Thursday, June 26, 2008

Self

It sounds like Pixar has done it again. Their new animation WALL-E is scheduled to open in theaters tomorrow, and World Magazine writes a very favorable review. From what I understand, the story follows WALL-E, a little trash compactor robot, who discovers a wonder for creation, a love interest in a girl robot name EVE, and a disappointment in human beings. "Because they live to be cared for rather than to care, the few human beings WALL-E meets have become, to use [director Andrew] Stanton's words, giant babies—literally feeding on milk rather than solid food."

This picture of a selfish, bloated humanity is not so different from David Well's description in chapter five of The Courage to Be Protestant.
This chapter is simply entitled "Self." Wells may be a deep thinker, but he sure does seem to like short chapter titles.

First, here is a quick review of the book so far:
  • Chapter one - Over the past 75 years, evangelicalism has divided into three distinct constituencies: classical evangelicals, marketers, and emergents.
  • Chapter two - As churches continue to downplay theology and Bible knowledge, more and more members are developing a consumer-mentality.
  • Chapter three - In contrast to postmodern society which has denied any absolute standard of truth and morality, Christianity is all about truth - both understood and applied.
  • Chapter four - The triune God of the Bible has attributes which make Him both "near" and "distant" from His creation. It is only through God that the universe has meaning and that people have hope; the self cannot bear the weight of being the center of reality.
In chapter five, Wells continues to explore the idea of the "autonomous self" that has replaced God as the center of the universe. He explains that the rugged individualism that always characterized America began to turn inward in the 1960s. By that time, "The self had become the source of all values. The pursuit of the self was what life was all about...Now it is about finding the self for yourself, discovering your inner potential for your own benefit, esteeming your self, and developing new ethical rules that serve the discovery of...the self" (p. 136).

Two illustrations of our self-centeredness are that we have become a very sensitive and litigious nation. Regarding our sensitivity, Wells observes, "From all of this has arisen a busy and very profitable industry of healers, consultants, grief counselors, writers, and various other purveyors of comfort to the fragile and afflicted. In America, we have one-third of the world's psychiatrists, two psychotherapists for every dentist, and more counselors than librarians" (p. 140). In regard to our litigiousness, Wells notes, "As the sense of responsibility for personal behavior has shrunk, the need for litigation has increased. America has more lawyers than the rest of the world combined" (p. 159). Once again, these statistics confirm the "American paradox" that the author mentioned earlier in the book. "We have unparalleled abundance but, at the same time, are being hollowed out" (p. 67).

There are four areas in which Western civilization has fundamentally changed in our thinking about "self." First, we now talk about values (what is right for each person) instead of virtues (matters of moral character). Second, we now emphasize personality (appearing good) above character (being good). Third, we now focus on self (how we are each distinct, unique, and special) instead of nature (what is common to all humanity). Fourth, we now experience shame (awkwardness about being discovered) instead of guilt (culpability before God) over our sin.

What's the solution to all of this? Should Christians contextualize our message into postmodern, self-help dress? No. Churches must not reduce the gospel to a therapeutic, felt-needs oriented
message that simply offers a better life and a better you. The gospel will certainly produce that, but we cannot replace the benefits of the gospel with the gospel itself. The gospel says that man has a sin nature and is not essentially innocent (p. 166). The gospel says that sin completely separates us from God and that all of us are in need of reconciliation through Christ (p. 168). The gospel says that faith is not mere intellectual assent to the facts about Jesus, but a radical change in our thinking, values, and behavior.

Wells concludes his chapter with a statement bursting with hope: "The fact that the modern self is empty and disintegrating, that our (post)modern society is fragmented and fragile, presents biblical faith with a truly golden moment. A deep longing exists in our society to see the real thing, to see lives lived out that have authenticity, that have substance. This authenticity, however, has nothing to do with following the broken promises of the self movement, which is now simply bankrupt. It has everything to do with taking our place before a holy God, through Christ, in such a way that his character, as it were, reaches into our lives with both the restraint and direction we need if we are to be restored" (pp. 173-74). May all of us be faithful in boldly speaking and authentically living out the truth of the gospel to a watching world.

For next week, we will read chapter six together on the subject of "Christ." Please take a moment to leave a comment below and share your reactions to this chapter.

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