Why You Think You. Can’t. Even., But I’m Here to Tell You You. Can: Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, and the Sensationalization of Reaction in [Post-Post-Modern Critical Realist] Culture.
Previously I examined how modern digital culture acts as a sort of currency that not only marks our actual lives but moves beyond symbol to be the very substance of content; to remove the machination of commemorating events in our lives is also to diminish the event itself. Here I want to look in particular at how hyperbole in the digital age helps us oversimplify our reality in order to survive in the short-term, but leads to long-term damage.
That title is supposed to be funny. Anyway…
Once upon a time in the not-so-distant past, two big-name dynamic pastors were crucified for compromising the gospel in some way in order to reach a greater audience. While the paths of Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll are drastically, even diametrically opposed, the beginning and ends of their stories reveal a marked similarity that betrays the contemporary obsession with celebrity culture inherent within the Church. It reads something like this: young, charismatic preacher breaks the rules of the evangelical mainstream in order to meet the new century with boldness and courage, sees massive success in turning heads (both sacred and secular) in ways that had not been seen in 40 years, becomes a brand unto himself, and then the inevitable collapse once the chinks in the armor are revealed. For Bell, it was his willingness to question supposedly core doctrinal truths; for Driscoll, his win-at-all-expense attitude led to compromise in integrity.
The verdict: empire-building at the expense of kingdom-building. One leaves behind orthodox church to be in the company of “the new age”, while the other amasses power in his organization and chooses brand advancement to the point of structural collapse.
I’ve read articles defending and demonizing both men, and it seems that people want to justify the actions of one while casting stones at the other, depending on the “side” they have chosen. Deeper still, one would be hard-pressed to find examples of people who actually changed their opinions on one or both of these men and advertised their sentiment. It is the natural consequence of a culture obsessed with celebrity, because celebrities primarily exist to reinforce our own viewpoints, not to open us to new ones. When they disappoint, we merely sweep them under the rug in favor of a new one.
There are three fascinating observations in this example that demonstrate how the sensationalization of our reactions to the world function.
The first is that we have to have an opinion on everything. Our excuses for ignorance have seemingly dried up overnight now that all information is available at our fingertips at all times. This naturally places the burden upon us to be aware, but only as much as it takes for us to grasp at a conclusion to keep from appearing ignorant. This of course works based on the premise that mystery and ignorance are synonymical. We must encounter, process, and react with a speed that rivals the internet.
Secondly, We feel the burden to not only formulate an opinion on everything that comes into our periphery, but we must let everyone else know what our opinion is. When we internalize the idea that we are what we think, we project our opinions out into the world as an extension of ourselves for validation. This is dangerous territory, for two reasons. If I don’t have an opinion on a particular event, there is a gap in which I do not exist. A lack of a conclusion means there no way for it to reflect back to me my identity, so I lose definition. My need to be seen then prompts me to proclaim loudly my opinion as a way to attract attention. Now, not only the event itself elicits fear of my non-existence, but the interaction that event has with my peers means I’m missing out. Therefore, I need others to know what I think so they know I exist. In response to the controversy surrounding Bell’s book Love Wins, philosopher Peter Rollins pointed out that the Amish would also intensely disagree with the content of the book, yet made no effort to make their disagreement known to the wider world. They were too busy building barns.
Third, in order to have our voices heard, we must choose the hyperbolic extreme to rise above the din of over-saturated commentary afforded us by the social media landscape. The problem is that treating each moment as a fight pushes us deeper into our ideological corner. Soon, our extreme language is leading our opinions and we begin to hold all-the-more tightly to what we profess. The sensationalization of reaction implies that we must be “all in” or “all out” on an issue in order to be confident in ourselves and our perspective on how the world works. In doing so, we over-simplify and under-examine the reality of either of these complex (and still developing) narratives.
The natural consequence of this base, hyper-codified way of digesting the world in order to control our little realities is our inability to handle mystery. While answers may provide a short-term survival option, they break down over the long-term because over our inability to maintain the hyperbolic structure. In this way, we function as the fundamentalist; we spend so much time fighting for our rights to have an opinion that we prevent ourselves from self-examination. We also push to make our contribution to the world the loudest, brashest it can possibly be. Life becomes 8-bit technicolor to overcome the unprocessed subtleties found in a spectrum. The problem is, of course, that our over-extended opinions are drastically more likely to be criticized by others, thus playing on our deepest fears of being lost, even non-existent, in the noise of the digital age.
This is redoubled in our contemporary internet jargon. Recently the level of “can’t even” has risen to epidemic proportions; one would assume most young people are walking around with some form of PTSD as consequence of incredulity at the world. The other response is to merely point out things in all caps in order to articulate the fact that one can’t come up with the words: THIS. THESE. DAT. Mortuaries should be filling up with bodies of people who are “dying” from an amusing quip on their favorite late night talk show. Objective reality would indicate that, in fact, most of us CAN, and we seem to be able to survive an encounter with a cute baby, a poignant top five list, and so on (with exception of this girl perhaps). When expectation is that our reaction to life and its nuances should always be hyperbolic, we stretch the gap between desired perspective and reality until it snaps like an over-extended rubber band. We so desperately want the loudest response to reassure us our life is vibrant. We lose the language for subtlety, and we are inevitably unprepared to engage with moments in life that are truly remarkable and deserve a profound response. In the critical realist worldview, we aren’t even guided by our feelings; we are crafting a narrative that puts emotional response before the cause/event in such a way that cause/event becomes irrelevant.
All this hyperbolic speak, of course, is a response to the post-ironic movement of the last decade or so. I think many people have become exhausted by not being allowed to feel anything at all as culture championed a disinterested and cynical detachment from things that matter. That survival mentality has starved us of connection and meaning, and now we overcompensate by allowing that hunger to overtake the moment itself.
Turning back to Rob Bell and Mark Driscoll.
It is no secret that the church has a habit of eating her own. We are quick to champion our heroes who stand up for truth and just as quick to tear them down when they deviate from our narrative. From my vantage point, the tragedy in both cases is how quickly both realms of influence were diminished and done away with before the ink had time to dry, rather than cherishing what they have contributed to the conversation while responsibly seeking gentle rebuke and correction.
I’m saying we shouldn’t dismiss the totality of who they are in order to separate the world into “for us” and “against us”. Both need correction, as do you and I. Criticism is good and fair when the heart is reconciliation and truth, not idolatry (on one hand) or excommunication (on the other). I would encourage all of us to slow down and be more open-handed in our judgements of the world and how we categorize it. You are not the expert, and neither am I, and in that resolution there is a freedom to not blindly align ourselves or ostracize these men, but rather to see themselves as complexly human, just like us.
Part Three: #ALLOFTHEFEELS #NONEOFTHEFEELS: How Post-Ironic Digital Landscape Has Robbed Us of the Language of Meaning