Monday, April 14, 2008

The Greatest (and least mentioned) Sin of Our Time

The end of the road seemed a mirage. Another two minutes. Every pounding step brought me closer. My breath came in short gasps. I hadn’t run all winter, and I was paying for it now. The bright morning sun flashed as my legs quivered with every step. I wanted to stop, but I’d set the goal and I wasn’t about to back down. One minute to go. Every step jarred my insides. I gritted my teeth and pushed ahead, my thoughts lost in the void of the pulse pounding finish. I glanced at the building on the left. Final sprint. I pumped my arms, blanked out the pain, and finished the route.

I bent over and leaned on my knees, desperately trying to catch my breath before slowly walking down the hill. As much as I hated to run, as much as I dreaded the pounding and pain, I knew how much it mattered to the rest of my life that I didn’t stop pushing myself. Over the years, I’d learned that the hard way. We only controlled certain things in our life, and when we didn’t push the things we did control (like exercising), when we continually took shortcuts, the results were irrefutable. A weakened and victimized personality. In many ways, it was the personality of our culture. A culture that talked about greatness but in reality marketed it like any other commodity. I smiled as a grandmother pushed a baby carriage past me, as I moved over on the grass beside the sidewalk to stretch.

In the distance, a procession of cars slowly made their way up the road. I didn’t recognize the funeral procession right away, as it’d been a while since I’d seen one, but as the cars cruised past me, I couldn’t help but wonder who had passed away. I couldn't help but wonder about their life and about the other people riding in the cars. In many ways, death was the only thing that seemed to slow down our cultural machine. If people needed a justification to slow down on their frantic treadmill pursuit of the latest, best and most relevant (and it certainly seemed that way), than death was the one thing that even coldest, cultural commoditizer had to acknowledge. Even death, however, was often turned into product. How many times had we seen people capitalize on the death of someone else, turn it into publicity or policy, or in the case of families, turn it into a personal gain?

I’ll never forget when my grandfather passed away. He’d come into a significant sum of money his last year, and I watched, still a teenager, as it changed him. Many people, most of whom had never shown interest in visiting or helping him, appeared out of the woodwork. Suddenly he had acquired value. And this old man, who I’d known and loved as a kid, seemed to change overnight, estranged his family and divided his children with his newly found ‘nobility.’ He disowned my dad because my father refused to worship at the feet of his new wealth. When he passed away, barely a year after ‘inheriting the world’, a significant portion of his wealth went to total strangers, and long lost family members. (They'd been lost until there was something in it for them.) I asked my dad about it a year later. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to experience that kind of rejection. Not only the rejection of his father, but the cultural discounting of all those years of going to his dad’s house and helping him out, only to see that when his dad had a chance to finally help him and his family, he watched that money go to complete strangers instead.

I still remember my dad's sad smile when I asked him about it.

“It’s blood money, son. I don’t want it.”

I’m not sure I ever respected my dad more than I did at that minute, because I understood what he was saying. He hadn’t helped his father, or been a son to his father, because of what his father would give him. And no matter what had happened the last year, nothing could remove the twenty odd years before that, of family visits and trips to the farm. My dad had done it the right way. He hadn’t committed the greatest and least talked about sin of our time.

He hadn’t Skimmed.

You won’t find the word ‘Skimming’ in any of your theological references, although it’s mentioned often enough in Scripture. You probably won’t find it in the latest cultural criticisms either, although it will be inferred in some manner.
So what is 'Skimming'?

When I used to work as a lifeguard, occasionally I had to clean something out of the pool. I’d use a large Skimmer, a long pole with a wire net on the end of it, to clean the surface of the water. The water underneath could still be dirty, but in removing the leaves and large floating chunks from the surface, it appeared clean. In life, Skimming refers to the act of scooping the 'keys' or ‘important parts’ out of something – a relationship, a job, a religion, a person – and in so doing, losing or dismissing the entirety of its essence. It is a 'quick fix' approach to life, and it is in keeping with the ‘wide and shallow’ worldview pumped through the veins of our culture into our own.

We’re all guilty of Skimming to some degree. Even the deeply religious who might agree with the assessment that we live in shallow culture often miss that the fact that the church is just as shallow. And it’s shallow for no other reason than it is composed of people.

All humans naturally seek to benefit themselves. Pure altruism does not exist. In that sense, we are all born looking for the quick angle, the fast buck, the easy job, the no-work-all pleasure relationship. We’re all born Skimmers. What’s happened in our culture is not that ‘this generation is worse than the last’, but that in our highly individualized and market driven society, the tendency to Skim has not only been given a wider expression, but even worse, is promoted and celebrated as something to strive for. (This is best emphasized in the 1987 film Wall Street and the famous speech given by Gordon Gecko (Michael Douglas), the rich magnate whose “greed is good” speech emphasized what every corporation already knew: the natural function of greed pushes us to new levels.)

Just walk through the self-help section of any bookstore. Ten Steps to Getting You on Track. Five Keys to a Better Relationship. Seven Quick Tools to Influencing Others. The 'key' to this; the 'secret' to that. Haven't you ever wondered why our culture loves lists so much? Not only on shows like Letterman, but in sports and relationships and music and movies and, well, everything. Some people would have you believe that ‘lists are practical.’ Sure, sometimes. But our obsession is much greater than that, and it goes back to our love of Skimming.

