that filled her social streams, her marriage seemed rocky by comparison; hardly Instagram-worthy.

She’s not alone. Who of us hasn’t struggled with the insecurities and comparisons that arise from the world of social media posturing. And who of us, if we’re honest, hasn’t perpetuated the problem by posting only the photos we’ve carefully selected, cropped and edited to present the best picture of our enviable lives?

Technology is making it easier and easier to live in a world of facades and false perfections. As we exist more and more in a world of digital mediation, a rupture widens between who we are and who we choose to be online, as perceived by the anonymous hordes. A rupture also widens between the reality of knowing and being known in embodied community, and the fantasies of disembodied escapism and false intimacy that can characterize life in the solitude of our iScreens.

Ashley Madison is just one byproduct of this widening rupture; just one (particularly brazen) example of the unreal escapism and supposed anonymity that characterizes so much of our lives online. The hack that lifted the curtain on Ashley Madison may elicit a “they had it coming” response from us, but the truth is we’re participants in the same brand of duplicitous fantasy with every exaggerated, embellished or painstakingly posed photo we post online. By slapping a happy hashtag and a Valencia filter on something and presenting it as real, we too are widening an identity chasm that may one day be too big to traverse.

Last week Banksy lifted the curtain on another sort of corrosive fantasy, albeit one that didn’t involve hacking and publishing adulterers’ e-mails. But with his Disneyland sendup Dismaland–a “bemusement park” installation billed as “the latest addition to our chronic leisure surplus”–he is exploring similar territory in the landscape of what he calls “post modem-ism.”

Though a predictable critique of a too-easy target, Dismaland (like all of Banksy’s art) is nevertheless right about the duplicitous fantasy that characterizes much of today’s Amusing Ourselves to Death world. It’s a “reality TV” world where “real” and “fantasy” are ever more conflated, where warzones make for good movies and movie theaters make for good warzones; where comedy substitutes for news reporting and news reporting is inadvertently comedic; where Donald Trump is thought to be a serious politician, baby dismemberment is considered polite lunchtime conversation and ISIS beheading videos show up in our newsfeeds in between Batman vs. Superman trailers and Farmville ads.

I’m reminded of Jean Baudrillard’s classic book Simulacra and Simulation, in which he famously says of Disneyland:

“Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.”

Bansky’s “Dismaland” confronts us with the blatant simulacra of not just Disneyland but of the entertainment-industrial-complex broadly and its mass machinations of fantasy. And even though Dismaland is itself (as a bourgeois  “art event” for dilettante consumption) a part of this entertainment-industrial-complex–anti-consumerism as consumer good (there’s a big market for it!)–its critique still has some merit. In amusing fashion it highlights the paradoxes and disconnects of our reality-confused, duplicitous age. Banksy’s clever installation is simply a more ironic and intentional version of the same observation offered (unintentionally) by Megyn Kelly’s FoxNews banter with Donald Trump. Both are highly amusing artifacts of a culture where “real” and “fantasy” have all but lost their semiotic difference.

Ashley Madison may not seem to have much in common with Instagram, Disneyland or Donald Trump, but they’re all connected; all products of the fantasyland in which we presently live, blissfully avoidant of reality until reality (inevitably) hits home… or gets hacked.

Abortion, the Environment and the Exile of Autonomy

1309732550-rally-for-life-antiabortion-protest--dublin_744811

How is it that our society can collectively agree that an unborn life lost to a miscarriage is something to lament but the loss of millions of unborn lives each year from abortion is not? Karen Swallow Prior pondered this question recently, calling out the contradictory yet widely held idea that unborn children are babies whose lives matter when they are desired but disposable (or sellable) fetal tissue when they are not desired. By this logic the definition (let alone value) of an unborn life rests solely on the intent of mom and dad: a baby’s life matters insofar as it fits into the timing and plans of its parents.

In this way we can see how Planned Parenthood is the perfect name for an organization that is mostly known for abortion. Ending a life because its timing doesn’t line up with our plans and preferences assumes a God-like right to power that the name “Planned Parenthood” implies. It casually asserts that the greatest, most mysterious reality of existence – the creation of a new life – is something that can be planned, manipulated, defined and controlled according to our convenience. It celebrates our sovereign autonomy and refuses sacrifice, symptomatic of man’s worst tendencies going all the way back to Eden. Back then we didn’t like to be told that we can’t have everything on our terms, and we still don’t.

