Friday, June 29, 2012

our only problem: churches become congregations-Delbert Wiens

It's a shame when classic, provocative quotes by the classic, provocative Delbert Wiens are tucked away in publications with limited readership.

For example, try on the following  1995 quote from his chapter in Mennonite Idealism: The History of the Fresno Pacific College Idea (Was I right?  You don't have that book?).  The chapter is titled (classically, provocatively), "The Christian College as Heresy".

What a shame that it is nowhere online.....until I finishing playing scribe and hit "publish": Paul insists [in Romans 12:3-5], this concrete unity that is the Body of Christ is graced with the different gifts given to its members, which bring knowledge and all the other needed fruits to create a holy and healthy society.

That brings us to the most troubling paradox of all.  A Christian college is a special creation of the church.  It is designed to play a specific role in the larger mission of the church.  But modern churches are becoming congregations.  They too are succumbing to the abstracting, functionalizing spirit of the age.  So those of us who are inspired to call to serve the various levels of a concrete people of God are increasingly driven to create here the halig  that no longer characterizes the congregations from which we come.  But how can the abstraction that an abstracted church creates to do an abstracted job with young members who are abstracted from their abstracting communities for a brief four years abstracted from their lives become a concrete community?  Until congregations again become churches that seek to become concrete parts of the Kingdom of God, we can hardly help them or their youth even if we "succeed" at our own mission.  To the extent that we try to do so, we may even turn out to be at odds with the congregations we are called to serve,"  -St. Delbert Wiens,  "The Christian College as Heresy," in Mennonite Idealism: The History of the Fresno Pacific College Idea,.p. 64

Wiens has amazingly articluated something I could only intuit, as both a pastot of a congregation (oops, I mean CHURCH), and a teacher at the very college Wiens speaks of and writes to.

More ?

On more on  what he means by "concrete," see  this article...

For more fun..

See  his seminal "From The Village to City: A Grammar of the Languages We Are"

...And his  insanely creative book, "Stephen's Sermon and the Structure of Luke-Acts"
Here is an  online article that came out before, and eventually became, the book.  ( If this were written by anyone else, I would assume this book is a case of hopeless chiasmania, but since it is Delbert, it's just someone writing from a higher dimension altogether...and his view up there can catch chiasm better than the rest of us who are mere mortals).

Peter Diamandis: Abundance is our future

"Is the Bible Actually True?"

Nice article, but I am pretty sure (as is often the case), the editors created a provocative subtitle (which the writer probably wouldn't agree with):

"Is the Bible Actually True?":  What do we do when Scripture contradicts itself?  

Elephant Room: "Just because someone doesn't want you in their circle anymore doesn't mean they can't be in yours.'"

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Complete Rene Girard Book and Documentary: "I Saw Satan Fall"

LINK"I see Satan fall"


 Complete documentary below:
 " On the origin of cultures", introducing some major topics of mimetic theory and René Girard’s thinking.  Notes ny, and HT to. Erik Buys

PART I of the film explores the fundamental role of mimesis (imitation) in human development on several levels (biological, psychological, sociological, cultural). René Girard’s originality lies in his introduction of a connection between this old philosophical concept and human desire. He speaks of a certain mimetic desire and ascribes to it a vital role in our social interaction. It explains our often competitive and envious tendencies. More specifically, Girard considers mimetic desire as the source for a type of conflict that is foundational to the way human culture originates and develops. In his view the primal cultural institutions are religious. Following a sociologist like Émile Durkheim, Girard first considers religion as a means to organize our social fabric, and to manage violence within communities. The more specific question the first part of this documentary tries to answer is the following: where do sacrifices, as rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture, originally come from? How can they be explained? Click to watch: PART II starts off with a summary and then further insists on the fundamental role of the so-called scapegoat mechanism in the origin of religious and cultural phenomena. ART III explores the world of mythology and human storytelling in the light of Girard’s theory on certain types of culture founding conflicts and scapegoat mechanisms. Girard comes to surprising conclusions regarding storytelling in Judeo-Christian Scripture.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

"When God looks at us, he doesn't see us, only Jesus"?

