Tearing Down the Temple

Reactions to reading the book of Romans

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Sunday, August 28, 2005

Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—I. The City

The marketing people have many names for it: the Global Village, the Shrinking Universe, the Small World, the Electronic Marketplace, etc. They all amount to the same thing: technology and the appetites of society have linked the world together in ways unimagined a few decades ago. It is the gift, not of visionaries or master architects, but of engineers and businessmen, working for a living, each trying to exploit his opportunities to best advantage, “as God gives him to see that advantage.” I go to work each day to build a little piece of a future of which I see nothing, know nothing, and can say nothing save, “Let it be,” whatever “it” is.

What “it” is, is a city, the one City. It stretches across the planet, engulfs the physical cities, and daily extends its borders. The City is no respecter of cultures, languages, politics, economics, morals, or religion, because it consumes them all. One is easily fooled into thinking these attributes retain their identity and simply enjoy greater scope due to the freedom of information exchange: there is room for all. There may be room for all, but the City reduces them all to components of itself.

The City’s life-blood circulates in vessels of metal and glass and through the air. The Internet, that vast network of computers communicating with one another, is itself a manifestation of the City, a result of the City’s need to interconnect its citizens. But the City is far larger than the Internet, and its prince has been around far longer. Because the Internet is such a porous and friction-free medium, it is the new favorite vehicle for the City’s self-expression, and hence also its expansion.

Need a culture? Look up “culture” on Yahoo, and you will find a thousand entries, which lead to a thousand thousand more, which lead to, well, all the choices in the world. Need a language? Sorry, English is it, the international language of technology, but the rest will be supported—eventually. Need some politics? Got lots of that, every flavor in the book, and some that don’t belong in any book. We have economics in theory, policy, action, and practice; every kind of moral system; religions old and just recently thought up. And we have room for every variety of these things yet to be discovered or developed.

What we do not have is a guiding principle.


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—II. Omniscience

One might argue that the City’s principle is omniscience, that it is pan-human and does not discriminate. Nothing within our experience is to be excluded from the comprehensive, biggest-available, online knowledgebase. Everything will be classified, organized, fetched on demand, each thing an object to be culled and placed beside other objects of the same class, a thing among other things—

like us.

But, this kind of indiscriminant omniscience, or better, omni-acceptance, is not a guiding principle: it demonstrates the lack of a guiding principle.

The documentation of a culture is a worthwhile undertaking, and the feedback of the great documents into the culture has produced the stabilizing impulses that have given Western culture direction and sometimes turned us aside from dangerous courses.

Today, that feedback loop is broken. The sheer volume of documentation is so staggering and the weight of it is so immense that the good inputs cannot be separated from the bad ones. There is no time to sort the inputs, and so, those that might redirect us are lost. Fifteen minutes is the maximum time allowed for any prophet to speak to us.

So, what would the prophets say to us were we to give them enough time? Would they speak to us about means and ends? Would they condemn our fixation on material wealth? Would they address our careless attitude towards things moral, things ethical, things spiritual, things mystical, things eternal? The trouble is, there are prophets and prophets, some true and some false: they do not all say the same thing. But, prophets can be treated the same way as anything else, that is, characterized, classified, filed, and brought up on a menu, to be chosen from among the available universe of prophets, like anything else in a marketplace.

The fact that I can choose the message I hear conceals the fact that there is no choice. All messages are given equal representation, but the principle for choosing has been hidden. In effect, the choices have all been made for me, and the machinery of spiritual slavery hides the mechanism of that slavery.


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—III. Born in captivity

Aldous Huxley’s masterpiece, Brave New World, depicted a culture created to satisfy certain ends, using means that were deplorable by early 20th century standards, but deliberately designed to achieve those ends, safely and with high confidence. The irony was that the ends were mostly conceptions that would have met with considerable approval during that era, like social stability, planning, financial and professional security, freedom from pain, etc. Because the means were totalitarian in the extreme, the result was appalling, but it was realistically planned and effective.

We, by contrast, are creating our New World, our City, without knowing what it is, how it works, what it is to achieve, or where it is going. In my opinion this is considerably braver than Huxley’s vision, not to mention more foolish.

This is not to suggest that there are not plenty of blueprints for the society of the future. Indeed, it is part of the message of this analysis that much of Western society worships at the altar of social engineering, a popular indoor sport of the 20th century and destined to be the dominant hobby of the 21st. These visions are often adopted piecemeal, with portions taken even from contradictory visions. There is no general consensus about a vision for the future, and even if there were, many aspects of such visions involve diverting social, economic, and moral forces that are, and will continue to be, utterly beyond our political or economic control—I hope!

The City, that great domain of man, where his dominion is absolute and incontestable, serves us through a great machine, which we serve. Born in captivity, we serve till we die or are replaced. Those not able to serve the City are cast out, but since there is no outside to the machine, when their resources run out, they die.

If we wrap up each person in the trappings of individuality, the material of choice, we can stick each one into an identical slot. I am a person, but all my personality is attributes, measurable, quantifiable. I consume so much food, so much income, live in a house with so many square feet, with so much mortgage on it, and hold certain opinions. I am worth just so much risk in life insurance, so much credit, so much political power (one vote), etc. The profiles, databases, knowledge banks, construct a portrait that is ultimately more real than the subject, for it is only with that portrait that the City will deign to deal.

Divergence may be tolerated, but you do the tolerating, not the City.


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—IV. Stuff

Reared as I was on the thinking of C. S. Lewis, I can reflect and reiterate his concern for the reduction of man to mere material (The Abolition of Man), with this provision: I have experienced a lot more of it than he did. As a programmer of computers for thirty-two years, I have lived the dream; I have tasted it. The reduction of thought, of ideas, of life and culture, and most of all, of people as a whole, to mere components of a great machine has advanced to degrees that Lewis only dimly imagined.

The great advance in thinking that has made the growth of the City possible is our understanding of ourselves in terms of mass phenomena. Our understanding of economics is founded on mass activities. The same is true of politics, fashion, marketing, and book publishing. In fact, no economically viable (read, money-making or profitable) enterprise is conceivable that does not partake of this quality. Even education has long since yielded to this ideal, this mismeasure of man.

