The Baker’s Oven

I sit quiet as an eye resting in a soft white cloth after I’ve been burned alive, crumbs stuck in folds.

I am not a poet (I write prose), but I can be a know-it-all and laugh. Haha! That’s enough! 

But when I strike a cracker of gold in a dark room, I hit a blind strength of sight overtaking me like a thump of dough enfolding my light soul. 

All words have been said before and so I hollow like leaven molding caverns in a molting corpse. I can reach for nothing in the oven, appetite running into the bright white I’ve been washed in.

My fingers freeze at the crisp touch of the iron door. 

Hunger laid its eggs in the sun (a rolled bit of gold burning my dry, fissured soul) and a warm loaf of baked bread lodged in my throat, breathless, and the honey of my unvoiced poetry like a lump I cannot swallow. 

The baker told me, “Young man, strong, and life of sight never dimming, what makes you a great man,” he slid a weighty clump into the oven, “when you have none of summer’s sugar? So crawl into the sun before night’s over, because the pilot light never runs out.” He grinned and threw his hands into a shiny tin of flour and wiped down the wooden pin. 

I eat a strange, sweet pastry in the heated, heaving chest of the crackling, brick seat. Next to nests, is this the only humid cavity that rears rising meat with human fears…?

Touch me or kiss me or something. Maybe I could convince myself that I am in love. I am not a lover, but I can eat bread and laugh…is that enough?  

I was trapped inside and burned. Now I am alive and I see you standing to my right.

Part I. The Post-Secularist Society: Christian Hipster Culture: Self-Consciousness is a Shit-Conscience: Suburban Problems: How 2 B Sad 2-gether: M2M Spirituality: The Political Media System (PMS): Apostasy: Laziness, Illusions, and the Nation of Ghosts with Erections Pledging Allegiance to the Flag of Their Own Greed and Maintaining Diligently Their Civil Posts as Sentinels for Their Private/Public Outrage (OR: How to Protect Our Malformed Souls)

I

The Architecture of the Internet has turned my mind into an ice cream cone. My mind is now the exact imprint of the Facebook home page. I pat myself on the back, because I am now an ice cream cone with a slick user interface.

We all waste time very badly. I should know. I got so angry at myself for falling into the void of Below Average Entertainment, that I decided to write this ephemeral blog post about how we all can live happier lives. How are we supposed to live in a society that is so wealthy, it has produced a vast amount of people with vast amounts of free time who have no better way to pass it than by tickling easy fancies and browsing for movies? Or, if it is during the day and you refuse to fully dedicate yourself to one task, checking facebook and reading inane articles?

The internet is a real, public-setting as any place in life, but it can be abused as a substance. It is the public square for the dissemination of opinions and occasional facts. You must use it as a tool intentionally to “network.” Ooh, fancy word. Definition: to maintain contact with humanity.

The internet is a place we go, sometimes get trapped in, sometimes return to like a dog to his vomit. But, most importantly, it is a place where we meet others. That is what the internet is all about. It is about meeting other people—not screen-names or avatars—but the people behind them. This is next-to-impossible and it might be better, for some, to not use the internet at all.

I think the internet has its place and no one has found it yet.

You’re following your normal routine. You’re growing bored with life.

Netflix and pornography work on the same principles and they have the same end goal for you: the total demolition of your sensitivities. They want you to spend more time with them through dependence than time spent actually doing what you care about. Whether you’re an intellectual (hyphen: burden) or a garbageman, you have a list of things you’d rather be doing than watching Netflix “if only you weren’t tired.” What are you habituating yourself to? Did you know that you have probably re-wired your brain to get serotonin dumps from Netflix now, instead of that desired-activity-that-you-never-get-to-because-you’re-too-tired? If you rewired your brain, maybe playing the guitar would be that relaxing time set aside. If you rewired your brain, maybe it would be reading or knitting or expanding your tastes or cooking. Re-wiring your brain is not some new ability that we’ve discovered and it didn’t take a guy in a shiny suit to let us know about it. It’s the old idea of catechesis. Hi, Catechesis! We’ll catch up with you later, right after this message from our sponsors:

Hello, I am Sponsor #1. Today, I have a talking point. My talking point is that people have short attention spans. Thank you.

Hello, I am Sponsor #2. My talking point is in line with Caleb’s. Here we go: People don’t have short attention spans. It’s a lie. We spend inordinate amounts of time on the activity of information-grazing on the internet and/or movie-grazing.

We were all made for so much more, to have a vivid image of this life in everything we spend our time doing and it doesn’t mean we all must become the same person. It means that we actually do what satisfies us instead of filling our free time with what puts distance between us and the object of our under-nourished desires. When we remove the distance, we discover difficulty at once. This difficulty is essential to our happiness.

Avoiding the opiates of the masses is the only way that we can restore diversification to rest times. We have plenty of diversification now in career fields–why can’t we have them in the field of Not-Work?

Netflix and movies prevail over you, because you’ve convinced the architecture of your mind to think that doing the Worthwhile Activity is too tiring, that you’re too tired. If you’re too tired, go to bed. If you’re not too tired to go to bed, then you’re not tired. When I was four years old, I told my mom I was full, but not full for dessert. It might be cute, but it’s not an accurate description of what you’re feeling.

