Dominus Regnavit: Donald Trump and the Idolatry of Politics

Dominus RegnavitLast week Wednesday signified a paradigmatic shift for America and perhaps the whole world. Though I personally followed the electoral race closely, in TIME – explaining my incredulity that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton – discussions and debates around the two candidates were unavoidable, even on the distant shores of South Africa. When the result was announced my social media feeds exploded, with everyone seeming to feel that their opinion now needed to be heard. But the American system (that is, the electoral college and not the slim majority who voted Clinton) has elected Trump president for the next 4 years, regardless of how much people spew and spit online. There are no take-backs, despite some of the drivel being shared online that suggests otherwise. Instead of contributing to the sound and fury, largely signifying nothing, I found myself looking for meaningful commentary on the results and America’s future, even the future of geopolitics.

In God’s providence I was down to preach Psalm 97 last Sunday. The psalm has the Latin title Dominus Regnavit, meaning ‘the LORD reigns,’ but you do not have to be able to read Latin, for the first verse says just that. Belonging to a small collection within the psalter (Psalms 93-100), the psalmist is celebrating God’s cosmic kingship; James Hutchinson says these kingship psalms reassure God’s people that Yahweh is “the world’s Creator-Ruler-Judge” (The Psalter as a Book). Preaching on Sunday, I commented on how many Christians are taking to social media to remind each other that the LORD is still enthroned, even though Trump will take the helm of America in January. Unfortunately, my guess is that the truth that God reigns is only being touted by those who feel they lost in these elections. But God’s sovereign rule and ordering of our world should always determine our confidence for the future, win or lose. Our God is enthroned: “justice and righteousness are the foundation of his throne” (Psalm 97:2), and the heavens speak of his justice (97:6). For the Christian this is not a cliché, but real assurance that God is working all things for his glory and good of those who love him. And for the Christians who voted Trump it is a corrective, reminding them where their real hope lies. That the LORD reigns is not cheap consolation for the political losers, nor is it to be confused with the rulers of the political winners.

Christians ought to know this. But then why are so many speaking as if they do not? The answer can be found in Timothy Keller’s excellent work on idols, Counterfeit Gods (see his chapter titled The Power and the Glory). Keller observes how American politics has become hugely popular and powerful idol. The indications he cites are numerous, with all of them having been remarkably apparent in the recent elections. The opposition – candidates and policies – are demonized. Despair, bordering on a kind of existential death, is felt by supporters, when the result does not match their hopes; they can be heard exclaiming “This is the end! There is no hope,” in defeat. Fear and disillusionment flow from an unfounded dependence on the outcome. Reactions to the results are extreme, with people openly talking about emigration. Observing the trends is fascinating, but Keller goes deeper, arguing that the overblown hype and radical expectations are the result of investing in political leaders the kind of hope that was once reserved for God and the work of the gospel. He then quotes philosopher Al Wolters, “The main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identity something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. That demonizes something that is not completely bad, and makes an idol out of something that cannot be the ultimate good.” The heated and hateful fallout in America – and across the world – only reveals that we struggle to believe that the LORD reigns. We look to our idols for the security that he provides.

William BlakeRussell Moore makes a similar point to Keller in an article well worth reading, “The most important lesson we should learn is that the church must stand against the way politics has become a religion, and religion has become politics. We can hear this idolatrous pull even in the apocalyptic language used by many in this election.” The religion of politics will in the end thoroughly disappoint those who hoped in it, for ‘all who worship idols are put to shame, those who make their boast in anything that is not God’ (Psalm 97:7). Again, that verse cuts both ways, comforting the losers and warning the winners. The Christian takes their stand first with the LORD who reigns, rejoicing in his universal dominion (97:1, 12) and resting in his just judgments (97:8). These emotions do not leave no space for feelings of anxiety, wariness, and deep concern, but they must temper them. Dominus Regnavit.

