Monthly Archives: August 2015

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.

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Abortion, the Environment and the Exile of Autonomy

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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.