From: The Illuminated Heart
Illumine our hearts, O Master who lovest mankind
with the pure light of thy divine knowledge,
and open the eyes of our minds to the understanding
of thy Gospel teachings, for thou art
the illumination of our souls and bodies,
O Christ our God.
(Prayer before the reading of the Gospel
Liturgy of St. James, Fourth Century)
When I began writing this book I ran into a road bump. I said to my husband, “I’m having a hard time figuring out how to make repentance appealing.” And I realized that that statement summarized the whole problem. We’re a nation of shoppers. Everything has to be appealing.
Before we begin to learn about Anna’s understanding of repentance, we need to find out what alternative ideas are currently occupying our mental real estate. It’s notoriously difficult to see one’s own worldview, akin to seeing a hat while wearing it. The unspoken assumptions we harbor, the silent ones, are the most powerful – and the most invisible. But we need to try to visualize this foggy chapeau, and to question the assumptions we inherit so unconsciously from our surrounding culture. We need to critique them in order to make room for Anna’s very different approach.
In the first chapter we talked about a basic human condition of uneasiness. We naturally cast about for ways to feel better, and it’s obvious that certain experiences – things we eat or do or buy – give pleasure. Keeping a steady stream of pleasures coming in seems the best way to hold off this malaise. This is a time-honored solution, and an obvious one.
One element of our culture sets us apart from all previous ones, however, and that is our great prosperity. We simply have access to more consumables, more pleasures, than any previous generation. No king or emperor of centuries past lived as sumptuously as the average suburban family does today. With less war, starvation, and pestilence to worry about, our thoughts turn more frequently to the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae. Since pleasures are so easily obtained and more affordable than ever, we obtain them as frequently as possible.
Thus we come to see ourselves primarily as consumers, rather than as people whose meaning comes from who we are or what we produce. Our prestige is defined by the logos we wear or the car we drive. While there is pride in being someone who creates and produces, now we’re just black holes, never satisfied. That’s a depressing role. Yet we can’t think of any solution to the malaise except to buy something else.
I call this the Frosting Cycle. Imagine the person who decides to comfort herself with a can of chocolate frosting. For a while it tastes very, very good, and she feels better – and then she starts feeling a good bit worse. Submerged in bad, icky feelings, what can she do? Then the can’s bright label catches her eye, and she thinks, “Chocolate makes me feel better.”
This cycle of excessive consuming just adds to our lousy feelings. It is debilitating to see ourselves as passive, nonproductive gluttons. But even to the sickness of too-much we can’t see any solution except buying, acquiring, seducing, viewing, eating, or drinking more. Self-esteem is wrecked by self-indulgence, because a million self-indulgences add up to a person you can’t respect very much.
Thus, when we face eternal questions like, “Why is the world so messed up?” and, “How am I part of the problem?” we have a reduced pack of available answers. The quick answer, “Buy something and forget about it,” is supremely seductive. It’s also a more available solution than it was for our forebears.
Many well-intentioned sources try to help by addressing the symptom rather than the disease, offering advice on gaining self-esteem or losing guilt or becoming more assertive in our quest for extra frosting. A good bit of the self-help section of any bookstore will be filled with titles about consoling and pampering ourselves, self-pity titles, and advice on getting others to give us what we want.
Unfortunately, if we move over to the Christian bookstore, we will find much the same tone. Here, I’m sorry to say, Jesus is too often offered as a consoler whose only purpose is to meet our needs. His focus is on us, and we are invited to take the role of unhappy child and bask in that doting care.
I can understand where this approach comes from. It’s true that Jesus is the only answer to this eternal problem., the problem of meaninglessness and loneliness. When the surrounding culture thinks in terms of, “What can meet my need?” or, “Where can I get the frosting I deserve?” it’s natural for Christians to say, “What you’re really looking for is Jesus. He does what frosting does, and more.”
But the basic attitude of, “How can I get what I want?” has still not been questioned. It hasn’t even been recognized. “Jesus” may be a different answer from the one given by advertising, entertainment, and the consumer culture, but it’s been whittled to fit the same shape.
Anna’s understanding of these things is so different from ours as to be initially bewildering. In the next chapter we’ll begin putting together the pieces of that early church worldview. If this were a jigsaw puzzle, we’d find it quite challenging, because we’d keep thinking we recognize pieces, but they won’t be making the picture we’re used to. We’ll start by looking further at that not-so-appealing idea of repentance.