Managing Technology

TechnologyIn Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis grumbled about how modern transport has annihilated space, “one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation than his grandfather got from travelling ten.” The point of this series of blog posts has not been to denounce technology, pine after a bygone era, or deny the many benefits of the digital age. Rather I have hoped to convince readers that we are often blind to what technology takes from us. If you are like me, then Lewis’ reflection is striking, since you never considered how modern transport might deprive travellers the joy of a journey. It is a silly example, but it reiterates how we have been trained to receive new technology with open hands and tightly shut eyes. In this final post I want to suggest a few ways we might better manage technology.

I will start with a point made in an older post on technology. Etymologically the word technology means ‘skill’ or ‘craft’, but – as I suggested in that post – humanity has a tendency to bow down to what it has made; “technology that was once held in our hands, now has many lying prostrate at its feet.” We cannot imagine life without our devices, we become despondent when we lose connectivity, and we check into on our digital worlds and profiles obsessively. So must ask to what extent we are in control? Does technology serve you, or is it slowly enslaving you? Let me state that technology is a wonderful gift, endowed by our Creator to further equip us for the task of subduing the created world. We should therefore receive technology gratefully and put it to work, assisting and serving us in most areas of life, but we must guard against being controlled by it. Each of us needs to carefully consider the status technology has earned in our own lives, for while its functions will vary, the human propensity to worship the created world rather than the Creator is always present.

I will now briefly comment on the remaining points raised in my posts, having dealt with freedom above:

Attention: adapting something Donald Whitney wrote, I think that if we spent money as readily as we do our attention people would call us reckless. Surely there are times when uninterrupted focus is necessary. Multi-tasking – which Michael Horton says is often just a euphemism for distraction – is not always the most productive or beneficial use of our time. I know these suggestions are unthinkable, but you can turn your devices onto ‘do not disturb’ and block your internet connection in order to give undivided attention and time where it is required, be that people or tasks.

TechnologyThoughtfulness and introspection: please forgive my use of this abused, potentially misattributed, dictum from Socrates: The unexamined life is not worth living. Regardless of who said it, the sentiment is an urgently true one today. We need to move away from consuming information to contemplating knowledge. We need to recognise that the first hit on a Google search is not necessarily the most accurate or formative article on a subject. We need to put effort into reading and reflecting on – even studying – ideas and concepts. We could all use more quiet time and solitude, away from the invasive presence of our devices and demanding digital platforms.

Memory: I have heard it said that our brains have many similarities to muscles; that is, when exercised they are healthy, but left unused they atrophy. The outsourcing of our memories and immediately accessible information means that while we have answers quickly we rarely have our own answers, nor do we see any need to furnish our minds. The result of this is weakening of our ability to retain information and ideas. I am not talking about what Mega Memory can offer you, as useful as being able to recall the order of two packs of playing cards might be, but rather a mind that is sharpened and in shape. The ways to achieve this are endless: learning a language; slowing down to consider a point in an article, book, or film; trying to remember a piece of information before Googling it; learning quotes and sayings off by heart; and so on.

TechnologyValues: this was the final point made in More Ways Technology Takes and, for lack of a better heading, I argued that today we are inundated with information and easy entertainment that warps our values and thrives off of undiscerning consumerism. This is well illustrated in an exchange between Hermoine Granger and Rita Skeeter, in Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. Hermoine is entreating Rita to write the truth about Harry and the return of You-Know-Who, but Rita tells her that the Daily Prophet cannot run stories that will unsettle the comfortable wizarding world. Then Hermoine scathingly asks, “So the Daily Prophet exists to tell people what they want to hear, does it?” And Rita retorts, “The Prophet exists to sell itself, you silly girl.” We need to be deliberate about the data and dramas we greedily ingest. Work hard in discerning what you read and view, its purpose and bias. Remember that just because something is being broadcast or receiving masses of media attention that does not necessarily mean it is significant. Lastly, it is undeniable that we are subtly shaped, even if only slightly, by what we consume.

Let me leave you with three concluding points for reflection: firstly, technology is a wonderful tool, given by God, but let us be wary of the human inclination to worship the creation; secondly, though technology is almost always morally neutral, our use of it is often not; thirdly, managing our technology means more than benefiting from its many positives, we must be alert to its many drawbacks.

