Archives For Theological Reflection

Л. Н.Толстой рассказывает сказку внукам. 1909

The quote below, taken from Tolstoy’s ‘A Confession’, reads like a critique of the leviathan that is social media:

We were all then convinced that it was necessary for us to speak, write, and print as quickly as possible and as much as possible, and that it was all wanted for the good of humanity. And thousands of us, contradicting and abusing one another, all printed and wrote — teaching others. And without noticing that we knew nothing, and that to the simplest of life’s questions:
What is good and what is evil? We did not know how to reply, we all talked at the same time, not listening to one another, sometimes seconding and praising one another in order to be seconded and praised in turn, sometimes getting angry with one another — just as in a lunatic asylum.
Thousands of workmen laboured to the extreme limit of their strength day and night, setting the type and printing millions of words which the post carried all over Russia, and we still went on teaching and could in no way find time to teach enough, and were always angry that sufficient attention was not paid us. It was terribly strange, but is now quite comprehensible. Our real innermost concern was to get as much money and praise as possible. To gain that end we could do nothing except write books and papers. So we did that’[i].

Of course, it is anachronistic to suggest that Tolstoy was talking about social media as we know it. Tolstoy’s words are, however, a critique of 19th Century, Russian media, its medium and the noise therein. Therefore, they are an early critique of the content and form which makes up a large part of social media. As such, they are a relevant criticism for us to take seriously, particularly when applying them to a 21st Century context.

Today, Henry Ergas from ‘The Australian’, made an interesting observation. In writing about sensitive information, how it is monitored, distributed and delivered. He provided an historical insight, which although topically unrelated, helps us to contextually frame the sharp poignancy of Tolstoy’s reflection:

“19th century’s Pax Brittanica, was built on a solid technological foundation: Britain’s control of global telegraphy. As late as 1890, 80 per cent of the world’s submarine cables were British; Britain ruled the wires even more decisively than she ruled the waves… The sophistication of today’s communications networks is obviously many orders of magnitude that of Britain’s global telegraph system. In 2012, daily internet traffic was in the order of 1.1 exabytes, one billion times more every day than the 19th century system could carry in a year. And the growth rates remain breathtaking: wireless traffic alone is now eight times larger than the entire internet in 2000[ii]

If Ergas’ facts are correct, that is a lot of information being exchanged. For better or worse we engage, encode, disengage and decipher information at ‘breathtaking’ speeds. Matthew McKay suggests that ‘55% of all communication is mostly facial expressions’[v]. Thus, my conclusion is that because most of the information exchanged via social media is in written form, it seriously limits our ability to receive a message, in the same way it was intended to be received by the author. (there are many examples of how comments have been wrongly interpreted).

I consider Tolstoy’s reflection a full-stop. An important interruption that encourages us to take a breath and ask ourselves:

  • Is the information we are consuming authentic, well-informed, or is it just propaganda; distortion (noise)?

Further questions might be:

  • Are we consuming information without really processing and retaining what it is being said?
  • Who is saying this, and why are they saying it?
  • Is the source trustworthy?
  • Will my time be well spent reading this or not?

There is a further word worthy of consideration here. Augustine, in his day, had this to say about grace and human nature:

…’many sins are committed through pride; but not all happen proudly. They happen so often by ignorance, by human weakness, and many are committed by people, weeping and groaning in their distress[iii]

Perhaps there is a timeless clarity by which these words help us to reflect on the interpersonal conduct, and content of the information exchanged on most prominent social media sites today?

Diary of Leo Tolstoy

Diary of Leo Tolstoy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even with all its pitfalls, the strength of social media is in its ability to connect people and strengthen relationships. I remain a cautious participant of social media, aware of its limited ability to ‘properly allow a healthy and fair exchange of ideas’ (Elshtain, 2007). Therefore, I find here in Augustine and Tolstoy’s words, a reminder about the limits and the responsibility which coincides with the right to use such mediums. Augustine’s insight here could be bridged to Tolstoy’s reflection, and therefore buttress our proposition. Their words present us with a useful framework for a theological critique of social media.

Finally, if we look at Proverbs 4:20-5:6, we can see a parallel logic that could exonerate this train of thought.

Be attentive to God’s word

Keeping them close.

Guard your heart with vigilance,

Avoiding spin and smear.

(“Refusing to be conned by the rhetoric of either the new right or the new left’’)[iv]

Looking forward, ponder the path of our feet.

