Friday, December 6, 2013

Girls Who Read - A Poem

I have learned, over the years, that men and woman who read, who really read, are quite rare.  This is why Mr. Grist believes that a woman who reads is so powerfully attractive.  And I concur.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

BLACK MIRROR - Review of Season One (2011) - Channel 4 - Created by Charlie Brooker


“As we contemplate the world converted into a huge machine and managed by engineers, we gradually grow aware of its lack of meaning, and of its emptiness of human value; the soul is stifled in this glorification of mechanical efficiency.  And then we begin to feel the weakness of such a creed when confronted by the real problems of life; we discover its inability to impose any restraint on the passions of men, or to supply any government which can appeal to the loyalty of the spirit.  And seeing these things we understand the fear that is gnawing at the vitals of society.”
- Paul Elmer More

“Yet to establish the fact of decadence is the most pressing duty of our time because, until we have demonstrated that cultural decline is a historical fact - which can be established - and that modern man has about squandered his estate, we cannot combat those who have fallen prey to hysterical optimism.”
- Richard M. Weaver
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It’s uncanny.  There are different ways in which one can discover kinship with other people.  As a rule, I’ve always found it pleasant whenever I have found like-mindedness in another.  Sometimes it’s a shared taste in literature, film, art or music.  Other times it’s common sports fandom.  And occasionally it’s even a shared understanding of deeper things.  But, now I’ve found that sharing some things in common can also be disconcerting.  I just discovered that director, critic, journalist, and producer Charlie Brooker is a kindred spirit.  And I identify with him because of this one thing that we share.

We share the same nightmares.

I’m a little afraid.  I’ve also just discovered a couple other new facts and I don’t know what to do with them.  (How do we make sense of new factual information?  We certainly have plenty of it.  We increasingly have more information than we could ever possibly absorb in one lifetime.  But sometimes I wonder if we forget that increased information does not necessarily bring increased meaning.  Obtaining information is now easy.  Understanding what it means ... that can’t always just be googled.)

Fact #1: There is a three-year old television show from Britain.  It is entitled Black Mirror .  It’s dark and bleak and brilliant.  The creator of the show, Mr. Brooker, is something of a cultural satirist.  He’s also a self-admitted fan of the Twilight Zone.  As I was watching the first series, which was originally aired on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom in December of 2011, my friend turned to me and declared, “Now this is real science fiction.  This is what science fiction is meant to do!”  What he said didn’t hit me at the time because I was riveted, watching with increasing horror as the plot of the first episode of Black Mirror grew closer and closer to the end.

It was like watching a train wreck.  You want to look away.  You can’t look away.  And, even worse, Mr. Brooker has designed each story in this show to explicitly point out to you the very fact that you can’t look away.  Then, as you’re watching it, his point registers in your mind.  You get it.  He’s critiquing the very fact that you are absorbed with this TV screen in front of you ... and then you just keep watching.



But my friend’s point was a good one.  What is real science fiction meant to do?  Of course, science fiction can be used to accomplish a number of different objectives.  In his essay, “On Science Fiction,” C.S. Lewis mentions what he considered to be different kinds of science fiction.  One popular kind that he argued to be of poor quality was when “the author leaps forward into an imagined future when planetary, sidereal, or even galactic travel has become common.  Against this huge backcloth he then proceeds to develop an ordinary love-story, spy-story, wreck-story, or crime-story.”  In other words, there are a large number of science fiction stories which the creators didn’t need to set in futuristic settings.  There seems to be little purpose for the setting in these stories other than merely to profit off the genre’s popularity.  “This seems to me tasteless,” Lewis wrote.  “Whatever in a work of art is not used is doing harm.”

But popularity is not the ends for which the good science fiction storyteller aims.  It is true that a very large amount of science fiction today, in both books and film, consists of merely derivative copy-cat work.  “But we must distinguish.  A leap into the future, a rapid assumption of all the changes which are feigned to have occurred, is a legitimate ‘machine’ if it enables the author to develop a story of real value which could not have been told ... in any other way.”

Lewis explained that he was personally interested in the kind of science fiction that could be called “mythopoeic.”  This kind of science fiction is a sort of myth-making derived from “an imaginative impulse as old as the human race” but “working under the special conditions of our time.”  The end result of such stories is that they will inevitably become rather haunting.  They will concern themselves with universal problems that we wrestle with every day as the self-conscious creatures that we are.  And, Lewis adds, because fundamental to who we are is the fact that we have moral natures, a good and truly haunting science fiction story “will usually point to a moral: of itself, without any didactic manipulation by the author on a conscious level.  Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde would be an example.  Another is Marc Brandel’s Cast the First Shadow, where a man, long solitary, despised, and oppressed, because he has no shadow, at last meets a woman who shares his innocent defect, but later turns from her in disgust and indignation on finding that she has, in addition, the loathsome and unnatural property of having no reflection.”

Such stories are haunting because they create a myth that leaves a lasting impression upon us.  These stories are impossible, but the way that the persons in them will and act is entirely believable.  In fact, we may often wince at how similar, in this other world, human wickedness, folly, evil, ignorance and despair all turn out to be just the same as that in our own world.  But, by placing the story in another world, the author can surprise us with good and evil.  What would seem commonplace, stands out in a clearer and possesses the quality of appearing in a new light.

I can heartily declare that all three of the episodes of the first series of Black Mirror are these kinds of stories.  Each episode is a stand-alone episode similar to The Twilight Zone.  “But,” Brooker explained in an interview, “they’re all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in ten minutes’ time if we’re clumsy.”

Fact #2: This show, Black Mirror, which has been around now for two years, was only made available to the United States for the first time this November (and only for DirectTV subscribers.)  It did not air in the U.S. (on either networks or cable) and no one has even bothered to distribute it on DVD for North America.  It is not available for online streaming on websites like Netflix or Hulu.

Why?  According to the laws of economics, this is because where was no demand for it.  It’s paradoxical because this is the age in which some very intelligent TV shows on HBO and AMC have been gaining in popularity over the last couple decades.  But Black Mirror does something that Breaking Bad, Mad Men or The Wire don’t do.  It’s not critiquing a past historical age.  It’s not critiquing any as abstract as “the system,” drug culture, law enforcement or politics.  Instead, Brooker’s show is critiquing us – the viewers.

I fear that if it were to come to the states, it would probably come in the diluted form of so many other Americanized versions of good British TV shows.  Copycat directors and screenwriters would take it, add things to it that are considered more popular in American entertainment with a combination of better hype, better advertising, worse directing, worse writing and worse acting.  Things that in Brooker’s version are quite serious could so very easily, in America, be played only for laughs.  It bothers me to think upon what this says about us.

Are we so far gone as that?  When Neil Postman wrote that our “culture’s adjustment to the epistemology of television is now all but complete; we have so thoroughly accepted its definitions of truth, knowledge, and reality that irrelevance seems to us to be filled with import, and incoherence seems eminently sane,” was he right?

If so, then we are in deep trouble.

Another kind of science fiction that C.S. Lewis described was when the story “is satiric or prophetic: the author criticises tendencies in the present by imagining them carried out (‘produced’, as Euclid would say) to their logical limit.  Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four leap to our minds” as examples.  I would suggest that Brooker has also made this kind of science fiction with Black Mirror, except he’s mixed hints of the “mythopoeic” in it too.  There is a glimpse of the sort of story here that you find in Cast the First Shadow.  Some of the “myths” in Brooker’s stories aren’t far away from the myths of Narcissus or Orpheus.

Now, this review is going to be unlike most TV show reviews.  When you look for writing on a TV show, most of what you find will be a Cliff-Notes recap of each episode’s plot.  I can’t do that here.  Half of the power of Black Mirror is all in the surprises.  So instead of doing that, I’m only going to generally summarize the ideas of each episode and discuss some of the philosophy that necessarily intertwines with each story.

The first episode of Series 1, entitled The National Anthem, is rather offensive.  It makes it difficult for me to even be able to recommend the show to many of my friends and family.  Suffice it to say that it explores the effect that mass entertainment media and internet websites like YouTube have upon our politics and upon how we think.  It won’t be easy to watch.  I seriously doubt whether I’ll watch it again.  But it does leave an unfortunately strong impression.

The disturbing nature of the episode is quickly revealed in the first five minutes.  Rory Kinnear does an outstanding job playing the kind and decent British Prime Minister Michael Callow.  He is woken early one morning and informed that the English princess (played straight by Lydia Wilson) has been kidnaped and that she has been forced to read the kidnapper’s demands to prevent her from being executed on a video released to the world on YouTube.

It’s almost too easy of a plot.  If you were to read more about it, you might just think that it’s a stupid joke of an episode.  But Brooker doesn’t mean it to be joke.  The actors play the whole thing straight (something that I suspect wouldn’t happen if it had been produced in the states).  They take it deadly seriously.  The consequences, and the alternative prospects of how the story might end, turn out to be both rather disgusting and profound at the same time.

What have mass media and internet videos done to us?  Do we even bother to think about what is now possible - about what this is already used for now in some corners of the web every single day?

“It is a commonplace,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “that what shocks one generation is accepted quite calmly by the next.  This adaptability to change of moral standards is sometimes greeted with satisfaction as an evidence of human perfectability: whereas it is only evidence of what unsubstantial foundations people’s moral judgments have.”

I often forget how our culture shapes even my own sensibility.  More than once, I’ve stopped to find myself taking pride in my “knowingness” and my ability not to be shocked.  To be innocent of things that are out there, to not know about them, to not have seen them - is looked down upon in our culture as sheltered and naive.  But what if shame were a good thing?  What if the ability to be shocked was a sign of moral character?  In this episode, Brooker asks us to consider whether shame might still have moral value and that is something I don’t think I’ve seen on TV for a long time.

If innocence, dignity and honor still have value, how often are they scoffed at and desecrated in the mass entertainment culture that we have today?  Does it really please us to see dignity laid low?  Is it really entertaining to see goodness stomped on, laughed at, humiliated and violated?

Neil Postman is famous for his critiques of how we use technology and has consequently built something of a reputation for being anti-technology.  Yet I’ve always thought that he had some very important things to say.  For example, he is one of the best thinkers I know on the subject of what viewing everything as entertainment can do to us.