If you tell me that you’re too tired to do anything other than Netflix, that is called an addiction. It means that you can’t do anything else but Netflix. Why can’t you? You can rewire that. If you feel guilty about how much television you watch, then do something about it. It might be cute to pretend like you’re guilty, but it’s not an accurate description. It’s better to say, “I’m wasting my life and I love it!” than it is to say, “I’m wasting my life. It’s bad.” Don’t wear your self-deprecating guilt like a cool jacket. Feel the pain and hurt of the guilt you claim.

You’ve done something wrong. You’ve hurt yourself. You’ve made it impossible to live without Netflix. Imagine the world without Netflix–would you live there? If your answer is no, then you are classified as Slave-to-Invisible-Forces-That-Draw-Us-In-to-Shiny-Objects.

The husband in the fifties who came back from work, too tired to talk to his family and just had to sit next to the Tee-Vee and drink his beer and be “left alone for a bit” is still with us (hey! Off limits–you didn’t grow up in the 50s! That’s just an unfair trope). Except, that dad is now everybody. The whole family now collectively ignores one another next to the warm glowing box of strangers just doing their job, just making money off of suckers like you.

“We’re just wondering how can we make money from spiritual ennui this time. Jeez, you sound alarmist!”

Yes! I am!

Because for the first time in human history, there has never been something so available, so anonymous, and so addictive as pornography. And how has this been achieved? By the internet. And if you believe that pornography classifies as those three things (and you believe it also classifies as: Dangerous for Society, Pervasive, Morally Problematic, and Bad for Men and Women), then you should also consider that the architecture which has made it possible is also something to be concerned about.

The internet has provided us with a set of moral problems unique to our time that we have to deal with and have failed to. You should also see how it’s not ridiculous to be alarmist about the internet in general.

I’m alarmist, because it seems like very few people have taken a step back and put their life of Netflix-Facebook-Internet-Smartphone into the perspective of the short span of their time here on earth.

We are being changed by the internet.

Is it for the better?

No. Not yet.

Living in an entertainment society is not worth accepting. It is not enough to say, “Be tasteful about your slavery!” We’re slaves to our entertainment and we are coming to believe that we are much more tired and much more incapable and much more bored than we really are.

We are settling for death. Nobody actually wants to spend their life watching Netflix, nobody wants to spend their life on the internet. They want to spend their life doing the things that produce the content for the Tee-Vee shows and the internet articles. But they have not spend the time asking themselves what they really want. No one has chosen gross amounts of produced entertaining consumables, they have just accepted it.

At first, you take a stand. And then you quickly lose yourself inside the vortex. It’s a very short process, actually. Some see the vortex and stand away from it. Some go in and try to ride it, but maintain their course. Others, most of us, are sucked in. The moderate way is not the best way. Those who ride their course are those who make money from other people’s lack of intentionality. They’re trying to make an ugly process beautiful. The best course is to run into the vortex and save people and then quickly run out again. You can’t see what is happening to people unless you’re standing at a distance.

Outrage is a form of cheap entertainment. You must possess yourself, if you are able to speak consciously. Few people possess themselves these days. They are overcome by the easy way, the way paved with ease, the path of least insistence.

We are by our fallen nature, slaves to our passions. The passions now are: Internet Outrage: Laziness: The Need to Check for likes: the Compulsion to Participate: The Fear of Passing Unseen: The Need for Distraction. Our passions are a cruel master, because they don’t let us be passionate about anything besides them. The person with passions as their head has no ability to have passionate love for things.

“This steals our fun!”

If Netflix and losing yourself on the internet is your ideal way of fun, then you have a boring and skewed view of yourself. No wonder you’re so bored! You’re so bored that you’ll spend hours at a time forgetting that you’re sitting in a chair with your eyes glazed out. You’re like me at four years old, daydreaming of how awesome it would be to eat one hundred candy bars.

Always see the people. There is no such thing as a belief or opinion or argument or image on the internet that does not have its source in a human with desires.

You do not know the others. They are and will always be strangers, because we will always be strangers to ourselves.

In the future, blogs will be used to fuel the interest in lifestyles recently and comparing them will become more word-based than image-based. Memoirs of Average People will become increasingly popular in the next few decades. That is my prediction and this is a biproduct of a culture which has been in the business of manufacturing as many different lifestyles as possible.

People like comparing experience, because most truth nowadays is distilled from experience and how experiences between people relate. Scandal is not news: but blogs might be (personal blogs you can trust).

People will want personalized news. They will like to get news from people they know, not institutions. People now—whatever do they mean (they should wonder)?—oppose institutions. It will, of course, produce some great institutions. As it is now, people will begin to oppose syndicated news in favor of news that comes from sources like friends or bloggers. People are tired of Fox News, BBC, CNN. You play a part in this.

II

How does the world want us to participate in their popularity contests?

This strange beast, this ephemeral beast that, for some very strange reason, matters, this opportunity for strangers to care about what strangers say…HOMESCHOOLING RACISM CHRISTIAN CONSERVATIVE CONCERNS AND WHOA SCANDAL AGAIN WELL IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW RIDICULOUS WHAT IS THE WORLD COMING TO WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE, THEY SAY, WALKING THEIR CHILDREN TO SCHOOL, THE GAS CHAMBERS OF THE SOCIALIST GOVERNMENT, LETTING OUR HOMELESS MEN GO WITHOUT THE WELFARE, DRUNK ON CELERY BATH SALTS ALL OVER THE PLACE, SPILT UPON THEIR SHOES, TIL THEY EAT THE FACES OF OUR RAPISTS, WHO ARE ALL OUR PASTORS OF THE DESPOTIC MEGACHURCHES AND STILL IT ALL MATTERS DOESN’T IT.

