The Gentle Slope of Pessimism
I have a naked confession to make. I am a pessimist by nature. I tend to be that person who bends towards the raw character of “suck-it-up-buttercup” realism while loathing sappy inattentiveness – the type that circulates on social media and says, “The world is burning, but here are pictures of puppies to make you feel better.” Inspirational sicky-sweet quotes and being told “Everything is fine” when in fact things are not fine does nothing for me. I realize that for many flowery sentimentalities are artificial anesthetics to keep oneself from being crushed by a world gone mad, but for someone who tends to be a raw “realist”, it does little. I must be raw and honest in this, admitting it at the beginning, before discussing a topic such as pessimism of which I struggle.
I believe it can be argued with great force that our World is an utter dumpster fire. The West at large and particularly the United States is entering its twilight stage of moral, political, and cultural decline. In artistic terms, we would be somewhere between “The Consummation of Empire” and “Destruction” in Thomas Cole’s (1801-1848) The Course of Empire paintings series (1830s). We citizens of a declining West have front row seats to watch the World of our childhoods burn up in the name of security, liberation, and necessity. With global pandemics, mass forced lockdowns and vaccinations, selective conformity and censorship, economic inflation, civic laziness and greed, political ineptitude and corruption, unmitigated social violence, mass child genocide, celebrated and legislated sexual perversion, and so much more, we are witnessing, in real-time, a free people’s suicide. The Empire of Liberty we once loved is bleeding by our knives and we wonder what is happening. Our mindless, depraved, and selfish decisions are going to ring through the ages of our posterity as our sins are met upon the heads of our children and their children.
That all said, there is more to the story.
Satan Wants Hell in Us
In thinking about all the insanity occurring around us, it is easy, especially for someone like me, to just acknowledge the chaos and declare doom, praying for the asteroid. However, I was slapped with a dose of corrective conviction and much-needed realignment regarding this while reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Just as a reminder, Lewis wrote this book during World War II and from the perspective of a demon named Screwtape writing advice to his underling Wormwood on how best to destroy his Christian “patient.” In one section Lewis has Screwtape gives his minion advice on how to cultivate a materialistic and pessimistic view of the world. Here is the section that struck such a chord:
The scenes [your patient] is now witnessing [of the horrors of the War] will not provide material for an intellectual attack on his faith…but there is a sort of attack on the emotions which can still be tried. It turns on making him feel, when first he sees human remains plastered on a wall, that this is “what the world is really like” and that all his religion has been a fantasy. You will notice that we have got them completely fogged about the meaning of the word “real”. They tell each other, of some great spiritual experience, “All that really happened was that you heard some music in a lighted building”; here “Real” means the bare physical facts, separated from the other elements in the experience they actually had. On the other hand, they will also say “It’s all very well discussing that high dive as you sit here in an armchair, but wait till you get up there and see what it’s really like”: here “real” is being used in the opposite sense to mean, not the physical facts (which they know already while discussing the matter in armchairs) but the emotional effect those facts will have on a human consciousness. Either application of the word could be defended; but our business is to keep the two going at once so that the emotional value of the word “real” can be placed now on one side of the account, now on the other, as it happens to suit us. The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death “really means”. The hatefulness of a hated person is “real” — in hatred you see men as they are, you are disillusioned; but the loveliness of a loved person is merely a subjective haze concealing a “real” core of sexual appetite or economic association. Wars and poverty are “really” horrible; peace and plenty are mere physical facts about which men happen to have certain sentiments. The [human] creatures are always accusing one another of wanting “to eat the cake and have it”; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it. Your patient, properly handled, will have no difficulty in regarding his emotion at the sight of human entrails as a revelation of Reality and his emotion at the sight of happy children or fair weather as mere sentiment.
I was reminded by Lewis’ wisdom here, which simply echoes the greater wisdom of Scripture, that the goal of the Devil is two-fold: (a) to methodically glide us into Hell, and (b) to get Hell into us by making us believe the chaos and darkness of our world are the Ultimate Reality. It is easy to believe point (a). We all know Satan wants to take us to Hell, but it is far more difficult to realize that he also is working to make us think that the worldview of Hell (in all its weeping, wailing, darkness, and fire) is somehow the natural lasting state of the World in which we live, move, and have our being. The process of (b) comes much more methodically and subtly through repeatedly bringing before our mind's eye images of darkness and chaos (i.e. “entrails splattered on the walls”) until slowly, our joy, peace, love, and sense of the divine are withered away and replaced by anger, anxiety, defeat, and doubt.
Seeing God In The Midst Of The Fire
Satan ravenously craves our soul and one way he leeches on to it is by draining it of the dual vision of the World that we are to have. His job, and the job of his minions, is to ensure that when we see the World, we are seeing it only through the tinted lenses of the physical dimension. He wants us to see the world monochromatically, as nothing more than a bland shade of greys devoid of hues or focal points. He wants us to see the world burning without seeing the God Who is in the midst of the fire.
We must resist this temptation, even when we do not feel like resisting it. We must resist it even when it is so much easier to be eaten up with naysaying and gloom. We must resist it even when we are racked with mental and emotional fatigue and desensitization from the tsunami of idiocies and indecencies we see going on around us. By pushing back this temptation we are taking the step in acknowledging that the nightly news does not undermine the sacred providential unfolding of the Holy-Loving God Whose purposes are to refine His people for His Glory. It is an acknowledgment that this dumpster-fire of a world is not and in fact, cannot be outshined by the Luminous Nazarene who redefines its values and dismantles its idols. If you want this depicted in all its beautiful theological richness, then read Romans 8. For brevity I quote parts of it here:
13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. 27 And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This entire chapter is full of richness and power. For the sake of brevity consider but a few points. First, notice that bad-stuff is a given, even in the life of those who are in Christ Jesus. This isn’t pessimism talking at this point! This is a reality of the fallen nature of a Creation that is groaning for its final redemption made manifest by the glorified Christ. The Apostle Paul asks rhetorically, “What can separate us from the love of Christ?” Then he lists examples: Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword, or death, or life? Notice that these are concrete realities experienced by Paul and the early Christians in real-time! This fact alone destroys the “live your best life now” preaching so predominate on Christian TV stations today. Earlier in the passage, Paul literally says, “We are children of God…and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (v. 17). Read it again. There is no wiggle room around this truth.
That said, this is not a cause for pessimism! On the contrary, the real tangible darkness and suffering that occurs in our world are transformed in the hearts and minds of those who find identity and security in Christ (a Christ-centered transvaluation of values if you will). Our glorification in Christ is the Reality that translates everything about our World, both good, bad, and ugly. That Reality changes how we process and live amid pain, agony, darkness, and chaos. Why? Because it reminds us that while they are real things, they are not things that can ultimately define who we are, how we are, or where we are going.
