Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Cynicism: The God of This Age

Washed clean.

I was only 9 years old, in Mrs. Hagedorn’s third grade class, and to cap our economics unit at the end of that week we watched (on Laserdisc, no less - the technology of future past) a series featuring a jaunty character named “Econ” and catchy song and dance jingles designed as mnemonic devices for concepts such as supply and demand and compound interest. It was a little hokey, sure, but I can still recall “opportunity cost, opportunity cost, iiiit iiiis your opportunity cost!”

At the tender age of 9, however, I thought it was a lot more than hokey. As I sulked behind my desk, I made snide comments under my breath until one of my classmates, Amanda, turned around and yelled at me “Some of us like it, OKAY?!” Effectively shamed, I sank down farther in my desk, at once baffled by the idea that someone could genuinely enjoy something SO totally lame and jealous of her ability to do so.

How, I wonder now. How did I believe myself so debonair and jaded at the age of 9 that I, a child, was unable to enjoy a children’s program? I believe it’s because I’d already, if not necessarily intentionally - more by osmosis - absorbed the spirit of the god of this age: cynicism.

Cynicism saps the color and joy from life because it robs us of our capacity for hope. Cynicism is just nihilism with a sense of humor - albeit a mean-spirited, spiteful, ugly one. If, as Paul E. Miller says, pride is Satan’s basic game plan, the spirit of cynicism achieves that end with remarkable efficiency. You know it all, cynicism whispers seductively. You already know how the story ends and so you know enough never to hope, never to try. It may look like spring now, but winter will be here soon enough, it says. And you know everyone who does is just pitifully naive and will be crushed soon enough but is worthy only of mockery and scorn in the interim.

Cynicism pervades and saturates our culture even more thoroughly now than it did twentysome years ago. It’s the subtext, the underpinning, the ground from which we operate. We mock, we scoff, we endlessly parse the motivations of other people and project crude innuendos on everything. We simply no longer have any framework for earnestness or innocence. Postmodernism, which promised a laminate ideological field of equal validity for every belief, has in practice eroded both our ability to believe in anything and our ability to allow others to believe. As Tim Keller says of postmodernism, the demon is in deep. And yet, and yet… like me, sulking and shamed in that third grade desk, we both frantically justify ourselves and - if deep down - mourn for what seems irrevocably lost. Earnestness looks like freedom, yet we’re so deeply entrenched in the mire of cynicism that we can’t see a way out that doesn’t look like total inauthenticity. Playacting. A fairy tale.

I know the way out, though: Jesus Christ. When I’d exhausted the world, run recklessly down every deceptive cul-de-sac just trying to mute the agonizing howls of pain, alienation and unworthiness that refrained through my heart on a daily basis with varying volumes… suddenly, vividly, miraculously, there was Jesus Christ. And with his presence, the scales fell away. I could see things for the first time, untainted by my fallen projections. You see, cynicism dumps on the world the pain it feels within. It’s essentially this: if I can’t be happy, no one can be happy. If I feel like a broken, forsaken, rejected fraud then everyone else must be a fraud, too. If I can’t be earnest, than true earnestness must not exist and anyone who pretends to be must be doing so for manipulative reasons. If I can’t believe, then no one must actually believe. Cynicism believes it monopolizes true insight. It’s a Satanic perversion of true seeing through Jesus Christ.

 I believe part of being born again is realizing - for me, in one cataclysmic fell swoop - that your way of looking at things, your eagle eye on the world that you believed was so piercingly and shrewdly perceptive, is - pardon the expression - radically bass-ackwards. It was both an excruciating effrontery to my ego and the sweetest relief I’d ever known, this death: to realize while I believed I owned the truth, and luxuriated in smug self-righteousness, the clue and the way home - indeed, The Truth - was right in front of me, and the people I thought were hopelessly clueless were on to it before me. So, finally, I saw. I had been brought blessedly low, and I saw things now. I saw crystalline, shimmering beauty all around me. I saw God’s hand at work, saw his radiant, overflowing, absurdly profligate yet somehow perfectly apportioned grace and mercy. And I saw the crowning beauty of all creation, Jesus Christ, and the immense weight of the burden he bore for me that somehow, mysteriously, brings me perfect freedom. WOW! How about that? (I actually typed “how bou dah” and erased it because that is terrible and please never let me do that again). God is AWESOME! Always surprising. Always unexpected. Always loving. And always, always beautiful.  

