Friday, September 17, 2010

The Parable of the iPad and the Swimming Pool

Last week’s episode of the Gruen Transfer, in which the panel discussed the marketing of religion, did more than just prompt my musings on the “H Word”. It also touched upon something else that’s been on my mind about the inestimable impact of modernism on what David Wells calls “Our Time”.

David F Wells is the author of a book that my brother loaned me called, “No place for truth, or whatever happened to Evangelical Theology?” (IVP, 1995). I’m half way through and I hope my reading of it doesn’t end up like so many of my unfinished projects, which is, of course, unfinished.

According to the bio, David Wells is (or was) a Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, Massachusetts. The central thesis of the first part of his rather dense book is that we’ve got more to worry about from modernism than any other “ism” out there.

Wells describes a massive paradigm shift that has occurred, largely unnoticed outside specialist circles, in the last 200 or so years of western civilization. In a nutshell, before we derived our self-identity from family and place (in which Church played an important role) and after we derive our self-identity from our own internal experience.

The rather profound outworkings of this paradigm shift are that a pre-modern person would look outside himself or herself in order to interpret and understand the world, and a post-modern would look inside himself or herself.

This might sound highly theoretical, but it becomes important when you consider that the Biblical idea of God is someone that transcends human experience. If you've got difficulty following the jargon, think of a God who was there before there were any human beings to experience Him (Gen 1:1), and who will be there after the end of all things, too (Rev 22:13). In other words, God is outside of us, but He also enters into our experience in a tangible way (John 1:14).

According to Wells, the post-modern mind finds this concept confusing, incomprehensible and, possibly, very frightening. Basically, there’s a God out there who does not conform to whatever image we have of Him in our minds. To the post-modern, God is a threat and that’s seen as a bad thing (even if it’s true).

Anyway, the Ad-luvvies on the Gruen Transfer articulated the post-modern view superbly (if unconsciously), with their talk of “building the brand”. To them, religion is a consumable, and the success of the advertising is measured in increased sales (or bums on pews). They weren’t concerned with content, or whether something was true or not, and that might not be such a bad thing in the context of mass marketing. They were simply concerned about whether the adverts did the job of getting people into church (or, keeping the converted in the church).

So, the Ad-men’s appraisal of religious advertising was set within the same context of marketing the iPad. It might require some initial investment, but it’s something you can slip into your handbag with everything else that you carry around with you, and once you’ve got it, you’ll find that it’s cool and useful. The connection to post-modernism is that the “usefulness” of the product is assessed according to each individual’s experience. And, like the proverbial product, we have the right to discard it when it interferes with our predispositions, aspirations and habits.

Another one of my projects (which I hope to continue) is that I’ve been doing lane-swimming at the local pool on Saturdays and Sundays. I’m quite pleased with my progress, but I still get passed by human torpedoes more regularly than I’d like.

One of my musings, while swimming, is that I’d like someone to ask me if I find my Christian faith “useful”. I’ve been looking for answer such a question for a while, and I think I’ve found one. Ask me if my Christian faith helps me in my life, and I will ask whether the swimming pool helps my swimming.

It’s a riddle, of course. The water in the pool slows me down tremendously (I’d get to the other end much faster if I could walk). But without the pool there would be no swimming. Without God there would be no life, so the question about whether He helps you in it or not is unanswerable. OK, so there are some rules, like don’t try to breath in when you’re head is under water, but the rules make sense when you acknowledge that you’re in a swimming pool.

So, we’re back to the pre-modern/post-modern thing. Like God, the swimming pool is outside me, and I am in the pool. It’s not simply a figment of my imagination, which I can re-create according to my internal dictates. Acknowledging the pool and my place in it is the start of my sustainable relationship with the pool.

The acknowledgment of God is the start of a sustainable relationship between Creator and creature, and it is also the start of the sustainable relationships between us creatures. The first lesson in this is that we cannot re-mold reality just because it doesn't suit us. Truth is important and, contrary to the conspiracy theorists (like Dan Brown) the concept of transcendent truth is highly valued in the Christian faith.

Oh, and iPads are cool, too.

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