Radiohead’s song, “Fitter Happier” is a song that points out how modern life in late capitalism is geared towards putting us to sleep, wanting a life of “no surprises” (the name of another song the album). This song is a classic example of the liturgies of empire
- liturgies that wish to lull us to sleep and keep us from caring or even knowing about the suffering of our neighbor.
In the song we hear the voice of Apple Computer’s “Fred” who emphasizes lines like:
Slower and more calculated
No chance of escape
Concerned but powerless
This describes a life where everything is laid out. Everything is expected. There is little emotion. Little surprise. And no uncertainty at all.
The message behind “Fitter Happier” points to the modern tendency to want things static, ordered, sterile and certain. We want no surprises, we don’t want to be bothered, and we put great effort into ordering our lives that way.
Our whole society bends this direction. Think about the past year and how we as a country have responded to Covid-19, Police brutality, devastating poverty and increasing unemployment, political change? Instead of adjusting, instead of responding to the suffering around us we - as a country - try to harken back to an illusory “golden age.”
What is the “American Dream” if it is not an appeal to the desire for class certainty in the lives of people who lack such certainty?
What about White Supremacy? Is it not a particular structure that guarantees certainty to one race of people at the expense of other races?
What undergirds the roots of the military industrialized complex if it is not a striving to erase all uncertainty for those who wield military might?
Things like retirement, better tax structures, endless diet programs, modern medicine, rigid exercise regimens, elite education, increasing hours in the work week are all attempts at delivering us from uncertainty.
John Says Repentence is a “Wake Up”
This week’s Gospel reading for Advent is from Mark 1:
1:2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
1:3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
1:4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And here is where John’s message, deeply troubling and subversive, makes impact. Repentance here isn’t about personal piety but deep societal change where the poor and vulnerable, those whose backs are against the wall
, have been neglected, or worse, exploited.
If modern society tries to put us to sleep in the pursuit of no surprises, then John’s message breaks into the middle of our sterility with a message of repentance and forgiveness, two practices that unlock uncertainty.
If our modern society is setup to follow a formula of expectation, then John’s message is an invitation into mystery.
In this week of advent, we focus on the practice of spiritual preparation. Spiritual preparation runs counter to everything around us that tries to lull us to sleep.
Spiritual preparation is the work of opening oneself up to mystery, preparing oneself for something yet unheard of or experienced.
Quakers say we believe in this every time we show up to meeting for worship, or meeting for worship for business, and enter into “expectant waiting worship.”
And yet I wonder, how many of us come prepared to truly enter into the full mystery of God? The possibility that we might truly encounter the unknown.
The ability to be surprised, to practice awe, and enter into the mystery of the work of God in the world is a deeply powerful Spiritual practice.
The Rabbi and Jewish Theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote (From Who Is Man? 1965, Ch. 5).
…Wisdom is fostered by awe. Awe precedes faith; it is the root of faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith.
Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the world becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the avoidance of insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom, for the discovery of the world as an allusion to God.
I believe that John’s “preparing the way” is a call to this kind of awe, this kind of surprise, and seeing that to be open to uncertainty is in fact what is needed in order to accept the new work God will do in the birth, life and subversive ministry of Jesus.