Modernity and Gratefulness

Of the countless articles on the nature of Modernity, I’m not sure any have been as devastatingly perceptive and hilarious as Evan Allgood’s latest New Yorker piece, The Six Remotes in Your Dad’s Entertainment Center.”

The article doesn’t touch on Darwin or Freud. It doesn’t grapple with World War II or the fall of the Berlin Wall. No, the article is simply a satirical jab at the number of remotes a man accumulates over a lifetime. The remotes range from “Benjamin Buttons”—a remote with a baffling amount of click options—to “The Missing Link”—a supposed remote that controls every device in the house, if only the creature could be located!

Too often, Christians consider and critique Modernism—a loose aggregate of ideas—without fully reckoning with Modernity. Modernity is an embodied concept—it has as much to do with cars, sleep patterns, and food as it does with any abstract theory of secularization.  “Modernity,” insisted the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire, “is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent.” In other words, to understand Modernity one need only look in the drawer with the old remotes. A plethora of cheap plastic which accesses easily digestible entertainment on “the boob tube.”

You see, modernity doesn’t produce too strong a love for “things,” but too weak a love. Modernity shortens our attention spans, making us bored with the iPhone 9 before we even hear about the iPhone 10. Modernity is forward-looking, encouraging us to move on from the outdated remote, the boring town, the thankless job, and the loveless marriage. The Italian artist Paola Bazz has deftly captured this phenomenon for years. Her portraits, upon close inspection, are made up of advertisement clippings. The title of a recent exhibit of her work says it all: “Disposable Identities.” The gallery description is worth quoting at length:

“The clothes we wear, the accessories we use, the cars we drive, all contribute to define how we perceive ourselves and how we want others to see us. However, none of these material possessions last forever. They are all disposable, easily replaced by the next object that catches our attention. Similarly to these objects that seem to define us, our identities consequentially become temporary and find themselves in a state of continuous flux.”

Practice Gratitude

If the account offered above of Modernity is true, even if it’s incomplete, the question remains: how ought Christians to reckon with such a creature? At times, I think the Amish have it more-right than we give them credit. Their lifestyle doesn’t just fight Modernism, it fights Modernity. But, for those of us not quite ready to trade in our Buick for a buggy, there is something we can do to battle the erosive effects of Modernity: practice gratitude.

Gratitude, by its very nature, implies indebtedness. The giver gives us something we lack. In thanks, we respond by giving a piece of ourselves back to the giver. We’re bound, in however small a way, to something outside of ourselves. And there’s nothing Modernity hates more than to be bound.

As we’ve said, Modernity is always ready to move on to the next thing. Gratefulness, on the other hand, helps one stay put. To be grateful can be a scary prospect to the Modern person. Yet, as David Brooks points out in his beautiful new book The Second Mountain, freedom is never the goal of a good life: “The perfectly free life is the unattached and unremembered life. Freedom is not an ocean you want to swim in; it is a river you want to cross so that you can plant yourself on the other side.”

When we practice gratitude, we’re planting ourselves. We’re committing. We’re staying put. I say we should practice gratitude intentionally. It’s not enough to simply adopt an idea to fight a behavior; behavior must fight behavior, and gratitude always ends in behavior.  As Henri Frederic Amiel put it, “Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts.”

To live gratefully is an embodied reality. It will play itself out in tangible ways—like having only one remote, for example. Of course, having a drawer full of remotes or phones isn’t necessarily sinful, but it does remind us of the nature of the waters in which we swim.

To live gratefully is the counter-cultural notion that we have enough; we’re not looking for the next best remote, or experience, or identity. In the story of Modernity, as seen in the advertisements Paola Bazz uses to make her art, we’re told that we’re consumers of products. God tells us a different story. In His story, we’re not just consumers, we’re creators. We’re not just users of things, we’re stewards of creation.

To live as such will make our lives seem to Modernity quaint at best and quixotic at worst. But, as Reinhold Niebuhr so helpfully reminds us, “Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith.” While living the committed, steady, limited, life of gratefulness may seem more difficult than the life Modernity offers, we have this going for us: God’s story is better, gratefully.

 

Dustin Messer is Worldview and Cultural Engagement Coordinator at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and author of Secular Sacraments: Finding Grace in the World and Sin in the Church.

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