When I was a younger Christian, I heard a great deal about the “God-shaped hole” that existed in each of us. Only God could fill that hole. Left unfilled, the hole drove people to despair as they tried to fill it with one inappropriate plug after another. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, riches, power, fame…nothing can fill that hole but God.
At least that was what I was told.
Now that I am older, I wonder. It seems to me that perhaps that hole still exists, but it also seems just as true that people are satisfied with whatever usurping item they’ve used to plug their personal hole. So close does the phony plug resemble the real patch, at least in their experience, that people go on just as happy with the fake as with the real thing.
Perhaps ours is the first generation so overwhelmed with godless plugs that we can endlessly try one after another, getting just enough jolt from a new patch that we’re sustained until the next one comes along. Ours is such an entertainment-based culture that the ennui of daily living that once plagued mankind enough that it sought for greater answers may no longer exist amid the endless amusement park of this 21st century.
Fact is, I don’t encounter as many people who seem unhappy with whatever plug they’ve chosen to fill the God-shaped hole, inappropriate or not. Ennui hasn’t set in like it once did. An XBox, Netflix, a decent paycheck, a stocked liquor cabinet, a hobby or two, an occasional descent into a beloved vice, a few positive thoughts, and some mumbled prayers now and then seem to cut it for a lot of people. No sense of the God-shaped hole even exists for them. Sure, psychoactive prescription drugs abound, but doesn’t everyone take them? Whatever gets you through the night is all right, right?
It makes me wonder how small we Christians have made God that the lost look at us and find such simple, yet total, substitutes for Him.
Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. —Apple Inc., “Think Different” ad, 1997
And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead–by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened. —Acts 4:1-21
In the wake of the death of Steve Jobs, people all over the world have lamented the passing of Apple’s charismatic leader. Gene Veith, provost and professor of Patrick Henry College and a member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, attempted to understand this outpouring in his article “The Apotheosis of Steve Jobs.” In it, he writes:
I would say that it isn’t just that Jobs has been turned into a saint. In our newly-minted paganism, he and other celebrities have undergone apotheosis. That is, they have been turned into gods. The parallel is what would happen in the Roman Empire. An accomplished emperor dies. So the Senate votes to proclaim him a god. Whereupon he enters the pantheon and citizens are enjoined to perform sacrifices to him.
Unfortunately, Veith is blind to the real feelings of people who seem unusually grief-stricken by the death of a business leader they didn’t know. He represents the typical Evanglical Christian position that interprets the world through personal perspective only, not from any view larger than the individual. “Personal Jesus” indeed.
Everything we need to know about the lament over Jobs and what it means for Western Christianity can be found in two Apple commercials, “1984” (hailed by advertising experts as the greatest commercial of all time) and “Think Different,” which followed 13 years later with the identical message:
The average American slogs through the wreckage of the industrial revolution, commuting through endless traffic to a job he tolerates simply for the (diminishing) money, rushing through some “quality time” with the fam, and then collapsing into bed—only to start the relentless process anew the next day. His life consists of buying things he doesn’t need so that people will think better of him. He buries himself in his work, his family, and his home, walled off from the greater world—and from any hope of transcendence. He consumes for 70 years, retires, takes a job as a greeter at Walmart to make his insufficient pension last, and then he dies, having made no mark on the planet at all save for a pile of garbage.
The epidemic of prescription psychoactive drug use, the Occupy movement, the Tea Party, the overwhelming worry and angst people everywhere are feeling—much of it is due to the collapse of ideologies we once held dear. Industrialism made us little more than cogs in a broken machine, and the American Dream imploded.
What Steve Jobs and Apple sold better than any individual or company in the last 100 years is a break from that oppressive conformity. The kingdom Jobs promoted told people crushed by it all that their thoughts can make a difference. That they could be more than just a cog in an impersonal machine. They could think different. They could toss the hammer into the face of the oppressor. Each of us was creative and could make a difference, a better world for ourselves, our families, and the rest of the world.
Now whether Jobs was a true visionary or just a marketing genius is debatable. So is his kingdom’s ability to pull off what it sold.
But the only thing that mattered in Jobs’ message was that other people bought it. They hated being crushed down by the world and they thought Apple products might be able to unleash their inner world-changer.
The outpouring of grief over the death of Jobs reflects two similar trains of thought.