Postman wrote:

“To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television.  No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure.  That is why even on news shows which provide us daily with fragments of tragedy and barbarism, we are urged by the newscasters to ‘join them tomorrow.’  What for?  One would think that several minutes of murder and mayhem would suffice as material for a month of sleepless nights.  We accept the newscasters’ invitation because we know that the ‘news’ is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say.  Everything about a news show tells us this - the good looks and amiability of the cast, their pleasant banter, the exciting music that opens and closes the show, the vivid film footage, the attractive commercials - all these and more suggest that what we have just seen is no cause for weeping.  A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis.”

It could be that men and women from other past ages would be horrified at how callous, desensitized and cynical we all have become in the 21st Century.  It could be that how we view our political news now - in itself another form of entertainment - has a moral and spiritual dimension.  It could even be that we have a trivial attitude towards real goodness and real evil.  As you watch Prime Minister Callow slowly tread through this nightmare of an episode, and as you picture yourself in his or in his wife’s shoes, I would bet that you’ll think of these questions slightly differently than you ever have before.

And that is good science fiction.

The second episode, entitled Fifteen Million Merits, is arguably the best episode of Black Mirror.  It brilliantly takes another look at our media saturated culture, but from a different dystopian angle.  It’s set farther into the future than the first one.  In fact, I will never be able to think of Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four quite the same again without also thinking of this episode.  At the same time, it also doesn’t feel as if it were that far into the future.

Imagine a world where everyone stares at TV and computer screens all day (in the morning before they go to work, all day while they are at work, and all night while they are relaxing after their day at work).  Imagine a world where all the food you eat is artificially processed with chemically induced flavor and vitamins.  Imagine a world so full of advertisements that you can’t help but absorb them so deeply into your thinking that quoting advertisements and referring to advertisements in your daily thoughts and conversation is a normal part of who you are.  Imagine a world where physical health and body image determines social classes.  Imagine a world where it is possible to make enough money to support yourself and then spend eight to ten hours every day watching television, playing video games or watching pornography.

Fifteen Million Merits has all these things.  The people in this other world live in what are essentially prison cells covered floor to ceiling with video screens.  Commercials play on their bathroom mirrors.  Pornography plays at their work.  Reality TV shows are what they all live for.  They get meaning for their lives by hoping and dreaming and wishing and working to be ... TV stars.

Imagine a world where almost everything natural has been replaced by technology to make it work better and to make it be safer.  Imagine a world where a human being’s value can be measured in how he or she interacts with virtual media.  Imagine a world where technological pleasure and instant gratification is always at your fingertips, always there to temporary satisfy insatiable appetites as many times as you could ever ask for.

The world of this episode also has all these things.  It’s a satirical look at Reality TV and objectification of other people.  But all these latest technological improvements are what everyone likes and wants.  Pleasures are given and given and given as long as the consumer keeps paying for it.  It is a world that has lost any connection between gratification and the existence of a moral sphere.

British philosopher Roger Scruton wrote, “The idea of ‘evil pleasures’ has slipped from our grasp.  But it is through pleasure, power and glory that Mephistopheles tempts the soul of Faust.  And perhaps our most vivid experiences of personal evil are granted to us in the context of sexual pleasure, when desire overrides, disregards or violates the freedom of its object.”

Cultural commentator, Chris Hedges, wrote: “In The Republic, Plato imagines human beings chained for the duration of their lives in an underground cave, knowing nothing but darkness.  Their gaze is confined to the cave wall, upon which shadows of the world above are thrown.  They believe these flickering shadows are reality.  If, Plato writes, one of these prisoners is freed and brought into the sunlight, he will suffer great pain.  Blinded by the glare, he is unable to see anything and longs for the familiar darkness.  But eventually his eyes adjust to the light.  The illusion of the tiny shadows is obliterated.  He confronts the immensity, chaos, and confusion of reality.  The world is no longer drawn in simple silhouettes.  But he is despised when he returns to the cave.  He is unable to see in the dark as he used to.  Those who never left the cave ridicule him and swear never to go into the light lest they be blinded as well.  Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the senses to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason.”

The sinister potential of these powers that Plato feared is precisely what Brooker explores in this episode.  Everyone seems satisfied with them except one character, Bingham Madsen (played first with irony and then with passion by Daniel Kaluuya).  Bingham is confronted with a sanitized, processed, prepackaged, artificial, media saturated world, and yet he is hungry for something more.  Like most dystopian stories, he gets a hint that there could be something more when he meets a pretty girl, Abi (played with considerable charm by Jessica Brown Findlay).  And then he hears her sing.

She is somehow untouched by the sordidness all around her.  Her innocence and naivety are attractive to Bingham, but her singing hints at something even deeper.  Her favorite song is old.  It was passed down to her from her mother who learned the song from her grandmother.  Abi becomes the first person to show Bingham beauty.  In his eyes, she is beauty incarnated.  Her very existence and personality is a light for him in a world covered with dark multimedia screens.

It is mesmerizing how, in a sterile inhuman setting, Brooker directs Kaluuya and Findlay to create something that seems a little magical.  In a sense, Bingham understands something about truth.  Abi understands something about beauty.  When the two of them meet, you get the impression that real goodness is possible.  Their relation to each other is morally good.  But, that’s just the beginning of the story.  In a world devoted to spectacles, false images and appetites, what would such a world so dominated by entertainment do to innocence, truth or beauty?

The nightmare of the second episode lies in how unnatural and abnormal it all feels (at least I hope it would seem that way to any viewer).  Bingham and Abi bring back something normal again, and thus appear to be human beings.  But there are many ways in which normal human relationships can be placed in great danger.

“An abnormity,” explained Russell Kirk, “in its Latin root, means a monstrosity, defying the norm, the nature of things ... An abnormal generation is a generation of monsters, enslaved by will and appetite.  To recover an apprehension of normality, then, is to acquire an understanding of one’s real nature.  The alternative to such recovery is not a piquant pose of ‘noncomformity,’ but monstrosity in the soul and in society.”

Remember that when you watch the second episode.  In a world where everything can be a spectacle, where everything can be objectified, repackaged and sold back to an always hungry unsated viewership, what happens to the human soul?  The entertainment we choose to use for our “relaxing,” or whatever else it is we choose to call it, affects our being.  Very often it can and will desensitize us.  You have to be pretty far gone not to notice it, but how far gone are we really?  Isn’t this something we ought to pay attention to?  Weaver writes that “our most serious obstacle is that people traveling this downward path develop an insensibility which increases their degradation.  Loss is perceived most clearly at the beginning; after habit becomes implanted, one beholds the anomalous situation of apathy mounting as the moral crisis deepens.”

Honestly, one of the reasons why Black Mirror may not have yet aired in the United States is how it takes down the Reality TV show, American Idol, and its other hundred derivatives.  Ranked the number one television show in United States in ratings for eight years, American Idol is watched every week by tens of millions of viewers at a time.  Stopping to think about this for moment, what exactly are they watching?  American Idol is a show where countless celebrity worshipers take turns subjecting themselves to an public exhibition so that they can be judged based on their looks, personality, charisma or popularity.  They will either be praised or shamed.  This exhibition is entertaining enough to become the top-rated show in the United States.

No one that I have ever talked to who watches American Idol has stopped to ask if this kind of entertainment has any kind of moral affect.  What does it mean to value populist praise - or even to care about the popular spotlight?  Chris Hedges writes: “The moral nihilism of celebrity culture is played out on reality television shows, most of which encourage a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness, and betrayal.  Education, building community, honesty, transparency, and sharing are qualities that will see you, in a gross perversion of democracy and morality, voted off a reality show.”

Read more at Filmwell -

Saturday, November 9, 2013

I Forgot My Phone - Short Film

The compelling thing about this little film by Miles Crawford & Charlene deGuzman is that it is not unrealistic.  We see this all the time.  Our lives really have changed just over the last decade.

Thank God there are still some people who are now questioning whether all these changes have really been for the better.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

THE MASK


Remember, remember,
the fifth of November,
of gunpowder, treason and plot.
A moron thought it cool
(he was not taught in school)
to give me a mask that was not.

He gave me Guy Fawkes’ mask.
without pausing to ask
what anarchists all want to smash.
The mask was in style,
an anonymous smile,
and I tossed it right in the trash.

The fifth of November
did not kill each house member
as the malcontents tried hard to do.
I like law and order,
and a good warder,
and merrie olde England too.

Some fashions are dumb
and I’ll bite my thumb
at pop hipness ever so dense.
These masks stand for naught
since the bad guys were caught.
As icons they make zero sense.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

TINKERING TINSELED TIME


Tall tattered tinkering tinseled time
(as if I could call it mine) -
weaving wondrous webs; weighty, weak, wild,
seeping through the hours. I am beguiled
by this breaking, bashful, brilliant balm
that tugs at my heartstrings, disjoining my calm.

Looming lackadaisical lush luster
deters my tending to be a truster
in those incalculable incandescent inklings
of those moments full of time turned wrinklings.
Shall I shift, satirize, search or shyly savor
those sacred junctures when life has flavor?

Dreams dancing, daring, deepening days,
and yet I often forget to praise
the One who quickens, quietly quirks
and leaves me with all these works
of glittering gleaming giddy ghastly
hypnotic hushed haunts happening vastly.

The world is spinning, while spacious, splendid,
spectral, speechless space has me up-ended
and now I’ve tottered, talking of trivial tepid troubles,
lost in bland backward banal bursts ‘n bubbles,
leaving my selfish stingy primly pale plans in tatters
making a miser’s mirror, unmindful of what matters.

Wisp-wrapped wallow or wry-winged writhing?
Worrying about my needs.  But Chronos is scything
away all my aeons, ages, atoms, auras, armor ...
I so easily forget that childlike cheery charmer.
Security unsteadfast, but still surveying suggestive stars,
we still can ask ourselves if we prefer Venus or Mars.

