Not Magic, But Not Nothing

On New Years and the gift of seasons.

The sophisticated critic looks at Western people, coming up with their New Years resolutions and commitments and “fresh starts,” and decries it as arbitrary. “There is nothing about a calendar that makes personal change more likely or more desirable,” he might say. The fetishizing of New Years, he observes, merely fills gyms in the winter and empties them in May. Genuine personal transformation doesn’t wait for a date. It comes out of a deeper need or realization and is authentically now, awake to the realities of the moment, not tethered to vague ideas of yearly progress.

To which I would say: Yes, but also no.

A secular age is also a rhythm-less age. In the absence of spiritual practices deeply embedded into cultural fabric, we are left only with raw motivation. This is generation burnout, an era where the people most immersed in the language of self-care are the same ones likely to working 60 hour weeks, binging Netflix alone in the downtime. The tell is how the word “work” has been displaced by the word “hustle.” It’s not enough to work at something; now one must have a lifestyle of frenetic motion.

Smartphone technology has destroyed our sense of seasonality and place. Selfies at Holocaust memorials don’t indicate disrespect as much as they signal the blurring of life into overlapping lines. You’re supposed to be following up on email the same time you’re having dinner. Keep up the social media clout as you vacation with the kids. Take the artsy photo of the pastor preaching while you reflect and pray. Everything is an occasion for everything else. There is no rhythm, no seasons, and certainly no sabbath. For a people allegedly domineered by the tyranny of the clock, we increasingly have absolutely no sense of time.

This is why I would push back against the New Years critic. One can agree that genuine transformation and improvement has nothing to do with the Julian calendar, while at the same time giving thanks for the persistence of one of our final truly cultural seasons. That people look to the New Year as an opportunity is a testimony to how wired the human soul is for seasons. There is something about coinciding the rising of the sun to the turning of the page that resonates deep within us. A Christian would suggest this is the resonance of an image-bearer being in tune with the physical realm he was created to help subdue and fill with glory. New Years Day is not magic, but it very well might be spiritual.

Looking to a New Year as a chance to walk more confidently in those good works we were created for is good. Slavish devotion to self-help mantras don’t usually stick, for the same reason that New Years discounts on gym memberships look less alluring in May than they did in January. Without continual awareness of the season Giver, we will almost always blur the seasons into a morass, trying with finite, self-oriented strength to once again do everything at once, be our own savior, and receive validation from the idols that broke our hearts last year. One of the great realizations of walking with Christ is that as we keep closer and closer to him, we get rest, we get order, and we get strength. He knows what the human soul needs, and he gives it freely. It’s a mistake if we think we can only receive it once a year. It’s also a mistake if we miss an annual chance to remind ourselves of it.

Christian Wisdom Amid the Gurus

Looking for Christian wisdom in the bestsellers.

Dave Ramsey, Jordan Peterson, and Rachel Hollis are, each in their own way, three of our modern gurus. They’re a diverse group that reflects particular personalities of modern culture. Peterson is the philosophical academic, Hollis the Instagram celebrity, and Ramsey the folksy, financial counseling version of Dr. Phil. Their books don’t just sell; they live atop the bestsellers lists for years at a time. Hollis’s last two books are both currently in Amazon’s top 5. Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life has sold 10 million copies since late 2017. You have scroll a bit further to find Ramsey’s manifesto The Total Money Makeover (and its various spin-offs), but then again, Ramsey’s radio show has been reaching millions of listeners since the George W. Bush administration. Continue reading “Christian Wisdom Amid the Gurus”

In Defense (Somewhat) of Self-Help

When I was in Bible college, few things received scorn as unanimously and frequently as the self-help genre. The corner of your local bookstore dominated by big, bright covers and names like Oprah and Tony Robbins was, almost all of us young, restless, Reformed pre-seminarians agreed, poison. We understood that the self-help genre was a gospel-less, Jesus-less, church-less, and worst of all, theology-less morass of pop psychotherapy and New Agey gobbledygook. The enormous sales numbers of such books was an implicit challenge to my generation of Christian leaders: Whatever the cost, get these books out of your church members’ homes, and get them reading the Bible instead.

