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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Apathy and the knowledge of God

The following is from the script of the film Donnie Darko:

Ms. Pomeroy sits across from Principal Cole.

I'm sorry, Karen, this is a
specialised school. We don't think
the methods you've undertaken here
are appropriate.

(trying to contain
her anger)
With all due respect, sir, what
specifically about my methods do you
find inappropriate?

Principal Cole stares at her for a moment.

I don't have to get myself into a
debate about this, Karen, I believe
I have made myself clear.

You call this... clarity? I don't
think you have a clue what it's really
like to communicate with these kids.
You don't think that they can smell
your bullshit from a mile away? Every
day that goes by... that we fail
to... inspire them... is another
moment that we all lose. And we are
losing them to apathy, and this...
prescribed nonsense. They are slipping

I am sorry that you have failed. Now
if you'll excuse me, I have another
appointment. You can finish out the

(Script from IMSD)




What are the signs of American apathy? And the ramifications?

As I see it, there are three areas of apathy within the institutional church. The first is a preference for services and routine rather than community. By "community," I mean a kind of community that mirrors the early church in Acts, where believers are found sharing their lives together: spending long times in fellowship over meals and even selling their possessions and having their stuff in common--a clear violation of the truths of capitalism that we hold to be self-evident!

The second area of apathy is a general tendency to become so absorbed in the American lifestyle that there is no real vision for radically changing the world. Third, I would say there is a definite lack of freedom. That is, the church--like the greater culture--seems more interested in conforming and manipulating the self so that it meets its end goals and advances its values. In this context, creativity, originality, intellectual exploration, and dynamic vision are viewed with suspicion. (Cf. Tamie's recent post on the artist and priest.) In many contexts, not changing is viewed as a virtue.

But such apathy is not really unique to the church, is it? In many ways, apathy in the church is only a reflection of the apathy that is uniquely American. In fact, the three areas of apathy mentioned above (isolation/anti-community, lack of vision for world change, and conformity/manipulation of the un-free self) are manifested regularly in the culture at large.

What is the cause?

Well, that's a difficult question--a complex question, really, with no simple answer. However, might I suggest that one problem is that of saturation. Saturation? Yes, the idea that if a person has too much of a good thing, they tend to not appreciate it. That which is good becomes common and dull. Dullness leads to boredom and apathy.

In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul talks about demolishing "every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God." Might it be that we live in a world, particularly in the U.S. of A., where we are so saturated with the knowledge of God that God has become meaningless and dull?

I would suggest that one of the greatest spiritual tragedies of our time is that the Bible is history's #1 best seller. (See Wikipedia) The knowledge of God is everywhere in America. On Sunday mornings, sermons pollute the airwaves--preachers who take some of the most meaningful aspects of life and in the typical American sitcom style, they reduce these meaningful discussions down to a simple three point sermon with application points. We have multi-billion dollar industries dedicated to providing Christian music, literature, and multi-media. Multi-billion dollar industries! And we still think we need to get the message out????

I'm not saying that no good can come of all of this, I'm just saying that less is more. I am convinced that in 21st century America, the greatest obstacle to the knowledge of God is the knowledge of God itself. Knowledge of God is cheap and easy: go to church, listen to the radio, get a podcast, pop in a cd, turn on the television. And our Christian American leaders boldly continue "preaching the word," as if more information is going to make a difference in this over-saturated society. They seem to think that if only the world had the "right" message, then America would shake off its apathy. But they only add to the cacophony and noise.

Maybe it's time to for a fast. If we really value the knowledge of God, maybe it's time to protect it by hiding it.

Is mass media the new swine pit into which we cast our pearls? Is it a saturation that contributes to our apathetic faith?

And what is the connection between religious apathy and apathy in the American culture??? Has religion followed culture, or has the culture followed religion on this issue? I think it is quite probably that the church has taken the apathetic leadership role. That is, the apathy we find in Donnie Darko might be a result of the American culture following the church. I think this is particularly the case due to how closely church and culture were connected in the American life of the past.


daniel hutchinson said...

Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.

But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!

Amos 5:23,24

ktismatics said...

What is Graham Greene trying to communicate in this passage? Why do the children break into Old Misery's house?

They wanted to rob him.

Joanie, if you had actually read the short story... which, at a whopping thirteen pages must have kept you up all night, you would know that the children find a great deal of money hidden in a mattress. But they burn it. Donnie Darko, perhaps, given your recent brush with mass destruction, you can give us your opinion?

Well... they say it right when they are ripping the place to shreds. When they flood the house. That like... destruction is a form of creation. So the fact that they burn the money is... ironic. They just want to see what happens when they tear the world apart. They want to change things.

Have you taken the trouble to read Greene's short story, Erdman, or were you too apathetic to do your homework, too eager to wring a Christian take-home message out of the movie? The story is called "The Destructors": here's an
on-line copy.