More Ways Technology Takes

Two weeks back I posted on some of technology’s drawbacks. Reiterating a point made by Tim Challies, I started by arguing that our eyes are only open to the positive benefits of technology, meaning we blindly embrace the latest apps, devices, and digital advances without considering what their negative effects might be. After making that point I highlighted three areas where technology is adversely impacting human life: fragmented and interrupted attention, unhealthily increased dependence on tending towards enslavement to technologies, and the loss of critical engagement or thoughtfulness due to the superficial nature of technology. In this short post I want to point to three more ways I think that technology is having an adverse effect on human life.

Memory

Technology‘I know this…hang on…um…alright, Google it.’ How often is that the answer to a question, and if you are honest: your own answer. In his now famous article, Is Google making us stupid?, Nicholas Carr writes, “For all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us.” In the article Carr makes numerous prickly points, from the commodification of information to the way the web discourages contemplation in favour of amassing data, but central to his article is the observation that we are outsourcing our memory and mental capacity. Carr says, “The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.” Admitting that he might just be a “worrywart” or Luddite, Carr acknowledges that – in the same way the technology of bound books “would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom)” – the internet may result in a “golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom.” Yet he remains sceptical, as do I. The easy access to endless amounts of information means we retain less, find it hard to recall what we have read, and see no need for growing in knowledge. Surely, that is not progress. 

Introspection

In his lecture on private prayer, Charles Spurgeon lamented how an inward poverty means that many people find silence unbearable; the corollary of this is that we cannot stand undistracted solitude. When I was in high school, Shakespearian soliloquys struck me as highly odd and obviously theatrical, but today I think they are a haunting visage of something we are no longer capable of: internal dialogue and introspection. In the outstanding collection of essays Stop What You’re Doing and Read This, Jane Davis challenges our preference for the comfortable shallows of human life, and I firmly believe that much of our technology enables or even encourages such superficiality. Davis strongly posits, “Consistently ignoring the inner life has put depression and anxiety high amongst the world’s most serious epidemics…Despite our desire to amass, consume, and be mindless, the ‘unspeakable desire’ to know ‘our buried life’ is ancient and implacable.” We use social media to express invented and pliable versions of who we want to be, yet hardly know ourselves. We impulsively comment on blogs remonstrating others, but find it impossible to internalise thoughts and ideas. We peruse infinitely scrolling feeds for hours on end – liking, retweeting, and pinning – only when we come away from them we are none the richer. Constant connectivity leaves little time for careful contemplation. As Malcom Gladwell has said, today we are experientially wealthy and theoretically impoverished.

Values

TelevisionIn my previous post I admitted the potential of being melodramatic, so I might as well run the risk of sounding like a crank. In Marilynne Robinson’s masterpiece, Home, Old Boughton is discussing the news and asserts that, “In six months nobody will remember one thing about it,” for, “It’s television that makes things seem important whether they are or not.” What comes to us through our screens is very rarely weighed or thoughtfully evaluated. According to my news feeds and Facebook, the death of Cecil, a protected lion, is the most significant event from the last couple of weeks. Worse than that is the grossly unhealthy celebrity culture, which considers Kim Kardashian’s baby bump more newsworthy than a massacre in Kenya. As D. A. Carson notes, in Basics for Believers, TV is the dominant reference point or moral ‘bottom line,’ for many people, resulting in grossly warped values. Carson points out how parents are anxiously concerned that their children have the right kinds of friends and role models, for all of us learn by a kind of existential mimicry, only we naïvely overlook the vicarious friendship provided by TV. With the average person spending over 3 hours in front of one TV daily, the results are undeniable: “We no longer have authentic heroes. People are celebrated for extravagant behaviour or conspicuous consumption, not for their value to society. Wealth is preferred to worth, glamour to virtue. There are many ‘personalities’, but few show evidence of character” (Edward Donnelly). Not everything that appears on our screens is significant, but the TV industry, click bait, and social media sites thrive off of our woeful discernment, and from confusing our values. 

