technology

The Mass Cult of Big

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The Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, California

The following is essentially a piecing together of selections from a Facebook thread in which I participated today. The following quotation led off the discussion:

We have become fascinated by the idea of bigness, and we are quite convinced that if we can only ‘stage’ something really big before the world, we will shake it, and produce a mighty religious awakening. – D. Martin Lloyd-Jones, 1958

This response was given by a poster:

“Doing something big, for bigness sake is silly and egocentric… however we shouldn’t fear something becoming something big…”

This was followed by a back-and-forth discussion. Here are my responses, more or less, stitched together and revised a bit:

I don’t fear big. But I am deeply suspicious of it.

Why? “Big” almost always means systems and ideology, but rarely attention to persons. It is typically about marketing, not about communion. It almost always means vanity (though usually is not advanced enough for real pride), but almost never any humility. It is usually about control and not about freedom. That’s why.

I am not talking only about church size, but about more than that, i.e., philosophy, politics, economy, architecture, education, etc. But even if we were talking solely about church size, a church designed to be big is automatically subject to all those problems. It is so prevalent one could almost assume that it’s written down in some sort of mega-church mega-manual. But such things are by no means prevalent on the much smaller scale. Why? Because human beings can only truly know so many people. After one’s communal capabilities are saturated, the only way to maintain things is through ideological and technocratic systems. Even the mega-churches at least sense this, which is why they do “small groups” to try to offset their technocratic leviathan.

Yes, some little church communities do indeed exert a kind of control over members, but that is rather the sectarian/cultic impulse, which is not really about the question of big/small or systematic/local, but rather of fierce personal loyalties. The fact that a mega-church cannot command such loyalties is precisely because of its inherent weakness—it is not about incarnational communion, but about marketed, corporatized consumption. Loyalty is created to a product, to programmes (which are a kind of product), not to persons.

If a mega-church is less susceptible to cultic-style control, it is essentially because it is a corporate entity that does not and cannot care. But it exerts a far more subtle and pernicious kind of control over its clients. It is one vast system, and if the mice wandering around in the maze do not realize they are in a maze, so much the better! The control here is essentially the control of the consumerist market, keeping consumers trapped in their own passions and desires. The rules it enforces are the demands of ideology and system—why do you think mega-churches need so many signs, ushers, automated check-ins for kids, etc.?

At least a little cult-like religious community still maintains the clear sense for its members that it is a set-apart elect. Members can more easily leave such a group, because all the control is usually focused into one or two people, and members may more easily have full social networks that are not comprised by the sect. And at least there is the possibility for repentance of the leadership. In a mega-church, if one head of the hydra is cut off, no one particularly questions the whole system. They just find another head to run the monster.

Loyalty should be only to Christ, not to personalities or religious products or programmes.

Yet “big” tends to lead in such directions almost without fail. “Small” actually quite rarely does. Very few small churches are cults of personality. But big ones quite often are, and they are more often (and sometimes simultaneously) cults of religious product.

It is telling that, in the early years of the Church, when congregations started becoming large enough that not everyone in the same city could easily join together for worship, the bishops began delegating their authority to presbyters to lead spin-off congregations.

And then when the faith was finally legalized in the early 4th c., there wasn’t a sudden move to building gigantic church buildings so that the full Christian population of cities could recombine.

The general rule was always small and local, even when necessity did not require it. It was because of a theology of the Incarnation and the communion that it creates, something that simply cannot scale up indefinitely, because of the God-made limitations of human personhood.

A desire to scale up indefinitely is indicative of a defective theology of the Incarnation, usually one that is devoid of any ecclesiology. Church is conceived of not as communion, but as rock concert.

It is true, of course, that some 3,000 people were baptized into Christ on Pentecost. That’s actually a fascinating and telling example, though—the Apostles were clearly perfectly capable of attracting a mass “rally” of sorts, but there’s only one example of such a thing ever happening. This exception proves the rule.

It is one of the great (at least linguistic) ironies of modern American Christianity that it has become a mass religion—a massive religion about masses of people, but without any hint of the mass.

Ite, missa est.

Ecological Vision in James Cameron’s Avatar

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Ecology was never particularly a subject I thought I would find myself thinking too much about, much less writing about, but it seems to keep coming to the fore for me, especially as I’ve begun to apprehend more of its theological, rather than secular/political, significance. Framing this theological vision in terms of “the story of home” (which is one literal rendering of oikologia, from which we get ecology) makes a good deal more sense than putting it in the rarefied categories of “environmentalism.”

As Master Bueller once put it, “A person shouldn’t believe in an ism.” I don’t agree with him, of course, that a person should instead “believe in himself.” Our confidence and spiritual center as Christians is in Christ, not in ourselves. Ferris’s substitution of self-worship for ideology—and boldly explored in what is still one of the most entertaining films to come out in the past 30 years—is not really much better, but at least he got it half right. Ideology is not the answer. As an Orthodox Christian, I assert that communion is the answer. And that brings us to James Cameron’s Avatar.

