Thinking About Prepping

Original version: November 7, 2011

This is a response to a few questions that were posed to me by a parent and uncle, in response to my forwarding of this article.

Do I believe a “crash” is coming?

So I have a question for ya. Do you think this nation is going to crash in the near future? I do not understand how the United States can be 14+ trillion in debt, yet still have a functioning monitory system. Just curious what your opinion might be.

Well, there are several definitions of “crash.”  A number of folks commenting on Médaille’s “Will There Be Zombies?” article made the point that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and didn’t fall in a day either.  (Shoot, I imagine even the sacking by the Visigoths took, what, two or three weeks?  😀 )

Point being, if America and/or the West is “in decline,” then we should calibrate for that.  But although a cataclysmic overnight disaster is possible (and works better in films or novels than a hundred-years’ slow disintegration), I’m not convinced it’s imminent.  I can imagine it; but I can also imagine a slow waning of America as a strong and influential nation.  Empires have been conquered in a few years; but I don’t see that happening to us, probably.  The world economy is a big mess, and pretty “fragile” (to go back to Médaille’s critique), but I think a crumbling slide is more probable than a quick implosion.

That said, no, I don’t believe our current national debt—with its other related fiscal delinquencies, national or individual—is sustainable.  It’s a balloon that keeps getting filled with more and more hot air.  There are two possible outcomes: (a) people (meaning both the nation’s leaders and the populace at large) start making radical spending cuts—at the individual, local, state, and federal levels—and tighten their belts for the good of posterity, or (b) general badness ensues.  I predict (b), and hope that (a) will then occur shortly afterward.

How should we prepare?

It is basically prudent to have be reasonably prepared for an unexpected disaster.  Red Cross wishes everyone was prepared to be able to live in their house for at least 3 days, and preferably up to 2 weeks.  They have books on this. (It would make their job easier!)

Preppers are storing up food, moving to the country, collecting ammo and weapons, banding together in like-minded communities and many more things like this.  There are conferences and an entire industry has sprung up to support this.

Are you thinking like this?  Are your peers?  What steps are you taking in this direction?

Well, again, see the “Zombies” article and my response.  I quote myself:

Alarmism is out of the equation because the kinds of things Médaille is arguing for are precisely the kinds of things we should be doing in any event, whether cultural collapse is imminent, or generations ahead, or ten years behind.  Because our kingdom is not of this world, our task does not change with the ebb and flow of empires.  Christ calls us to build the Kingdom, but he does not call us to build heaven on earth: heaven is coming by storm, soon enough.  Thus the means of preventing, delaying, preparing for, mitigating, weathering, recovering from, or repairing a “crash” are all one and the same: build the Kingdom.  Build healthy communities composed of serious disciples of the coming Lord.

By the phrase “healthy communities” I mean to include (a proper degree of) self-sufficiency, preparedness, health, capacity for self-defense, etc.  These things are not of primary importance, but they are, to a degree, prerequisites.  I’ve concluded that living in a wholistic, intentional, communal, self-consciously Christian way will, in and of itself, push us towards things like: having networks of (local) friends and neighbors whom we trust and can rely upon; gardening; being financially responsible (out of debt, etc.); having means (and attitudes) that allow us to assist others who are in whatever kind of distress; providing for our families’ well-being even in less-than-ideal circumstances; and so on.

Therefore I think that if you are living well, “prepping” becomes significantly less necessary.  I would rather focus on this goal first, and then put specific preparedness measures appropriately down the totem pole, as circumstances, available resources (including time), and judicious foresight suggest.

What are we doing, right now?

So what are you thinking/doing to prepare for either

  1. A slow economic decline (we cannot deny the inflated food prices that keep going up) or
  2. A crash or
  3. A crazy disaster (EMP, failure of the electrical grid, etc) things that Preppers are prepping for?

I know first of all we need to trust the Lord with our lives and livelihoods.

We know many generations have weathered hard times of various kinds…and been better off in many ways for it.

Well, we’re not doing a whole lot, honestly.  Not quite as much as we should.  Again, time and resources are limited.  (Our current house has about 12 square feet of garden space, including pots.  We intend to remedy that when we move to our next house.  Etc.)

But before we take significant practical steps, I want to be sure we’ve thought it through from the right directions.