Conclusion

Living in the world of technology is unavoidable. But being aware of how technology shapes us is a crucial step away from being dominated by it. We have seen that outsourcing our memories incapacitates our minds, the digital world discourages introspection, and how confusing presentation of information on our screens erodes values. Since I have not read anything better on the impact technology has had than The Next Story I will let Tim Challies have the last word: “So here we sit today, surveying the landscape after the digital explosion. We live in the glare of screens; we outsource our memories to bits and bytes; we experience some of our deepest and most important relationships through the ethereal networks powered by electricity and computer hardware. We are a digital people-a digital generation, dependent on our devices.”

Technology Takes

Shabolovka MoscowMost Christians have at some point sung along to Matt Redman’s chorus “You give and take away,” ad nauseam, in a church service or coming from your first generation iPod. But forgetting that song, and holding onto the words of the refrain, I want to discuss a few of the ways in which technology has taken from us, impoverished our lives. In his must-read book on the topic, The Next Story, Tim Challies reminds us “that a technology tends to wear its benefits on its sleeve–while the drawbacks are buried deep within. The opportunities are obvious and apparent, while the risks are revealed only after close scrutiny and the slow march of time and experience.” Have you considered the consequences and impact of technology and the digital revolution? Most of us blindly and uncritically use whatever technology we can afford, so in this short post I want to address some of the areas of life where I believe technology is depriving us. Sure, technology gives, but it also takes.

Attention

The first point I want to highlight was prompted by reading Alan Jacob’s 79 Theses on Technology for Disputation. In his 5th and 6th disputations he speaks about attention as a resource, hence the term ‘pay attention.’ If this is true then we should view our attention as an economic exercise. Where we invest our attention, which Jacobs says is not an infinitely renewable resource, should therefore be carefully evaluated and planned; we should steward it wisely and not wastefully. I do not think it is an overstatement to say that much of our technology demands attention and also frequently disrupts it. Our attention is nearly always divided and we fail to discern where to primarily invest it. In our unyielding efforts to be connected at all times, our attention is scattered in so many directions that we are barely focused and fully present in any of them. As Jacobs suggests, quite strikingly, we must assess the investment of attention at least as carefully as we do our money.

Freedom

ambrojordiart@blogspot.comI admit this heading sounds dramatic, but I am firmly convinced that technology enslaves many people today, not in the same sense that AI sets out to subjugate humanity in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (or Skynet, from the Terminator franchise) but in a more beguiling way. Technology promises to improve our lives at almost every turn – helping us become more connected, efficient and productive – and we wholeheartedly believe it, entrusting ourselves to technology. In a previous post I wrote, “Many of us fall into the trap of ascribing a godlike attribute of unassailability to technology…we begin to worship the created rather than the Creator.” Alan Jacobs puts it better in his 42nd disputation, “Our current electronic technologies make competent servants, annoyingly capricious masters, and tragically incompetent gods.” Devices and apps meant to serve us tend to take more than they can give, eventually controlling and in the worst cases enslaving us to their service. This process is both subtle and an undeniable threat, making our devices and technology much more dangerous than Asimov’s fictional U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc.

Thoughtfulness

Finally, I fear that the superficiality of the digital age is diminishing our capacity and desire to examine life and the arts. When I reflect on my own conversations I regret how many of them revolve around the latest TV series and Hollywood blockbusters. I guess this would distress me less if those discussions dissected narratives, weighing character development and exploring themes (not that Hollywood really achieves this) but they are for the most part vapid or shallow. I think a reason for this is that, as C. S. Lewis said, we are obsessed with event – to the point that event has become synonymous with story – and have unwittingly surrendered the ability to wrestle with concepts, ideas, and meaning. We are tragically content to discuss what happened, the twists and turns of a series or the spectacular events in the latest Marvel film adaption but are uninterested in what might be taking place beneath the surface. Book critic David Ulin has written, “Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know.” Sure we have lots to talk about, endless information and inane entertainment is never more than a glowing screen and mouse click away. But, at the risk of sounding portentous, I think we waste countless hours talking about nothing. I have written elsewhere about our fear of deep engagement, suggesting that we possess a consumerist preference for passive entertainment, such as film, but I am seeing more and more how the superficial nature of the digital age has impoverished our ability to critically engage. We strain our attention onto events not ideas, meaning the arts rarely pass our eyes and life is left unexamined.

