Orwell vs. Huxley

This past weekend we launched into our spring series Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For: Colossians and the Suburban Dream. What we are attempting to do is to read a biblical text with care and attention (Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae), and apply what we see there to our present social context (what we are calling suburbia). We encourage you to listen to the podcasts. What we hope to show through this series is that there are both external and internal challenges to Christian faith, and that the external challenge of where and how we live needs to be understood. This is true in the seemingly innocuous land of suburbia. Paul says in Colossians 1:13 that God “rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves”. What does Paul mean by the language of dominion and kingdom? Is he referring to Rome? Is he referring to a kind of spiritual paradigm or state of mind? How can we read that text now?

Put it this way: what “empire” do we face right now? Might suburbia be more than the place we live? Could it also be a state of mind? Does suburbia in fact represent a kind of worldview? And how does suburbia affect us?

I remember when the calendar rolled around to 1984 -- how ominous it sounded to us -- and that was because George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 had stuck in the collective conscience. Orwell had fictionalized what many saw as our greatest threat, the threat of totalitarianism or what he called in the novel “big brother”. As I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, the threat of some controlling form of government appeared large, and when the 80’s rolled around it was Ronald Reagan who called communism the “evil empire”. We seemed to be clear on what the problem was.

But there was another fictionalized account of social control published some 16 years earlier than Orwell’s 1984. In the 1932 novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley proposed that control could happen when people were given what they thought they wanted. In other words, people could be controlled through the mindless life of ease and pleasure. Neil Postman’s incisive look at western culture, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) opens with a comparison between the competing visions of Orwell and Huxley. I think Postman’s words are worth quoting at length:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive audience. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy [writer’s note: Huxley’s fictionalized pleasures]. As Huxley remarked... [those] on the alert to oppose tyranny, “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions”.

Postman’s comments conclude with these remarks: "In 1984... people are controlled by pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us."

If you are looking for some summer reading, you might be interested in considering the contrasting visions of Orwell and Huxley. You might want to consider what actually is the biggest challenge to human flourishing and Christian faith -- is it the threat of deprivation or the more subtle threat of an uninformed freedom? Because the real question then arises: what we are looking for?

I think I want to put it this way: is there, in fact, a subtle challenge to Christian faith that lurks in the apparent calmness and ease of the suburban life? What is that challenge?

See you this Sunday at 9:20 or 11:11 am.

Bob Osborne