The ABYSS Project: Howard’s ‘Chance or the Dance?’

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What lies behind the things we observe in day-to-day living? Anything?

When poets liken life ‘now to a prosperous sea voyage, now to the sear and yellow leaf,’ along with innumerable other such comparisons and correspondences, are they saying something merely fanciful and illusory – a trick of the neurons – or are they drawing out some sort of truth that is bound up in the nature of things?

When we ‘dress up’ everything from daily meals to dying and death with ceremony – ritual – even liturgy of a sort – are we simply carrying on traditions, quaint vestigial and sentimental remnants of a time in which our ancestors saw the world very differently? Or is there something fundamentally human underneath these patterns that begs to be recognized and observed, whether or not we formally deny with our words that we are, after all, anything more than meat and wetware?

These are the sort of questions that Thomas Howard addresses in Chance or the Dance?, a conversational and eloquently composed book that explores the contrast between the medieval and the modern mind. Considering the themes addressed, the book is quite short (my copy from Ignatius Press weighs in at 150 small pages), but despite its brevity Howard manages to cover an astonishing breadth of subject matter. It was published in 1969, and if one ignores a couple of political and cultural references (to things like the hippie movement), one might think it had been written yesterday. Howard, like one of his heroes, C.S. Lewis, was an English professor. He is now retired after forty years of teaching – first at Gordon College, and then at St. John’s Seminary.

NOTE: For the purposes of this brief review I am not going to get into Howard’s controversial personal spiritual journey, which involved a gradual conversion from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism. This has comparatively little impact on the insight to be gained from the book I am reviewing.

Chance or the Dance? walks the reader through a whirlwind tour of the medieval and modern mental landscapes, contrasting what Howard sees as the two primary ‘myths’ that govern our understanding of ourselves and of Creation. The principal difference between the two, according to Howard, is that the the medieval mind ‘read vast significance into everything. Nature and politics and animals and sex – these were all exhibitions in their own way of the way things are. . . . This mind saw things as images because it saw correspondences running in all directions among things.’ The way we apprehend these correspondences, Howard claims, is through the imagination, which the ‘new myth’ (beginning with the Enlightenment) sees as a flight into fancy or illusion. The ‘old myth’, on the other hand, saw imagination – metaphor – correspondence – ‘as a flight toward actuality.’ And one of Howard’s main points is that this way of looking at the world did not die when Christianity lost its grip on western society. He argues that we find it impossible to live without looking at the world (and ourselves) in this imaginative way, which ought to suggest something to us about the way things really are.

In the book’s eight chapters, the reader encounters not only a bit of cultural history, but majestic dogs, the dinner table, funerals, poetry and visual art, politics, human sexuality, and mundane everyday tasks. Throughout, Howard reflects on how we can’t seem to help seeing things as images of other things – defaulting to an associative rather than a scientific method – for example, in the way we speak. To say that a man had ‘a visage like a thundercloud’, a common sort of metaphor like those we use without even thinking in typical conversation, is to appeal to a realm where ‘frowns and thunderclouds appear as exhibitions of the same thing, and it is not a realm which can ever be discovered with charts and telescopes and syllogisms.’

He also looks at how this associative ‘habit’ leads us to ritualize, formalize, and otherwise ‘dress up’ our common experience, in everything from shaking hands to enjoying meals to burying our dead, even when the ceremony we surround such occasions with seems to have little to do with the function of the occasion itself. This ritualizing activity ‘arises from the same inclination in us that we saw in the image-making faculty – the inclination, that is, to get some sort of detachment from experience so that we grasp it and articulate it, and not just undergo it. . . It is the signal of our awareness that things are worth something – that they are significant.’

Howard’s reflections on art and the question of exactly what the business of life is are perceptive and compelling. He argues gently but convincingly to establish the indissolubility of form and content (not only in art, but in life), the inevitability of image-making and analogy at the most basic levels of human thought and speech, the impossibility of true freedom without real limitations, and the ironic likelihood that the mundane elements and responsibilities of life from which we are so often trying to escape – escaping, we think, into what life is really about – will, upon examination, turn out to be the real stuff of life after all; the pointers, in so many guises and images, to what is truly underneath everything we observe through our senses.

