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John Updike by raschiabarile-d3injre
John Updike by raschiabarile-d3injre

After the Artist: A Sobering Prophecy

“Priest, teacher, artist—the classic degeneration.” John Updike’s apothegm has been used by several theologians to describe the era of post-modernity. Kevin Vanhoozer, for example, echoes him by claiming that our culture has moved from priest to teacher to artist. We have traded submission to dogmatism for submission to reason, and then exchanged the latter for the demagogue of self-expression.

But we are, after all, now living in the era of post-post-modernity, so the artist is not the end of the line. Someone has come after him: the informationist, and that troubles me far more than Updike’s classic degeneration. At least with artists, there was the potential to extract kernels of truth from the husk of obscure subjectivity: something of the artist could challenge and change us. But informationists are, as the name suggests, concerned only with the peddling of ideas (cf. Acts 17:21). What is delivered to them as a living truth is crystallized into a concept and stacked with everything else that is “fascinating.”

In principle, of course, there is nothing wrong with something being fascinating. But we tend to forget that many things that assume the label are seldom worth added attention. If you tell me that your grandfather used to sleep with his eyes open, I will tell you that’s fascinating, but I’m probably never going to think about it again. Fascination pricks the mind’s appetite but does not satisfy it.

It is for this reason that informationists care little about whether or not something is true; they care only to acknowledge novelty or obscurity before moving on to the next thing. And because there is no shortage of information in today’s marketplace of ideas, truth—as a challenging and catalyzing reality—can be made practically irrelevant to an informationist, especially the Christian faith. Christianity is often lumped into the same category as other ideas in the history of Western civilization—a bedfellow to Plato’s pure forms and Kant’s phenomenalism.

But the informationist treatment of the Christian faith is, I believe, a prelude to something else. For years I have heard of people mourning the marginalization of Christianity in the secular universities, but if media trends maintain their current course, if information continues to be the greatest commodity of trade, then I suggest something else entirely: the universities are not going to reject and marginalize Christianity; they are going to embrace it as an idea. Christian teachers will soon find not that they are refused a seat at the intellectual table, but that a place has been cleared specifically for them. If they take it, however, it will risk the very heart of the gospel.

I have written elsewhere that the greatest threat to the gospel is treating it as an idea, for once the gospel becomes an idea, it dies. Sapped of the vigor of Christ—the truth who calls us into a dynamic personal relationship—the gospel as idea is nothing more than a relic. To see such a relic, we make the occasional pilgrimage from the faraway parts of imagination and speculation, but we always return home. We think of what it would be like if Jesus were really raised from the dead and beckoned us into communion with the Trinity. But then a stoplight turns green, we push the gas pedal, and churn the wheels of the ordinary again. The gospel, we think, is a happy fiction that will be sitting there waiting for us to return from our pragmatic errands.

Consider this phenomenon from the perspective of spiritual warfare. Imagine if you were the devil. What would be your weapon of choice to assault the faithful? Would it be fanaticism? Doubt? Relativity? Distraction? C. S. Lewis and other apologists throughout the centuries have made such suggestions, but I think there is a different threat now. The weapon of choice is vigilant sterilization. To assault an army of those who have faith seeking understanding (following Anselm’s biblical maxim), the devil promises understanding at the cost of faith—a sterile idea in exchange for a relationship. In accordance with his serpentine strategy, he has offered us the possibility of knowledge apart from a covenantal relationship with God.

You will remember that Adam and Eve, too, were presented with an idea apart from such a relationship. The idea, of course, was false. Adam and Eve could not have true knowledge in isolation from the God of the universe. Perhaps the devil is tidying up his tricks in the 21st century. Rather than offer what he knows all Christians have been warned against, he now offers what seems to have been promised. Sin and salvation, the Messiah and the message, grace and glory—it’s all there, but it has been sterilized into a concept. It is, in the most negative possible sense, a “still-life” of the gospel: a portrait of the promise, not the promise itself. He has, in his serpentine strategy, offered us fruit that is, more than ever, “a delight to the eyes” (Gen 3:6). And we are taking it.

The effect is devastating. The devil is assaulting the doors of the church not with a battering ram but with an abstraction: that the gospel can be had simply if it is embraced as an idea. He has effectively convinced the masses that understanding apart from faith is just as good as faith seeking understanding.

The next move, it would seem to me, would be to take Christianity to the academy, to hand it over to informationists who care only about fascination, and there is nothing worse you can say about the gospel than that it is fascinating. The gospel razes your life to the ground and then builds it back up, brick by brick. It decimates before it generates. That is why Christ is not a principle; he is a person, a person who changes and challenges us. He pushes us, however discomforting it may seem, not to settle on our understanding with ease and efficiency, but to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). To exchange this person for a stagnant principle is to exchange life for death all over again—to give ascent to the serpent a second time by agreeing that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is enough in itself. To accept the gospel as idea is to accept ideology at the cost of isolation from the dynamic, engaging God of Scripture.

Updike’s classic degeneration, it seems, is not the worst that could happen to Christianity. Indeed, we have already lived through it. “Priest, teacher, artist” has come and gone. We are now in the era of the informationist. Just as the devil used dogmatism, reason, and self-expression to attack the church, so now he will use the gospel in abstraction. And the secular university is the perfect place to do it. Now Christians can, at last, have faith and intellectual prestige. They can claim the gospel as idea without claiming Christ as Lord. That is the devil’s cunning.

This is a sobering prophecy for a generation pushed, more than ever, to the realms of higher education. And I hope that I am wrong. For the moment, I suggest that every time you hear yourself saying that this or that in the Bible is “fascinating,” beware. It may be the devil on your shoulder, asking once again if you will take the fruit of the tree, rather than the bread of Christ’s body. The latter will pull you onto the path of suffering and glory; the former will leave you as you are. That, far worse that Updike’s classic degeneration, is the devil’s degeneration, for he knows that if he keeps you the same, then he has kept you from Christ.


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