The Trouble with Paris: Following Jesus in a World of Plastic Promises

06.15.09 | Denver Journal, Apologetics and Ethics, Douglas Groothuis | by Mark Sayers

    Doug Groothuis' review of "The Trouble with Paris: Following Jesus in a World of Plastic Promises" by Mark Sayers.

    book-Trouble with Paris

    Mark Sayers, The Trouble with Paris: Following Jesus in a World of Plastic Promises. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008. Reviewed by Doug Groothuis.

    For many years, I have been exhorting students (and anyone else who will listen) to avoid worldliness and to embrace godliness by wisely interpreting the Bible, themselves, and their culture. A key insight that I try to get across is that cultural forms—whether communication technologies, music, clothes, or architecture—are not morally neutral. The distinctively human world of culture—things made by creatures made in God’s image—is value-laden. Culture shapes us (often unconsciously) even as we shape it. As Christians, we should not be taken captive by hollow and deceptive philosophies (Colossians 2:8) or by worldly ways of living that marginalize God through social habits that forget, ignore, or reject him (Romans 12:1-2; 1 John 2:15-17). Furthermore, we should be culture-creators who glorify God and to promote human flourishing, not merely cultural critics (Genesis 1:26-28: Matthew 28:18-20).

    Mark Sayers understands all this. The uniqueness of this book is not so much what he argues, but how he argues it. The basic observations made in The Trouble with Paris can be found in some very serious and rather academic books by Christian writers such Kenneth Myers, David Wells, Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, and Os Guinness, as well as in non-Christian writers such as Neil Postman and Jean Baudrillard. These are the kind of books I usually read on the subject of Christ and culture, and the kind of books I assign my students to read. Sayers, however, while knowledgeable of this kind of cultural criticism, writes in a conversational style aimed at younger readers already immersed in postmodern culture. He often speaks publicly to these people and is very aware of their struggles with the blandishments of a postmodern, consumerist, restless, image-saturated culture. He seems to share their struggles in ways that I (a middle-aged curmudgeonly academic) do not.

    Sayers is concerned that many Christians are not living up to Christian ideals because they are enslaved to the lies of their culture without knowing it. We may have some desire to please God and live for him, but our everyday patterns of existence belie and betray this. Sayers brings the background of culture into the foreground (to use a McLuhan idea not mentioned by Sayers) in order to sniff out and repent of the unrealities that hold us back from seeking first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33).  To raise our awareness, Sayers defines and capitalizes on the idea of “hyperreality.” This concept was developed by the late idiosyncratic French social theorist, Jean Baudrillard. Hyperreality refers to aspects of postmodern culture that have no connection to any objective reality. They are images without referents, such as cartoon or video game characters or air-brushed beauty queens whose actual appearance does not match their publicity photographs.

    Sayers argues that huge swaths of our lives are controlled by hyperrealities. This is especially problematic for younger people who are utterly submerged in the data-stream of computers, cell phones, video games, and television. Hyperrealities paint a pretty picture of a world that does not exist. These hyperrealities attempt to make us addicts of their chimerical charms. This is an addiction that can never be satisfied because there is nothing there to be possessed. The images of the perfect bodies, mystical vacations, resurrection through erotic experiences (real or virtual), salvation through the ideal job, and transcendental cooking and eating experiences are all false, fallacious, and fictitious.  We are thus in deep trouble.

    The title of the book refers to a woman who decided to go to Paris to find fulfillment only to find that it, too, was unsatisfying. So, she was off to somewhere else. The image of Paris was not the real Paris, and the image of her self was not her real self. The trouble with Paris is the trouble with ourselves and our world. We escape reality through hyperrealities instead of facing reality from the perspective of the gospel of the Kingdom.

    After exposing some of the more bewitching hyperrealities, Sayers brings us back to the realities of God’s world. It is a good world, marred by sin, but being redeemed by the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. He has a fairly good grasp of life in the Kingdom of God. His final chapter gives us “Six Keys to Living Well Within God’s Reality”

    1. Examine your life with fearless honesty.

    How has hyperreal culture compromised your Christian witness? He offers several salient questions to ask oneself.

    2. Bathe in the satisfaction of covenant relationships.

    Instead of lusting after erotic or celebrity encounters, we should develop godly marriages and deep friendships.

    3. Enjoy a mission bigger than yourself.

    As we lose a life of selfishness and immediate gratification, we find a richer, deeper life of Kingdom concerns: God “burns with passion to see the world made anew,” as should we.

    4. Follow Jesus as Lord and Guide.

    This should be obvious and axiomatic to a Christian (Matthew 28:18; Colossians 1:15-19), but the sensed veracity of Christ as Lord is undercut by postmodern idols of all sorts. While he emphasizes salvation and Kingdom life in Christ, Sayers does not explain the meaning of the Gospel as carefully as he should, in that he does not articulate the glorious concept of justification through the finished work of Christ alone. (On that, see Francis Schaeffer, The Finished Work of Christ.) Nevertheless, he does not deny these truths and seems to believe them implicitly.

    5. Hook into countercultural Christian community.

    I believe that the dirty secret of postmodernity is that people are desperately lonely, despite (or maybe because of) all our media “connections.” We speak of community often, but seldom practice it through intentional and disciplined group relationships. Sayers speaks highly of a para-church network he started, but does not emphasize the primary countercultural community of Christianity: the church itself! This echoes a grave weakness of much of evangelicalism: a low church mentality that locates the real action outside of the church proper and not within it. Nevertheless, Sayers’s emphasis on redemptive associations—instead of narcissistic individualism—is needed.

    6. Learn to live redemptively.

    Sayers believes we should learn to celebrate the ordinary things of life and resist the allures of hyped-up and oversold technologies. We should also keep in mind the coming of the Kingdom in its fullness at the End. Quite so. However, Sayers says nothing about the coming judgment at the End. Not everything will be redeemed. Hell is a testimony to irretrievable human loss, yet Sayers says nothing much about this ominous reality. But God’s endless wrath against unrepentant sinners (Matthew 25:31-46) is one aspect of God’s reality that hyperreal Western culture avoids through diversion and obsession.

    My hope is that The Trouble with Paris will make its way into the hands, hearts, and minds of those who might not read the more academic works of cultural criticism. While it provides much wisdom to the benighted denizens of postmodernity, Sayers’s book can also serve as a solid springboard into more serious and theologically developed works.

    Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.
    Professor of Philosophy
    Denver Seminary
    June 12, 2009

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