April 6, 2020

Four cultural things I want COVID-19 to kill off

We’re at the stage in which everyone is wondering what things will look like on the other side. That’s not to say we are out of the woods yet, but we might be past the halfway point.

As my wife Jill pointed out this morning, there will be a series of curves that will need to be flattened. The virus itself will need to have its curve flattened.  But the second curve that will trail in its wake will be the social and emotional destruction that is going to require huge levels of therapeutic intervention.

Already mental health bodies are calling on budding practitioners to ensure their qualifications are ready, and they’re also thinking of how to encourage recently retired psychologists back into the profession.

Somehow I don’t think we’re going to come out of our homes and back into our lives with a yelp of triumph. It will be more timid and broken than that. We’ve been giving furtive glances at passers-by on the street as if each of us is a miniature cruise ship just seething with viruses and death.

Here’s how I am seeing most of you at the moment when I join the supermarket queue:

Screen Shot 2020-04-06 at 5.12.12 pm

All joking aside, we’re not going to get over that suspicion quickly. Things are happening in our minds all of the time, and it’s going to take time to unpick it all.

Already yesterday I got ticked off at the young woman in running gear who was lounging all over the countertop of the takeaway cafe, hand prints all over the glass, laughing and chatting all close up and personal to the staff. Ageism kicked in. “Young people – sheesh!” etc, etc.

Eventually she moved on and I ordered two brews of almost certain death that no doubt would have done a witch’s cauldron proud.

But what will be on the other side of the virus? What kind of culture do I wish to see killed off, apart from the virus, and instead of the people who it is destroying?  Here’s a few culture dishes I prepared earlier (after washing my hands)

1. The Culture Wars  And I don’t mean the viral culture in a petri dish. If ever there was a chance to kill off the most toxic thing that has hit our Western culture the past few decades, it is now. The culture wars have ensured that when we lean back on our collective resolve, we find it’s not so collective after all. We’re a fractured bunch, and we’ve brought that pretty much on ourselves. As I’ve said about pretty much everything these past weeks, You can only take out of the bank what you have put in.  If there’s no collective resolve then don’t think this will be our 1939-45.

As journalist Paul Kelly wrote about Australia on the weekend:

If the words “social compact” sound strange, that is because this idea has been dead for years, victim of the destructive, selfish and ideological politics dominating for more than a decade.

Can the virus kill that stuff off? Will we come out the other side more generous towards each other and our deep differences? It’s hard to say. A common enemy will keep us together, but when it goes? Our ideas of human flourishing might be reduced at the moment to actually just staying alive, but identity politics, critical theory and the like have deep roots that, like many a native plant in our recent bushfires (remember them?) can push shoots to the surface pretty soon after the crisis has passed. We’ve paused for a breather, maybe it’s a good time to reassess just where that war has gotten us.

2. The “Have To” Culture How much do we actually have to do? In other words what has been completely necessary to get life done, and what has been stuff that we keep saying we “have to do”. We’re a culture obsessed with the “have to” stuff.  A French friend of mine told me that he hates the Aussie use of the word “busy”.  He said that everyone in Australia is busy all of the time.  Doing what? he asks.  And he asked me again recently about it from his lockdown in the north coast of France.

We say we hate all of the “have to” stuff in our culture, but we plainly don’t. All of the stuff we have to drive everyone around to do all of the time that gets us frantic, that maintains the (road) rage, that gets us hysterical and weepy at the end of a particularly harrowing week, or makes us hit the bottle.

We’re now realising what a slower life looks like. And quite frankly it scares us. We’re finding it hard to wean ourselves off the pace of life, and the computer in our pocket that gives us access to the whole world is proving to be a useful Methadone for the addicts that we are.

The good news is that I think we’re seeing signs of people starting to slow down their brains to match the slow down in their bodies. What things will be take up again when this blows over? Who knows? For some it will take an effort of the will to pull back from the fast pace of the past. For others it will be a liberating time as they jettison events and programs and lessons and curated lifestyle plans that were not making them any happier in the first place. Which will it be for you?

