Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Living with Ghosts

I heard an interview with members of the Punch Boys on NPR this morning and was arrested as one of them described what has become a common occurrence when they are giving a concert.  He talked about looking out from the stage into the darkness and seeing all of these bluish faces illuminated by their smart phone screens – scores, hundreds of people doing things on their screens while the concert is going on.  He said that, from the stage, they looked like ghosts, little disconnected apparitions desperately looking for connections in this hyper-connected world.

I’ve experienced this as well – at symphony concerts in Nairobi, in movie theatres here in the US.  I’ve watched a mother hand her iphone over to her 5 year old during church, and I’ve seen grownups twiddling with their screens during sermons.  The last time I was preaching regularly in a Protestant context, it was mercifully before smart phones were in widespread use (in Ethiopia, at least).  Even so, before every service we had to announce to the hundreds in the congregation that, for the sake of their neighbor, they really needed to turn their phones off.  Since I was long-winded in the pulpit and not so much into the ‘entertain me’ style of so much contemporary preaching, I’m sure my sermons would have provided golden opportunities for my hearers to improve their scores on their latest word games, had the means been at hand.

Today, the means are at hand.  We are connected to more information than we could possibly manage, we are connected to more people than we could possible engage with (I’ve got 350+ facebook ‘friends’, and I know people with more than 1000.)  Many of us are able to work from home because of our ease of connection, supposedly giving us more time to do the things we want to do.  We can drive without grumbling at misdirected spouses or cursing handwritten directions that left out step 14, listening instead to a pleasant disembodied voice patiently lead us to our destination accompanied by yet another glowing screen on our dashboard that shows us instantly where in the universe we actually are in real time.  So helpful!  All the things which gave our parents and grandparents and all previous generations some modicum of pleasure, we have in spades.  We can even play spades without a deck of cards, or even without other players.  My grandparents used to gather around the big radio console and listen to the news or to radio shows like the Lone Ranger or Jack Benny.  I don’t even need a radio anymore – I can listen to NPR’s morning edition on my laptop while I’m stretching before a morning run, or even on my morning run.  And TV used to be 3 channels + the upstart PBS.  Hindsight tells us we were incredibly impoverished and deprived, with our evening choices limited to the likes of ‘Green Acres’ and ‘Petticoat Junction’ and maybe ‘Bonanza’ if one was that kind of guy.  Today it’s anything anyone might want 24/7.  It’s like a Chinese buffet with 3000 items to choose from.

It has happened with breath-taking speed.  In a matter of just a few short years these tools that were (I suppose) intended to help us live our lives more efficiently have instead become our lives.  Reality is increasingly not enough.  Why would any sane person want to distract themselves with ephemera while listening to live music? Or having a conversation with a real person? Or going for a walk outside?  The answer is because we are increasingly no longer sane. 
We in the West are engaged in a vast project of dehumanization, increasingly desensitized to what makes us human.  We were created in the image of God for the purpose of loving God and loving our neighbor.  But increasingly we are becoming mere parodies of our true identity, what Isaiah the Prophet calls an idol.  We have eyes, but cannot see; mouths but cannot speak; noses but cannot smell; ears but cannot hear.  We have arms and legs but cannot move.  Desperately reaching out, wanting connection, craving life.  With increasing desperation attempting to satisfy ourselves with that which does not, which cannot satisfy.  We have been conned into thinking that the virtual will give us what we’ve been told we need.  But we end up missing completely the real.  With the result that our lives are wasted on things that do not matter.  We are becoming instead shadows, shades, ghosts, bumping into other ghosts, but too busy with the promises on our screens to see or care.

I am sitting at the local coffee house as I write this, underneath a bulletin board full of local announcements, opportunities and adverts.  And I am struck by what’s on offer:  there’s a card from the Awakening Resource Center, another from Spirit Joy Coaching, another advertising a Qigong Workshop with Master Li, yet another for ‘Sheng Zhen Gong with Jill!’  One can ‘Explore your Chakras with Kim and Sohan’ or participate in ‘Community Yoga with Holly’.  And that’s just the half of the board that I can see from where I’m sitting.

The symptoms are there for anyone with eyes to see.  We are terribly sick, and looking in all the wrong places for help and meaning and connection.  We are becoming C.S. Lewis’s spectral inhabitants of hell in The Great Divorce, who take bus tours of heaven but cannot stand the presence of the really real and rush back with relief to their empty shadow world.  Of course, those of us who are Christians are just as likely to have bought into the prevailing cultural norms.  It’s shouldn’t surprise that ‘the world’ behaves like the world.  But it should tell us something important that so many Christians feel a need to do the same.  Perhaps we, too, have a desperate need to reexamine our primary, fundamental connections.  There usually is a reason behind the fever.

Look at the birds of the air, says Jesus.  They don’t sow or reap, but the Lord provides what they need.  And the flowers of the field – they don’t spin or weave, but God makes them more beautiful than the most stunning human celebrity.  And who has ever found love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control on a screen?  But seek first God’s kingdom, and all these things will be added to you.

Just saying.

So would I rather see Pope Francis, or look at him on my screen?

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