I remember the first time that, as a newly converted Christian still bearing the residue of the world, with one foot still in it, to be honest, I experienced the bizarre magnanimity of a Jesus freak. We became acquainted with a couple who were interested in my art and with whom we had some mutual friends. We had them over to dinner one night and had a very pleasant evening - only the second time we’d met in person. We’d shared with them that I had an art show coming up in LA and mentioned that we wished we could attend but were obviously unable to do so. A couple of hours later, around 11 p.m., the husband - a devoted Christ follower who’d been a missionary in New York City - called Steven to excitedly share that he’d had a brilliant idea. He was going to start a Facebook page for the purpose of ‘crowdfunding’ our trip to LA, and was happily contributing as well. I was floored. Why would he do this?

Cynicism gets used to searching restlessly for ulterior motives, certain of their existence. Nothing can be as good as it seems. And this seemed unprecedented. I remember that in the course of our conversation that night - on an entirely different topic that I can’t remember - he had said “Oh, I have no problem asking people for money.” At first, I was a little appalled. But now I see why. Anyone who knows M. Bryce Olson knows he could sell ice to an Eskimo, yet he uses his skills in service of Jesus Christ. Money is in its proper place for him - it isn’t a god, and doesn’t create invisible chains of obligation where it is joyfully given and joyfully received. He isn’t naive about the ways of the world, but subverts them to the glory of God. As Michael Frost says: be so countercultural that people ask ‘who the heck are you?’ Bryce and his wife, Natalie, had me asking that question. I was intrigued, and drawn deeper to the person of Jesus Christ. 
So here we are, called to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Of the swamp of cynicism, some of us were wise enough to never enter in the first place; some of us visited for a time to see what all the fuss was about and hightailed it out; and then some of us (like me) languished in that rotting belly that dresses itself up as sophistication, with its ravening lies and acid sarcasm. We’ve breathed its putrid air, and we ain’t goin back. As the beauty of Jesus flushes the cynicism from your life, space is made for joy, for childlike wonder, for awe, for mirth. I still backslide to the way of the world, quite often, but God has a way of rebuking with beauty. I expect the worst from someone, and then get the best. I expect drudgery, and then discover laughter and delight in the most unexpected places. I expect maintenance, status quo, survival, at best; and then get resurrection beyond my wildest imaginings in the person of Jesus Christ.  

Thursday, March 2, 2017

How Can It Be? (Lost in the Cosmos)

c. 2008. Very lost. Jesus is in there (upper righthand corner). He always was.

“I will be glad and rejoice in your love,
For you saw my affliction
And knew the anguish of my soul.
You have not handed me over to the enemy
But have set my feet in a spacious place.”

-Psalm 31:7-8

I’ve been frustrated in my efforts to share the Gospel lately. My most passionate words seem to be filtered through the lens of what people want to see, the entrenched judgments they made long ago. As the Father has carried me to mountaintop heights where I truly tasted and finally fully believed that His love is better than life, heights where I realized yes, yes: I would die before I would deny the absolutely transcendent, ineffable, prismatic beauty of Jesus Christ and the infinite font of joy that is His love, and I was left stuttering and weeping, on my knees, stultified by the sheer deluge of it all, I’ve felt fortified by Paul’s words: Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold (2 Cor 3:12). Yet my most earnest, impassioned appeals seem to have fallen on unhearing ears lately (at least apparently, at least for now). Although I know there may be a harvest in time, and with prayer, enthusiasm has sometimes yielded to frustration: You don’t hear what I’m saying! Why can’t you see this?! It’s right in front of you! I want to cry. Why are you so blind?!

And I remember my own desperate blindness before I knew the pure beauty of Jesus Christ.

