Excerpts for Idolatry of God : Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction
The Church Shouldn’t Do Worship Music, the Charts Have It Covered
Creatio ex Nihilo
Whether we look at our own personal history or reflect upon the history of civilization, it is difficult to avoid the sense that we feel a lack in the very depths of our being, a lack that we try to cover over with any number of religious, political, and cultural remedies. This feeling might touch us like a breeze or knock us over with the force of a hurricane, but however it comes, most of us can testify to the feeling that there is something just beyond our reach that might help to fill this void, whether it is a person, money, power, possessions, God, or heaven.
It is natural for us to think that our present discontent arises as a result of something we currently do not have. We imagine there might be a way of abolishing the feeling if only we had the money, fame, job, or health that currently evades us. But people from all walks of life seem to experience the same kind of dissatisfaction that we do, even when they have the very things we believe would make our lives whole. And on the occasions when we gain the thing we believe will make us happy, we find that the satisfaction we experience is at best partial and at worst utterly unfulfilling.
In order to approach the root cause of this dissatisfaction and work out why it seems so difficult to abolish, let us begin by reviving an obscure and seemingly absurd Latin phrase that refers to the idea of something coming from nothing: creatio ex nihilo.
How can absence or lack be a generative and creative force in the world?
Upon first being confronted by this idea it might seem like nonsense, for how can nothing give rise to something? How can absence or lack be a generative and creative force in the world?
Yet the idea of nothing bringing about something is not as strange as it might sound. Take the following example:
There was once a young woman who, late one evening, was taking a shower when the doorbell rang. Knowing that her husband was dozing in the upstairs bedroom she quickly wrapped herself in a towel and ran to the door. When she opened it, she was greeted by her next-door neighbor Joe.
Upon seeing her wearing nothing but a towel Joe pulled four hundred dollars from his back pocket, looked her in the eye, and said, “I have always been attracted to you. What do you say to the following indecent proposal? If I were to offer you this four hundred dollars right now, would you drop the towel for me?”
After a moment’s reflection, she reluctantly agreed, dropped the towel, and let him look at her naked body. True to his word, Joe gave her the money and left.
Picking up the towel she hid the money and then went up to the bedroom. As she entered the room, her husband woke up and asked, “Did the doorbell ring a few minutes ago?”
“Oh yes,” replied the woman. “It was just Joe from next door.”
“Great! Did he give you the four hundred dollars he owes me?”
Here we witness a type of creatio ex nihilo at work, for the neighbor Joe has nothing to offer except the illusion of something (four hundred dollars that is not his), but this illusion generates a desired effect—the woman exposing her body. Nothing was made to look like something and created a result.
So how can this idea of nothing creating something help us understand the dissatisfaction that seems so much a part of human life?
We Enter the World with Nothing
Infants undergo two births. The first is also the most plain to see—their physical entry into the world. The second, however, is less obvious; it is the birth of their self-consciousness. These two events occur close together, but they are not simultaneous, for their tiny bodies have already come onto the scene before they develop any real sense of being an individual. In this way their physical bodies are a type of womb out of which their selfhood arises.
Infants undergo two births.
This important point in human development was named “the mirror phase” by the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and is generally estimated to start between the ages of six to eighteen months. While the process is gradual, it is around this time that the infant begins to identify as existing in separation from her surroundings and slowly begins to experience herself as an individual.
The time before this awakening can be described as a type of prehistory, for it is the time before language, before self-consciousness, before the sense of “I.” It is only as the infant begins to enter selfhood that her history really begins, a history that cannot articulate what came before it, yet which remains indelibly marked by it.
One of the fundamental experiences that arises from this second birth is a profound and disturbing sense of loss, for as soon as we experience our inner world, we encounter for the first time an outer world. As we develop a sense of our internal space, we are confronted with another one, a space existing beyond the borders of our flesh. Before the formation of our inner world, there is no sense of “me” and thus no notion of “you.” There is no near and no far; no inside and, therefore, no outside; no barriers that would separate me from everything beyond the threshold of my skin. Before the advent of selfhood, the infant’s body exists in a type of equilibrium with the environment, being impacted by it but not standing in contrast to it.
All this changes as the child gains a sense of selfhood, for at this point, the world is experienced as “out there.” With the advent of the “I,” there is an experience of that which is “not I.” The sense of selfhood is marked indelibly with the sense of separation.
This means that one of our most basic and primal experiences of the world involves a sense of loss, for when we feel separated from something we assume that there was something we once had. The interesting thing to note, however, is that this sense of loss is actually an illusion, for we never actually lost anything. Why? Because there was no “me” before this experience of separation. Before the experience of loss there was no self to have enjoyed the union that we sense has been ripped away from us. The very birth of our subjectivity then signals a sense of losing something that we never had in the first place.
This primordial experience of separation means nothing less than the experience of a gap, a feeling that there is some gulf between us and that which we have “lost.” In light of this we can read the scriptural saying “For we brought nothing into the world” quite literally, as meaning that we enter the world with one thing in our possession: nothingness itself (i.e., a sense of some space separating us from the world we inhabit).