I attended the Iron Sharpens Iron men’s conference in VA this October, and ran into one of the vendors there who, I felt, pretty much nailed it on this issue.  For a while, he was “obsessed” (his term) with the prepper/survivalist cult(ure), but eventually realized that the motivation behind it was almost entirely selfish.  So he pulled back and reevaluated.  Now he gives seminars on preparedness based on a motivation of “equip yourself to be in a position to help others” when disaster strikes—of whatever type—for the ultimate purpose of being able to be Christ to them and share the gospel with them (verbally and visibly).  Plus, it’s kinda silly to worry about the end of the world, if the thing that will actually threaten my life is a flood or tornado or extended winter power outage.  Here’s his/their web site: not a whole lot here, but you get the gist.  If you’re ever in the mood to put on a seminar for your friends & neighbors, these are guys I’d recommend checking out: http://www.evangelisticsurvival.com/seminar.html

(By the way: I highly recommend ISI to any of you who are men.  The conferences seem to run every spring and fall.  Get on their mailing list and sign up for the next one in your neighborhood.  You’ll be encouraged and exhorted to deeper Godly manhood.  Here, you can listen to Stu Weber’s keynote address from the VA conference, entitled “Stay in the Battle.”  Do it.  It’s good.)

All of which to say: sometime—sooner rather than later, but not immediately: maybe in the next 2-3 years—I’d like to spend some time thinking through this issue with my wife, and maybe in company with some other local friends, and sketch out a plan to begin implementing.  Water storage; keeping a full pantry; maintaining a garden; etc.  Networking as possible.  I’m probably never going to be a hunter, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to cultivate friendship with the few guys I know who do hunt.  Maybe we’ll trade venison for blueberries, sometime :)—disaster or no disaster.  We already get our eggs from friends with a farm.  They’ll still give us eggs if the electrical grid is down for a week or three.  Why shouldn’t they?  We’re friends.  Plus, they won’t be able to refrigerate them all for themselves.  😀

After solidifying our (practical) philosophy on the topic, I think it’d make sense to get one of the Red Cross books my mom mentioned, and collect the items it suggests.  Maybe do occasional “fire drills” as our kids get older (and include a few more long-term items in the bags).  That seems sensible, easy, responsible, and not too obsessive.

Contra “Survivalism”

Our primary calling in life is not to ensure, or even specifically to prolong, our own survival.  After 80 or 90 years, you lose that battle, regardless.  Life is precious and good, yes, but this earth is not our home.  (Well, ok, actually it is, but it kinda has to get burned and remade first.)

In my original response to “Zombies,” I said: “God does not call us to survive.  He calls us to make disciples.”

My aunt replied: “Which is sorta hard to do if you’re dead.”  True enough.  This is why survival is, as I said, a prerequisite to the rest of life.  But it is not life itself, which is why survivalism, in the usual individualistic “me and my family first” sense, is non-Christian.

My friend Jonathan’s response to her statement is about all that needs to be said:

Since I’m getting ready to teach a series on Mark (which has the thrice-repeated emphasis in the middle section: the Son of Man is here to die, and if you intend to follow Him, you’d better be grabbing your cross-holdin’ gloves and building those shoulder muscles)… isn’t dying precisely what being a disciple—a follower of the crucified Lord—looks like?

God calls us to resurrection.  Which is sorta hard to do if you’re alive.

The tendency to diminish the Church (for all its problems), and/or to promote the family (with its own problems) to a place superior to the Church… simply has no New Testament basis.  (I think you could make an OT argument, if you’re willing to ignore the NT witness; and of course the family is important for the NT; just not of paramount importance.)

Repeat after me: “He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his mother.”  There is no union with Christ apart from the Body of Christ.

Or, if you don’t like St. Cyprian, try St. Paul: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’’”  And, “…we, although many, are one body, and individually members of one another.”  And, of course, Ephesians 5, which suggests that what marriage (the start of a new family) is all about, where it finds its ultimate fulfillment and purpose and meaning, is precisely in the union of Christ and His Church.

Whatever the next “crash” is, and however big or bad it is, the Church will survive.  If the next “crash” is Armageddon and The End of the World, the Church will survive.  Which means I and my family will survive, in the ultimate sense.

Should I therefore be stupid and reckless and wholly unprepared, being unable to read the signs of the times?  Uh, no.  That’s nowhere in Scripture.  Should I be obsessed with preserving this body that’s going to age and die?  Well, that’s equally silly.

So as time, resources, circumstances, God’s evident calling, and seasons of life permit, I will prepare my family for possible crises of whatever kind, in both general and specific ways.  And then I’ll go about the business of living, which I feel is more pleasant, useful, and biblical than worrying about how not to die.

