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


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.

Don’t Let Us Lose Our Wonder – Psalm 104

Some folks have requested the manuscript for this sermon, so I’ve posted a slightly edited version below. You can hear it as it was preached, when I was rather under the weather, by scrolling to the bottom of this page and looking for the ‘LISTEN’ link. I have omitted the scripture text below, as it is rather long. You can read it here.

Don’t Let Us Lose Our Wonder – Psalm 104

In the last week, a three-minute video on Youtube garnered over seven million views. Perhaps you were a part of that crowd. A clever songwriter and guitarist for a chart-topping British pop band recorded himself playing a song he had written in anticipation of the birth of his first child. The clever bit was his overlay in the video of daily photographs of his wife throughout her pregnancy, as though she were standing opposite him as he plays. As you watch, listening to his song, you see her change as the baby grows until, at the end of the song, the still photos fade away and his wife walks in, holding their newborn son. Having seen it a few times now, I can understand why so many people have watched it (and shared it with others). But the reason I needed to see it again was because I was bugged at a deep level by his song in a way I couldn’t put my finger on at first.

The song is called ‘Something New’, and it is a sweet and simple ballad contrasting the newness of a newborn child with the comparative ‘sameness’ or predictability of everything else in creation. While it is, as I have already said, sweet, clever, and well-done, and there is some truth in the contrast he makes use of – well, I was bugged. Here are a few of the lyrics:

I predict a summer, it isn’t very long
Then before you know it, we’re singing Christmas songs
And then we get another April, May and June
I guess I’m ready for something new

You want to touch a mountain, taste a waterfall
You only need to see one, then you’ve seen them all
Gonna bet tomorrow that the sky is blue
I think I’m ready for something new

I want to state clearly that my intention is not to bash the guy’s tender heart in his songwriting, nor to be overly critical of a simple song that celebrates new human life. I think that the song bothered me because I recognized something of my own tendency (in the lines I just quoted) to lose my sense of awe and wonder before the astonishing breadth of God’s creation. ‘If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.’ ‘Gonna bet tomorrow that the sky is blue.’ A very good friend of mine frequently reminds me – and I think this is an insight he got from reading Chesterton – that one of the ways we are unlike God (and where we might learn something from our own children) is the rapidity with which we grow tired of things. Once we are grown, especially in the present age, we seem to inhabit a world from which the wonder has leaked out. Seemingly everything – from photos of deep space to pornography to early tv sitcoms to eagles’ nests in real-time to international sports to instructional cooking videos and far more – everything is available thanks to the internet, and is only seconds away from us. Nothing shocks; nothing overwhelms; nothing fazes us; and the pace of real life, away from the screen, seems unendurably slow.

But when we read the psalms, we get the sense that our God, the man Christ Jesus, is the sort of person who, after thousands of years have come and gone, says to the sun, almost trembling with excitement in the early morning hours, ‘Do it again! Rise!’ Or that he says each day to the millions of birds who dot the circumference of the globe, no less than to the angels from the realms of glory, ‘Wing your flight o’er all the earth!’ My prayer is that, as we consider the text before us this morning, we will be brought again to participate in the joy which God has in all that He has made, and that He will renew our sense of wonder in the presence of what He has placed before our senses; that we would again be moved from a posture of indifference to one of reverence toward His works.

I should also say before we open these verses that there are many, many implications of these verses, and of the doctrine of Creation, that I will be unable to address in the time allotted. If I pass over something which you see clearly in the text, you may feel free to congratulate yourself; and know that I would love to discuss other matters later today or at the next opportunity we may have.

1 – 4: Glorious Creator dwelling in splendor

The psalmist begins by blessing the Lord his God, who dwells in unapproachable light, and offering to us a description of His majesty intended to bring us to our knees. How would you describe God in a song? How would you attempt to inspire awe depicting Him who transcends even our categories of understanding? The poetry of scripture uses imagery and metaphor to bring the ineffable down to earth (if I may say so) through the imagination. God is here pictured as a great and almighty king who has built a palace of immense proportions.

Notice, in verses 1 and 2, His clothes: even though we know God is Spirit, we gain some understanding of what He is like in His glory by seeing Him as clothed, perhaps robed, in splendor and majesty, and in light ‘like a garment’. The closest approximation we can make of His appearance is that pure, clean, blinding light is wrapped around Him in the way a cloak would be wrapped around us.

