Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Unfettered Hope - Part 1

In the endorsements for Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society by Marva Dawn, Eugene Peterson remarks that whenever Dawn releases a new book, he reads it. And then he passes it on to his friends. I am developing a similar appreciation for her work. Her writings on worship have been instrumental in re-calibrating my thinking, and her discussions on engaging the culture with the Gospel are always fresh, thought-provoking, convicting and encouraging. Unfettered Hope is no exception. (By the way, I'm not always a big fan of Peterson, but stuff like this has caused his stock to rise significantly in my eyes.)

The book focuses on the many ways in which modern life binds our hopes and shackles us with despair. Dawn notes that for many throughout the world, this oppression comes overtly, in the forms of war, poverty, famine and disease. Not only do these afflictions end physical life, they also cripple the hopes of their victims. However, Dawn concentrates the bulk of her book on the covert ways in which prosperous cultures, such as the United States, steadily and stealthily bind the hopes and aspirations of their citizens. She highlights how the "technological milieu" that has produced such great wealth has also invisibly acted to reduce everything, from products to relationships to people, into commodities to be bought and sold. This commodification has fractured vital personal and social relationships, resulting in ever-growing individualism, isolation and, ultimately, a sense of meaningless.

Worst of all, the consumer paradigm has infiltrated the Church, which has the only true antidote to the meaningless and hopelessness suffered by the surrounding world. Dawn argues that the Church must take up the challenge of exposing and disarming the "principalities and powers" of the technological milieu that fetter the hope of individual Christians and churches alike. These actions free us to realign our focal concerns around the greatest commandments --to love God and to love our neighbor. Only then will the Church truly be able to confront the culture's darkness with the light of the Gospel and to bring hope to the surrounding fallen world.

The Device Paradigm

In the opening chapters, Dawn sketches the contours of our technology-laden society, in order to expose how they negatively impact its citizens. One useful illustration is the contrast between "things" and "devices" in providing needed commodities (or wanted ones). By example, she considers a home in the northern United States. During the winter months, there is a desperate need for adequate heating amidst the bitter cold. A century ago, this need was met (largely) by a fireplace/hearth. The fireplace is a "thing" -- that is, it provides the necessary commodity (i.e. heat) while existing in a network of relationships. A "thing" cannot be separated from its context, and it provides more than one commodity. Not only does it provide heat for survival, it is also used (directly or indirectly) in other household activities, such as cooking and cleaning. It is not instantaneous; rather, time and effort (chopping wood, building the fire, etc) are required to provide heat. The heat is not ubiquitous, and, in winter months especially, the fireplace becomes a focal point of the home. It also defines and is defined by the rhythm of the household, as families rise each morning to make the fire and extinguish it at night. The operation of the fireplace requires skills that must be learned and honed, such as chopping firewood and fire-starting. Furthermore, the fireplace is enmeshed in a variety of social relationships. Chores involving the fireplace are distributed to different family members, and necessary skills must be passed down from parents to their children. The fireplace is a "thing," because not only is it visible, it is integral to a broad spectrum of relationships and activities within the home. As a "thing," it involves skills which engage the senses at all levels.

By contrast, in more modern times, the same commodity (heat) is easily provided by a thermostat-controlled furnace/central heating system. This system is a "device" -- it is designed to operate with very little skill on the part of the user and to function invisibly. Although the benefits of centralized heating are evident, there are many drawbacks often left unconsidered. Gone is the need for skill on the part of the operator. The device can be operated with minimal effort and with only a bare understanding of how the system actually works. If the device malfunctions or breaks, the user is usually reliant on those possessing the special skills needed to repair it. Because the device requires little skill to operate, little skill must be passed on to other family members. The device removes a component of the inter-generational transmission of skills that was evident with the fireplace of yesteryear. The device paradigm results in the vanishing of attention to the means and a focus on the ends, the commodities produced.

Obviously, all analogies break down, but I think Dawn's comparison establishes the point that the modern paradigm is driven by devices that require very little skill to provide a desired commodity. The device (by design) becomes invisible, and very little thought is given to where or how the commodity is produced. Methodology becomes irrelevant as efficiency becomes the paramount concern -- how quickly/cheaply can I get the desired end result?

Focal Concerns

However, Dawn does not shun technology or devices in general. Rather, her concern is with the mindset and motivation behind how we wield them. The removal of the relation between means and ends has resulted in a culture that has misplaced its values. By viewing speed and efficiency as having exceedingly great importance, our society perpetuates technological advancement, in part, as a way to "save time." But, Dawn muses, what benefit does this "saved time" actually have? Unfortunately, this saved time rarely translates into contentment, and people turn to accumulating more commodities to fill up the "empty time." Because we are uncomfortable filling this empty time with relationships, contemplation, reflection and other activities involving engagement on a deeper level (because they require too much time!), we turn to diversions and entertainment, which our media-driven culture has convinced us are needs to be met by consumption and consumerism.

Dawn argues that the technological paradigm will only loosen its fettering grip when we actively seek to expose it for what it is. Because this milieu is all-pervasive, it is often difficult to see through it. However, cracks occasionally appear and reveal the shallowness within. (Reading this, I had a brief flashback to the Matrix series, where the humans are largely unaware of their captivity within the system.) Instead of capitulating to the paradigm, we must identify our core values, our "focal concerns," and re-orient our lives around them. Technological means must be reigned into submission towards the advancement of these concerns, instead of being used thoughtlessly and in tacit endorsement of the pardigm's values. By deliberate use of technology in ways that support these core values, alternatives to the prevailing mindset can be demonstrated and, in conjunction with exposing the cracks in the system, people can be released from the hope-suppressing nature of society.

So, what are these "focal concerns"? Dawn quickly notes that not all concerns are equally valid or beneficial. She spends the latter half of the book establishing that the two primary focal concerns for the Christian are the two greatest commandments - 1) loving God and 2) loving neighbor. Our life's activities, including our use of technology, should be intentionally oriented around these twin concerns. In the next part, I'll look at Dawn's thoughts on how the Christian story helps form our own lives around these concerns, as well as practices and habits that intentionally reinforce them, over and against the prevailing consumer-driven culture.

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