3. Sexy Church Culture Okay, I know I am going to get some flak for this, but if the above issues are true of the wider culture then they are surely true for the church culture. I know it’s a bit crass, but I have referred to the constant striving to make the event the main thing and to make it as astonishingly slick as possible, as “sexy church”.

And it’s exhausting for many people. Keeping it going has become another thing on the “have to” list that those pesky non-Christians don’t have to do.  Cos here’s the fact.  We’re racing around “busy as” doing all of the stuff everyone else is doing, and then adding some more in for good measure. I’m surprised we’ve got any time at all to have any meaningful relationships if the big shebang of doing church with “excellence” or whatever term is used, is sucking up so much time.  I think the word “excellence” is a coverall for something other than what it actually means, and often sees us pursuing things that we’ve baptised as necessary for church to function.

I think if this thing goes on for some time, then just like the pneumatic, primped and botoxed people in the expensive suburbs, sexy church will start to sag without the lavish attention it requires. Hey we all started out with a bang to create the most amazing interactive experience we could, but that will run out of steam. And if your church expression has been built on it always being “amazing” you might find that your veiwer stats start to drop off. And you may find that the crowds aren’t there when you start that thing up again.

Am I putting a dampener on church being done well? Perhaps. But then again what does “being done well” mean? What is the fruit of a church community done well according to the Scripture? I am pretty sure those things can still be done well among the communities that have, as I said before, already put those things away in the bank. If your Christian community has been built on deep, rich gospel foundations that hold up life-giving and sacrificial relationships then things will stand. If not? Then there will be a few white elephant buildings left over when we can come outdoors again.

Make no mistake, the spiritual, social and psychological changes will be profound. Church will change. It will have to.  Alan Hirsch puts it with stunning imagery:

“To learn how to play chess start by removing your queen. Master the game without the best piece then put the queen back and see how good you are! In the Church the Sunday service is our queen. Now the queen is off the board, it’s time to rediscover what the other pieces can do.”

4. The Culture of Non-Transcendence We have lived in a culture that allows us to privately believe that there is something more than the material world we can see, but not to take that into the public square. We live, as Charles Taylor says, in the immanent frame. The past was porous, where the spiritual could leak into the world and leak into us.  That’s why we said “Bless you!” when we sneezed!

Now? We are all living in a hermetically sealed bubble. Like the invisible wrapping covering over the town of Chester’s Mill in the TV series Under the Dome, nothing comes in and nothing goes out. Of course there are spiritual people, and religious people and the like, but that has no bearing on facts. Facts don’t stand for transcendent nonsense.

Yet here we are totally freaked out by the fact we do leak. Things leak out of us. Things leak into other people.  We’re looking around aghast at the crowds on the beaches.  Worrying ourselves sick.  Or sick and we’re worried about it. Death has come home to us in a real way.  Immanence is fine when life is fine. But when it’s not?

In a fascinating piece of journalism called Time to ponder eternity as daylight savings clocks off , Catherine McGregor hits the nail on the head:

Pondering mortality is a wise thing to do. We are all mortal. To dust we shall return. Whether you believe that is the end of the story or the beginning of eternity, fundamental to being human is that one inescapable reality. We are all going to die. Whether you have one million Twitter followers or have never had an account, there is a future day that will begin without you. 

Now you may well be one of those who thinks death is the end of the story. But can you be sure? Why this deep fear of death in our culture? No amount of imagining away heaven above us, or hell below us, is easy.  It’s not easy if you try to imagine it away.  A social imaginary without a heaven or hell is the reserve for the well off who have never suffered serious injustice, or had lives shortened by famine or war or pestilence. Imagining no heaven is a luxury for those who think they can craft a heaven here on earth.  Not so easy now is it?

And for those younger generations who already felt that they had been short-changed by the older generations in terms of wealth and housing and a stable future, there” be even less heaven-on-a-stick to go around. For decades. If your hope is in what can be found within the immanent frame, then you’re going to be severely disappointed.

Of course there’s more to all of this.  But it’s the start of my reflections as we perhaps, cautiously, and imperceptibly start to walk out the other side of the woods to a culture that will have changed in ways we are only starting to imagine.




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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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