People want me to care for things and be active in the digital world, in the realm of the internet, but I don’t see it as a place that’s really worth going. I have compared the internet to a public square in the past, but it’s more like a desert. It is a desert of poetry. There is little to be found and what oases there are have been much too difficult to find. I don’t trust the internet. I have become almost anti-internet in my mindset, like I am anti-centralization. It’s not that I am not political. I think we ought to devote time to the polis, to the City of Man, but how we devote ourselves to it is a question worth asking. And the political method most Americans take is one I’m not comfortable with.

You might be wondering what, exactly, I am talking about. I am talking specifically about that kind of politics that requires the media for it to function. I am talking about that kind of political dialog that is perpetuated by radio talk shows, television shows, internet outlets, and the people who consume all three who talk about “what is happening to this country” around the dinner table. I am suspect of it all, because I can’t help but think that it feeds off the lust of Mammon and power: and those who care to tune in are the ones that provide both. Citizens that get whipped up into the latest furor, usually an intellectual battle or a public shaming or demonstration of outrage, are fodder. They justify the existence of political media that is divided between liberal and conservative. I am tired of that whole system, as I think most of my generation is.

My generation should shape up to be one of political apathy and that thrills me. If we opt out, if we stop caring, then the whole system won’t function anymore. And I don’t want it to function anymore. Woohoo! I want it to grow smaller, much smaller. But it cannot grow smaller if we keep pretending like it is the big deal that both liberal and conservative media makes it out to be. Same-sex marriage is a symptom, but we treat it like a toxin. How are small amounts of corrupt individuals getting married going to make this country worse than it already is? People are already getting their way.

The solution, people tell me, is to not be apathetic about the whole system. The system wants me to pick up my sword and fight, because it thrives on aggression. I honestly just don’t see it doing any good. And why do I think that? Because, history has proven that those who participate in a system while it is sinking are simply participating in a sinking system. What else would it be?

What I do agree with is that conflict could be very healthy. But, the way to a healthy conflict is to be apathetic and not listen to the media. I can’t believe I have to say it, because it just seems so basic. The conflict we do not want is one in a long line of artificial battles which both liberal and conservative sides want. It would justify their existence. The conflict we do want is between whether the system is worth keeping.

You ask me, “What system? And do you really think we are being brainwashed?” I’ll answer the second question: no. We are not being brainwashed anymore than what we consume affects how we think. And when we consume media and the blogosphere that simply has its rules and interests set by instant gratification, we are teaching our minds to think that it is good and right and healthy to get angry about the specific battlegrounds that the pawns of power choose.

The political media system (PMS) justifies and perpetuates it existence by setting up fake battles which impress upon their oppressed citizens the illusion of progress. But, the world powers give and take from each other, give and take, give and take. No progress is ever made. And the citizens are whipped up into delicious creams.

Winston Smith and other rebels (which are also illusory) think that the solution to all this is to attack the system directly through aggression. They want to storm the Bastille.

But, here’s my hypothesis: I think, if all the citizens chose apathy over aggression, the system would begin to malfunction. It would fall, or its excesses would be trimmed. The proletariat are not held by force. The proletariat are more than those who oppress them. It’s not through force, but through controlling what the proletariat care about. They control the proletariat, because the proletariat have been taught to care about the false battles and the false expansions of frontier, the false defeats, the false rebellions, the false pleasures. If the proletariat were to become bored with what the system fed them (inevitable), then what else would happen but what happens to businesses? It would go bankrupt. They would need to find another way to please the people.

In America—and I don’t think there is anyone heading it, except you—citizens are similarly allowing the system to continue existing. The PMS is a headless business. There is a market right now for all the political interests and all the hot topics and so PMS delivers. What we need is for people to change their taste. We need people to be interested in a smaller system, one with not so much interest-excess. The PMS has the same failed ideology as many businesses, one that is their downfall: progress. When a business has progress as its final end, it will reach a climax moment, a moment where growth becomes impossible. You know this already. What happens then? It needs to retreat and shrink back. That is healthy for any business that has over-stepped its boundaries. And it needs to happen to the PMS. But, it cannot happen if we continue to buy their products. Just stop going to that store.

You could ask, “What does that look like?” Let me just say, before, that we are not the ones retreating. The ones that we want to retreat are those who let the PMS continue to exist. We want the PMS to retreat and it will retreat once we refuse to give it what it wants: our interest. What this looks like practically I’ll explore later.

Now, you might think, “But, this is just cultural suicide!”

No. We make a new system, we are part of a different system. Aggression is not the answer. We are a subculture right now. We are not supposed to be a subculture: we are supposed to be an anti-culture, one opposed to the culture which is unholy (not set apart) itself.

You might ask, “Are you suggesting civil disobedience and total removal from the culture?”

