"....with good intentions."

Nearly every day I drive by this billboard:


I've struggled with both whether and how to respond to this. It invites the nonconstructive response of mockery and the not-possible response of argument. Neither suits and yet there it sits, on the side of the road, every day.

In the end, I've decided to engage. What I mean is this:

Let us lend as much depth as possible to this message, let us seek the points of connection and appeal, and let us delve into the question of the rhetorical and persuasive power of the choices made herein. Let us take seriously each part.

There is, of course, every chance in the world that I will overshoot my mark but, given the alternatives, this is the risk I choose. 

To begin at the beginning: "Dave 27:1"

The appeal to individualism, which suffuses this ad, begins almost subtly. The title mocks scripture but also pulls at the thread in each of us which desires to 'live by my own rules' and 'go my own way.' From Gibb's rules on the popular TV show NCIS to LL Cool J's biographical-motivational-self help book this is a way of life with which we have strong affinity; perhaps even more so out here in the 'land of Lewis and Clarke.'

The appeal quickly becomes more explicit when we read vs. 1a of Dave chapter 27: "Lead with your heart."

The message of individualism, with the always attendant subjectivism, continues. We add to this a second thread of appeal. Here is a message which, thanks to Disney among others, many of us have heard since childhood. Taken in without reflection as you drive by this phrase has the potential to affect you like the smell of warm apple pie or freshly baked bread. Drawing up memories of home, comfort, and peace. It is a comfortable phrase, cultural encouraged; a piece of advice we likely received in youth from well meaning caregivers.

Then the turn: "Not with your bible."

Mockery has become direct assault and a third thread has been added to the appeal: anti-authoritarianism. It is a sad truth that many have experienced the church, and the bible, as a kind of tyrant under which their true self was squelched by morbid life denying constraints and misplaced guilt. To this we might add many other negative experiences of authority and the cultural pressure to experience freedom as "living without limits," an ideal hampered by any authority.

So we place next to the warm feelings of home the dark experience of subjugation and thus dangle in front of the viewer the further possibility of "freedom."

And lest freedom be frightening, as freedom often us, be reassured, innocent and victimized passerby, that "Without God. We're all good."

The assault becomes surgical with the capital 'G' God. We do not stand against any god, but the biblical "G"od of Christianity. To this we add specific moral reassurance (without god we're all good), a statement of the way we live (without god), and an appeal to a general attitude (we're all good).

Thus concludes what is not an argument but also not merely an advertisement. Thus concludes the promotion of a very specific lifestyle founded upon specific ideas of freedom and the good life. Thus concludes the siren call not of atheism, despite the theological standpoint of the cfi, but of consumerism, complete with well-dressed-open-shirted-handsome man holding disposable consumer item G328-L7.

If this is in fact what is going on, and I believe it is, then my response as a Christian Pastor is very specific. It not directed at cfi or the individuals therein; they are not available via this poster anyway. It is not intended to engage in intellectual debate over issues of theism and atheism; no such content is presented to debate with. It is not even an apologetic, a defense of my own faith under assault; quite frankly the lance of this assault is not only blunted but dangling.

My response, which is begun already, is one of attempted apocalypsis; unveiling and disclosing what is hidden. This is because what is presented here is temptation.

According to Helmut Theilicke "there is one thing that must be very clearly understood, and this is that, if we cannot believe... the reason lies only in the rarest cases in the fact that we have intellectual doubts... Rather, when we cannot believe, there is something in the background of our life which is not in order." I agree. This poster tempts one to a disordered life. It promotes a lifestyle which will create hard soil in our hearts.

Rather than a life of righteousness in which I seek to relate well to creation, others, myself, and God, this is temptation towards self centered individualism. This is disordered.

Rather than humble submission to appropriate authority, this is temptation towards anti-authoritarianism. No individual lives without authority in her life. To throw off one authority is always to adopt another. We are always serving someone or something. To be anti-authoritarian, as an attitude rather than a specific (and potentially quite appropriate) instance, is simply to hold an attitude which promotes hidden authority over revealed authority, subtle subjugation rather than overt submission. This is disordered.

Rather than a life in which freedom is about the opportunity to choose and do the good, the best I can, this is temptation towards freedom as the autonomous exercise of will in choice. Life is full of things we can and cannot do. To accept that freedom consists in a lack of constraint on my choice is to literally amputate the majority of life. It leaves untouched all that might be put into the category of 'freedom to' rather than 'freedom from'; freedoms to which, incidentally, will require submission and humility. This is disordered.

Let us, for a moment, imagine giving in to these temptations to the utmost extremes.

We live in a culture which uses the word 'freedom' in a very specific way. We want the freedom of self-actualization, self-determination, and choice. We want self-centered, anti-authoritarian, absolute autonomy.

We have enshrined the will and thus defined freedom around it; if my will, my ability to choose and determine for myself, is constricted in any way then I am less free. And so we seek a kind of arbitrary freedom, to do what I want, when I want, how I want, for whatever reason I want, or for no reason at all.

Maximal freedom is being who I want to be, doing what I want to do, no restraint, nothing outside of my grasp, so that I can express my inner-self however I want. Capitalizing on this sense of freedom means seeking maximal choice so that whatever we choose is, as nearly as possible, a perfect expression of my inner-self.

But think through the ends of this vision.

To be truly and completely self-determining you would have to live in a world in which you were the only person with a will. A world in which there were no other people whose needs you had to take into account, no other people whose emotions had to be regarded, no other people who have value or dignity or are deserving of human respect. It would have to be a world in which the stuff around you was utterly worthless except insofar as it could be used for your ends, because if the stuff, the earth, around you mattered in any other way then you would be restricted as to what you could do with it. It would have to be a world in which there was no morality, no external vision or criteria of a good life, no better or worse or good, to impede your decision making and no God with higher demands upon you.

Do you know what I call a world with no people, no worth, no good, and no God? A world in which you are all there is, you and your will and what you want? I call that hell.

Does anyone really push it this far? Of course not, not least of all because it simply isn't (currently?) possible. But dislocating each of these things is a step in this direction. Embracing individualism, in its current form, rather than being an individual in right relationships, moves us towards isolation. Embracing anti-authoritarianism as an attitude, rather than seeking to discern right authority in our lives, moves us towards nihilism. The quest of self-actualization through free choice and "freedom-from" ignores the fact that to actualize what I am right now is to actualize "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

Each of these things becomes hell. And not hell inflicted by a vindictive "G"od but hell chosen and approved and pursued.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"A world in which there were no other people whose needs you had to take into account, no other people whose emotions had to be regarded, no other people who have value or dignity or are deserving of human respect. It would have to be a world in which the stuff around you was utterly worthless except insofar as it could be used for your ends" - It seems to me that this is the world that Vladimir Putin, Russian president, and Bashar al-Assad, Syrian president, do actually live in. Regardless of whether they've realized that the hell they've created affects them as well, it is certainly affecting millions of other people.

When we engage in this kind of individualism, we ignore the fact that our actions affect others and we bring them into our self-imposed hell.