An arrogant assumption of control is at the root of most evil, and it goes far beyond the issue of reproduction.

The same fallen impulse that leads us to assert the right to abort an “unplanned” pregnancy also leads us to assert the right to use and abuse creation as befits our lifestyle, regardless of its longterm consequences.

Many of the same Christian politicians who push for legislation restricting abortion are also those who never vote for legislation restricting environmental pollutants. But isn’t there at least some logical link between protecting the created beings of unborn life and protecting the created world that declares God’s glory?

As Pope Francis recently pointed out in his sprawling encyclical on a Christian ethic of environmental stewardship (“On Care for Our Common Home”), care for the unborn and care for the natural world are both essential outgrowths of a consistent theology of life:

“Concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”

The Pope is right to connect the two issues, which both deal with man’s tendency to exert his dominion in careless and life-devaluing ways:

“When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble.”

Though a small-but-vocal minority of evangelicals see this connection and support the passing of clean energy legislation, most pro-life Americans throw the eco-friendly baby out with the liberal bathwater. This is unfortunate, because it undermines what could be a powerful and consistent articulation of a deeply Christian ethic of life – an ethic that says the rightly ordered miracle of God’s creation must be respected and valued even when it is inconvenient, costly or in conflict with our “plans.”

It is this same ethic that also insists that God knew what he was doing when he created gender and marriage. Here is Pope Francis, again from “Laudato Si,” making the connection:

“Thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment.”

We should decry Bruce Jenner asserting his dominion over creation by claiming he has absolute power to choose his gender; and we should lament the tragedy of a woman who claims she has absolute power to end her unborn child’s life; but we should also take offense at those who claim an absolute power to consume resources selfishly and wastefully, with no regard for the flourishing and sustainability of creation. The man who drives a needlessly fuel-inefficient car, disregards watering restrictions and takes long showers in the midst of a drought is just another version of the arrogant assumption of control that leads to lunchtime discussions of fetal tissue commerce over wine and salad.

All of these postures stem from man’s resistance to accepting God as God and fully respecting the way He created things to be. When push comes to shove, we want things our way, and we want God to respect that.

How childish. We grow up only insofar as we learn to be OK with not getting what we want, however and whenever we want it. As Carl Trueman recently pointed out, one hallmark of childishness is “an ethic built upon personal pleasure and convenience.” By that measure our society is about as childish as they come.

I love Psalm 131’s picture of David having “calmed and quieted” his soul “like a weaned child with its mother.” He does not dwell on his fickle wishes or desires for “things too great and too marvelous for me.” He is satisfied with his Lord, where his hope resides. A lesson for human flourishing if ever there was one.

Contentment is the antidote to our sinful propensity to desire control. Contentment with parenthood even when it isn’t planned. Contentment with unrealized sexual and relational longings even when it’s painfully lonely. Contentment with restrictions on pollution even if it costs us profits or convenience.

“Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.”

That’s what English Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs wrote in his 17th century work, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. It’s a radical idea for people today, suspicious as we are of submitting to any authority outside the self. And yet it’s so needed.

But how is contentment like this achieved, especially in a world where “have it your way!” and “gimme more” are the dominant slogans of success?

Burroughs says a “Christian comes to contentment, not so much by way of addition, as by way of subtraction.” He rightly describes the world as being “infinitely deceived in thinking that contentment lies in having more than we already have.”

Indeed. And it is this “grass is always greener” consumerist mentality, so present in our culture and even in Christianity (e.g. church “shopping”), that perpetuates our control obsession. If we are constantly told we can dispose of unborn life or change our sex on demand, or that we can eat whatever food we want at any time of year, or that we should just “let go” of any restrictions placed on us (“No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!”), then of course we are going to begin to believe that we are master and God is not.

But living in this way is not as freeing as Elsa might think. On the contrary, an embrace of limits and “less is more” simplicity is what really frees us up to experience joy.

