Title: Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society
Author: Internationally renowned theologian, author, and educator Dr. Marva J. Dawn has served as Teaching Fellow in Spiritual Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Under Christians Equipped for Ministry (CEM), she has preached and taught at seminaries, clergy conferences, churches, assemblies, and universities throughout the United States and world. A scholar with four masters degrees and a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics and the Scriptures from the University of Notre Dame, Dr. Dawn has also been a popular preacher and speaker for people of all ages. She is the author of numerous articles and over 20 books, several of which have won awards and\or been translated into several languages. Marva (who is now officially retired) and her husband Myron (a retired elementary school teacher) live in southwestern Washington State. (Adapted from the bio on her website.)
Why This Book?
Last year one of my wife’s best friends was getting rid of some books and asked if I wanted to peruse the stack. I could keep whatever I wanted and give back the rest. “Sure, why not,” I said aloud (while joyfully squealing in my heart). I love reading good books and this would give me a perfect excuse to acquire some without breaking my “don’t buy a new book until you finish an old one” policy. The second I saw this one, I knew I’d be taking it.
Marva Dawn is an author I had been wanting to read for a while. I had heard about her work in spiritual theology (having co-authored a book with Eugene Peterson) and when I saw the themes covered in this book (Christian spirituality, technology, affluence, poverty), I knew she’d be scratching an itch I’d had for a long time.
What’s It About?
The book begins with an uneasy question: Why are our hopes so fettered? As a Christian author writing for a primarily Christian readership, Dawn invites Christians who live in affluent, western society (which includes me) to explore what it is that fetters our hopes and the hopes of those around us, so that we may be freed to embody the hope of the gospel as agents of justice for the world’s poor. In her words,
My goal in this book is to make as vividly clear as possible the kinds of fetters we (who are the world’s possessors) experience and to show as radiantly as possible the gloriously magnificent hope of the Christian faith, so that we are liberated from the former by the power of the latter and thereby enabled to work more urgently against the injustices that fetter the hope of the dispossessed (Intro, xvii).
So what is the cause of our fettered hopes? To answer this question, Dawn reminds us that the Biblical concept of “principalities and powers” (Col 1) has less to do with “little spirits flying around and spitting sulfur” and more to do with “human institutions created for good, but [which] share in the fallenness of the world and thus overstep their proper vocation” (Intro, xx). She then identifies technology as the reigning power in our society. Drawing heavily upon the late French sociologist and theologian, Jacques Ellul, as well as contemporary philosopher, Albert Borgman, she describes how our “technological society” feeds the hyper-consumerism, purposelessness, and economic injustices that characterize western culture. Dawn is quick to point out that the problem is not technology per se, but the various and complex ways we use and become enslaved by the “technological milieu” in which we live. Dawn concludes that our unhealthy relationship with technology results in
a variety of kinds of violence – not only of the rich over the poor, as more and more resources become devoted to the technological advancement of the few rather than to the alleviation of the poverty of the many, but also against our own personhood when we are ensnared in the way of life precipitated by the technological milieu and its rule. Thus our world is characterized by the despairs of the hopelessly enmeshed” (52).
Let’s be honest. We all love the benefits of technology, right? But do we ever question it? While I don’t have the space to recount the details of her argument, Dawn poses some interesting questions intended to get us thinking more deeply about our relationship with technology, including:
Does the computer really save us time and worry?
Does all this information help us think?
Do I really need all this stuff?
How does language hide our enslavements?
Is faster always better?
Each question is followed by thought-provoking reflections. For example, in response to the question How does language hide our enslavements? she writes,
Advertisers employ terms like stupendous and extraordinary to sell laundry soap, but never have I found a detergent that truly matches up to such expectations. If we waste our words in this way, what words to we have left to talk about what really matters in life? (14).
One of the worst misnomers is the term user-friendly as an attribute of machines. I have never yet met a machine that was my friend! We should delete the phrase from our vocabulary. Equipment might be more or less difficult to use, but machines are neither friendly nor unfriendly …. By calling elements of our wired world “user-friendly,” we hide from ourselves our lessened ability to make friends or sustain friendship. With the rapidly escalating technicization of our culture, more and more people are discovering within themselves an inability to nurture, or even a lack of interest in, friendship (15).
One of the reasons I appreciated this book is because only the first two chapters are spent identifying and describing the problem, while the last five are spent elucidating the solution. So what must we do if we want to live lives of unfettered hope? We must identify then radically reorient our entire lives around our focal concerns. By focal concerns, Dawn simply means “our foremost loves by which everything else is judged” (62). They are those things which matter most in life, the things in which we place our hope. When we allow the “technological paradigm” to determine or sideline what matters most to us, we will naturally lead lives of despair and frustration. But by naming and radically recommitting ourselves to our focal concerns, we have the power to break free from the fetters of this world and live the life God calls us to. She writes,
In wealthier societies, those who possess plenty desperately need this kind of centering, for in our first chapter we saw that lives and hopes are fettered by various accumulations – of information, belongings, jobs on our to-do lists, aspects of society that stifle relationships. In the second chapter, we discovered that much of that fettering is due to the paradigm that controls our society: that the development of the technological milieu has moved us away from engaging in practices that are related to our focal concerns, the center of our lives, and instead toward a way of life cluttered with commodities (objects, data, achievements, even persons) produced by devices (physical machinery, networked communications machinery, or more hidden machineries such as that of advertising or the pressures at our jobs to accomplish certain levels of performance) (62).
Dawn believes that every Christian shares two fundamental focal concerns (and I’m sure few will disagree): love of God and love of neighbor.
These two loves are to be the central and controlling commitments of a Christian’s personal and home life, working life, corporate life in Christian community. These twin focal concerns change the way we spend our money, time, energy, and love (77).
She spends the rest of the book exploring issues and challenges surrounding Christianity’s two focal concerns. When the church begins to live with unfettered hope, freed from the snare of the technological paradigm to pursue practices that reinforce love of God and neighbor, our life together will then form what she calls a “parallel culture.” She offers ten visions as to what a church with this kind of mission would look like. Here are five:
Against the super-objectivity of technological logic and scientific hyper-rationalism, the Church bows before the mystery of the Triune God and His love (193).
In a technological milieu that has led to a decrease in skills, time, and social fabric for intimacy, the church knows that it is loved without limit by the Triune God who free us to love our neighbor thoroughly… (193).
Against the technological milieu’s primary criterion of efficiency, the Church is ushered by our unfettered hope into the language of patience, waiting, eternity (193).
Against the passivity of an entertained, consuming world, the Church is stirred into action by the fullness of god’s grace. We are freed by our unfettered hope to live as saints engaged in mission. We are always being Church for the sake of the world (194).
Against the economic disparity of our unjust, technologically oppressive world, the Church is freed by the overwhelming generosity of God’s forgiving grace to practice generosity, critique the principality of Mammon, and build genuine shalom (194).
So what does all of this mean for your life and mine? In my next post, I’ll share some reflections as I’ve wrestled with these ideas. So stay tuned.
Pastor / Chrio Church