This past Sunday afternoon, I went with my father-in-law to one of the local big cinemas (alas, not to the Emmaus Theatre, which, not surprisingly, is probably not going to be showing Avatar; Update: Actually, it looks like it is!), and we took in a matinée of Avatar. I’ll be honest: I like big, action-packed sci-fi flicks, and that is precisely what I expected to see in Avatar. I’ve read some reviews from some of my fellow Orthodox which criticize the film’s lack of character development and serious dialogue, as well as its theological unidimensionality, but I wasn’t expecting any of that kind of depth in Avatar and wasn’t disappointed when it wasn’t there. I still judge these kinds of movies like I do Star Wars, which particularly in its 1977 first installment also didn’t have that kind of depth. What it and Avatar do have are archetypal characters dealing with fairly predictable situations in fairly standard ways. All that means is that I still try to watch these movies like I watched Star Wars through the early ’80s—like a kid hoping for a good time. I see nothing wrong with that sort of homely fun. I also admit to some amusement at the film’s humans’ quest for a mineral called unobtainium. Some critics, it seems, took this to be a sign of uninventiveness on the filmmakers’ part rather than the sci-fi in-joke that it is. But no matter.

Anyway, for an intriguing, if brief, comment on the soteriological problems of the film, see these remarks. But perhaps my favorite weblog review is this one from the Front Porch Republic, which takes a localist/conservative look at the film, rather than a neo-conservative/globalist look (the worldview for much of the right-ish punditry on this flick).

That being said, I do think that there are some fascinating questions being explored by Avatar which go a bit beyond the standard cinematic explosions-in-space fare that I was raised on. Given the basic Idyllic-Noble-Savages-in-Tune-with-their-Planet set upon by the Bad-Mean-Military-Industrial-Civilized-Types narrative of the film, there are some writers who have taken Avatar to be “environmentalist” propaganda, and it may well be and may even have been intended that way. But I still think there are some elements of the film worth thinking about and worth comparing with Orthodox ecological and cosmological vision.

One of the basic assumptions of much of modern secular environmentalism seems to be summed up in this question: How do we take mankind out of the picture? Man is typically conceived of as an alien on Earth, and thus the environmental project is to remove man’s presence as much as possible from the planet. The only permissible sentient life is the “noble savage,” who are writ quite large (literally) in Avatar. The Na’vi people are essentially sinless and innocent.

It is a common notion in pagan cosmology and anthropology that there is an identification between mankind, the planet and the creator—in most ancient myths, mankind is birthed from an earth-goddess, and the planet Pandora in Avatar is no exception. The Na’vi’s goddess Eywa is essentially a sort of consciousness for the planet itself, which the scientists there tell us is host to a bioneurological network more complex and conscious than the human brain, via bioelectric connections that run through all the flora of the planet. The fauna, including the Na’vi, are able to interface with other animals and even with plants, thus allowing memories to be stored in the shared network. “Memory eternal” for each person is entirely possible in the mind of their goddess, and there seems to be some kind of communion which can be attained between persons by means of the connection to Eywa.

What I think is worth noting in this pagan/pantheistic view of god, man and nature is its similarity to Orthodox Christianity. With most heterodox, anti-sacramental forms of Christianity, matter and spirit are so disconnected from one another that the environment is looked upon as something wholly “other” from man—thus, one is either an environmentalist seeking to remove man from nature or one is an exploitationist seeking to use nature for all it’s worth. Either way, the human intuition underneath paganism and still present within Orthodoxy is lost—that man is not apart from the rest of creation, but rather is its pinnacle, and also that he is meant to serve as the creation’s priest, making sacred use of materiality as an offering to god/God, to be returned back to him as a means of sanctification. The most bloody pagan knew this as he killed bulls on his altar, and the Christian knew this as he received the Body and Blood in the unbloody sacrifice of the God-man on his own altar.

The Na’vi form a coherent culture, one which is deeply concerned with Place. This goes a bit beyond the devotion to “the forest” or somesuch that we have seen in other kind of environmentalist films (e.g., Fern Gully). The Na’vi not only have their Hometree, but they also have what amount to temples and cemeteries. It is finally the threat to their holiest shrine that is the greatest potential catastrophe in the film. This, too, is an indication of a sense of the holiness of Place, that materiality not only has a functional purpose but a spiritual significance, that any given place is irreplaceable and unrepeatable.