The Ultimate Reality of Christ outweighs infinitely the entire collective weight of sufferings and insanities this World can throw at us precisely because they are empty of true mass. On the scales of Ultimate Reality, they are outweighed by the infinity of God’s promises and power. Their power to control us through anxiety, despair, and hate are infinitely outmatched by the Eternity of Love, Peace, and Security found in Christ. Remember Lewis said that when we see “human remains plastered on a wall” we want to say, “that this is ‘what the world is really like’ and that all…religion has been a fantasy.” But this is an objective lie! It is a fog before our eyes blinding us to what is really Real about the World. This World is not just comprised of decaying matter or evanescent moments that we see flashing about us on the nightly news – it is permeated with the brilliant, boundless, touch of the Everlasting God Who is living, active, and moving to make us His chosen people and preparing us for Eternity in the consummation of a New Heavens and a New Earth.
Second, notice that the assurance of love transcends circumstances and is not person-centered but God-centered. Paul says that the troubles of this world, from disease to famine to demons to death, will not separate us from the love of God. He doesn’t say that these things would necessarily keep our love from separating from Him but rather that they do not separate His love from us. In short, Paul is saying, among other things, that these horrendous circumstances (martyrdom, disease, or death…etc.) do not demonstrate a lack of God’s love for us but display it. This sounds insane to our modern western ears. How could suffering display God’s love? We in the West don’t understand this. Our Health-n-Wealth blab-it-n-grab-it view of spirituality necessarily creates in us the idea that if “God is love” He will then do only good for us (as we are defining “good” as any lack of suffering or trial). We argue that only peace, healing, and success are expressions of God’s love and not war, sickness, and poverty. But what if peace, healing, and success are the very things that make us complacent and indifferent to Him? They often are if we are honest. Just ask yourself when you are most “spiritual” and attuned to the things of the Kingdom? Is it when all is well or when chaos is happening? At this point, I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Peter who said to the hellishly persecuted Christians of his time,
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
1 Peter 4:1-6 (ESV)
I am not exegeting all of this, but notice that in some amazingly powerful way, the Apostle Peter affirms that suffering refines us towards being a people who can cease from sin – who no longer desire sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, or lawless idolatry. Could it be that suffering, chaos, and darkness are tools through which God’s love is remaking you, me, and the Western Church as large? Could it be that He is refining us through the dumpster fire to be who He has called us to be?
The Bible teaches us that suffering is a common reality we should expect to share with Christ. The chaos and the darkness and the disease around us remind us of what is most important in life. It quickens us to the reality that this Fallen World is not our home, that we are mere sojourners in this world (1 Peter 2:11) who “have no lasting city” but rather are seeking “the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). The chaos and the darkness and the disease we see ravaging our world, and in fact can ravage us (but by God’s unmerited grace), is a refining fire for our faith (James 1:1-2 & 1 Peter 1 & 4). This understanding helps to break down pessimism in our hearts as it reminds us that God is a God who Himself suffers (John 3:16, 1 Peter 2) and is a God Who also overcomes and is overcoming in our midst the power of darkness, disease, and disappointment by His mighty power. As the German Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said months before his execution by the Nazis,
“It is only by living completely in the world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world – watching with Christ in Gethsemane.”
Third, and finally, notice that the transformative view of the present is in light of Eternity. This present age is only to be understood in light of the eternal rays of God’s everlasting love and glory. Notice that over and over Paul discusses that we are groaning, that all of Creation is groaning in fact, with a hope not yet seen of the immense glorification of our bodies and all of Creation (v. 19-25). This glory is not Sweet-By-And-By escapism but rather the permeation of an eschatological reality of glory that pierces through every aspect of life. Eternity is shining through to us, even in the darkness, whispering and reminding us with echoes in our soul that God is a God who keeps His promises – God is a God in Whom we can be assured that all injustices will be made justice, that all wrongs will be made right, that all healing will be completed, and that all joy will be made unspeakable. This age, and all its absurdities and obscenities, reminds us that everything we are going through matters and is part of the tapestry of Eternity as it molds us into the eternal agent God desires us to be. As 20th Century Swedish theologian Bishop Anders Nygren (1890-1978) said,
“Just as the present [age] is to be followed by eternity, it has already been preceded by an eternity. Only when we see our present existence set in God’s activity, which goes from eternity to eternity, do we get it in right perspective. Then man comes to see that everything that comes to the Christian in this life—and consequently the suffering of the present too—must work together for good to him.”
The craziness of this world is surrounded and penetrated by the beauty and splendor of Eternity. That should remain at the center of our minds as we watch our world unraveling around us. That, at the center of our minds, burns up indifference and pessimism and hastens us to press further and further into the heart of the Father.
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters in Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 272-274
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, pg. 369-370
 Anders Nygren as quoted in R. Kent Hughes, Romans: Righteousness from Heaven (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), pg. 161
THE GENTLE SLOPE OF FUTURISM
The humans live in time but our Enemy [God] destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the Present. For the Present is the point at which time touches eternity…. He would therefore have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present — either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from, Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.
Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present. With this in view, we sometimes tempt a human (say a widow or a scholar) to live in the Past. But… it is far better to make them live in the Future. Biological necessity makes all their passions point in that direction already, so that thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also, it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities. In a word, the Future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. It is the most completely temporal part of time — for the Past is frozen and no longer flows, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays…. Hence nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead….
To be sure, the Enemy wants men to think of the Future too — just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice or charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow. The duty of planning the morrow’s work is today’s duty; though its material is borrowed from the future, the duty, like all duties, is in the Present. This is not straw splitting. He does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it. We do. His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future — haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth — ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other — dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.
Such are the words of infernal “wisdom” dripping from the pen of C.S. Lewis’ master tempter Screwtape to his underling Wormwood. Lewis’ diabolical protagonist (or antagonist) brings up that there are two things God wants us as creatures to chiefly attend to eternity and the present. There is deep wisdom in this. It is a truism that one of the central ways the principalities and powers try to destroy our souls is by enslaving us to futurism and materialism. They want us to live our existence in a time that has yet to be in the hopes of aggravating our anxieties and ingratitude. By whatever means necessary their goal is to ensure we do not spend an adequate amount of time being reflective, contented, or joyous in the ordinary nowness of our lives. As Lewis says, they want us “hag-ridden by the Future.”
Unfortunately, far too often, the dark forces against us tend to succeed in making us time travelers. They get us to be people who are located in the present but not living in it – instead, we are thousands of miles away inhabiting our pasts and futures. This is why, for many of us, we are a people full of insecurities, fears, unforgiveness, and restlessness. The French mathematician and Christian thinker Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) put his finger on the pulse of this mode of existence when he wrote in his day,
“We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of time that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching.”
“Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.”
The last sentence deserves to be repeated, “Thus we never actually live but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” In short, Pascal is bringing to light one of the malaises of our post-modern existence: we always plan for happiness and never achieve it. Our lives are spent seeking for joy in a realm of temporal existence we are not living in yet (namely the future). It is the bane of the “One-Day-ism” syndrome. This is where we consciously or subconsciously tend to think that the future is where our happiness, security, and contentment reside. True happiness, we think, lies at the weekend, or it's when we will meet that special someone, or when that new job or promotion comes, or when we can cash into that retirement plan, or when we can catch that perfect getaway we’ve been saving up for.