The science of statistics, born in the realm of gambling, has grown up and is now the reverse telescope that brings man’s total universe into sharp, if distant, focus. Statisticians flourish among us like priests, uttering their oracles of public opinion, market share, confidence, and prospects for the prospects for the future.

The salubrious belief of our age is that man is measurable. That which is measurable can be known; that which is knowable can be used; that which can be used can be conquered; that which can be conquered can be trod underfoot. In the West, we have become stuff: producers and consumers, not men and women; economic quanta, not free people making free choices. Those who inquire into us want to know not us, but what we will buy.

I like Mahler, Heifetz, soft chairs, Joseph Conrad, computers, peace and quiet, the color maroon, and the conversation of an old friend (all my friends are old these days, it seems). All right, what will I pay for these?


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—V. The machinery of slavery

From inside the machine, each person’s point of view tells him that he has, or does not yet have, the things that define him as an individual, his tastes, his comforts, his morals, his goals. From outside the machine, each one is simply another instance of the same entity, distinguished only by his metrics (technical jargon for the results of the measurements that presumably characterize and distinguish the individual.). And if one is to be part of a machine, one must be a thing of a certain known size and shape and function. This does not mean that one’s every detail must be known, only those portions that involve an interface to the machine. Within, one can be anything one likes, so long as the interface works right. In the long run, this is what modern, as opposed to classical, education means: building the interfaces so that they work properly.

Once that is guaranteed, one is granted a position in the City. The City can exploit the interface for its nourishment and provide nourishment to the individuals across the same interface. Then, even when size and shape and function change, it merely requires that the individual be moved to a place in the machine more appropriate to its new dimensions. Isn’t that what “upward mobility” means?

The machine cares nothing about what you think, except in so far as (1) your thoughts represent needs and impulses to be satisfied and figure into your metrics, and (2) your thoughts can be used in advancing the interests of the machine. Our thoughts are not the object of investigation so much as the subject of manipulation, not through some malign force, some subtle, mass brainwashing dreamt up by the wizards of cultural control, but by our selves, our appetites.

The path to our substance created by our appetites is the key to the survival and prosperity of the City. By satisfying your appetites, the City gains your efforts towards its goals. More to the point, it gains your acquiescence, in fact, your cooperation, in pursuit of its goals, without your approval, even without your knowledge.

Instant gratification is the key to understanding how the City works. It detects our appetites, and finds a cheap, easy, quick way to satisfy them, at least the most accessible ones.
  • Our appetite for entertainment has produced, not Shakespeare, but mass marketing.
  • Our appetite for knowledge has produced, not scholarship, but cookie-cutter mass-production education factories posing as universities, “experts” who have been granted vast and inordinate powers among us, tyranny by statisticians and pollsters, and quiz shows.
  • Our appetite for cultural enrichment has produced not great art, but mind candy, pop culture, and MTV.
  • Our appetite for morals and egalitarian ethics has produced not justice and mercy, but a gigantic, corrupt, legal and governmental system that drains the lifeblood out of all it touches.
  • Our appetite for instant faith, religion, comfort, and the meaning of life, has produced canned worship, Christian TV, dial-a-prayer, and church relationships that are so impersonal that even each other’s names are not known.
And for these benefits, in exchange for its services, the City receives our acceptance, our acquiescence, our allegiance, our slavery, and our souls.

The City does not do this because it wants to enslave. The City itself does not think, or if it does, it has only our collective minds to think with. The City is a machine and therefore does not function as a separate cognitive entity. It functions as it was built. But it was designed by someone who does think. It implements his purposes. It serves not us, but the ruler of the City, the prince of this world. Make no mistake: “God gave them up to uncleanness...” God has abandoned our society to the adversary, determining to save only a remnant, His chosen sons and daughters.

This is the mechanism that lies at the base of the City. Hidden where no one can find them, the master strategists of hell are mapping out new paths to slavery, to sin, to spiritual death. At no time in the past have the prospects for success, at least in numbers, seemed so bright.


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—VI. …but have not love

The mechanism that the machine hides is the systematic quenching of the Spirit.

It makes no difference to the proprietor of a shop whether the customer is a saint or the most wicked villain imaginable. That is what money does to us. A popular quiz show (in 2001) is entitled, “Who wants to be a millionaire?” Not, “Who wants to give lavishly to the charity of his choice?” nor, “Who wants to provide for his family in a great way?” nor even, “Who wants to be able to satisfy his every whim?” We all know what power money confers. It enables all the choices above and many more besides. Never mind what the record of sudden riches is in our world, the way it has torn apart and destroyed lives, families, relationships, communities. Never mind that the things we truly need cannot be purchased with money. We know that having a pot of money is an unarguably good thing. Profit does not need long explanations.

High regard for money reduces our business relationships with people to the quantifiable. It helps us stack our society, the rich at the top, all the rest down below. As it impersonalizes our transactions, it impersonalizes our society. It makes remote what should be intimate. It means that we do not have to see the person: we exchange money for service, and the relationship is ended.

This is even true of what used to be our neighborhoods. The neighbor next door may be greeted once a week or so, on the way to retrieve the mail or the newspaper, without reference to his moral or ethical qualities. Some may say that this is a good thing: everyone is treated equally, with dignity and respect, at least until he does something to make himself notorious.

Behind these facts stands a terrible but hidden truth: the superficial respectability behind which we all conceal ourselves is the sin-shell that blocks the light to our homes and hearts. If we cannot reveal ourselves to our neighbors, we cannot love them. If we cannot love them, we cannot function in a society with them unless that society insulates us from one another.

Our society does insulate us from our neighbors. And it does much more, but not to our benefit.


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—VII. Cash bond

It is far easier, not to mention, more effective, to appeal to one’s greed than to one’s honor. This is why a cash bond is universally preferred over a man’s given word.

