Tuesday Miscellany (A Whisper and a Scream)
It’s Tuesday morning and I’ve, um, been thinking some thoughts. Nothing well-formed enough for a substantive post on its own, but a few loosely connected fragments that need to be expelled from my brain so I can move on to other things…
I have just clicked away from a lime-green window on my screen. In the center of the screen was the logo of a butterfly. Underneath were the words, “You are free from sportsnet.ca.” A few years ago, I voluntarily subscribed to a service that deliberately and specifically restricts my freedom. I had noticed that in moments of boredom or frustration or lack of inspiration, I was finding it too easy to drift off into the world of social media or news or sports websites. Some people have the self-discipline to just correct these kinds of tendencies on their own. Others download programs like Freedom.
And so now, I have a whole list of news and sports websites that I am periodically free not to consult for anywhere from 2-6 hours, depending on how I set the parameters. And—shocker!—I am invariably more productive and focused during these time periods.
We hear a lot about “freedom” these days. While I have sympathies with some of the concerns being voiced by the convoys and the protests, it seems to me that it’s a truncated form of freedom being advocated for (note well: “truncated” does not mean “unimportant”). It is largely freedom from, not freedom for.
Freedom from matters. We absolutely need the freedom to make our own choices and to not have crippling and incoherent restrictions upon our lives. But we must also remember that our freedoms do not begin and end with personal liberty and the absence of any and all constraints. Sometimes constraints can serve a higher purpose (like the program on my computer). Sometimes our liberties can lead us down destructive and self-serving paths. True freedom is always for something higher.
There’s a lot of sneering in our public discourse these days. There are just so many idiots out there who don’t, can’t, won’t think properly about all the issues that matter most (i.e., the ones I think are most important!). Richard Beck’s piece today should be required reading for all of us who are inclined to sneer.
Beck is pondering the immense popularity of reviled figures and trends as disparate as the psychologist Jordan Peterson, mega-church pastor Joel Osteen, and Hillsong worship music. Each attracts a great deal of sneering from the smart set. Jordan Peterson is alt-right puppet, Joel Osteen is a snake oil salesman peddling your “best life now,” and Hillsong music is bubble-gum worship pop lite. These kinds of critiques are a dime a dozen. I’ve even (cringe) contributed to the noise myself.
Beck’s point is a rather stark and simple. We need to do less sneering and more striving to actually understand the cultural moment and the ways in which real human beings are striving after meaning and hope. He uses the example of a bunch of liberal seminarians going to Home Boy Ministries in Los Angeles (a gang outreach organization started by Fr. Greg Boyle). The gang member who gave them the tour said that the person who had the most impact on his life was (you guessed it) Joel Osteen. Not exactly what the seminarians wanted to hear. Joel Osteen was the very opposite of what they aspired to be.
And yet, as Beck says, we need to understand our context:
Many people have never experienced a stable family where they heard constant and unconditional messages of positivity, praise, and encouragement. Most people never grew up hearing “You can do this! You got this! I believe in you!” But you know who says that, over and over? Do you know who believes in you? Joel Osteen.
Beck concludes his piece thus:
What I’m saying is WIPE THE DAMNED SNEER OFF YOUR FACE AND LOOK AT THE CULTURE! If we took a moment to think like a missionary there are some things about Hillsong, Osteen and Peterson staring us in the face. Things we need to address, like any good missionary would, if we want to get a hearing for the gospel in this culture. But we can’t see any of this because our seminary degrees have turned us all into elitist snobs.
The modern world is suffering, staring into a void of meaninglessness where something true, beautiful and good once existed. Families are broken. Depression, anxiety, suicide, loneliness and addiction at high tide. And if you look out upon all that pain, with a compassionate heart and the mind of a missionary, there really is no mystery as to why Jordan Peterson, Joel Osteen or Hillsong are so popular. This, dear pastors, seminary professors, and church leaders, is our mission field. Let’s stop sneering and get to work.
What is true of Peterson, Osteen, and Hillsong could obviously be applied to other popular figures and movements drawing critiques from other perspectives and positions. Basically, it can apply anywhere we are tempted to sneer instead of understand.
Read the whole post. Seriously. And stop sneering.
(I needed to hear this post as much as anyone, in case you’re wondering.)
Pearl Jam was one of my favourite bands as a young adult. Their sound was new and electric, full of rage and angst and passion—everything that so many young men are drawn to. I’ve followed their career and listened to their music for most of my life, although they’ve never improved upon their first 2-3 albums in my view.
Last week, Pearl Jam’s lead singer Eddie Vedder released a solo album called Earthling. It’s pretty good, in my not-so-humble opinion. Vedder is (incredibly) in his 50’s now. Like most of us, his music and his message have changed a bit over the last few decades. He seems less angry, although no less passionate. Maybe he’s made peace with a few things that kept him up at night as a young man. I don’t know all the specifics and I probably shouldn’t presume to speak for him, but it seems to me that this trajectory is as it should be. It would kind of a shame if we were all singing precisely the same tune in the same way at 55 as we were at 20.
At any rate, I have particularly been drawn to the first song, “Invincible.” There are a few lines in it that I love:
At the core of the cosmos
We are so much more than particles
Sonic to the subatomic
You are a whisper and a scream…
You are light, you are principle
When you love: invincible
Our shared light indivisible
When we love, we’re invincible
We live in a moment when we could probably all do with more whispering when we’re tempted to scream (and occasionally screaming when it would be easier to whisper). We also live in a moment where we all have a deep longing to know that we are more than mindless particles, that we we are somehow deeply, intimately, and inextricably connected to a story of Light and Love. Who knows what might be possible if we we actually believed this and lived in response to it? It might not make us invincible, but I daresay we’d be in better shape than we are now.