Don’t misunderstand. “One-days” are not wrong or bad – they are a constant feature of hope itself. We can and should prepare, store up, and even look forward to that which is not yet. The problem comes when we assign our “one-days” the unrealistic expectation that they are without question the remedy to satiate our restless hearts. Before our one-days “whisk us away” we tend to accustom ourselves to plodding around in our piecemeal lives of mediocrity, being filled with anxiety, dissatisfaction, unforgiveness, and boredom. As a result, we live less fulfilled lives and remain spiritual anemic – and we’re very good about convincing ourselves that we aren’t when in fact we are.
The problem is we are not guaranteed one-days (James 4:13). Because of this stark realization, we need to have a transvaluation of our values and a realignment of our worldviews. Part of this comes from seeing our present differently, as Lewis points out through Screwtape. We need to begin to see the world as permeated with the rays of eternity, as a realm we can occupy with joy and contentment, and peace.
FAITH IS IN THE PRESENT TENSE
In affirming that God wants us to think of the present Lewis is not meaning we must denounce remembrance, expectation, or preparedness in our lives (for these are good and biblical), rather he is bringing to our awareness the need to soak in the present with joy, patience, and appreciation by coming to a mindfulness of the eternal that saturates it. He is reminding us that the power of faith lies now in its capacity to be merely future-directed but in its abiding transformative nowness to ignite our character and perspective of our everyday experiences (both good and bad). A.W. Tozer (1897-1963) put it this way,
“Faith in Christ is not an act to be done and gotten over with as one might get inoculated against yellow fever or cholera. The repentant sinner's first act of believing in Christ for forgiveness and eternal life is the beginning of a continuous act of believing which lasts throughout life and for all eternity.”
What Tozer is getting at (as well as Pascal and Lewis) is as biblical as it is practical: faith is an active state of existence that we are to live in. Faith is not just believing for but is the very act of believing in. Faith is not a belief extended into the future alone but is rooted in present reality that acknowledges God as a God of immanent withness or presence. Remember how the writer of Hebrews put it,
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (11:1)
Faith is a present reality (things not seen) of the God Who is that grounds our confidence in what is not yet (things hoped for). In short, you cannot have faith that God will do unless you have an active faith that God is doing. This requires an intentional awareness of the transcendent and eternal in daily life. This is why Lewis links the present with eternity so closely. Understanding the true immanence of God in our midst, that He is with us (Immanuel), that His peace and strength and joy is with us now, changes fundamentally how we see the moment we are in rather than just maintaining us for a future that is yet to be.
ETERNITY IS BLEEDING THROUGH INTO THE ORDINARY
The practice of “living in the present” has deep Christian roots. The Psalmist told us to cast our burdens upon the Lord that He may sustain us (Psalm 55:22), which is a present-centered promise. The Apostle Paul affirmed that our outer self is wasting away but our inner self is renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). James had said we should not worry about tomorrow because of the evanescence of life and instead should rest in God’s will (James 4:13-16). Jesus Himself said we are to be a people who pray for daily bread (Matthew 6:11) and are not to be anxious about a new day but concentrate on today (Matthew 6:34).
The Biblical vision of “presentness” is not a pietistic otherworldliness of “I’ll-Fly-Away-ism”; it is not detaching ourselves from the everyday monotony and responsibilities of life, and it’s not navel-gazing or Eastern mysticism. We are being called to live in the moment but not for the moment. There is a difference. The latter is presentistic and shallow, recklessly unabandoned in wisdom or reflection. This is not what we are talking about. We are talking about a deeper reflection upon the nature of everyday experience as seen through the lens of the eternal. It is a call for us to recover the sacredness of ordinary life. To be still and know that God is God (Psalm 46:10). As one author has put it,
“The aim when we practice the present is not to learn a bunch of techniques but to learn how to live and relate to God in the here and now. Practicing the present is about living for God by living with God in the real world. The best way to practice the present is to look for the reality of God’s presence in the full and sometimes disappointing realities of ordinary circumstances.”
Life, in all its seeming mediocrity, is emblazoned with the presence of God. Eternity is bleeding through into our ordinary lives. Are we aware of this? We serve a God who is immanent. He is present with us and in us and among us. God is in the simple and God is in the grand. God is with us and among us not just before us. Really! Stop at this moment and really think on this! As theologian Thomas Oden (1931-2016) said,
“Only when one thinks of oneself as standing on the edge of either a happy or pitiable eternity does present life become meaningful and serious.”
We need to be serious about ordinary spirituality. We need to be a people that see God as more than a Sunday experience or a future God of some revival experience. We need to stop seeing God as merely a “one-day” fulfiller of greater spiritual growth or even material blessings. We need to stop seeing God as merely “Coming in the Clouds” at the expense of seeing Him in the cloudiness of life’s experiences. While He is the God of all those things, He is also the God of now! And by this, I do not mean a God of “gimme-gimme” instant gratification, miracles, and blessings (although He can). I am talking about becoming acutely aware of our immediate surroundings and ordinary everyday spirituality – i.e. what living the Christian life is when it’s not Sunday! I am talking about realizing that God is the God in our midst when we clean dishes, prepare a meal, stock the shelves, watch the kids, take a walk, pay the bills, or drive the car. When we begin to actively and consciously try to think upon and touch God in these moments, then their monotony begins to melt, and our anxiousness is undone and our ingratitude is thrown upon the altar of worship and thanks.
In closing this post (of which I but scratched the surface of this profound topic) I leave you with an extended quote from the Christian Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who wrote long ago about being a person who is present-minded in their faith,
The one who rows a boat turns his back to the goal toward which he is working. So it is with the next day. When, with the help of the eternal, a person lives absorbed in today, he turns his back to the next day. The more he is eternally absorbed in today, the more decisively he turns his back to the next day; then he goes not see it at all…. This is the way one is turned when one rows a boat, but so also is one position when one believes…. If a person turns to the future, and especially with earthly passion, then he is most distanced from the eternal, then the next day becomes a monstrous confused figure, like that in a fairytale….
The believer is one who is present and also…a person of power…. How rare is the person who actually is contemporary with himself; ordinarily most people are apocalyptically, in theatrical illusions, hundreds of thousands of miles ahead of themselves, or several generations ahead of themselves in feelings, in delusions, in intentions, in resolutions, in wishes, in longings. But the believer (the one present) is in the highest sense contemporary with himself. To be totally contemporary with oneself today with the help of the eternal is also formative and generative; it is the gaining of eternity. There certainly was never any contemporary event or any most honored contemporary as great as eternity….