I remember distinctly the moment I finally believed there was a reality beyond this world, when my stony empiricism, vanity and selfishness was cracked wide open and I was left dumbfounded, newborn, knowing something monumental beyond monumental had occurred but utterly unable to grasp it. “There’s so much more than I ever thought there was,” I repeated again and again, through a veil of snot and tears. I’m not proud to say drugs were involved… but He will truly travel anywhere to reach us, and my insular, self-obsessed, compressed world would never be the same. Truly, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but only the beginning, and only if we submit. I didn’t. Or perhaps I pretended to. Like Israel, I remained hard-hearted and quickly turned to other gods and began to cobble together a cosmology of my own authoring that professed belief in God yet was really only a smorgasbord of new age and yogic philosophies, and which kept me in control. I still believed The Bible was regressive claptrap. I was on to the good stuff, the deep stuff, the high and mystical stuff.

As much as God’s presence had been real to me in that earlier epiphanic moment - a presence at once fearful, thundering and chastening but also tender and somehow more familiar than anything of this world - God became a reality to be accessed and manipulated, whether through yoga, meditation, or drugs, rather than a gloriously relational and real and infinitely holy yet astoundingly merciful and loving Lord of all creation. I demanded heaven yet refused the Gate, and unsurprisingly it wasn’t long before I found myself in hell.

I remember one night after I’d dropped acid by myself in my apartment. I was in my early twenties, and convinced I was plumbing the depths of innerspace, or the endocosmos, as I liked to put it. Certain I was spelunking in the outer caverns of Paradise, drawing closer and closer to God, I watched molecules dance before my eyes, beautiful glittering prismatic geometries blooming and receding, overlaying one another in a gluttonous visual feast. But I was losing my mind. It was like I’d sieved myself through a honeycomb and now the disparate pieces were drifting out on a sea of chaos, the waves carrying them farther and farther apart from one another. There was no anchor, and, in my personal cosmology, there was no one to help.

I remember what happened next so clearly to this day. As I sat there on my couch, looking out my window, idly watching the transformed street below, in which swam a million rainbow lattices, the softest, gentlest, most compassionate voice resounded through my mind.

You don’t have to keep doing this to yourself, you know, it said. God said. It could have been no one else. I was convinced I was on the right path, even as a thousand demons settled into their new home within me, whispering silibant lies at opportune times.

I began weeping. No one had ever spoken to me so kindly. I realized how desperate, how thirsty I was for a kind word, for living water. But the demon was in deep. The drugs went by the wayside as I met Steven and we had our beautiful children, but still I clung to lies and arrogance. I was devout, almost obsessive, about practicing yoga. It was nearly catastrophic for me if I had to miss a class. And a while ago I read Arrow’s birth story and cringed at the pretentious, ridiculously solemn blather about chakras and the Hindu goddess Kali I had included in the narrative. Not long after her birth, we’d traveled to Topanga Canyon for an art show. I was elated - I’d always revered Topanga as a mythical epicenter of hippiedom, and it didn’t disappoint. Roadside crystal shops abounded. Mandalas decorated the sides of houses and a city festival promised all the green juice and new age healing modalities one could imagine. You couldn’t swing a cat without hitting a certified Reiki healer. And yet during our whole trip I felt a fundamental unease, which would often mount into near-panic attacks. What was wrong with me? I wondered. I’d finally arrived!

As a family, we’d been dabbling hesitantly with attending a Christian church in that season - Steven more than me, but I’d begrudgingly followed his lead. During the Topanga trip he suggested that we attend a Sunday morning service at the only Christian church in Topanga. I reluctantly agreed, but was embarrassed about it as we informed our hosts of our plans. At the church we met a tiny ragtag congregation of about ten people, most of them over 50. The pastor and his wife were stunning paragons of blond SoCal beauty, and suddenly I was overcome with shame and fear and panic that was totally incommensurate with my surroundings. What is wrong with me? I asked again, as my nervousness erupted into a full-blown panic attack. Now I know: demons don’t like to be in church, and everything in me was compelling me to run out the door as fast as I could.

But I knew I couldn’t. I excused myself to the nursing room with Arrow where I wept profusely as the service went on. I was so terrified and lost, but I didn’t know I could cry out to God. I don’t know that I believed there was really anyone there.