Morgan Guyton:

In the Steven Furtick sermon that motivated this blog post, he said that the reason God gives us His “approval” is because He doesn’t see us when He looks at us but sees Jesus instead. That’s not approval; that’s deception. I can’t understand how anyone could possibly be encouraged by that. God doesn’t need our true selves to be hidden from His view to love us infinitely. His rage against the sin that oppresses us is part of that love. It’s true that Paul tells us to “put on Christ” and says that “in Christ we become the righteousness of God,” but Jesus isn’t a mask that we wear to cover ourselves up; He’s a body in which we become ourselves-Morgan Guyton

corpoprate, incorporative use of "messiah"

In a chapter in "Climax of the Covenant," which, maddeningly, is readable on Google books...but only to page  33  (here), N.T. Wrtight  picks up (pp 42ff):
     of the chief significances which this word [Christos/Messiah] then carries is incorporative, that is, that it refers to the Messiah as the one in whom the people of God are summed up, so that they can be referred to as being 'in' him, as coming or growing 'into' him, and so forth.... is endemic in the understanding of kingship, in many societies and certainly in ancient Israel, that the king and the people are bound together in such a way that what is true of the one is true in principle of the other.

..In Romans 6.11, the result of being baptized “into Christ”… is that one is now “in Christ,” so that what is true of him is true of the one baptized–here, death and resurrection. This occurs within the overall context of the Adam-Christ argument of chapter 5, with its two family solidarities; the Christian has now left the old solidarity (Romans 6.6) and entered the new one. 6.23 may be read by analogy with 6.11; whose who are “in Christ” receive the gift of the life of the new age, which is already Christ’s in virtue of his resurrection–that is, which belongs to Israel’s representative, the Messiah in virtue of his having drawn Israel’s climactic destiny on to himself. Similarly, in Romans 8.1, 2 the point of the expression “in Christ” is that what is true of Christ is true of his people: Christ has come through the judgment of death and out into the new life which death can no longer touch (8.3-4; 8.10-11), and that is now predicated of those who are “in him.” In Galatians 3.26 the ex-pagan Christians are told that they are all sons of God (a regular term for Israel…) in Christ, through faith. It is because of who the Messiah is–the true seed of Abraham, and so on–that Christians are this too, since they are “in” him. Thus in v. 27, explaining this point, Paul speaks of being baptized “into” Christ and so “putting on Christ,” with the result that (3.28) [translating Wright's reproduction of Paul's Greek here:] you are all one in Christ Jesus. It is this firm conclusion, with all its overtones of membership in the true people of God, the real people of Abraham, that is then expressed concisely in 3.29 with the genitive [again translating]: and if you are of Christ… When we consider Galatians 3 as a whole, with its essentially historical argument from Abraham through Moses to the fulfillment of God’s promises in the coming of Christ, a strong presupposition is surely created in faovor both of reading Xpistos as “Messaiah,” Israel’s representative, and of understanding the incorporative phrases at the end of the chapter as gaining their meaning from this sens. Because Jesus is the Messiah, he sums up his people in himself, os that what is true of him is true of them
...(a) The usage of Χριστός (Christ) is incorporative, that is, Paul regularly uses the word to connote, and sometimes even to denote, the whole people of whom the Messiah is the representative. (b) The best explanation for this incorporative sense is that Χριστός still bears, for Paul, the titular sense of 'Messiah', that that it is precisely on the basis of that meaning that he is able to coin...the various prepositional formulae in which this incorporative idea is summed up. (c) The distinction between Ιησους(Jesus) and in these various phrases, and indeed where they occur by themselves in Paul, is quite straightforward. Though both words denote the same human being, Paul uses Ιησους to refer to that man as Jesus, the man from Nazareth, who died on the cross and rose again as a human being, and through whose human work, Paul believed, Israel's God had achieved his long purposes; and he uses Χριστός to refer to that same man, but this time precisely as Israel's Messiah in whom the true people of God are summed up and find their identity." 

..Paul regularly uses the word to connote, and sometimes even denote, the whole people of whom the Messiah is the representative...

Because Jesus is the Messiah, he sums up his people in himself, so  that what is true of him is true of them.
. -N.T. Wright, Christos as 'Messiah' in Paul: Philemon 6,” in Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology .  (Excerpts found here in article by Matk Horne

Monday, June 25, 2012

How to Read the Bible Like an Anabaptist

"How to Read the Bible Like an Anabaptist: A Jesus-shaped hermeneutic":

Wild Goose on the Left Coast

Burn the Stage

  You might remember a previous link to "Chain Saw the Pulpit."

Now please read: Burn the Stage

Trinity, Cross, form and content

Roderick T. Leupp:

Moltmann further states that "the content of the doctrine of the Trinity is the real cross of Christ himself.  The form of the crucified Christ is the Trinity."  No life is possible without form and content. Form gives life structure, and content gives lkfe depth.  The form and content of the Christian life is inescapably triune, and living the cruciform life, in full cognizance of the triune cross, is the life God desires for every human being.
-"Knowing the Name of God: The Trinitarian Tapestry of Faith, Community and Worship," p. 116


Excerpts from a later book of Leupp's on the Trinity here

Sunday, June 24, 2012

theopaschism: old heresy/new orthodoxy:

Helpful 1985 article (quoted in Jenkins' "Jesus Wars")  excerpted below:

The Suffering God: The Rise of a New Orthodoxy
by Ronald Goetz

.....Indeed, despite all the real and intractable differences among theologians, a curious new consensus has arisen. The age-old dogma that God is impassible and immutable, incapable of suffering, is for many no longer tenable. The ancient theopaschite heresy that God suffers has, in fact, become the new orthodoxy.