It is this sense of a gap that causes us to feel incomplete in some way. As a result, one of our first impulses is to find ways of abolishing the void. We attempt this by connecting our vague and abstract sense of separation to something concrete and then trying to gain it. Just as someone might manage what would otherwise be a crippling anxiety by coupling it with something particular (creating, for example, a fear of spiders), so we take our general sense of separation and connect it with an actual object that we might be able to gain. However, this strategy can never wholly work, as the disquieting sense of separation that makes its presence felt in our bodies has a hunger bigger than any object or objects could ever satisfy.
As we grow, the things we feed to this insatiable hunger change. As children we may think that a certain friendship, toy, or adventure will satisfy us, while as adults we might believe that a certain partner will fill the gap, or perhaps a job, a spiritual entity, a child, a political goal, or reaching a certain level of fame. The things that we believe will rid us of this gap differ and change over time, but the belief that something will fill the void remains constant.
The very thing we say we hate in the other is often the very thing we desire most of all.
Of course most of us will scoff at the idea there is something that will render us whole and will satisfy our seemingly insatiable desire. But what we deny with our lips is often found in the very texture of our lives. For instance, someone’s hatred of the wealthy and famous is often little more than a sublimated form of jealousy. The very thing we say we hate in the other is often the very thing we desire most of all. Perhaps we feel unable to achieve such wealth, or we have been taught that it is morally wrong to do so. As such we have to turn our desire into a form of hatred, a hatred that masks what we really want. For instance, it is not uncommon to find small churches that speak disparagingly about larger communities, claiming that small is better. While this may sometimes reflect their true beliefs on the subject, one wonders if some of these churches would feel the same way if they began to grow significantly.
This mechanism is something we can see played out every day in school playgrounds across the world. Witness a little boy pulling the hair of a girl in his class—the only person who doesn’t know that he really likes the girl is often the boy himself. What he denies with his words, however, is undermined by his actions.
An important distinction needs to be made at this point between objects that we seek because we feel (whether rightly or wrongly) that they will improve our life in some way and objects that we believe will fill the gap we experience at the very core of our existence. For example, one person may wish to make money in order to look after her family or gain some extra comfort, while someone else might pursue money in a way that suggests they think that wealth will provide them with ultimate meaning.
There is a very simple but vital mechanism that transforms an object from being something we would like to something we believe would make us whole: a prohibition. Whenever something we would like is refused to us in some way, this refusal causes us to want the object even more.
We can see this happening in a very transparent way while watching children play. We might imagine a child wanting to play with a toy he sees but is denied access to by a parent. By this act of prohibition, the child’s normal desire for the object is transformed into something much more potent. He is likely to invest that toy with a significance not merited by the toy itself.
This prohibition was called “the Law” by the Apostle Paul. He understood that the prohibition of the Law does not cause one to renounce an object but rather fuels a self-destructive drive for it. This is a subject that we will take up in more detail in the following chapter.
I Need the Rabbit’s Foot
Hollywood has made billions playing into this human experience of the gap, providing myths in which the lost object we believe will make us whole is finally gained. Film theorists call this lost object the MacGuffin, a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in the 1930s. The MacGuffin is a name that is given to whatever object helps drive the narrative forward, providing the necessary tension to keep an audience interested. The MacGuffin is that X for which some or all of the main characters are willing to sacrifice everything. In this way the object they seek is more than something they want in order to make their lives a little better; it is something that evokes in them an obsessive form of desire. The object might take the form of money, fame, victory, power, a man, or a woman. The point is not what actually fills the role of the MacGuffin, but that there is something that has that role, something that people want in some excessive way. It is the object for which everything will be sacrificed, the object that seems to promise fulfillment, satisfaction, and lasting pleasure.
One particularly interesting example of a MacGuffin in action can be seen in J. J. Abrams’s film Mission: Impossible III. For here the director hints at the MacGuffin’s utterly contingent nature.
The entire movie revolves around a mysterious object called the Rabbit’s Foot. All the main players in the movie desperately seek this object, and yet at no point do we ever learn exactly what the Rabbit’s Foot actually is. This is brought home most clearly in one scene where a technician working for the IMF (Impossible Missions Force) christens this enigmatic object of desire with the name “Anti-God”—a name that gives us a glimpse into the very nature of the MacGuffin. For if God is understood as the source of everything, then the name “Anti-God” brings to mind nothingness itself.
By refusing to give the object any real content, Mission: Impossible III hints at the provisional and ultimately superfluous nature of the MacGuffin. The movie shows how it acts as a type of void, a void that produces all the conflict and desire. It is a nothing that produces everything. It is creatio ex nihilo in action.
In reality, the movie does give the impression that the Rabbit’s Foot has some positive content when it implies that the black market arms dealer knows what it is. What might have made the movie more intellectually satisfying would have been a final twist, one where we discover that the only reason the arms dealer is so obsessed with possessing the Rabbit’s Foot is because he mistakenly thinks the Impossible Missions Force wants it. In this way the Rabbit’s Foot could have existed in the movie as a pure fabrication without any specific content, a nothing that gains its significance purely through a misunderstanding.