Richard Whately once said, “Honesty is the best policy; but he who is governed by that maxim is not an honest man.” So, all of us can be, in some respect or other, coaxed into virtue (as well as something considerably less than virtue) by the belief that it is profitable. No reflective person would call such people virtuous.

John Donne wrote, “Our critical day is not the very day of our death, but the whole course of our life; I thank him, that prays for me when my bell tolls; but I thank him much more, that catechizes me, or preaches to me, or instructs me how to live.”

Who would pay for that today, or even offer thanks? All right, a few kooks might. In the main, though, our morality is motivated by the incentive system. In the City, virtue equals that which is profitable.

I want to make it clear that I am not arguing for the adoption of a noble ethic. Man’s notion of nobility is fallen and does not meet the standard of Christ. Nor does virtue equal self-sacrifice, (cf. 1 Cor. 13:2) though one can hear thousands of hours of sermons weekly that claim otherwise. All of these things add up to man’s ethics, not God’s.

The City governs morals because the City is corrupt. The City is the mechanism for corruption. A truly upright man would not survive a day in the City. We do, because we were brought up in a moral jungle, because the City has trained us in how to behave, and most of all because we are not upright. The corruption of the City impresses billions of co-conspirators; it will brook no rivals and no criticism. In the end, the City insists, we must submit to be its slaves, or we will be expelled, to die.


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—IX. Parsing is such sweet sorrow

Many years ago, I read the response to someone who had complained of impersonal treatment by some system that had adopted computers in its processing (probably an insurance or credit card company or a government institution—I have no memory of it). Instead of being a name, each person in the system was a number. The response argued that computer systems, with their capacity and detail, were bringing forth a new individualism, i.e., that instead of being one of perhaps twenty James Joneses in the phone book, each James Jones was represented by a unique number in the system, making it impossible for the accounts and concerns of one James Jones to be confused with those of another. Now, of course, we have so much experience with identification numbers, and their advantages and failure modes, that the notion of being reduced to representation by a number hardly registers with us any more.

But the responder made a point that needs to be understood. It is true that the account of each person in an automated system has uniqueness and that this supports the individuality of one’s needs and demands with respect to the system. What it glosses over is the fact that the system makes it possible to treat people like things, things that are subject to formulations and can be manipulated under a suitable set of principles. In the computer business, this set of principles has a name: it is called a “rule-base”, and it is part of the knowledge required to write and execute the program properly.

Now, I am not arguing for the de-automation of society. I do not even oppose automation. Since it makes obvious economic sense to introduce automation that the public will accept, it would be useless to agitate against it, like some suspicious Luddite or back-to-nature advocate. What I warn against is believing the implicit message that the automation of society sends to individuals, namely, that people can be and should be treated as things, either for the purposes of control or disposition.

The formal term for this is objectification, the transformation of personality into object. As a psychological state, it is used to describe certain dissociated people who, under certain circumstances, cannot see others as people. At the end of World War II, the word was associated with the state of mind of concentration camp personnel, especially in the death camps. It is notable that those who objectify others frequently reduce themselves to objects as well and have no formal objection to others seeing them as such. They may not like it, but they can see no injustice in it, because they have lost the means to discern in themselves the humanity to which they are blind in others.

Now it may seem like a great leap of moral distance from a life insurance processing program to the Nazi death camps, and perhaps it is. My belief is that the two are, in fact, far closer than we are comfortable with considering.


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—VIII. Snake oil

The City has plunged the mind of man into darkness in this age primarily through the promulgation of the philosophy of optimism, which together with its closest rival, existentialism and the absurd, occupies every portal of mass communication known to man, twenty-four hours per day, every day of the year. See if you do not recognize some of the philosophy of optimism, as expressed here by Catherine Marshall:

We proceeded to live these propositions, though we would not have stated them as blandly as I set them forth here:
  1. Man is inherently good.
  2. Individual man can carve out his own salvation with the help of education and society through progressively better government.
  3. Reality and values worth searching for lie in the material world that science is steadily teaching us to analyze, catalogue, and measure. While we do not deny the existence of inner values, we relegate them to second place.
  4. The purpose of life is happiness, [which] we define in terms of enjoyable activity, friends, and the accumulation of material objects.
  5. The pain and evil of life—such as ignorance, poverty, selfishness, hatred, greed, lust for power—are caused by factors in the external world; therefore, the cure lies in the reforming of human institutions and the bettering of environmental conditions.
  6. As science and technology remove poverty and lift from us the burden of physical existence, we shall automatically become finer persons, seeing for ourselves the value of living the Golden Rule.
  7. In time, the rest of the world will appreciate the demonstration that the American way of life is best. They will then seek for themselves the good life of freedom and prosperity. This will be the greatest impetus toward an end of global conflict.
  8. The way to get along with people is to beware of religious dictums and dogma. The ideal is to be a nice person and to live by the Creed of Tolerance. Thus we offend few people. We live and let live. This is the American Way. [Marshall, Catherine, Beyond Our Selves, McGraw-Hill, New York: 1961]
This remarkable quotation reads like a catechism of Americanism, the faith that we in the U. S. are taught from infancy. One problem with it is that there is much truth in it. The benefits of good government, happiness, an end to global conflict, the wide application of the Golden Rule, living in peace with one’s neighbors, freedom, and prosperity, are hard to deny. They are real and measurable. Political campaigns consist in hardly anything but nonstop recitations of the catechism of optimism.

And it works. I would not want anyone to think that I oppose reform of our political and governmental institutions for the good of the nation. I vigorously oppose all forms of oppression, economic enslavement, oath breaking, coercion, and corruption. I support freedom, prosperity, a peaceful end to conflicts, the march of progress, the advance of science, etc. No doubt about it. These things are very effective at improving the overall quality of life, and so long as they are consistent with Christian moral imperatives, I cannot think of any reason why we should oppose them.

As to tolerance, Christians are not authorized to be offensive in presenting the Gospel or defending the faith; they are to be respectful and calm. (1 Pet. 3:15) As to happiness, one sees that wealth, friends, and enjoyment are certainly not evil in themselves.