This is something Pope Francis mentions in “Laudato Si” as he describes Christian growth in terms of “moderation and the capacity to be happy with little,” as well as the avoidance of “the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.” This is “not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity,” he notes:

“On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the lookout for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness…”

The reality is a life of sacrifice and simplicity is a more satisfying life. A life of relinquishing our obsession with control and getting over our resistance to authority is more free. It’s the life we were meant to live.

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:25)

As Joshua Ryan Butler argues in The Skeletons in God’s Closet, “The cost of union with Christ is the death of our independence; the cost of true worship is the exile of our autonomy.”

May the exile of our autonomy always be a cost we’re willing to bear.

Amy

amy

The new documentary about Amy Winehouse, Amyis devastating. Whether or not you were a fan of Winehouse’s music, it’s hard not to be moved by this film, directed by Asif Kapadia (Senna). It chronicles the singer’s rise to superstardom as well as her roller coaster struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and other destructive behavior which ultimately led to her tragic death-by-alcohol-poisoning in 2011.

Amy is a powerful, haunting picture of what sin does to all of us: It destroys. It undermines our gifts. It stubbornly refuses to go away. The movie shows the various “good,” “bad,” and “really, really bad” periods in Amy’s life circa 2001-2011, which more or less correspond with periods of drug/alcohol addiction and stints of rehab or relative sobriety. It’s amazing to see how her physical appearance, speech, and ability to be creative change dramatically with the ups and downs of her addictive struggles. It’s painful to watch Amy at times start to move away from destructive behavior and make better choices, only to have it all undermined by relapses and returns to the people and pleasures that destroy her. If ever there was a movie that showcases the ugliness of what sin does in our lives and how hard it is to escape its grasp on our own merits, it is Amy. 

The film is also a pretty damning critique of the friends, family, boyfriends, managers, executives, journalists and fans who enable Amy’s self-destruction by standing by and saying nothing (while taking pictures and/or making money off her). Some of them are better than others, but for the most part the people in Amy’s life don’t have the courage to call a spade a spade. Some of the saddest moments in the film show her father downplaying the need for Amy to go to rehab (tragically this episode inspired her #1 hit song “Rehab”: I ain’t got the time and if my daddy thinks I’m fine…). Or her mother downplaying the gravity of bulimia. Or managers booking shows for Amy at the height of her addiction struggles. Or anyone in her life refusing to keep Amy far away from her drug-pushing disaster of a boyfriend Blake Fielder. This is not to say that Amy is not herself also to blame; it’s just to acknowledge that individuals are embedded within communities who shape them for good and for ill, communities who ought not sit idly by when sin does its destructive thing.

The film made me think about how increasingly unwilling most people in our society are to talk about sin, let alone know it when they see it. Because we are so afraid of being intolerant or judgmental (vices that are worse than just about anything in our to-each-their-own #CallMeCaitlyn world), we find it unfathomable to tell another person that what they are doing is wrong, even if we know deeply and without a doubt that it is. Amy shows the pitiful fruit of a society that is impotent to help sinners because it has bought into the notion that tolerance is the highest love. It also shows the ramifications of the pervasive sense (even amongst many Christians) that brokenness is the most authentic thing and the source of all good art. One of the tragic meta themes of Amy is the suggestion that her timeless voice and raw lyrics stemmed from and were spurred on by her demons, that art and brokenness depend on one another. This may be partially true, but abandoning someone to ruin is never justifiable, even for the greatest art. We should all wish to have rather had a healthy and alive Amy who was boring than a dead-at-27 Amy who lives on in art films and the annals of pop.

Inside Out and Mountain Memories

Pixar Post Inside Out 1

I saw Pixar’s Inside Out a few weeks ago at the Pinecrest Amphitheater, an outdoor movie theater on the shore of Pinecrest Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Under the stars, surrounded by family and with the smells of pine and campfires in the air, the setting was beautiful and memorable. Fitting for a movie about the mystery, joy and sadness of memory.

