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The Wild Truth or Easy Heresy?

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Even Pharrell couldn’t imagine this much fun: Chesterton thinking about orthodoxy.

Heresy never goes away, it simply returns in various forms.  Whether it is the gnostic escapism of the Heaven is For Real, so popular in our ‘Christian’ bookstores and movies, or 18th century deism that has re-emerged as MTD, heresy (being a parasite) will always be found wherever true belief and practice occur.  The key is not just to be able to identify it, but to recognize now boring it is.  Thus, G.K. Chesterton speaks of “the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy:”

“People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”

Those of us advocating for a third way or via media tend to share an interest in basic orthodoxy, in part because we see doctrinal renewal as a key to the vitality of the church, but also because this gives us something more interesting to do that merely wallow around in progressive and conservative echo chambers.  As Chesterton notes, the church had to constantly juke to avoid heresies from every corner.

“She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.  it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head.  It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.  To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth wheeling but erect.” (Orthodoxy [Mineoloa: Dover 1994], 94.)

In my view, the wild truth remains the property neither of the left nor the right in the church.  Orthodoxy is not the possession of any culturally-determined faction or party, but it is the inheritance that the Holy Spirit, the saints, apostles, and martyrs have entrusted to us.  And that millenia-old party is better than all the dull heresies put together.

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“A School for the Lord’s Service:” 6 Lessons from a week with the Benedictines

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An elderly monk-priest enters the sanctuary to prepare for one of the many prayer services of the day. Personal photo.

I spent last week at Belmont Abbey outside of Charlotte, N.C.  I was warmly treated by the Benedictine brothers who live and work at the Abbey, which is on the campus of a small Catholic college.  While the purpose of the week was to study and plan sermons for the upcoming year, I also enjoyed the rich prayer and worship practices of the Benedictine life and learned  much during my all-too-brief time with the community.  Here are a few of my takeaways from the week, along with some pertinent reflections from Benedict himself.  I would be interested to hear your own experiences with monastic and/or retreat communities as well, and discover what insights others have gained in such contexts.

1) Community is a blessing

Monastic life is built on the principle that the Christian life is a community experience.  As John Wesley – sometimes compared to Benedict – said, “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”  In their daily prayers, the monks remembered their brothers who had most recently died.  Portraits of deceased Abbots (leaders of monastic communities) adorned the hallways.  They know that a personal search for the face of God is inextricable from a community dedicated to the same.  After all, these dedicated men possess a timeless social network; not one built on clicks, pixels, and limited to 140 characters at a go, but flesh-and-blood brotherhood established by a communal effort at what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction” over time.

2) Community is difficult

The only way to live a life without annoyances might be to leave human interaction all together.  This, of course, would not be without its own problems.  But the point remains that community is a discipline, and one that is sometimes more task than gift.  After just a few days I found myself picking out which brothers annoyed me during prayer times.  This one constantly rubbed his face; that one seemed to always be sneezing and snorting; another appeared to be giving me the stink eye from across the chancel; and WHY did the fellow behind me have have the LOUDEST ticking watch in all of Christendom?? (You get the idea.)

Last week I had to face, once more, that I can be a  rather petty creature.   I suspect I am not alone.  That tells me that we shouldn’t be too triumphalist about community, because human sinfulness affects even the most well-intentioned persons and reaches into the holiest places.  Community – any community, religious in orientation or not – is a challenge because it is always made up of flawed creatures.

3) Reverence is a rare treasure

Something that continually struck me last week, because of its ubiquity in the monastery,  was the absence of something significant in my life: reverence.  Awe.  Rudolph Otto called this sense the “numinous,” that deep intuition that something greater, something worthy of our highest adoration, is both accessible and yet not fully within one’s grasp.  I appreciate the incarnational nature of so much of today’s Protestant worship.  God is our true joy and our friend, and we should celebrate that with gladness.  But I fear we have sometimes so embraced these aspects in our shared worship that the transcendence of God, the holy Otherness of the “I AM” who gives life to Israel and the Church, gets lost.   We need reverence as much, if not more so, than we need comfort.  In his instructions to his Order, known as  the Rule, Benedict says,

“When we wish to suggest our wants to persons of high station, 
we do not presume to do so 
except with humility and reverence. 
How much the more, then, 
are complete humility and pure devotion necessary 
in supplication of the Lord who is God of the universe!” 

