Digital Altars

Jer. 11:12-13

“Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods  to whom they make offerings, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble. For your gods have become as many as your cities, O Judah, and as many as the streets of Jerusalem are the altars you have set up to shame, altars to make offerings to Baal.”

Much that has survived from the ancient world is a testament to man’s ability to build in the name of worship.  Go to almost any museum of history or antiquity and you will see a whole parade of gods.  Gods etched on walls and carved in stone, gods delicately painted onto clay, gods written into and illuminated in manuscripts. And when we see these gods, seemingly fragile and crude, tamed behind tinted glass or standing limb-less on sanitized blocks, surrounded by explanatory text, it is easy to wonder how they stirred anyone to worship and devotion.  Though they may be beautiful and a testament to man’s creative capacity, the lesson of history is that idols always seem silly in retrospect.

Reading the prophets is a lot like that museum tour.  Much of their work was to pull Israel and Judah out of the now and help them view their idolatry in retrospect.  Jeremiah, for example, cries out, “Every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols, for his images are false and there is no  breath in them (Jer. 10:14).   This is also the work of the prophets for us–to pull us out of our now so that we might see our idols as trinkets that will make museum goers of the future laugh at our reckless and misguided devotion.

But we don’t believe this.  Tracing the whole parade of gods through human history it is easy to believe that we have advanced, that  trinkets and gods no longer captivate us, that in the modern world we have moved past superstition. But this is not so. Though we might not call it worship, there is plenty that captivates our devotion and demands our attention.  This only begs the question–who are the gods in our culture?  On what altars do we spill the libations of our time and money?

We need not look much further than our homes for the answer.  In ancient homes the altar was the center of gravity.  The whole of domestic life orbited around and bent toward their household gods and altars.  Think of the distress of Laban when he finds that his bevy of household gods have gone missing with Jacob’s departure (Gen. 31:25-30).   So where is the center of gravity in our homes?  For many it is the glow of various screens.  We bend our lives toward our televisions, our monitors, our phones, our tablets.  Like icons in the Orthodox tradition, we often think of those flickering screens as  windows to a vaster and greater world.  We act as if they are portals to the transcendent.  Though we won’t leave stone altars behind, we will leave digital altars, trails of code that lead the archaeologists and historians of the future directly to the heart of our devotion.  The internet as we now know it will become a digital dig site.  What will they make of our fascination with social networks?  What will they make with the deluge of porn?  How will they explain the inordinate amount of attention payed towards individuals were simply famous for being famous?

The irony of blogging these reflections doesn’t escape me.  I am as prone as anyone to the pull of the flicker.  In fact as I write this entry, I’m using an app called Freedom that blocks my internet access for a block of time so that I can concentrate.  That I need such an app is telling.  And so is the fact that it is called Freedom.  In the face of the possibility of unbroken access it is unplugging for a stretch of time that now feels like freedom.  We live in the information age.  It is a fact, and it has the potential for both curse and blessing.  How can live so that these tools stay as tools and do not become idols?   I am still working out the answer to that question myself.

Jeremiah: Cartoon Prophet or Stunning Realist?

“For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” Jeremiah 2:13

Sometimes I read the prophets and it feels like a morality play, a kind of after school special in ancient garb.  The prophet’s voices are a little too booming, the teeming masses are a little too evil, and the morality is a little too mathematical to seem at all real. But because I really do believe its God’s word, I often have to remind myself that these stories are never just historical curiosities  that I can abstract myself from.  As far as God is concerned, the history of Israel is the history of the world. The Old Testament is a record not simply of what Israel did, but of what we do. If you would know the way your heart bends, peruse the Old Testament.

And a passage like this helps me remember that the prophets have us moderns squarely in their sights. To forsake water is to forsake life. And to forsake water in the desert is a special kind of folly. Living in Dallas I see people broker there sorts of lopsided deals all the the time. I see people gnaw on discarded bones, as if they were fat and rich food, when the feast is spread before them.  I see people pluck out tunes on warped instruments, calling them songs, while symphonies rise and fall in their hearing.  Everyone here has whiffed the musk of American abundance and become a coordinate on the suburban grid.

This is all to say that I have stopped wondering if it is true, and moved on to wondering why it is true. Have people imagined God to be something he is not, imagined him not as good and true, but as too good to be true?  Do they see him as a snake-oil huckster whose potions do no heal, a back-alley dealer whose watches never wind, a flushed faced,  TV-racketeer whose goods never arrive? Maybe so. In the case of Israel, the promise of living water, that is, an actual moving stream, would be so rare as to seem like magic.

But I think it’s the second half of the passage that points the way.  To store water in containers that cannot hold it has a willful, snot-nosed arrogance to it. It’s not that people have shot the moon on God and come up short.  It’s that people would rather wave the tattered flag of their own independence, then come on bended knee to the embassy of God.

So if that’s true, then maybe my aversion to the prophets is not their cartoonishness at all.  Maybe I just don’t want to meet my own gaze in the mirror of their words.  In that case, I am the one in the alley who refuses shelter simply because I did not build it. And when it comes down to it, it seems that most of our unwillingness to read the Bible at all revolves around this truth. It is not simply that the Bible is hard to read; it is that the Bible’s truth is often hard to hear.  But where else can those who thirst come and find true drink, or those who hunger come and find true food?