One of the more thoughtful books I’ve read in the past couple of years is Craig M. Gay’s, The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live As If God Doesn’t Exist (Eerdmans, 1998). It’s a book about worldliness, and by worldliness the author means “an interpretation of reality that essentially excludes the reality of God from the business of life” (4). He fills out this definition as he exposes many of the sometimes subtle symptoms of worldliness that emerge in our contemporary culture, developing his book around five of the most prominent symptoms.
Here I’ll try to boil them down as best as I can:
- Control–Following in the footsteps of Postman and Ellul, Gay argues that man seeks to control every dimension of his world through technology, and never more so is this the case than today. On one hand this leads to many helpful and useful advances, on the other hand it leads to…
- Secularism—The aspirations of the modern man to this technological control of the world leave less and less room for any god, only the “self-defining self.” God—if ever referenced at all—becomes a “god of the gaps,” a god whose necessity is limited to the areas of life that remain outside our control. We have technology for the rest of life. Which leads to…
- Individualism—The forces of control and secularity combine to encourage individualism, a fix-it-yourself mentality that breaks apart personal relationships and community. Which leads to…
- Anxiety—Man becomes an individualized self, a responsibility that we are ill suited to carry. “The assumption of godlike responsibilities [in seeking to control our lives by ourselves] has turned out to be a heavy burden and that we have become increasingly anxious beneath the weight of this burden” (p. 308). Which leads to…
- Impatience—Combine control, secularity, individualism, and the anxiety from these godlike responsibilities and you end up with “what is possibly the master theme of modernity, and now of ‘postmodernity’: that of impatience” (p. 308).
In light of these symptoms, believers are faced with snowballing implications.
As Christians, we are called to cultivate an eschatological worldview of hope demonstrated in our spiritual disciplines of waiting and watching. This hope is undercut by modern forms worldliness. For example, instead of cultivating hope in eternal promises of God we are easy snookered by wave after wave of immediate current events. “By completely relativizing eternity over and against the events of the day, or week, journalism renders such things as character, perseverance, fidelity, and hope largely meaningless” (201).
According to Gay, when you put together all these modern symptoms of worldliness you arrive at “anxious impatience.” Gay writes:
…anxious impatience is evident in virtually all aspects of modern social and cultural existence, and not least in the increasingly frantic pace with which so much of life is carried on today. It is largely by reason of impatient frustration, after all, that we have been persuaded to try to perform the functions of the hidden—and, indeed, seemingly absent—God.
“God is either unwilling or incapable of helping us,” we say in effect, “therefore we have no choice but to help ourselves, to take matters into our own hands, and to try to engineer a habitable environment for ourselves.” Ironically, it is this same anxious impatience that has consequently moved us to surrender ourselves so naively to the dehumanizing techniques of the modern world.
Indeed, it is anxious haste that has incited us to mortgage ourselves to technical rationality for the sake of its promise of control. “After we have taken control of the world,” so we tell ourselves, implying that taking control of the world must somehow enable us to take control of ourselves, “then we will discover how to be human persons again.” But the horizon keeps receding, and we always seem to be waiting for the promised control to be established.
The longer we are forced to wait, however, the more anxious we become; and the more anxious we become, the more prone we are to placing what little hope we have left into the possibility of technical-rational control, and thus to giving ourselves over to dehumanizing modern systems; and so forth. It is an unfortunately vicious cycle.
Modern secular society is thus a culture of anxious impatience, a culture in which so much stress has been placed upon human abilities and human agency that the modern mind has effectively lost the ability to trust anything, or more importantly anyone, else. (310–311; his eph.)
That point is worth our reflection, as are each of his symptoms of modern worldliness summarized earlier.
Bottom line: if you’re looking for a book that addresses the influence of technology, the consequences of individualism, secularism, and all the other facets of worldliness outlined earlier, I would recommend The Way of the (Modern) World. Although the book is slightly dated, it also provides a number of timeless biblical principles to help us evaluate our culture and its influence on our soul and upon the Church.
“Living in but not of the modern world, must mean, at the very least, living patiently and expectantly before the living God, refusing to surrender ourselves and our churches to the various schemes that are finally only expressions of modernity’s, and now postmodernity’s, godless impatience” (313).