To live in this way, to fill up the day today with the eternal and not with the next day, the Christian has learned or is learning (for the Christian is always a learner) from the prototype [Christ Himself]. How did he conduct himself in living without care about the next day – he who from the first moment he made his appearance as a teacher knew how his life would end, that the next day would be his crucifixion, knew it while the people were jubilantly hailing him as king (what bitter knowledge at that very moment!), knew it when they were shouting hosannas during his entry into Jerusalem, knew that they would be shouting ‘Crucify him!’ and that it was for this that he was entering Jerusalem – he who bore the enormous weight of this superhuman knowledge every day – how did he conduct himself in living without care about the next day?... How did he conduct himself in living without care about the next day – he who was indeed not unacquainted with suffering of this anxiety or with any other human suffering, he who groaned in an outburst of pain, ‘Would that the hour had already come’?
How did he manage?.... [That answer is] He had the eternal with him in his today – therefore the next day had no power over him, it did not exist to him. It has no power over him before it came, and when it came and was the today, it has no other power over him than what was his Father’s will, to which he, eternally free, had consented and to which he obediently submitted.”
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters in Signature Classics (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 227-229
 Blaise Pascal as quoted in Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1993) pg. 74
 Faith is not merely future directed but is a present active style of living that resides in the nowness of God’s promises, grace, and truth. Consider some sources on this: J.I. Packer, “Faith” entry in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001) pg. 431-434; David L. Allen, Hebrews, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing, 2010) pg. 542-543
 John Koessler, Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2019) pg. 210
 Thomas Oden, John Wesley’s Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), pg. 30
 Søren Kierkegaard, Christian Discourses; The Crisis and a Crisis in the Life of an Actress, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997) pg. 73-76
The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart — an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them the seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme. He gives them in His Church a spiritual ear; they change from a fast to a feast, but it is the same feast as before.
Now just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty. This demand is entirely our workmanship….
This demand is valuable in various ways. In the first place it diminishes pleasure while increasing desire. The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns. And continued novelty costs money, so that the desire for it spells avarice or unhappiness or both….
But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate [the] horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will…. The Enemy [God] loves platitudes. Of a proposed course of action He wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking ‘Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is this the way that History is going?’ they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make. As a result, while their minds are buzzing in this vacuum, we have the better chance to slip in and bend them to the action we have decided on. And great work has already been done.
These are words of truth uttered by a demon. Well, let me clarify, a fictional devil named Screwtape created by the indispensable C.S. Lewis (1898-1963). This excerpt is from Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters in which he takes us through the veil of spiritual warfare, from the perspective of Hell. It is as jarring as it is profound. Over the past several months we have been reading selections from this work to understand the diabolic methods by which Satan and his minions work to destroy our intimacy and passion for God’s truth and love in the daily. Within the excerpt above we learn how the devils encourage boredom and novelty as a means of driving us towards spiritual restlessness and rot.
THE VALLEY OF BLAH & THE STATE OF “I-CAN’T-WAIT-ISM”
Lewis points out that one way the Adversary works his dark magic is to perpetuate in our souls a dissatisfaction with the seeming mundanity and repetitiveness of life. He makes us swallow the lie that life is only truly lived in light of perpetual novelty. Quite often, without even physically saying, “Is this all there is?” we begin to live out loud this sentiment by having less and less purpose and joy in the everyday activities that consume most of our existence. This could be in our work, cooking, cleaning, parenting, fellowshipping, church-going, or spiritual disciplines. We can begin to see these things as weights keeping us from “truly living.” One way we, therefore, try and overcome them is to overshadow them with novelty.
We tend to become creatures who worship novelty. We extol the bright, shiny, and perhaps even edgy or bawdy as “true living” while we balk at the regular or old as enslaving or passé. Who likes vanilla anyways as opposed to the thousand and one other flavors able to titillate the taste buds? Through the novel, we believe we can ascend from the Valley of Blah to the Mountains of True Satisfaction. So, we take up some new activities (social outing, parties, classes, services) or new gadgets (iPhone, computer, gaming system, car), or new amusement (social media, movies, video games, sports) in the hopes it will ignite into reality our deepest fantasies and desires at the expense of the black-and-white malaise of “Real Life.”
Let me make this flesh and bone for a moment.
Consider seasons for example. Very often we are a people who are never pleased with the season we are in. When we are in the Summertime, we speak of yearning for Fall and Winter (“I can’t wait for sweater weather & pumpkin spice!”), and yet when we are in Fall or Winter we wistfully dream of Summer (“I can’t wait for pool weather and cookouts!”). When we are in Thanksgiving Season we shop for Christmas and when we are at Christmas we prepare for Valentine's. It seems that while we are living in the moment we longed for we are never pleased. What does this say about us?
Or consider how we do our entertainment. We tend to obsess over upcoming or new releases. We exclaim, “I can’t wait until they release X!” or “That is the greatest Y ever!” (insert movie, song, game, gadget…etc.). Our commercial and trailer culture only perpetuates this behavior in us. Funny thing is, the release comes, we consume it (or even binge it) and it is awesome…until it’s not. We will then repeat the cycle when the new stream of trailers releases to ignite our curiosities.
Or even consider our jobs and careers. We tend to skip from one venue to the next, rarely enjoying where we are at even when we chose it at the expense of previous preferences. Rapidly the new environment and colleagues become old, showing their warts and “true selves,” and we thus begin seeking yet another venue in which to win our bread and butter. Even amid our careers, in the monotony of daily loads, we exclaim the desire for the novel: “I can’t wait to get out of this place,” or “I can’t wait for the weekend,” or “I can’t wait for a vacation,” or “I can’t wait for retirement.” Again, we seem to be unpleased with being pleased.
In all these examples we are living in a state of “I-can’t-wait-ism” which lays within the quest for novelty. It is a state we live in as we go through the Valley of Blah (which is just another name for regular everyday living). We seem to be incapable of ever really being at rest in the things we do, even when we are doing the things we wanted to do in the first place.
The great malady in all this is the fact that all the gadgets, activities, new venues, and amusements we ingest tend to have a lesser and lesser appeal the longer we plod upon this narrow globe. What is happening is we are succumbing to what Lewis called “the law of diminishing returns.” The allurement of “the new” quickly devolves into the “blah” as we oscillate from moments of emotional high and low which are shackled to the contingencies of events and people. As a result of all this, what do we do? We keep repeating. We are like gerbils on a ceaseless wheel of filling our lives with more and more activities, gadgets, and amusements in the hopes they will bring us out of “blah” only to find that they lead us to “blah” which in turn makes us seek even further amusements.
