Sunday, August 22, 2010

Meditation on the Innovation of Boredom

In Boredom: the Literary History of a State of Mind, Patricia Meyer Spacks explains that boredom as such is a relatively recent invention, from the eighteenth century at the latest. Before that we had melancholy (which was a kind of affliction of the spirit) and, further back still, acedia (which was a sin). What’s distinctive about boredom is that we don’t see it as either a condition of our own selves or a sin, but rather something that just happens to us. When we’re bored, we don’t think there’s anything wrong with us: we think the world is at fault. Stupid old world — it doesn’t interest me. And interesting me is the world’s job.

(Alan Jacobs, quoted by Joe Carter, "Thirty-Three Things" on First Thoughts Blog, entry posted August 21, 2010, [accessed August 23, 2010])

What happened? If boredom is an innovation that roughly coincides with the enlightenment, it would seem that Descartes developing an epistemology in which everything but himself is doubted would lead to this very thing–– boredom. Ho-hum, clock-watching, face-heavy-in-the-hand, nose-picking, boredom. When everything– besides me– is made into an accessory, and when accessories gradually take on a disposable nature, and when everything disposable tarnishes and browns with age like a discarded issue of People magazine from 1994, what are we left with? Not much. Moreover, when God himself is deemed unnecessary, as Nietzsche lamented, we are in a doubly dire straight, because all transcendence becomes relegated to climbing the uselessly short ladder of our own mind. This is the post-modern milieu– boredom insulated by the earbuds of my I-Pod, noise bouncing off the interior walls of my skull with nowhere to go.

This innovation is more than incidental. When we consider that the medieval mind was everywhere haunted by the sacramental, boredom seems an impossibility. Seemingly everything was expressed in relational terms. Before an object falling was mere gravity, it was an object pursuing the ground with something like desire. The planets moved according to a kind of music, which suggests a scale that can be appreciated if not comprehended by the human mind. Christ was not absent at the communion, but was manifest in a "real presence." In a world like that, in which the eternal was constantly breaking into the temporal, who could be bored?

Here in Vancouver, during the long rainy months, I have found it fearsome to think that, as Christ walked among us with hard calloused feet, (to borrow from Gerard Manley Hopkins) the Spirit broods over this city in a low, heavy cloud, intermittently dunking and sprinkling us, and that the mountains surrounding it are somehow the cusp of the Father's palm, hovering somewhere between cradling and crushing this pile of glass, brick and mortar. It seems positively old-fashioned to imagine that mingling with the hydrogen and oxygen of the atmosphere, holding the space between atoms, is the same One who hovered over the waters in the beginning. As I sit on the bus, enduring the grind of my routine and trying not to make eye-contact with anybody in particular, I cannot think of a better way to remember God's immanence. It moves me to pray for the "timekept City," to remember that even in a country that claims something like 40% of the world's freshwater, "[Y]ou neglect and belittle the desert./ The desert is not remote in southern tropics,/ The desert is not only around the corner,/ The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,/ The desert is in the heart of your brother." In a world like this, who could be bored?

(Poetry quoted from Eliot, Thomas Sterns, "Choruses from 'The Rock'" in The Complete Poems and Plays. [New York; Harcourt Brace, 1967] 96, 98)

Friday, August 20, 2010


As a seasoned pioneer missionary with twenty five years of church planting and upwards of fifteen thousand ministry miles under his belt, the apostle Paul unveils his crowning strategy for Spain in his letter to the Romans. As far as first century Roman Empire dwellers were concerned, Spain was the western “ends of the earth” (India to the east), and therefore the eschatological fulfillment of God’s pursuit of his glory (Is 66.19).

He writes: “I no longer have any room for work in these regions...I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain, and to be helped on my journey there by you” (Rom 15.23-24).

There is an explicit and implicit charge in these matter-of-fact logistical plans for the first century Roman church and twenty-first century American church. Paul betrays a twofold stratus of commission calling. Explicitly, Paul highlights the calling of “foundation layers” such as himself - men and women commissioned to preach the gospel where it has yet to be heard.

This is Paul’s calling. And as a man duly called he expects “help,” propempo, the NT technical term for missionary support - funding, lodging, travel, regional coworkers, etc. Its Paul’s calling but the church’s task. Spain is Rome’s opportunity.

But there’s also an implicit charge. There is work to be done by “builders,” those Christians left behind. By this point, Paul has scarcely sprinkled the eastern Mediterranean world with a handful of fledgling house churches in major metropolises.

Take the church in Corinth for example. As far as we can tell several house churches of fifty plus believers constituted Paul’s plan for Greece. After that he felt claustrophobic in the region to know that one solitary city had that many Christians. There was no room for him to work.

The implicit charge is that members of these house churches build. They take Paul’s meager eighteen months of planting (Corinth) and begin to water. They organize themselves into a healthy church; care for their members; preach the Word, disciple, serve the Supper, guard the gospel; reach out to neighbors and coworkers with the good news; and begin thinking about multiplication in Greece.

This is the builder’s call, no less than the pioneer foundation layer. I suspect for all his gifts, Paul would have made a lousy builder. That’s probably why far from disparaging Christian builders in Rome, he greets them with reverent admiration in the following chapter.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

When the Christianity in the Fridge Goes Bad

Finally, somebody wrote this article (interesting that it's in the Wall Street Journal).

I've seen this guy's book in the bookstore and wondered what it was all about. I'm relieved that it's not another book that we'll come to lament like those photos of ourselves in middle school wearing really baggy pants.