At the end of verse 2 and continuing on, notice the size of the comparisons to which the psalmist resorts in order to grasp at the underlying reality he knows: if Yahweh had a tent, it would stretch to the outer extremities of the heavens above! The foundations – the joists, if you will – of His palatial dwelling are set on the waters, referring (many think) to the waters said to be ‘above the firmament’ in the first chapter of Genesis. Just try for a moment to imagine the dimensions of the floor plan! Not only that, but consider what is implied in the idea that he lays the beams over the waters: most of us build on land. Indeed, on rock, if possible. But the strength and stability of this king’s court is such that the joists and bandboards can be spread across waters that span thousands of miles.

Continuing on, we see a picture of His transport and his entourage. The clouds themselves are his chariot, and he rides the wings of the wind. He is not locally limited in the ways common to men, nor in the ways common to pagan gods and goddesses. Those accompanying Him, his touring companions and heralds, his ambassadors, are as winds and a flame of fire. His word goes out swiftly, accompanied by the brilliant glory of His presence. Truly, Yahweh is a great king above all gods, and they are not worthy to be compared with Him!

But what are the decrees of this great king? In what does He involve Himself?

5 – 15: Powerful Creator nourishing His creatures

In the first place, we observe that our Creator establishes the earth, the place of our dwelling, with the same bedrock stability that characterizes His heavenly throne. In this Yahweh shows Himself to be full of grace: He places the earth on a solid foundation from which it cannot be moved, and then orders the cosmos and the surface of the earth with a regularity that shapes the lives of His creatures through reliable patterns. Have you ever considered that earth, and life upon it, didn’t have to be the way it is?

Notice the parallel used by the psalmist in picturing earth after its Maker. Our great God is clothed with light as with a garment, and His creation is clothed with the sea as with a garment. There is an implication in verses 6 and 7 that early in the creation week the ocean ‘stood’ above the land (which seems to be indicated in the first verses of Genesis), and that the terror of the voice of God made the oceans flee to their set boundaries, even as He caused the noble mountain ranges to thrust upward out of the earth and pressed valleys down into it, shaping the landscape that would shape our lives, and not only ours, but His own – which we will come to after a little while. Among other things, Christian, you ought to be thankful this morning that the land is only clothed with the sea, and not completely veiled by it; and that the oceans, on the whole, though they toss and turn violently in the deep, creating swells taller than many mountains, keep to their set boundaries. The comparatively few occasions when those boundaries are overrun should serve as a reminder of the chaos which might reign on earth (and should, by all rights, since the Fall), but is checked by the sovereign hand of a powerful Creator.

In the next passage, beginning with verse 10, we hear that, having soundly established the earth and the harmony of all its systems, our Creator nourishes everything upon its surface from the smallest to the greatest. When I have the opportunity to walk the trails in the mountains surrounding our own community, as I did this week, I observe everywhere these springs that ‘gush forth in the valleys’ and ‘flow between the hills’. And why does the psalmist say that these fountains are compelled to gush forth? For wild beasts! It is no accident that he chooses ‘wild donkeys’ as a representative, for these creatures, being more or less impossible to domesticate, are of practically no use to man.

I once heard a pastor, referring to this verse, offer the following comment: Have you ever been sitting with your wife as a November evening sets in, looking out a window as the sun begins to dip over the horizon; and sensing the oncoming chill of an early winter night, said to her, ‘I wonder how the wild donkeys are faring tonight?’ I would be willing to wager that you have never said (or even thought) such a thing in your life, because, frankly (as this pastor said), you don’t give a rip about wild donkeys! But do you know something? God does. He made these creatures and He delights in them and cares for them. Very few places on earth are completely bereft of some little springs or streams, and they are all there on purpose, part of the great wildlife reserve being managed by Yahweh Himself – and if such care is taken to quench the thirst of wild donkeys, as Jesus would later say, will He not take care of you, ‘O you of little faith?’

And that is precisely the point of the next little section, verses 14 and 15: God not only cares enough to feed and water the livestock of mankind, and to give men and women what is necessary for life, but He gives abundantly more than what is necessary. In this passage, notice that God has indeed given us grain and grapes and olives, but He has also gone far beyond this in giving us bread – strengthening our hearts; oil – beautifying our faces; and wine – making our hearts merry. Try to keep in mind that none of these things was necessary! How easily we take things for granted! We require none of them for the sustaining of life, but what even these relatively simple pleasures add to our lives on earth is marvelous and difficult to quantify. We will return to this idea later this morning, but for the time being remember the grace our Creator God has lavished upon all that He has made.

But will the creatures He made be able to navigate and survive the complex environment He established for them?