Be attentive to wisdom.

Use words that guard knowledge,

And ponder the path of life.


Related articles

Tolstoy’s Faith – GVL

The Who, What And When Of Social Media – RVD, The Christian Pundit

Sources:


[i] Tolstoy, L. 1879 A Confession (Kindle for PC ed. Loc. 92-100).
[ii] Ergas, H. 2013 Wrong for Abbott to follow Obama and add lying to spying, The Australian, Sourced 25th November 2013
[iii] Augustine, ON NATURE AND GRACE (With Active Table of Contents) Kindle Ed. Loc. 704-706
[iv] Wright, N.T. 2013 Creation, Power and Truth: The gospel in a world of cultural confusion, SPCK & Proverbs 4:27
[v] McKay, M., Martha, D. & Fanning, P. 2009 Messages: The communications skill book p.59, New Harbinger publications

©RL2013

On page 291, of his 2013 book, Hollywood and Hitler, Thomas Doherty makes a small, but note worthy statement about the song “God Bless America.”  Written by Irving Berlin from an earlier tune called “Yip!, Yak!, Yaphank!” , “God Bless America”  was to become an unofficial second national anthem.

 ‘as the wave of antisemetic violence [during what was penned by journalists as Krystallnacht], in [Nazi Germany], was subsiding, the singer Kate Smith had long planned to dedicate her variety show program to the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day, a solemn look back at the last war as the world stood on the brink of another. Smith asked Irving for a patriotic theme suitable for the occasion’[i]

Whilst it is right to describe “God Bless America” as a patriotic song, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it also fits well within the rubric of protest songs.

Cast in the light of his original intent, Berlin’s song is an anthem for peace. It rallies people of all races, around the banner of peace.

God Bless America” is perhaps also the most significant musical push-back against the onslaught of mid-20th century Nazism, to come out of America during that pre-WW2 era.

Post-1939, into, America’s 1942 involvement in the war; first in the Pacific, then in the North African, and European theatres, this prayer for peace, while still holding its integrity, extended its meaning towards a prayer for freedom.To call on God’s blessing is to call on His grace and victory.

And if prayer is, as Karl Barth asserted:

 ‘…the beginning of an uprising, [a revolt] against the disorder of the world’[ii]

Then “God Bless America” is a protest. It is an effective protest that draws people’s attention towards the great Other. Towards the God, who, in His Covenant with Israel, and it’s fulfilment in Jesus Christ, sets out to present Himself as the revolution against the disorder, that is set in play by false lords, false claims to authority, and all human versions of “ordering” the world, which takes place under those false claims, in total allegiance to those false lords*.

Irving’s lyrics join up with the voice of the Confessing Churches, who, in the 1934, Barmen declaration, led by Karl Barth, declared that any proposition that suggests, or asserts that salvation could come through Hitler, or any human, outside of or abstracted from God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, is false, and is therefore is to be utterly rejected. This is because:

‘Jesus is the one Word of God and the proper hearing of this Word takes place in trusting and obeying […] The one Word is the way upon which, and the door through which, God comes to us in his truth and in his life, comes as the light that overcomes the lie and as the resurrection that disempowers death’[iii]

There are no ways to God, there is only one way from God to us. Founded and expressed entirely through, and in Jesus the Christ. No man, woman, leader, idea or natural organism can lay claim to this revelation that lays claim to all of humanity, without usurping God. It’s not something that can be moulded, crafted and raised in the name of human triumphalism.

Irving Berlin’s song declares that before nations and governments, there is no other Lord, but God.

As problematic as ambiguity and nationalism[iv] that is attached to the song, can be; at its inception, “God Bless America” was conceived as an anthem for peace. It was written at a time when the majority of Americans understood God as the one who makes Himself known in history, as testified to in the Judeo-Christian Bible.

What “God Bless America” became was both a prayer and protest. It focuses, unites, humbles, and in combined song, rouses a challenge against all those who actively seek to do the opposite.

God Bless America” is a song of defiance in the face of an adverse and overwhelming enemy. As a prayer, it becomes the anthem for revolt. Not just against an oppressor from without, but also from within; against the sinful nature of the flesh that exists within each of us, to which God has answered, not by the way of man’s religion, and feeble attempts to save himself, by way of the Cross of Jesus Christ.