Some who read this review may not be as immediately inclined toward Howard’s book as I was when I heard about it for the first time. I will let the author himself clear the air, and hopefully help any who are on the fence decide whether they are truly interested or not. Here is an excerpt from the third chapter, where Howard is talking about the way we generally handle meals:

But back to eating. Take a simple meal, where things are not so dazzling as they are at the state banquet. Except in the most harried situations, there is more occurring than the mere swallowing of food. We mark this thrice-daily event with certain formalities, no matter how small. We put place mats down, or a cloth. We put the fork on the left, even though the chances are that we will pick it up with our right hand. We put the napkin by the fork and not by the knife, even though this serves very little clear functional purpose. If we have a drink, we may raise our glasses briefly. We wait until the others have been served before we tuck in. We prefer the food to be arranged neatly on the plate, and not jumbled together in a stew (unless of course it is a stew). We like a bit of color – carrots or tomatoes – in with the green. We like a slice of beef rather than a heap of scraps. We would just as soon that the bread not be torn and battered. We put the gravy into a boat and the jam into a pot, even though this means dirtying more dishes. The chances are that even when we are alone, we do not stand at the stove and fork our food out of the saucepan directly into our mouth.

The objection to this line of thought will come, of course, from someone who will say, “Oh, but I do do it that way. I do leave milk cartons about, and I love stand-up meals. We waste years of our lives going through all this mumbo jumbo when we could be just as happy and twice as productive doing things more simply.”

The only answer to this objection is: very well, you may be the busy career girl or board chairman who has a glass of Metrecal or a pastrami sandwich at your desk. But whatever else it is that overrides, in your mind, the usual pattern of pause and formality with which we mark this business of eating, I’ll bet you don’t see this as the ideal meal. Even though you may be the brisk type who thrives on the sixteen-hour workday, I doubt if you will argue that we must rid ourselves of the panoply that complicates the transfer of food from the stove to our stomachs. If you do, of course, and await the day when mealtime will mean a quick stop by the coin machine for an intravenous shot of some elixir from a syringe, then your paradise is my hell and you will have to write your own book.

As I can think of no conclusion more satisfying than the previous sentence, I shall at this point leave it to the judgment of the reader.

The ABYSS Project: Postman’s ‘Amusing Ourselves’

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An aerial video clip is shown of a nation’s capital: streets full of chanting protesters and rioters, buildings with fire in a window here and there, police pressing crowds back in a jagged line of non-violent violence; a voice-over begins to explain to us what we see and briefly speculate on what may result. Within thirty seconds, the screen has shifted back to an impersonally friendly anchorperson and then, after a snippet of a motif from the ‘theme song’ of the news, we’re into fifteen seconds of a toothpaste commercial. When the ‘news’ returns, it will doubtless be after several more ads have run and we may be hearing about microchip brain implants for the visually impaired, celebrity gossip for the intellectually deprived, an extraordinarily shocking sports injury, the dietary habits of East Asian forest-dwelling mammals, an unsolved gruesome murder case or an upcoming national election. Each of these will be ‘covered’ in a few minutes or less, interspersed with rapid-fire advertisements, and after viewing for an hour or two we are able to consider ourselves ‘informed’ and ‘up-to-date’.

Has the absurdity of this kind of communication, this kind of ‘informing’, ever struck you in a moment of quiet reflection? If so, you would probably like to read the work I am reviewing today. If not, you need this book desperately and ought to reserve your copy from the local library before you eat your next meal.

The first chapter of Neil Postman’s best-known book summarizes his concerns in the following words:

Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of showbusiness, largely without protest or even much popular notice. The result is that we are a people on the verge of amusing ourselves to death.

Amusing Ourselves to Death is an easily followed argument, originally published in 1985, in defense of the cultural assessment quoted above. What Postman observed was the gradual metamorphosis of what he calls public discourse from the late nineteenth century through the late twentieth – a shift, ultimately, in primary communicative technology that has changed the way we understand both communication and truth. The foundation of his assertion is the idea that technologies are never neutral; that each comes with a built-in agenda or predisposition to frame reality in a particular way. The shape of that agenda gradually affects the shape of our understanding of the world through the power of metaphor. Thus, for example, the prevalence of machines in our daily life since the industrial revolution has gradually altered the way we think of the earth and galaxies, ecosystems in the created order, and even our own minds and bodies: we have a tendency to view all of these things mechanistically, or from an amateur engineering point of view.

Postman says it succinctly: ‘How we are obliged to conduct [human] conversations will have the strongest possible emphasis on what ideas we can conveniently express’ (emphasis mine); and in another place, ‘The concept of truth is intimately linked to the biases of forms of expression.’