16 – 23: Ordering Creator protecting His works

In verses 16 to 18, we are reminded of Yahweh’s ordering of the kingdoms of plants and beasts. How is it possible, we might ask, that a tree with a top suspended at a height above the ground at which we have difficulty building structures to sustain the battering of wind and weather, can stand tall and grow for decades, or even centuries? How, in light of what we know about gravity, can it feed itself, and flower, and produce fruit? The great trees of the earth – those that Yahweh planted – He waters abundantly, and provides mechanisms to bring the nutrition from deep in the earth many stories into the sky.

And it is these trees that provide a refuge for birds like the stork, which fly in flocks great in number in the Near East and help to clear wilderness of what we would consider vermin and snakes. And just as He has provided refuge for the birds, He provides for every seemingly helpless creature He made – rocky mountains, difficult for people to negotiate, are also (more importantly) difficult to negotiate for would-be predators of wild goats. God cares for the goats! What’s more, He cares for the rock badgers, or rabbits, or hedgehogs, as the end of verse 18 is variously translated, giving them a home and a means of defense.

In verses 19 to 23, the psalmist draws our attention to the providential ordering of the cosmos and its relationship to human life. The sun is ever at our service, marking the days and nights that make up the rhythm of our lives, and the moon in a similar way marked the seasons and festivals that governed the lives of most communities of people in the ancient world. The prevalence of calendars based on the earth’s relationship to the sun (rather than to the moon) is a comparatively recent development. Even now, many Christian traditions date Easter and other festivals on the church calendar according to the phases of the moon (which causes some discrepancies about when these things ought to actually occur).

But beyond the basic rhythms of day-to-day life and seasonal change, days and nights marked off by the sun and moon make human life possible in a world filled with dangerous animals! Do you see where he’s heading in the last couple of verses in this section? Have you ever thought about how convenient it is that most predatory animals fear daylight (and mankind – Gen 9) and prefer to hunt their prey at night, when we are (for the most part) safely asleep behind closed doors? It was profoundly good of Yahweh to make this distinction between day and night, allowing us to work in the daylight with relative fearlessness, and stretching out His hand to feed the beasts in the hours of darkness. And here is another way our view of the created order might need reshaping; do we tend to think of what predatory animals do in the night as ‘seeking their food from God’? The writer of Psalm 104 doesn’t seem to share the weakness of our modern stomachs concerning these matters.

Notice also that the psalmist points out that it is God who makes darkness – as he writes in Psalm 139, ‘even the darkness is not dark’ to our Lord, the one before whom all is laid open. In the presence of Him who has so ordered creation for our benefit, we have no need to fear.

But are we safe putting our trust in Him not only for today, but for the course of our lives? And what is Yahweh’s purpose in the manifold wonders He has created?

24 – 30: Sovereign Creator providing in abundance

In verse 24 the writer begins to be overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of the works of Yahweh. ‘The whole earth is full of Your creatures!’ contains the faint echo of a related text; a familiar one, in which the mysterious and indescribable beings who serve continually before the throne of God are repeatedly saying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, the whole earth is full of Your glory!’ Are we guilty of over-spiritualizing the things of God? Are we reluctant to see the glory of God in the things He has made, looking instead for a vague and intangible impression of something to which we are unable to relate? The earth is full of His glory, and we see it now in the seas as we have observed it on land. Where the ships of men sail, the waters beneath teem with life, much of which we have never looked upon. One of the things we have observed is Leviathan, which most commentators will say refers to a large whale. What does the psalmist write about Leviathan? That he was formed ‘to play in [the sea].’ Now consider: the whale has nothing to do – no work to speak of, as mankind has; and he has nothing to fear, being among the largest creatures on earth. He was formed to play in the ocean – at the risk of irreverence, formed (in a sense) as Yahweh’s enormous pet.

Dwell with me for a minute here on God’s glory in what He has made, and His enjoyment of it. If you have difficulty putting your imagination in tune with the way Yahweh is described in this psalm, listen and ruminate: the vast majority of the unusual, the ghastly, the luminescent and strangely beautiful life that is carrying on across thousands of square miles in the depths of the ocean goes unobserved by man. Every spring and summer, a symphony of wildflowers (which we have only begun to catalog) is struck up into harmonious bloom on a million hilltops across the globe, and nearly all of them fade back into a soil that no human footstep has come near, a music never to be heard by a living man or woman. For millenia, season after season, year after year, the trees have been dropping a thick carpet of rustling leaves, the animals have been leaving their leftovers and dying amid the leaves’ whispering, and as the rain and snow alternate with the sun a more sophisticated farming than any art which we possess has been practiced, for the most part, on acre after acre that our tools have never touched. The backdrop to Yahweh’s story of redemption, being written even now, is a panoply of galaxies too expansive for our minds to properly conceive and full of untold marvels only hinted at by the stunning photography coming back from the Hubble telescope. We might well ask, ‘Why all this?’ And part of the answer is that God has a God-centered view of His creation. He watches Leviathan play in the ocean when no man can see! He feeds birds nesting in the remote parts of the earth simply for the joy of hearing them sing! He brings forth grass from the earth so that funny-looking things like cows can eat it, and in turn be of service to men and women.

