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The Rise of the Control Freak

It’s 10:30 in the morning on January 1, 2015, and my new year is off to a pre-caffeinated start. My inner fog is contrasted by 100 cheering girls bouncing around me, gathered here with their parents in the large rotunda of the Mall of America for the annual unveiling of the American Girl doll of the year. Most of the girls have dragged their dolls from home for the occasion; my daughter brought me. And I’m clearly not the only dad who loves a little girl enough to endure the Minneapolis tundra for a small party.

Thankfully I see a coffee shop in the distance, so my odds of survival are good, but for now I’m stuck in line with a pack of squealing, doll-toting girls.

Eventually we’re chosen to enter the roped-off area, and in the inner sanctum my daughter goes off to craft and explore, and I go off to settle into a rare folding chair I spot beside one of two towering 40-foot shimmering Christmas trees. A sound system pumps out contemporary pop hits which echo around the concrete and glass space. Not far from me a plump and eager middle-aged woman, caught up in the excitement of the moment, swings back and forth, bobbing in place and feeling moved to sing along with Katy Perry. By the time she reaches the crescendo—“And you’re gonna hear me roar!”—I find I’m just staring in admiration of her oblivion.

Amid the jumbled jubilee of the dolls, crafts, and pop rock I try to focus on my writing for a few minutes, but find that my attention is being held fast to a huge jumbotron television above my head, static with the red American Girl logo and their motto: “Follow your inner star.”

“Follow your inner star”—the motto is so cliché that nobody notices, but it captivates my attention because it represents a cultural phenomenon. It also reminds me of an old Canadian philosopher and of the long and colorful history behind the rise of the modern control freak.

Enchanted to De-Enchanted 

I’m here with a few hundred strangers. I know nobody. We all arrived in unison. This choreographed gathering of likeminded strangers, each representing their own unique life of self-contained routines and schedules, is a phenomenon that would’ve been inconceivable for our ancestors in medieval Europe 500 years ago. Life then was not so self-determining.

For one, they lived in a deeply enchanted world. For them and for their witch doctors, the deep forests were haunted by otherworldly life forms (like trolls). The slashing ocean surf was stirred by angry, unseen powers within. The dark storm clouds and rushing winds were the presence and breath of someone great. Lunar eclipses were the handiwork of the gods. There was no escape from the forces breaking into your life, for good or for ill.

And before them was a legion of Norse and Greek mythology, a pantheon of gods birthed—gods in love, gods at war, gods reigning and ruling. The Hindus had Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The Egyptians had Osiris, Isis, and Horus. The Greeks had Uranus, Cronus, and Zeus. The Vikings had Odin, Thor, and Loki. You were born into polytheistic battles of cosmic proportion, and it meant (whether you liked it or not) you and your community were stuck in the middle of the divine frictions.

In these competing cosmic tensions, your life was held in the balance. The spiritual realities touched all of your life—your crops, your health, your ship on the open sea, your fortune, your future, and every dimension of the safety of your village. It was enchanted cultures like these the gospel first confronted, not by dismissing all of the cosmic tensions, but by showing how Christ triumphed over all these powers in his death and resurrection.

Then roughly around the time of the Renaissance and into the scientific revolution, things started to swing to the opposite extreme. Spiritual realities began to get muted from social life, pushing religion out of the community into the subjective preference of the individual, something like a lucky rabbit foot to carry in your pocket. As the forces of our universe were explained by science, the world became disenchanted.

In just a few hundred years, these changes brought a seismic shift in how we understood our universe and our place in it.

From Porous to Buffered

In other words, the birth of the modern control freak is rooted in humanity’s move from an enchanted cosmos centered on the community to a mechanistic universe centered on the individual. It’s an important story taken up by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. Taylor coined the term disenchantment to explain the root cause, and it has a very complex and layered backstory, which Taylor detailed in his landmark 2007 book, A Secular Age.

One of the most compelling results of his study, Taylor distinguished between two competing philosophies about who we are as individuals in this world: the porous self and the buffered self.

As we’ve seen, prior to the Renaissance and the scientific revolution our ancestors never could’ve imagined defining personhood independent of the community, the gods, and the spiritual forces at work. The cosmos was enchanted and the self was porous to myriad influences outside itself. Your interior thought life and the cosmic forces outside were all blended together.