Kira and I saw the movie in the middle of a two week vacation that took us to Northern California and Oregon (and for about an hour, Washington), where we experienced beauty of the first order, both in nature and in culture. We took pictures and bought souvenirs, but the intensity of the beauty we experienced will only live on in our memories, and possibly also in the ways the memories will shape our personalities and those of our children. But the visceral feelings of being there at a certain moment in time–the snowmelt water of the Stanislaus River, the soft sand of Nye Beach at sunset, the taste of a coconut blackberry scone–are forever in the past.

Such is the nature of joy. It pulsates with life and vibrancy because, not in spite of, its dependency on ephemerality. On anticipation, on memory, on the here-and-it’s-gone nature of existing in time. Joy is inescapably bound up with time, and with its accompanying challenges (decay, forgetfulness, loss, death). As Inside Out so colorfully illustrates, joy and sadness are the emotions most necessarily in conversation. They are forever in a dance, tempering and inflaming the other, stirring up a spiral of restlessness that can only find peace in God (but which is so often searched for by attempting to replicate pleasures or past pangs of joy).

A few years ago I wrote a post on joy inspired by Zadie Smith and C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on the subject. Like Inside Out, I focused on memory as the catalyst for the happy/sad dichotomy for joy:

…The longing for those happy experiences and the intense recognition that they will never be replicated in just the same way… that’s what stirs up joy. Sehnsucht. And it’s not just nostalgia for the past. It’s nostalgia for a future that a lifetime full of accumulated pangs and pleasures leads us to believe exists. Somewhere. Joy is the ineffable, the transcendent, the sublime stasis which a million little experiences grasp at but can never fully capture. An ultimate settledness for which our hearts now restlessly pine.

This is why Smith feels that there is something melancholy about joy, that it has such a paradoxical capacity to bring us pain. And perhaps that is why in today’s world–so untrusted and unstable, where we’re all so aware of contingency and fragility–the idea of joy makes a lot more sense when articulated as a groaning for completion rather than a smiling-face present perfection.

As Kira and I drove home from Oregon after our trip ended, we both shed tears. Tears for the impermanence of such intense brushes with beauty. Tears for the life-goes-on nature of reality. Tears for the way the world is. Lacrimae rerum. Glorious and fleeting and fragile. Forever growing, forever groaning. Forever dying. And rising to new life.

7 Things I’ve Learned Since Graduating College

commencement

I graduated from Wheaton College 10 years ago this month. This Friday, I’ll be attending commencement ceremonies at Biola University, where I’ve had the pleasure of working for nearly seven years. I’ll be cheering on a dozen or so students who I’ve mentored, taught, employed or befriended; students who will be walking across the stage to receive their diplomas, much as I did when I was their age, a decade ago.

As I’ve reflected on how I have changed and what I have learned in the ten years since I graduated college as an undergrad, a few things come to mind. The following are some of the big learnings and key realizations I’ve come to, some sooner and some later, since May 2005. Perhaps the Class of 2015 can file these away as they set out on their post-college journeys:

1) 22-year-olds don’t have it all figured out

Perhaps the most universal and, in some sense, admirable quality of college graduates at the “prime” of their intellectual enrichment (or so they think) is a certain intellectual confidence and epistemological hubris. Though many of them look back on their cocksure freshmen selves with derision and shame, the ironic thing is they have adopted the posture again by the time they graduate, just in a different way. Graduating seniors feel “enlightened” to have grown out of many of the views of their upbringing; they see themselves as having mature, nuanced and authoritative perspectives on everything from politics to gender to Calvinism (especially Christian college graduates). But the truth is, you only know so much at 22. Some of the things I wrote and blogged about in my early twenties were far too sure of themselves. With age comes the development of a beautiful thing called intellectual humility, which opens up conversations and connections which might otherwise be closed off. The more one lives, the more one sees that wisdom is more dependent on curiosity than confidence.

