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Posted May 31, 2006

Book: What is the Point of Being a Christian?
Author: Timothy Radcliffe, OP
Continuum. New York. 2006. Pp. 218

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

What is the point of being a Christian? One is pointed to God, who is the point of everything. If one thinks of religion as just 'useful' then one has reduced it to another consumer product. But if we are pointed to God, then this should make a difference to how we live. This is not a moral superiority. Christians are usually no better than anyone else. But the lives of Christians should be marked by some form of hope, freedom, happiness and courage. If they are not then why should anyone believe a word we say?

In this new book, Timothy Radcliffe is at his best, writing with a prophetic edge. His argument for Christian belief is profoundly Catholic and profoundly human. But what is just as remarkable, Radcliffe's argument for and interpretation of Christian Gospel is couched in a deep understanding of human nature and the problems and anxieties of modern men and women. Radcliffe is far distant from the theologian's ivory tower and yet his understanding of the Gospel is profoundly theological.

The frame of reference for this book is wide, and it is based amongst other things on Fr. Racliffe's pastoral experience of dealing with people with problematic marriages, those struggling with celibacy, those trying to understand the nature of religious authority and those trying to remain loyal to the Church which finds their sexual orientation 'irregular.' This book argues that the more one understands the Gospel, the more one is open to the outside world.

An Excerpt from the Book:

'Go and Play'

For billions of people work is a grind, which destroys all joy. It is hard to sweat. For them, of course, the Sabbath remains a time to down tools and rest, like God on the seventh day, after he had finished Creation, Israel's neighbours had their first Creation stories too, which told of how human beings were made to serve the gods. The gods lolled around on comfy sofas, sniffing the smoke of the sacrifices and enjoying their wine, while human beings slogged away, keeping the supply of refreshments going.

According to the Epic of Gilgamesh, which the Israelites would have come across during their exile in Babylon, the lesser gods used to do this work of serving the great gods, but one day they become fed up and went on strike. They complained about their appalling working hours and living conditions. And the great gods made human beings so that the lesser gods could join the relaxation. To be a god was to rest; to be human was to be a slave. So when the biblical story told of how God invited us to share his rest, then it was as if a rich man told this butler to stop serving at table and come and sit down with him and have a glass of port. The Sabbath was a sign that none of us are ultimately slaves, neither of work nor of any human being nor even of God. The Sabbath was a sign of the dignity of every human being, whom God has called to share his life. The erosion of a shared weekly day of rest is a sign that our society does not recognize that ultimate that ultimate shared dignity. We go on producing and consuming without interruption. There is a Russian proverb: 'Work does not make you rich. It just makes you bent over.' The Sabbath summons us to stand up straight again, homo erectus.

There are some young people for whom the meaning of work is changing. They are coming to see work as a form of leisure. While their parents went to work, they go to play. Indeed we are all 'players' on uneven playing field. Jeremy Rifkin wrote that the younger generation in business, the 'proteans' as they are called, belong to a 'world that is more theatrical than ideological an oriented more to a play than to a work ethos'. If Ford was the typical industry of the old solid capitalism, then Hollywood is typical of the new. All business is show business. 'The economy is being transformed from a giant factory to a grand theatre.' This is partly because so-called 'cultural production' is now the biggest industry in the West. In the United States, it has taken over from defense as the major employer. But Hollywood is offering the model upon which all forms of production are based. I quote Rifkin again: 'While the manufacturing phase of capitalism was characterized by output, the cultural phrase is characterized by performance.' Management consultant Tom Peters claims that 'it is barely an exaggeration to say that everyone is getting into the entertainment business.' Admittedly it may still be a small percentage of people who see work in these terms, mostly people who are young and often Western, but it may be a sign of the future for most of humanity. Game theory is expanding rapidly, and giving us ever more complex games, which absorb vast amounts of time of billions of young people, even in China. Game Theory is not just for kids with time to waste; it is interesting philosophers, educationalists, management consultants and military strategists. Everyone is getting into it!

In this new world, to go shopping is not primarily to buy objects. It is to take part in the 'retail drama.' The new vast shopping malls are designed as places of entertainment where you can have interesting experiences, and live in fantasy worlds and play with virtual reality. In America they are called 'destination entertainment center'. Increasingly, social tension is developing around who is allowed into these worlds of play. They are becoming guarded, private spaces from which the poor are excluded; they would only spoil the game.

It would take too long to explore why this is the case. One element is surely the loss of confidence in humanity's future. The 'Now Generation' no longer has dreams of making a Paradise on earth. The work ethic of the old capitalism was founded on delayed gratification. I quote Bauman again:

In the form of the 'delay of gratification', procrastination [literally putting off until tomorrow] put ploughing and sowing above harvesting and ingesting the crops, investment above creaming off the gains, saving above spending, self-denial above self indulgence, work above consumption . . .the more severe the self-restraint, the greater would be, eventually, the opportunity for self-indulgence. Do save, since the more you save, the more you will be able to spend. Do work, since the more you work, the more you will consume.

But the loss of the confidence in the future transforms what we understand by work. It is no longer a contribution to humanity's progress and so a moral obligation. It becomes merely what makes possible life in the present moment. This is the 'Now Generation'. Why delay gratification? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you may die, or at least be unemployed. Work can no longer structure your life, give you identity and promise a future. Now is the time to play while you can. Who knows what is around the corner?

What can the celebration of the Sabbath mean in this sort of society? What can it mean to abstain from work when work is increasingly seen as a form of play?

. . . For a generation that has lost its hope of heaven, is Disney World the last echo of our dreams? For hope we have substituted fantasy; instead of eschatology we have virtual reality!

Table of Contents:

1. I will awake the dawn
2. Learning spontaneity
3. The peaceful sea
4. 'Do not be afraid'
5. The body electric
6. The community of truth
7. I am because we are
8. Citizens of the kingdom
9. Root shock
10. Breeding pandas
11. Without the day of the Lord, we cannot live