Such is the power of ideas that even so plain a statement as Catherine Marshall’s would hardly raise a ripple of protest in even the most orthodox of American churches. Six of the eight propositions would pass on a voice vote. Most secular institutions would subscribe to all of them without hesitation.

Again, we can see that an assessment of ethics according to results leads to the same kind of quandary as before. If the outcome is generally what we call good, then it makes sense that such an ethic is beneficial and thus the result of sheer pragmatism. No one needs God to arrive at an ethic like that. We have all kinds of practical ethics like that, the work ethic, the civility ethic, the automobile driving ethics. Each of these is the result, regrettably, of some bad experience; each is well intentioned.

On the other hand, the God Who created us knows what is good for us, and therefore any ethic He proposes will necessarily incorporate measures that lead to good outcomes. Which puts us right back in the same place we started.

We can trace the origins of these ideas primarily to the Enlightenment—Rousseau and Locke. Their denial of original sin and assertion of the essential goodness of man, that can be brought out if only the circumstances of life can be made conducive to it, is the core of the American national religion today. It helped to form the principles on which the United States was founded. It has produced an impressive array of results. So, for a person not armed with the Gospel, this looks pretty good.

It certainly beats absurdity, which is the other choice widely posited today. This flip side to optimism asserts that the universe is not rational, that the only reality is the perceived one at the instant it is perceived, that truth cannot be fixed (a hallmark specifically of so-called post-modernism; a “true” existentialist would deny that “truth” is a category that has any meaning apart from an individual’s appropriation of it for his own purposes). The existentialist resists all catechisms (which makes existentialism remarkably difficult to pin down).

In a curious way, the existentialism that we see in practice today is also a descendent of the thinking of Rousseau and Locke. In its incarnation as radical individualism, the subjective vision of the individual is seen to be superior to any exterior competitor. Nothing external can command allegiance, neither by its power, virtue, the breadth of its constituency, foundational truth, nor aggression. In our age, individualism has been transformed into solipsism. Nothing exterior truly exists: it is all sensation, and by introducing a virtual reality, we can determine and to some extent control that existence.

The important thing to note in all of this is not that there are competing philosophies, but that they are both snake oil. Optimism is a dangerous falsification of the nature of man; existentialism, more rampant in practice even than optimism, is delusion itself.


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—X. Go ye into all the world

The mindset of optimism is scarcely confined to America. One reason for this is the use of American television productions in other countries.

When my wife and I were in Sweden recently, I was surprised at how many Swedish people spoke good and even excellent English. Their speech was well inflected, idiomatic, perfectly understandable, and in one memorable case, accent perfect (I thought she was from New Hampshire). When I asked our Swedish friends why so many Swedes spoke English so well, they explained that as a small country the production of television shows was quite limited, and that since the dubbing of American imports was too expensive for so small an audience, the common practice was to add subtitles. Thus everyone gets to hear idiomatic English spoken by good native speakers, while simultaneously reading the Swedish translation. Since we were so easily able to communicate everywhere we went, our treatment by our Swedish hosts was quite lovely. The same was also true of our travels through Denmark, another very small country and language group.

This fact of American television being transmitted abroad has also resulted in the spread of the philosophy promoted by American television entertainment. Doubtless there are some remote backwaters where it has not yet had an effect, but they are few, and in terms of absolute population, almost negligible. Even in places where the government has enacted legislation forbidding American television broadcasts, because of the corrupting effect on public morals or religion, (most notably in some Islamic countries, e.g., Saudi Arabia) people quietly agitate for its return, and in some cases governments have partially relented. Satellite broadcasting has effectively put an end to all but the most stringent and repressive attempts at large-scale censorship, and provides an opening for the Gospel through Christian television broadcasts via satellite, over which it is virtually impossible to exercise any local control. It must be observed here that freedom cuts both ways, allowing both the bad and the good.

There is no doubting that American commercial television is a very attractive product. As to quality, it is a mixed bag, but the worst of it is more consumable than the endless drivel of propaganda that pours from state broadcasts in totalitarian lands.

As to content, well, that is something else again. The philosophical assault on the Gospel reaches its zenith in the television product (not in the seminaries). With a very little effort we shall see why that is true.


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—XI. Defiling a man

There is nothing inherently wrong with watching television. Many millions of dollars are collected and expended each year by organizations that oppose the violence, sex, language, and criminality of television programs, and I should add that I also oppose those things and therefore have a certain sympathy with their efforts. But, in the long run, those things are not corrupting.

Jesus said, “There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him, can defile him: but the things which come of out him, those are they that defile the man.” (Mark 7:15) Jesus was, of course, referring to the food laws of Judaism, but later in the discourse, He makes it clear that the scope of His remark is far broader. He points out that, “…from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these evil things come from within, and defile the man.” (Mark 7:21-23)

In practical terms, merely witnessing bad things does not itself corrupt anyone: they are not the occasion for even the slightest sin. Jesus Himself is the proof of it. He was exposed to all kinds of bad things and temptations, yet did not sin. Any insistence on the corruption of youth or anyone else by watching television or movies is a denial that wickedness comes from within us. It denies responsibility for sin. It denies original sin. It denies the very words of Jesus expressed on point.

In practical life, I think that we see this principle borne out over and over again. Two men receive the same proposal, for instance, to take a bribe (the one who offers the bribe is, of course, culpable, but consider the positions of the two who are hearing the offer). Suppose one refuses, and the other accepts. The one who accepts is the one who does evil; the one who refuses is not culpable under the law for any offense. Jesus heard many proposals to do evil, some from the devil himself (Matt 4:1-11). Given His refusal of those proposals, no evil can be imputed to Jesus on the grounds of having heard the proposals. The evil is not in hearing the proposal but in the response of acceptance. A multitude of similar examples will occur to you.