Who wants to read a book or an article that doesn’t give you a list of ways to make things better in your life? Religion knows this well. Ever wonder why the evangelical church, and her more obnoxious cousins ‘the Fundamentalists’, are endlessly producing policies and doctrinal statements. They’re Skimming. How else do you explain the absolute nature in how they interpret Scripture, which was written as narrative?

In the Gospels, Jesus consistently attacks our tendency to Skim – to place people and questions in absolute black and white, and absorb ideas within the context of relationship – to the point of arousing hatred among the religious leaders. Jesus arouses such hatred, that even after they have executed him, years later the Pharisees will appoint a leader to kill and terrorize his followers. (Which backfires when the Pharisee, Saul, their appointed leader, later becomes the Apostle Paul)

Skimming is so prevalent that nearly everything you do will involve it. Nearly every relationship. Nearly every thing you do at work, and nearly every leisure activity in which you partake. Simply put, since you were a child a part of our brain has been programmed to believe that everything we do or experience should be bigger, faster, stronger, wider, longer, more, more, More, MORE.

Part of the reason we talk about sex so much is that it is easy to Skim Sell. The pleasurable feeling is easy enough to manipulate. We can make some money off that, can’t we? Or in the case of churches, we can establish control through sex, can’t we? Use this powerful God-given feeling, and than establish it as a tool to control people. It’s the same in politics. Skim, Skim and Skim some more.

No wonder people are miserable.

No wonder people are depressed.

We’ve been handing out pieces of candy and then convincing people we’re selling them vegetables. In fact, many of the world’s top minds spend their entire lives working hard to blur the line between want and need. The expenditure for advertising in the US alone is nearly 300 billion dollars.

Because it is our natural tendency, when we can justify Skimming through religion or marketing we will, because we know that we’re going to get a positive response from people. However, that does not make it right or beneficial.

When we look at people for example, our natural tendency is to judge them based on their appearance or how they speak. When we leave our opinion there, or when we don’t recognize what we’ve done, we’re guilty of Skimming. As far as I know, the only counter to Skimming is the long hard road of self-awareness and relational challenge. It means not taking any shortcuts. It means leaving yourself open to change.

This is why Fundamentalists are often the worst Skimmers. They would rather lock themselves into safety than deal with the messy world of relationships. A fundamentalist (who could be Christian, Muslim, liberal or atheist) is incapable of nuanced thought, does not have time for thought provoking ideas except the ones they like, and are more interested in promoting homogeneity than freedom, even if it leaves people in pain. To not Skim requires great humility. It requires a degree of brokenness. It requires a sense of something bigger than ourselves, of learning not to think too highly of our own ideas because we understand that no matter how self-aware or generous we appear to be, our own motives aren’t pure either.

There’s no easy answer, no ‘quick list’ to combat this natural human tendency, but here are a few things to help you see if you’re Skimming in certain areas of your life. Start by asking yourself these questions. Are you willing to sacrifice principle for efficiency or speed? Are you willing to change your mind about that which you hold most dear? Are you labeling people in your life or do you believe people can change? Are you willing to do the HARDEST thing in every situation? And if not, why?

Ultimately, Skimming is not something we can apply to others. Only we can truly know if we are taking the ‘hard route.’ The evidence however, should be plain. People who don’t Skim carry themselves with both humility and compassion, with generosity and integrity. People who don’t Skim don’t complain very often, if only because they are used to doing the Hard thing. People who don’t Skim don’t make snap judgements on people, and are able to accept mystery within their faith. And finally, people who don’t Skim give us a slight picture of how God views us. No human can replicate God’s love, but we can try, and the people who have learned not to Skim, tend to do it better than most.

This week, remember that death comes to us all, but that we have a choice for which we will be remembered. We can never escape our culture completely, but with our heads bowed and a with a deep sense of God’s prevailing love, we can move into a place that looks for relationships before judgement, for effort before results, and the heart before everything else.


Authour's Note: To understand why we Skim, understand it from this simple example.
Try selling a book that asks people questions about life and does so through story, but offers no hard and fast rules but places everything in context and asks us to accept things that either make no sense or are just plain hard. And than have this book emphasize that we will never have all the answers, and that it will be the shape of our heart and how we love people as the deciding factor by which our lives will be measured, but than offer seemingly contradictory stories about who and how we are to even love people at all.

Yes, this is the Bible, a collection of sixty-six books, mostly told through narrative and poetry. If you thought it was a book of rules, than you’ve just had your first lesson on the art of religious Skimming. It isn’t the ‘rules’ of the Bible that will produce change in your life, it is the passionate story of a God and His People, of God become Man, and of understanding just how much this God loves you.
Author's Note II: I've heard Fundamentalists use this argument in terms of relationship (that is, to not Skim) and direct it at their spouse/girlfriend. It has been used as a tool to keep women in line, to keep unhealthy marriages together, etc... As soon as they do that, of course, they're guilty of religious skimming (using the Bible to control others). The Hard thing is not always the Religious thing. Let me say this clearly. You can not push this on others, rather, it a process of self-reflection. This is not about someone else. This is about you.