4) Hospitality is a beautiful spiritual gift

UMC Bishop Robert Schnase has reminded us that one of key practices of a fruitful congregation is “radical hospitality.”  The Benedictines who welcomed me this week embody this virtue in a truly gracious way.  The Rule of Benedict, again, says:

“If a pilgrim monastic coming from a distant region 
wants to live as a guest of the monastery,
let her be received for as long a time as she desires, 
provided she…does not disturb the monastery by superfluous demands, but is simply content with what she finds.”

I especially appreciated the gifts of hospitality shared by the Guest Master, Br. Edward, and his assistant, Br. Emmanuel.  They were exceptional hosts, doing everything from eating with me, to making sure I knew how to follow along in the worship services, to simply making me feel welcome.  As I prepared to leave, Br. Edward took me in the chapel to offer a prayer for me.  He then told me how blessed they were to welcome me, and how much he loved his role in the monastery because, “God has brought you to us, and now, after you leave, I get to welcome two more Christs today.”  He is so shaped by the gospel call to see Christ in the stranger, that he refers to the guests in his charge as “Christs.”  What a humbling gift, and a saintly heart.

5) Obedience and freedom are connected

Because of certain things happening in my own tribe at present, I was curious to ask the monks how discipline works among them.  I inquired about how things are handled if a brother fails to live up to their obligations by, say, skipping prayers, being constantly late, or shirking their duties in some other way.  The reply was pretty simple: the Abbot gets involved and, if needed, so does the Bishop.  Eventually, if a monk is recalcitrant and refuses correction, he can be released from his vows and asked to leave and thus  avoid, as one brother put it, “harming the whole community.”

The Prologue to Benedict’s Rule reads, in part,

“And so we are going to establish
a school for the service of the Lord.
In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.

But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity
for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity,
do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation,
whose entrance cannot but be narrow (Matt. 7:14).”

Obedience and true freedom, order and charity, ultimately hang together.  Every healthy organism – and a community is an organism – has boundaries.  Though asserting such an interrelationship is anathema to the cult of “authenticity” and “self-actualization,” it is nevertheless true.  Obedience without grace devolves to legalism, and love without some sense of order will self-destruct under the weight of its own incoherence.

6) Silence is holy

Continuing in the theme of “things the 21st century has forgotten,” I will end with some thoughts on silence.  The Benedictines with whom I shared this week cherish the power of silence.  They know that cultivating the Spirit of charity requires space to listen, pray, and reflect.  This community kept silence from after dinner though lauds (the 2nd prayer service of the day, following vigils and breakfast).  The worship services themselves contain intentional silences, as well.

In the chapter on maintaining silence after compline, Benedict says,

“Monastics ought to be zealous for silence at all times,
but especially during the hours of the night.”

I confess am too often fearful of silence; I love “background” noise, whether from CNN, or Pandora, or some other source of distraction.  My week with the brothers helped me better appreciate how impoverished this cacophonous existence of ours – so full as it is of iPhones, tablets, and Beats headphones – really is.  After all, sometimes God is in the silence (1 Kings 19:11-12).

Concluding thoughts

This experience was a great blessing, both in terms of my vocation (I had a truly fruitful week) and my own spiritual walk.  I will certainly return to be among these simple, devoted men again.  They have much to teach the Body of Christ and, indeed, the whole human community.

Benedict concludes his Rule by indicating that his text deals with only the “rudiments” of the virtuous life, the bulk of which is found in the Fathers of the Church and, especially, the Old and New Testaments:

“Whoever you are, therefore, 
who are hastening to the heavenly homeland, 
fulfill with the help of Christ 
this minimum Rule which we have written for beginners; 
and then at length under God’s protection 
you will attain to the loftier heights of doctrine and virtue 
which we have mentioned above.”

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Michael Pollan, Online Communion, and Table Manners

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The work of the people?

The UMC has just had a rather interesting public debate: is it appropriate to celebrate the sacrament of communion online? While this is something that is being done in various churches, including some experimentation in United Methodist communities, this is the first time significant leadership of the church has gathered to discuss it. Many things are at issue:

  • To what extent is online community real community?
  • How do we balance the call to be missional with the call to liturgical and ecumenical integrity?
  • How does the classical Christian rejection of Gnosticism and affirmation of Incarnation play into this discussion?
  • How are the Eucharistic elements blessed, and can that blessing be extended via technological means?