After the Renaissance and the scientific revolution, though, this became less the case. A universe operating by natural laws and mechanical and predictable rules replaced the cosmos of spiritual forces. Science and technology created a new buffer for the self—insulation from previously uncontrollable forces of nature, making it possible for us to imagine a new invulnerability to outside forces. The universe became tamer, more disenchanted, more of a machine.

And this gave birth to the modern control freak.

Under the Dual Illusion

Today, with a watch, a calendar, and a minute-by-minute schedule of activities synced on our phones, we live under the dual illusion of controlled individuality. We govern the output, and few outside influences can stop us. It now seems possible to depend on nobody, to need nobody, to be vulnerable to nobody. We’ve taken complete control of our destinies. So the “buffered self” can voluntarily choose to opt out—out of marriage, out of childbearing, out of community, out of traditions, even out of the divine—in a way unfathomable to most previous centuries. And for the buffered self, the physical forces at work outside of us don’t have much bearing on our thinking. We can anesthetize ourselves from the horrors of the world by simply ignoring the famines, crimes, massacres, and natural disasters that ravage it.

This new buffered self is marked by key internal changes. Because while it’s certainly not wrong to focus attention on the self (a trend rooted in the new covenant; see Jeremiah 31:29–34), the biblical prophets were always careful to protect the self from disenchantment—something not true of the buffered self that grows out of secularism. Taylor explains:

[Disenchantment’s “inner side” means] the replacement of the porous self by the buffered self, for whom it comes to seem axiomatic that all thought, feeling, and purpose—all the features we normally can ascribe to agents—must be in minds, which are distinct from the “outer” world. The buffered self begins to find the idea of spirits, moral forces, [and] causal powers with a purposive bent, close to incomprehensible. The rise of the buffered identity has been accompanied by an interiorization . . . we now conceive of ourselves as having inner depths. We might even say that the depths which were previously located in the cosmos, the enchanted world, are now more readily replaced within. Where earlier people spoke of possession by evil spirits, we think of mental illness. Or again, the rich symbolism of the enchanted world is located by Freud in the depths of the psyche; and we all find this move very natural and convincing, whatever we might think of his detailed theories. (539–50)

Or, “follow your inner star.” The cosmos, and my true north, is now found internally.

Power of Insulation

But along with this move to define the complexity and depth of life inside the self, the buffered self brings significant external changes to our perception of the world. One striking illustration is found in comparing how we now respond to catastrophic natural disasters. To interpret natural disasters as a warning from God (or the gods) is a perfectly universal experience in an enchanted cosmos, and this was even true in the church up through John Calvin, the Puritans, and into many 19th-century pulpits. Two hundred years ago, a devastating hurricane would likely prompt the church’s clergy to call for a season of national repentance.

But in a world where computers animate major storms from still shots taken by satellite images, to suggest a destructive hurricane should perhaps be interpreted as (a) God’s attempt to expose our hubris and our frailty, or even (b) God’s anger for the moral laxity of a city or nation, would not only not compute in our culture; it would be scorned by many Christians as purely insensitive. Such storms are now the result of a collision of meteorological circumstances. If any blame is to be found we should blame man’s abuse of the planet, which, we are told, is one factor in the prevalence of mega-storms today. Turns out “acts of God” are less likely to be the work of the divine and more likely to be the result of the irresponsible self.

Within the church we can debate whether divine messages are to be decoded by a city or nation (and what that message is). But the stark distinction shows how far our lives have become insulated—insulated from nature and insulated from a conscious awareness of God’s providence in creation. In the end, this way of thinking leads to secularism. To be a secular (a buffered self) simply means God becomes optional to my daily existence. He cannot thrust himself into my life. And to be religious in such a secular culture means enhancing your inner richness. Such a relegated understanding of the divine would completely dumbfound the porous self of our ancestors.

Skipping to the DIY Parts

Here’s the problem. As you can imagine, believers aren’t immune to the winds and waves of secularism. Many of us easily slip into a form of the Christian life that imagines this life of faith as a mechanical process. There’s little need for the cosmos to be enchanted as long as I have a manageable list of five tips to boost my personal flourishing today. We begin asking:

Why should I care about whether or not the cosmos is enchanted? Would this fact make any impact on my life today? What I need most are practical helps, I need tips for reading my Bible, I need tricks for raising my children well, for cultivating my marriage, and for becoming internally happy.