Living

One more point to respond to: how to prepare for slow economic decline (which we’re probably already in).  Well, again, this is pretty much the same as asking “how do you live well”?  Because even if we believe that “the economy is going to go up and up and up and things will get better and better forever,” we still aren’t justified in pursuing ever-increasing spending and rampant materialism.

So what will we do?  We’ll:

  • Continue to improve our cashflow through wise investments (things like real estate, over which—if we do our homework—we have some measure of control; as opposed to the stock market, over which we have no control), and through multiple streams of as-passive-as-we-can-make-it income.
  • Continue to decrease expenses, or hold them at a minimum, through simple living, couponing, and not buying junk we don’t need (including more house than we can honestly use).
  • Continue to build means of self-sufficiency, like a garden, which brings monetary savings at the expense of time, but which also provides other benefits (fresh air, exercise, nutrition, variety, observance of nature, etc.).
  • Continue to build networks of local friends with whom we can trade baby-sitting favors, food, work, skills, and other things, with the multiple benefits of building friendships, having fun, and saving money.  (Aside: my wife received four baby showers when she was pregnant with our first child.  Four.  Carter’s took in maybe $20 of our money after his birth, for some extra pairs of socks, I think.  We bought next to nothing.  It was amazing.  There is a serious economic repercussion to this kind of communal generosity.  Now, when she teaches one morning a week, a family from church watches him.  Not because they’re “trying to serve us,” like it’s a sacrifice.  Because they like it.  They like him.  They don’t charge us anything.  They’re friends.)

So again, I’ll restate the theme: live well.  That’s how you prepare; that’s how you survive; that’s how you rebuild.  And most significantly, that’s how you show Christ to others through every stage of the ebb and flow of the cultural tides of fortune.  It’s the rhythm of reality.  It’s just waves.  There’s always one in front of you, one behind you, and one under you (or perhaps over you).  Keep swimming.  Ride it out.  Don’t panic.  We know the One who sets the boundaries of the sea, and who sends the storm, and who calms it.

Rights, Romans, Caesar, and Taxes

This is a response to my friend Manny Edwards’s brief argument, “Why God Has the Right to Tax, and Governments Don’t.”  I think he’s dead wrong on this topic, but he does have a lot of useful info on his sites (especially if you’re interested in crisis preparedness; on which topic there will be more in my next post), so check them out sometime.  [I’m semi-hesitant to make that recommendation, because half of you will think Manny’s stuff is the best thing since gun safes, and the other half will think he’s completely bats.  But that’s the price of having a diversity of friends, I guess…]

                                                   

Manny,

I like you, but I’m gonna take you to task on this one.  I’m going to 1. challenge your underlying premise, 2. provide biblical support for my position, and then 3. demonstrate why your argument is not self-consistent.

The Purpose of Government

Firstly: Government has the authority to tax because government was instituted by God, and endowed (delegated) with certain kinds of authority by Him.  In America, government has also been delegated and entrusted with certain powers by the people (certain powers, which are constitutionally very limited; all others being “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”).

Government exists to maintain order in society.  It does not exist, as you say elsewhere, to “preserve individual liberty.”  This is a modernist view, post-Adam-Smith, and probably descends from his error of viewing the mobile individual (as opposed to the family, clan, or perhaps even the township) as the fundamental economic unit of production.  The concept of “individual liberties” dates approximately to Locke and the Enlightenment, and has very little in the way of ancient or Biblical support.  The Founders (especially Jefferson) may have believed that, and it really is a useful concept at times; but thinking in terms of our duties, as “neighbors,” to other human beings made in the Image of God, is a much more Biblical and helpful matrix.  I can talk about the “rights” of the unborn or the oppressed, but by its nature, the idea of “rights” always starts with the individual—i.e., me—and assumes entitlement first, responsibility second.  Neither of which is a particularly Christian place to begin constructing morality.

So again: government exists to maintain order in society.  Now, there are other considerations in play, and many constraints on this truth: for instance, government does not get to define “order” however it pleases, and it does not get to enforce it by any means necessary (or convenient).  It is not right or just for government to collect as much in taxes as it wishes, in order to carry out projects that are outside its mandate and its delegated authority.  But it IS legitimate for government to collect taxes for the carrying out of its God-ordained responsibilities.  It’s even legitimate for these taxes to be on income.  (Aside: I do believe that, in this country, the income tax is probably unconstitutional, and so on that ground should be legally opposed.  Regardless, it’s far too high, and should be legally reduced.  But it is not unbiblical or immoral as such.)

Romans 13

Secondly, I must stress that, while libertarianism is advancing some very important freedoms, and reacting against some serious abuses of power, still, the libertarian view on the issue of government and taxation is not the Biblical one.  Romans 13 is very, very plain on this topic.

