Postmodernism, value, and a diamond encrusted skull

I recently read an article by Edward Docx entitled, “Postmodernism is dead” where he argued that the deconstruction occurring through postmodern thought removed previous criteria of determining if something was of value.  So beauty, aesthetics, skill went out the window as criteria used to judge the worth of work, art, music, literature, philosophy and so forth.  The resulting vacuum quickly needed to be filled with some metric to determine value.  Why?  Because we as humans are wired to ascribe worth to something (this idea is based upon the Christian belief that we will worship something.  Worship is nothing more than ascribing worth to something).  So what became the determining criteria of worth?  Money.  Docx says:

In other words, increasingly, artistic success has become about nothing except money; and, increasingly, artists have come to judge their own success that way, too. This is the reason today that we feel the genre writer’s cry “I sold millions” so powerfully, even though in truth it can say little about the art form other than “it sold millions.” Changing disciplines, if we take this commoditisation of art to its natural limit, we arrive at Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull, For the Love of God (2007). Commoditisation has here become the only point. The work, such as it is, centres on its cost and value and comprises also (I would say mainly) the media storm surrounding it: the rumours that it was bought for £50m, or that Hirst himself bought it, or that he offset his tax bill by claiming diamonds as tax deductible artistic materials, or that he didn’t buy it at all, or that nobody has bought it… And so postmodernly on. The paradox being this: that by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended.

Postmodern thought left us with only money and the market to determine the value of something.  “How much is it worth?  How much did it make?” are the questions hovering over art, literature and music.  The quality of music is no longer determined by the richness of its lyrics, or the use of melody, harmony and subtlety, rather it is esteemed on its ability to appeal to masses of people and bring in millions of dollars.  This valuation by earning power stems from a ubiquitous confusion as to who can assign value.  Postmodernism undermined any privilege a dominant discourse might have previously had in assigning value.  It also became politically wrong to claim the ability to assign value.  Thus, profits became the final arbitrator.

I can’t help but reflect on the financial meltdown of 2008.  After watching the documentary Inside Job, I felt sick to my stomach and wondered how anyone could be so greedy as to willfully risk company, economy and name in effort to make a quick dollar.  But it makes sense.  If money is the only thing of value, then pursing it is the highest good.  Integrity, concern for others, ethics, and reputation hold no value.  Thanks to postmodernist deconstruction, they are worthless.  Who give them value?  The individual can’t assign value because that would be conflict of interest.  Others might value ethics over reputation or vice versa.  How does one know?  They don’t.  They can’t.  And so value is evidenced by the bank account.

Perhaps the most insidious outcome of this removal of value is what it does to the person. If art, literature, music and philosophies have no criteria other than money to judge their value, then what about the person?  Can a person have intrinsic value?  How do they know their worth?  Who determines who is worth what?  Or is a person’s value tied to money, or the ability to earn money?  I fear we are becoming a culture so impacted by postmodernism’s devaluation of anything but money has crept in to how we treat one another.

To see the truth of this, one has to look no further than how we view the poor.  Many view the poor as the 50% who “have no skin in the game” in terms of paying taxes.  They are labeled as moochers, free riders, and lazy.  Why?  They contribute nothing to the economic system.  They would be more valuable if they paid taxes, if they contributed.  Value has been divorced from humanity and married to bank account.  A day after I initially wrote this, I came across this article “The New Resentment of the Poor.

Docx gives hope at the end of his article.

We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of our attitudinizing, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed. . . . If the problem for the postmodernists was that the modernists had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do.

The Christian hope is that humans are valued because they are made in the Creator’s image.  Humanity, with all its flaws, short-comings, and brokenness has value because the “Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  The incarnation cries out to the universe that humanity has value.  That there is intrinsic worth.  And that worth is not tied to bank accounts, or buying power, or contribution, but worth is derived in being image bearer’s of God.

Perhaps the most inspiring thing about this idea: there need not be any confusion about who assigns value.  For it is not determined by other humans, but is assigned by the very one who created them.  Our worth comes from the one who is supremely worthy.

Captivated

I am captivated by extreme skiing.  I have skied my fair share of steep mountains, but when I watch skiers bomb through a narrow chute from the top of a mountain, or ride off the edge of a 30 foot rocky cliff I become memorized by what these people do.  The courage it takes to point your skis down the mountain.  The trust in your ability to hold an edge on a 50+ degree slope.  The reckless abandon necessary to launch yourself in the air.  All of this captivates me.

There is a big difference between being captivated by what someone can do, and by being captivated by someone.  I am captivated by what these skiers do.  But I have never once been captivated by them.  What I mean is, I have never sat and watched footage of a guy bombing through a chute and thought, “I wonder what makes him tick?”  “I wonder what drives life?”  “I wonder if his parents loved him?”  “I wonder how he treats others?”  These questions never enter my mind.  And the reason is simple, I’m not very interested in the person, I’m interested in what the person can do.