One thing that is a bit different about Eywa, the planet goddess of the Na’vi, is that she apparently hears prayer. This is why I regard the theological vision of this film as more pagan than truly pantheistic. In this, I regard the film as more advanced than most modern environmentalist theologies, which usually want nothing at all to do with a deity with any sort of personal existence. But when we see swarms of native creatures begin a coordinated assault on the mechanistic military of the invading humans, narrated by the deep-chested declaration of Neytiri—”Eywa has heard you!”—then we are clearly being told that this is a deity with self-awareness and with potency. Eywa is concerned only with “maintaining the balance” of life and does not take sides, much like the Holy Trinity Who is not partial and only acts according to the divine plan. But both, nevertheless, in some way interact with the persons in their care in a way that can only be understood as answering prayer.

Another intriguing element in the film is that all energy is “borrowed.” On Pandora, what that seems to mean is that, when anything dies, it returns back to the planet and ceases to exist. Yet its being is somehow remembered by Eywa, such that sentient voices can be heard by those who tap into Eywa’s neural network. Again, this is a more advanced vision than modern secularism, which has no idea whatsoever how to deal with death (other than coming up with new ways to hasten it). That humans (and Na’vi) have always put their dead into the ground is an indication of our understanding of the connection between that ground and the flesh which is made from it. Thus, even in death, the Na’vi’s communion is in and through Eywa. Further, even basic communication seems to carry with it the notion of communion and interpenetration, as with their repeated phrase, “I see you,” meaning “I am looking deeply into you.”

Yet while the Na’vi can only hope for the storage of their memories in Eywa, perhaps in a modified form of the personal oblivion of Hindu and Buddhist Nirvana, the Christian knows that “Memory eternal” in God’s memory means that He continues to give us His energy so that we may live forever, whether we are righteous or wicked. The Fathers teach us that we are not naturally immortal, but God does sustain us forever, such that we are effectively immortal.

This leads me to my final question, one which I have not yet seen any writing on at all: Why is it that the scientist leading the Avatar Project, played by Sigourney Weaver, is named “Dr. Grace Augustine”? It’s possible, to be sure, that the juxtaposition of Grace and Augustine is purely coincidental. But could it perhaps be an anti-Pelagian comment, that salvation for a people (whether the Na’vi or the humans who are exploiting them) can only come through divine intervention?

So, yes, I am looking forward to a sequel.

Update Dec. 26, 2009: One bit that could probably do with some fleshing out in the above is the major difference between pagan and Orthodox Christian theology—the utter dissimilarity between the Creator and Creation. We have no idea whether Eywa is the creator of Pandora (indeed, she seems to function on the purely created level), but the identification of Eywa with the Na’vi and other life puts this theology firmly in the pagan camp. Persons are quite literally children of their deity.

For Orthodox Christianity (and Judaism before it), the Creator is utterly different from the Creation. Creation is not birthed from the Creator, but rather created ex nihilo. This is probably a major reason why the traditional Jewish and Christian image of God is as Father and not as mother, to preserve the critical theological affirmation of the total difference between the created and the uncreated. Indeed, it is this difference which makes the Incarnation of the Son of God such an astounding miracle. It is honestly nothing terribly special if a deity which is already identified with her worshipers chooses to make herself known as one of them. It is something else entirely if the eternal, changeless, infinite, invisible and uncreated God becomes temporal, subject to change, finite and visible, while yet simultaneously retaining all the fullness of His deity.

Pagan philosophy had begun to head in this direction by the time of Christ (that is, to profess a total disjunction between uncreated and created, as the Unmoved Mover and the Moved), which is why the Incarnation took the world by storm. This is also why the big theological problem of the early centuries of Christianity was not how this man could be God, but rather how God could possibly have become man.

“The machine thus spoke for itself”

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Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, November 29, 2009

Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
Emmaus, Pennsylvania

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

On November 29th, 1877, a 30-year-old inventor in New Jersey handed a sketch to Swiss-born machinist John Kruesi and instructed him to build a new machine. Over the course of the next week, Kruesi assembled it according to the instructions, completing it on December 6th. The magazine The Scientific American later printed these words: “In December, 1877, a young man came into the office of the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, and placed before the editors a small, simple machine about which very few preliminary remarks were offered. The visitor without any ceremony whatever turned the crank, and to the astonishment of all present the machine said: ‘Good morning. How do you do? How do you like the phonograph?’ The machine thus spoke for itself, and made known the fact that it was the phonograph.”

Though no one probably realized it at the time, with the phonograph’s introduction by Thomas Edison in 1877, something quite fundamental in the world began to change. Prior to 1877, in order to experience the spoken word, you had to be in the speaker’s presence. Likewise, to hear music, you had to be present with the musician. But as sounds began to be recorded and other methods were developed of transmitting sounds and other information without the necessity of being present, a universal means of connection and community in world culture was permanently weakened and, in many cases, severed entirely.