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”  That’s a pretty clear command.  Tough to get around that one, in my opinion.

“For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  Government has real, legitimate, God-given authority.  But there’s more here: this is also an implicit limitation on how government can think about itself: it’s not absolute, it’s subordinate.  That’s important.

“Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”  This is based in exactly the same principle as the command to “honor thy father and mother.”  I am to obey my parents (when a child) and to honor them (always) not because they “created” me (they didn’t), nor because they “own” me (they don’t), nor because they have a “right” to the fruits of my labor, nor because they’re bigger and stronger than I am (Hobbes’s “Leviathan” argument), nor even because they’re older and (presumably) wiser.  I am to obey them because God gave them authority over me.  Limited authority, but real.

The libertarian principle of “individual rights above all else” paves the way for absurdities like kids “divorcing” their parents, sexual perversion as long as it’s “in private and between consenting adults,” and the legalized abuse of drugs on the grounds that “I’m only hurting myself”—which is false, by the way.  These kind of rebellions and abuses can and should be kept in check—by appropriate use of force, if necessary.  And because they are communal and social acts, not merely private acts—for even your most private sins make you a weaker and less upstanding neighbor—government has, and should have, the authority to regulate them.

Note: the right to regulate is not the same as the right to define.  Government may oversee and authorize marriage—because marriage is a social as well as a religious, spiritual, and familial institution—but it may not presume to define (or redefine) marriage.  God defined marriage when he ordained it.  Government’s role now is to protect the institution, and to punish those who damage it.

“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.  Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority?  Then do what is good, for he is God’s servant for your good.”  Paul was writing this under Nero, let’s remember.

“But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.  For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”  Did the Roman government really promote full God-glorifying righteousness across the Empire?  Clearly not.  But did they maintain order and punish wickedness?  Well, yeah, to a large degree, they did.  (And as they moved further and further away from restraining wickedness, and more and more towards promoting it, the Empire slid further and further towards decline.)  The vicious tyranny of the Roman emperor is still preferable to the anti-authoritarian anarchy of the mobs of the French Revolution—if only because one tyrant can never do as much damage as a million individual tyrants.

“Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.”  God’s wrath, it says, not the government’s.

“For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.”  —Meaning the rewarding of righteousness and the punishment of evil.

“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”  Do I owe a bully my lunch money because he demands it?  Legally, no, I do not.  (As a Christian, it’s more tricky: “If someone takes your cloak….”)  If a government official, operating legally in his official capacity, demands taxes from me, do I owe them to him?  Yes, I do.  If he’s demanding a bribe, well, then he’s just a thug, and that’s a separate matter.

In Paul’s day the highest authority was the Emperor.  Eventually, the lords of England (the lords, mind you, not the people at large) eventually changed that pattern by means of the Magna Carta, saying “No, the highest authority in our land is not a king, but rather the Law itself.  The king is not above the law.”  This holds true in America and (ostensibly) most other modern nations.  (Which is why we call them “nations” and not “kingdoms.”)

That’s fine.  That’s a perfectly good arrangement.  But there are still “governing authorities,” just as in Paul’s day, and the people are still subject to them.

This is why we pay taxes.  You said:

The only way you could own what belongs to someone else is if you actually owned that person.  So the government’s underlying justification for forcing the payment of taxes is that it owns you.

But the conclusion does not follow from the premise.  There are at least two other reasons why someone could rightly demand your money:

  1. If he provided something to you, for which he was then owed payment.  Example: you check the “bill me later” box and send in the postcard.  The first issue of the magazine shows up.  Then the bill shows up a few weeks later.  Eventually, if you keep ignoring the letters, the bill collector shows up.  This is the basic situation.  We say “protect us”; government says “ok”; then they send us the bill.  That doesn’t imply that they “own” us.  We just owe them payment for a service rendered.  (So you say, “But I didn’t ask for THAT service!”  Maybe not, but you did ask for the government when you came of age and elected to remain in the country, instead of moving to Antarctica.  But maybe they have some kind of government even down there.)
  2. If a higher authority, who does in fact own you and your possessions, gave him the right to do so.

Delegated Subordinate Authority

Finally, Reason #2 up there, Manny, is why your argument defeats itself.  You say “If God owns you, he can justifiably demand your money. He can also dictate your behavior.”  Ok, granted.  But if God also says “I delegated some of my authority to this person or institution; now obey it, and moreover, fund it so it can do its job”… then where does that leave you?