No, you still need to vote. You still need to pay your taxes. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. And render to God what is God’s, namely your soul and your mind and your body. That is part of the thinking behind this partial cultural retreat. And it is not a limp-wristed or weak thing. It is the much harder thing to do than aggression. Aggression is the animal instinct that desires the instant gratification of seeing some political opponent you hate with every seething muscle get publicly beheaded. Revolutionary stuff like that, where they tell us that “this is the moment” that things change, is simply part of the cycle. A bunch of lies going for bulk sale.

We are holy beacons. We cannot shed light on something if we are the darkness.

Usually, the internet forum is used as a tool to participate in this system that runs on us (America Runs on Opinions).

Cue Matt Walsh.

Blogs are the gathering places of people whose minds will never be changed. This is not because people don’t change their minds. It’s because people are not convinced by the things they know they will find. People are more convinced by surprise. And the thing that will surprise people is to see that it is possible to live differently than how they live currently. What most liberals see from conservatives (and vice versa) are not lifestyles, but a set of beliefs.

We live in a society, unusually, where the real fight is over who lives the better life, but we paste over it a battle that is actually not the one being waged. We think it is a battle over who has the majority opinion, belief. We think it is the battle of whose beliefs are truer. It’s not. People are not swayed by arguments and they aren’t looking for them. They look to beliefs to be aggressive, but they are also hungry for lifestyles to adopt.

This is, I think, the idea behind Instagram. If Instagram and Facebook were two separate spirits, Facebook would be the one of beliefs and Instagram the one of lifestyle. The reason Instagram and other image-based social media will become increasingly successful is because people want to see how others live. They want to know: do I live well? Do I live better then the next man? People want to live as best as possible, which is one of the reasons why DIY and lifestyle blogs are so successful, too.

How many opinion blogs, if their authors started to write about what they fill their days with, would shift the debate from one of who has the bigger words and the better rhetoric to one of who actually leads a better life? A lot of people leave the church, because they think that the church is full of hypocrites. And it is. But, what if those people encountered a life that was full, with the beliefs thoroughly embodied? Hypocrisy comes in when there is an uncommented-upon divide between beliefs and lifestyle: and the way the blogging is set-up (and the dry desert of the internet currently works) is that people see either the beliefs or the lifestyle, but never both together. When people usually find the lifestyle of someone who has loud-and-proud internet beliefs, it is typically because that person is being outed or accused of something.

III

We are always looking at one another, but seem unwilling to stand shoulder to shoulder. We are always observing one another like lovers (or the detectives they hire to follow their unfaithful spouse so they can appear on Maury) and we never let someone hold us by our arm and lead us forward.

I despise that kind of education that simply makes consumers out of us. No matter how good the education is, people will be tempted to turn their education into an accomplishment, something to be proud of. People will lord their studies over other people, what they have read over each other, as if it makes them closer to God. But, nothing makes you closer to God that pushes you further into yourself. If an education is not paired with the glory and immediate necessity of the Gospel, without it being a constant thing we are to depend on, all that education gets us is a bunch of self-absorbed people sitting around throwing ideas about other people at one another.

What a waste of time and waste of people.

If we are going to make any progress, not in the making of culture or in any other cardboard cut-out idol, but rather in the capturing of souls, people desperate to be fed, even without knowing it, if we are going to make any progress with proclaiming the glory of the Gospel to even the most bitter people, or the people more honest with themselves than us, the ones that simply cannot believe, the ones that have tried their whole lives to believe—will we show God to them by sitting around talking about strangers to them? The only stranger they ought to be concerned about, the only one they ought to know, is not a literary giant (DEATHZ), but Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ made it as simple as it can be (follow me in love), but the ways that Christians have applied their own little pet projects dogmatically for other people throughout the ages is so disheartening. I am not the first person to feel this way. And it is not even the hypocrisy. It is the discrepancy between each project that bothers me. It’s as if these two biological siblings claim to have different biological parents.

Everything, every belief, comes down to lifestyle. Who lives the best? So then I ask myself often, “If I were to not live as a Christian, how would I live?” I have been unable to dissect moral satisfaction from belief. If I did not live as a Christian, I would be required to live as something else. And so what are my options? If I were not a Christian, I would be unable to live without guilt. “It would be an illusion of guilt, though,” I am told. “You would only feel guilty, because you grew up a Christian. And because of that, you ought to be angry at your parents.” Fine, I’ll accept that, if there really is no God. But, that does not stop the fact that I would feel guilty.

Note: Why am I about to choose atheism as the antithesis to Christianity? One, because it is the present cultural divide for anyone considering the possibility of apostasy: between utter disbelief or total belief. Most importantly, it is the divide I find in myself and from which I derive these broader claims.

Is the Gospel of Atheism that we no longer have to live without guilt, simply because the guilt is an illusion? Isn’t that Gospel as difficult to apply when you’re an apostate as the real Gospel is when you’re a Christian? Because as a Christian, I can see how an atheist would look at my life and say, “Well, you see, you cannot live happily, because you so often deny your body. And when you don’t deny your body, which is inevitable, you feel guilty.” The thing the atheist (me) misunderstands here is that the body is not inevitable. What is inevitable is forgiveness. That is satisfaction without guilt.

I have put it to myself this way: the lie, on both sides, for both Christians and atheists, is that it is only about beliefs. Which beliefs hold the most water, which system of belief is the most coherent, consistent? That is not the question entirely. The main question is: who can live more freely? And I take the beliefs of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, because I can either believe his claims are true, or I can be a slave to the petty desires of the flesh. Those are my only choices.