Workplace worries wrecking wrong-wrought wishes;
it’s time we remembered the Holy One who dishes
joys unbought, breathlessly buoyant, busily brimful,
busting self-enclosed brains and turning them whimful.
Moments so prized, present, precise, priestly profusely pressing ...
Let’s not allow our brief breakneck bothers to blur His blessing.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

BETTER FOOD FOR A BETTER WORLD (2013) - by Erin McGraw (book review)

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In five minutes he had them tossing Indian clubs at each other, precise as a metronome.  Watching them reminded Vivy that real jugglers didn’t strive for unhesitating ease, which was boring.  Real jugglers took pleasure in the unbalanced, the nearly missed, the little accidents that brought life to an act.  Only the amateurs wanted perfection.  (pg. 18)

Some things shouldn’t be shared, if not for the sake of common decency, then for the sake of aesthetics. (pg. 123)
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A brief description of the plot does not immediately or necessarily attract one's interest.  (Plot: three married couples band together to run an ice cream store and then marital troubles ensue.)  Instead, it was who wrote it and who was behind the new “literary imprint,” Slant, that motivated me to read it in the first place.  To my delight, I found that there is something indescribably subtle about Erin McGraw’s new novel.  It’s almost imperceptible at first, but as you continue reading the story, you begin to notice that everything (the characters, the atmosphere, the moral and the mood) is not what it at first appears to be.

Just about immediately, as you turn through the opening pages, the slogans begin to appear.

First, we find that one of the partners running the Natural High ice cream store has arranged to print motivational aphorisms on all the store’s napkins.  Then it turns out that all three couples in the story attend a marriage support group.  The consequent clichés and slogans figure so prominently in the lives of these characters that they actually think in them.  When a troubling question or a problem arises, the appropriate axiom for the situation instantaneously directs their thoughts.

The slogans appear innocent enough at first, but then grow into something relentless:

“A Community Business Serving Its Community ... Small is beautiful ... Harmony is sustainability ... Know Your Vision.  Embrace Your Vision.  Make Your Vision ... Right Imagination Is the Parent of Right Desire ... Responsible Action Is the Gate to Freedom ... The Boat of Commitment Can Sail Over the Waters of Uncertainty ... The Marriage of Intention and Action Bears the Offspring of Clarity and Joy ... Our Goal Is Not Gold, but Wholeness ... Each individual holds the wealth of the universe ... Hard Pavements Make Good Roads ... Secrets Are Toxic ... Consistency, Commitment, Contentment ... No Goal = Black Hole ... The Present Is Our Platform To Tomorrow ... It’s never a bad thing to learn ... We trust the wisdom of the group to see what we by ourselves can’t see ... Secrets lead to secrets ... Two Minds, Two Hearts, One Life ... Opportunity Is the Corner of Fate and Desire ... Truth and Hope Bring Life ... Anything worth doing is worth doing well ... Many hands make light work ... The only way out of pain is through pain ... Play a little.  Tell a few jokes.  Haven’t you heard?  You’ll live longer if you laugh ... Communication Is the Key that Opens All Doors ... We trust the group to see what we ourselves are blind to ... Strong medicine is good medicine ... We can only build from where we are standing ... Communication is the ground of commitment ... Growth begins at Ground Level ...”

This is not abnormal, at least in the popular sense.  In the modern day workplace, in the self-help book, in the university, in the church, there are thousands of truisms that are repeated to us and by us in a continual and almost torrential downpour.  I'm afraid to say that even the pastor of my own church virtually modeled his whole sermon recently after one -“Discouragement is the devil's tool that smears the window of reality.

The problem with a truism is that it does not immediately appear to be harmful.  How could it?  It is, after all, true; or at least, it is generally true.  Often it’s creative, clever and sounds quite nice or comforting.  There is something ... sentimental about a motivational slogan.  It’s as though it were designed to help and encourage us.  It nails down feelings that we have into short and easy sentences.  Or at least ... if we didn't have those feelings to begin with, the slogan helps convince us that we did have them after proper recollection, recitation and repetition of the aforesaid slogan.

I was struck while reading English philosopher, Roger Scruton, when he alleged that one of the problems with modern day culture is that we have been taught to actually think in clichés.  So many clichés have been repeated to us so often that they now appear in our thoughts and guide us as we direct our responses to other people and to the world.  This, according to Scruton, is not only dangerous.  It is the death of the mind.

It is, really, evidence of the absence of thought.  Just think of it ... living your life endlessly repeating overly simplistic and reductionist slogans.  You would be mentally, for all intents and purposes, well ... a parrot.

This has been a subject over the last year that I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around.  It's a kind of thinking that I find myself constantly guilty of.  I can’t help but refer to a quote that I’ve used before by James J. Kilpatrick in The Writer’s Art.  He cites a linguist, Louis DeBakey, in his discussion of clichés:

“Clichés, said Dr. DeBakey, ‘are the language of thoughtlessness,’ and indeed they are. They are poor, tired, but comfortable and familiar cubbyholes to which we retreat when imagination fails us. All of us recognize clichés. They fall like casual dandruff on the fabric of our prose. They are weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. If we consider all the uses of our words, surely we can find something better than the bromide - for a bromide, by definition, is a chemical compound used as a sedative. Bromides put us to sleep.”

So while the cliché is bad form for the writer, it is even worse for trying to think.  It’s as if the  cliché kills thought and reflection.  When you find yourself thinking in clichés, you aren’t really thinking.  Your mind is just rehearsing and regurgitating pre-packaged fragments already given to you.  They place a halt to anything that might lead to actual thought.

If it is true that language makes thought possible, then what exactly is it that happens to your thoughts if they consist of mainly of motivational slogans?

In his book, Less Than Words Can Say, Richard Mitchell considers people who do this and asks, “Do they solve problems, or do they simply rummage around for a suitable slogan? Are they the people Socrates had in mind in thinking about that unexamined life that wasn't worth living? Can they examine life?”  Indeed, when my thinking is just the repeating of slogans given to me, can I examine anything at all?  Mitchell worries that this could be a serious problem:

“People in that condition don't think of themselves as being in that condition because they don't think of themselves--they don't think at all. To think, we must devise connected chains of predications, which, in turn, require fluency in language. Those who are fluent in no language just don't have the means for thinking about things. They may remember and recite whatever predications experience provides them, but they cannot manipulate them and derive new ones. Mostly, therefore, they will think and do those things that the world suggests that they think and do.”

But the problem doesn’t stop there, and this is where we see a little of McGraw’s genius.  At the marriage support group in the novel, “Life Ties”, the protagonists have memorized a long list of slogans to help them “deal” with any problems in their marriages.  Once again, at first the slogans sound innocent enough.  But eventually the “support group” begins to take on a sinister edge.  The slogans begin to possess an almost dictatorial tone.

It reminds one a little of Orwellian newspeak.  When any character deviates from the accepted axioms of the support group, the attitude of the group turns hostile and accusatory.

McGraw helps this along by giving us occasional short little chapters that are not through the eyes of any one character.  Instead, they are written through the eyes of the collective.  The collective that is encompassed by the marriage support group itself - self-satisfied, voyeuristic, gossip hungry - these chapters are written as if to view each marriage through the hungry and devouring eyes of the support group audience - written as if all the slogans were assumptions already accepted as dogma directing individual persons and unique marriages into one conforming mass.  And ... the rules and mottoes of the marriage support group hold up a sentimental ideal for marriage itself.

Here is where Scruton’s idea that we currently unconsciously all think in clichés begins to make our modern reality appear ominous.  We haven’t just been taught to think in clichés.  We’ve been taught to feel in them too.  It's as if we have a whole set of pre-packaged and methodologically listed “feelings” that we are ready to use to respond to events in our lives.  This is the problem with sentimentality.  We each have a set of sentimental expectations about things like marriage and relationships.  But our sentimental idea of marriage or relationship is never going to align with reality.  These feelings that we are supposed to have never occur like we have been told that they will.

Discussing the writing of T.S. Eliot, Scruton writes:

“For, as Eliot made wonderfully clear in his critical essays, sentimentality causes us not merely to write in cliches, but to feel in cliches too, lest we be troubled by the truth of our condition.  The task of the artistic modernists, as Eliot later expressed it, borrowing from Mallarme, is ‘to purify the dialect of the tribe’: that is, to find the words, rhythms, and artistic forms that would make contact again with our experience ...”  [emphasis added]

This is one of the reasons I deeply appreciate McGraw’s Better Food for a Better World.  I think she has succeeded in the task of Mallarme's and Eliot’s “artistic modernist.”  Her story is set in the modern world.  It is engulfed by typical and popular forms of thought and experience.  And yet, it does what many other novels do not.  Many modern writers absorb our modern culture’s sentimentality and clichés.  They use these clichés seriously, as if there were nothing at all ever wrong with them - as if they were insightful or even new.  They indulge in sentimentality because they cannot distinguish it from real feeling and because it sells on the market.  McGraw uses the slogans of the ice cream store’s napkins (and of the marriage support group collective) while knowing exactly what they are.

Then she inserts them into her characters very thoughts and it ends up demonstrating their stuntedness and deformity as human beings who cannot relate to each other.  Communication between man and woman breaks down when all the man and woman have to give each other are motivational slogans.  When McGraw writes from the point of view of the marriage support group collective, she gently shows us how the sentimental ideal of marriage embodies the pop psychology assumptions of the group and how they are not as evidently ideal as at first they appear.  It’s almost as if Scruton had described the very problem that McGraw’s novel seizes upon and reveals to us:

“[S]entimentality plays a central role in modern culture - it is the mask with which fantasy conceals its cynical self-regard.  Sentimental feeling is easy to confuse with the real thing, for, on the surface at least, they have the same object.  The sentimental love of Judy and the real love of Judy are both directed toward Judy, and involve tender thoughts of which she is the subject.  But this superficial similarity marks a deep difference.  The real focus of my sentimental love is not Judy but me.  For the sentimentalists it is not the object but the subject of emotion that is important.  Real love focuses on the other: it is gladdened by his pleasure and grieved by his pain.  The unreal love of the sentimentalist focuses on the self, and treats the pleasures and pains of its object only as an excuse for playing the role that most appeals to it.  It may seem to grieve at the other’s sorrow, but it does not really grieve.  For secretly sentimentalists welcome the sorrow that prompts their tears.  It is another excuse for the noble gesture, another occasion to contemplate the image of a great-hearted self.” [emphasis added]

This inability to distinguish between “love for other” and the self-satisfied-love of one’s own “love” for other is aptly and cleverly portrayed as McGraw’s novel progresses.  There is a great difference between sharing the feelings of another person and taking pleasure in the fact of what you feel about the feelings of another person.  One sort of feeling is directed outward, the other is directed inward.