OUR RELENTLESS QUEST TO BE RESTLESS
We post-modern westerners are especially susceptible to the Law of Diminishing Returns. Consider for example our accessibility to movies and entertainment (something I enjoy and therefore have thought about personally in my life). In 1950 there were less than 100 television channels, today there are close to 2,000. In 1990 there were no streaming video services, today there are about 200 with over 70,000 movies and shows just on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. On Steam (a video game digital distribution service) in 2008 there were around 200 games available, today there are over 10,000. Around 1990 there were around 150 video games released annually, today there are close to 6,000. However, amid this tsunami of amusement available to us we have less and less sustainable wonder and joy in our consuming. We mindlessly search for "something to watch" only to say "nothing is on." Or we flip something on in the background, not caring about what it is, while we flip through our phones to find one bout of idiocy after another on Tiktok. What does all this say about us as a people? Have you not experienced the feeling that movies and the games and the shows “aren’t what they used to be”? Why do we tend to think this? And yet this sentiment seems somewhat pervasive as we seem less and less able to sustain excitement or interest in new releases. Is our more somehow becoming less to us? Is it any wonder we are obsessed with retro things (from Dunkaroos to windbreakers to 2D gaming) and seeking to grasp at the wonder and joys we experienced as kids? There is a post waiting to be written just on this topic, but I digress.
I will not give more stats nor belabor the point for fear we will go off focus but suffice to say enough ink has been spilled in the world of philosophy and psychology to show us that we post-moderns seem to be suffering from a strange malady of “boredom” that did not really exist in previous generations. Think on that for but a moment. How quickly do you end up saying, “I am bored,” in-between one pursuit and another? How quick are you to need some activity or sound to tantalize your senses so you feel fulfilled or don’t have to think? Again, in asking these questions, I cannot but be reminded of when the French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) remarked,
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
Why is this? Well, a full-orbed discussion will go beyond the confines of this post but suffice to say that one central element at play is our loss of purpose and meaning in life. We have little peace or contentment in our hearts and minds because we do not really have a sense of who we are, what we are to do, and how we are to live. Part of all this lies in what great thinkers through the centuries have coined “human restlessness,” which is this inability to find a sense of peace and security in our souls. As a result, we fill our lives with novelties, noise, and nonsense in the hopes they will stimulate our indifference to life. But they don’t, they just aggravate it. Pascal piercingly revealed this problem rising in his day (which is unduly exacerbated in our own time) saying,
[People] think they genuinely want rest when all they really want is activity.
They have a secret instinct driving them to seek external diversion and occupation, and this is the result of their constant sense of wretchedness. They have another secret instinct, left over from the greatness of our original nature, telling them that the only true happiness lies in rest and not in excitement. These two contrary instincts give rise to a confused plan buried out of sight in the depths of their soul, which leads them to seek rest by way of activity and always to imagine that the satisfaction they miss will come to them once they overcome certain obvious difficulties and can open the door to welcome rest.
All our live passes in this way: we seek rest by struggling against certain obstacles, and once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces. We must get away from it and crave excitement.
We think either of present or of threatened miseries, and even if we felt quite safe on every side, boredom on its own account would not fail to emerge from the depths of our hearts, where it is naturally rooted, and poison our whole mind.
Man is so unhappy that he would be bored even if he had no cause for boredom, by the very nature of his temperament, and he is so vain that, though he has a thousand and one basic reasons for being bored, the slightest thing, like pushing a ball with a billiard cue, will be enough to divert him.
How raw and in your face. We are a people, Pascal says, that never rest and in fact despise rest – and by rest Pascal is speaking not of sleep but a serenity of spirit and a capacity to soak in silence and peace. Why do we do this? Pascal asserts it is because we hate to think of “our wretchedness.” In other words, we hate to come face to face with ourselves or our situations, so we cover up the mirror of our souls with a million little mice to divert deep reflection. But again, these diversions only satiate but for a time, until we are resolved to find further venues of contentment, which in turn do not fulfill. It’s the gerbil on the wheel. Ad infinitum.
OUT OF THE CYCLE OF PERPETUAL NOVELTY
Once again, let me do an addendum before I close this post. There is nothing in what is said here that asserts it is somehow inherently wrong to desire taking up a new activity or a trendy gadget or to enjoy a new amusement. To walk away with such a notion is to miss the point entirely. The goal is to get us to stop for once and think about what we consume, what we desire, and how we are viewing our lives; it is to draw us towards reflecting on where we perch our real contentment and joy.
That said, we need a way forward through the Valley of Blah. As always, I do not presume to give be-all-end-all solutions to addressing our maladies, but I think part of the way out of the Valley is to come to terms with the fact that the valley is itself a place where joy and satisfaction can be found. In short, we need to see the Valley of Blah with fresh eyes. Part of the release from the seeming monotony of the every day is to see that monotony as part of the cadence of human existence – there is monotony in novelty and there is a novelty in the monotony. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes put it much better than I can. He wrote it like this:
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
8 All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
And yet after saying all of this he goes on to say by chapter 3,
9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man.
There is so much goodness in these passages, but time fails me to do full exegesis. Suffice to say, life is a dance of permanence and change and change becoming permanence. Lewis called this “Rhythm,” that union of difference and durability which is at the heart of our existence as created beings. When we come to see what the function of “toil” and “business” and “everyday life” is – that it has the heartbeat of eternity – we come to be freed from feeling enslaved in it. Our enslavement comes from our inadequate view of what life should be instead of coming to see it as it is. Nothing lasts and everything that comes is really just a rehashing. “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.” This is life.
We have got to get to the place that we embed within our philosophy of life the truth that “God has made everything beautiful in its time” as the Preacher said. The doing good, the eating, the drinking, and yes, even the toil, is “beautiful in its time” and is “a gift from God.” How could this be? The every day and the seemingly mundane, as well as the experiences of the novel, all have the embers of eternity in them. They are not eternity but they reveal it to us. Through them, they show us what it means to be a creature, what it means to need to find the Ultimate Rest for our restless souls that are found not in them, but perhaps, however faintly, through them in God Himself.
The Preacher of Ecclesiastes and a whole lot of great thinkers and sages through the ages have told us the same message: Stop thinking your happiness and satisfaction rests in the novel. It doesn’t. It can’t. That which is new becomes old and that which is old repeats itself. This is your life. To crave infinite newness to satiate your restless soul is to remain infantile in your perspective on life; it is to be stunted into a pubescent soul that is enslaved to people and things. Find your rest in the One in Whom there is no change and there you find true living amid the ordinary.
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 257-259
https://www.foxbusiness.com/technology/how-many-movies-on-netflix; https://www.diffen.com/difference/Hulu_vs_Netflix#:~:text=Hulu's%20original%20series.-,Size,shows%2C%20and%20over%202%2C500%20films; https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-prime-video#:~:text=The%20streaming%20service%20has%20roughly,channels%20with%20Prime%20Video%20Channels.