What I have to deal with in this existence is this whole thing of guilt. It is an old and ancient thing. And everyone has tried to deal with it in their own ways. How we deal with guilt, the sense of it and whether or not it is something that actually weighs against us in a metaphysical way (as Christianity teaches) will determine how we live. What Jesus allows me to do is not worry about it. And that is how the Christian lifestyle is formed. It is formed entirely by freedom. All guilt is given to Christ. And how we proceed after that is entirely our decision. And our decision is formed by our relationship with God.

What it comes down to is who can be the most human and thrive as a human in all of the fleshly needs that a human has and all the metaphysical ones which the hard-liner atheist has to reject anyhow. He deals with them by not believing in them. All of these insular issues Christians have with Christians about how to live as a Christian—all of them—cannot be good if they are not founded on the Gospel. And the Gospel is what I have been talking about: it’s about being free. And anything that pushes further into slavery is antithetical. I hate slavery. And that is why I hate unbelief. I want to kill it with the Gospel, not with my machinations. My machinations are for me to enjoy. I am not going to lie about them. So, sometimes I should let them go. And if I feel convicted that some machinations I have since enjoyed have become an idol for me (or have at least gotten in the way of living freely) I don’t need to hold them anymore.

So many people think that the fate of the church comes down to their programs or the foundations they have made. That is a lie. It does not come down to us because we are not the head of the church. The church is not going to be healed by the projects we throw at it. All projects and designs crumble with age and the people who made them will die. Empires fall because emperors die. Who will be there to inherit what we have made? Fools, people who didn’t know where we were coming from. And the church would be much better I think if the people who made the programs to heal its various illusory sectors would be willing to give up their programs once their programs have begun to decay. We should all be willing to call it quits. Like our bodies, once something has served its purpose, it is ready to go. Programs get exhausted like people do. At a certain point in my life, I will be ready to die because I will just be so tired or bored of all this rigamarole without the sweetness of the promised resurrection. A lot of young people think that they will sleep a lot when they’re older. But old age is typically an age of insomnia and a tired body that can never get enough rest. The body of old age is one with a voracious craving for sleep that will not be satisfied by a bed of sheets and pillows.

IV

Belief has always been an option. It has been an option long before people clung closely to reason. Belief in God was the default position for thousands of years. Was this out of fear or did the fear come after people began to reject God?

The New Atheists (not all atheists are so dogmatic) would like to reverse the clock backwards to prevent belief from ever having been an option. They hate that belief exists because it asks uncomfortable questions. They just want the problems to go away. If I was to apostatize, I would be a slave to what I was not: a believer. I could not get around the fact that what I was really for was a dramatic position of anti-belief. Unbelievers (God, break all of our hearts): they are the other option, they are not the default position, they had to make the choice and take the leap of faith away from faith and set up their own camp. They hate that they are treated second-class citizens in a Post-Christian society like ours. I hate it, too. I wish they see that they don’t have to live in bondage of fear, that they don’t have to stir up their own courage for fears that do not belong to anyone but those who no longer believe. Unbelief is dependent on belief being an option: this is historically contingent.

V

All of our hearts are beating. Plenty of people live without being aware. It’s not the blank stares of void-sheep-people, but the blank stares of people who have had the choice since birth to be aware of their frailty and of the massive hysteria that is mankind and the choice not to look into the mystery of things because it scared them and these are not the people of religion escaping their fears with the hallucinogenics of belief, but the people ignoring that there is anything to even be afraid of, since it is one thing to have someone say, “I have seen violence” and quite another to be threatened with a civilian casualty of a foreign war, for we can sympathize with the people on the screen—and then we are thrown into the stories of unbearable grief ourselves and it’s suddenly not funny anymore. There is plenty to be afraid of, Caleb: stare into the possibility of abyss. Or mock my brittle attempt at trying to represent real fears with words and rhetoric.

The situation of the apostate is that his unbelief is rooted in our current climate: a post-Christian climate. The apostate living with guilt, living with the haunt of Christianity and the convictions that come with the ghosts of belief, are because he knows his options and he knows which option he has chosen. We are a post-Christian society because the people building society were once Christian and are no longer. They have chosen certain battles that will highlight the differences between the old Christian society and the new post-Christian society. The way of things has been going this direction for decades, I think.

The religion secular people are now adopting is a strange sort of spirituality that is designed to avoid the natural necessity for spirituality. It is like the Christian who is obsessed with celibacy, but still has a sex drive. He is desperately looking for some kind of replacement for his libido that will take away some of the heat. Deep down inside, what he needs to do—and what he knows he needs to do—is to get married.

Not only are we living in a post-Christian society, it is also a post-secular society. These are two separate discussions—the end of secularism and the end of a mythological Christian majority. Opposed to postmodernist theory (so broad, it’s unfair), postsecularist theory affirms a universal human condition and experience. Postmodernism sought to dissect out of our pasts and cultural contexts what made our experience different. And then they would bring these differences to the forefront and even elevate them far above any other option, so that most of us were under the illusion that no one was living in the same reality. A postmodernist society encouraged diversity, encouraged reasons for why people are so different, encouraged discussion between the separate islands of realities (that are individuals), but now we have postsecularism: in a postsecularist age, instead of elevating the differences, we get a spirit of universality. We get the odd sense that we are “all in this together” as a people and as a species. In the end, we are all human. You get this kind of spirituality all over—it has floated about for awhile. Popular scientists develop this spiritually-charged humanism whenever they talk about our relationship to nature as a species; how we will all one day act as one organism and while we have our separate parts are united in this: we all see the cosmos expanding before us and we are bare before it. Everyone has a right to speak up and speak out about what the hell is going on because we all just kind of don’t know where we’re going or what we’re doing. WE’RE ALL WINGING IT!

