Sunday, June 18, 2017

Chapter 10: Man and the Machine

Dreher begins this chapter by recounting an anecdote in which our author--and intrepid blogger--was required to be offline while visiting a monastery.  He observes: "the smartphone and the computer dominate my life".  Such dominance provides a considerable challenge to authentic Christian living. 

For not only does technology control us to some extent--even while promising us that we will be able to control it.  It morphs into an ideology "that conditions how we humans understand reality."  It "trains us to accept that the only meaning there is in the world is what we choose to assign in our endless quest to master nature."

We are cautioned against seeing technology as morally neutral.  He quotes Michael Hanby: "before technology becomes an instrument, it is fundamentally a way of regarding the world that contains within itself an understanding of being, nature and truth."

The previous chapter dealt with the ramifications of a technology called the birth control pill--what Pat Buchanan claims will one day be termed the suicide tablet of the West.  The pill was only intended to allow married men and women to take control of their own reproduction.  But the technology contains within itself an implicit understanding of human sexuality.  The logic of the pill dictates that it be used to free all men and women, married and unmarried, from the natural consequences of sex.

The ramifications of the Internet are at least as significant as those of the pill.  Dreher is to be commended for recognizing this.  The Internet pushes novelty.  It's absurd to think of someone compiling a collection of old tweets for distribution.  The point of Twitter is to offer an up to the second take, after which the sentiment vanishes into the ether, to be replaced by one just as fleeting and ephemeral.

We're not going to do away with the Internet, which is probably good for this software developer, but we can monitor our usage.  We should undertake periods of digital fasting.  I could have used more examples here.  I offer these suggestions from a talk by John Cuddeback: we could have a place in our homes where phones should be placed, away from the business of living.  We could also have times when no one is to be utilizing technology.  The point here is not to define a hard and fast rule, but to live intentionality guided by prudence.  To use the Internet cavalierly is to be used by it.

Dreher also recommends taking smart phones away from kids.  Adult brains are barely able to cope with such technology; giving such devices to kids is little short of insanity.  Smart phones are also a gateway to the evils of pornography.  

This seems obvious to me, but based on the proliferation of the technology, it's not treated that way by the culture.  What seems to happen is that some idiot parents give in to the whining of their kid, after which that kid's classmates complain to their parents, whereupon the parents give in.  Homeschooling will be helpful here.  I envision telling people that, yes, our kids are weird: they're the ones who know how to have conversations.

Dreher should have mentioned that it's also important for parents to model moderation for their kids. If mom and dad are constantly on their smart phones, they can't expect their kids to behave differently.  If we're living for the good, the true, and the beautiful, we can hope to pass on these habits to our children.  But we can't give what we don't have.

He cautions pastors against including social media in worship.  Again, obvious stuff.  As Anthony Esolen has pointed out, the silence of our churches should cry out to the denizens of an age of noise and cacophony.  Imitating the distractions of the modern world is a terrible strategy.  Dreher didn't recommend smashing the guitars of our worship leaders and bringing back Gregorian chant--but I will.

As an antidote to technology, we should work with our hands.  We are not disembodied spirits trapped in meat skeletons.  We are body and soul.  As St. Benedict knew, working with our bodies is an excellent way to remember this.  "Getting our hands dirty, so to speak, with gardening, cooking, sewing, exercise and the like, is a crucial way of restoring our sense of connection with the real world."  I would add home brewing to the list.

He ends this chapter with a magnificent quote from the great Wendell Berry: "It is easy for me to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines."

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Chapter 9: Eros and the New Christian Culture

This isn’t news to any practicing orthodox Christians, but the premise of chapter 9 is that “There is no other area in which orthodox Christians will have to be as countercultural as in our sexual lives.” Dreher points out that the concept of sex being limited to within a marriage between one man and one woman is heresy to the modern world. He also points out that this all matters so much because our Faith is an incarnational one – it is not disembodied.

In the early years of Christianity the Christian view of sex was the women-centric one. The Greco-Roman culture was pornographic and sexually exploitative, and infusing marriage and marital sexuality with love was particularly liberating for women. Now the culture has moved back in the other direction, and the Christian teachings on the subject are marketed as restrictive.

We don’t need to go into the factors that are leading this regression. Easy divorce, gay rights, and transgenderism are all topics that we are all very familiar with. They have led the advance of the sexual revolution and the retreat of Christianity.

Dreher essentially walks a circle around the problem of the advancing sexual revolution ethic and the retreat of Christianity, and he explains the various views of congregations and how their participants react to them.