A list of modern theopaschite thinkers would include Barth, Berdyaev, Bonhoeffer, Brunner, Cobb, Cone and liberation theologians generally, Küng, Moltmann, Reinhold Niebuhr, Pannenberg, Ruether and feminist theologians generally, Temple, Teilhard and Unamuno. 

...What is particularly remarkable about the theopaschite mind-set has been its development as a kind of open secret. The doctrine of the suffering of God is so fundamental to the very soul of modern Christianity that it has emerged with very few theological shots ever needing to be fired. Indeed, this doctrinal revolution occurred without a widespread awareness that it was happening...

...The theological implications of the theopaschite revolution are enormous. Every classical Christian doctrine -- the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, creationex nihilo, the atonement theories, sin (original or otherwise) , predestination, etc. -- was originally formulated by theologians who took divine impassibility to be axiomatic..

 ..Thus, we have only begun to see where systematic theologies grounded in the suffering God might lead.:

The decline of Christendom
The rise of democratic aspirations.
The problem of suffering and evil.
The scholarly reappraisal of the Bible.

...Two lines of defense have become popular among theologians who find themselves, for whatever reasons, unable to speak of God as ontologically limited and yet unable to affirm the predestinarian highhandedness of an impassible, immutable God.

The first is the so-called Irenaeian theodicy (after the second-century theologian Irenaeus) : God permits suffering and evil in order that by them we might come to sufficient maturity so as to be able to inherit eternal life. The problem with such an argument is that while it offers a very helpful insight into the question of why we suffer and endure hardship, it says nothing about real evil. For real evil, as we experience it, does not build up and develop its victims; it corrupts, corrodes and destroys them.

The other line of defense can easily incorporate the Irenaeian theodicy, and indeed, might even seem to strengthen it. In this view, the statement "God is love" is virtually synonymous with a kenotic (self-emptying) (Phil. 2:7) view of the incarnation. God’s love is supremely revealed in his self-humbling. God is a fellow sufferer who understands not because God cannot be otherwise, but because God wills to share our lot.

Here, as in the case of a limited doctrine of God’s being there is a certain immediate psychological comfort in the notion that God does not require of us a suffering that he himself will not endure. However, if this comfort is to be any more than a psychological prop, it must show how God’s suffering mitigates evil. This explanation has been, to date, curiously lacking in the theodicy of divine self-limitation.

To anyone who feels compelled to affirm divine suffering, the fact that God is deeply involved in the anguish and the blood of humanity forces a drastic theological crisis of thought vis-à-vis the question of evil. The mere fact of God’s suffering doesn’t solve the question; it exacerbates it. For there can no longer be a retreat into the hidden decrees of the eternal, all-wise, changeless and unaffected God. The suffering God is with us in the here and now. God must answer in the here and now before one can make any sense of the by and by. God, the fellow sufferer, is inexcusable if all that he can do is suffer. But if God is ultimately redeemer, how dare he hold out on redemption here and now in the face of real evil?

My own view is that the death of God’s Christ is in part God’s atonement to his creatures for evil. Only on the basis of God’s terrible willingness to accept responsibility for evil do we have grounds to trust God’s promise to redeem evil. Only in God’s daring willingness to risk all in the death of his own son can we have confidence that God finally has the power to redeem his promise. Others may not agree with this radical rethinking of the atonement, but it seems apparent that comprehensively to affirm the almighty sovereignty of the self-humbled God requires a drastic rethinking of traditional doctrine.  -Goertz, full article here

Malcolm Gladwell video: Culture of Innovation

"vision is the destroyer of essence....essence of church is not its mission"

Gordon Cosby has often been quoted  as saying "vision is the destroyer of essence'
(I hear he even taught a  seminar for megachurch pastors by that title).
I don't find any written example of that quote in context, bit  I did find this below on Frank's blog (no source given, but googling suggests it's from a sermon preached on July 7th, 1996, and quoted in “The Church of the Saviour: A Radical Experiment” by Peter Renne)

…The essence of church is not its mission. [The “vision statement” is not what its about.] It’s not a matter of a group, battling homelessness, or working with at-risk children or people who don’t have jobs or people who are addicted or working with issues of justice or peace…the soul of the church is a gathered people whose only reason for gathering is Jesus. The church is a people who gather because they want to know Jesus in a deeper way. The focus must not be on the vision first but on the relationship with the one who gives the vision. The vision will not ultimately sustain us, but the one who gives the vision will…”

We will commit ourselves to an intensive love effort with a few people. We will be committed to smallness. Large numbers tend almost inevitably toward depersonalization and institutionalism, toward a lessening of commitment. So we resist the temptation of numbers and the power that comes through numbers.