This is the main theme of Boyhood, one of the most important movies to have come out in the last two decades. Mason, the main character, reaches adulthood once he finally realizes that everyone is equally confused about the meaning of all things. He asks his father what it all means and he says, “Hell if I know. No one knows that, Mason.” Talking to his girlfriend about life, he says, “My mom is just as fucking confused as I am.”

There is a lot going on in that movie, a lot of generational insights, but this realization about confusion is a universal realization. The spirituality that comes out of this is the Moment-2-Moment religion (M2M). It’s right next to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) on the buffet line of religious choices after you’ve pulled the plug on Christianity.

M2M is not really a great choice. It’s kind of a compromise—although it is far more honest than any other choice. M2M is born out of apathy for material gain and disinterest in religion. It’s all about experience, never looking back and never looking forward because the past is unattainable and the future is terrifying. In a M2M environment, traditions, rules, and histories are largely irrelevant. Anything is workable as long as it is workable for the present. It gives that little religious boost necessary for daily living with some kind of purpose even if that purpose is confined to the present.

As Mother Theresa replied to anyone who asked her what Calcutta was, I told a friend at the beginning of this summer that he ought to come and see how I live. To my great surprise, he visited! He stayed with me for four days in my unfinished home and he was extremely honest and refreshing in almost everything he said and did. He might be reading this right now. He was really the first outsider who was even interested in looking in at my life. And having him here, having him here in Moscow, Idaho, was extraordinarily insightful. And a lot of that was thanks to his candidness and deep honesty. He was very gentle and open, even when I outed myself as a Christian—and not just a Christian but that kind who thinks it is essential to believe in the deity of Jesus Christ and who also affirms that there is a set of single explanatory truths that have been revealed to mankind to explain reality (or at least make it a pleasant place to be).

I cannot put him into a box and I cannot fully tap into what he believes, but impressions he left with me were that he 1) Believes that some kind of religion or spirituality or faith is necessary to thrive as a human being. 2) He believes in the power of experience. 3) He denies to his regret that there is a single set of explanatory truths about reality and rather believes (somewhat reluctantly) that everyone creates their own tunnels of reality according to their beliefs which is inescapable and unavoidable. 4) He believes that happiness is important to find and get and 5) that happiness can be achieved if the mortal desires of man are satisfied. One of these desires includes a spiritual feeling of connectedness to something outside yourself whether it be other people, nature, or even a greater connectedness. Most importantly 6) he affirms that everything is absurd and that the only reasonable thing to do is embrace absurdity, a deconstructionism build-it-yourself playset of reality and/or the unreasonableness of trusting reason.

This element of absurdity seems like a key “tenant” (although M2M spirituality is not even close to being consistent and organized between people) and those who feel like they have their back to the wall and their bodies and faces and hearts faced outward towards All Things usually choose laughter over seriousness. You could approach this spirituality from a different perspective and call it absurdist nihilism although at a certain point I don’t know which word should be the adjective and which the noun. Nihilist absurdism.

Someone like this is almost willing to believe anything as long as it fills a space which they recognize is there: how are we more than ourselves? I believe this generation will largely try to answer this question by looking around at all the other people looking around: we are all in this together and things suck so much it’s funny. Let’s make fun of people we think are stupid. The internet and American politics provides a lifetime of laugh-lines for people who see how ridiculous humanity is. The religious obligation of absurdist nihilism is to make fun of stupid people or to laugh at how weird things are.

How is the church going to respond to these people? I think the church is going to respond to them by allowing all things coming to an end fully. Choosing strategies out of fear is simply inappropriate. The world is not going to respond to our fear. The world is fearfully bearing with the present and needs to be taken by the shoulders and told that there is a past, that there is a future, that we are not the first to have walked this earth, that truth is necessary and that truth is impossible without trust, that the world can be explained, and that Christ is not a means to the end of happiness: he is the goal, the entire purpose, and the end by whom we are set free to become ourselves. This is a mystery and sounds strange to most people.

M2M spirituality, the postsecularist milieu, the themes of Boyhood are all responses to a secular world obsessed with putting on a happy face. Clap your hands in the air like a, um, room without a roof? But just a lick of indecent and intolerant behavior shatters the ability to be happy. Outrage and Happiness are now the same thing. Boyhood: all of the adults in Mason’s life have spent their entire lives chasing love, money, power, security, (or fill in literary interests or academia) and in the end the refrain of those who have chased these things is, “The next thing I have to look forward to is my own…funeral.” The children who are now growing into adults right now ranging from sixteen to thirty years old feel that being interested in politics or anything for the sake of our certain happiness is just a waste of time. Happiness unwinds. And we are not really interested in being happy or looking well. What we want is to figure something out, some personal beliefs we can cling to that will carry us through until the end. Because we are all very terrified.

H.P. Lovecraft, come quickly! Tell us it’s all a fiction! Let’s box our fears up nicely in some strangeness.