The particular application here is that those who try to stimulate an evil response in a man rely on the evil already being in the man’s heart, at least in potential. A righteous man can watch television or movies all day without any sin (though why he would do so is hard to hypothesize). We who are prone to sin must not do so, because the suggestions we receive we sometimes act on, more often than we would like to believe. It is not a sin to receive a sinful suggestion, but it is a sin to act on it. The evil is not inherent in the medium, any more than it is in our stars, but it is in our selves. Note that the innocence of witnessing evil is eradicated when one derives pleasure from the activity and seeks out the opportunity to witness evil again. This seeking out is a condition that qualifies as “coming out of a man” in Jesus’ analysis.

This is Jesus’ analysis of exterior rules of life and sin. It is going to be hard to find any way to place the blame for evil on someone apart from ourselves, if we have any regard for Jesus’ opinion.


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—XII. A pretty picture

American commercial television is a vehicle for the expression of very great evil and temptation, more so perhaps than any other popular medium.

Those who agitate against the contents of the newspapers do so in vain, I think. A newspaper is composed, consistent with the economics of its production, to appeal to readers. It sells readers what they already want to read, on a daily basis. Morally, it is like a mirror. It reflects, imperfectly, of course, but as closely as the skills of the writers and editors can come, the values and expectations of its readership as a whole. If it does not, it will soon fail.

Television works the same way. Television productions are designed to appeal to the audience, by pandering to their tastes, by making them feel superior, or morally satisfied, or engaged to the extent that the viewers will sit in front of it for a sufficient time to take in the messages that the program has sold. It is intended to be appealing and attractive. When a network discovers that a program is not attracting viewers to the network, the program is discontinued, and quickly. The mechanism is quite simple and ruthless. After all, this is big money, and they take it seriously.

Now the messages we take in are not all contained in the commercials; some are embedded in the programs themselves, the programs being the features that are supposed to attract the viewers. For, the great value is not usually in attracting viewers to watch one particular hour, but the same hours, week after week. Therefore, part of the message embedded in the program is, “Come back next week.” The line between the commercials and the programs is also being blurred the other direction, too, in that commercials are now designed to have entertainment qualities of their own.

In the main, television programs, when we watch them, mirror and echo our own ideas and values, horrifying as that thought might be. If they did not, they would not last. This is the inescapable conclusion of economics.


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—XIII. The world, the flesh, and the devil

So what are the messages of television?

First, the message is, seek me again. Second is, obey me. Third is, what I speak is true.

Martin Luther wrote, “Reason is a whore,” presumably because it serves the wicked as well and as easily as the Godly, just as He “sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt. 5:45) It is probably not appropriate to characterize reason in such strong language, and we can conclude that this was merely Luther’s revolt against legalism. If we have a reliable set of principles and premises, and apply reason carefully and faithfully, it seems to me that we should be able to obtain some truth at the end of the process. Certain kinds of falsehoods are eliminated from the possibilities immediately by the application of reason. That is surely some advance that reason affords. The important thing to learn about reason is that it is an instrument and not an end in itself.

In particular, the blandishments of merchandising can be disarmed with reason; every one of them contains or conceals a fallacy that, with enough effort, can be brought to light and refuted. The real trouble with this analysis is that we don’t actually carry it out. We take in the advertisement, absorb it at face value, truth, lies, and all, without the intervention of analytical reasoning. Rather than speaking to our heads, it speaks to the dormant, caged beast within us that knows no reason: our appetites. We don’t want to resist the appeal to our appetites; that is why we pay no attention to reason when we watch television.

St. Augustine wrote, “We can say, my body does not obey me, but we cannot say, my will does not obey me!” We love the endless flattery and narcissism that flows from the television; we don’t want to stop it. And so we seek it out repeatedly, in moments of weakness, fatigue, boredom, or ill humor.

The overriding desire of television producers, after attracting viewers repeatedly, is that they should obey the imperative suggestions of the television advertisers. Not all of us have to purchase a product on the television’s suggestion, just enough of us to make the television production cost-effective to the sponsor. In the beginning of commercial television, in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, advertisers presented information and testimonies about their products so that the viewers would have favorable knowledge when they were making a purchase decision. Later it became evident that the powers of persuasion could be harnessed to create a false but plausible impression of a product or service. Ultimately, it developed that demand could be created when there was no prior demand, as in fashions or fads.

The substance of this trade was not different from that of the carnival barker or the snake oil salesman. The important thing was that enough people believe the claims of the television presentation. And so they do, by the billions. Today’s lesson for children is that the world is as the television says it is, not as parents say it is, nor schools nor the church nor even science.

Into this comes the world-inverting message of the Gospel. It is a threat. It must be reduced to the level of the competition. So there is Christian television, with Christian programs and products and Christian host personalities. Christianity is thus confined to and safely contained in one or two of the channels of your television set, to be one or two among many, subject to the ratings within its own category, just another competitor making the medium healthy with diversity. Christianity is thereby reduced to a particular kind of television watching.

This emasculation is routine treatment for the things that threaten television. From the point of view of the programmers of television, it is vital to diminish that threat. Billions are at stake. By placing Christianity on television, its truth is vitiated: you can change the channel.


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—XIV. One eye, all-seeing

The eye of the television camera sees all, but what it transmits is blindness.

During the blitz in London during World War II, the blackout jokes and gags abounded, despite (and no doubt, because of) the desperate circumstances. One cartoon in a popular magazine featured the invention of a handheld flashlight that cast a cone of darkness instead of light. Television has had a similar effect. It sheds its pall of darkness in order to cast relief on the one bright, shining object in the universe—self.

Come look in my mirror, it says. It would be too tedious to detail all the ways that this message is sent—endless, sordid soap operas; vapid talk shows; inane game shows; squalid dramas and morality plays about simplistic, cartoon characters with predictable solutions to their problems. Marshall McLuhan wrote a book about television called The Medium is the Message. I have not read it, and so I cannot comment on his argument. But the claim that the title makes is clearly false. The business of television is, no doubt, concerned with success and self-perpetuation, but while the message of the television medium is, “Seek me again,” the message of the television productions is, “Worship and adore yourself.”

All other messages are swamped in that all-consuming imperative. Who never spends money on self-adoration? No one I know. We all obey that order. In it, we become slaves of our vanity.