2) Cynicism is mostly a waste of time

It happened to me and I see it happen to many (the majority?) of today’s Christian college undergrads: A slow, steady bubbling up of cynicism over the course of the four years from the wide-eyed summer camp frivolity of orientation week to the “I’m over it” jadedness of senior year. It’s a cynicism that arises from, among other things, the disconnect one feels between the “bubble” surreality of Christian college and the harsh realities of real life. It arises from a (healthy) questioning of ideas we assume and systems we take for granted. But when questioning (with the constructive pursuit of truth in mind) gives way to cynicism (an “I’m better than” disposition that relishes deconstruction) it becomes a problem. Trust me, get over cynicism as quickly as you can after you graduate. The world will open up to you, and with it beauty, truth and goodness, when you put cynicism aside and allow yourself to be vulnerable and teachable and curious. Plus, only other cynical people enjoy being around cynical people. So for the sake of winning friends and influencing people, put the cynical snark behind you, along with the other “childish things” Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 13.

3) It’s good to embrace discomfort

This is a lifetime struggle for most of us, but one of the most crucial truisms of life. We only grow by stepping outside of our comfort zones. College is in some sense about discomfort: learning and living in community with people who are very different; having ideas and assumptions challenged; feeling isolated from the familiar. And those are wonderful things. But once you graduate from college it can be easy to find a community that is just like you, surrounded by only the ideas you hold, and just stay there the rest of your life. While I would suggest that the first few months or even year after graduation should be on the more “comfortable” side of of the spectrum, most of your life should be lived on the edge (or in the midst) of discomfort. When we push ourselves to do what is uncomfortable, to know the Other, to not cease in our explorations, great things happen.

4) Moderation is not weakness

Everything is done to the extreme when you are 22. That stage in life is often characterized by what I call “The Pendulum Problem,” a propensity to react so extremely to one position (usually something one grew up believing) that the new position is just as problematic in the other direction. This extremism is fueled by youthful energy and “radical” passion, yet most of the time it leads nowhere. True growth, substantive change, comes when we see that balance is not compromise and moderation is not weakness. The world is always going to be more complicated and nuanced than our best efforts to understand it. Whether it be politics, theology, or consumption of culture (see my book Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty), embracing the beauty of moderation will bear much fruit.

5) Sticking with a local church is worth it

“[Do] not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some…” (Heb. 10:25). Let’s face it: One of the easiest things to neglect in college and especially after college is getting involved in a local church. Whether because it’s a hassle, the people are weird, the preacher isn’t compelling or it just feels like a vestige of times past, church is often a casualty of twentysomething life. But nothing has grown me, sustained me, and challenged me in healthy ways over the last decade more than my commitment to the local church. Beyond the community and accountability it offers (no small things), church provides a necessary big-picture reality check and rhythm that molds and shapes me in a consistent way, week after week, when so much else in my life is in flux. Twentysomething flourishing depends on having at least some consistent priorities and “rocks in your planter,” as my pastor says. The Bride of Christ, inconvenient and uncomfortable as she may be, is a mighty good rock to build your life around.

6) Proximity is (almost) everything in relationships

After college, when friends disperse and communities split, the temptation can be to focus on maintaining friendships across great distances. With social media, skype and other such things, this sort of relational maintenance can be easy. And there’s nothing wrong with it. I’m glad I have maintained profound friendships with my closest college friends, even when I’ve been thousands of miles from them for a decade now. But one unchangeable reality about relationships, no matter what happens with our digital communication capabilities, is that physical proximity matters most. I met my wife because she worked in the same building as I did. The people who matter most for me now are those who I have regular, in-person contact with. They go to my church. They come over to my house. They work alongside me. Meanwhile, older friends have become less important over the years, simply because they live far from me and I only see them occasionally. This is something to simply accept, not lament. Friendships change. New people come into your life and shape you profoundly. Proximity is worth everything.

7) Connections matter more than concepts

I am an ideas guy. I love thinking. In the years after I graduated from college ten years ago, I was all about the thought life. I read and read and read, and wrote and wrote and wrote. It was fruitful, but much of it was solitary. I still debated concepts with others, but it was usually in blog comments sections or over social media; rarely was it over a coffee or a beer. Yet I have since come to see that ideas are valuable only insofar as they facilitate connection, in two senses: connection as in connecting the dots between isolated concepts (so crucial in our digitally fragmented age); and connection as in relationships with people. The more I live, the more I see just how important it is to prioritize people over principles; individuals over ideas. This isn’t to say we should compromise on convictions or forsake truth the minute it becomes a stumbling block in a relationship. I believe truth and love can coexist. What it does mean, or has meant in my life, is this: Time spent with my family and friends, with students and mentees (again: proximity!), should be a higher priority than time spent reading blogs, scrolling through Twitter or mulling over my Next Big Idea. The world has more disconnected ideas than it knows what to do with. The world could use more substantive connections and relational commitments.