Christians better not respond to all this by fighting dogmatically against these feelings or picking fights in the same old way. What you’re supposed to do is go in, present the truth, and leave quickly. And make sure you know the person. It is better to make a friend angry than to make a stranger angry, but don’t stay for the big Outrage event. If the culture embraces the M2M beliefs at least we will be living in a culture that knows what it stands for: not much. What is moral outrage without a robust metaphysical foundation? It’s cheap entertainment.

This kind of world we ought to surprise not just with our happiness and full living, but with the gift to be human that comes from being set free by the truth. When we lead with our dogma and doctrine what people see is bondage. Stop yelling. STOP YELLING ON THE INTERNET ABOUT JEEZUZ! We want to lure them in with our freedom and then they will be able to see that our freedom is because we are slaves to someone else.

Freedom like this is a fairy-tale to the world: they genuinely don’t believe it exists. They expect us to yell at them: let us not give that to them. Let us give them peace instead, a tamed garden. They don’t have one. We surprise them, not fight them.

We are to surprise them with our freedom, even if we are depressed. Unhappiness is not a sin, but not sacrificing a humble heart is. You have before you the wellspring of all joy. Drink from it deeply. And see in the face of your death mask a bearable and short life on earth.

If you’re a Christian, try tempting people you don’t want to like. Tempt them with your ability to be honestly human in your unhappiness and in your happiness. Tempt them with the truth, instead of bludgeoning peoples’ heads with it. Sometimes, you have to speak the truth. But speak it without the presence of anger. Hide nothing. Be naked before God and the world. The world is in desperate need of hope. Are we brave enough to not fear and retreat, to not fear and fight like the world does? Are we brave enough to live in peace, even if the world seems like it has been unhitched from its foundations? And isn’t this just our perception? Are we brave enough to not act out of fear but to live out of love and to give the world our answers? Are we brave enough to say that Jesus is the Son of God and that he is running the world even though powers and principalities bicker and fight for the inner ring of power (Milo Yiannopoulos=Donald Trump=Hillary Clinton), even though some are tempted to retreat to a party side in the present or live eremitic lives in the mountains or to fight? Will we use their strategies of conquering, whether it be apathy or aggression, so that we can feel like we belong with the world? Or will we follow the path Jesus commanded us to walk? To preach freedom and love?

stories are not fundamental to fiction and neither is artistic vision: Voice is Fundamental

The problem with vision, in my mind, is that it tends to become too programmatic. The goal of the writer should be to make an experience that the reader finds himself so immersed in that he loses track of time and the outside world. He, like the writer who went before him, goes to places that the body cannot go. This is done through the mind, which is inside the body. And it can only be done through the act of sitting, with your body, and reading with your eyes. I don’t want to pretend that reading does not engage, in some ways, the entire person. If you are uncomfortable reading, it will interfere with immersion.

What I do want to suggest is that the goal should be immersing the reader into a dream-like state, like easing an infant into a warm bath. I’ve been told that movies are powerful, because it is the medium of images and images are the main medium with how we engage with the world. Movies appeal to us primarily, not primally. All I mean is that they appeal to us first, because images are what come first before anything else in our experience.

Fiction induces the reader into a more dream-like state than movies, because dreams take place inside the body. Movies take place outside and have their effect on us. But dreams are the collation of the raw materials of everything we have ever seen. Movies do not require that we form dreams inside our head—a sequence of images—because we are already presented with a sequence of images through the movie. Fiction does require that we form dreams inside our head and this is a personal undertaking for each reader. I remember that my older brother didn’t want to go and see the Lord of the Rings movies, because he had an image of Frodo in his head from the books and he knew that the movies would wipe that away.

They did. What happened was that he had dreamed some experience while reading Lord of the Rings. It induced, immersed, sedated. It succeeded in taking him. Movies simply cannot have the same effect and they cannot have the same effect, because they do not reproduce dreams in us. They reproduce themselves in us. We are not compelled to form a picture of the fiction that is unique to our person. The vision presented in a movie is universal and, I think, less formative. Why? Because a movie just sits there and shoots at us like a gigantic, square ray of radioactive light. We conform to it and so it does not meet us where we are and it does not have to work so much at persuading. Movies don’t need to be as persuasive as fiction, because when presented with images, our tendency is to accept it as reality. Our ability to believe what movies present is much higher than our ability to believe what fiction presents. With fiction, we are skeptical. We are skeptical, because it is so easy for fiction to fail at inducing us into dreaming. We are not skeptical of movies, because movies provide the experience ready-made for us. Images are like the conclusion of a formal argument without any premises. We can never be quite certain what premises we have accepted…but the conclusion seems real. Movies are pure “artistic” vision (I’ll give a clear definition later), but vision that is more effective than its counterpart, because it does not require premises. With movies, we assume the premises of the conclusive image. For example, a woman close up at the screen crying. We immediately feel sorry for her and that is the conclusion. But what if she is crying in joy that her husband and children have all died? Are we to pity her then?

Fiction, on the other hand, has to provide and embed the premises in order to work right and maintain its vision. Vision is not the way to the dream-like experience, but voice is. What is voice? Voice is the way of the writer with his words. And a well-cultivated voice is the only way a writer can succeed.