The sentimentalist is, perhaps, the equivalent of an emotional voyeur.  The voyeuristic thrill is obtained by watching and obsessing over the intimacy and experiences of others for the purpose of obtaining the feelings that watching gives.  McGraw writes as though this is how the marriage support group thinks:

When goosey newcomers look ready to bolt, we lean over and whisper, “He totaled her car.  She poured wine onto his computer.  He broke every bottle in the house, including makeup and bath oil.  She shot his dog.” ... The mildest-looking Life Tie-er can turn to his wife and tell her he’s been running drugs, or intends to start.  Nobody wants to miss a meeting like that. (pg. 111)

The marriage support group collective feeds off of the situation where they learn that a wife's husband has been cheating on her: 

She became our obsession.  We discussed her after meetings, and, then, as time went on, in phone calls and over lunches.  Was the woman in denial?  Was she plotting her revenge?  Was she truly ready to put the betrayal behind her, dipping into some Christlike fund of forgiveness?  No one believed that.  After ten months, her back still straight, she revealed her own affair with the same woman, which had ended the night before.  We kept a safe, riveted silenced while the group leader, poor thing, had to ask the questions, quote the slogans, suggest the woman put together a list of chores for atonement ... The phone calls started as we got home, and picked up again around breakfast time.  We tried to imagine the silence at the couple’s dinner table and in the bathroom.  The slightest gesture either party made would touch off memories - the same memories, but not the same.  We imagined them getting dressed in the same room, then different rooms, then never bothering to undress at all.  It was his fault.  It was her fault.  We played out every scenario we could think of, and why not?  (pg. 113)

As one continues through the pages of McGraw’s writing, one can’t help but get the impression that there is both a fake and real way for a husband and wife to really love and engage with each other.  You can take pleasure in how your spouse makes you feel; or, you can take pleasure in your spouse as the person he or she inherently is.  As a man, I could enjoy marriage because of the all the satisfying accoutrements of my relationship with a woman; or, I could enjoy the woman herself.  I could marry her for the feelings she gives me; or, I could marry her for the very essence of her being.  When the character David says, “... Sharing is the real pleasure of marriage.  I learn what Cecilia knows.  She learns what I know.  That way we’re bigger together than we are apart ...” (pg. 107), the critical question is how important this sharing (that makes the sum of them bigger than the two of their parts) is to him compared with his wife, Cecilia, herself.

If that doesn't make sense, consider this.  Adhering to the sentimental outlook on marriage, what happens when one eventually doesn't enjoy how one's spouse makes one feel?  What if the sum total of marital accoutrements cease to be satisfying?  What if I no longer take pleasure in all the feelings that a relationship with a woman gives me?  If the existence of a relationship depends only on the feelings that the other gives you, then when those feelings cease or change, isn't the reason for the existence of the relationship destroyed?

Sentimentality and trite slogans can lead me to think that I always ought to feel a certain way about a relationship.  Since this is not rooted in reality, when I don't feel like the sentimental ideal tells me I am supposed to feel, then I will conclude that there is something wrong with the relationship instead of something wrong with my own deluded self.  In contrast to such an outlook, there is an entirely different view.  There is another possibility that it is not things having to do with my self-satisfaction that ground the existence of any relationship.  One's spouse is not the object that one uses to accomplish one's emotional ends.  Consider what this means.

There is transience and an instability to the former and there is a timelessness and transcendence to the latter.  So how do we distinguish the two?  When I marry a woman, how can I avoid allowing my sentimental ideals to control my expectations for who she should be as a person?  This is the problem.  Our culture has embedded us with expectations for the romantic relationship.  There are now a whole series of satisfactions expected to be met, obligations expected to be upheld, responsibilities expected to be insisted upon, images expected to be copied and boxes expected to be checked.  It's all very theoretically Hallmark.

“‘Marriage creates a single unit, without boundaries or divisions.’” (pg. 170) Is a statement like this true?  It’s one of the slogans of the marriage support group in the novel.  We have certainly heard it taught that this is the sort of thing that constitutes a healthy marriage.  It’s not a coincidence that McGraw describes the group as loosely affiliated with a popular Unitarian church.  She gives a description of the group early in the book:

Dimly based on AA, the group had rules and goals and slogans, but mostly the meetings were just talk: disappointments, surprises, betrayals, the occasional triumph.  People talked and then the others gave feedback.  Somehow, amazingly, the talking helped.  Husbands and wives discussed and revised and recommitted themselves to their marriages.  They explored their difficulties.  They found new solutions.  “Cheaper than divorce,” somebody always said.  “The weekly news,” somebody else would add. (pg. 26)

I may be venturing into territory that I have no experience with which to understand, but I’ve always personally found the idea of a “marriage support group” a little creepy.  Local community is important, but there are different kinds of community.  Talking with your friends about your struggles in life is profoundly valuable, but taking the struggles of your marriage to a group of people to hear their “feedback” seems irresponsible somehow.

In McGraw’s novel, the group “Life Ties” seems knowledgeable enough at times about the self-delusions of its own members.

Most people tell boring lies, so formless and obvious that a kid would spot them.  A really good lie feels like a right angle: clear, symmetrical. (pg. 73)  Then there are the lies people don’t know are lies, the self-deception buried under layers of wishful thinking.  These lies turn people into actors who give Oscar-level performances because they don’t know they’re performing.  Huddling, sharp-eyed pinch-purses brag about their generosity.  World-class narcissists explain how they work for - live for - others.  A needle-thin woman who regularly puts in ninety hours a week at her law firm insists that her greatest pleasure is lazy mornings with her cat and a mug of tea. (pg. 74)

But how is sharing your self-delusions to a support group audience that knows you are self-deluded supposed to help you exactly?  Sure, I can realize that other people are narcissists when they “share” things with me, but how exactly is welcoming them to voice their narcissism productive?

McGraw makes “Life Ties” begin to appear sinister when a newly engaged couple, Court and Tina, enters the group.  They are immediately submitted to a onslaught of cross-examination:

“What kind of marriage are you looking for?” ... “By coming here before your wedding, you and Tina can make sure your foundation is perfect” ... “It takes work.  Are you ready to work?” ... “...what questions do you have for Tina?” ... “Do you have any fears you haven’t shared?” ... “Are there things you haven’t asked about?” ... “You don’t need to say anything, of course, unless you’re ready to” ... “But this is a safe place, if you’re ready” ... “Are you asking her now, Court?  Is this your way of asking her to tell you?” ... “Often we need help expressing ourselves, especially at first” ... (pgs. 97-98)  “Truth is the start of healing.  Secrets are toxic,” said the man with the goatee, whom Cecilia wanted to slap. (pg. 99) “The truth needed to be told.  Secrets are toxic,” said the financial woman. (pg. 105)

The support group acts as if they are there to help the newly engaged couple.  The couple seems to believe them.  Nice sounding things like truth and openness and safety are insisted upon.  Helpful advice is offered enthusiastically.  Collective approval is offered as a bestowment upon the acquiescent.  They know what the couple needs.  They know what the couple should do, how they should live, how they should relate to and talk to and experience each other.  They know what's healthy.  They know support group heresy when they hear it.

“There’s plenty that I don’t know about Tina,” Court said slowly.  “There’s plenty she doesn’t know about me.  That’s all right.  We’ve got a lifetime to find things out.  Where’s the fun of waking up with somebody every day of your life if she doesn’t stand a chance of surprising you?” (pg. 98)

The problem with statements like this is that it goes against the all-consuming rule demanding the sharing of everything.  Everything needs to be shared.  Every personal failure, every present doubt, every past mistake ... all needs to be shared.  But that means good things can be shared too, right?

“Don’t think that we only share the hurtful things.  We share our uplift, too.  Our vision.  Lately I’ve been visioning snowshoeing with Paul up a mountain, both of us helping each other, pushing each other until we get to the top, where we can look down and see the whole world.” (pg. 99)

Yes.  We can also share what we've been visioning.  And yet, the fun of this story is watching, ever so slowly, some of McGraw's characters begin to feel as if there were something wrong.  One couple, Sam and Vivy, are the two who are most outside the group collective.  As troubles ensue, Vivy is one of the first to ask questions and think about what has been constantly drilled into her head.

“People will craw up from their deathbeds to catch the post-meeting postmortem,” Vivy said.  “Everybody gets to have an opinion about everybody else.  Everybody gets to share it.”
“‘Our collective strength outweighs our individual desires,’” David said.  His tone was difficult to decipher.  If he’d been Sam, Vivy would have laughed.
“The smartest motto we’ve got.  Every time I have a desire I ram into the collective strength.” (pg. 160)

The “Life Ties” marriage support group has, in effect, built, as much as I hate to use the phrase, a sort of “social construct” based upon popular ideals for how a married relationship is thought to work.  Each person in the group feels the pressure to conform to these expectations.  Each of their slogans reduce the complexity of human life.  Attempts to follow the slogans end up diminishing the marriages of the men and women in McGraw’s novel.

“... We believe that we are put on this earth to improve it.  Through our marriages, we become models.” (pg. 39.)

How much pressure is going to be exerted upon a relationship, as difficult and challenging as any human relationship can be, if the purpose of the marriage is to change the world by becoming a model for everyone else?

“... We believe that marriage is a total union.  We share our thoughts, fears, emotions, and intentions with our partners.  Marriage creates a single unit, without boundaries or divisions.” (pg. 39.)

That’s all very nice, but what if one of the pleasures of a relationship are the limits and boundaries that can be sometimes crossed and sometimes respected?  What if limits are necessary to the existence of a person?  What if boundaries and divisions are precisely the things that make a good relationship possible in the first place?  It is no coincidence that McGraw has the attitude of the engaged couple undermine this accepted axiom:  “... I think being able to trust a fiancee is about the most important thing I know.  I admit that right now I feel like I just swallowed a boot.  But I’d hate to find myself in a spot where, if I was married, my wife couldn’t go off and try a job that appealed to her.  It’s a marriage.  She doesn’t have to punch a time clock.” (pg. 103)

“... We believe that our marriages are the center of our lives.  Every choice we make must consider our marriages first, last, and foremost.” (pg. 39.)

Which of us cannot imagine, or has not experienced, poor and damaging ways to follow this belief?  Marriages may be meant for many very special things.  But, perhaps, if a marriage becomes the very center of a person’s life, then the only result will be a warped and twisted relationship?