The Salt of the Earth

salgado

The headlines today–or any day–reinforce the tragedy of life on this planet. Hundreds Feared Dead After Boat Filled With Migrants Capsizes. Video Purports to Show ISIS Killing Ethiopian Christians. There are ample reminders of the world’s calamity, horror and heartache in our daily social media feeds.

The ubiquitous reporting of tragedy can sometimes desensitize us to it. Art, with its audacious capacity to bring meaning out of the meaningless and (sometimes) beauty out of the ugliness, can re-sensitize us. “The role of an artist is to not look away”-Akira Kurosawa one said. And though what their cameras or brushstrokes capture may not make us comfortable, the artist’s gaze is crucial for the building of humanity’s awareness and empathy.

The Salt of the Earth, a new documentary about photographer Sebastião Salgado, powerfully shows this. Directed by Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son, Juliano, the film chronicles the journeys of Salgado to capture the struggle of humans in the midst of war, disease, poverty, famine, industry, migration and more. Over his four decade career, Salgado’s images brought him much acclaim but they also brought awareness to the plights of many. His gaze definitely manifests a “not looking away” boldness but also a humane compassion. There are lessons here in how to see, and why seeing well matters.

As I finished the film I kept thinking of the Matthew 9:36 verse where it says of Jesus that, “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them.” Had Jesus been given a camera in the 1st century, I imagine his portraits would look not dissimilar from Salgado’s. Salt of the Earth sees a lot of horrific things but it always sees them through a lens of compassion and, ultimately, hope.

As chroniclers of reality and human suffering, artists are often prone to falling into despair and giving up on people. Salgado certainly is tempted by this, especially after his time in Rwanda in the mid-90s, photographing unspeakable evil in the midst of the genocide. Following this, his career turned toward nature and animal photography, capturing the beauty of the earth and its Edenic majesty, apart from the hellish wars and struggles of mankind. Yet ultimately the beauty of the natural earth and that of mankind are inextricable; humans are the caretakers of the Garden, after all, the stewards of creation for good or ill.

Recognizing this, Salgado decides do his part as a human steward and preserver of God’s creation (“Salt of the Earth” is a metaphor that implies a preserving function). He re-plants a rainforest in his Brazilian hometown, a forest that had thrived in his childhood but a half century later had been decimated by famine and industry. Salt of the Earth–so much a film about decay, inertia and fallenness–ends on a beautifully hopeful note as the “garden” of Salgado’s upbringing is replenished and brought to new life. Resurrection.

Among its many merits, Salt of the Earth is a beautiful reminder that having eyes to see the evil and deprivation of our world should not lead us to apathy and despair, nor complaining and rage. Our response should rather be to recover our original Edenic calling: to bring order out of the chaos, to combat evil through love, to plant seeds of new life in every sphere, to be the salt we were created to be, agents of preservation in a world stricken by decay.

Too Reformed for Revival?

worship

In the Christianity of my Midwestern Baptist upbringing, the Holy Spirit was a part of the Trinity I acknowledged but hardly understood. I recall hearing murmurs that one of my classmates in third grade was a “charismatic,” which meant they were just as misled as the one Catholic family on our block. When we visited churches where people raised hands in worship, we assumed they were liberal or in some other way cooky. In junior high I remember hearing my sister describe the trauma of attending a charismatic church service with a friend. There were healings and speaking in tongues. The horror! In our minds this was essentially a cult.

Though I gradually loosened up a bit in my fear of “charismatic” expressions of Christianity (college and post-college travel abroad aided in this), until very recently I was still quite skeptical of the Pentecostal strain in evangelicalism. As a reserved, academic-bent believer with a fondness for liturgy and theology, “Spirit-led” meant unwieldy emotionalism and dangerous anti-intellectualism. Talk of “hearing from God,” “receiving a word” or sensing the Spirit “doing a new thing” seemed to me lazy apathy about Scripture at best and stepping stones to heresy at worst. Though I wasn’t as militant about it as some people, I was functionally a cessationist.