And the psalmist wants to be sure that you understand that all of these creatures and ecosystems exist at the sovereign pleasure of Yahweh – He breathes life into them and they live; He takes away that breath and they expire. We all depend upon Him for ‘life, breath and everything’ (Acts 17); for ‘everything pertaining to life and godliness’ (1 Tim). Is it not good news that Yahweh’s heart toward all that He has created is not that we merely survive, but that we enjoy an almost scandalous undeserved abundance?

And even as we say that, we recognize that something seems to be missing. Isn’t it all too good to be true? Is the writer of Psalm 104 imagining that he lives in a Genesis 2 world? Doesn’t he know about the Fall of Man and its disastrous effects?

31 – 35: Holy Creator redeeming His creation

The Spirit-inspired scripture is certainly not ignorant of the Fall, as we shall see in coming through this last section of the song. In these verses, the psalmist’s praise to God for His awe-inspiring works is couched between two parallel ‘Let’ statements. On the one hand, ‘Let Yahweh rejoice in His works!’ And as we have been reading in the Psalm, without a doubt, He does! But how is that possible in a fallen world? The psalmist cannot forget, even amid his effusive praise, about the fallen condition of man. Ultimately, Yahweh cannot rejoice in His works without the parallel ‘Let’ statement in verse 35: ‘Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.’ But when we hear those words, we have to step back for a moment. How can that be good news? Why can the psalmist, who knows he is a sinner, follow those words with a ‘Hallelujah’? It is because he knows that Yahweh is not only Creator, but also Redeemer, and that these two themes – creation and redemption – ought to be tied closely together.

We hear the writer drawing the psalm to a close in the way that we sometimes can tell that an extended piece of music is concluding – the return of the theme we heard at the beginning. Yahweh’s majestic splendor – indeed, His holiness – comes back into view in verse 32; He it is who ‘looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke!’ We are accustomed to thinking of earthquakes and volcanic activity as almost random natural disasters; notice here that God’s fingers are at work in them. In view of His majesty and glory, His ultimate purpose of glorifying Himself, and His enjoyment of all He has made, how ought we to respond?

We may obviously conclude from the next verses that an appropriate response includes singing with our whole hearts, for as long as we draw breath; rejoicing in Him (and by extension, in His works); and by bringing the deepest thoughts and contents of our hearts into conformity with His character and being. We are able to join the psalmist in his ‘Hallelujah’ because we, too, understand, with much greater clarity, that our sustaining Creator has become our reconciling Redeemer; as the psalmist looked forward to his coming Messiah, we look back to that same man, our crucified and risen Savior, Jesus Christ. His blood, poured out freely upon the cross, purchased redemption for a people whose history stretched out thousands of years before His advent and continues to the present day, when we await His return and our final redemption. So those of us in Christ this morning heartily join in the ‘Hallelujah’ as we gaze, awestruck, at all that God has wrought.

But are there other applications we might learn from all that has been said?

In truth, there are many more than we have time to pursue at length. As I close, allow me to offer these few reflections. (Keep your Bibles open!)

(1) The Gift of the Carefully Crafted

I cannot help but briefly notice that the implication of verses 14 and 15 is that the carefully crafted is superior to the raw materials in creation from which it is derived. Grain is good, but freshly baked bread – a craft, an artifice – is better! The comparison is the same with regard to olives and oil or grapes and wine. In some areas of our experience (such as what we eat) we readily recognize such gifts, but in others we of the present age are more stubborn. In the arts in general and music in particular, we moderns have a tendency to imagine that the simpler and more raw works that come from the untrained are more ‘authentic’ and often to be preferred to works that are the result of discipline within a tradition, carefully crafted, and thus require more time and effort to understand and receive. In the same way, we tend to think of public events (such as worship services) that are casual and, to some degree, improvised or spontaneous as more ‘authentic’ or sincere than events with a formal structure, rooted in a tradition and carefully crafted over time. We tend to see very deliberate forms of communication merely as someone’s attempt to manipulate us, rather than as gifts that might reveal something about the nature of creation. In all of these ways and many more, we are tempted to prefer the grapes over the wine. I exhort you today, Christian: it is biblical to prefer the wine in creation; that is, to look for the gift of God in the carefully crafted.