Once we are enslaved, other messages can reach us. They are a mixed bag, and it is a testimony to the strength of the medium that it can tolerate some messages that, if followed, would injure the interests of television. So, occasionally, Billy Graham or some other orthodox preacher can get on television and deliver a message that contains the core of the Gospel. While the medium is primarily preoccupied with vain things, it is not perfect in its mission. Occasionally, there are good things presented.

However, there are some messages that are too dangerous to be allowed on television. One of these is that your wealth, your comfort, your security, and your virtue cannot save you. This message is so dangerous that it must be refuted almost non-stop through every media outlet available, even supposedly Christian ones. Television promotions are constantly informing us of products, services, presentations, vitamins, insurance, cars, drinks, diets, etc., etc., that will save us—save us money, time, heartache, effort, save us from worry about the future, from early death, and so on. The Gospel, which will save us in a far more important way, is essentially shouted down. The bondage is almost complete.


Romans 1:18-24. The Unholy City—XV. The Spirit of the City

The City does not advance blindly, despite the blindness of the builders and workers. The City has a ruler, a director who rules with an iron hand. He daily increases his hold over the hearts and spirits of the condemned in the City. Attraction, seduction, addiction, and slavery are the pattern of his rule, and his system creates slaves by the billions.

To recognize that men are in slavery to the easy satisfaction of their appetites and desires is to see that God has abandoned them—as they have abandoned Him. Individuals do slip out of the enemy’s grip when God calls them. But most have believed the whispers of their own desires and the cunning arguments of a culture wise in science and foolish in everything else. (We cannot even be sure how wise we are in science. Wise, compared with what? It is entirely likely that sinful man has made far less scientific progress than would have been possible had sin not darkened men’s minds.) Television is not evil—it has simply become primarily the tool of evil, an evil that constantly spews forth messages of God-denial.

The spirit that is the secret heart of the City has no other purpose than to deceive men to their ruin. The deception that has worked best of all is that they have no sin. Upright, respectable, church-going people are ready to listen to this message with their whole hearts. Repentance is as far from their thoughts as a distant galaxy, and they are as surely entrapped in the enemy’s prison as the meanest criminal, perhaps more so. After all, criminals are sent to institutions that are still called “penitentiaries,” and thus one may suggest that repentance is far closer, far more likely to be within the reach of a criminal so confined than it is to those outside who believe they have no sin.

Like it or not, television and the other media serve the interests of the City, and the City serves the interests of its Ruler. The City, long prophesied in allegorical terms by pious writers, such as, John Bunyan, C. S. Lewis, and G. A. Studdert Kennedy, not to mention its images in Scripture, particularly, Isaiah 19:18, as well as Babel, Babylon, and so on,. is the reality that its Ruler has been waiting and working for. It represents the ability to corrupt the hearts of billions in a mass production way, to oppress mankind with their own consent, and to hide the truth from them to an unprecedented degree. From the point of view of the master strategists in hell, the time is ripe; all the mechanisms are in place; mankind can now be condemned on an assembly-line basis.

God dispersed the people from Babel (Gen. 11:1-9) by confusing their language. In His mercy, He prevented a great sin of pride and folly from being completed. Through sin, the human race seems about to undo His work.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Romans 1:25—Exchanging the truth of God for a lie

The beloved pastor of our church is of German extraction, as are many Lutherans in the US. For the second time this year, he has felt it necessary to mention in passing, during his sermon, that he holds his head in shame for the Nazi Reich that ended sixty years ago. It has occurred to me, as an Irishman by extraction, to wonder what stuff I should be hanging my head in shame about. Plenty, no doubt.

There's no use asking ourselves what went wrong in Germany to bring about Nazism and the Holocaust. We won’t get the answer we are looking for. What we would like to hear is that there was some cultural or societal deficiency that enabled a nation of Christian extraction to be overcome by the paganism of Hitler and Nazism. We would like to know so that we can prevent its recurrence—to snuff it out before it can ignite.

But there’s no use asking what went wrong, because what went wrong is what always goes wrong when people “exchange the truth of God for a lie.” God abandons them to their vices. We would like to know that “it can’t happen here.” But it has happened here, many times. It is happening right now. It may not be Nazism. But a foul doctrine of anti-life and anti-Christ always emerges and takes hold of the people when they turn their backs on God’s truth.

It is damnation. Sometimes it is simply individual damnation, as with the condemned among the materialists and the existentialists. Sometimes it is wide-scale damnation, as with the great slaughter of souls taking place among our drug-cultured, tattooed youth today. Sometimes it is super, colossal damnation, as with the Nazi Reich. But in the end, it is damnation, just the same.

There’s no use crowing about the hell we’ve avoided if we are heading just as fast towards another one. There is only one cure—Christ. He is the way—the only way—we can know God. All the rest simply delays (or even speeds) the inevitable.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Romans 1:1,2—The presuppositions of unbelief

Unbelief is not passive. It is not the agnostic suspension of judgment in the face of insufficient facts that we all like to imagine it is. Unbelief is active. It takes a definite position, whether we like it or not.

For many years, I formally took an agnostic position, primarily because it seemed to me to be the easiest to defend. The defensibility of agnosticism was important to me first of all because of my training as a mathematician. Many years of practice as an applied analyst in the computer industry had predisposed me to a mindset that ranked knowledge according to levels of certainty, viz.:

  • provable (in the mathematical, axiomatic sense);
  • demonstrable (observable, measurable, and repeatable);
  • inferential (reliably derived from one or both of the above);
  • factual (perceived and reliably reported);
  • probabilistic (any but the first, subject to random disturbance);
  • opinion (possibly derived from first principles but incapable of being rigorously established);
  • rumor, unfounded belief, fantasy, divine revelation, and wishful thinking (in no particular order).

My life was not in fact organized in accordance with such pristine intellectual categories. The categories of truth content given above reflect what my vanity demanded. The defense of my views, apart from its application in my professional life, was conceived very much along the lines of a coffeehouse debate. In other words, the role of my beliefs concerning truth centered on prevailing in argument, to the credit of my vanity.