Larry Hollon and other thoughtful folks have weighed in on this, but I want to offer my own reflection. This debate has been in my back yard, so to speak, as the precipitating event for this discussion was Central UMC Concord’s plan to celebrate communion as part of their new online campus. I have already spilled much ink on this (and if you want more, email me) but I just found something helpful in an unlikely place: Michael Pollan’s Food Rules. Pollan is a renowned food journalist, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and an outspoken critic of pretty much everything about Western eating habits.  Rule 59 reads,

“Americans are increasingly eating in solitude. Although there is some research to suggest that light eaters will eat more when they dine with others (perhaps because they spend more time at the table), for people prone to overeating, communal meals tend to limit consumption, if only because we’re less likely to stuff ourselves when others are watching.  We also tend to eat more slowly, since there’s usually more going on at the table than ingestion. This is precisely why so much food marketing is designed to encourage us to eat in front of the TV or in the car: When we eat alone, we eat more. But regulating appetite is only part of the story: The shared meal elevates eating from a biological process of fueling the body to a ritual of family and community.”

Like all good eating, the Eucharist is a ritual of family and community, a shared meal in which much more is going on than mere ingestion. Pollan is on to something when he says the marketers are driving us to eat alone for a reason: we eat badly when we eat alone, separate from a community of friends who would elevate our dining to something sacred.

Pollan is trying to help us recover something that is at the heart of Jewish and Christian spirituality: the beauty of table fellowship.

Christians, on the other hand, seem hell-bent on the Burger King-ing of worship (your way, right away). When it comes to our own peculiar form of communal eating, in which Jesus is both host and offering, I pray we listen more to Pollan and less to Burger King.

Decades ago, Albert Outler put his finger on the origin of this debate within Methodism:

“One of the most obvious of Methodism’s paradoxes . . . is that we are the only major ‘church family’ in Christian history that began as an evangelical sect within a sacramental church and then evolved into a quasi-sacramental church . . . without an adequate self-understanding for doing so.”

The journey from “quasi-sacramental” back to our roots – and really, the deeper taproot of the wider Body of Christ – is really just beginning.  For now, at least, the center holds.

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Excellence as Deviance

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Here is my happy thought for the day, courtesy of business professor Robert Quinn. This is from his very insightful Deep Change, which I highly to commend to everyone regardless of your calling or profession, or role in leadership.

“It seems to me that you have to be clear about something.  Excellence is a form of deviance. If you perform beyond the norm, you will disrupt all the existing control systems. Those systems will then alter and begin to work to routinize your efforts. That is, the systems will adjust to try to make you normal. The way to achieve and maintain excellence is to deviate from the norm. You become excellent because you are doing things normal people do not want to do. You become excellent by choosing a path that is risky and painful, a path that is not appealing to others.” (176)

Though Quinn writes for a business audience, his findings about “deep change” (as opposed to quick change or incremental change) are important for anyone who, on an individual or organizational level, seeks change.  To seek meaningful, deep change, leaders must accept the pain and challenge of deviance, the disdain of the system, and the endless efforts to stifle creativity and difference.

Interestingly, I think the Christian could also substitute the word “holiness” for “excellence” in the above quote, and it would equally hold true.  What say you?

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Chesterton and The Thrill of Orthodoxy

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We live in an age that revels in rebellion, that idolizes the myth of “thinking for myself.”  In such an environment, adherence to a set of philosophic, historic, and theological norms is seen as silly at worst and oppressive at best.  Orthodoxy is safe, boring, on this reading; the post-moderns tell us orthodoxy is the teaching of the powerful, the “winners” of history.  And, as the so-called Occupy Movement has taught us, nobody wants to pull for the winners anymore.  The effect of this cultural suicide in the church is the love-affair with the heterodox, seen in the odd passion for long-dead Gnostic sects and the popularity of speakers like John Shelby Spong (who jumped the shark years ago).

But alas, there is a balm in Gilead.  His name is G.K. Chesterton.  I’d heard much about Chesteron, but never read any of his major works.  Now I’m most of the way through his most famous work, Orthodoxy.  It is marvelous.  Arguments aside, it is quite simply written beautifully.  The man has a way with the language.  He brings his considerable talents to bear describing how he came to discover the truth and then, to his surprise, discovered that he had arrived at orthodox Christianity.

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy.  People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe.  There was never anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.  It was sanity; and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.  It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses…she swerved to the left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles…The orthodox church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions: the orthodox church was never respectable.  It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians.  It would have been easy, in the Calivinist seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination.  It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.

He argues that orthodoxy is a game of balance, and that the delicacy of that balance explains all the so-called hairsplitting over theological debates.  If you’re balancing on the tip of a needle, it becomes a game of millimeters.  Of course, I have to applaud him for taking a shot at the Calivinists right after the Arians (though I wouldn’t put them that close together).  But what a grand vision of basic Christian teaching!