Conclusion

TechnologyTony Reinke has given five foundational principles, taken from The Pastor as Public Theologian, concerning the use of technology, based on Genesis 1-11. I will conclude using his final point: “Technology is inherently dangerous because it is the product of purposive human activity, and we need help from God in limiting its use.” Reinke (like Challies) believes that we find this statement exceptionally hard to grasp, since we think all technology is progress. Yet, as I have tried to argue: technology often distracts us, slowly enslaves us, and can weaken critical engagement. So we should be slower to buy into technology, considerate of its impact on how we behave, and weary of its relentless march into all of life.

Technology: Saviour or Servant

Molech and RorshachSince first seeing the film in 2009 and subsequently as well as hurriedly reading the graphic novel, I have found The Watchmen fascinating. Few stories, in my opinion, so cleverly provide the backdrop for philosophical conversation, raise such interesting questions about morality, and underline the sense of hopelessness often experienced in our human condition. But my purpose in mentioning The Watchmen is not to unpack its many vivid themes; I simply want to point out one of its more poignant episodes to introduce this post. Following the death of the Comedian, Rorschach is bent on tracking down the “mask killer” and breaks into the home of the former arch-villain Molech, now Edgar Jacobi, an aged and dying man. After discovering illegal cancer medication Rorschach asks Jacobi what kind of cancer he is suffering from, and his response is almost heartbreaking: “Well, now, y’know that kind of cancer that you eventually get better from? Well, that ain’t the kind of cancer I got.”

Those words were in the back of my mind as I prepared a talk on technology for the teenagers at my church. I made the point that when it comes to cancer we have led to believe it is only a matter of time until we can cure all forms, for technology’s march is unrelenting. We might even think, If the fictional Jacobi lived in our 21st century then he most likely would not be living his long defeat. But let me state a highly unpopular possibility: we may never eradicate cancer. Unfortunately that is the reality facing all of us who inhabit a creation bound to decay, groaning for redemption. Please do not think I am for a second making light of cancer and the immense suffering it causes, for those with it along with those who stand by them and are often left behind. Let me also say that this is not a post about cancer. However, I think it is a presumptuous and proud view endemic to many of us, which is convinced it is only matter of time before cancer is conquered by medical research. Furthermore, I worry that many of us fall into the trap of ascribing a godlike attribute of unassailability to technology, that which we have made with our own hands; we begin to worship the created rather than the Creator.

Essays on Anthropology As Elaine Graham says in her essay, The “end” of the human or the end of the “human”?, “For some commentators, the advent of new technologies will protect us against physical disease and vulnerability. Technologies, long the means of enabling humanity to compensate for physical limitations by providing instruments of comfort and utility, now offer the opportunities to overcome the limitations of the flesh entirely.” In the same paper Graham paraphrases the prominent atheist David Noble, doing his best parody of a preacher, exclaiming how new technologies are “instruments of deliverance…possessors of the power to transport us their users into a sacred realm of ‘transcendence,’ free from the encumbrances of the flesh.” She notes how the arrival at this new religious cult, which even reproaches “techno-pagans” (Erik Davis), is traceable to the Enlightenment mood, or secular humanism, “In its emphasis on personal liberty, free enquiry, and self-determination.” What we are seeing is, “A distortion of modernity’s faith in the benevolence of human reason, producing the hubristic belief that humanity alone is in control of history.” Technology, etymologically meaning “craft” or “skill”, has been transfigured from servant to Saviour; technology that was once held in our hands, now has many lying prostrate at its feet.