Only a small amount of thinking along those lines suffices to convince one that the positions one holds are not only correctly evaluated but that the analysis supporting the evaluation is unassailable. (That feeds the ego quite nicely.) This works, of course, even when the system is in fact flawed. It may even be, as it was in my case, utterly unsound. That makes no difference to the vanity until that flawed system collides violently with reality.

The trouble with this kind of truth-categorical thinking is that we routinely expose our ideas only to those tests and test cases that we are comfortable with. This testing goes on in the isolation of our minds, which is not a very objective setting. And of course, it is important stuff we are dealing with here, the worldview and intellectual organization that we bring to bear in consideration of practical problems, moral and intellectual. Unless we take some pains to test our principles outside the comfort and safety of our minds, our ideas may be (and remain) way out of balance or even preposterous.

Another difficulty with this scheme is that it is entirely centered in self—-nothing can be admitted to exist that does not match one of these categories. Quite naturally, this closely matches the intellectual spirit of this age, a fact that my education had utterly failed to equip me for dealing with or critiquing.

I suspect that these patterns of belief and unbelief are quite common. They rest on presuppositions that result from deep cultural indoctrination, and these presuppositions can be acquired quite unconsciously. The presuppositions are not easy to express, but the list below summarizes their basic drift:

  • I am not dependent; my surrounding environment is dependent on my recognition of it;
  • I am not contingent; other people are;
  • the problem I face is the rearrangement of my environment to suit the desires I choose to seek satisfaction for;
  • God, if He exists, can only do so meaningfully if I believe in Him; if I ignore Him, He will recede into insignificance; He is in fact a reflection of my own state of mind;
  • the world only has meaning as I project meaning onto it;
  • though the world may have an independent reality, it is not possible to distinguish between an objectively extant world and a Potemkin village (a mere front);
  • the only conceivable models for life are anarchy and fatalism (which are by no means mutually exclusive);
  • my personal epistemology is the result and domain of my own private choices.

Now, if you do not recognize at least a couple of those, you have forgotten what it means to be young in our world.

Simply growing up cures some of this. As a child, one’s world is small and limited, bounded by an unreachable and mysterious exterior. As one grows, the bounds expand along various axes: one learns about time, about the extent of thought, the depth of feelings, the reach of loyalty, the price of work, and the cost of failure. These things give structure to one’s expanding worldview, resulting in the discarding of primitive models adopted during development-—at the conscious, intellectual level. But on an unconscious, suppositional level, those principles may persist and still be hard at work, filtering one’s views of existence and discarding some ideas and belief systems before they have been fairly evaluated on the cognitive plane.


Romans 1:1,2—The presuppositions of unbelief II

The presuppositions of unbelief did not gain such ascendancy by themselves. They were the results of furious advocacy in the generations preceding us. We will examine some of these seats of advocacy in later posts.

It is impossible to say how early I picked up the presuppositions of unbelief. It has occurred to me to ask, is this the very heart of original sin, that we are equipped with the power of unbelief from birth, unlike Adam and Eve who were in communion with God from their earliest moments? Did Jesus have a gene that none of the rest of us have, a consequence of His special heritage, that protected Him from acquiring the presuppositions of unbelief? Such speculation fails to pierce the veil that hides our deepest natures from us.

Nevertheless, it is the subtlest of traps to think and believe that we can only truly know those things that are within us. It is a lie of the enemy. We do not know what is within us. What is within us has little meaning in itself, and pursuing it leads us in circles. We cannot understand our deepest nature without reference to something external. Without exterior standards, we are hopelessly captive to our illusions about ourselves. The search for “identity,” without external reference, is ultimately fruitless.

One of my favorite poets, e e cummings, wrote in response to someone’s comment about his being self-centered, that he had yet to encounter a peripherally located ego. We are, almost by definition, at the center of our life’s mission. Our entire training is based on the supposition that we command our own ship, and that the mission we fix upon in life determines and characterizes our life as it unfolds. We would be fools not to believe that our own deepest reflections must inform that mission (“Know thyself” ) at the most fundamental levels, wouldn’t we?

In Romans 1:1,2, Paul turns the world inside out with his first words to the Roman Christians: he says he has been called (not that he felt a call) as a messenger, appointed to (not that he chose) the service of the Gospel, and that this Gospel was promised (not that it was suggested to him by his study of ancient manuscripts) by the prophets in the Scriptures. Paul had been jerked away from his life’s mission (preserving Jewish orthodoxy) by a Power completely outside himself that invaded him, changed him, and sent him on another mission at right angles with his previous path.

Paul’s attitude reflects the revolutionary change of perspective that his life experienced. But the point is not that he changed (people change all the time), but that the changes were the product of an external Power acting on him in an entirely new (to him) way. His reference points for action were located entirely outside himself, and he was guided by what benefited the Gospel, rather than his personal interest.

These are hard things to believe, and if that were all there were to his story, probably we would not believe it. It is only when we encounter the Gospel that we find that which could take him out of himself (and us out of ourselves). Even before we become Christians, the Gospel speaks to us from across that veil of ignorance we have about ourselves, our origins, our purpose, and our destiny. If we do not choose to believe Paul when he says that he is an ambassador for the living Christ, then other claims he makes will seem problematical. This is not to suggest that those who do not (at first) believe Paul’s claim cannot come to faith. I certainly didn't.

But before you decide about Paul, hear him. This inside-out world that he writes from is the real world, one in which you and I are really at the periphery, because God and His Christ are at the center, and the Gospel radiates from that center.

In his celebrated commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, Karl Barth makes extensive use of geometric analogies to demonstrate the ways that truth is seen from various points of view. Without critiquing that in any way, I want to add that God sees the whole geometric construction. If He speaks to us from outside our world, it is not because God is otherworldly but because the world as we commonly experience it is only a small fraction of reality. Our limited viewpoint is a consequence of sin.

