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Sameness or Surprise?

In Rants on November 26, 2015 at 5:45 pm

SamenessMy three most memorable hamburgers are: 1) the Kobe Beef Burger that I eat at the Issaquah Brew Pub every spring with my gaming buddies.  2. The burger I ate at Norma’s in Lacey, Washington, was by no means a gourmet burger, but it tastes great and had that 1950’s diner flavour to it.  3.  This past summer I ate at a hamburger joint off the highway in Redding, California: Bartel’s Giant Burger.  It too was a great burger–it was fast, served in a paper basket, but it was one of my most memorable burgers.  All three of these burgers are very good and all three are very different.

Then there’s the approach to the hamburger that McDonald pioneered.  No matter where you eat your burger, it will be exactly the same.  This approach was obviously extremely popular and Americans believe that difference in hamburgers is a bad thing.

And McDonald’s is exporting this ridiculous idea.  Did you seen that commercial? I ranted about it a while back.

This philosophy of marketing sameness for profit was also found in the beer industry.  Since the lifting of prohibition we were forced to drink just one kind of beer, the American Adjunct Lager.  It’s fizzy, light bodied, has low bitterness and thin malts.  This beer was made for mass production and consumption, not flavour–thank goodness that’s changed–if you want, you can get a wide variety of locally breed craft beers all over North America.

The story of beer suggests that there is some resistance to the homogenization of experience, but we are still very comfortable with sameness.  It used to be that all coffee was the same–cheap and industrial.  The forces of sameness are still at work on us, it’s just that the product is a lot better.  Starbucks is the same whether you are in Seattle or Spain.  A lot of people think this is a good thing–it’s called the Starbucks Experience.   Of course I don’t want a bad coffee experience, but this is not the same thing has having a different coffee experience.

If we homogenize our experiences there is a greater likelihood that we will avoid a disappointing experience, but we will just as certainly avoided an a surprising one.

Is it worth it?

Ordinary Time

In Worldview on November 16, 2015 at 5:22 am

Time flatOur culture has one way of thinking about time, so we could call it ordinary time.  We could also call it secular time, mechanical time, material time or dead time.  Elsewhere, I’ve called it “zombie time” and for good reason.

Whatever you call it, it has the following characteristics:

  1. It is homogeneous — a minute is a minute; one hour is the same as every other hour.
  2. It is sequential — minutes, hours, days and years occur one after the other.
  3. structured by progress — we are, things are, improving, evolving, getting better as time passes.
  4. It has been emptied of the transcendent — there is nothing supernatural in our conception of time.
I will discuss each of these in the coming weeks.

Killing Time

In Worldview on November 8, 2015 at 11:29 pm

In English we have only one word for time.  The ancient Greeks had two because they understood time in two ways.  First, there is chronos, or ordinary time, in which one thing happens after another.  The other is kairos.  We’ve mostly lost a sense of this kind of time, to our detriment.

chronos kairos


Chronological time refers to clock time–time that can be measured in fixed units–seconds, minutes, hours and years.  Kairos measures moments of flexible duration.  Chronological time is divided up into past, present and future, but kairos is the present and has an eternal element.  Chronological time is personified as Old Father Time carrying a scythe and an hourglass–it is a time that consumes all.  Kairos time is personified as a young man, lithe and handsome–it is a time that suggests “ripeness is all” (Lear 5.2.11).

Chronological time, named after the titan who ate his children, destroys and consumes.  All material things experience the ravages of time.  In the Hobbit, Gollum’s riddle in the dark is about chronos time:

This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.

There is a monstrous quality to chronological time.  Chronos time is made up of past that doesn’t exist any more and future that doesn’t yet exist.  Because its made of these intangibilities, chronos time takes on a spectral quality.  To make matters worse, like Gollum says, it kills and consumes.  It is a terrifying creature.  Dead, but devouring and it never stops coming.  There’s something hellish about the eternal monotony of mechanical time.

Where chronos suggests death, kairos suggest life.  The present is the only part of time that actually exists; it’s alive, and if you are experiencing it, you are alive too.  The term Kairos contains the idea that not all time is the same.  Sure there is the regular and mechanical passing of minutes, but there are also immeasurable moments that catch us by surprise, that bubble up from within time or flow into it from some where, or some when, else.  These interruptions of ordinary time by higher time suggest a link with the eternal–the “everlasting now” which is the time of heaven.

I want to suggest that when you think of time, don’t only imagine the hour glass of chronos, but a lava lamp of kairos time–irregular and surprising.

Our worldview both shapes and is shaped by our language.  Because we have only one word for time, we are in danger of thinking and living under the idea that time is simply chronological.  I’ve had students tell me that eternity sounds boring?  It certainly does if you think of it in terms of chronological–dead–time.  If we broaden our understanding of time, we will not only have a more positive view of an eternal future, but we also will understand the importance of the living present, which as C. S. Lewis says, “is all lit up with eternal rays” (The Screwtape Letters).