In “God Bless America” both the Sh’ma Yisrael and The Lord’s Prayer are heard. If we lean in close enough, we’ll hear Irving, Kate, Barth, Roosevelt and the many others, who, in fox holes, camps and gas chambers, ‘prayed both'[v], we may hear them “whisper their legacy”[vi] to American and non-American alike. I should point out that I’m not an American, but that doesn’t mean I’m exempt from joining in and singing the same kind of prayer and following the same kind of protest. For:

‘Even the “devils believe and tremble,” and I really believe they are more afraid of the Americans’ prayers than of their swords’
(Abigail Adams, 1775, Letters #55)


References:

[i]  Doherty, T. 2013 Hollywood & Hitler: 1933-1939, Columbia University Press, p.291

[ii]  Barth, K. CD Fragments IV:4

[iii]  Busch, E. 2010 The Barmen theses then and now: the 2004 Warfield lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary, Wm.B Eerdmans Publishing Company Grand Rapids Michigan, U.S.A. pp.23 & 37

[iv] For more on this see Sheryl Kaskowitz’s article ‘How “God Bless America” became a conservative anthem’

[v] Victor Frankl: we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions. Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is. After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.’ Man’s Search for Meaning, Beacon Press. p. 134.

[vi] Robin Williams, 1989. The Dead Poets Society.

*According to an unverified source, the Klu Klux Klan, only with Pro-American Nazi’s are said to have boycotted the song. The only source I could find, so far, which mentions this, is parade.com:  6 Things You Didn’t Know About the Song ‘God Bless America’ 

Original image credit: Photo by Jake Ingle on Unsplash

.

Sanity pins the past out in patterns;
doors emerge between then and now.

.    Ghosts live here,
.    and they dress memories in dread.

Surrounded by four right-angled curves of abuse;
Weighed down by broken mirrors,
.    their cursed shards scream out in cycles of excuse.

As the fog of their image fades in and out,
.    painted words scratch blood lines onto my reflected face.

Attempting to lay old claims;
.    then from within them, as if in pain,
.    silent snarls and smirks, distort their pale images.

Drawn, like swords, their fingers point to my chest.

Some unseen presence has disturbed them, in their contorted place of rest.

Drawn, like swords, their fingers point to my right and then to my left.

Midnight Walkers, absent of wings,
.              uphold the bereft.

Transparent companions,
.                    their prayers always accompanied by command
.                    and gracious invitation.

Never demanding for themselves my attention.

These human-like strangers travel in pairs.

Acting with intention,
.          only ever seen in rare moments of intermission,
.          they serve God’s interventions.

Messengers, autographed in blood-red.

Echo the Living Word and what He has spoken:

“You’re never alone. For angels shadow the broken.”


 (©RL2017)

“it is the spirit of man, the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand; the Spirit of God. Has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life. For God is greater than man. He has redeemed my soul from going down to the pit, and my life shall look upon the light.”

(Job 32:8, 33:4, 28, ESV)

μαρτύριον

July 10, 2017 — Leave a comment

Tell your story and shout from the rooftops, “…look at what the Lord has done” (Psalm 118:17).

‘Perhaps the figure of ‘the martyr’ [μαρτύριον – marturion] that we need to mobilize [recover] is not the one who sacrifices him-or herself but the one whose compulsion is to witness and to provide testimony.’
  (Shelly Rambo, 2010. Spirit & Trauma: A Theology of Remaining)

Part of my story:

The Light In My Darkness

Christian “selfies” reflect Christ.

‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’

(Matthew 5:13-16, ESV)

In a recent blog post Eitan Chitayat presented some high powered dialogue, choosing as his conversation partners those who (unwittingly?) position themselves as reactionary activists. Most of whom are from social media.

Despite the unfortunate, but forgivable title given to the article, the overall point rightly made by Chitayat is clear.

His words make up a necessary “no” to a protest filled with thoughtlessness and blind rage. (Both characteristics of any chaos fuelled lynch mob.)