To present his case, he takes us on a brief tour of American media history. A major point he must establish is that media culture has seismically shifted. America was once a literary nation, ‘dominated by the printed word,’ and the dominance of this form of public discourse shaped private and public life. The shining example of the difference between the literary culture and our own is Postman’s account of an early debate between Lincoln and Douglas in rural Indiana, where the town turned out to listen to seven hours (with a dinner break) of closely reasoned rhetoric. He gives other illustrations that serve, more than anything, to show us how foreign that culture seems to us today. My other favorite is his reference to the stark contrast between the theological arguments of Jonathan Edwards and the recent writings and appearances of prominent Christian leaders (when he wrote in the mid-Eighties) like Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts and Billy Graham.

After successfully highlighting the transition into the new paradigm, noting that the telegraph was the beginning of the end because it was the first device enabling the disconnection of information from context – changing the definition of information and turning it into a commodity – Postman explains how television (and by extension, much image-based media) has facilitated the transformation of all our public life into entertainment. News, religion, politics, and education are each examined in turn, revealing a good deal about the way we now see (or miss) almost everything.

What is the cumulative effect of these changes? Take the news as an example. Ever since the telegraph, irrelevance has become the measuring stick for relevance, and knowing ‘things’, and lots of them, has has become vastly more important than knowing about anything. “How often does it occur that information provided you on morning radio or television, or in the morning newspaper, causes you to alter your plans for the day, or to take some action you would otherwise not have taken, or provided insight into some problem you are required to solve?” ‘News’ has become anything but. “We are presented not only with fragmented news but news without context, without consequences, without value, and therefore without essential seriousness; that is to say, news as pure entertainment. . . . It is simply not possible to convey a sense of seriousness about any event if its implications are exhausted in less than one minute’s time.”

Consider the (im)possibility of televised religion: “There is no way to consecrate the space in which a television show is experienced. . . . I think it both fair and obvious to say that on television, God is a vague and subordinate character.” As a Christian myself, I find his opinion of the effect of televising Christianity astute: “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”

How can political ends be accomplished across the airwaves and through screen time? Commercials have become the paradigm for political presentation on television, which means that the pragmatic campaigner will observe that “short and simple messages are preferable to long and complex ones; that drama is to be preferred over exposition; [and] that being sold solutions is better than being confronted with questions about problems.” It is difficult in this environment to know how to proceed, or even to assess where we are, because “with media whose structure is biased toward furnishing images and fragments, we are deprived of access to an historical perspective.”

And in perhaps the most important arena of human responsibility, teaching the next generation, have we erred in looking toward technological saviors? “We now know that Sesame Street encourages children to love school only if school is like Sesame Street. . . . The most important thing that one learns is always something about how one learns.”

Maybe that last point is among the most critical to remember. Each of us is learning all the time, and as Postman incisively comments, “Television is a curriculum.” We are often concerned about the content of our media, but we are reluctant to pay attention to the ways that the shape of our experience is shaping us. As long as we stay in this society, there is no turning back the dial; America is, after all, “engaged in the world’s most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug. . . Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements?” It may be that we are not ready to take arms in that battle, and it may not be the most important battle we face. If it is not front and center among the issues of our day, my sense is that it is nevertheless present and that it touches most aspects of our lives.

Have we stopped thinking deeply? Are we constantly amused, or expecting to be so, and always searching for the next bit of fun? And if so, do we know why, and is there a possibility for change on a large scale?

I hope that Postman’s book can still serve as warning, wake-up call, and as a goad to our oft-lazy souls. Let’s take stock of our lives and our time; let’s consider what is making us who we are, and what choices lay open to us for a more promising future together.

The ABYSS Project: Owen on Mortification

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I approach this review with trepidation. John Owen (1616-1683) is the sort of writer who needs no recommendation, certainly not from the likes of me. In fact, I feel like my reviewing of one of his works can’t help but detract from the greatness of his thought, so I will keep my comments to a minimum.

The Mortification of Sin in Believers, first published in 1656, is an old book. Remarkably – and this applies to Owen’s work on many subjects – one can reasonably contend that, on the topic addressed in the title, nothing equal to it has been written since. Like many other Puritan pastors and theologians, Owen treats his subject matter exhaustively. This habit in Puritan exposition often led to lengthy books, but in this particular case one is struck by how concise the book is. The edition I have at home (Christian Heritage, 2003) weighs in at 176 small pages, and that includes a substantial introduction by J.I. Packer. If you are interested at all in John Owen, for the sake of your mind (which will be challenged, but not overwhelmed as with other works of his) and your devotional life (which will certainly be improved) and your daily struggle against besetting sins (which ought to be invigorated) I recommend beginning with this book.

If you have no interest in John Owen and your eyes glazed over when I said ‘Puritan’, but you want to know how to fight the ‘sin that so easily entangles’, I still recommend this book.