 Consider some philosophical reflection on the concept of “boredom” by Wendell O’Brien, Boredom, A History of Western Philosophical Perspectives from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/boredom/. Also consider these scientific studies on boredom: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/media-spotlight/201703/bored-in-the-usa; https://www.sciencenews.org/article/social-distancing-boredom-covid-19-public-health-pandemic; https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/11/191119123750.htm;
 I cannot find the exact source for this but I believe it is in his Pensées
 I would suggest considering some of these great thinkers who have discussed human restlessness: Saint Augustine, Confessions, Book 1 in particular; Blaise Pascal, Pensées, particularly section “VIII. Diversion;” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, Part II, Chapter XIII and Volume II, Part III, Chapter XVI. Also consider a discussion on this topic in Paul Rahe, Soft Despotism, Democracy's Drift Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009). I would also recommend: Peter Busch’s article “Modern Restlessness, from Hobbes to Augustine” from Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (www.mdpi.com/journal/religions)
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées (New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 1995), pg. 40
 Consider the previous post I did called The Gentle Slope of Relentless Noise, (https://www.faithunderstood.com/articles/the-gentle-slope-of-relentless-noise)
The Gentle Slope of Heedless Humor
The great Church Father Basil of Caesarea (330-379 A.D.), when citing Ephesians 5:4 on the nature of humor said,
“The Christian…ought not to indulge in jesting [and] he ought not to laugh nor even to suffer laugh makers. He must not talk idly, saying things which are of no service to the hearers.”
In short, for Basil, humor was no laughing matter. Now we recognize that this is excessive and somewhat priggish on the surface, but below in the meat of thought lies a truth: laughter has soul shaping power. But seldom do we ever think about this – even we Christians. We enlightened moderns are living in an age of sitcoms, stand-up comedians, and infinite memes, which wash over us with rivers of puns, wit, and knee slapping entertainment. But even here there lies both great joy and great danger. Even here, in our humor and laughter, we must become reflective and ask if we have allowed the law of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5) to reign.
Humor can be a Balm and Bane to Life
Humor and laughter are sweet balms of life. They make life bearable and beautiful by breaking down barriers and helping us forget about the business and seriousness of reality. All the incongruities (the absurdities, oddities, and “out-of-placeness”) have a humbling effect upon us as creatures. Through humor we tend to make fun of ourselves and our place in the world. Therefore, humor has a humbling aspect to it at times because we realize just how absurd and weird we can be. As one author said, “[Humour] involves some confession of human weakness” and is “the chief antidote to pride; and has been, ever since the time of the Book of Proverbs, the hammer of fools.” The great English philosopher and essayist G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) said it this way,
“If you really ask yourself why we laugh at a man sitting down suddenly in the street you will discover that the reason is not only recondite, but ultimately religious. All the jokes about men sitting down on their hats are really theological jokes; they are concerned with the Dual Nature of Man. They refer to the primary paradox that man is superior to all the things around him and yet is at their mercy.”
There is much to unpack here but we will point to only one minor aspect of what Chesterton is getting at. The fact is humor is deeper than we think. Laughter reveals more than we think. They reveal something about us as a people. Why we laugh at what we laugh says something about how we think the world is and who and what humans are, and how it all should be. This is centrally because we were made to be social creatures who live a certain way in the world and seek joy in the good. What grounds all of this is the comforting and empowering knowledge that we serve a Creator King who laughs and has joy (Psalm 2:1-12, Zephaniah 3:17) and in fact has made us to be people who can laugh, and play, and express such joy through lighthearted interactions (Ecclesiastes 3:4; Job 8:21; Proverbs 15:13, 17:22; Psalm 126:2-3; Luke 6:21).
But with everything, sin and darkness become the kill-alls and makers of infinite devaluation. This is where a demon can give us insight.
C.S. Lewis in all his piercing correctness speaks straight to the quick of the power and influence of humor in The Screwtape Letters. In the section below the senior demon Screwtape informs his underling Wormwood of the most effective ways of utilizing humor and laughter to slowly destroy purity and sacredness in the life of his patient Christian believer. Before this conversation you will remember our previous post in the Gentle Slopes Series which dealt with friendships. Here the Christian patient has not only begun to hang out with two carousing skeptical unbelievers but has been introduced to another broader group of friends, all of them obsessed with revelry, novelties, and joking. Screwtape decides to advice Wormwood on his next steps with his patient,
My Dear Wormwood,
Everything is clearly going very well. I am specially glad to hear that the two new friends [of your Christian patient] have now made him acquainted with their whole set. All these, as I find from the record office, are thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortable towards our Father's house. You speak of their being great laughers…. [This] point is worth some attention.
I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided…. Fun is closely related to Joy-a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct….
[But the] real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction…. Humour is for [some] the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame…. Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humorous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can be passed off as funny. Cruelty is shameful-unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man's damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke. And this temptation can be almost entirely hidden from your patient [the Christian]…. Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be represented to him as "Puritanical" or as betraying a "lack of humour".
But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny…. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy [God] that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy [and] it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it.
In this passage Lewis is soberly reminding us of how the Adversary of our souls uses humor to slowly deaden our souls to any sense of shame or sacredness.
Laughter Often Carries an Agenda
One point worth noting that Lewis shows is that behind laughter there often lies an agenda. We do not often think of this when we enjoy good banter. But this is true. That agenda can be merely to bring joy into others’ lives – which is a noble activity within itself. But often it can be pregnant with ulterior motives: such as to generate self-aggrandizement or attention-seeking or to soften people’s acceptability of particular behaviors, beliefs, or values. Here, on this last point specifically, lies the far more subtle yet sinister element of humor.
Humor can shape our souls. It can also shape culture. G.K. Chesterton poignantly said back in the twilight of Victorian England,
“If you really want to know what is going to happen to the future of our democracy, do not read the modern sociological prophecies, do not read even [utopian novels]…. Read the [comic pages] as if they were the dark tablets graven with the oracles of the gods. For…they contain some hint of the actual habits and manifest desires of the…people. If we are really to find out what the democracy will ultimately do with itself, we shall surely find it, not in the literature which studies the people, but in the literature which the people studies.”
If you want to shape people’s souls, and even guide the culture of a people, then shape what they laugh about. Shape the entertain they consume. In time what they consume will consume them. They will become what they cajole and joke about. Why? Because laughter has the inherent capacity to bypass the mind and go straight to the emotional and appetite driven parts of our nature. These areas of our souls are the most malleable and guiding aspects of our being. If you want people to be willing to start accepting a particular behavior, to normalize it, then your best methodology is to soften it as playful, innocent, and lighthearted.
I think we can say with some accuracy we can see this in our own lives and culture. Before any particular behavior or preference or lifestyle is accepted in our society it is always “normalized” on our televisions and the silver screen. Make it look “normal” or friendly or innocent within the context of story making and laughter and you have all but won over the audience. If you do not think this is the case, then take a moment for some personal inventory. Ask yourself: How much have you changed in the past 10 years in your views of religion, morality, modesty, gender identities and roles, language use, sexual preferences, politics, and justice? Have you come to accept, loosen up on, or shrug off certain ideas within these areas? Now ask yourself, how have you come to change so? Did you sit down and do a lot of arm-chair philosophizing and dialoging? Did you read a ton of philosophical, theological, political, sociological, and psychological manuals, treatises, and books? For most, the answers would be no.