Things have changed since I started attending my current church in 2012. Here I encountered something I had no paradigm for: A Word-centric, Reformed-minded church that is also “Spirit-led.” A church where John Calvin is quoted alongside John Wimber; a church where the gospel is preached via expositional preaching for 45 minutes but space is made in worship for spontaneous bursts of prayer and prophecy, within limits. Part of the church’s Spirit-led DNA comes from its global orientation and emphasis on church planting and partnership in Africa, Asia and Europe… which I love. But I’d be lying if I said the Spirit stuff has been easy to stomach. There are times when my old skepticism flares up, fearing the abuses of emotionalism and the prophetic. But more and more I am growing to appreciate that within the bounds of Scripture and community (as “bumpers” in a bowling lane, so to speak), leaving room for the Spirit to move is a good thing.

In his 1974 essay “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way,” Francis Schaeffer wrote this:

Often men have acted as though one has to choose between reformation and revival. Some call for reformation, others for revival, and they tend to look at each other with suspicion. But reformation and revival do not stand in contrast to one another; in fact, both words are related to the concept of restoration. Reformation speaks of a restoration to pure doctrine, revival of a restoration in the Christian’s life. Reformation speaks of a return to the teachings of Scripture, revival of a life brought into proper relationship to the Holy Spirit. The great moments in church history have come when these two restorations have occurred simultaneously. There cannot be true revival unless there has been reformation, and reformation is incomplete without revival. May we be those who know the reality of both reformation and revival, so that this poor dark world in which we live may have an exhibition of a portion of the church returned to both pure doctrine and a Spirit-filled life.

Too often churches focus on one or the other: reform or revival, Word or Spirit. But we need both. This is a truth I am seeing more and more clearly as I experience and observe church culture in its various late modern manifestations. I believe Schaeffer was right. Churches that will flourish in the 21st century will be those centered upon the “dual restoration” of reformation and revival. In the midst of threats from Scientism, new atheism and disintegrating theological consensus, a strong bent toward doctrinal foundations and theological sturdiness will be essential going forward. Yet robust theology stripped of supernatural power will make no difference in the vitality of the church in the face of growing persecution and the inertia of secularism. In the face of these threats we must seek the Spirit, commit to pray and rely on the power of God.

The life we were designed for as humans, and also as the church (the body of Christ), requires both the head and the heart, knowledge and passion, structure and spontaneity, rationality and mystery, contemplated principles and enacted power.

The more I think about the complimentary beauty of Word/Spirit balance, the more I see how fundamental it is not just to the DNA of the church but to day-to-day human flourishing. One cannot live as a cerebral thinker without the hard-to-harness emotions and energy of the body; one cannot thrive by focusing on either predictable rhythms or freewheeling improvisation. We need to allow for a little bit of both.

Perhaps being married for the last two years has shown this to me in a deeper way. My wife is more emotionally intuitive, flexible and spontaneous than me. I am more logical, steady and systematic than her. We need each other. Together we are stronger, richer, more vibrant in our witness.

You start to see corollaries to the Word/Spirit dynamic everywhere when you begin to look. Left-brained and right-brained. Prose and poetry. Classical music and jazz. A trellis and a vine. Nature and nurture.

There’s a universality and existential trueness to Word/Spirit complementarity that lends it credibility, in addition to its ample biblical support.

As globalization blurs lines between western and non-western Christianity and mutual skepticism between “charismatic” and “reformed” traditions ease, the church today finds itself in a moment where a biblical balance between Word and Spirit can be restored. I am convinced that such a balanced, non-pendulum approach is the way forward for sluggish, fragmenting and ineffectual evangelicalism in post-Christian culture.

In my own faith I’m learning to make more room for the Holy Spirit, just as some in my church family are learning to make more room for the Word. Together we are stronger, richer, more vibrant in our witness. And that is my prayer for the larger body of Christ.