Owen’s thesis, based on Romans 8:13 and dependent on the rest of scripture, is as follows: The choicest believers, who are assuredly free from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business, all their days, to mortify the indwelling power of sin. He maintains that there is an ‘infallible connection between mortification and eternal life.’ I hear his arguments echo in J.C. Ryle’s Holiness, which we are studying right now at RBC, in Ryle’s emphasis on the sobering word from Hebrews that ‘without holiness no one shall see the Lord.’ Owen further maintains that the vigor, power and comfort of our spiritual life depend on the mortification of the flesh.

It is important to note that when Owen says ‘to mortify’, he doesn’t mean it in the modern sense (to embarrass), but in the sense more closely connected with the Latin root of that word – ‘to kill.’ He famously writes in this book, ‘Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.’

The general outline of the book is as follows: Owen argues for the necessity of fighting and killing sin as long as we live in the body; for the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s acting in this work; and for the dependence of our spiritual strength and peace on mortification. He then proceeds to define mortification, lays out preliminaries for undertaking the work, and then gives specific directions for a proper start. Along the way Owen shows tremendous insight into the progress of both sin and grace in the soul. He manages to present an exquisitely balanced position, taking into account the depravity of the heart, the principle of grace at work in the converted soul and the assistance of the Spirit, our incapability of perfect obedience on earth and the obligation upon us to be holy if we would see the Lord – and he maintains this balance without letting anyone off the hook.

Among the striking statements in Owen’s Mortification are these: ‘Sin always aims at the utmost… every unclean thought or glance would be adultery, if it could’; ‘Let not that man think he makes any progress in holiness, who walks not over the neck of his lusts’; ‘When a man, on some outward respects, forsakes the practice of any sin, men perhaps may look on him as a changed man; God knows that to his former iniquity he hath added cursed hypocrisy, and is got into a safer path to hell than he was in before’; ‘The rage and predominancy of a particular lust is commonly the fruit and issue of a careless, negligent course in general’; ‘To apply mercy, then, to a sin not vigorously mortified is to fulfill the end of the flesh upon the gospel’. He would not have us pacify our consciences with self-esteem talks, but rather suggests that we ‘load our conscience’ with the guilt of our sin; that the path to mortification leads us through a carrying of our sin to the gospel, not (at first) for relief, but for a proper view of our guilt: ‘Was my soul washed that room might be made for new defilements? Shall I endeavour to disappoint the end of the death of Christ? Shall I daily grieve that Spirit whereby I am sealed to the day of redemption?’ He would have us move, not toward self-approval, but toward self-abasement; we know incredibly little of the being and nature of God, and yet we know enough to condemn us for not loving, seeking, and serving Him more than we do at present. Owen would not have us speak peace to our hearts, but labor in fighting against our indwelling corruption until we are sensible of God speaking peace to our souls.

Though his words are often bitterly convicting, his practical direction for obedience to God in these matters is simple and hopeful. ‘Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of your sin… Live in this, and thou wilt die a conqueror.’ The final chapter of the book is an exposition of that statement, detailing the ways we ought to ‘act faith upon Christ,’ live in hopeful expectation of the help we are promised to receive from Him, and look to the Spirit to carry this work to completion as we work toward holiness in the body.

I wish that I could say that I have implemented and tried all of the courses prescribed by Owen for the disabling and destruction of the sin in my own life, but I have hardly made a beginning. But having begun, and barely tasted, I have confidence that the road Owen would set the believer upon in the pursuit of Christ through mortification is the only safe road – that is to say, the biblical road – to holiness and happiness, and ultimately, to glory.

Read On the Mortification of Sin for free here.

Listen to the book read aloud for free on Youtube here.

The ABYSS Project: Boorstin’s ‘The Image’

A Little Introduction

This is the inaugural entry in what I hope to make a weekly, or at least occasional, feature. I have taken the title for the feature – basically a book review segment – from a reference I believe that C.S. Lewis made to the contemporary period. Somewhere in the past, I think I remember reading him referring to his own time (with literature in mind) as ‘the abyss of the present.’ In Lewis’s introduction to Athanasius’ work On the Incarnation, he argues briefly but convincingly for the study of old books on the basis that previous ages do not have the same blind spots as our own. Therefore writers from the past may serve as correctives to some of our own underlying misconceptions and preconceived notions about the world we live in. Lewis wryly observed there that ‘to be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.’