“... Every decision made alone is a betrayal.  Every decision made in community helps us build.  Through new marriages we build a new community.  Through a new community a new world.” (pg. 39.)

This sounds impressive ... unless it is possible to learn to trust someone so utterly and completely that you can trust that person to make decisions alone.  Maybe some decisions are better made with another person and maybe some are not.

If any of these objections to each of these “rules” has any reasonable basis at all, then how unhelpful would it be to just mindlessly repeat the rules?  If a relationship were struggling, if two people were going through the complicated and messy process of trying to learn how to love each other, how to truly get to know each other, how to interact with and adapt to another person wholly other than oneself, what could be one of the worst things you could say to them?  A banality, reduced to utter simplicity, worded as if it were always true when it most certainly is not.

How many pastors, teachers, counselors and therapists merely repeat textbook slogans to hurting and suffering people?  Why would a pastor, teacher, counselor or therapist mindlessly repeat a banality to a suffering or struggling person?  Because it's easy.  Because it takes little thought.  Because it avoids having to adapt to the complexity of individual human beings.

Remember the comparison here to Orwellian Newspeak.  What if there is such a thing as Pop Psychology Relationshipspeak?
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“That we be lights to ourselves and one another.  That our actions bring us to new life, new vision, a new world.”  At a meeting some months ago Vivy, standing behind Cecilia, had hummed “Deutschland uber Alles” through the Gathering of Hope.  Cecilia hadn’t failed to think of the anthem since.  Tonight she took bitter pleasure in its stalwart rhythm, and kept humming while the group collected backpacks and notebooks. (pg. 107)
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Saturday, June 8, 2013

Trailer for Upstream Color



If you haven't seen this yet, then try it. It's currently streaming on Netflix.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

SOUL DETOX: CLEAN LIVING IN A CONTAMINATED WORLD (2012) - by Craig Groeschel (book review) - Part Two of Two

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There is often a critique within contemporary spirituality of consumerism, seeking happiness in things, and of an unthinking life of sensual self-indulgence.  I, like many others, see value in such a critique - but fear that spirituality is a dead-end response.  It is a response that is a fleeing from these things - not an engagement with them.  Spirituality cedes the world to the worldly.  It misses the opportunity to renegotiate the nature of what it is to be worldly, and of the world.  Fleeing down an avenue of detachment from the world, we are at danger of not only leaving political and social justice behind us, but along with the flight from reason ..., there is a danger of descending into a self-regarding and relativistic sentimentality, driven by solipsistic emotionality.

... In conventional religion, once you accept its fundamental tenets, you are challenged in two primary ways.  Firstly, there may be beliefs, or doctrinal notions, that you find hard to believe.  You cannot abandon them though, and have to enter into a reflective, thoughtful, possibly hermeneutic process to try and make sense of them.  It challenges you to take propositional statements, doctrinal beliefs, as serious and worthy of engaging with, no matter how painful and challenging that engagement becomes ... [R]eligion demands that we resist, or at least seek to resist, our most selfish desires.  If we follow a religious faith, with sincerity, we are challenged to do some very difficult ethical work: to put others first; to love enemies; to forgive those who do wrong; to cultivate humility.  While many will readily admit of their failure in these tasks, ... for someone who takes their beliefs seriously this is a central aspect of the religious life.  The ethical challenge of faith demands that we strive to a model of character that does not let us off the hook when it matters ... [I]t is clear that a 'spiritual but not religious' life makes no such demand.
- David Webster, Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy
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For Part One, click here.
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If you are a Christian, one of the most depressing facts about modern day life is the anti-intellectual psuedo-Christianity that now seems to dominate the most conspicuous expressions of the Christian faith.  Over the last decade or so, the most commonly read and talked-about books from the Church have ended up presenting Christ as a self-help expositor of an all-inclusive obscurantist drivel.  The list of best-sellers currently being read most often by the American Christian is, quite frankly, embarrassing.

The Prayer of Jabez (2000) by Bruce Wilkinson, The Purpose-Driven Life (2002) by Rick Warren, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (2004) by Joel Osteen, Chazown: Define Your Vision. Pursue Your Passion. Live Your Life on Purpose (2006) by Craig Groeschel, Become a Better You (2007) by Joel Osteen, Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back (2010) by Todd Burpo, Lord Deliver Me From Negative Self Talk (2012) by Lynn Davis, To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again: A True Story (2012) by Mary C. Neal, The Harbinger: The Ancient Mystery That Holds the Secret of America’s Future (2012) by Jonathan Cahn, I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life (2012) by Joel Osteen, and Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (2012) by Eben Alexander and more ... all are designed to help the reader feel good about himself or herself.  All, whether intentionally or unconsciously, replace critical thinking with wishful thinking, positive self-talk, easy acceptance of who you are, and monotonous self-affirmations of your hidden inner potential.

The most popular (and money-making) teachings of the modern Church are characterized by both the trite pop slogans of the non-critical-thinker and a very distinct estrangement from the entire history and tradition of orthodox Christianity, as it has been expounded and defended over the last two thousand years.  In his book, Soul Detox, Pastor Craig Groeschel takes these modern presumptions and then additionally adds to them one of the worst of weaknesses from fundamentalism: cultural separatism.  If the optimist part of you had ever wondered if, at the very least, all this modern self-help schlock may have abrogated the “need” for a Christian subculture, Craig Groeschel has taken very great pains to cure you of any such hope or illusion.

At the end of Part One of this book review, we paused with Groeschel instructing a doubter on the "secret" truth that Christianity, after all, is not a religion but a relationship.  If you wanted to ditch Christian theology and replace it with a collection of motivational aphorisms, this is as good a place to start as any.  Therefore, we will begin here with Groeschel’s thoughts on the subject.

On the Absurd Modern Conceit that Christianity is Not a Religion

The equivocation that Christianity is not a religion was old and tired when 22-year-old Jefferson Bethke uploaded his hip-hop-lite hipster YouTube video, "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus" back on January 10th of 2012.  In the video, Bethke combined a long collection of hackneyed adages to come up with lines like the following:

“What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion? ... I mean if religion is so great, why has it started so many wars? Why does it build huge churches but fails to feed the poor? Tells single moms God doesn’t love them if they’ve ever had a divorce? But in the Old Testament God actually calls religious people whores ... They can’t fix their problems and so they just mask it, Not realizing religion’s like spraying perfume on a casket, See the Problem with religion is it never gets to the core, It’s just behavior modification like a long list of chores" ... and so on and so forth.

Groeschel aligns himself right beside the thoughts of young Bethke:

“Did I mention that I can’t stand religious people?” (pg. 217.)  “Rules-following religious people believe their behavior and beliefs are right and everyone else is wrong.” (pgs. 217-218.) “Thankfully, Jesus didn’t come to make us religious.” (pg. 219.) “We don’t need religion.  We need Christ.” (pg. 222.) “Religion is Christ plus anything ... But the gospel is Christ plus nothing.” (pg. 226.) “Any time you stumble into toxic religion, you’ll likely see two poisonous problems.  The first is that religion leads you to focus on the external rather than the internal ... [Second, n]ot only does religion focus on the externals rather than the internals but this external emphasis produces an internal pride.” (pgs. 215-217.)  “Toxic religion puffs up its host.” (pg. 219.) “In fact, in many ways, Life Church was a result of my frustrations with religion.” (pg. 216.)  “A religious person might say proudly, ‘I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t chew, and I don’t run with girls who do,’ assuming their behavior makes them righteous.  Your behavior will never make you righteous.” (pg. 221.)  “Some people have a ‘head knowledge’ of Jesus but not a ‘heart understanding’ of the gospel.  They miss his life by about eighteen inches.” (pg. 220.)

In fairness, Groeschel and Bethke are not alone.  Pastor Mark Driscoll is equally as guilty in perpetrating this sort of talk.  So is Pastor James A. Fowler, director of "Christ in You Ministries" and author of Christianity is NOT Religion.  I originally thought that the old trope that allowed cool hip Christians to deny what they belonged to a religion originated in the 1970s.


But, it appears as if theologians of the past have had to deal with this semantic device as far back as Paul Tillich's 1955 Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality.  Looking more closely, how does Groeschel distinguish Christianity from religion?  He does so merely by redefining the word differently from how it is used in the English language.

The 2012 Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh Edition defines “religion” as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural ... commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance ... a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.”  The 1828 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language is even more specific: “Religion, in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man’s obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God, and also true godliness or piety in life, with the practice of all moral duties.  It therefore comprehends theology, as a system of doctrines or principles, as well as practical piety, for the practice of moral duties without a belief in a divine lawgiver, and without reference to his will or commands, is not religion.”

Such a rich traditional understanding of religion, let alone the most common of meanings of a widely used English word, is beyond Groeschel.  Instead he writes:

“In fact, religion is defined as any system, set of rules, expectations, or regulations that promises God’s acceptance in return for human effort ... Some scholars even argue that the root of the word religion means ‘return to bondage.’” (pg. 214.)

Without again bothering with Groeschel’s woefully inadequate methods for determining the roots of words, it is easy to see here that Groeschel wants “religion” to mean a system of rules, regulations, restrictions, expectations, etc.  Something much too demanding for the modern believer.  He's not entirely off base in thinking of religion as a structured system.  After all, more simplistically, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language defines religion as “1. Virtue, as founded upon reverence of God ... 2. A system of divine faith and worship ...”

But it is only upon modern assumptions that you would equate "a system" with bondage.  Structure, tradition, hierarchy, order, custom, law ... these are all aspects of religion that older thinkers believed essential to the exercise of freedom in the first place.  It is only by systematic and orderly thinking that we prevent harm.  It is only by the recognition of limits, to both thought and behavior, that we come to take responsibility for what we ought.  But now, we wouldn’t want to speak in terms as uncomfortable as “obligation” or “duty” which, according to Groeschel, have nothing to do with our relationship with God anyhow.  He doesn't even mention the fact that the majority of Christian theologians found nothing non-complementary about spirituality and structure. Thus, he continues to disavow any such burden:

“Religion puts the burden on us.  We have to do what is right.  A relationship with Christ puts the burden on him.  And because of what he did for us, we get to do what is right.  Instead of an obligation, our right living is a response to his gift.” (pg. 226.)