He concludes the chapter on “the paradoxes of Christianity” writing:

To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame.  But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. (Orthodoxy [New York: Dover 2004], 94.)

Orwell once wrote, “We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”  Chesterton fulfilled this duty admirably.  May we be so bold in our own time.

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St. Diadochos of Photiki on Blogging

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Well, more or less.  In the Philokalia, St. Diadochos reflects thus on the danger of talking too much:

When the door of the steam baths is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates itsremembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good.  Thereafter the intellect, though lacking appropriate ideas, pours out a welter of confused thoughts to anyone it meets, as it no longer has the Holy Spirit to keep its understanding free from fantasy.  Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. (“On Spiritual Knowledge,” in the Philokalia Volume 1, 276)

If indeed “ideas of value shun verbosity,” then is it possible to gain much through blogging?  I think the 5th century Bishop has a point.  Granted, it can be taken too far – scholarship of every kind is built on a kind of “verbosity.”  We wouldn’t have PHDs without forests of trees being destroyed to put ink on pages.

I suppose these matters are on my mind because I’m preaching tomorrow on humility, based on the Christ hymn in Philippians 2.  It strikes me that blogging doesn’t seem like a very humble activity – a way for those unsuccessful in traditional media to put their thoughts out there for the world to see.  Most social media is built on this desire.  Is there such a thing as “humble blogging”?  Is it possible, in the verbosity that is the blogosphere, to find ideas of value?

My own thought, at least today:  I’m not sure that anything I’ve written is worth the time, either in my writing of it or your reading of it, when compared to the Scriptures or to the writings of the Church Fathers or the greats like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Barth.  For that matter, I don’t know if I’ve read any blogs good enough to justify spending the time there versus any of the above.  What say you?

(And don’t be too verbose.)

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Why Do Wars Happen? Bellicosity and the 21st Century With Jeremy Black

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Just finished reading Jeremy Black’s excellent Why Wars Happen.  This is the the third of Black’s books that I’ve read, and while they’ve all been thought-provoking, less than easy to read, and extensively researched, this has been by far my favorite of his works.  Black, a prolific author and Professor of History at Exeter University, is a leading authority on military history and a proponent of overcoming euro-centrism that has been so common in the field.  (Of course, military history is itself a field that is no longer in academic vogue.)

While I’ve read and enjoyed single volume histories of warfare from scholars such as John Keegan,  the focus of this tome is on causality.  For that, Black focuses on culture, and in particular, “bellicosity” – that is, the cultural attitudes, inclinations and institutions that encourage violence.  Black takes us on a wide tour, starting in 1450, that spans the whole world and attempts to analyze violence between different cultures, violence within cultures, and civil wars (itself a helpful typology).  One of the most interesting aspects was his ongoing discussion of the sheer difficulty of defining war.  For instance, how do we differentiate war from rebellion?  Is ethnic cleansing war or crime?  Are mass uprisings wars or revolutionary movements?

By far, the chapter I enjoyed most was the next-to-last chapter on warfare in the 1990’s up through today (granted, this was written pre-9/11).  He aptly narrates the decline in bellicosity of Western societies and describes factors associated with this shift.  Thus, he says,

More generally, in the post-1945 world, there has been a growing abstraction of death and suffering, a process linked both to medical technology and secularism…ordinary people have become more and more comprehensively insulated from personal pain, and are less accustomed to consider it normal and reasonable…Another relevant, but complex, shift is due to changes in patterns of expendability amongst young adult males…smaller families have made every child precious, and the cult of youth in modern Western consumer culture is not a cult of organized violence.

As regards to literature and organized violence, he writes,

…anti-war attitudes dominate serious adult literature in the West and have done so for several decades, with war presented as callous disorder in popular works such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22…within academic circles, peace studies are more acceptable than those of war. (Why Wars Happen [New York: NYU Press 1998] 223, 224)

These quotes are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  Be warned: he does not write for a popular audience (in my opinion!).  As much as I like and respect Black (whom I’ve had occasion to meet more than once), his work is no easy read.  I was a history major, and yet his knowledge is so vast and his examples so numerous, I confess I had a difficult time reading this book at sustained intervals.  Nevertheless, the juice is worth the squeeze.  If you are interested in the causes of war, and not interested in simple answers or idealistic, modern/liberal gas, this is a book well worth your time and effort.

