In my early years I hid my tears
And passed my days alone
Adrift on an ocean of loneliness
My dreams like nets were thrown
To catch the love that I’d heard of
In books and films and songs
Now there’s a world of illusion and fantasy
In the place where the real world belongs
Jackson Browne, “Farther On”
8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
I’ve been writing for the past few posts about self-deception. It’s a worthy subject and inexhaustible. The dimensions and depths of the lies we tell ourselves and about ourselves have no limits.
My college roommate was, and remains, a great friend of mine. He was and is a practical guy – smart, able, willing to help – and his career as an orthodontist has been a big success. I gained a lot by being around him those four crazy years. But he was no philosopher. He did not deal in speculation or pontificate about the great existential questions. I guess that’s why this little bit about him has stuck with me for so long. It was, in a way, out of character for him, but it was one of the most perceptive, trenchant, and perfectly-stated observations I have ever witnessed.
He was arguing with his girlfriend. This was not a rare thing. She was a prim, sort of business-school type, who felt she had all things coming to her and rather kept book on my roommate to remind him, as often as necessary, that he was never really quite measuring up. She was from Pennsylvania and had condescended to attend college in West Virginia, my own – and my roommate’s – home State.
People from Pennsylvania talk differently from people from West Virginia. They say “you’uns,” we say “ya’ll.” That kind of thing. They call that NFL team in Pittsburgh the “Stillers.”
But on this occasion she was complaining to my roommate about his “hillbilly accent.”
“Well, you’ve got an accent, too.” He replied.
“No, I don’t. You’re the one with the accent.”
At this moment – this golden moment, in my book – my wise roommate said, without fanfare or ado:
“You’ve got it so bad that you don’t even know you’ve got it. . .”
And that is just it! With regard to self-deception generally – we’ve got it so bad that we don’t know we’ve got it. So, it is a very hard trap to get out of, even though we designed it ourselves.
But today I want to write a bit about how the deceptions that imprison us and keep us from being honest to God and thus enjoying a fuller communion with Him are fed and watered by the “powers and principalities” of this world. If you’ve spent much time in the Bible, you’ll recognize that term. If you haven’t, it will be a mystery to you. In my case, both things were true, at least until I read Andy Crouch’s excellent book Playing God. You see, I had read that phrase about the “powers and principalities” time and again and was in that sense familiar with it, but had no real understanding of what it meant. I guess I thought it was a reference to Satan and his minions. That is true, I still believe, but look at what Andy Crouch has to say:
The first-century Mediterranean world did not know about zombies, but it did know about shadowy powers that lurked behind human institutions and indeed the whole natural world. The Greeks called them the stoicheia, a word that in our English Bibles is translated “elements” or “elementary principles.” A handful of times in Paul’s letters we find references to them, as when Paul refers to “the stoicheia of the kosmos” (Colossians 2:8) that once kept his Colossian readers bound in ignorance.
In the early Christian’s view, then, there are powerful patterns of life, with more than merely earthly reality, that have enslaved God’s image bearers, cutting them off from sight and life.
That helps me. And what I see in our modern world, for one thing, at least, is the spirit or powers that lurk behind advertising.
I am thinking in particular about the ads I see on television for pickup trucks. They are all about image – all about cachet. If you buy this $50,000 truck, you’ll be one of the boys. You’ll be a tough guy. A guy who can handle a shovel and a square and who can knock back a few with the boys when the ten-hour shift is over.
This is naked exploitation and the people who are doing it have to be aware of that. I really wonder how many of these trucks are sold to guys who don’t make $50,000 a year, who don’t have construction jobs, who don’t know how to use a square, who don’t know the difference between a joist and a stud, and who couldn’t do a pull-up if their lives depended on it. I really wonder how many of these $50,000 vehicles are never put into 4-wheel drive. I really wonder how many of them have clean, unused beds three or four years after purchase.
And yet. And yet. These guys buy the big red truck and that’s what they spend their lives paying for. As Tyler Durden put it in Fight Club:
“working jobs we hate so we can buy [stuff] we don’t need.”
This is deception. And it is deception that exploits and enslaves. Is it not the product of some elemental spirit.