So here’s the question for us Christians, “Are we captivated by God, or are we captivated by what God can do?”

If we were able to get very honest with ourselves, I think many of us would have to admit we are more interested by what God can do than in God himself.  We are taken by the idea that God can save us, but we aren’t so taken about what that says about God.  We are in awe of God’s power, but aren’t interested in learning why he uses it the way he does.  We love that God saves us, but don’t really care about knowing him.

I think of the quote by John Owen.  “O to behold the glory of Christ. . .Herein would I live; herein would I die; herein would I dwell in my thoughts and affections. . .until all things below become unto me a dead and deformed thing, no way suitable for affectionate embraces.”  I don’t know that I have come across an expression of deeper longing for Christ himself outside of the psalms.  Owens quote forces me to examine myself.  Am I more captivated by God himself, or what God can do.  This can be measured if we use the quote.  “Until all things below become unto me a dead and deformed thing.”  What Owen is saying is that he desires his longing for God to be greater than anything here in this life, no matter how good those things are.  So when I examine my life, has my family, my success, my friendships, my house, my experiences, my sitting on the back deck watching a summer storm roll in, my standing on a mountain top, my enjoying a glass of wine become a dead and deformed thing in comparison to knowing Jesus more intimately.

Let’s be clear, those things are not bad.  In fact they are very good.  Blessings given by God to be enjoyed.  But they are not better than him.  And to be captivated by them is to be captivated by what God can do for me and not be captivated by God.

Psalm 63:1-4

1 You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water.

2 I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory.
3 Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.

Sustaining Tension

Just a couple of years ago our church was in a financial situation that was forcing us to have some difficult conversations.  Giving had been trending down over the last few years, and money had been taken out of savings to make budget.  Now it was the time of year to create a budget for the next year.

There were two major philosophies at the table regarding how we should put that budget together.  One idea was to trust God would provide what we needed and to keep the budget the same.  This meant we would budget to take a third of what we had in savings out to make budget if things didn’t go as hoped.  The other philosophy was to cut budget enough to not have to take money out of savings.  As you can imagine, it was a spirited discussion.

We finally decided to trust God and budget to take the necessary money out of savings to maintain the budget as is.  Two years later it was evident this was the right decision as we have yet to take money out of savings and actually increased our budget last year.

But this post isn’t about how that happened.  This post is about where we find ourselves now.

Morale is high in the church.  People are excited about a new mission and vision statement presented last year.  Unity among members is greater than before.  Functionality of our leadership is higher.  Attendance is up.  Giving is up.  There is more ministry happening now than there has been in a long time.  Honestly, things are going very well.

So well I feel I need to disturb the peace.

The situation with the budget created tension with church.  Tension equals energy.  And energy makes things move.  Without energy, nothing moves.  What our church leadership did well with the budget situation was direct the energy towards creativity and away from negativity.  We presented the congregation with two stories.  The first story was a story of decline and slow death.  Truthfully, it was the path we were on.  The second story was a story of change and growth.  It is the story everybody said they wanted for our church.  By very truthfully presenting the two stories that would define us, our leadership generated tension that energized people to be creative.  And that creativity led to new ministry.

Now, with all the good things happening that urgency we felt two years ago is waning.  In some regards it is reason to celebrate.  We can celebrate God’s goodness and provision.  We can rest in knowing God is moving in our midst.  But I can sense a coming complacency.

If tension is necessary for energy, then a lack of tension results in a lack of energy.  And without energy nothing moves.  Another way to say this, “if there is no vision the people perish.”  My role as leader is to sustain the creativity and energy we have generated in the last two years.  But how do I sustain it?  It is simple, by creating more tension.  This does not need to happen through a crisis (and I really hope I am not creating that!), but can happen by constantly holding up before us the call God has put on us as a people and as a congregation to make disciples of Jesus Christ who impact the world.  For all the good things happening, we have to admit we aren’t there yet.  Nor will we ever be.

I realize this takes courage.  It takes courage to purposefully create tension.  It takes courage to intentionally rock the boat.  It takes courage to accurately and truthfully reflect current reality to people who may not want to see it.  For me personally, it takes courage because I have to face into my fears of failing, not being competent, and wanting to be liked.  If I don’t face these fears, then what I do will be dominated by me and not by God’s will for me.  What I mean by that is this; if my fears dominate what I do or don’t do, then what is driving my actions is not my pursuit of Christ, but my pursuit of protecting myself.  I’m serving me.  And if this is true, then I have to be honest and assume that even the good things I am trying to accomplish are done to serve me.  To make me look good.  Taking time to actively reflect on motivations, fears, and self-protections are essential to this process of creating tension.  So let’s be honest, generating and sustaining tension with in any organization is not for the faint of heart.  But we need to ask ourselves this, “Is the possible pain worth the possible gain?”