To this day, I still feel a twinge of guilt whenever I am listening to a “motivational speaker,” the same kind of twinge I got as a 15 year old sneaking down to the basement to listen to Top 40 radio. Though I can’t hear any bad words, I know this “sound” is not something I, as a Christian, should enjoy. The sound of someone telling me to focus more, to identify my purpose, to take more charge of my days and to understand my limits and my potential and my calling—well, that’s the sound of non-gospel. Right? Right?

Here’s what I’m having a hard time with nowadays. For all my theological education, I tend to have only the foggiest, most vague ideas about my life. I know that the whole universe exists for God’s glory. That fact, alas, did not translate into a workable budget for me last year. I know that God works all things to the purposes of His will, and that no one can thwart him. But not one person in my church or seminary life has ever explained to me that the reason I feel behind at the end of most weeks is that I haven’t identified what was most important to me at a personal level. A few weeks ago, I randomly stumbled across a YouTube video of a motivational speaker who warned his audience against failing to set priorities. If you don’t identify what matters, he said, your days and then weeks would bleed into a directionless, reactionary existence. Whoops.

For all my Christian culture’s scorn of self-help, couldn’t we at least have talked about actually living life in a non-theoretical, non-gospelly cliche way?

One of the things I am having to slowly unlearn is the idea that having good theology is the most important thing in life. I cringe even as I write that sentence, because for years to even think a sentence like that indicated, I believed, a willingness to embrace bad theology. The only people who talked about moderating the importance of theology, I was convinced, were people who wanted me to believe the wrong thing. It turns out I was wrong on both counts. It turns out, on the contrary, that while those whose professional lives rest comfortably at the intersection of study and theoretics (which describes a huge percentage of the “thought leaders” in my corner of Reformed evangelicalism) can afford to say “theology” when they mean “all wisdom everywhere,” many of us cannot afford to do the same.

Sometimes it was supposed in Bible college that the real reason people read self-help books is that they don’t want to be confronted with the moral demands of the Bible. I actually think that’s incorrect. I think most people read self-help lit because they know they need insight, motivation, and perspective from outside themselves. What’s more, I think many Christians read secular self-help lit because they have tried and failed to resize their life to fit a 20 minute per-day devotional box. They read books on becoming a better them because they believe, rightly, that Jesus calls them to be something greater than what they naturally are, but so much of their “gospel-driven” books seem to think that their problems will go away if they know more about divine sovereignty and human agency. In the absence of a relatable explanation of what following Jesus means for being an authentic human being, most people will assume that what they need to know about being an authentic human being and what they need to know about following Jesus are two separate issues.

In my experience, Reformed evangelicals are often so eager to engage in polemics against culture that we often create a conflict that isn’t actually there. And in this case, we tend to create a conflict between common sense and faith. Self-discipline, forward-thinking, intentionality, awareness of one’s own weaknesses and strengths—how is any of this inherently frictional with Christian confession? If it’s not, then another question: Where is the theologically orthodox and accessibly literary body of Christian self-help literature? Perhaps we balk at the phrase “self-help.” Fine. What ideas do we have for alternatives? Is there a space for Christians writing about motivation and inspiration and discipline in a way that is decidedly spiritual but not decidedly reducing life to propositional theology?

I hope all will understand that my point is not that our reading or thinking should be less Christian. My point is that there’s something to be said for not setting up false antitheses, and for articulating a Christian vision of human flourishing that actually meets felt needs, not just intellectual ones. If we sigh at pop culture’s flocking to the latest TED Talk for spiritual guidance—and there’s much to sigh about there—perhaps we should ask ourselves what our seminaries and churches are doing about it.

 

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