First, one cannot merely redefine religion as legalism and expect the rest of the English speaking world to just go along with you.  Legalism is a separate problem that is contained within religion.  And, there are also religions with virtually no rules or obligations whatsoever.  Second, any reasonable Christian ought to reject the implications within this sort of denial.  Denying that Christianity is a religion is an attempt to free oneself from a whole host of traditions, customs, liturgy and conventions without engaging with the question of why specific ones are or are not valuable.  Doing such a thing is intellectually lazy at best. Insisting that Christianity is a relationship instead of a religion looks very much like an attempt to free oneself from religious critical thinking and application.  It’s a sort of negation of theology.  There is no theology logically necessitated from a mere relationship.  That Christianity entails, among many other things, a relationship with God is deeply and wonderfully true.  But you are impoverishing yourself if you protest that that is all Christianity is.

One year before he was murdered by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his prison cell:

"Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the 'religious a priori' of mankind. 'Christianity' has always been a form - perhaps the true form - of 'religion.' But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless - and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any 'religious' reaction?) - what does that mean for 'Christianity'? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our 'Christianity,' and that there remain only a few 'last survivors of the age of chivalry,' ... The questions to be answered would surely be: What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God - without religion, i.e., without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on?"

By his insistence that Christianity is not a religion, Groeschel is demonstrating an ignorance of the questions that Bonhoeffer asked in 1944.  It could be that the fundamental idea that man is a priori religious by nature, that we are bestowed with a collection of metaphysical presuppositions and that the historical foundation of Christianity are all things that we trash only at our peril.  We live in a modern society that looks down on religion.  To speak about religion as they do makes it very easy for them to assume that you are meaning the same thing that they mean.  Pastor Kevin DeYoung, co-author of the book, Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion, addressed the idea after Bethke uploaded his video:

“... Whether this argument is fair depends on your definition of religion. Bethke sees religion as a man made attempt to earn God’s favor. Religion equals self-righteousness, moral preening, and hypocrisy. Religion is all law and no gospel. If that’s religion, then Jesus is certainly against it. But that’s not what religion is. We can say that’s what is has become for some people or what we understand it to be. But words still matter and we shouldn’t just define them however we want. ‘Jesus hates religion’ communicates something that ‘Jesus hates self-righteousness’ doesn’t. To say that Jesus hates pride and hypocrisy is old news. To say he hates religion—now, that has a kick to it. People hear ‘religion’ and think of rules, rituals, dogma, pastors, priests, institutions. People love Oprah and the Shack and ‘spiritual, not religious’ bumper stickers because the mood of our country is one that wants God without the strictures that come with traditional Christianity. We love the Jesus that hates religion.

The only problem is, he didn’t. Jesus was a Jew. He went to services at the synagogue. He observed Jewish holy days. He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). He founded the church (Matt. 16:18). He established church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20). He instituted a ritual meal (Matt. 26:26-28). He told his disciples to baptize people and to teach others to obey everything he commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). He insisted that people believe in him and believe certain things about him (John 3:16-18; 8:24). If religion is characterized by doctrine, commands, rituals, and structure, then Jesus is not your go-to guy for hating religion ... Unless we define the word to suit our purposes, there is simply no biblical grounds for saying Jesus hated religion ...”


Groeschel inconsistently quotes James 1:27 at the beginning of his conclusion, but he shows no sense of any historical literacy when it comes to his dismissal of religion earlier in the book.  It matters not to Groeschel that thinkers who actually bother to practically apply their Christian beliefs to culture have spoken English and used words precisely as they are defined in the dictionary.

In his 1951 book, God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote (pgs. 28-29):

“... a utilitarian conception of Christianity, coupled with this brand of self-effacement and steadfast refusal to proclaim Christianity as the true religion (which is what all genuine Christian leaders proclaim it to be, thus committing themselves logically to the proposition that other religions are untrue) is a sample of the adulteration of religion to the point that it becomes nothing more than the basis for ‘my most favorite way of living.’  The instincts are fine, and a good life is inevitable for such persons, but so long as what they profess can be subscribed to wholeheartedly by an atheist, we have not, really, got religion at all.”

In his 1952 book, Crowd Culture, Bernard Iddings Bell wrote (pg. 48):

“A nation which does not give knowledge of religion to its children and encourage their commitment to religion in some form is in grave moral danger.  Its children, and later its adults, find no sanctions for ethical behavior except habit and expediency, and these are weak reeds on which to lean.”

In his 1969 book, Enemies of the Permanent Things, Russell Kirk wrote (pg. 21): 

“The little knots of Stoics, isolated from the Roman masses, could retard the decay of their sprawling society; but they could not renew the vitality of their social order: and it was only in the hour of that order’s destruction that inner order in soul and personality was restored by Christian faith - or by that religion which has existed since the beginning of the world, but which now takes the name of Christianity.”

In his 1998 book, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, Roger Scruton wrote (pgs. 5 and 18): 

“The core of common culture is religion ... In no genuinely religious epoch is the high culture separate from the religious rite.  Religious art, religious music and religious literature form the central strand of high culture in all societies where a common religious culture holds sway.  Moreover, when art and religion begin to diverge - as they have done in Europe since the Renaissance - it is usually because religion is in turmoil or declining.  When art and religion are healthy, they are also inseparable.”

Either all these thinkers are dangerously wrong (along with T.S. Eliot's Religion Without Humanism and G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy), or Groeschel is arbitrarily, cheaply and loosely using the English language in a way different from the English speaking theological world.  Such is yet another habit of discourse that discourages the taking of his ideas seriously.  Of course, it is finally also possible that Groeschel is merely parroting from Timothy Keller's now trendy Gospel in Life Sermon Series.  I respect Dr. Keller highly, but we will presently explore the problems with Keller's focus on the so-called psychological needs of the self - acceptance, self-image, self-view, identity, self-worth, happiness, security, significance, etc.

Pop Psychology + Jesus = ???

Up until just now, I could acknowledge a complaint against this book review on the grounds that I have merely painfully dredged over the vacuous and empty-headed nature of the teaching in the book.  If vacancy of thought were my only reason for disliking Soul Detox, then I could quite happily conclude this review at this moment - or even, better yet, not have written it to begin with.  I should have known better, and besides, what harm really is there in the natural shallowness that permeates the usual Christian best-seller?

But vacuity is not the most serious problem with Soul Detox.  Instead, this book is infused with falsehood.  While it may have been nice to spare the reader the affliction of going over the following excerpts from Craig Groeschel's latest book, I strongly believe that what he is teaching contradicts Christianity and will harmfully diminish the lives of anyone who takes it seriously.  Whatever may be said for the value of the presuppositions of respectable psychology, pop psychology is a lie.  And pop psychology is precisely what Groeschel is teaching his church.  In a fallen world, many of us struggle with temptations, addictions, sins, suffering and loss.  The Christian faith offers answers for us, often not easy answers, often not as comprehensive answers as we would like, but historically found to be true by a long line of mortal men and women.  Craig Groeschel also offers answers, often easy, often simplistic, but, I believe, inherently destructive and pernicious.

Groeschel writes:

“All the while your negative thoughts are silently poisoning your soul, pour lies into your spiritual water supply.” (pg. 17.) “Wouldn’t you like to come clean?  To feel your Father’s love wash over you like the cool, crystal waters of a spring-fed stream?  To leave the smoke-filled room where you’ve been hiding and come into his life-giving light?  To breath in fresh spiritual air?  It’s not too late.” (pg. 19.) “Sadly, so many of us refuse to push through the clutter and clamor of negative thinking and false beliefs that can bombard us.  ‘I’m no good.  I’ll always fail.  I’ll never amount to anything ... No one really cares about me ... It seems like I mess up everything I do ... My life stinks ... I’ll never get a break.  There’s no way to change the way I am.’  Any of these thoughts can be deadly, and cumulatively they can imprison us in a hellish well of toxic waste.”  (pg. 39.)  “I’ve identified four specific kinds of toxic waste that can poison our minds: (1) pessimism ... (2) anxiety ... (3) bitterness ... (4) criticism ...”  (pg. 42.) “Be brutally honest.  Do you battle with negative thoughts about yourself, other people, or life in general?  Are you consumed with fearful, worrisome thoughts, putting your faith in bad things happening rather than good? ... If you answered yes to one or more of the previous questions, your life is being infected with toxic thoughts.” (pgs. 46-47.) “You are not a victim of your thoughts.  You have the power through Christ ...” (pg. 51.) “If you’re struggling to trust God in some area of your life, I believe you must first identify what you’re afraid of ... Until you do, it will continue to be that elephant in the room that huge dark cloud hovering over you that you’re not willing to talk about.  So do some name calling.  Check the label and see the brand of fear you’re wearing.” (pg. 152.)

These are, quite frankly, the words of a spiritualized snake-oil-salesman.  In Groeschel’s version of the world, negative thoughts are to blame for our moral failures, failure to follow the alleged steps of fear identification lie at the root of our sins.  The solutions that he promises are admittedly vapid, for example: “Any time your mind drifts toward dangerous thoughts, stop.  Grab those runaway thoughts.”  Yes, indeed, grab those pesky things.  GRAB them.  “Do whatever it takes to get the trash out of your mind.” (pg. 50.)  The methods that he purports to explain are vapid.  He ludicrously suggests: “Do you struggle with sinful anger?  Get mad at it!  Attack it with righteous rage.” (pgs. 139-140.)  The theological teachings that he indulges in are, in an avowedly Christian book, are fabricated and fraudulent.

In churches across the country today, there is currently a populist version of a false gospel.

It goes like this:

Human beings have personalities and egos full of a large collection of psychological needs.  This idea derives from atheist philosopher and psychologist, Abraham Maslow, who was known for teaching that Christianity “sold human nature short.”  In his published 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Maslow developed what he described as the “hierarchy of needs” which he argued motivated all human behavior.  Higher up this pyramid of “needs” include, among others, acceptance, significance, self-esteem and self-actualization.  Maslow expounded upon these ideas in his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality.  His ideas were later developed further by Carl Rogers in the 1961 book, On Becoming a Person.  Rogers taught that each person is basically good and that our behavior is motivated by our inclinations for self-fulfillment and self-actualization.  In all of this thinking, there is no room for the Christian idea of sin.  The idea of this hierarchy of psychological needs is also to be distinguished from Christianity’s teaching about both the good and evil desires of man.

