From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation: Part 2

Three weeks ago I wrote about Christians having to live with TV and pop culture that is frankly yucky. I said that even though pop culture is often disgusting and rotten, Christians who are moving from death to life in Christ have to engage with it because 1. there is some good in it still and 2. they do not really have a choice not to have some level of interaction with it. In a discussion on Facebook, someone pointed out that I focused too much on tolerating evil than on moving toward good. Here I want to properly emphasize why Christians should learn to deal with stuff that is yucky and gross: the point is not merely to prolong our existence but to endure long enough to introduce what is truly good, free of taint and impurity. With that, I will turn once again to the video game Fallout 3. Continue reading From Death to Life, Not Rot to Sanitation: Part 2

Abortion: How and Whether to Read about Evil

The trial of a particularly demented abortion doctor has been going on, this last week, and links to news stories appeared on Facebook under comments like “I’m almost hesitant to share this…but, you need to know.”

That hesitation wavers in my heart. Reading these articles is painful. I have, several times, tried to post links and chickened out. I couldn’t bring myself to spread it without extended explanation.

On the one hand, these things must be known. It’s important not to turn our eyes away from someone else’s pain in order to stay comfortable when we really ought to alleviate that pain, even if it involves our own discomfort.

On the other hand, the descriptions in these reports and media stories horrify me. I feel physical pain and permeating nausea when I read them. I have difficulty breathing afterward. Their short sentences etch images on my mind’s eye that will never go away.

I know they’ll never go away because I remember sitting in English class as a teenager while the teacher graphically described a suction abortion. Feeling vomity, I tremored after several minutes, “Please, please stop. I can’t hear this.” She replied that I had to know to change things. She continued. I sat in class, listening obediently, as my heart-rate escalated. I remember her description as vividly and colorfully as one remembers a traumatic experience. And, I remain uncertain to this day if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

In a cruel and violent world, exposing ourselves to that cruelty and violence can help us to rise up against it. But, there are risks: the possibility of becoming so overwhelmed we are desensitized. Enough exposure may make us numb, like too much noise deafens the ears. Exposure to extremely terrible events could also make other horrific things look “not as bad as that one.”

This is the war inside me: these things are simultaneously too horrible to know and too horrible not to know. I don’t want these things to continue, but is grating sandpaper across my soul going to stop it? How should I approach these events, these news stories?

I hypothesize this answer: purpose.

For what purpose do I read these articles? I must consciously measure my exposure to my purpose. My intuition is that there is some amount of grisly detail that translates into purposeful action: we need enough understanding of the atrocity to realize we must act, but not so much that we damage our own ability to act. Humility is also key: I once saw a horror movie with the explicit thought that I could “take it.” But, is wanting to be “strong enough” to look at evil a healthy attitude? We must, must, must read these articles humbly, listening to our soul and realizing that we may be most able to effect our purpose if we don’t finish reading, not because we can’t “take it,” but because what we “take” at some point may ferment into input that drugs the soul. (This is the same way I read Lolita, or – rather—the way I came to read only the first half of Lolita.)

Additionally, reading for purpose will help keep us from drifting into the very modern danger that “being aware” can take the place of real action. It is painful and arduous to read the descriptions reported in these articles, so it’s natural that our recognition of the difficulty of the exercise subconsciously morphs into a belief that by reading all the way through, we’ve “done something.” Wouldn’t we have “done something” more if we’d only read the first paragraph, left our computer, and volunteered at a pregnancy center for a few hours?

Did I go volunteer at a pregnancy center? No. I am moving slothfully toward action; I went and checked out Real Choices (a beautifully empathic pro-life book on abortion) from the library and read it straight through that afternoon. In one sense, I felt as though I was doing penance for not reading the news articles. In another, I felt that I was equipping myself for a conversation I may have in the future with a daughter or friend.

Mine is not a tidy argument. I can’t say what to read, how far to read, what not to read. My suggestion, vague as it is, is simply that we are responsible to read about evil in our world and, when we do so, we must designate a clear purpose. To refuse to look is to allow it to continue; to look without discernment is to create the danger of it becoming part of ourselves.

Here is a link. Read with grace.

With thanks to Zoe Doss, for indispensable insights and idea contribution.

David Foster Wallace: Fighting a Culture of “Me”

Unless you’re a devoted fan of NPR or The New Yorker, it’s unlikely that you’ve heard of the late David Foster Wallace. Unbeknownst to many, David Foster Wallace, or “DFW,” as he is sometimes called, was one of the most influential and insightful writers of our age.

Deeply aware of the social illnesses that pervade western society, Wallace aptly articulated our psychological and sociological norms, paying particular attention to the onslaught of media that now encompasses our collective way of life. It is not merely the quality of media for which Wallace articulated concern, though this is part and parcel to his main worry. Wallace was largely disturbed by our generation’s incapacity to endure silence, boredom and self-restraint. To have freedom, he argued in his Kenyon College Commencement Speech, a person must be disciplined:

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.

Contrary to modern cultural standards, Wallace articulated a profoundly old truth; arguably, a “natural law” that beckons to the very heart of human existence.

Being an adult requires self-sacrifice, not merely in order so that we may receive future gain, but also so that we might not lose ourselves in the culturally sanctioned decree that we have a right to get what we want, how and when we want it. It is a culture of self that determines personal happiness to be the highest virtue. Wallace adds: “[T]he world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.” But freedom,involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

Our own Dustin Steeve articulated a similar concern about on-demand technology’s effect on human development and character. We must ask ourselves: how much are we losing by allowing information to flood our every waking minute?

Television and internet were a customary part of my daily routine when I was growing up. Rarely did I wait to be stimulated by entertainment, or forced to put strenuous effort into anything outside of an average school day. Somehow I made it through college in spite of this, and now as I encounter adulthood, I recognize just how difficult it is to choose to confront discipline and boredom for future gain, rejecting the pleasure and ease of immediate gratification.

My experience is in large part a symptom of my generation. The uniqueness of our situation lies in our culture’s devotion to convenience and demands for entertainment. Wallace noted this when he said that while our culture, as times past, is committed to narrative art, “television,” the most prevalent form of narrative today, is of the lowest sort.

It’s a narrative art that strives not to change or enlighten or broaden or reorient—not necessarily even to “entertain”—but merely and always to engage, to appeal to. Its one end—openly acknowledged—is to ensure continued watching.…Television’s greatest appeal is that it is engaging without being at all demanding.

There are many hard working people my age, and yet, the choice to endure hardship has become increasingly “a choice” and less a requirement of which all responsible adults are expected to take part. Our reclaiming of discipline and self-sacrifice as a standard part of adulthood will be essential if we hope to retain our freedom from our “hard-wired default setting” of self-centeredness.

*For those who aren’t familiar with David Foster Wallace, I’d like to briefly acknowledge the fact that his death was openly identified as a suicide. Regardless of the motivations or rationale that accompanied Wallace’s act, the truth of his words remain the same. No matter who participates as the mouth piece for this truth, self-sacrifice and endurance is an objective good. Having said this, we should also admire Wallace for his ability to discern and display what is good; especially as a voice within a society so disposed to keeping truth buried in self-mire. ‘