In the spirit of modern trendiness, I have titled the feature ‘ABYSS’ in capitals to indicate that I have an acronym in mind. The acronym is ‘About Books You Should Study’, and in the spirit of Lewis I will try to prefer older books to the new. Nevertheless, I already know that I will need to make a few exceptions, so bear with me. I intend to bring to your attention literature you may never have come across in the hope of prodding you toward the leisure of reflective study with profitable works.

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Down to Business

The first book under consideration has brought me nearly into agreement with one of its recent reviewers (advertised on the back cover): ‘a book every American needs to read every few years.’ I have read it a few times now, and each time through it has been a remarkable refresher. The book is historian Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.

It almost qualifies as an ‘old’ book even now, having been published over half a century ago in 1961. Boorstin lived through most of the radical transitions of the 20th century (1914-2004) and remains one of my favorite writers of history. His career saw him teaching at various prestigious universities and working as the twelfth Librarian of Congress (1975-87). His trilogy on the forming of the American nation is fascinating and worth the time if you have it.

The Image is one of his shorter works, and arguably one of his greatest. The organizing principle of the book is his observation that American people have ‘Extravagant Expectations’ – that we expect to receive from the world more than it has to offer us, and that we expect to have an almost limitless power to shape our world. Boorstin develops this main idea along several lines to show the effects our desires have had on the shaping of modern culture; the effects might be summarized in his words from the introduction: ‘We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality.’

Each very readable and engrossing chapter (and I don’t say that about many books from heavyweight thinkers) documents a transition that took place alongside what Boorstin calls the ‘Graphic Revolution’, a period roughly corresponding to the development of mass printing and image-distributing technologies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These cultural sea changes he refers to as ‘From News Gathering to News Making’, ‘From Hero to Celebrity’, ‘From Traveler to Tourist’, ‘From Shapes to Shadows’ (referring to art forms), ‘From Ideal to Image’ (referring to the paradigm of our thinking), and ‘From the American Dream to American Illusions’, the last of which he hesitatingly terminates with a question mark, as if to say that he hopes we aren’t so far gone that there isn’t any turning back.

In this book, Boorstin is recognized as having coined the term ‘pseudo-event’, referring to an ‘event’ that is not actually a spontaneous happening in the world, but a ‘happening’ of ambiguous origin orchestrated by someone for the consumption of others. He first describes these events in their most simple form as he briefly recounts the history of the institution of ‘the news’ in American society. Where newspapers in the colonial era generally reported things that happened in the world, and thus might not have an edition for a month or two when world events slacked off, the gradual transformation of the ‘news’ into big business and entertainment fostered the development of events made up, by journalists or others with an interest at stake, purely for the purpose of being reported. This is the origin, for example, of the modern press conference. These pseudo-events, as Boorstin ably demonstrates, tend to spawn other pseudo-events ‘in geometric progression’, giving us the sense that something is ‘happening’ out in the world around the clock when all that is happening is the churning of the news machinery in the creation of its constantly obsolescing product. Pseudo-events ‘arouse news hunger in the very act of satisfying it.’

Boorstin also observed in this book that while a hero was known for his exploits, his character, his towering virtues or his outstanding flaws, a celebrity is someone who is ‘known for his well-knownness’, a living tautology, the human pseudo-event. While we used to respect the ‘big man’, we now look for the ‘big name’. Real heroes cannot survive long in the memory of our present society because in order to do so, they have to acquire the qualities of celebrities to hang on to the spotlight for more than a few minutes of air time. We, as a people, no longer have heroes that serve as external sources to fill us with purpose. ‘These new-model “heroes” [celebrities] are receptacles into which we pour our own purposelessness.’

In the remaining chapters, the author has written a number of insightful passages on tourism – modern ‘travel’ making the world a stage for pseudo-events: ‘The tourist gets there without the experience of having gone’; on art – ‘as never before in art, it has become possible for the great, the famous, and the cliche to be synonymous’; and on the patterns of our thinking – ‘paradoxically, too, the more we know about the tricks of image building, about the calculation, ingenuity, and effort that have gone into a particular image, the more satisfaction we have from the image itself.’

At the root of the modern manifestations Boorstin examines in The Image is the problem stated in the introduction: our expectations of what the world offers and what we can make of it are extravagant. In order to satisfy them, we have transformed our lives in this society. We have traded spontaneous reality for an ever-multiplying parade of illusions and replaced ideals with images. In the process, we seemed to have gained control of the governance of what we now perceive as ‘reality’, but at what cost? Is it possible for us to see things as they are anymore?

If it is, the first step is to properly see the illusion. Boorstin’s work is the most helpful set of lenses fit to the purpose of which I am aware.

Happy reading!