He writes that:

‘If anyone doesn’t understand any of the above; if anyone doesn’t get it;
if any of my friends are going to post anti-Israel messages in a time where over 500 Palestinians have tragically died in this current conflict yet you remained silent while almost 200,000 Arabs were murdered by Arabs these past few years;
if you’re not writing about Assad using chemical weapons against his people; if you’re not writing about ISIS who crucified 8 christians the other day and who are telling Iraqi Christians ‘convert, pay tax, or die’;
if you only have criticism for the State of Israel that is doing EVERYTHING in its power to avoid civilian losses to Palestinians during a war;
if you’re going to do nothing but sit wherever you’re sitting and just dish out your anti-Israel dirt while rockets are being aimed at my house, family and friends as our boys are fighting to protect us – and you’re going to dish it out simply because we’re living in this land and you haven’t got a clue as to our connection to it;
if you’re going to join the anti-semitic and anti-Israel demonstrations flaring up in the world like we’re seeing in France, Turkey, Berlin, most Arab states and even in the US that have nothing to do with this conflict but are really just expressions of hatred directed at Jews and Israelis (and these expressions will be directed at the host countries soon);
if you’re going to stay quiet and just accept, then go ahead and unfriend me from Facebook now because you’re probably no friend of mine.’[i]

As I suggested in my own blogpost, written the same day Chitayat posted his article:

‘With small amounts of fact and/or information these glass houses become the launching pad for mobile projectiles of shame and exclusion. (We might need to also add ridicule.)
This is an ‘activism’ that measures efficiency by likes, shares and/or followers. Reflecting the fact that ‘thoughtless approval’ can be translated into hard currency by selling the side of story that is the easiest to sell (i.e.: the most believable or assumed to be most likely – potentially anything that continues to feed into the pipeline of hype)’[ii]

With the global community still trying to balance technological freedoms with responsibilities, it might be worth noting the words of Jean Bethke Elstain who, citing Hannah Arendt, highlighted the ‘strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil’.

According to Elshtain, identifying the ‘banality of evil disarms the seductive nature and hype surrounding evil’. What might also be applicable here is the imperative found in the New Testament letter of  1 John 4: ‘do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God,…by this we know the Spirit of Truth and the spirit of error’ (ESV –  additionally, we might want to consider how fitting the practice of ‘Due Diligence’ is in this context).

Here we find ourselves reminded to keep a keen eye on context, details, and careful comment. This way we can defuse antagonism and walk through the confusion, towards healthy contributions that not only seek to speak truth but also listen. Resulting in informed conclusions actually worth sharing and/or liking.

If we aim for this, we aim to move responsibly, in a loving way, towards the place where we can play a part in denying ‘evil any form of representation that it might be seeking.’[iii]

The conclusion then is this: the Christian must not fail to hear and act, on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer , Edith Stein and those like them understood clearly:

(Judeo-) Christian hope does not permit a politically sterile withdrawal.’[iv]

References:

[i] Shalom, motherf****r. | Eitan Chitayat | Ops & Blogs | The Times of Israel http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shalom-motherfr/#ixzz38RLvkRb8

[ii]Truth & Balance Vs. The Side of The Story That Sells Best

[iii] Bethke, E.B. 1995 Augustine and the limits of Politics University of Notre Dame Press, pp.74, 75, 81

[iv] Markus,R.A. 1981 Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St Augustine in Augustine and the limits of Politics, Bethke, E.B. 1995 University of Notre Dame Press

Image:”In Mosul homes are marked with the letter “Nun” (ن), the Arabic equivalent of our “N” and the abbreviation for Nasara, or “Nazarenes”: what they call Christians in a gesture of contempt to make them seem like outsiders in their own land….”(Source: http://www.patheos.com/…/muslims-marking-christian…/)

[Originally published 7th July 2014]

A few years back I did an online retreat for a spiritual formations class I was taking. It was a core subject, with a large amount of flexibility in what classes you can choose from[1].

What was revealed to me during of one of these classes was the short but sweet statement, ‘aim to bless, rather than impress’. Recently, I found myself questioning it’s viability as a theological statement from which society can be critiqued.

I began wrestling with the question, is there ever an appropriate time to impress people? As a budding student theologian, I immediately started to critically work out a reasoned polemic.

The answer I came up with was no. There should never be a need to try to impress people, ever. If there is follow Paul’s advice and run, run far and run fast (2 Tim.2:22 ESV).

I’m a fairly confident guitar player, and I love a large variety of musical genres, so putting on a show is in my very westernized and socially engineered self-conscience. Throughout junior and senior high school, getting the latest riff right down to its semitone and crochet, determined a high level of social acceptance.

As a result I derived my sense of self-worth from how well I could play (i.e.: put on a show). In my pre-Christ alignment, this became an idol I obsessed over.

From hard learned experiences, for me appearance determined reputation and was therefore everything. The language of acceptance was, at least from my prespective, my musical ability.

