catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 17 :: 2004.10.22 — 2004.11.04


The gift of disillusionment

Part of my work in the activities office at Calvin College is to
mobilize and mentor a group of students known as "cultural discerners."
These sophomores are responsible for facilitating conversation about
pop culture and faith in their residence halls, as well as providing
programming and resources to help their fellow students to connect the

This year, inspired by poet Li-Young Lee, I charged them with an
additional task: planting seeds of disillusionment among their peers.

When I suggested this at our first meeting, most of the discerners
looked at me, perplexed and wary, as if I had cheerfully proposed a
dorm-wide violent revolution to overthrow the Res Life aristocracy. And
understandably so. Most people don't generally associate
disillusionment with Christian living. If you are disillusioned, the
common understanding goes, you are cynical, apathetic, pessimistic, and
hopeless, none of which resonate with more upbeat evangelical traits.

If we set aside these acculturated associations and explore the true
meaning of "disillusionment," however, we will find it has a vital
place in living into kingdom virtues. Enter the aforementioned poet,
Li-Young Lee. During his talk at Calvin's Festival of Faith and Writing
last spring, he mentioned that disillusionment had gotten a bad rap
among Christians. But, he went on to say, when you really think about
it, becoming disillusioned is a necessary part of awakening to truth.
"I mean, really," he said with a sardonic smile, "what do we want to
be? Illusioned?"

The right answer to that question is, no, of course not. But most of us don't live that way. The fact is that we human beings love
our illusions and work hard to preserve them even when we begin to find
them wanting. And Christians are among the worst offenders. I hate to
use a passe movie allusion, but we become at times like Cypher in the The Matrix, lamenting that we didn't take the blue pill, eating steak we know doesn't exist while proclaiming that ignorance is bliss.

But this is not our birthright as disciples of Jesus Christ. Since
when are illusions—deceptions, false impressions, misapprehensions—to
be embraced by those who believe that the truth will set you free? Yet
we deceive ourselves all the time, organizing life by stripping it of
its complexity: this particular political party represents the will of
God, we might think, for example. Listening to Christian music means
I'm untainted by the world. Faith requires only that I pray and read my
Bible and go to church. Buying organic food means I care about social
justice and am justified in feeling smug toward anyone who doesn't.

Disillusionment, when broken down into its linguistic parts, means
the process of being stripped of these comfortable falsehoods. It is a
difficult, exhausting, continuous work, and no area of life is exempt.
Yet, as Thomas Merton points out, the Christian is called to nothing
less than total surrender of her assumptions:

Let no one hope to find in contemplation an escape from conflict, from
anguish or doubt. On the contrary, the deep, inexpressible certitude of
the contemplative experience awakens a tragic anguish and opens many
questions in the depth of the heart like wounds that cannot stop
bleeding. [Doubt] is by no means opposed to genuine faith, but it
mercilessly examines and questions the spurious "faith" of everyday
life, the human faith which is nothing but passive acceptance of
conventional opinion. The worst of it is that even apparently holy
conceptions are consumed along with all the rest. It is a terrible
breaking and burning of idols, a purification of the sanctuary, so that
no graven thing may occupy the place that God has commanded to be left

No wonder most of us prefer to be left alone in the web
of convenient half-truths we spin. But if we are immersed in Christian
community and in the lives of our neighbors and if we consciously
engage the world around us, it is difficult to maintain our ignorance.
The best art—the best music, film, books, poetry—can also act as a
catalyst to dismantle our illusions, and to help us dwell in the truth
of How Things Really Are. Lee names this process as "apocalyptic."
"Disillusionment is revelation and revelation is apocalypse and every
poem is apocalyptic," he says. "On the one hand we have ecliptic
things, things that hide. And on the other hand we have apocalyptic
things, things that reveal."


This kind of apocalypse is the specialty of a guy named David Dark,
a favorite here at Calvin. When he isn't disillusioning Christian young
people via the high school English class he teaches (he even posts
pictures of a red pill and blue pill above his classroom door), he's
documenting cultural armageddon. Dark's first book was called Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons, and it defines the revelatory nature of art this way:

Apocalyptic cracks the pavement of the status quo. It irritates and
disrupts the feverishly defended norms of whatever culture it
engages….Apocalyptic shows culture that its claims about itself
aren't true. It reprimands us for the ways in which we've hoped to
manage life into a grid or pattern that can control the messiness.

In this book, Dark expounds upon works of art and media,
all too rare in our society but present nonetheless, that do the
opposite, "highlighting, exposing and lampooning the moral bankruptcy
of our imaginations while teasing us toward a better way of looking at,
and dwelling within, the world." He plumbs the depths of Coen Brothers
movies, he explores Beck's "boogie nights of the living dead," he
discusses the role of carnival in The Simpsons.
And he does it so that we might snap out of our illusory bubbles, that
we might put the status quo out of our minds and pursue the hilarious
and outlandish prospect that Jesus calls us to live on earth as it is
in heaven.


When I pray for the students with whom I spend my days, I pray for
this kind of apocalypse. We listen to music that bears witness to what
Dark calls "the opaque, the mysterious, the ambiguous," from Radiohead
to Dar Williams to Blackalicious. I give them lists of "Red Pill Books," and I send them poems like Wendell Berry's Manifesto,
which quietly, nonchalantly upends the tables we have constructed in
our modern-day temples. I pray these things, I play this music, I send
these poems, so that they might awaken to the truth, and thus become
free to do the disillusioning work of God?s kingdom.

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