The Tyranny of Options

options2Thanks to the good offices of Ken Myers at Mars Hill Audio (no connection to Mars Hill Church), several years I learned about the work of Thomas de Zengotita, whose book Mediated was instrumental in helping me to understand some important culture shifts in recent years. De Zengotita explains how modernity became late modernity, how the the principle of autonomy has ruthlessly worked itself out in our culture and how that has led to what de Zengotita calls “The Blob” of options, which, paradoxically results in less freedom in certain respects.1 Please don’t misunderstand, when it comes to civil life, I’m quite in favor of the relative absence of restraint (freedom), so I’m not talking about laws or civil restrictions on choices. I am asking you, gentle reader, however, to think critically about our culture and how it affects our perception of things and the ways in which culture is distinct from the faith.

Consider the soda machine pictured first on the home page (if you’re reading this post via RSS go here). At my favorite burger joint, which is typically staffed by Five Guys (or sometimes gals), they have these remarkable soda (if you’re from Nebraska, that’s pop; if you’re from the UK, those are fizzy drinks) machines. First there is a screen with no fewer than 24 different choices. Then, once you’ve made that choice, then, as you see above there about 6 more selections from which to choose. Theoretically (I’m speculating here, I haven’t checked that all the sub-menus have the same number of choices, so I’m speculating), that’s 144 choices, just to buy a fountain drink. Yikes!

I don’t drink soda/pop much at anymore (I save those calories for ice cream) but I often go with others and the acid test of whether one is a rookie is how they react to the soda/pop machines. If they freak out, they’re a newbie. If they don’t, probably not—or they’re a Millennial (18–34) who take such choices as a given since that’s the vide0 screen world they have inhabited from the beginning of their existence. For most of us, however, 144 soda/pop choices are probably 139 more than we really need: Coke/Pepsi, 7-Up/Mt Dew, Dr Pepper. If you’re old enough to read this space and you’re still drinking grape or orange, well, that’s just sad. You get the point.

Why are there 144 soda/pop choices? Because we can, because we like choices, because, in Modernity, we defined our humanity by our ability to make choices. There was a time when we did not so define humanity. Time was, as they say in Kansas, we defined our humanity on the basis of our status as bearers of the divine image. We were defined by our relation to God, that we are analogues to God. In Modernity, however, we declared our independence from God (and accountability to his law and from our need for a Savior) and, in so doing, we redefined humanity in terms of autonomy (i.e., we are a law unto ourselves). Where, in Christian antiquity, it was almost unthinkable to imagine that humans might have the ability to will the contrary to God. We tended to discuss freedom in relative, rather than absolute, terms. In Modernity, however, freedom became absolute. In order for us to be truly human, we had to be free from all other wills, intellects, and authorities.

So, sometimes a soda/pop machine isn’t just just a soda/pop machine. Sometimes it’s a sacrament of our autonomy: a sign and seal of our autonomy, of our sovereign choices. I don’t mean to spoil that next cup of Dr Pepper but that bewildering number of choices means something. Yes, it’s the result of market forces and amazing technology but what’s behind those market forces and that technology? Demand. Why does the demand exist? Because it can, because we will have it so but that demand comes with a cost.

Growing up when and where I did my choices were mostly binary: do what I was told or face the consequences. Life was, consequently, very simple. I can still hear Mom saying,  Get out of here. Go play!” Today, I guess that conversation would be different. “Honey, for which highly organized traveling sports team would you like to try out this season?” Choices proliferate in every sphere of life: education, recreation, work (most professionals will have 2-3 careers before they retire), and family. Everything is is fluid. Don’t like your spouse? Get a new one. Don’t like your sex? Change it. Don’t like nuclear or extended families, polyamory is just a click away. After all, there’s no “reality,” just arbitrary conventions.

In its own way, the blizzard of choices that constitute our days is not only bewildering and exhausting but a sort of prison, since the choices can’t be avoided. They just keep coming. Either we slog through them (keep that email or delete it? Having kept it, answer it now or later? File it here, or here? ad infinitum) or it buries us. Some just go “off the grid.” That’s one solution. Maybe they’re right, I don’t know.

For the time being we should at least recognize what is happening around us and what it means and how it subtly subverts basic Christian teaching about the nature of Divine-human relations and the meaning of life. We give thanks to God for the gift of uncoerced choices and for a degree of civil freedom and pray for wisdom to navigate well the fast currents of late modernity.

1. HT to my friend and colleague, Mark MacVey, Director of Enrollment at WSC. You can hear an interview with Mark here. You can contact him here.