In order for you to reach your “self-actualization”, you NEED to find satisfaction for this large collection of self needs - acceptance, significance, security, self-worth, happiness, identity and ultimately self-esteem.

The modern populist Christian approach to this theory is to blindly accept it, and then merely to teach that we can’t satisfactorily meet these needs if we look to satisfy them by things in the “world” or if we look to satisfy them by things in religion.  Where can your psychological needs be satisfied?  If you’ve ever been to Sunday School as a child, you will know that the answer is Jesus.

Groeschel illustrates this sort of teaching nicely:

“Think about it.  Money and things make three major promises that they cannot keep: the promises of happiness, significance, and security.” (pg. 167.) “While money promises happiness, true happiness, peace, and joy can be found only in God through Christ.  The same is true with significance.  Money promises significance, but it doesn’t deliver.  Only God does.  Again, money says if you have enough you’ll be secure.  But you just need someone you love to get in an accident or have a life-threatening disease to realize all the money in the world can’t buy away those troubles.  Only God can make you truly secure.” (pg. 170.) “With few exceptions, if you’re in debt, chances are you’ve swallowed the poisonous pill, believing more would make you happy, significant, or secure.  Own it.  Don’t excuse it.” (pg. 171.)  “We will never discover lasting happiness, significance, and security in the temporary things of this world because we weren’t made to live a temporary life.”  (pg. 176.)

Telling a story about how he and his wife used to worry about cleaning their house before guests came over, Groeschel asks the reader, “Why do you think we did this?”  Answer: “Because our identity was wrapped up in something besides Christ. We believed a toxic lie.” (pg. 172.) “When we became more secure with who we were in Christ, we didn’t need to impress others with our image but could serve them with our love.  When we changed what we believed (valuing people over things), our beliefs changed how we behaved.” (pg. 174.)  “The truth is that happiness, significance, and security are found in Christ alone.” (pg. 174.)

The problem is that the very idea that we have psychological needs to begin with originates from nonBiblical philosophy that denies the fundamental Christian teaching of body and spirit.  From the very beginning of Christianity, denial of self and focus on that which is other than self has been fundamental.  In order to teach against the denial of self, Abraham Maslow had to deny the sin nature.  In order to deny this, Maslow had to treat things in the world as objects - as means to the ends of meeting our psychological needs.  The inevitable logical result is an obsessive focus on the self, even when one is directed to the Gospel of Christ as the means to use in order to sate the self.  In the Christian pop psychology world, Jesus is the means that you can use to satisfy your own ends (psychological needs).

To the Christian, complete and utter self-actualization in this world will have evil consequences.  To work for these goals is death.  To begin by looking to meet first find satisfaction for these needs is theologically upside down.  (See Matthew 6:25-34.)  Carl Rogers taught that self-experience is our most reliable tool to accomplish the becoming of a whole person.  Christianity teaches that, because of our sin nature, our own self-experience is an unreliable judge of what is right or good.  Instead, we have been given other things - the moral law, Scripture, the Holy Spirit, the Church community of believers, the literary theological history of the Church, civilized social order, etc. - from which we can form more reliable standards.  “Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation - but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.  For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”  (Romans 8:12-13.)

If you agree that you have these psychological needs, and then if you agree that you need to fulfill these psychological needs, then you are going to focus on what best can be used to fulfill yourself to a whole person.  You are going to become needy and self-focused.  Christianity teaches the direct opposite.  Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?  Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”  (Matthew 16:24-26; see also Luke 9:23-25.)

The kind of teaching that leads a person to believe that the Christian gospel is finding one’s acceptance, security, significance, identity, value, self-worth and self-esteem in Jesus has a further consequence.

Sin suddenly becomes merely a technical problem of having the wrong beliefs - of being mistaken about where one correctly satisfies all of one’s psychological needs.

If you believe that you can find acceptance in the world through money, then that’s why you do bad things - that’s why your life isn’t working like you want it to.  Fix that belief and find your acceptance in Jesus, and you’ve just fixed what was allegedly causing you to sin.  Groeschel writes: “The root of most sins we commit outwardly is the false beliefs we embrace inwardly ... If you think negative and toxic thoughts, you’ll become a negative and sick person.  Your soul will stagnate and wither.  If you think God’s truth in your thoughts, you’ll become like Christ.  Your soul will flow with living water and flourish.” (pg. 40.)  What he says about this would be comical if there were not genuinely hurting people out there listening to him.  Groeschel is teaching that the causes of our sins are false beliefs we embrace inwardly.  The solution is like magic: “I’m going to offer something often overlooked that should come before we try to change our behavior.  Remember our first problem is a belief problem.  Belief overflows to behavior.  First we need to change what we believe.  When we truly change what we believe, we’ll gladly change how we behave.” (pg. 172.)

In Groeschel's thinking, it isn’t as if one would believe something for any objective reason for believing in it.  If your life is not going as you’d like it to, then according to Groeschel, you’ve just got a belief problem.  That’s why you change what you believe, because that is how you make your life and your behavior better.

“Maybe in your self-talk, you tell yourself, ‘I don’t have what it takes.  No matter how hard I try, I’ll never get ahead.  No matter what I do, I always get the short end of the stick.  My life is always going to stink.”  (pg. 42.)  “Self-talk is the term used to describe the words you say to yourself or about yourself that others rarely hear.” (pg. 64.)  “I’m convinced that many people are limiting their futures with toxic self-talk.  For example, you might find yourself thinking things like this: ‘I’m so exhausted.  I don’t think I can survive this week ...’  I encourage you to constantly speak life-giving words to yourself and to your circumstances.  Jesus said, ‘If anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them’ (Mark 11:23).  Notice how Jesus emphasizes the power of what we say, in this case, to a mountain.  One pastor I know used to always say, ‘Don’t talk about your mountain.  Talk to it.’” (pg. 65.)

That was not what Christ was saying about the mountain and the mustard seed, but nevertheless, how, according to Groeschel, do you believe something?  Easy.  Just repeat the new belief to yourself until you believe that it’s true.

“To really heal from the materialistic toxins, I encourage you to say the truth to yourself over and over again.
Money and things will never fulfill me.
Money and things will never fulfill me.
Money and things will NEVER fulfill me.
Say it over and over and over and over again, until you believe it.  And when you do believe it, you’ll begin putting it into practice.  Your behavior will change.”
(pg. 175.)

Question: does the repetition of a statement, in order to believe it, an idea that derives from Christianity?  The answer, which is rather obvious, is no.  Regardless of Matthew 6:7, and regardless of the majority of atheists who could tell you that materialism is not fulfilling, this is Pop Psychology 101.  It’s an idea that comes from psychological case studies that show people will uncritically accept almost anything if they repeat it to themselves over and over again.  (See “Dissociation of processes in belief: Source recollection, statement familiarity, and the illusion of truth,” by Ian M. Begg, Ann Anas & Suzanne Farinacci, Journal of Experimental Psychology.  Vol. 121, No. 4 (1992), pp. 446-458.)  Thus, we have popular “Christian” teachers like David J. Abbot who teach things like: “Repetition: Repetition can write any idea in my mind with eternally indelible ink.  No other programming tool has as much power to imprint positive thoughts into my mind.”

If we don’t pause to think about this, we could dismiss it as harmless.  Repetition is, after all, used for memorization in school.  What’s wrong with repeating and memorizing little positive sayings, like, for instance, “Money and things will never fulfill me”?  What’s wrong are the assumptions behind the idea that you will finally believe something if you just repeat it to yourself enough.  It is a matter of epistemology, and Christianity has a very strong and fundamental anti-nominalist position staked out in the epistemological world.  There are objective, rather than merely subjective, reasons for believing things to be true.  To think that you can trick your own mind into a set of beliefs by something like positive self-talk is to veer into nominalist territory.  Nominalism, which holds that it is our own language that shapes our reality, was considered a heresy by the early Christian church.  If we start believing that our beliefs can be molded by how we talk (and by how we talk to our own selves), then we end up obsessed with self-mastery like Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

In all his encouraging of his congregation to engage in this behavior, Groeschel is either completely ignorant of or deliberately ignoring the assumptions upon which this type of behavior is based.  Psychological needs do not define the nature of man.  Some of the greatest achievements in the history of Christendom were accomplished by both Saints and by regular men & women who did not think positively about themselves, let alone did they need to happily feel accepted or secure or significant.  Basing Christianity upon the ideas of atheists like Abraham Maslow is destructive.  The end result can only be self-delusion.

In this highly provocative and intelligent book, No Place for Truth Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, theologian David F. Wells wrote about the highly influential problems of Carl Gustav Jung:

Jung “recounted how he had to struggle with the fate of his father, a pastor, whose Christian faith collided so painfully with the modern world that he had, several times, to be placed in the lunatic asylum.  It was a fate the younger Jung earnestly wished to escape, and in a dream one day he found the way.  The solution was to look for God within the self, where sufficient adaptations to the modern world would already have taken place.  Once he had found his “subterranean God,” he also had found the way, he tells us, to reject the orthodox “Jesus.”  The outer allegiance was incompatible with the inner devotion ... So when Jung made his discovery, he found something that has in fact become characteristic of the whole modern period.  It was for him a discovery so startling that he identified it was the first instance of personal revelation.  The truth of the matter, quite obviously, was a little different from that.  But what Jung discovered then, evangelicals in droves are apparently discovering now for themselves, with or without the drama of a supposed personal revelation.  The difference is that Jung in his clear-eyed way opposed his “subterranean God” to “Jesus,” whereas many evangelicals are now naively identifying them.  Jesus is the “subterranean God”; his contours and attributes are defined by the inner experience of his breathless new followers.” (pgs. 154-156)

Groeschel teaches that the root of our sins are false beliefs.  In order to fix our sin problems, we then just have to fix our belief problems.  Positive self-talk can fix our belief problems.  We also just need to remember that our significance, security, acceptance, self-image, and self-worth can all be found in Jesus instead of in religion or in the world.  Meet these psychological needs, and the sin problem will be fixed as well ... But this is NOT Christianity.  Even when Timothy Keller teaches on this, he doesn't engage with the atheistic presuppositions behind the idea of the psychological needs.