Now, sure: governments can declare themselves to be the top authority in the universe, worthy of all our honor, service, and worship.  (Nero did this pretty explicitly, as I recall.)  This is government failing to see itself rightly.  This view should be opposed, and when government demands that we do something God has plainly forbidden, or has reserved to himself (“bow down and worship the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar,” as the obvious example), the proper response is “No.  Kill me if you like, but NO.”  Which is what Daniel’s three friends said.

But you’ll note they did not say “You have no authority over us at all,” nor “Ok, that’s it, you’ve just illegitimized yourself as our authority; we won’t obey you in anything any more,” nor “Enough of this! Let’s start a revolution!” nor “All government is illegitimate: it’s anarchy and individualism for us now.”

Your argument, I have to say, is pretty much the same as the one that Jesus mocked in the Pharisees.  They would say to their parents “Sorry, folks, I want to honor you an’ all, but I’ve just pledged everything I own to God—it’s all corban now—so I really can’t help ya out in your old age.  But aren’t you glad I love God so much?” (My paraphrase of Mark 7:11)  Jesus saw right through this spirituality-gilded selfishness.

Your argument, as near as I can see, thumbs its nose at government in essentially the same way (though I hope not for the same motive).  Yet if God says “honor your parents” and Jesus interprets that to include “provide for their material needs,” then when God also says “be in subjection to the governing authorities,” how can you arrive at “they have no right to tax us”?  It just doesn’t parse.  God has commanded us to obey our public servants and to pay them for their work.  We either do that, or we’re in rebellion.  I know there are gray areas around the edge of this; of course there are—and much more so when authority is being abused.  But the core principle is plain.

A final piece of evidence is Christ’s reply to the Pharisees’ disciples: “Give to Caesar what is Caesars, and to God what is God’s.”  You can argue about what exactly that means, but two things at least are clear: 1. Christ assumes that some things do belong to Caesar; and 2. if he believed paying taxes to Caesar really was dishonoring to his Father, he could and would have said so: he tended not to keep quiet on that issue.

The truth is, Jesus didn’t show tons of respect or approval towards the authorities of his day, either political (Herod, Pilate) or religious (Pharisees, Sadducees).  And when their petty rules got in the way of God’s command, he stepped right over them, with no apology whatsoever.  And yet we cannot call him a rebel, an anarchist, a libertarian, or even a theocrat.  If your basic assertions were correct, Jesus would have fulfilled the Zealots’ ideals of freedom, overthrown the oppressive authority structures, and set up heaven on earth.  Instead he submitted, even unto death.

If we disregard God’s appointed subordinate authorities, we do not honor him, we rebel against him.  Am I going to let my son disobey and dishonor his mother just because I’m the “head authority” in the home?  That’s not enforcing my authority: it’s abdicating it.  A God who doesn’t back up the subordinates he’s appointed is not thereby more authoritative: he’s a slacker; he’s a bad leader.  God is my ultimate authority, yes: he clearly reserves that position for himself.  So you’re on target there.  But the fact that he’s my ultimate authority does not mean he’s my only authority.  He nowhere makes that claim; in fact quite the opposite.

Your Biblical exegesis, and your basic logic, simply don’t hold up to serious scrutiny.  You’re trying to use a single Biblical teaching to justify and support a secular, modernist, individualist, selfishness-based political hypothesis, and it just doesn’t work.  I suspect that I agree with you on ninety-plus percent of the governmental policies and programs you take issue with: there are plenty of abuses happening.  And so I’m very grateful for the work you’re doing to protect and promote liberty.  We need it.  But you can’t base your activism on this kind of reasoning.  It’s not valid, and it’s not Biblical.

On Resisting Zombification

Original version: August 31, 2011

I finally finished reading John Médaille’s “Will There Be Zombies?” article over at Front Porch Republic.  It is good.  It clearly identifies the problem—the end of the world—and does so in a persuasive way.  It understands and explains the interdependencies of all the failing cultural systems, while maintaining both a sense of humor and a (non-utopian) sense of hope—and, what’s more, a basic plan of action.

I urge anyone reading this post to read the article.  Before you read these ramblings, in fact.

Done?  Ok, here we go.

1. Survivalism Is Insufficient.

It’s easy to preach (sell?) a message of “head-for-the-hills survivalism,” but that kind of libertarian self-sufficiency is not particularly compelling, being compatible neither with Christianity, nor long-term living, nor any sort of cultural upbuilding.  Of course it’s legitimate to move to a new location out of concerns for physical safety or spiritual health; and of course preparing for a possible crisis (of whatever kind) could be very prudent.  But not if the goal of it all ends with mere “survival.”  People want more, obviously, than mere survival.  They want a full, rich life with eternal significance.