It was written 50 years before Donnie Darko, in England, so the theme isn't limited to contemporary USA. The story and Donnie's interpretation resonate with Fight Club, wouldn't you say? Also, the most churchy thing about this movie is the inspirational speaker and his whole "love drives out fear" spiel to the school assembly. Donnie sees clearly through this upbeat bullshit, and then of course the screenwriter decides to unmask the inspirational dude as a child porn producer -- not unlike some of the high-profile evangelical preachers.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yes, K, there are many many similarities between the messages of the positive pop guru in Donnie Darko and the approach of religion. But this kind of prompts my chicken and egg question: did the church usher in this focus on cliche answers or is the church mirroring "the world"? I tend to think that this inspirational trend toward cliches is a religious creation--the desire to capture the meaning of life in a few catch phrases. We might go all the way back to the creeds of the church as an example. And that is why I am becoming so anti-creedal. Repeating creeds and formulas is too easy; it short circuits the existential (human) process that makes existence interesting and meaningful. So, ironically, by trying to capture something meaningful in an inspirational phrase or creed, we wind up making it less meaningful....not always, of course, but in many instances.

And, no, I did not read Greene's story.....And, yes, having watched Fight Club again last night, I have it fresh in my mind--the topic of apathy is one of the key motifs that drives Jack to question the corporate culture of lifestyle identity, thus ushering in a personal revolution that seeks to defeat and destroy corporate culture.

Jonathan Erdman said...

And just for clarification, my problem with cliches and creeds is not so much that they exist, but that they are often used in a somewhat militaristic fashion. As I see it, if someone imposes a creed on someone else, it rapes them of their subjectivity and freedom as a self to judge what things in life are meaningful and important.

daniel hutchinson said...

Jon, how does one measure apathy? Is it a lack of activity? Activity in which direction?

I would be interested on your thoughts. Different contexts value activity in different directions. In church contexts, there is often a high value for interpersonal activity - fellowship. However in the world, there is a high value on cultural production.

I'm referring to an opposition between "church" and "world" that is probably not sustainable in terms of the linkage you've made, but I'm not trying to make a theoretical point. I'm thinking more practically, about how folk involved in church life become less productive culturally, but more successful in terms of building community of love.

Cynics would question the love in the church, but it's not too hard to realize that high culture is not the aim - mediocrity and apathy in this sense is the norm in the church, seen from the outside and measured acording to this rule.

Cynicism would also point at cultural apathy in the world, which is where your last paragraph really makes one stop to think: yes, church and world are closer than we sometimes pretend.

But from within the church, with a different value system, it is possible to have a completely different view of the situation.

If I were speaking directly to you, I would go a step further and be more challenging to ask you questions about your own relationships, to see where this experience of apathy stems.

Have people let you down on a personal level?

Or are you more bothered by the cultural standards as expressed in the mass media (the whore of babylon, which the "world" and "church" share).

hoosier reborn said...

Beautifully said, although I wonder if it not a matter of relevance too-as in, if there is so much and it doesn't appear to matter, how necessary is it really?


attentiontolife said...

It seems to me that there's an ambiguity or paradox built into the imitation of Christ idea. Eve ate the forbidden fruit in part because she thought it would make her more like God, and it worked (Gen 3:22), but God wasn't too pleased with this form of imitation. Christ humbled himself and was crucified, but according to the faith he is now resurrected, a God-man, the Lord. Which Christ is to be imitated? The Western church has traditionally imitated the earthly Jesus, while the Eastern church imitates the resurrected Jesus. As Athanasius of Alexandria wrote in the 4th century: "God became man so that man might become God."

(Contrary to what it says at the top of this comment, I am Ktismatics. My wife used my machine this morning and went off to church leaving me logged in as her, and I can't remember how to change my identity back.)

Jonathan Erdman said...


Measuring apathy?

It's a good question....I tend to think that "apathy" is difficult to measure. Measurement implies (to me) a certain scientific approach, whereas I think apathy is just kind of an orientation that one senses.

You mentioned "activity" as a possible measurement, but there can be a flurry of religious activities and yet still be a certain apathetic approach to life, a dull and lifeless motion. "Sound and fury signifying nothing"?

Jonathan Erdman said...


I agree with the built in paradox of imitating Christ....honestly, I hadn't really thought of it much. The imitation of Christ is not really something I've given a lot of thought too. I guess it hasn't really been something that has impacted me personally over the course of my life....I suppose I think of my life more in terms of the challenges of the present, rather an imitation of anyone in the past (whether that be Christ or any of the biblical figures). I think I take examples from all of them, but I've never prioritized any sort of "imitation."

But I agree with the tension: if one prioritizes the imitation of Christ, then which Christ does one imitate?! The earthly Lord, tempted as we were tempted? Or the resurrected Christ, a striving to achieve the deification of Jesus? Paul's "resurrected life"? Or the crucified Christ, even? "Death to self"?

daniel hutchinson said...

Jon, could point about activity as a mask for apathy. Maybe one would have to look at one's own dreams, gifts and abilities and see for oneself if one "measures up".

Jesus had his life defined thus: "manifested to destroy the works of the evil one". (1 John 3:8).

When you discuss imitating Jesus, I would say "all of the above". But this needs to be tempered with an understanding of ourselves in relation to our world, or as you call it "the challenges of the present". My own understanding is the Jesus defeated Satan on the cross - and for us is to live a life of freedom.

In my own life, measured against where I know I could be in God, the freedom that He shed His blood for... there is still a reticence. Many times I wonder when I will become that fully alive son of God, that I am called to be.