In a recent interview with The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins at this year’s Edinburgh international book festival, acclaimed novelist and literary critic A. S. Byatt offered some noteworthy insights into our age. You really have to hear it in her own words (see link), but it provokes some solemn reflection. I’ll share a few of mine.
Especially poignant is her description of the vanishing of a Christian consciousness—even vaguely conceived. Though a professed atheist, Byatt observes that other gods have rushed in to fill the void: including psychoanalysis, the press, and social media like Facebook and Twitter. In all of these cases, she says, we no longer have God and the biblical narrative to tell us who we are, so we are not even sure that we exist until we see ourselves in the mirror of these media. There is a kind of anxiety in contemporary life, as we struggle to define ourselves. She says that “religion has gone away and all we are left with is ourselves.” But even then, we’re not sure who “we” are, because there is no narrative—or what she calls a map—for our identity. “Christianity used to provide us with the map, now the press does.” As “the new god,” Facebook, she thinks, operates as a mirror to reflect back to us who we think we are. This suggests, to my mind at least, that together, the web of these alternative gods—a new Parthenon of sorts—has made us more dependent on it for piecing together some sense of why we’re here, who we are, and what our lives mean. A final point worth observing is that these new gods keep us busy and unreflective. It reminds me of the old man in the “Wizard of Oz,” who keeps everybody under his thumb by distracting them from the fact that he is standing behind a curtain pushing pyrotechnic buttons and pulling smoke-billowing levers. Only when the little dog Toto cunningly pulls back the curtain is the charade finally discovered.
Psalm 37 comes to mind, where God’s people are encouraged to “fret not” over “evildoers” too much. “For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.” Why? Because God is the Lord and he never forsakes his saints. “Trust in the LORD, and do good, dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Of course, this is not a blank check: you follow God and he’ll give you that Porsche you’ve been after. Rather, to delight yourself in the Lord is to direct your desires to the most solid joys and lasting treasures. In the frenetic pace of everyday life as well as difficulty, “Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.” “In just a little while,” it is promised, the Lord will intervene in world history—both in judgment and in grace. “The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell upon it forever. The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks justice.” While the gods of the market tell us to stay busy, distracted from discovering their utter poverty of aid, the Lord of the earth encourages us to be still and to know that he is God. He will set all things straight. The world is not ours to save or judge. God will act and our lives now are evidence of that fact. United to Jesus Christ as the first-fruits of the new creation, we are witnessing the passing of this evil age. The real world is not the one that is produced for us in Hollywood or New York, but the New Jerusalem that is coming down from heaven.
It is this story that has the power to kill our dead-end characters and write us into the unfolding drama that ends with the new beginning of everlasting rest from sin and death. Only this story can stand up to the “nowhere man” of our vanishing characters and pointless plots. It’s the drama of God becoming flesh, just when the new gods have promised us salvation from fleshly embodiment, of his victory through a bloody death and bodily resurrection in an age of “redeemers” that keep us passive and dependent, forgiveness and justification before God, when his rivals offer vain promises of therapeutic well-being, of a communion of pilgrims meeting regularly together in an era of anonymous and bodiless “Internet communities.” It is a story that, instead of driving us deeper into ourselves in an anxious search for meaning, drives us out—“looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith,” and out to our neighbors in love.
In this powerful narrative, even toppled gods have their place as servants rather than lords. Here, there is still a place for cell phones, e-mail, and perhaps even Facebook or Twitter. Yet they are not where we go as Christians to find out who we are or to tell people who we are. For that, we will always go back to the Word, back to our baptism, back to the Lord’s Table. And there we behold not ourselves in a mirror, but our Savior and all of the co-heirs that he has made our brothers and sisters in him.