Wednesday, April 12, 2006

"Back for the Attack" or "How Apocalypse Happens Without Rapture"

I worked on that title for a good hour. Or ten seconds. Which do you prefer to believe?

We had a great vacation. It will be much easier to recap the details with pictures, so I'll let you know all about that a bit later. For now, I'll reflect on the reading I did throughout the trip.

As we vacationed, I relaxed a lot, yet I mulled over many thoughts through my mind. I read Everyday Apocalypse by David Dark. I don't buy everything, because I think he sometimes overstimates the profundity of some things to the neglect of some others that might bear just as much apocalypse, but I take into consideration that he is by no means trying to be exhaustive.

The significance of the word apocalypse in his book is great; he notes that our culture treats the word as some sort of hocus pocus magic eight ball disembodied thing, when apocalyptic is truly an incarnational revelation. It embodies and reveals truth in our culture, for better or worse. It refuses sentimentalizing and forces us to deal with reality, no matter how difficult that may be.

The conversation in the book is good. Many Christians only write about media and pop culture in order to expose its corruptedness, but this book seeks to see how good media exposes our own corruptedness. Our main responsibility is to identify with the plight of the characters. As I read, I became motivated to read more Flannery O'Connor, listen to more Radiohead and Beck, and watch the rest of the Coen brothers movies and more episodes of The Simpsons. He convinces me to see how these challenge me. I question how Flannery O'Connor fits under the banner of "pop culture" like the subtitle of the book would suggest, but that's the problem of labeling, I guess.

But my interaction with this book did not end with only the media which Dark suggests as apocalyptic. I recall my first apocalyptic encounters with literature in my senior year of high school, reading Lord of the Flies, A Brave New World, and 1984. I remember that there were some people in my youth group that wanted to refuse to read 1984 because it was anti-Christian or something. I'm glad I didn't follow in their footsteps, because the book truly challenged me and helped me look at the world in a whole new light. Big Brother is watching you. 2 + 2 = 5. It's bleak, but it's warning. It's what art should do.

Another literary apocalypse came in reading The Catcher in the Rye my sophomore year of college. I was scared at how much I identified with Holden Caufield. I had prided myself on how far I had come in my Christian life, and how sinless my existence had become, but reading Salinger's brilliant book showed me that I am as depraved as ever. Does this suggestion of my depravity minimize the work of Christ in my life over the years? Far from it! It just reminded me of how much I need Christ. Those tendencies are still there, and only Christ can bring me out of it, just how Christ is the only one who can preserve truth and be truth amidst the cultures depicted in 1984 and A Brave New World. I remember that after reading Rye, I felt like I had to do something drastic. I had faced a crisis, and I needed to express how I felt. What did I do? I shaved my beard. When people asked why I shaved it, I told them "I just got done reading The Catcher in the Rye, and needed to do something drastic." Most sane people thought I was crazy, but those who are crazy like me understood perfectly.

I guess one other thing I glean from Dark's work is that apocalyptic does not equal negativity. Many of these works and artists have been accused of being negative, especially by Christians, but he points out that their outlook is far from it. I remember reading a Flannery O'Connor quote that said something along the lines that the biggest favor we can do to evil is to do it the service of ignoring it because we are afraid of it. Us ignoring it will do nothing towards making it go away.

So does that mean that if we only read 'Christian' books, listen to 'Christian' music and watch G and PG rated movies, we're bad Christians because we're ignoring evil? I would say not inherently so, but it will probably happen eventually. When we live in a sort of label imposed 'safety zone' of 'Christian' media, we are isolating ourselves from a 'world' which we are no longer part of, and our attitude goes from "I am a sinner like them," to "thank God I'm not like them." It's a slippery slope towards turning more Pharisaical than we already are, as illustrated in Luke 18:

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'

13 "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'

14 "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

Many of us live by the principle "garbage in, garbage out." Yet we must be careful about what we label garbage. If we equate 'secular' with garbage, then we're missing out on some great art, some great revelations of insight, and a solidarity with much of humanity. If we equate all media which bears the title 'Christian' with good, then we'll end up taking in a lot of garbage. There is great Christian art out there, and the labeling system provided for us does more to hinder our discernment than to help it. The label 'secular' tries to make me feel dirty for listening to, watching or reading something (sometimes rightly so, sometimes wrongly so).

I am not saying "go out and violate your conscience by taking in sinful media." I'm challenging us to ask ourselves exactly what it is that offends us and why. I'm challenging us to ask ourselves what we are doing with that feeling of offendedness. Are we dismissing them and thanking God that we're not 'like them'? Are we not able to enter a story because we're 'better than them'? In other words, are our efforts to 'remain pure' just thinly disguised attempts to exalt ourselves?

Lord, have mercy.

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