My answer is unequivocally, “Yes!”  People transformed by Christ, healed by him, restored by him, redeemed by him, and saved by him.  And the same for families and schools and communities and nations.  So yeah…its worth it.

So I am on the look out.  I’m actively looking for and thinking of ways I can create some tension.

And let’s be honest…this could be fun!

The stories we tell

*This is post is based on a sermon I preached a few months ago. To hear that sermon in its original form go here (itunes) or here (church website – see sermon titled “Heart”)

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? -Jeremiah 17:9

This verse can be difficult for a person to accept. Especially in this day and age. We live at a time when our emotions are often valued over our thoughts. Some even argue that our emotions are more real than our thoughts. It seems that this emphasis has caused us to become unable to distinguish between our emotions and thoughts. As a result we hear people say, “I feel this is wrong.”  No, you think it is wrong.  But we don’t know the difference any longer.  Feelings dominate and shape our reality.

Given the emphasis on our emotions (heart) it is no wonder that this verse from Jeremiah is troubling. Perhaps the most unsettling consequence of this verse is how it undermines our reality. If we let our emotions shape our experience, but if our emotions can’t be trusted, then is our reality real?  Here’s a simpler way to say this: “Is what I am feeling appropriate to what is really happening?  Or is my heart deceiving me to feel something that I don’t need to feel?”

Let me give you an example of what I mean.  I often call my wife in the middle of day.  Sometimes I need to speak to her about something, but sometimes I am just calling to check in.  Of course there are times when I call that she does not pick up.  Both of us keep our phones on vibrate nearly all the time so it should be no surprise that she doesn’t always hear/feel the call.  When she doesn’t pick up the phone the first time I call I don’t think anything of it.  But, when I call a second, or heaven forbid a third time, and she doesn’t pick up, well….now she doesn’t respect me!  She never considers my feelings or what I may need.  I feel this deeply.  But should I?  No.  There are a thousand things that could be keeping her from the phone.  She could be in a store and doesn’t hear it, she could be in the other room playing with our son, she could be outside, or she could be taking a nap.  But my heart, my emotions tell a very different story…loudly.

We all do this.  In their book Crucial Conversations, Patterson, Grenny, et al. outline three stories we typically tell ourselves.  These are victim stories, villian stories, and helpless stories.

Victim Stories

These stories are framed in such a way that we come across looking like innocent sufferers.  We completely ignore the role we played in the situation and place all the blame for why something happened the way it did on the other person.  So our motives are pure, well-intentioned, noble, and altruistic but because of the system or other person involved, we suffered.  So it might sound something like this, “I was just trying to make it the best it could possibly be, but they didn’t think it was important,” or “They just don’t value excellence.”  These two statements are intended to make your actions seem honorable and the other person to look like someone victimizing you.

Villain Stories

Villain stories are told by turning a normal, decent person into an evil mastermind.  All of their actions stem from a motive devoted to doing ill to others.  So a boss who is committed to excellence is seen as micro-manager.  A spouse is seen as inflexible and stubborn because they want things done a certain way.  The story I told above of my wife not picking up the phone was an example of a villain story.  She doesn’t respect me is a villain story.

It is important to note the difference between the victim and the villain story since they are so similar.  The victim story exaggerates our innocence.  The villain story exaggerates the other person’s guilt.

The real danger in the villain story is how it dehumanizes the other person.  If I label them a bonehead, a jerk, or whatever else I come up with it becomes easier to abuse them.  No longer do I have to treat them as a person, but I can talk about them with whomever I want as I am protecting people from the harm they may cause in the future.

Helpless story

Helpless stories create a narrative where we are powerless to do anything.  We believe there is nothing we can do to change the situation or person.  This enables us to do what we have been doing, or to do nothing at all.

All of these stories may be based on some fact.  Take the story of me trying to call my wife.  The story was based on fact.  I called and she did not answer.  But the interpretation, the story, that came from those facts is what was false.  My heart deceived me.

The True Story

As Christians this is an important idea.  It is so easy to be taken by the stories of our hearts and defined by them rather than being defined by the true story.  It is the story of God who comes when we least deserved it.  While we were still sinners Christ died for us.  When we least deserved it Christ on our behalf.  Through the cross of Christ, through the resurrection and the empty tomb God redeems us and calls us sons and daughters.  So when the stories of our hearts creep to our consciousness and begin to define us and our actions remember, this is not who you are!  You are a redeemed son!  A chosen daughter!

Christ choose you.

Christ did not choose you to be a victim.

He did not chose you to be a villain.

Jesus did not choose your brother or sister to be a villain either.

You are not helpless, but you are a co-creator with God.  Called to live out heaven on earth.

So here’s the question: Which story dominates your life?  What story does your heart truly believe?  Which story informs your actions?