First is that of progressives who do not agree with orthodox Christian sexual teaching. He says that “when people decide that historically normative Christianity is wrong about sex they typically don’t find a church that endorses their liberal views. They quit going to church altogether.”

Along the same lines, he also demonstrates that watering down the message to appeal to Millennials and others with progressive sexual views doesn’t work. Mainline Protestant sects have already tried this and they are still in collapse. Even if it did work, watering down the truth to grow a congregation is to make an idol of community, which doesn’t get us anywhere.

On another hand, there are churches that downplay orthodox Christian sexual teachings and focus heavily on social justice issues instead. I like what Dreher says to this: “Social justice activism is laudable, but it does not earn you indulgences for sexual sin.” Bingo.

The other angle is the problem of boiling down life in Christ to following a moral and ethical code, or “thou-shalt-not” moralism. This isn’t Christianity, this isn’t a relationship with Jesus. While it is important to know these boundaries, Christianity goes much deeper than this and it is a lack of imagination and effort if this is all that is presented to people. In regard to this, we should probably go into the distinction between preaching abstinence and preaching chastity, as well as the great benefit and grace that a life of chastity brings, but I will have to leave that to somebody more qualified.

While Dreher does offer a couple of concrete solutions that can help with (though not even begin to solve) this problem, there is one particular sentence that stood out to me as the crux of the issue. He says that it is “ludicrous, even cruel” to withhold the church’s message on sexuality out of fear of bringing it up. Easier said than done. One has to be in pretty deep friendship with another to be able to discuss these topics, and (at least in perception) to bring up the topic of sexual sin is to introduce some risk that the friendship may become strained or fall apart.

Still, something that I recently heard somebody say sticks with me. He noted that “if we get to the ends of our lives and my family and friends realize that I had this gift of the Faith and Truth and I refused to share it with them, how ANGRY are they going to be with me? How much will I have let them down, on an eternal scale?”

Again, easy to say from behind a computer screen. There is a reason that I sit in an office and do the administrative work that supports the evangelistic work at a parish, as opposed to being out on the front lines. Evangelization is difficult work.

A final thought from the book before we move on to some of the solutions that Dreher offers: “If Christianity is a true story, then the story the world tells about sexual freedom is a grand deception. It is fake…we have to attack the fake in the name of the real.”

Moving on, I’m not sure that “solutions” is really the best word to describe what Dreher offers with the rest of this chapter, but these are at least some principles to keep us moving in the right direction in the fight.

First, parents must be the primary sex educator for their children. If we don’t do it the culture will, and it will happen earlier than we think. Some places are teaching gender ideology in kindergarten now. The accessibility and increasingly uncensored state of media now is also a force working against us in this battle. We now have to talk about these topics with our children early and often.

Secondly, the Church has to support unmarried people. It is easy to lose focus on the single people in the midst of a parish, but they are in a place that is especially vulnerable to sexual sin, and providing regular groups or even single-sex group homes to live in as a community can be a great help.

Though the situation is a little different, we have seen great fruit come from encouraging men’s and women’s intentional liing houses that are tied to the parish at the campus ministry where I work. Having the group of committed Christians around the house all the time, and committing to regular prayer together, has been a great success. In a university setting this is obviously a little easier to set up since every person’s housing situation changes yearly, but it can be done just about anywhere with some planning.

Finally, Dreher suggests keeping smart phones and unmonitored internet access away from kids. You wouldn’t leave your kid in a room filled with pornography dvd’s, so why give them a device with easy, immediate access to all kids of porn and other problematic material?

The peer pressure on this is going to be brutal. Many kids have smart phones at a young age now, and withholding them from our kids is going to cause them some problems at school, at the very least with teasing or something similar, and may make it difficult for them to fit in or find things in common with other children. I couldn’t agree with this suggestion more, though. On many levels, I think it is an issue for children to have smart phones at a young age.

Even if we withhold the phones from our kids, however, the problem is not eradicated. We have to monitor our children's’ peer groups. As Malcolm Gladwell once explained, in the battle between nature and nurture our personalities are more the result of nurture, and the nurturing is not as much that of our family but that of our friends. If we don’t keep an eye on the kids that our children are hanging around, we leave the door open for those children to influence ours in a negative way.

In the end, these steps can only take us so far. We have to teach our children the connection between love and sex, and we need to provide them with communities of healthy chastity and purity so that the Christian sexual ethic can be passed on.