For theologians, in particular, this book raises a significant question:  If, as Black suggests, the decline in bellicosity is a Western paradigm over the last 20-40 years, then how can the recent rediscovery of Christian pacifism (especially in the work of Yoder and Hauerwas) be deemed “counter-cultural”?  If Black is right, Christians pacifists are in fact riding the cultural tide.  Interesting.

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What Sports Would Jesus Watch?

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In one of my seminary classes dealing with gender issues and Christian faith, we read Chuck Palahniuk’s remarkable Fight Club.  Interestingly, this was the one male-oriented book we read for the class (like most gender classes, “gender” really means “women”).  I recall the women in the class, including the professor, being horrified at the popularity of the story and the movie.  Many questioned how people could be attracted to such naked violence.  There was poo-pooing all around until I brought up the fact that many people in the room like violence in a form that most of us consider innoccuos: sports.  The point was valid; even ardent pacifists that I know enjoy inherently violent sports like hockey, football, and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

Thanks to a post over at Sherdog, I found the following quote in a piece by Adam Groza at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in California (which I’d never heard of until reading this post):

UFC and MMA amounts to violence porn, a term which has been applied to movies with wanton violence such as “SAW,” where violence is not part of the plot, it is the attraction. Violence for violence’s sake, as opposed to instrumental or redeeming violence, desensitizes the viewer to the graphic horror of watching two people pummel each other for the sake of entertainment. UFC and MMA offer exactly the kind of violence condemned in Psalm 11:5. Ezekiel 7:23 decries, “the city is full of violence.” Why are Christians supporting violence in the city?

I think the comparison of SAW is ignorant and egregious.  I can’t stand the SAW franchise, but that is a matter of taste more than morality.  Futhermore, what Groza calls “violence for violence’s sake” I would simply call honest violence.  Much of the attraction of our favorite sports stems from the violent aspects: fights in hockey and wrecks in NASCAR come to mind.  UFC fighter (and compelling wordsmith) Chael Sonnen makes this point about football:

The UFC is the only thing that has violence that isn’t fraudulent. Football…they put up these end zones, but you take the end zones out people will still come. You take the tackling out, and it’s gonna be a ghost town in those stadiums. UFC will tell you what you’re going to get – straight ahead – and you can buy a ticket if you like the ride.

Groza goes on to say that the UFC exploits women because of the ring girls.  I suppose he’s never seen cheerleaders at any other sporting events? Another glaring omission is any mention of boxing.  Anything true about the violence of MMA – if you know the sport – is even more true of “the sweet science.”  And yet, for numerous reasons, people who are horrified by MMA still see boxing as a gentleman’s game.  Such views only showcase a lack of exposure to the emerging sport.

I think Groza has a point when he shares some of the more disturbing examples of churches using MMA to market evangelize.  While some churches host sporting events like Super Bowls and some will have basketball leagues and even karate classes, as a pastor I would not be comfortable making a UFC pay-per-view a churchwide event.  However, I think there are many things an individual Christian can do that a church ought not sponsor (like watch reality TV, for instance).

This is another example of a severe bias against MMA in the larger culture, and more evidence that the sport has yet to arrive.  From an ecclesial perspective, it is true that Christians should always hold a critical eye to their society; that much in Groza’s piece is useful.  But if MMA is untouchable because of its violence, so are many other of America’s favorite pastimes.  In other words, if one argues that MMA is anathema for the church, then we can only say that a larger blindspot has been uncovered.

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CS Lewis and the enemy of friendship

In the chapter entitled “Friendship” in CS Lewis’ The Four Loves, he has a trenchant observation about the shallowness of so much of our conversation.  It occurs in his discussion about male and female friendship, and the difficulty of friendships between those who have little in common.  His argument is that someone with little to say will sabotage the conversation of others simply out of selfish discomfort.  Instead of real conversation, that person will insist upon,

Talk, by all means; the more of it the better; unceasing cascades of the human voice; not not, please, a subject.  The talk must not be about anything. (The Four Loves, [New York: Harcourt Brace 1960], p. 109)

Two thoughts occurred to me after I read this.  First, this describes so much of our entertainment these days – TV in particular – that it is almost funny.

Secondly, I’m reminded at how little patience I have for “small talk”.  There are times, of course, when we all have to fill a void in a conversation with something akin to cotton candy – weather, sports, gossip, etc. – but perhaps this is symptomatic of something more sinister.  That is, despite all our lip-service to being “real” nowadays, there is very little interest in or discussion of the truly real.  God, the good life, truth, beauty – these things are left out of what passes for conversation.  And if our conversations do not touch on anything that truly matters, it is worth asking whether the hollow relationships on which are based upon such chatter are friendship in any true sense.

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