While we can change our views on life based on mere experiences, education, and political shifts, these are not the central methods of how we change. Change happens gradually and centrally through the relationships we share and the entertainment we consume. It is inescapable and undeniable. This past year alone we Americas spent a whopping $30.03 billion on entertainment and spent an average over 7.5 hours a day using media. On top of this the U.S. media and entertainment industry has affirmed that its budget is going to exceed $825 billion by 2023. Interesting enough, connecting to the main point of this post and Chesterton’s words, the most popularly consumed genre by us is comedy.
It is a truism: the things we consume in turn consume us.
The movies, TV shows, video-games, and music of our age are all our modern high priests and philosophers slowly teaching us to accept the ways of the idols of our age. Laughter has always, but especially now in our age, possessed the power of democratizing or “leveling” values, behaviors, and beliefs. It has the capacity to make everything a desacralized joke or meme or caricature. As a result, slowly, unknowingly, unthoughtfully, the concepts and virtues of shame, respect, honor, dignity, faith, beauty, and charity are chipped down and become lost in a sea of chuckles and shrugs. This especially happens with religion and faith.
The Power of Laughter to Desacralize
Some of the most effective uses of laughter are those about spiritual things. Do not misunderstand nor assume that we cannot be joyous nor joking with our Faith. I believe there is a healthy, respectful form of this. But go deeper here. Think for a minute. There is truth in this worth mining. How far do we go with this?
Behind kiddish jests or irreverent puns about God and His Son in particular there can lie an inheritance of irreverence. Slowly the laughs can chip away at the sacredness and transcendence of Faith claims, bringing them low and close to the mud. It is not hard to see the logical jump that can and often happens when we move from laughing about Christ in a joke to inadvertently casualizing Christ in life. When this happens, we have entered a slippery slope of shifting from disciples worshiping at His feet to mocking bystanders who see Him as part of the regular landscape of life.
This is all subtle. There is deception here. Awaken yourself to this.
Joy and laughter are a medicine (Proverbs 17:22) but they can also become a hallucinogenic to our souls. They have within them the capacity to degenerate into flippancy and irreverence. This is Lewis’ warning from the lips of a devil.
This may sound prudish. But here again is Lewis is spot on. The simplest way to never have to question ones consumption of entertainment or what one laughs is to judge every judgement or correction as “Puritanical.” “Well that may be offensive to you, but it isn’t to me” is a common phrase at this point. Or the mantras of “spiritual maturity” or “that’s the way of the world” or “freedom in Christ” are conjured to expunge any sense of propriety or chastity in the realm of entertainment and laughter. I will not fight this game. Neither will Lewis. But be aware that you are dancing in the realm of the Adversary. He is elated that you are inundated and do not care. He is ecstatic to your gilded over indifference.
There is no lie here. It is tricky to locate what are the acceptable or unacceptable levels of laughter and humor. When does joy devolve into vulgarity? This is not easy to gage and if you are looking for a list of movies, books, and TV shows that are acceptable or not then you are missing the point of the post. We moderns love our check off lists of does and don’ts. But the authentic spiritual life doesn’t work like that. The key is not in a list but a consistent self-examination by the power of the Holy Spirit in ever facet of our lives, even the places we least expect or least want Him to check.
Are you doing this with what you consume with entertainment? Are you considering how Christ addresses that which you laugh at? If there is no reflection at all, then you may be in the realm of devils. If you are reflecting, then allow the Holy Spirit to continue to speak and guide you into His ways.
3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. 4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
 Saint Basil of Caesarea, “On the Perfection of the Life of Solitaries” from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202022.htm
 If you want a more technical or philosophical understanding of the nature of “humor” then consider: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/humor/ and https://iep.utm.edu/humor/
 G.K. Chesterton, “Humour” (1938) found at https://nonsenselit.com/g-k-chesterton-humour-1938/. Original source is Chesterton, G.K. The Spice of Life and Other Essays, Edited by Dorothy Collins (Beaconsfield: Darwen Finlayson, 1964)
 Chesterton, et.al.
 G.K. Chesterton, “Cockneys and Their Jokes” in All Things Considered (1908), accessed from https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/All_Things_Considered/Cockneys_and_Their_Jokes
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters ibid, pg. 215-217
 G.K. Chesterton, “Cockneys and Their Jokes” in All Things Considered (1908), accessed from https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/All_Things_Considered/Cockneys_and_Their_Jokes
 http://www.uky.edu/~jjord0/ArisIII.htm#:~:text=Appetitive%20soul%20%E2%80%93%20This%20is%20the,itself%20a%20faculty%20of%20thought, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/medieval-emotions/#:~:text=He%20regarded%20the%20emotions%20as,of%20knowledge%20and%20rational%20will,
 https://www.statista.com/statistics/254115/favorite-movie-genres-in-the-us/, https://www.marketingcharts.com/television/tv-audiences-and-consumption-110704, https://morningconsult.com/2018/11/27/reality-is-americas-least-favorite-tv-genre-yet-people-are-still-watching/, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2007/07/25/what-they-watch-online/
THE REGRESSION OF OUR PROGRESSION
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the German atheist existentialist philosopher, once told the parable of a mad man who declared the death of God,
Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the marketplace, and cried incessantly: "I am looking for God! I am looking for God!" As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. “Why, did he get lost?” said one. “Did he lose his way like a child?” said another. “Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? Or emigrated?” Thus they yelled and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.
"Whither is God?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must not we ourselves become gods simply to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto."
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they too were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern to the ground, and it broke and went out….” It has been related further that on that same day the madman entered divers churches and there sang his “requiem aeternam deo.” Led out and called to account, he is said to have retorted each time: "What are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God?"
This parable is not merely the musings of a nihilistic rebel who revels in the death of the Almighty. Rather it is a sober prophetic vision of what a culture becomes when it kills the Sacred. Nietzsche, in all his irreverent honesty, shows us that when God is dead in our culture, everything changes. Reality is unhinged and every excess is binged. When God is dead, all life, meaning, morality, knowing, being, and doing are redefined and reassigned.
Our culture is living out loud Nietzsche’s parable every day. It has decided to ignite a renaissance of the primordial energies that destroyed Eden. Those energies are just a rehashing and re-conjuring of every “ism” known to Man. Humanism has freed us from Divinity by focusing our efforts on immortalizing human nature and progress. Naturalism has freed us from Faith by making us realize the only reality is what we can see. Deconstructionism has freed us from Truth by fashioning all narratives as truths and Truth as but a narrative. Relativism has freed us from Morality by helping us understand that right and wrong are determined from within. Consumerism has freed us from Restraint by allowing us to indulge in the excess of all our deepest cravings.