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  1. I think this “illusion of choice” also applies to television, specifically the news. One would think with 648 channels on the cable box that there are a plethora of choices, as well as independent news stations competing with each other to get story, but in reality, as a result of media consolidation over the past ten years, most of the media and news is owned by the same six companies: GE, Newscorp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS. Here’s a good info graph:

    One result of this consolidation, I think, is the line between news and movies has become blurred. The incoming, first female President of NBC News said that “news is the best drama on television.” Indeed.

    • That was a telling comment, wasn’t it. If one was cynical, one might thought that that she was using “drama” in the sense of “fiction.” That would explain a few things, would it not?

  2. Or look at your Netflix queue. You have thousands of choices, you pick what you want, and you fill up your queue. But instead of entertainment, you have another to-do list.

  3. Yet, according to Luther, the one choice we DON’T have is the one to “accept” Christ as our savior, because our unredeemed hearts are black and can only rebel against God (see The Bondage of the Will without the direct working of the HS through the good news of the Gospel).

    Nevertheless, “choice” seems to have crept into American evangelicalism over the past couple of centuries or so, having us believe that a “little bit of ability” to “choose Christ” is inherent within all of us and it’s up to us to make it the right one. Decision-based theology is right up there with the cable channels, news programs, and soda machines.

    • George,

      Agreed but Luther did distinguish between free will (which he denied) an the power of un-coerced (external) choices in civil, common matters.

  4. Hey, don’t be hatin on orange soda! I wanta fanta!

    Besides, I love those machines, where else can you get the best soda ever made, cherry caffeine free diet coke?

  5. One summer long, long ago, I lived in a jungle setting in Colombia (I was with Wycliffe Bible Translators). The only store was a little cabin on our mission post. If you wanted toothpaste, you’d simply find one kind on a bare shelf. Bathroom tissue? Only one kind- industrial strength, industrial cut, seemingly something akin to tree bark… certainly no aloed extravagance.

    … No cell phones or iPods, or i anything. No internet (it didn’t exist back then). No TV. Only a Bible with a real cover and real pages, notebook with lined rule (the kind we used in grade school), pen and pencil, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, pirahnas (I fished for them using raw meat! It was a blast… like catching bluegill or crappie), caimons (spanish for alligators), boas and coral snakes…

    … And genuine face to face fellowship with people without interruption from some wireless device.

    It was glorious.

    I find that in 2013 America, the simplicity of knowing and walking with God by faith in Christ alone is gone, due to the multitude of choices and options. Christian fellowship in the spirit of Malachi 3:16 is virtually non- existent.

    I am now with The Navigators and it seems that so much of discipling others (as the Navs describe it) that I am involved in is simply calling people back to simple trust in Christ and to eschew all the bogus bobbles and cheesy theology (e.g. the NPP heresy) we add to the the active and passive obedience to Christ… and to reject all the things that distract us from discipleship (such as the traveling soccer mania mentioned in this post).

    We are not content with Christ alone, it seems, and in truth, we are believers who are unbelieving. Adding to Christ, Christ we have lost.

    Thanks, Dr. Clark, for your work and thanks also to Westminster Seminary California. You all are champions at proclaiming Christ alone and for holding to the sufficiency of the gospel and the “ordinary means of grace”- without all the additives and multiplicity of novel evangelical options. You all are champions as well in holding forth confessional Protestantism with simplicity.

    (P.S. Yes, I realize I am using internet as I type this. I am thankful for internet, etc. I have also found better bathroom tissue, for which I am glad. But the point is, we are inundated with choices that we let rob us of our discipleship. We need to realize this. We are duped into thinking we have to have it all and catch everything that is being thrown at us in our hyper- information age).

  6. I think there is an interesting correlation between the number of flavors of coke (in the South it’s all coke) and the number of cable channels. Think about what it took for a show to be aired. And think about how often you might go through all the channels and not find anything worth watching.

    The increase of channels only deteriorated the quality of the product. The same with coke is true. Now they continue to introduce new flavors to find the next big great idea. You stand at the soda door in the store and the variety is numbing. Can’t find anything to watch, can’t find anything to drink.

  7. I think this Barry Schwartz cover this issue quite well from a secular(non-christian) perspective

    if you want a shorter version he has a shorter message he gave at TEDtalk

  8. Dr. Clark, I’m a Yankee who always said “pop”, but moved to the south, where it is “soda”. But now our grocery story has a sign in the aisle that says “Soda/pop”!

    de Zengotita’s book is excellent and I’m glad you’ve mentioned it from time to time – it deserves a wide read.

    Thank you for your work here. The Heidelblog is a great encouragement to me as I grow in my understanding and devotion in the Reformed tradition!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  9. Another way this works itself out is what I call the needle in the needle stack syndrome. The web can be a great resource, but often, the good information is only found by chance on page 19 of the search results after eight tries (if at all) amongst the pile of bad information. Who hasn’t heard “well, it says on Wikipedia…”

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