The central reality of Church is a group of people, core people, called to be in deepening personal belonging of friendship with Jesus of Nazareth and through him to others.  link

Rend Collective Experiment:organic worship

the naked pastor's story ..on video

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

"Their approach runs counter to almost anything you’ll find on iTunes.."

If you've never hear, , or heard of The Welcome Wagon...

 ...start with Jeffery's Overstreet's review:


Rebellion. It may be the single most distinctive characteristic of new music, generation after generation. From Chuck Berry to Michael Jackson, from the Rolling Stones to Nirvana, from Madonna to Lady Gaga, from Bob Dylan to Kanye West, each generation’s icons of pop, rock, and hip-hop plan to shake up the status quo with a rebel yell.
But the most rebellious thing I’ve ever heard a rock star say appeared in print in 2001. Robert Hilburn of The L.A. Times was interviewing Bono about why New Yorkers turned to U2 for inspiration after the attacks on America. Bono responded by talking about the anger that fuels most rock music. “Anger is simple. Any artist knows he can do it with a black brush. That’s what rock is at the moment. It’s an easy thing to do: painting in black.”
Then he added, “Joy is something else. It’s much harder to create because you are dealing with something much deeper and much more emotional. It’s a connection with the audience that borders on faith, believing in something together.”
Joy. Imagine that. To strive for joy may be the most rebellious act for any musician in this present environment of anger, attitude, and egomania.
I say all of this so you will understand why I cannot stop listening to the second album from The Welcome Wagon — Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices.
Even the title seems like a bold, brash choice. The Welcome Wagon has repurposed a title from a 17th century Puritan manuscript by Thomas Brooks—a book that promises to be “a special salve for every spiritual sore.” In these 13 songs, the Welcome Wagon endeavor to realize a similar goal through multifaceted contemporary church music.


The Welcome Wagon, in case you don’t know, is a duo: Monique and Vito Aiuto, the latter being the pastor of Resurrection Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn. Together, they are inviting a much larger congregation to gather and participate in their brand of rock and roll. Their approach runs counter to almost anything you’ll find on iTunes: They open their arms and their music to welcome ancient traditions and contemporary expression: compelling rock and roll, playful pop love songs, and prayerful hymns half-whispered in a reverent hush...CONTUNUED HERE

...and their Bancamp info:

As the twelfth year of the twenty-first century dawned, the economy was still in the tank, jobs were still scarce, health care was still a mess, and White House hopefuls were bickering and backbiting like there was no tomorrow. People were sick and tired of it all; heck, everyone was sick and tired, period. 

The masses needed some good medicine, something a lot like Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices. Not the 17th century Puritan classic by Thomas Brooks – though that book’s a fine place to start – but the new album of the same name by The Welcome Wagon, the musical duo of Vito and Monique Aiuto, a Presbyterian pastor and his wife. The couple seeks solace in song – for themselves, their congregation, and their listeners. The 13 tracks on Precious Remedies provide a much-needed healing balm, very much like the one Brooks describes in the preface to his old devotional: “A special salve for every spiritual sore, a special remedy against every spiritual malady, a special plaster against every spiritual wound. Food to nourish you, a staff to support you, a guide to lead you, a fire to warm you, and springs of life to cheer and refresh you.” 

If a book can promise all that, can an album too? Vito and Monique think so. 

“We’ve always thought of our music as a gift from God – to us, to the people we make it with, and to anybody who listens and enjoys it,” says Vito. “It’s always had this spiritual aspect to it, and for this album, we think of it as music that serves as spiritual medicine.” 

It’s an apt sequel to their critically acclaimed 2008 debut, Welcome to the Welcome Wagon. Here, Vito and Monique simply throw those welcoming arms open wider, inviting the listener to join them for 51 minutes of church. Precious Remedies begins by telling it like it is: “I’m not fine / And you’re not fine / And we’re not fine together,” they proclaim before easing into the chorus of “Lamb of God, you take away the sin . . .” 

And with that opening confessional, church is in session. 