There are now jobs that can be worked without ever meeting one’s co-workers. People like Kanye West and Taylor Swift have careers precisely because their music can be recorded. We can become acquainted with the style and mannerisms of world politicians whom we will never meet. And we can boast of hundreds of “friends” whose only presence for us is a profile photo on Facebook. It is now possible to “attend church” from the comfort of one’s living room while still wearing pajamas. And yet most of us in our culture do not know the people who live right next to us.

What our astonishing advances in technology have allowed us to do is to objectify other people. In general, we no longer can have a relationship with our favorite musicians. Nor do we have any experiential knowledge of the people at the other end of the wires that connect us via the Internet. All of these people and what they do have been turned into products for us to buy and acquire, or, in the case of cable television and the Internet, to rent. Almost all of us are, to one extent or another, immersed in this disincarnate, disconnected world.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with this technology. They have Internet access even on the Holy Mountain of Athos in Greece. But what this technology does afford us is another means of turning away from what we were created to be: human persons in communion with our God and with our fellow persons. Where this technology becomes diabolical is when we allow it to undermine this communion. The sin is not in the circuit boards and fiber optic cable; it’s in the objectification.

Today’s encounter with Jesus as told by St. Luke in his Gospel describes a man with just such a dedication to objects over communion. This man approaches Jesus and asks Him what it takes to be saved, or, in his words, “to inherit eternal life.” Jesus’ response is a short description of the classic commandments from the Old Testament, and the man responds that he has kept them all even since he was a child. But then the Lord says to him that he still lacks one thing: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” And then Luke tells us that “when the man heard this he became sad, for he was very rich.”

The basic error which is at the root of all sin is a dedication to the creation apart from the Creator. In classic terms, this is idolatry, the worship of anything other than the One True God. Many of us probably saw this idolatry on bold display this past Friday if we went Christmas shopping, when so many people become focused on acquisition of objects that they are rude or even violent toward their fellow human persons. And there have been times when people were trampled to death in the frenzy to take advantage of holiday sales. In this we see a deep dedication to objects rather than mindfulness of our fellow men and women, children of the Father created according to Christ, the image of the invisible God.

The Lord does not condemn the riches of the man who asked Him about eternal life, nor does He condemn our giving gifts to one another to mark holidays. But in this season of frenetic consumerism, we turn our ears to this holy Gospel reading and remember that we are not consumers. We are not machines whose purpose is to acquire and use up objects and one another in a never-ending quest for more.

God’s creation is “very good,” as we read in the Book of Genesis. Its purpose is not to satisfy our urges, however. Rather, this world and everything in it is meant for the purpose of communion. Ultimately, this communion is perfectly realized when bread and wine are offered up on the altar and become the vehicle for divine grace, the means by which we physically touch God and through which He takes up His dwelling within us. This is true for all the holy mysteries, but it is also true in other ways. We can pursue communion through giving sacrificially to those around us in need. We can pursue communion by giving up possessions and food that we do not need in order to free ourselves of distractions from the one thing needful, salvation in Christ.

Creation becomes dangerous for us is when we dedicate it to something other than communion. If we make use of the Internet to avoid real contact with people in the flesh, then it has become a vehicle for our degradation. If we are interested only in music performed by people we will never meet, then we have lost something profound about music’s deep possibilities for humanizing us and binding us together. If we shove other people aside and compete for objects on sale for gift-giving, then we are not only failing to pursue communion, we are launching an outright attack on it.

In all of these images, we see the degradation and isolation of the human person—whether sitting in front of his computer screen or TV, or cut off from the world with the earbuds on his iPod, or vigorously and even viciously on a quest for the latest shopping fad. This is not the image of the person as created by God, enjoying warmth and union with his Creator and his fellow creatures, but rather of the distressed, lonely, and fragmented humanity which we see more and more in our world.

The good news of the Gospel is that Christ has come to offer us the possibility of reconnection. His incarnation as a little Child which we will celebrate in a few weeks is the means by which we may emerge from our isolation and be restored and renewed by the God Whose energy is the only true means of sustaining and satisfying us.

Yet while the Lord offers us the possibility for true communion with Him and with each other, He will not force it upon us against our will. Indeed, what kind of communion would it be if our free will were violated in the process? How could love do that?

So it is incumbent upon us to respond to His invitation, to take His outstretched hand in our own and be drawn into His warm, powerful and loving embrace. We cannot do that so long as we are dedicated to loving the creation more than the Creator. If we wish to know true communion, then it takes setting aside the earthly cares that, especially at this time of year, so define us and threaten to overwhelm us.

While the world parties its way to a holiday it calls “Christmas” but is unrecognizable as such to Christians, finally exhausted sometime on Dec. 26th, Orthodox Christians are quietly and mindfully fasting, almsgiving, praying and preparing to receive Him Who, while a little Child, holds all creation in the palm of His hand. Will you place yourself there, too?

To the incarnate God-man, our Lord Jesus Christ, be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.