Médaille is a rarity, in that he deals with the whole problem, not just an isolated portion, and in that his worldview is robust enough to see that (a) whatever happens, it’s not The End, and (b) there are things we can do about it, now, during, and afterward.  Which I consider very refreshing.

2. Technology and The Present Crisis

I can’t judge all of Médaille’s factual/historical interpretations.  As is evident from the comments section, plenty of people have a different perspective on many of the issues he deals with (oil, the collapse of empires, etc.).  But I think, in the main, he’s right: there are unique crises in our era which, in some ways, are without precedent.

Most of these unique crises, it seems to me, are unique to us because they are bound up with technology.  Now, it’s no good criticizing technology-as-such: technology has been around since Adam first levered a stone out of his field with a stick, and human beings are obviously, by design, technical creatures.  But we’re also social, rational, and skeptical creatures, and socialism, rationalism, and skepticism haven’t worked out so well.  Technologicism is showing the same cracks.  Like the pursuit of most things—all things, probably, apart from love of God and love of neighbor—the pursuit of technology is subject to the law of diminishing returns: the more of it you have, the less it buys you.

One reason for this is precisely what Médaille has identified: in order to fulfill its (present, erroneous) purpose of providing man with absolute control over nature, technology has had to become a version of magic.  And magic always requires a magician—that is, a man who works by obscure means and, as a result, holds some degree of power over lesser mortals.  In seeking power, we have put ourselves at the mercy of others who are more powerful than we are.

However, the system is now so big that we’re no longer ruled by a small cadre of priests.  Now we have a priesthood-of-all-baccalaureates.  Almost everybody (except those who compose the welfare state) is a minor wizard of something; and so everyone is at the mercy (or mercilessness) of everyone else.  As Médaille says:

…no matter how many doctorates one holds in computer science, at some point the system disappears into a world of magic. Thus the hardware engineer finds operating systems bewildering, while the systems programmer is mystified by telecommunications, and the communications engineer can’t help you with applications. Expertise is one area is matched by ignorance in other areas, so that to each practitioner of the computer arts, at some point the whole thing fades into a world of wizardry. This is why, when you call him for help, and after pressing “1” for English, Sanjay in Mumbai often appears to be bewildered by your problem; he is not always the wizard to help you, but you both know a wizard is required.

An Anecdote

For about two weeks this month our internet connection was, literally, on the blink.  Multiple times per day, with no predictable pattern, the “DSL” light on our modem would cease to shine steadily and begin blinking.  This told us that we were no longer connected to the internet.  It did not tell us anything else.  After placing perhaps four calls to Verizon’s Sanjays in Mumbai (who all courteously, efficiently, and semi-intelligibly asked me the identical series of diagnostic questions, all to no avail), and after receiving two equally courteous but equally unhelpful computerized calls informing me that the “problem on the line has been resolved” (the first of which occurred while the modem light was cheerfully blinking away), the issue was “escalated” to the network technicians at the Home Office.

A week later one of these magi called to tell me that the problem was a “card” of some type, which would occasionally stop functioning, with the result that all of the cards below it would similarly fail to functionrather like a string of Christmas lights, I gather.  This is a device whose name I do not know, whose function I cannot divine, whose location I am wholly ignorant of, and which I could not repair if I had the design manual, because the failing component was in all likelihood invisible to the naked eye.  Fortunately this wizard, or one of his fellows, eventually found the time to heed my prayers, and had a replacement handy (and fortunately he did not require any additional sacrifices or libations in repayment for his service).

During this period, my jobwhich is performed 100% on the computer and 80% onlinewas thus rendered very difficult to perform.  For the latter half of it I was on vacation and computer free, but for the first half I did my work at Starbucks, drinking tea and eating muffins, and thus bolstering the local economy.

Despite my tone, I don’t really mean to criticize Verizon in all of this.  Their folks were pleasant, and as helpful as they could be given the unusual issuenot to mention the strike they were experiencing at the time.  But all these elements illustrate that they are a part of a system that is very obviously, to use Médaille’s term, “brittle.”

Supernatural Magic

With technology, we have succeeded in taking magic out of the domain of the occultic witch-doctor, de-demonizing it, and making it considerably more democratic.  Thus we’ve (perhaps) circumvented the explicit prohibitions of Scripture against sorcery and have thereby made magic acceptable to Christendom (or at least “family friendly”).  But in many ways the end goals are still the same: godlike sway over the natural word and thus (we think) over our circumstances and our destinies; glorification of self in the eyes of our neighbors, who are left in awe of (or at least dependence on) our own small sphere of arcane knowledge; and transcendence of the moral law.  In fact, by whatever means possible, we want to be as God.