Vito explains: “This album has a somewhat liturgical structure, ordered loosely like a worship service. It begins with the existential and cosmic dread of ‘I’m Not Fine,’ immediately followed by ‘My God, My God, Parts 1 & 2,’ a prayer that rails against God’s seeming absence from this world and our lives. The words are adapted from the prayer of Jesus while he hung on the cross. 

“It continues with the assurance of redemption (‘I Know That My Redeemer Lives’), which then extends to friendship with God and with one another (‘Rice & Beans,’ ‘High’).” 

About those last two titles . . . “Rice & Beans (But No Beans)” is a whimsical ditty about how community helps us thrive in difficult circumstances: “Phone cut off, worn through shoes / Check may bounce, rent come due / At the end of the day I’m glad to have a friend like you.” And then there’s “High,” a 1992 classic from The Cure. Vito sings it mostly as a love song to Monique – “When I see you take the same sweet steps you used to take / I know I’ll keep on holding you” – but says “it could be any kind of love or friendship. It’s a key part of who we are and what we do in our church service. After the confession of sin, we say the assurance of pardon: ‘Because we’ve been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, we can also be reconciled to one another. The peace of the Lord be with you. Greet those around you with the sign of Christ’s peace.’ I think of this part of the record as an affirmation of the ability to love – your husband or your wife or your friend or whatever, because you’ve been reconciled to God in Christ.” 

Still, we need a “Remedy” – here, a cover of a 2007 David Crowder song of the same name (“The broken and used / Mistreated, abused . . . / He is the remedy.”) And “Would You Come & See Me in New York?” is a tribute to Vito’s late father – and to “any people you wish could be with you, even people you might never see again in this life. There’s a certain sadness to it.” Ditto “My Best Days, Parts 1 & 2,” which acknowledges life’s struggles, culling its lyrics from John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 19” (“Those are my best days / When I shake with fear”). 

Ah, but then an explosion of celebration, as the album rolls into a string of tracks bursting with hope, joy, and resurrection: “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” (adapted from several 18th century writers, including Charles Wesley), “Draw Nigh & Take the Body of the Lord” (from a late 7th century manuscript by Irish monks), and “The Strife Is O’er” (from a 17th century German Jesuit collection). And then, as any proper church service does, it ends with a benediction and a postlude, respectively: “God Be with You Until We Meet Again” and “Nature’s Goodnight,” the latter which Vito calls “a quiet snapshot of what this music sounds like when it is being born in the Aiutos’ home.” 

Vito says his songwriting is informed by his work as senior pastor at Resurrection Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. “A pastor is supposed to care for people, to help them to love God, to engage with their lives and their joys and their sorrows,” he says. “I’m only interested in writing music that will speak to that. I’m writing as a pastor, wanting these songs to speak God’s truth into those situations.” 

Those who enjoyed the Welcome Wagon’s debut album will notice their distinct sound again here – loose, jangly, comfortable, a gathering of friends making music together. It’s at times jaunty and toe-tapping, at others quietly contemplative, an alt-folk gem that sounds very much like it comes out of the Asthmatic Kitty camp. But while the first album was recorded over the course of eight years in various venues, this one was done in five days at the library of an old rectory in Brooklyn. And while recording artist and AK co-owner Sufjan Stevens produced WW’s first album, he’s less noticeable on this collection, produced by Alexander Foote, who also plays guitars, organ, autoharp, percussion, and some piano. (Stevens does play banjo and piano and sings in the choir on several songs here.) 

The rectory library at St. Andrew’s House – where Stevens has also recorded some of his own music – was a striking and acoustically apt place to make an album. “It’s a place we love,” says Vito, “and it’s also really gorgeous.” But they recorded it in mid-August, when the cicadas were having a raucous field day throughout New York, perched on the trees right outside the windows – and screaming their 120-decibel songs all day long. “It actually became a serious problem,” says Vito. “They’re almost distractingly loud, even on the finished project; you can especially hear them in the first 30 seconds of ‘High.’ But we just thought, Well, we’re here. We have a week to do this. We don’t have everything we want, but let’s just embrace the limitations. Besides, these songs have been banging around in my head for years, and I just wanted them out.” 

You’ll be glad he did. Precious Remedies for everyone.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012


This one has been around for years, in different versions. I have gotten a lot of mileage reading some of these when I speak at events.

Note: some newer ones  ("To Do" list) at bottom

1) At lunch time, sit in your parked car and point a hair dryer at passing cars to see if they slow down.

2) Page yourself over the intercom.  (Don't disguise your voice)

3) Insist that your e mail address is or

4) Every time someone asks you to do something, ask if they want fries with that.

5) Encourage your colleagues to join you in a little synchronized chair dancing.

