I raced through a book recently which I could hardly put down—it would make an ideal study for a young adult group, a culturally interested adult ed class, or a book to work through with a young person interested in popular culture. Anyone who knows that it is important to study our social context—or, perhaps, those that don’t–should be aware of this fun and interesting, alarming yet hopeful new book, The Trouble With Paris: Following Jesus in a World of Plastic Promises by Mark Sayers (Nelson; $14.99.) It is fabulous, and that’s no hype.
It might not be fully fair or adequate to describe the book as obliquely asking about the relationship between the high culture of Paris, France, and the high living of Paris Hilton; it is more generally about ultra-hip postmodern culture and the downward spiral of a life that buys into the superficial pleasures of Hollywood endings and media-promoted consumerism but ends with very little authenticity or joy. So forget Paris, it is about Yourtown, USA, Mytown, PA; it is about you and me and nearly every single young person you know. From our obsessions with reality TV to internet addictions, from media-drenched teenage materialists to aging boomers thinking of church leadership in terms of celebrity, from the glamour of magazine ads to the impact of photo-shopping and computer-enhanced images, we are all stuck in a world that is, if I may use the old fashioned Christian word laden with negative connotations, worldly. And, ironically, increasingly surreal, what Sayers called hyper-real.
Mark Sayers isn’t a curmudgeon or naysayer, though, nor is he an overly pious prude. He’s taken with the joys and blessings of pop culture, aware of ways modern technologies and contemporary trends have enhanced our lives. Still, he’s a cultural critic of the first order, well-read in everything from Postman to Baudrillard, citing Vincent Miller and John Kavanaugh against consumerism and David Myers and Barney Schwartz on the paradoxes of choice. How many evangelical authors cite Jurgen Moltmann and John Piper, Jeremy Rifkin and Julian of Norwich, Ravi Zacharias and Leslie Newbigin ? How many postmodern scholars cite Zygmunt Bauman and Abraham Heschel?
Which is to say not only is this a culturally aware work, a well-written, interesting and fresh look at the “plastic promises” of this Paris propensity (sorry) but it is theologically rich, Biblically grounded, evangelically spirited. It isn’t just a jeremiad against 21st century forms of hot-wired worldliness, but is a sophisticated and insightful exploration of how such hyper-reality erodes real life, distorts our views of ourselves, even distorts faith itself. Sayers is Australian, friends with Alan Hirsch (The Forgotten Ways) and the Red Network. He is missional, creative, energetic, wholisitic—the big ending to this, the last few chapters, are about living redemptively in the real world in ways that I believe are really right on, down to Earth, thank God! It is to the books credit that its solid call for embodied whole-life discipleship is the sort that has garnered rave reviews from Gregory Laughery, a thoughtful teacher at the Swiss L’Abri (and author of the fabulous Living Spirituality), from social activist Shane Claiborne and Presbyterian pastor/writer John Ortberg.
The Trouble With Paris by Mark Sayers is a very approachable and interesting study of the false realities of our age; indeed, it exposes how we’ve been ripped off by our culture’s version of reality. The reign of God, living faithfully in a human and humane way in God’s good creation, under Christ’s Lordship, finding spiritual presence in the midst of the ordinary real, is the Biblical antidote to the trap of the sexualized, slick version of a hyper-reality offered by Paris et al.
It wouldn’t be a hip and user-friendly text, though, if it didn’t have a multi-media component, so, happily, there is a 4-week DVD curriculum that we also stock, making it (I’m smiling a bit as I write this) a subversive use of the electronic media for saner, wiser purposes. Check out the very active Paris website, and grab a few clips to see if it might be useful for you or your group. It sells for $39.99 and there are extra participants guides available as well which will walk you into the trouble, and serve as a guide to a way through to the really really. A few groups that have used it and have written on line have suggested it is a great conversation starter, stimulating reflection and well worth the cost.
Trouble With Paris
Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street Dallastown, PA 17313