The great danger in this modern assumption of unassailability is not merely that it disappoints our faith in it, but that it subtly derails our faith in the Creator God. Paul to the Romans, which I have alluded to above, writes that our present sufferings are incomparable with the glory to be revealed, our hope of redemption that is now unseen. Technology might never eradicate cancer; it will never bring about redemption and glorification. And we must resign ourselves to that first clause, lest we fall into the trap of believing it might offer us the latter. Elaine Graham rightly asserts the distinguishing mark of humanity as a species is the imago Dei, “Understanding of human creativity as participation in divine creativity.” Technology is a gift from our Creator, who has made us like him, to be creators. We are endowed with dreams that become designs and ultimately realities. Yet Graham concludes that we cannot forget that our creativity is framed within our creatureliness and interdependence, “This offers a necessary reminder that our technologies are ultimately not our own, that our inventions, like the whole of creation, make sense only when offered up as part of a larger, divine purpose.”

I have addressed two related idolatrous attitudes in this post, so I will conclude by trying to pull them apart. The first is the hubris of modern secularism, which tries to convince us that humanity controls history, as the masters of our fate and captains of our souls. This is closely tied to the second, more beguiling, attitude that is overawed by the apparently inevitable progress of technology. It is this second attitude that is incredulous at my statement: “We may never eradicate cancer.” And I think it is this attitude many Christians living in the 21st century undiscerningly adopt. We will do well to remember that we cannot set this groaning creation free from decay and futility, regardless of how far our technology takes us.

Doodle: Idolatry Of The Lesser Known

Movie: Nick And Norah “Do you think that they’re too cool now?
Being popular is lame.
You’re the one who made them popular,
all their songs are still the same.”

 I don’t know when it happened, but sometime over the last 15 years the less popular the music you listened to became directly proportionate to your image. ‘Alternative’ was born as the catchphrase for bands whose recordings were done in garages, hadn’t signed with major record companies, and were too diverse in genre for the uneducated to label. An identity was found under the umbrella of ‘alternative’ where anything contra the status quo was deemed cool. On the other hand, words like ‘mainstream’ and ‘pop’ were demonised and spoken with distaste by those who had liberated themselves from the consumerism of MTV and popular radio shows. I have heard of a tee-shirt with the print: I listen to bands that don’t even exist yet. And I think that cleverly captures the desperation many have to distance themselves from popular music.

I am writing about this because I notice this attitude amongst my friends, and often catch myself thinking along similar lines. Last year I confronted this sort of attitude visiting close friends in Durban. We were reminiscing about the 2012 London Olympics over a cup of tea, watching some of the ‘best moments’ flash on the TV as iTunes randomly worked through a playlist in the background. Then, a familiar song came on. I could not place the song or recall the band’s name so I asked about it. When my friend informed me of the band’s name I clicked, and went straight to the same band on my phone because, as it turned out, I already had the CD (free from NoiseTrade). But this realisation was met with dissatisfaction from my friend; when I announced I had that same CD on my phone his expression turned to disappointment. I only concluded later that this band was recently uncovered and that my knowledge reduced the pedigree of the band, as well as my friends’ music library.

The whole experience brought to mind some Five Iron Frenzy lyrics, “You found a way to draw a line / Between the world and you / Faking your identity it’s true / Did you think the word “alternative” / Was only meant for the likes of you?” These lyrics brilliantly capture how our contemporary culture thinks about music. Unlike other self-debasing lyrics – a hallmark of the punk genre – Five Iron Frenzy were not under the illusion of the ‘alternative revolution.’ The identity they offered is the one we find in Christ. They didn’t want to present a place where non-conformers could be in unanimity. Instead they bemoaned what the music industry had become, and how it was changing its consumers. They conclude the song with these words, “You sunk your worth in being different / Just to be like your own kind / You traded in objectiveness / For the underground you follow blindly.”

I guess my own conclusion is in order. For the Christian there is great danger in seeking recognition from the exclusivity of being ‘alternative.’ In closing I admit that I am perhaps writing this post to my teenage self and that it’s a few years late, but here goes: Music is a wonderful gift from God and therefore we should share it; on the other hand, keeping bands to yourself because they provide an identity is idolatry.

FIF