6) Put your garbage can on your desk and label it "IN."

7) Develop an unnatural fear of staplers.

8) Put decaf in the coffee maker for 3 weeks.  Once everyone has gotten over their caffeine addictions, switch to espresso.

9) In the memo field of all your checks, write 'for sexual favors.'

10) Reply to everything someone says with, "That's what you think."

11) Finish all your sentences with "In accordance with the prophecy."

12) Adjust the tint on your monitor so that the brightness level lights up the entire work area.  Insist to others that you like it that way.

13) Don t use any punctuation

14) As often as possible, skip rather than walk.

15) Ask people what sex they are.

16) Specify that your drive-through order is "to go."

17) Sing along at the opera.

18) Go to a poetry recital and ask why the poems don't rhyme.

19) Find out where your boss shops and buy exactly the same outfits. Wear them one day after your boss does. (This is especially effective if your boss is the opposite gender.)

20) Send e-mail to the rest of the company to tell them what you're doing. For example: If anyone needs me, I'll be in the bathroom.

21) Put mosquito netting around your cubicle.

22) Five days in advance, tell your friends you can't attend their party because you're not in the mood.

23) Call 911 and ask if 911 is for emergencies.

24) Call the psychic hotline and just say, "Guess"

25) Have your coworkers address you by your wrestling name, Keltic Kenzilla

26) When the money comes out of the ATM, scream "I Won!", "I Won!"  "3rd time this week!!!"

27) When leaving the Zoo, start running towards the parking lot, yelling "Run for your lives, they're loose!"

28) Tell your boss, "It's not the voices in my head that bother me, its the voices in your head that do."

29) Tell your children over dinner. "Due to the economy, we are going  to have to let one of you go."

30) Every time you see a broom, yell "Honey, your mother is here."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Zombie Ballerina/Goth Prom: "A Letter to Outsiders of All Ages"

Great blog post from The Violet Burning's Michael Pritzl..

Google Gravity, Google Terminal ,Google Underwater

Search Google one of these ways. Dare you:

See also:

Google hacks, tricks, and Easter Eggs

culture:Orwellian prison or Huxleyan burlesque?

 Introduction and Chapter 11 of Neil Postman's prescient 1985 book, "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Disclosure in an Age of Show Business:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn't, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

 But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell's dark vision, there was another - slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions". In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right....

...There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shrivelled. In the first – the Orwellian – culture becomes a prison. In the second – the Huxleyan – culture becomes a burlesque.

No one needs to be reminded that our world is now marred by many prison-cultures whose structure Orwell described accurately in his parables. If one were to read both 1984 and Animal Farm, and then for good measure, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, one would have a fairly precise blueprint of the machinery of thought-control aas it currently operates in scores of countries and on millions of people. Of course, Orwell was not the first to teach us about the spiritual devastations of tyranny. What is irreplaceable about his work is his insistence that it makes little difference if our wardens are inspired by right-wing or left-wing ideologies. The gates of the prison are equally impenetrable, surveillance equally rigorous, icon-worship equally pervasive.

What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversatioin becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

In America, Orwell’s prophecies are of small relevance, but Huxley’s are well under way toward being realized. For America is engaged in the world’s most ambitious experiment to accommodate itself to the technological distractions made possible by the electric plug. This is an experiment that began slowly and modestly in the mid-nineteenth century and has now, in the latter half of the twentieth, reached a perverse maturity in America’s consuming love-affair with television. As nowhere else in the world, Americans have moved far and fast in bringing to a close the age of the slow-moving printed word, and have granted to television sovereignty over all of their institutions. By ushering in the Age of Television, America has given the world the clearest available glimpse of the Huxleyan future.

Those who speak about this matter musf often raise their voices to a near-hysterical pitch, inviting the charge that they are everything from wimps fo public nuisances to Jeremiahs. But they do so because what they want others to see appears benign, when it is not invisible altogether. An Orwellian world is much easier to recognize, and to oppose, than a Huxleyan. Everything in our background has prepared us to know and resist a prison when the gates begin to close around us. We are not likely, for example, to be indifferent to the voices of the Sakharovs and the Timmermans and the Walesas. We take arms against such a sea of troubles, buttressed by the spirit of Milton, Bacon, Voltaire, Goethe and Jefferson. But what if there are no cries of anguish to be heard? Who is prepared to take arms against a sea of amusements? To whom do we complain, and when, and in what tone of voice, when serious discourse dissolves into giggles? What is the antidote to a culture’s being drained by laughter?