In life we find ourselves pursuing various MacGuffins—impotent things we falsely believe will make us whole.
In life we find ourselves pursuing various MacGuffins—impotent things we falsely believe will make us whole. What we see in the structure of Hollywood movies is but a clear reflection of this structure. And just as Hollywood movies generally hide the impotence of what we seek, so our dreams and fantasies do the same—ultimately covering over the fact that what we think will satisfy our souls is really powerless to do so.
The Originality of Original Sin
This idea of a gap at the core of our being has an ancient theological name: Original Sin. Unfortunately this term has all but lost its depth and credibility due to its misuse by the church today. But if we consider Original Sin in its most literal definition, we can begin to appreciate how it refers to a primal separation—for “sin” means separation, and “original” refers to that which comes first. In this way Original Sin is simply the ancient theological name given to the experience that we have outlined above. It is a phrase that refers to the feeling of gap that marks us all from the very beginning.
We have seen how this nothing at the core of our being causes us to imagine something that might fill it, something that would make us whole. But this belief in something that would finally bring satisfaction is nothing more than a fantasy we create, a fantasy that fuels the obsessive drive we have for books, talks, and people who promise a life of total sexual, emotional, and/or spiritual fulfillment. This Original Sin is the very thing that causes us to falsely think it is not original at all. This sense of gap makes us think that there must have been something before it, an original blessing that we somehow lost.
Sadly, almost the entire existing church fails to embrace the full radicality of what Original Sin actually means, for they presuppose that there is something we are separated from, something that will bring wholeness and insight.
This is witnessed in one of its most raw forms in contemporary worship music. There is today a profound similarity between popular music and the music that is being created by contemporary worship bands. Often the two are almost indistinguishable, the only difference between them being the object they hold up as the meaning of existence.
Both operate with the same structure in that both affirm some object (a particular woman or man, fame, sex, money, God, or revenge) as that which evokes our desire and deserves our devotion. Some object is thus claimed to be the answer to the profound lack that we experience at the core of our being.
The logic of popular music is profoundly attractive to much of the contemporary church because the charts are full of worship songs created by a multibillion-dollar industry, and while this industry is not interested in holding up the religious idea of God as the ultimate answer, it is very interested in exploiting the human desire to hold something up as the ultimate answer. It is then a simple matter for Christian bands to swap Jesus for whatever object a particular song sets up as the ultimate answer. Indeed, it is not uncommon for church music groups to go further than simply copying the logic of contemporary pop music, going so far as to take specific songs and changing a few of the words so that they point to a different love object. This technique attempts to gain some credibility from people like Luther, Charles Wesley, and William Booth, all of whom based some of their hymns on the popular tunes of the day. Is it any wonder that musicians like Ray Charles returned the favor, basing some of their most popular music on old gospel songs? The issue is not which came first, sacred worship music or the more secular kind, but the fact that in both the church and the charts today we find the same style of music: one that holds up some object as the highest principle around which our life should revolve.
If we take the idea that contemporary worship music holds up some X as the highest good that we desire, seek, pursue, and adore with all our might, then it starts to become clear that worship music is ubiquitous today. The menu is of course varied, with a whole range of things being placed on the throne before which we worship, but the throne remains intact throughout. Each worship song points to something that implicitly or explicitly promises to fill the gap we feel piercing the heart of our being.
Each worship song points to something that implicitly or explicitly promises to fill the gap we feel piercing the heart of our being.
When such music is used in a church context, it renders the source of faith into just one more product promising us fulfillment, happiness, and unwavering bliss. The church then takes its place beside every other industry that is in the business of selling satisfaction. Religious hymns become little more than advertising jingles, and the clergy come to resemble slick salespeople presenting their god-product to the potential consumer.
In daily life we are confronted with a vast array of voices telling us that we can be happy, fulfilled, and content only if we adopt a particular lifestyle, buy a particular product, or look a particular way. Everywhere we turn we are being promised that our life can be wonderful if we follow a certain formula. It is as if the world is a huge vending machine full of products, each one promising to satisfy our soul.
But instead of offering a freedom from this type of thinking, the church has simply joined the party and placed its own product into the machine. Their god-product takes its place alongside all the other things vying for our attention with their promises to fill the gap in our lives and render our existence meaningful. Take one or mix and match: luxury car, financial success, fame, or Jesus; they all pretty much promise the same satisfaction.
This idea of God as the fulfillment of our desires is so all-pervasive today that most of us take it for granted. Whether people accept the idea of God or reject it, they seem to be talking about the same thing: a being who satisfies our soul by filling the gap in our existence. The only conflict is that some people reject this god-product as fiction while others accept it.
A God by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet
The particular object we postulate as the way of filling the gap we experience in our lives is irrelevant. It may be success, good looks, money, Jesus, children, a partner, or even stamp collecting. It is whatever we act toward as if it were the thing that would rid us of our sense of emptiness. It is that seductive object that seems to address us with a promise: “I can make you whole and complete if only you would come to me.” Yet, as with the Sirens of Greek mythology, heeding this call, as we shall see, always ends in wanton destruction.