Those who had a teacher or coach who stood by them when no one else did, who challenged them to reach further, who believed in their potential when others scoffed, understand the loss of that mentor.
Those who look around the world today and believe even more strongly that we must break out of conformity and conventional thinking to solve the problems of the world feel the loss of someone who urged them to do just that.
This explains the continuing lament over the loss of Steve Jobs.
It also starkly frames what is wrong with the Church in the Western World.
Jesus Christ came to establish a Kingdom that turned every status quo belief and practice on its head. Everything we thought was right about God and what He desires of us was out of kilter with reality. The Kingdom of Heaven comes and upsets the conventional, bland, and mundane.
Read the Book of Acts and tell me if today’s Western Church resembles that dynamic, supernatural, communal, loving entity that was the Early Church.
How is it that we Western Christians have become so bland? Why are our services so dead? Our people so disempowered? Why do we settle for living like dogs who eat crumbs from the Master’s table when we are supposed to be seated beside the Master Himself?
Steve Jobs was a man. He’s dead and gone. Jesus Christ was not only a man, but He was God Himself too. He lives and reigns forever. His Kingdom is infinitely better than anything Steve Jobs could whip up, and it’s not based on clever marketing or tapping into some cultural angst, but on everlasting truth.
The reason for the almost religious fervor over Apple products and over Steve Jobs’ death comes because people today are starved for transcendence. They need not only to know that there is more to this life, but they want to feel empowered to reach out and make a difference. They want to live and think differently from the status quo. They want to be extraordinary.
We Christians can pooh-pooh that desire, but the fact is that God lit that flame in us. He made Adam to be remarkable, creative, strong, and intrepid. Those qualities reflect the fulfilled man of God.
So how is it that the Church has driven out the creative class? Why do we love conformity and the status quo? Why do we endorse the conventional rather than the unconventional? How is it that we are so reactionary rather than revolutionary?
We are the square pegs in the round holes, the fools for Christ. We have a better Kingdom! How then can we let our churches continue to be so conventional and bland?
Steve Jobs tapped into mankind’s discontent with bland conformity. How the Church continues to ignore that discontent and go on doing the same old same old is one of the tragedies of our times.
This last weekend saw me riding the driver’s seat of our Corolla for long stretches of time as I cruised north and back. Searching for some music to imbibe, I cruised the dial, the seek feature on our car’s radio stopping every 0.3 MHz to land on a different station.
Here’s what I discovered: about a hundred Christian radio stations, each and every last one playing “i Can Only Imagine” at the same exact time.
Okay, so maybe the “I Can Only Imagine” comment is an exaggeration—though not by much.
And each of those stations is “kid-safe” or “family-friendly.”
A decade or two ago, I would have welcomed those stations gladly. Now I wonder if all they’re producing is milquetoast believers whose idea of a spiritual challenge is choosing the right two-tone cover for their TNIV.
Worse, all these stations seem to be owned by the same conglomerate, so it’s not unusual to find two or three stations on the dial playing “I Can Only Imagine” at the same exact time because some “DJ” is sitting in a booth in San Antonio spinning that disc, pumping it out to thousands of subscriber stations across the country. Why? Because a lot of local stations obsessed over demographic figures, switched their programming to be mostly (bad) music, gave up their distinctive voice, and saw their audiences shrivel up. Or the stalwart audience went elsewhere, leaving the station to the new masses, masses who had no intention of financially supporting that station. Big conglomerate swoops in and the next thing you know, new ownership, and a DJ who sounds suspiciously like Ryan Seacrest.
I used to listen to Christian radio primarily for the teaching. I suspect that most Christian radio stations don’t even have teaching anymore. And what teaching remains seems about as stale as year-old bread.
There’s something tremendously sad about witnessing the dynamic Christian radio I knew in my youth distill down into this lowest-common-denominator slop we have today.
I find it disheartening, too, that the most challenging teachers out there are either gone from the airwaves or have dumbed-down their messages to be more appealing and easily grasped by an audience with an attention span of a paramecium.
I also find it discouraging that an artist like Derek Webb, one of the few contemporary musicians I listen to, can’t get airplay. Then again, a line like “I am a whore, I must confess…” ain’t all that family-friendly, now is it?
So instead of dancing a jig over the juggernaut of contemporary Christian radio stations taking over the radio dial, I’m nostalgic for what once was.