I fear that our philosophers have given us no guidance in this matter. Their warnings have customarily been directed against those consciously formulated ideologies that appeal to the worst tendencies in human nature. But what is happening in America is not the design of an articulated ideology. No Mein Kampf or Communist Manifesto announced its coming. It comes as the unintended consequence of a dramatic change in our modes of public conversation. But it is an ideology nonetheless, for it imposes a way of life, a set of relations among people and ideas, about which there has been no consensus, no discussion and no opposition. Only compliance. Public consciousness has not yet assimilated the point that technology is ideology. This, in spite of the fact that before our very eyes technology has altered every aspect of life in America during the past eighty years. For example, it would have been excusable in 1905 for us to be unprepared for the cultural changes the automobile would bring. Who could have suspected then that the automobile would tell us how we were to conduct our social and sexual lives? Would reorient our ideas about what to do with our forests and cities? Would create new ways of expressing our personal identity and social standing?

But it is much later in the game now, and ignorance of the score is inexcusable. To be unaware that a technology comes equipped with a program for social change, to maintain that technology is neutral, to make the assumption that technology is always a friend to culture is, at this late hour, stupidity plain and simple. Moreover, we have seen enough by now to know that technological changes in our modes of communication are even more ideology-laden than changes in our modes of transportation. Introduce the alphabet to a culture and you change its cognitive habits, its social relations, its notions of community, history, and religion. Introduce the printing press with movable type, and you do the same. Introduce speed-of-light transmission of images and you make a cultural revolution. Without a vote. Without polemics. Without guerrilla resistance. Here is ideology, pure if not serene. Here is ideology without words, and all the more powerful for their absence. All that is required to make it stick is a population that devoutly believes in the inevitability of progress. And in this sense, all Americans are Marxists, for we believe nothing if not that history is moving us toward some preordained paradise and that technology is the force behind that movement.

Thus, there are near insurmountable difficulties for anyone who has written such a book as this, and who wishes to end it withy some remedies for the affliction. In the first place, not everyone believes a cure is needed, and in the second, there probably isn’t any. But as a true-blue American who has imbibed the unshakable belief that where there is a problem, there must be a solution, I shall conclude with the following suggestions.

We must, as a start, not delude ourselves with preposterous notions such as the straight Luddite position as outlined, for example, in Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. Americans will not shut down any part of their technological apparatus, and to suggest that they do so is to make no suggestion at all. It is almost equally unrealistic to expect that nontrivial modifications in the availability of media will ever be made. Many civilized nations limit by law the amount of hours television may operate and thereby mitigate the role television plays in public life. But I believe that this is not a possibility in America. Once having opened the Happy Medium to full public view, we are not likely to countenance even its partial closing. Still, some Americans have been thinking along these lines. As I write, a story appears in The New York Times (September 27, 1984) about the plans of the Farmington, Connecticut, Library Council to sponsor a “TV Turnoff.” It appears that such an effort was made the previous year, the idea being to get people to stop television for one month. The Times reports that the turnoff the previous January was widely noted by the media. Ms. Ellen Babcock, whose family participated, is quoted as saying, “It will be interesting to see if the impact is the same this year as last year, when we had terrific media coverage.” In other words, Ms. Babcock hopes that by watching television, people will learn that they ought to stop watching television. It is hard to imagine that Ms. Babcock does not see the irony in this position. It is an irony that I have confronted many times in being told that I must appear on television to promote a book that warns people against television. Such are the contradictions of a television-based culture.

In any case, of how much help is a one-month turnoff? It is a mere pittance; that is to say, a penance. How comforting is must be when folks in Farmington are done with their punishment and can return to their true occupation. Nonetheless, one applauds their effort, as one must applaud the efforts of those who see some relief in limiting certain kinds of content on television – for example, excessive violence, commercials on children’s shows, etc. I am particularly fond of John Lindsay’s suggestion that political commercials be banned from television as we now ban cigarette and liquor commercials. I would gladly testify before the Federal Communications Commission as to the manifold merits of this excellent idea. To those who would oppose my testimony by claiming that such a ban is a clear violation of the First Amendment, I would offer a compromise: Require all political commercials to be preceded by a short statement to the effect that common sense has determined that watching political commercials is hazardous to the intellectual health of the community.

I am not very optimistic about anyone’s taking this suggestion seriously. Neither do I put much stock in proposals to improve the quality of television programs. Television, as I have implied earlier, serves us most usefully when presenting junk-entertainment; it serves us most ill when it co-opts serious modes of discourse – news, politics, science, education, commerce, religion – and turns them into entertainment packages. We would all be better off if television got worse, not better. “The A-Team” and “Cheeers” are no threat to our public health. “60 Minutes,”, “Eyewitness News” and “Sesame Street” are.