Truthfully, some of these “needs,” well, they can be met at the temporal level.  The world has things that can legitimately satisfy acceptance, security, purpose, value, significance or identity at the temporal level.  Money, for some people, gives them security for the rest of their lives.  Humanitarian aid work, for some people, gives them purpose for the rest of their lives.  Marriage, for some people, gives them all the value they are ever going to need here in their lives on earth.

And honestly, if I find my eternal significance in Jesus and then sit back without finding anything at the temporal level.  Well, then I’ve failed.  I am temporally insignificant, and while my eternal security is in Jesus, while I can rest comfortable that I get to go to heaven when I die, I can still be living a useless human life.  I can only shudder to imagine what the real Christ would have to say about this self-referential Christianized nominalistic solipsism.

On Advocating Separatism From Culture

But we still haven't touched upon another of the most basic of Pastor Groeschel's teachings in this book.  Not only is he hip enough to deny that Christianity is a religion, not only is he culturally relevant enough to embrace the language and assumptions of pop psychology, but he also manages to combine all this with downright old-fashioned cultural separatism.  In spite of how many times it has been invalidated by the best of Christian thought and teaching, there still remains a malignant and unfortunate habit of thinking in the church that views “the” culture as the enemy.

In one sense it is apocalyptic in nature, assuming that “culture” is going to hell and therefore insisting, often for no other reason than comfort, upon our separation from it.  In another sense it is manipulative in nature, used as a tool by the Christian demagogue to beguile his congregation into reactionary behavior and rule-following, both of which cast them in a vulnerable and ignorant position.

First, Groeschel makes sure to inform his readers that the supposed pernicious influences of “the” culture are not something that just any reasonable observer would happen to notice.

“You’ve probably heard that if you put a frog in a kettle of water and heat the water slowly to a boil, the frog will adjust to the warming water and won’t even realize that it’s boiling to death ... In our culture, the water temperature increases daily.  Without realizing it, we slowly become acclimated to a toxic environment full of poisonous influences.  As the water temperature rises, we keep pretending we’re soaking in a hot tub having the time of our lives, never dreaming that we’re scalding our souls.” (pg. 13.)

But this isn’t enough.  Add to this idea that Christians are in immediate danger of being culturally boiled to death while having the time of their lives an appropriate dose of fear and paranoia.  This can best be accomplished by reminding your readers how the average member of Life.tv Church apparently worries about his or her children:

“You know you shouldn’t worry, but it’s hard not to get anxious when you consider the world today.  ‘What if my children get mixed up with the wrong crowd?  I hope they aren’t drinking, having sex, or doing drugs.  There are so many bad influences.  I can’t sleep at night thinking about all the dangers facing my children.’  I struggle with this particular toxic thought category as much as anyone.”  (pg. 44.)

Although, of course, worrying, in Groeschel’s view, is also toxic.  After all, worrying threatens the progress of one’s spiritual self-actualization.  So he later condemns worrying as not believing in God:

“Or if you worry that something bad might happen to your children, you’re essentially telling God, ‘I don’t really believe you’re good enough. I don’t believe that your plan and your purposes will come through for my children.  So for my part, I’m going to contribute by worrying’ ... I believe we have to face our greatest fears in order to reach our greatest potential.  And the only way to do this is to allow God to lead you.” (pg. 148.)

The problem is that Pastor Groeschel also demonstrates himself to be an infant in his knowledge of culture.  For instance, if there was ever a cliched Christian subculture sort of thinking about Hollywood films, I’d say that Groeschel manages to exhibit it precisely.  “Recently,” he writes, “when I asked a friend for recommendations of a good movie to rent, he responded enthusiastically, ‘Have you seen The Hangover?  It may be the funniest movie I’ve ever seen!' Excited about a potentially great comedy, I asked a couple of my staff members about the movie.  They too had seen it and said it was a riot and a must-see ...”  In 2009, when The Hangover was released, it was madly advertised.  The number of commercials, trailers, reviews and news coverage it received reached epic proportions of acclamation and saturation.  And yet, all one had to do was to see one single TV spot for the film, and one would have immediately deduced what sort of tired juvenile repetitive borrowed-joke ridden slog of a film that it was.  Groeschel was somehow ignorant of this.  But he knew exactly where to look in order to judge it’s true worth: “According to www.screenit.com, this comedy has more than it’s fair share of non-family-friendly scenes, intense language, and sexual situations.  The rough spots include ninety-one variations of the F-bomb (apparently it can function as noun, verb, adjective - and maybe even a conjunction for all I know), forty-one excretory words, fourteen references to a person’s behind, thirteen ‘hells,’ and nine slang terms for male anatomy.  To top it call off, this hilarious movie has thirty one versions of taking God’s name in vain.  Not exactly the Baskin-Robbins ‘thirty-onederful’ flavors I was looking for.” (pg. 178.)  Regardless of what he was looking for comedy about a bachelor party in Las Vegas, he does make sure to quickly reassure that the reader that he is no “teetotaling separatist who watches only Veggie Tales” either.

I would venture to claim that this is currently a problem in the church.  It is currently popular for the Christian to judge the worth of something, like a film, by the exact quantity of curse words or sexual content or “worldly” content contained in it.  This approach ignores questions of quality in art.  It ignores what the idea of entertainment means.  It ignores aesthetics.  And, it reduces taste to a nice set of legalistic and moralistic blinders.  There are far deeper theological objections, if one wanted to make them, against wasting one’s time with a film about the inane bachelor party shenanigans of a film like The Hangover, even if it hadn’t contained one single cuss-word.  There are works of art with more than double the number of f-words that, if the church actually watched them, could produce and galvanize works and reforms in the church’s local community with the purpose of changing lives.  (For example, take a couple of the best episodes from David Simon’s HBO’s The Wire).

But these are nuances that hold little interest for the pastor interested in promoting a little Christian subculture that is cut off from the rest of the world.  Groeschel continues his argument like this: “You might be like a lot of people who say, ‘Profanity, violence, and sex in the movies don’t really bother me.  If it doesn’t bother me, it must not be that big of a deal.’  Remember, I used to think this way too.”  Sure, whether something bothers you ought not to be the test for its moral value.  There are, after all, a whole number of morally good things that ought to bother us.  However, it reduces practical theological thinking to merely assume that our Creator is displeased by the cuss-word.  “If you’re a Christian, though, wouldn’t you agree that there has to be a boundary somewhere?”  Any intelligent nonbeliever would agree with this too.  “A way to discern what pleases God and moves us closer to him instead of farther away?”  Let’s grant that one.  “And can we trust our own sensibilities to know what’s truly best for us?”  If you get really excited “about a potentially great comedy” when your friend recommends The Hangover, then the answer is no.  If you read T.S. Eliot on sensibility, then you would understand that the goal is to cultivate a sensibility to the point where you could answer in the affirmative.  “Can you really endure an onslaught of F-bombs in a movie and not get wounded?” (pg. 179.)  Speaking as a military man, yes you can.

After making the above argument, Groeschel still seemed unsatisfied somehow.  So he tries next to illustrate it in a way that would be easier to understand.

“Consider, for example, if I dropped ninety-one F-bombs in my sermon this Sunday; do you think that no one in my church would care?  Chances are good that I’d stir up a bit of controversy to say the least.  So if you agree that ninety-one is too many F-words for a Sunday sermon, then how about fifty?  Or twenty-three?  What’s the magic number?  Most people in my church would say that even one F-bomb would be too many, much less taking God’s name in vain.  Yet the majority of them paid good money to be entertained by some form of media containing the same language or much worse within the past thirty days.” (pgs. 179-180.)

At a rudimentary level of theological thought on the subject of the cuss-word, or with a minimal reading of Bible characters’ use of their own cuss-words, one first determines that there is nothing morally wrong with the mere uttering of a word, in and of itself.  Quite the contrary, it is obviously the social setting and general rules of civility that determine the morality of the use of specific language.  Christians are instructed that one of the most basic rules of charity is not to willfully give offense.  No one, not even the most unchurched linguistic genius of a military drill sergeant (and I knew one who was specially gifted with an almost magical use of profanity), would think that using the f-word in church from the pulpit would be appropriate.  What exactly does Groeschel think his example is supposed to prove, other than the fact he may not understand the means by which rough language can be uncharitable?

Perhaps a much more metaphysically interesting question would be, not why so many people pay exorbitant amounts of money for entertainment that contains cuss-words, but why so many people pay exorbitant amounts of money for ... entertainment.  Now that, for those who try to think about the value of culture, would be a question far more promising.  Groeschel, lamentably, is beset by the cuss-word itself.  “So let’s wrestle with this subject,” he continues.  “If it’s not okay for me or you to say certain words or make particular jokes or references in church, then why would it be right for Christians to pay their hard-earned money to be entertained by something similar?” (pg. 180.)  Personally, I’m biased about popular entertainment.  But, from a purely objective perspective, the obvious answer to Groeschel's question is because church ought to be a respectful, sacred, contemplative and meditative setting in which it is inappropriate to do a long list of things that are normally perfectly appropriate in their own natural social settings.  “Each image and message we ingest may be a germ that will make us gravely ill,” he insists, “especially when combined with the many other sensory germs we’re taking in.” (pg. 180.)  That is, after all, one of the main problems with culture, those nasty sensory germs.

Reading Groeschel, I couldn’t help but pine for writers of another caliber, with even the slightest hint of theological thinking, who have addressed the same subject.  Take Professor Richard M. Weaver, for instance.  Again, as William F. Buckley would say, “once every great while one comes across a stretch of prose which, ever so calmly and resolutely, picks one up off the ground, and orients one over toward where the sun is really shining.”  After reading Groeschel, such is the prose of Weaver.  As far back as 1948, Weaver discussed the trend of dismissing Hollywood films for, as it were, uncouth content.  He writes:

“For what the public is reconciled to seeing censored are just the little breaches of decorum which fret bourgeois respectability and sense of security.  The truth is that these are so far removed from the heart of the problem that they could well be ignored.  The thing that needs to be censored is not the length of the kisses but the egotistic, selfish, and self-flaunting hero; not the relative proportion of undraped breast but the flippant, vacuous-minded, and also egotistic heroine.  Let us not worry about the jokes of dubious propriety; let us rather object to the whole story, with its complacent assertion of the virtues of materialist society ... for the beliefs which underlie virtually every movie story are precisely the ones which are hurrying us on to perdition.”  (pg. 101.)