(2) The Nature of Biblical Wisdom

‘How manifold are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you have made them all.’ We often think of wisdom as consisting of the right application of a multitude of very abstract principles. But biblical wisdom, which comes from God, is rightly derived from the order of the things He has made. If you will turn for a moment to 1 Kings 4, we can find there a succinct description of the wisdom of Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. If you haven’t read this passage in a while, try to remember what it says before we turn there. [Read 1 Kings 4:29 and following.] Solomon would more likely be featured in National Geographic today than in The Modern Schoolman. This is because biblical wisdom is rooted in the imaginative understanding of what God has made and the order in which all the diverse elements of creation relate to each other. This wisdom teaches that a righteous man is like a tree planted by streams of water in Psalm 1; in other words, we learn something about righteousness through imaginative attentiveness to trees. I exhort you today, Christian: labor to receive from God wisdom embedded in the stuff of creation and its arrangement; you were given a body on purpose!

(3) The Cosmic Scope of Redemption

And this leads naturally to my final application, and a return to the ‘Hallelujah!’ of the psalm. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:19-20) we read, ‘In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.’ In 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, we read that ‘All this [new creation] is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.’ And in Romans 8:20-21 we read that ‘The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’ In these passages, creation (and ‘new creation’) is inextricably linked with redemption, and we learn that more is going on in the work of Jesus on earth and in glory than an invisible, inward change in the souls of believers. Don’t get me wrong – we praise God that we are converted, and that an inward change has been wrought and continues – but we often neglect to remember that a redemption is in progress that will involve all of creation!

Christian, what does it mean to be a created being, to be part of the miraculous order we have been describing? Among other things, it means we were made for physicality. If Christ is the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, then the world was created by God with direct reference to Him who was to become incarnate in that world. And in this world, among cultures, among things, Jesus lived, illustrating the fact that a spiritual life is not a life in which we finally learn how to detach from things, from cultures, and from the limitations of our bodies; it is a life lived to the glory of God in and through the experiences made possible by the body and mind together. What is more, the life we look forward to at the consummation of Christ’s redemptive work is not a disembodied, ethereal existence, but a resurrection as solid and tangible as His own, and a life without the pervasive corruption of sin in a renewed earth under a renewed heaven.

I exhort you today, Christian: what you do today matters for eternity. What we do as a church with the stuff of creation – our culture, what we make of creation – matters not only for today, but for eternity. Our identity as the people of God is not merely a collection of invisible and intangible realities; it can be observed; it is deeply tied to all the ways we are involved with creation (especially our relationships with all the people living around us).

If you are a Christian this morning – a new creation in Christ Jesus – join the psalmist in his Hallelujah; revere your glorious God and Savior and wonder again at the cosmic scope of His redemptive plan.

The ABYSS Project: Postman’s ‘Amusing Ourselves’


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.

Quick Note: On Musical Meaning

Just jotting down a quick note to refer to some excellent lectures recently given by Ken Myers on music and its relationship to the church and culture. I think the way he addresses the subject contains a great deal of wisdom and there are many applications to daily life and church life to be drawn from his work. They are freely available on video (with audio download links) at the address below.

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.


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!

Ken Myers: Church and Culture

Ken Myers has transformed my thinking over the last several years in at least two ways. He has directly influenced my patterns of reflection and behavior through lectures I heard (beginning with a Classical Education conference in 2008), and he has indirectly altered many areas of my life and my family’s life through the bibliography trail he always seems to leave behind him. I’m still reading books I learned about through his work and I am still wrestling with questions about Christianity, culture, media, the arts, and the kingdom of God because of him.

I’m posting this because I stumbled upon an interview with Ken that hit a number of high points that resonated with me. I am in total agreement with his stance on the transformative, mind-renewing need of our modern church. In the clip below Ken talks briefly about attentiveness, deliberation, technology, silence, and the importance of eating meals together (among other things). If some of what you hear resonates with you, you might want to check out Ken’s periodical over at Mars Hill Audio.

Lectures he delivered at the ACCS Conference in Austin (Summer 2008) can be heard for free over at There are four – three are near the top of the list on that page, and the lecture on music, “With Choirs of Angels”, is further down.