The problem, in any case, does not reside in what people watch. The problem is that we watch. The solution must be in how we watch. For I believe it may fairly be said that we have yet to learn what television is. And the reason is that there has been no worthwhile discussion, let alone widespread public understanding, of what information is and how it gives direction to a culture. There is certain poignancy in this, since there are no people who more frequently and enthusiastically use such phrases as “ the information age”, “the information explosion”, and “the information society.” We have apparently advanced to the point where we have grasped the idea that a change in the forms, volume, speed and context of information means something, but we have not got any further.

What is information? Or more precisely, what are information? What are its various forms? What conceptions of intellgence, wisdom and learning does each form insist upon? What conceptions does each form neglect or mock? What are the main psychic effects of each form? What is the relation between information and reason? What is the kind of information that best facilitates thinking? Is there a moral bias to each information form? What does it mean to say that there is too much information? How would one know? What redefinitions of important cultural meanings do new sources, speeds, contexts, and forms of information require? Does television, for example, give a new meaning to “piety”, to “patriotism”, to “privacy”? Does television give a new meaning to “judgment” or to “understanding”? How do different forms of information persuade? Is a newspaper’s “public” different from a television’s “public”? How do different information forms dictate the type of content that is expressed?

These questions, and dozens more like them, are the means through which it might be possible for Americans to begin talking back to their television sets, to use Nicholas Johnson’s phrase. For no medium is excessively dangerous if its users understand what its dangers are. It is not important that those who ask the questions arrive at my answers or Marshll McLuhan’s (quite different answers, by the way). This is an instance in which the asking of the questions is sufficient. To ask is to break the spell. To which I might add that questions about the psychic, political and social effects of information are as applicable to the computer as to television. Although I believe the computer to be a vastly over-rated technology – that the principal difficulty we have in solving problems stems from insufficient data – will go unexamined. Until, years from now, when it will be noticed that the massive collection and speed-of-light retrieval of data have been of great value to large-scale organizations but have solved very little of importance to most people and have created at least as many problems for them as they may have solved.

In any case, the point I am trying to make is that only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium. How is such media consciousness to be achieved? There are only two answers that come to mind, one of which is nonsense and can be dismissed at once; the other is desperate but it is all we have.

The nonsensical answer is to create television programs those intent it would be, not to get people to stop watching television but to demonstrate how television ought to be viewed, to show how television recreates and degrades our conception of news, political debate, religious thought, etc. I imagine such demonstrations would of necessity take the forms of parodies, along the lines of “Saturday Night Live” and “Monty Python,” the idea being to introduce a nationwide horse laugh over television’s control of public discourse. But, naturally, television would have the last laugh. In order to command an audience large enough to make a difference, one would have to make the programs vastly amusing, in the television style. Thus, the act of criticism itself would, in the end, be co-opted by television. The parodists would become celebrities, would star in movies, and would end up making television commercials.

The desperate answer is to rely on the only mass medium of communication that, in theory, is capable of addressing the problem: our schools. This is the conventional American solution to all dangerous social problems, and is, of course, based on a naïve and mystical faith in the efficacy of education. The process rarely works. In the matter at hand, there is even less reason than usual to expect it to. Our schools have not yet even got around to examining the role of the printed word in shaping our culture. Indeed, you will not find two high school seniors in a hundred who could tell you – within a five-hundred year margin of error – when the alphabet was invented. I suspect most do not even know that the alphabet was invented. I have found that when the question is put to them, they appear puzzled, as if one had asked, When were trees invented, or clouds? It is the very principle of myth, as Roland Barthes pointed out, that it transforms history into nature, and to ask of our schools that they engage in the task of de-mythologizing media is to ask something the schools have never done.

And yet there is reason to suppose that the situation is not hopeless. Educators are not unaware of the effects of television on their students. Stimulated by the arrival of the computer, they discuss it a great deal – which is to say, they have become somewhat “media conscious.” It is true enough that much of their consciousness centers on the question, How can we use television (or the computer, or word processor) to control education? They have not yet got to the question, How can we use education to control television (or the computer, or word processor)? But our reach for solutions ought to exceed our present grasp, or what’s our dreaming for? Besides, it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. That this task should now require that they learn how to distance themselves from their forms of information is not so bizarre an enterprise that we cannot hope for its inclusion in the curriculum; even hope that it will be placed at the center of education.

What I suggest here as a solution is what Aldous Huxley suggested, as well. And I can do no better than he. He believed with H. G. Wells that we are in a race between education and disaster, and he wrote continuously about the necessity of our understanding the politics and epistemology of media. For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World waAs not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.
-Neil Postman 
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