Such desires for practical tricks for mastering life can over time start to sound a bit like the manifestation of the buffered self in a secular culture—a self bent on mechanically controlling the processes of life to arrive at the self’s desired output.

In reality, the flourishing Christian life embraces the fuller form of catechism. First, we learn to understand the essence of cosmic spiritual realities outside of ourselves. Second, we embrace God as he’s revealed himself and his covenant promises to us collectively. Only within this context are we then prepared to flourish in personal application of biblical truth within us. We must first be captivated by God’s indicatives, the essence of things, and protect time to study and meditate on what’s pure fact and external to us and not directly applicable to my behavior—so that his imperatives (when the time comes) will be properly grounded. The buffered self simply wants to skip ahead to underline all the DIY parts of the Bible.

We all live to some degree in a buffered self, probably more than we can perceive or admit. We tend to prefer the concrete over the cosmic; we prefer the practical over the spectacle; we prefer focusing on what we can control, not on the forces outside of us; we prefer dwelling on the suggestions of Proverbs over the cosmic majesty of Revelation. We all have a control freak within.

Re-Enchanted?

Both selves—the porous self (seeking validating miracles) and the buffered self (seeking tidy explanations to life)—will find their unique ways of attempting to domesticate God, and both of those attempts will be proved vain by a crucified Savior (1 Cor. 1:22–25). But there’s an inherent truth the porous self knew that we now must learn, contrary to the forces of our culture.

It turns out enchantment is critical to Christian discipleship. This enchantment can coexist with our technology and with our scientific awareness, but only by a firmly rooted faith—a faith that reminds me my daily life is vulnerable to even unseen (and unscientifically explainable) forces outside myself, like those in the deeply enchanted hymn of Colossians 1:15–20:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

The Christian life is about opening ourselves up, to Christ, to become consciously porous to his cosmic reign.

It’s time for control freaks to be reminded of our porousness, which means reminded of our vulnerability, and for three ends.

Three Implications

First, we’re called to become vulnerable to others, and to see that our individual freedoms in Christ don’t separate us from community but actually obligate us to deeper participation with other believers (Gal. 5:13).

Second, we must become vulnerable to the cosmic forces outside of us. We need our eyes reopened to what that ancient pagan poet got right: In God we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Which is to say our everyday lives cannot be more enchanted.

Finally, and most important of all, as we’re awakened to the unseen cosmic realities of Colossians 1:15–20 (and other passages), we become porous to the glory of Christ, and nothing in the Christian life is more vital. Glory that reaches cosmic depths is a depth not found in me, but in Christ.

This is not pantheism. This is life in Christ’s creation pushing back on secularism. We must live in the knowledge that no part of his handiwork lives independent from him. No part of his creation stands over him. And no part of creation exists outside his sovereign power and ultimate aims.

But the reality is that I struggle to embrace all this glorious reality even on my best days, which I guess is why I write about it. I want to put words to the reality to remind myself of all this truth over and over again.

Getting Real

I’ve been too lost in thoughts to bother with coffee, and it’s time to leave. I feel the sleepy fog begin to lift just in time for our mall trip to end on a more cheerful and reassuring note. The American Girl rep announces their doll of the year is named Grace.

Grace. Unmerited favor. A gift from the outside. A contradiction to the corporate motto. Inescapably, our lives are interwoven with reminders of the grace we are given in Christ. And the more aware we are of his victory, the more we find that his blood-bought reign over all things in heaven and on earth intersects with our everyday experiences and routines in deeply practical ways.

It is surely no accident that two of Paul’s most Christ-enchanted epistles (Colossians and Ephesians) are also his two most hands-on epistles for flourishing in our parenting, our marriages, our vocations, and our churches. Jesus is intended to center all of our practices and routines.

And it all begins in the cosmic context, where we see ourselves to be foggy and fallen and fallible creatures, who roll out of bed again and again to the sound of our knees popping, and who need to be re-catechized every morning—reminded again and again that we live before a cosmic Christ who lets not one wave or storm escape his sovereign rule (Matt. 8:26–27).

In him we live out our routines with a renewed porousness, a new vulnerability, and a clearer awareness that we live within a story far more enchanted than any of us dare imagine.

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