Resistance

My own life—or lifestyle, I should say, to be perfectly accurate—is pretty firmly bound up with technology right now.  I don’t know how to extricate it; though, given some sudden “crash,” I would probably figure it out.  But I can resist its pull:

  • I can refuse to buy a new car simply because it’s new and (purportedly) requires less maintenance: my old car is not tremendously reliable, but it works, and also we don’t drive very much.
  • I can refuse to buy a new computer simply because they get “faster” and “cheaper” all the time: the laptop my company provided meets all my current needs, and I didn’t have to pay for it; I’ll buy a new computer when I actually need one.
  • I can refuse to own a microwave: it would simply take up valuable counter space, bias us towards leftovers or pre-packaged “foods,” produce unhealthy and less-tasty outcomes, and discourage planning ahead.  We put ours in storage on top of the dryer, and after several months of not missing it, gave it away.  (I’ll admit, we replaced it with a toaster oven which is just as computerized, bulky, and difficult to repair.  But it’s more versatile and more healthy.)
  • I can eat lettuce from my garden, instead of from the grocery store, during whichever months of the year I can manage to grow it.
  • I can leave the GPS off when I actually know the way to where I’m going.
  • I can let the calculator rest and (try to) do an occasional multiplication problem in my head.
  • I can be content with no FiOS, no cable, no television for that matter, and (as my father-in-law would call it) a “dumb phone.”  This last costs about one-fifth as much per month as its more highly evolved successors and, if it doesn’t actually diminish the time I spend staring at a screen, it at least keeps me from staring at a small one and being reduced to the two fingers I used before I was taught to type.
  • And I can refuse to sign up for Facebook.

(I use the first person in all of this, but really my wife has been the motive force behind many of these practices, and we agree on and implement them together.  It probably says something about people in general, and also about the gravitational pull of the tech, that this kind of resistance is easier and/or more necessary in the context of a family, versus bachelorhood.)

I don’t want to brag about all the bits of technology I decline to use, as if there’s a particular virtue in being spartan or technophobic; there isn’t.  Even self-sufficiency (so called) is as much a temptation as a benefit.  So really I’m not condemning any of these technologies.  (Not even Facebook: I’ve seen my wife, for example, make a conscious effort to use it well—i.e., to resist or transcend the bent, perhaps even the design, of the technology.  Most of the time she succeeds; it just takes discipline.)  But I am criticizing the cumulative force that these “improvements” apply to our lives.  I am criticizing the “zombifying” effect they tend to produce, when they are used as their creators, or at least marketers, too often intend: that is to say, without intentionality, deliberation, or restraint, and not in response to any actual need.  I feel that zombification at work in myself, and I don’t like it.  Therefore I have begun to resist.

3. Neighborliness

I am not a particularly good neighbor.  I am not even an especially good friend.  I am not adept at forging deep, meaningful relationships.  Maybe this skill takes a lifetime to learn, and maybe no one is expert at it, but I do feel that many people are better at it than I am.  I have not been well taught, and I haven’t made sufficient effort to learn.  I really do try to care for people—at least when they have a specific need that I know, or think, I can meet.  But as much as I denounce individualism, I find I would rather trot off with David to the playground down the street, than make an effort to help him play with the rather obnoxious and rowdy boys next door.

This specific set of neighbors, I’ll say as an aside, is a curious case study: whatever their faults of laziness, dissipation, irresponsibility, inconsideration, and general annoyingness, they are, without doubt, vastly more “neighborly” and communal than we are.  We like our privacy.  They probably never lock their doors and have perhaps a couple of dozen persons who commonly turn up on their back porch at all hours of the day.  True, they spend most of their time smoking, drinking, and talking in elevated tones about not-very-elevated topics, but I suspect that when one of them has a need, he doesn’t call an expert (a magician, that is): he calls one of his friends.  They are Godless, and for that and other reasons they are evidently not very happy; but also I suspect they do not experience the same hectic loneliness that plagues most of the townhome-dwellers in our area, who commute an hour east towards D.C. every day to perform mechanical tasks in support of governmental ends they are often ignorant of, or do not believe in, so that they can be oversalaried with taxpayer dollars, so they can collect things they don’t have time to enjoy.  Our neighbors buy cheap beer, I have no doubt—and probably more than their bodies or wallets can afford—but they do seem to enjoy it.