On skepticism

One of the most revealing things about skepticism is the way it can lay down roadblocks to belief, hurdles across which we must pass before belief can even be entertained. One of those, for me, involved the sequence of events in the first century. Somewhere I had read that the 53rd chapter of Isaiah (the Suffering Servant passage, Isaiah 52:13-53:11) was written and added to the Old Testament by Christians after Jesus’ death to give prophetic verisimilitude to the purported life of Jesus and support His claim to Messiahship. For me, it was a believable explanation: it had always seemed to me to be too patent, too convenient for Isaiah to have prophesied the Suffering Servant before a Messiah claimant who lived out that prophesy with such exactness. It had to be an emendation, a pious gloss by a later writer, so I thought.

I have long forgotten the source of that idea, but it was undoubtedly one of the many dead leaves that have fallen from the enormous tree of skeptical, critical scholarship that has emerged and blossomed in our time. The roots of that tree reach back into the 19th century (with the work of Feuerbach, J. G. von Herder, and others), but it has come to full flower in the 20th, and we have received the fruit of its work primarily as unbelief. This particular skepticism goes all the way back to the 1st century, and though long dead, it was puffed back into life in the time of Form Criticism’s vogue (early 20th Century writers Martin Dibelius & Rudolf Bultmann).

For decades, this idea was an obstacle to belief for me, never mind the avalanche of other prophetic utterances about the Messiah in the Old Testament that unquestionably predate Jesus. One of the books that survived the wreck of my late father’s massive personal library was F. F. Bruce’s Second Thoughts on the Dead Sea Scrolls (London: The Paternoster Press, 1956). One day, I picked this book up and idly mused about what Bruce, who was a respected and orthodox scholar, said about Isaiah. Imagine my astonishment when I read that there were numerous copies of Isaiah among the Dead Sea Scrolls, that they agree in large measure with our text, and that some were dated before 100 B.C. Moreover, some of those early Isaiah copies were complete; in particular, they included chapter 53.

At that moment, the light flooded in. The misapprehension I had labored under for so long was a lie. It had never been even a plausible misunderstanding. People who wanted Isaiah 53 to be a later emendation had concocted the lie, so that Jesus’ claim to the Messiahship would be weakened. Amazingly, this information on the Dead Sea Scrolls had been available for almost forty years before it finally reached me. Modern scholarship has not ceased teaching the lie yet (in that some scholars use this idea to justify a much later date for the Dead Sea Scrolls, e.g. A. Dupont-Sommer).

It was clear to me at that moment that since Isaiah 53 was authentic, that is, it predated Jesus, and because Jesus had fulfilled that Scripture in ways that could not have been contrived, Jesus was therefore the Messiah, exactly as claimed. There was no more reason to disbelieve the story. The worldview of the Bible was more correct than that of modern “scholarship,” and therefore the world in which I lived was suddenly very much larger than I had supposed.

Looking back on that realization, I see now that it was just a step in the process that began with the descent into apostasy, continued through agnosticism, fragmentary belief, liberalism, psychology, the “watchmaker” hypothesis (deism), to flower in true but tentative belief in God’s grace. Many doubts attended that progression, and many fruitless pursuits. My “dark night of the soul” lasted thirty years, while I tramped around in the desert of unbelief. I will write more about that later, but I have one report to make of it right now: it is God’s desert. Though I tried to escape Him, I escaped everything but Him.


Thursday, August 11, 2005

On skeptiscism II: Test the spirits

As believers, we are understandably timid about expressing doubts, perhaps because of the story of Thomas the Apostle, doubting Thomas (John 20:26-29). In the account, Jesus states that belief without having seen Him is “happier” than belief based on sight. This is, perhaps, the origin of the notion of “blind faith.” But note that Jesus does not condemn Thomas; in fact He satisfies Thomas’ doubts. Doubt, I think, is not the same as denial in God’s lexicon. Doubt is a tool that can be used to reveal truth. It does not always do so; sometimes doubt sinks into denial. But doubt and denial are distinguishable states of belief.

The formulation of doubts is critical for the testing of evidence. St. John writes, “Test the spirits.” (1 John 4:1) Clearly, the formation of hypothesis, the testing of the hypothesis, and, based on the outcome, the subsequent acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis originates in Greek philosophy (in the Hellenized world). But it was not foreign to the New Testament’s way of thinking at all, nor to the Old Testament, for that matter, e.g., Elijah at Mt. Carmel. It was certainly not believed to be a heathen or atheistic pattern of thought, in and of itself, given that Paul reasons this way often in his letters.

Not all doubts function this way, but some do. This doubt did: had I never doubted the Isaiah text, I would never have bothered to look into the Dead Sea Scrolls and F. F. Bruce’s book (see the post "On skepticism"). I have since verified Bruce’s conclusions in a number of other texts, e.g., Frank Moore Cross, Jr., The Ancient Library of Qumran, Anchor Books, Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York: 1961. (There is a great mountain of material available on the Dead Sea scrolls, little of it of any interest to the casual reader. The most interesting aspects of it, to me, are those having to do with the Old Testament Scriptures and the conclusion that they have been preserved with remarkable accuracy. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls moved the autograph baseline for the Hebrew Scriptures back almost 1000 years. Nevertheless, what we have received through the Masorete recension is almost identical to what the Qumran communities preserved 200 years before Christ.) Only those scholars who clearly have an ax to grind diverge from the main body of opinion, and to diverge seems to require a significant distortion of the evidence as it presently appears, so far as I am able to understand it.

The relief from doubts that I encountered here had another significance. My doubts had been seeded by a deliberate, baseless contrivance. This convinced me that Christ had enemies; not just the heathens or parties that had different opinions, but active enemies who were, throughout time, trying to subvert Him and conceal or distort the truth about Him, namely, those entities Paul calls “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6:12) against which believers strive. Since that time, I have had numerous opportunities to observe the malice and vituperation that is heaped on Jesus by respectable leaders and thinkers in high places, and so I am far less astounded than I was then. Still, it is bone-chilling to hear and see people publicly denounce Jesus and His ideas. Such unbelief unquestionably has spiritual origins.