Through these energies the shackles of backward concepts like sin, shame, and the sacred are broken and we move towards greater freedom, equality, prosperity, and happiness. At least that is what we believe, right? To date about 60% of us agree that “identifying moral truth is up to each individual [and that] there are no moral absolutes that apply to everyone, all the time.” And tragically 46% of us “evangelical Christians” agree with that same conclusion. Surprised? Not really. We are seeing the fruit of our labors, or rather the lack thereof. For decades our culture at large has rationalized, relativized, and stigmatized GOD to the level of a mirage or taste. It has drunk deep of the pop-philosophy of common mantras that shape us from crib to grave: “God wants you to be happy,” “Don’t let anyone tell you what to be or do,” and “Find your authentic self.” We are inundated with these phrases through the music we listen to, to the movies we watch, to the clothes and food we buy, to the schooling we receive, to the advice we get around the dinner table. In the words of ex Justice Anthony Kennedy, who represents an essential interpreter of the very jurisprudence that ungirds our civilization, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Nietzsche could not have said it any better. Neither could Lucifer.
The Church in all of this is, sadly, no better (and I speak in broad terms here). Because the world is an ever changing tapestry of choices and beliefs it seems necessary for the Pillar of the Truth to adapt or die. Methodology, doxology, and theology needs redefining and refining. You see we must help the Almighty adapt to our more enlightened and progressive post-modern ways. We must make God relevant again. Like an adolescent leading along their parents into the technologies and customs of the 21st Century, the Church is shepherding God. It has grown up, seen the world, and realized its Cosmic Parent is too outmoded and insufficient to achieve His ends on His own merits. And so, we drink deeply of the methods of our culture’s madness. We turn obedience to preference, virtue to values, and Truth to experience and wrap it all up into a nicely packaged set of self-helps sermons and seeker friendly business models. All for “the Cause” of commission of course. The result is millions of us doing our routine weekly rituals of coming collectively together into thousands of churches across this nation in order to worship a God that accepts everything we accept, believes everything we believe, and behaves in every way we behave.
What is so tragic about this project of cosmic iconoclasm is the delusionary and perverse effects it has on us as a people. Nietzsche, in all his madness and godlessness, understood profoundly that without any objective transcendent astrological center to life – What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? – all is doomed to meaninglessness. There is no up. There is no down. Why? Because there is no horizon, which is the leveler to the landscape of existence. When there is no horizon there is only confusion and madness left. Mere creatures cannot create horizons they can only be guided by them.
Consider the growing madness of our age: In our world today, we speak that “wrong” is subjective and “right” is oppressive. We assert that the only boundaries there can be is to say there are no boundaries. We preach that the only sin is saying there is sin, and the only Truth is to say there is no truth. We legislate laws yet legal scholars inform us that everything is permitted before the law. We condemn corporate greed as immoral yet are taught that there really is no such thing as objective morals. We censure racists for seeing minorities as animals yet are instructed in biology classes that we are in fact nothing more than animals. We promote fact-checking to ensure our political integrity yet teach in philosophy programs that facts are just subjective narratives. We hold political rallies campaigning for gender equality yet write psychology treatises contending that gender is a societal illusion. We host panels on the toxicity of objectifying women yet have feminist op-eds arguing that prostitution is a legitimate means of empowering women. We are in fact rebels without a cause. We rebel against our own rebellions. Such post-modern madness, such horizonless efforts, are summed up in the poignant words of G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) over a century ago,
"The new rebel is a sceptic and will not entirely trust anything... [T]he fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation applies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces but the doctrine by which he denounces it... In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite sceptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore, the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything."
This whole experiment we have going on of present is an old-new project of Bablesch proportions. We are building towers to the heavens to not merely defy God but to declare to the Cosmos that we are the new improved Almighty. Shirley MacLaine would be proud. Nimrod's chest buttons are bulging.
But our culture is living a lie. Many of us are living a lie. We have fallen under the spell of the regression of our progression. Under this allurement we believe that all of these “isms” hold the keys to our freedom, fairness, and happiness, while in actuality they hold enslavement, impropriety, and wretchedness. The truth is that for all our talk of “progress” we really are just as, arguably more so, enslaved than any era of Mankind. While we may be more efficient, more scientific, more industrious, and more self-determining than any generation of our species, we have excelled in slowly killing our Humanity. The data doesn’t lie. Today we have less meaningful relationships than any of our forefathers; we have less of a sense of purpose and meaning than any previous generation; we are more depressed and less happy than at any other period; and we have a growing deficit of empathy towards those with whom we disagree. So much for being less bigoted and more enlightened than our forbearers eh?
The FACT is we are becoming more diluted in our ability to perceive our own chains. This is the regression of progression. We unhinge ourselves from virtue, tradition, morality, faith, and the Giver of All Life and Light, God Himself, in order to recreate the world in our image, only to find that such a vision leaves us wanting and waning. We are living in the greatest form of enslavement ever concocted in the minds of devils because it is the kind we cannot see and will not see and are proud of not seeing. We are going back to Egypt, not away from it. We are skipping towards Gomorrah, not turning from it. We are blueprinting Babel, not scrapping it. We are choosing evil to achieve life rather than love to achieve the Good. We are our primordial father and mother once again listening to the words of the worlds first deconstructionist, Satan, who said, “Did God say?”
The shadow of Nietzsche’s parable of the Madman has and does loom large over our world. In one way this existentialist German nihilist was right, God had been killed by our hands. It was He who scaled Golgotha that died a death of a thousand lifetimes. Paid it all. Triumphed overall. Defines and redefines all. Gives meaning, hope, identity, and peace to all. If we ever hope to achieve true peace, happiness, wholeness, identity, and meaning, it is only going to come through this One that bruised the head of the serpentine purveyor of the first “isms.” It is only through the life, the work, the teaching, and the restoration of the Luminous Nazarene that our culture, our churches, our families, and ourselves find their orientation, their horizon. For it is He who said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12).
 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pg. 181-82https://www.georgebarna.com/research/282014/americans-see-many-sources-of-truth%E2%80%94and-reject-moral-absolutes
 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy in The Three Apologies (Mockingbird Press, 2018), pg. 155-156
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/affectionado/201308/what-lack-affection-can-do-you; https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/; http://www.getlifeboat.com/report/
 https://www.fastcompany.com/90322825/world-happiness-report-teens-are-online-more-less-happy; https://theconversation.com/what-might-explain-the-unhappiness-epidemic-90212;https://www.publichealth.columbia.edu/public-health-now/news/depression-rise-us-especially-among-young-teens; https://www.bcbs.com/the-health-of-america/reports/major-depression-the-impact-overall-health
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1088868310377395; https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/oct/04/increasing-number-of-britons-think-empathy-is-on-the-wane; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/45508353_Changes_in_Dispositional_Empathy_in_American_College_Students_Over_Time_A_Meta-Analysis
Michael H. Erskine is a high school Social Studies Teacher, has an M.A. in History & School Administration, serves as a Bible teacher in the local church, and is happily married to his beautiful wife Amanda.