What is vision? Vision is the agenda that the author has for his stories. Vision is a formal argument woven into all the sentences and comes out finally with, in some cases, an epiphanic moment. There is nothing wrong with epiphanic moments, but if the emphasis is on getting the reader to the epiphanic moment, then the reader will also focus on this final goal. What we want is not the reader to be bored by everything before it, but to be overcome with immersion before, during, and after should there be an epiphany. Epiphany should only be the climax of a growing tension, but the growing tension ought to actually be tense. I’ll explain later how that’s possible.

This whole business with the “artistic vision” (I.e. formal argument hidden into the causal chain of the story’s progress, not just in plot but in the necessities built into the given characters) is also an aside from the real, true motive behind fiction. A fiction can have a powerful vision, but it doesn’t have to be a story. Fiction can sometimes be a sketch of life, without any epiphanic moment and be just as suggestive. What do I mean by suggestive? I mean that the fiction, if only a sketch, can still convince and persuade the reader to see the world in the same way that the author does. This is why fiction can exist and be sustained even if a story is not in its presence. A story is not essential to fiction. Fiction is world building, not plot-building. And this all comes down to the inner coherence and whirring of the words used. That is about voice, not vision. Vision is something that comes after voice. Vision is, perhaps, the spine for a good story, but voice is primary.

I believe that a good fiction can suffer from a bad story, or a typical story, or a boring story, or a story that is too programmatic, or a visionary story. And these stories usually suffer from their own strengths. What do I mean? Because they are so confident of themselves, so aware of what they ought to be in their internal coherence, they strip away from themselves any element of surprise. And surprise is one of those traits that pulls the reader along. Surprise is what creates tension, because there is an unknown. If you get rid of the element of surprise, you are stealing from yourself. If you are going to depend on artistic vision for your story, then you need to be aware that this cannot exclude surprise. If you take away surprise, you have nothing to offer anyone. You know you have the element of surprise in the story when you have surprised yourself.

I find it disappointing that “artistic vision” is defined in the way I’ve been using it. I haven’t had to define it really up until this point, because we all know what it is. We might think of Flannery O’Connor and her arguments-as-stories. Artistic vision in this sense is little more than a set of beliefs held strongly by the author accompanied by arguments in the form of stories. This is utilitarian. But artistic vision doesn’t have to be so demanding. It can simply be the world through the author’s lens. He is offering us, the readers, to see the world like he sees it. This can be the everyday “Mary went to the store and whoa! epiphany in the produce aisle,” but it also does not have to be. It can be magical from the top-down. But it ought to instantly make us think more of the poetry of words than it does the morals of stories. That way of thinking about vision, too, allows us to really understand what I mean when I say voice. This also doesn’t have to reduce our view of the artist as the-guy-who-wants-you-to-see-his-personality. I think the fiction writer can produce fiction that is immersive, story reduced, and evocative of the world outside and not just the world within himself. The world within ought to feel set aside and apart like the world outside. In this sense, when we say artistic vision, we are really just talking imprecisely about voice. The emphasis there is on the thing that the words are designed to evoke (images) and not on the words fundamental to fiction. It is less about the author’s vision, then, and more about how the author can successfully give vision to the blind reader through the mud of words.

Artistic vision is usually programmatic, because it has an agenda for each story. Again, that’s fine as long as voice comes first and surprise isn’t excluded. “What’s on the agenda for this story?” the author asks himself. “I know! Same as before!” And off the writer goes, writing the same formula again. Once the reader knows about the agenda, he looks for it. He feels that the entire goal of reading that author is to discover their vision. Once he has discovered that vision, he looks for it again and again. He thinks about what it means and its ramifications. He ponders, he is aware and conscious. I can’t help but think that this is the exact opposite of what the fiction writer really wants from his readers. At least for me, I don’t want my readers to be conscious subjects. I want them to be led to the same conclusions that I have made about the world without noticing the change. I want my argument to be so compelling and so rich, that it induces them into their own dream of it behind their eyes. I don’t want them to be able to see what argument I used. I don’t even feel it necessary to have an argument. Are dreams arguments? The dream that the fiction induces is unique to the reader, so they take it as their own. They cultivate, they enjoy it like a little bird. But ultimately, what they are doing is agreeing with me. That is successful fiction. It’s magic.

There is dark magic and good magic. Dark magic, when you pick up on it, is worthy of being thrown across a room. That would not be an over-reaction. Good magic is wielded by the possessors of truth and the general side effect is that the reader appreciates life and the fullness of mystery contained within it. That sounds so stupid and trite in nonfiction prose like this. That’s why we need fiction! Fiction does what other prose writing cannot. It comes up from behind us and we turn around and see it standing there like someone we’ve missed for years. If it were bad magic, we’d be turning around and staring at all our fears without any solutions. Bad magic is written by people who don’t have answers and they want you to share in their inability to give any. Bag magic focuses on the internal world and all its complications.

In a properly functioning individual, the internal world is rich–but it is not complicated. People with anxiety suffer from complications they cannot untangle. People at peace have little to untangle, but they have plenty to enjoy. Their world within is one that is a pleasant place to be, despite the grim complexities of the world outside. I’m not saying it’s wrong for a fiction writer to bring us into the head of a broken person. But if he doesn’t lead us out, that fiction writer is not worth your time. All he has done is shown you inside his own brain–and instead of asking for help, he’s asked you to admire him. Pfft.