Somehow, I got myself together, and after the service Steven and I chatted with the pastor for awhile. He was from Santa Monica, but was traveling up to Topanga every Sunday as a kind of interim pastor to try and help the church grow, he said. I tried to nod politely and follow the conversation, but I was still desperate to just get out of there, and my mind drifted away.

When it returned, the pastor was discussing Topanga and how it was a hotbed of new age beliefs, and he said “I’ve had so many people come to me for help and they’re just tormented. They’re just tormented,” he repeated. “But they can’t accept Jesus Christ.”

That’s me! I screamed inside my head. THAT’S ME! YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT ME! HELP ME! I nearly cried in desperation. But though my heart was crying out I kept silent and nodded in faux sympathy.

I could write so much more about my long journey to Christ - made long and arduous only by my own resistance and pride - but those were pivotal moments, brought to mind when Steven asked me the other night what I would say if someone asked me why I believed in Jesus Christ. Because I tried nearly every other conceivable path and they all led to death, I said. Because only in Christ have I found the fulfillment of all my heart’s yearnings. And I was able to offer this analogy to respond to those who say there is truth in his teachings, but one needn’t give their life to Him or declare Him their Lord and Savior: 

It’s like an extract of orange flavor versus an orange. The extract holds a residue of the flavor, but none of the body of the orange - the texture of the rind, the way the fruit breaks apart, the juice contained in tiny ovoid chambers, the way the oil scents your fingers for hours after you’ve consumed it. The extract contains what can not even necessarily be reasonably termed a part of the whole; it just contains a shallow, hollow echo of some distant memory “orange”, bitter on the tongue, which has nearly lost all meaning instead of the glorious multisensory experience that is holding and peeling and eating an orange. The branch is off the vine.

In many ways, I believe the indiscriminate, confused Brahmanic pastiche that is the new age / yogic world of thought is the ideal “spirituality” for a postmodern West, as it was for my postmodern, cynical mind. It requires no real commitment or sacrifice, and is committed to a kind of false humility / gullibility that is offended by truth claims yet is open to nearly any idea (dolphins are hyperintelligent, highly evolved beings from outer space? Sure! Jesus Christ? Oh hell, no!). It purports to exalt an ultimate goal of evolution and love, yet is muddied by a million differing ideas on how this is to be achieved.

Jesus Christ offers us One Way: Him. It’s so beautiful and simple yet neither naive or flat, as I had scoffed in my new age days. Instead, following Him is full of infinite complexity of ever greater heights and adventures. The new age, on the other hand, is labyrinthine and complicated, with a thousand gates that lead nowhere.

There’s a difference between complexity and complicatedness, to my mind. Complexity is patterned, ordered; like the unfolding of a fractal. There is a Creator behind it, a good God who holds it all. Complicatedness has no creator, but is manipulated into being by Satan; it is our sin, our turning away from God, our distortion of things, our pride. We think we know the way, can forge it on our own, but then we pull desperately on a thousand tangled strings which turn up empty in our hands, leading nowhere and untethered to anything. New age folks love to substitute “The Universe” for God, crafting an idol that is vast and impersonal, yet strangely capable of granting wishes and telling you things. It gets weird. What a profound relief to realize I wasn’t alone in the world with only this vague, unfeeling “Universe”, but held and loved and redeemed by a God with a deep investment in me individually. Yes, God’s love is oceanic and fearfully vast - yet it is also highly, almost absurdly particular and personal.

But the god of this age blinded my mind. I saw Christianity as an absurd regression, a crutch, antiquated and unsophisticated. I, on the other hand, was plumbing the depths and heights and hidden places of the universe. I was a mystic, a cosmonaut, one of the courageous, in my mind. Thinking of the mask of arrogance I wore then makes me weep now, because the truth is that I was absolutely lost, terrified and alone, assailed on every side. What a merciful God we serve. He is patience is truly beyond our comprehension, as he wants no one to perish but everyone to come to repentance.

How can it be?! How can this lavish love exist, so full and sumptuous and warm and radiant and astounding, this love which hangs itself on a cross and endures that which cannot be endured for someone who spit in His face?! How can it be? And yet it is. I promise it is. It is better, sweeter, fuller than you can ever imagine yet feels like home. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. I pray that you will believe me and believe the one He sent. Come home.