The statement ‘aim to bless, rather than impress’ is counter-cultural. We know this because God’s standard is to ‘look upon the heart and not outward appearance..not as humans do’ (1.Sam.16:7).

This means that a statement like aim to bless rather than impress, is the ordained orientation for humanity, even if it is not always the reality. This statement appears on the ‘horizon of the possibility’s of grace’ (Leonard Ravenhill).

Father, Son and Spirit rushes towards us, not unlike the prodigal’s father running towards his son, undeterred by his “wasteful” public display of affection, joy, gratitude and forgiveness (Lk. 15:17) [2].

For now, I have concluded that humans are called to be bothered with how we bless people, as opposed to how we impress them. This does not mean I give up on performing, it means that I resist any area in my life where my performance, worth and acceptance is tempted to become about simply just ‘putting on a show’.

Today, I was reading my news feeds and stumbled across this relevant gem by Wendy Murray:

”Your worth, and mine, cannot–I dare say, must not — be reduced to “likes,” “retweets,” “shares,” and “mentions.” Your worth and, mine; your influence on others’ lives, and mine, have nothing to do with measureable algorythms. It is a lie…be who you are, before God. Do what God made you to do. Look people in the eye. Show up. That is enough’’

What that all means is this:

In order to express excellence we must only do our best! Outside simply giving our best, the contemporary ”virtue” of excellence and the quest for it can become an idol.

In doing so we live out of a darkened sense of self-worth dictated to us by others, instead of God’s idea of who we are. When we aim to bless, rather than impress, we set our feet on the Christological reality that says,

‘it is only from God that men and women know who they are’ (Bonhoeffer 1966, p.31).

This is the only measuring stick, and from it we ‘intuitively recognize that we, ourselves are more than what has been defined for us’ (Cone paraphrased p.11, 1975).

Give thanks, for “we are found”… (David Crowder)


References:

Bonhoeffer, D. 1966 Christology William Collins Sons and Co Ltd, London

Cone, J.H. 1975, God of the oppressed Orbis books, Maryknoll, N.Y

(Edited from an article originally posted in 2013)


[1] I plan to write on some of my experiences, if I get the time to formulate them into a coherent and linear framework.

[2] Luke 15:17 ‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. (ESV)

Photo by José Martín on Unsplash

Emancipation

May 4, 2017 — 2 Comments

.

I’m schooled by necessity,
schooling from what was thrown at me unnecessarily.

Gasping for gravity,
learning new abilities beyond any owned or taught capacity.
Here you find me, of my broken father.
Me, a father’s broken son.

Another recipient of grace and master of no one;
a child with problems and a wounded teen;
high on self-medication; alcohol and drugs.

Sooner forgotten;
.          shifted blame,
.    adults and pointed fingers,
.    children forced to make adult decisions;
.                 figure it all out and not pull any triggers.

That place,
.      outpaced by a child’s pain;
.      a teen’s hate follows sadness like a moth to a flame.

Better your story not told,
.         than your story told before those who’d rather not know.

But, through this I grow.

Discounting tears;
.   chained to fear,
.   my companions abandon safe shores,
.   the dregs of smiles and public compassion dissolving into smoke and mirrors,
.   because there’s no medallions,
.                podiums,
.                applause,
.                or Instagram-perfect winners.

Such is the deadly repetition.
The cycle of denial, excuses and self-justification.

Sore eyes become long dark sighs, swimming in bloodshot exhaustion,
weakened by arguments and my point of view’s abortion.

Painful images painted by words,
morphed by experience and the cry of useful lament.

Stillness and memories,
.                   put downs and verbal incendiaries
Kindled by petition,
.               protest prayer and the cries for justice;
.               prayed out protests petitioning the light breather;

God. The life saver.

Pathos carried from human hearts to the heart of the unseeable;
carried up, out and on quiet wings to the unseen.
The one who makes Himself knowable.

As I am, I was found.
Found as I was,
.  here so I am.

Raised as a son by The Father,
.  brought up by The Father,
.  because of The Son.

I, now a father;
.   in Jesus Christ,
.   a forgiving son.

Right here. The Gracious. The righteous;
my emancipation sealed and won.


(RL2017)

‘The only way to escape from the devil is to run away from him without giving him any notice. Just as you are, at this moment escape with your lives! Do as the prodigal son did – say, “I will arise and go to [THE] Father.” And the, like he, rise up at once and go!”

(Charles Spurgeon, Sermon Lowly Service)