Should we try to make them our best friends?  Well, no: the influence of friendship goes both ways, invariably.  But I do envy them their multitude of friends-within-walking-distance.

4. Learning Community

Our parents’ generation, it seems, got a solid dose of “anti-establishment” worked into their psyches.  It still crops up in various forms: homeschooling, alternative health practices, home churches and/or chronic church-shopping (or mere non-attendance), scorn of the government, and so on.  Now, granted, most of the establishments had serious problems (and still do), so these reactions were understandable and in many cases unavoidable (and in some cases good).  But the unintended result is that we, their children, are just plain bad at forming, reforming, or living with establishments, organizations, church congregations, neighborhoods, or communities of whatever kind.  If Médaille is correct, and I suspect he is, we are going to have to change this.  Or at least we will have to go a long way towards equipping our children to change it.  Which will mean that, among other things:

  • We must settle in a (good-but-not-perfect) community and stay in it long enough to learn how to work out problems.
  • We must teach our children how to research, study, observe, build, garden, repair, invent, maintain, share, befriend, and self-govern.  And teach.
  • We must strip all the “fat” out of our lives and simplifying (i.e., focusing) to the point where we actually have time and energy to do these things.  This will mean we have to find the above activities more compelling, desirable, and positively fun than our own continued “entertainment.”  Entertainment—or rather let us say re-creation—is well and good and vital to life, but as Médaille points out, we’ve outsourced far too much of this, too.  We must learn to coax music out of other instruments than the radio or the portable DVD player.  We must stop buying, and start making.  And when we do, I suspect we’ll find that most of what we lose in terms of efficiency, ease, and expense, we gain back in terms of quality, fun, and fulfillment.
  • We must spend less time “friending” and “following” our acquaintances, and more time being friends to them.  We both need it.  And moreover this is the primary distinctive of the Church, as far as the world is concerned: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Love is what draws people to Christ.  It is very possible to love someone through a computer (such is the common grace of God), but it is impossible, or nearly so, to do it wholistically.  I can give you truth, Scripture, prayer, encouragement, a listening ear, and good advice; but I cannot give you a hug or a bag of my surplus tomatoes.

And all this, I’ll say again, is a broader vision than simply “surviving the crisis,” which is valid enough for the short term, but which is fundamentally a self-centered goal; a means, not an end.  God does not call us to survive.  He calls us to make disciples.  I’ll quote at some length from a letter I recently received from Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio (to which I subscribe, and which I recommend heartily):

Without some vision of the specific form our cultural lives ought to take, being involved in cultural activity can become merely a fancy form of evangelism.  I’ve got nothing against evangelism, but I’m more interested (as were Jesus and Paul) in moving beyond the making of converts to the building of disciples, to the encouragement of the followers of Jesus to honor his authority in all things.  The discipleship enjoined in the Great Commission is finally a task of enculturation, of encouraging some forms of life while discouraging—in fact, renouncing—other forms as unfitting for the Kingdom.”The work of cultural analysis that Mars Hill Audio has pursued for almost twenty years has always assumed that some cultural forms are truly better than others.  The people I have interviewed have insights into cultural life that I hope will be taken up into the form of life practiced by Christians as an expression of faithfulness and a witness to world.  The content of these interviews may be intellectually stimulating, but if that’s all they are, we haven’t really done our work.  (The “we” in that last sentence includes you, by the way.)  The cultural reform we hope to advance has to be visible in our own communities before it can be effected in society.

The obvious prerequisites to all of this are (a) evangelism, and (b) community.  We must improve at both.

5. Neither Utopia nor Dystopia, but Kingdom

One last point.  Médaille, for all his apocalyptic banter, is not an alarmist, nor a doomsday prophet.  (I hope none of my own comments have trended that way either.)  Alarmism is out of the equation because the kinds of things Médaille is arguing for are precisely the kinds of things we should be doing in any event, whether cultural collapse is imminent, or generations ahead, or ten years behind.  Because our kingdom is not of this world, our task does not change with the ebb and flow of empires.  Christ calls us to build the Kingdom, but he does not call us to build heaven on earth: heaven is coming by storm, soon enough.  Thus the means of preventing, delaying, preparing for, mitigating, weathering, recovering from, or repairing a “crash” are all one and the same: build the Kingdom.  Build healthy communities composed of serious disciples of the coming Lord.

I could probably go on—it’s a big topic—but this train of thought has grown about as long as the engine can pull.

Thanks again to JMK for sending the article in the first place.  Keep similar stuff in the pipeline, please.