Gnosticism in the Age of Noise

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A Landscape with Dragons : The Battle for Your Child’s Mind by Michael D. O’Brien

It can be a strange time to live in for parents, with much noise about how to parent and a great many ‘experts’ to seek opinions from.  Rather than following this approach, Michael O’Brien’s book makes a good attempt at providing parents with a reflective framework or perhaps even a philosophical approach with which to discern what media influences are going to be helpful or harmful to their children’s healthy development.  The first chapters identify the subtle and not-so-subtle difficulties parents face when choosing good stories for their children, particularly with the modern cultural fascination with the acquisition of knowledge as a means of “salvation” from the woes of the modern world.

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There is a great need for a return to the objective warning signs strong enough to prevail over the massive subjectivisation of the modern mind – a mind, by the way, that has abandoned the stern messages of right and wrong that one finds in traditional fairy stories; a mind that is instead pumped full of images that glamorise the diabolical…  If that process is not reversed, the malformed mind, pacified by neutered concepts of justice and mercy, will find itself without defences;  it may even in the end come to believe that evil is good, and good is evil.  p. 39.

Because of the Incarnation, man at last knows his place in the created order of the universe.  Man is damaged, but he is a beloved child of the Father.  Moreover, creation is good, very good…  It is God’s intention that matter is neither to be despised, on the one hand, nor worshipped, on the other.  Neither is it to be ignored, suppressed, violated, or escaped.  p. 49

We are seeing all around us a collapse back into paganism.. Gnosticism, which in our times is enjoying something of a comeback… Including a cold rationalist gnosticism (science without conscience).. [and] the more cultic manifestations… loosely grouped under the title the “New Age Movement”… some Gnostic groups were pantheistic (worshipping nature as divine), and others, the majority, were more strongly influenced by Oriental dualism (that is, the belief that material creation is evil and the divine realm is good).  Despite these confusing differences, they shared in common the belief that knowledge was the true saving force.  p. 50-51

Once a basic understanding of the Gnostic influence on our modern stories, O’Brien turns to its application at a broad cultural level.

Our minds are becoming increasingly passive and image oriented because of the tremendous influence of the visual media… [which] have lessened the need for the disciplines of the mind that in former generations were the distinguishing marks of an intelligent person.  p.59

In a culture that deliberately targets the senses and overwhelms them, employing all the genius of technology and art, children have fewer resources to discern rightly than at any other time in history.  Flooded with a vast array of entertaining stimuli, children and parents suppose that they live in a world if multiple choices.  In fact, their choices are shrinking steadily, because as quantity increases, quality decreases… Most children drink from these polluted wells, which seem uncleanable and unaccountable to anyone except the money-makers.  The children who do not drink from them can feel alienated from their own generation, because they have less talk and play to share with friends who have been fed only on the new electronic tales… Many parents exercise very little control over their children’s consumption of entertainment.  For those who try to regulate the tube, there is a constant struggle… When one listens to many of the programs made for children, one frequently hears the strains of modern Gnosticism:  

“If you watch this, you will know more, be more grown-up, more smart, more cool, more funny, more able to talk about it with your friends”  

“You decide.  You choose.  Truth is what you believe it to be.”    

“Right and wrong are what you feel are right and wrong for you.  Question authority.  To become what you want to be, you must be a rebel.”   

“You make yourself.  You make your own reality.”

“We can make a perfect world.  Backward older people, especially ignorant traditionalists, are the major stumbling blocks to building a peaceful, healthy, happy planet.”
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It’s all there in children’s culture, and it pours into their minds with unrelenting persistence, sometimes as the undercurrent but increasingly as the overt, central message… in film after film parents (especially fathers) are depicted as abusers at worst, bumbling fools at best.  Christians are depicted as vicious bigots, and ministers of religion as either corrupt hypocrites or confused clowns.  The young “heroes” and “heroines” of these dramas are mouthpieces of the ideologies of modern social and political movements, champions of materialism, sexual libertarianism, environmentalism, feminism, globalism, monism, and all the other isms that are basically about reshaping reality to fit the new world envisioned by the intellectual elites. p 61-63

Being an author himself, O’Brien obviously puts forward the case of preference for books over visual media but he does make a good point that books are democratic in that the reader’s own imagination can select the focus, as opposed to visual media which tyrannically decides what to focus on.

An interesting modern media technique highlighted by O’Brien is the use of using evil to defeat evil, which contradicts the (?now outdated) maxim that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Satan, in his attempt to influence human affairs… sets up a horrible evil, repulsive to everyone, even to the most naive of people.  Then he brings against it a lesser evil that has the appearance of virtue.  The people settle for the lesser evil, thinking they have been “saved”, when all the while it was the lesser evil that the devil wished to establish in the first place.  Evils that appear good are far more destructive in the long run than than those that appear with horns, fangs and drooling green saliva.  p.68

A powerful falsehood is implanted in the young by heroes who are given knowledge of good and evil, given power over good and evil, who play with evil but are never corrupted by it. p.78

While it is all good to have an idea about what is bad, I found his categories for children’s culture helpful to work out what is good, and it is not a black and white process.  O’Brien proposes four main distinctions, with a continuum ranging from : Material that is entirely good /  fundamentally good but disordered in some details / appears good on the surface but is fundamentally disordered / or blatantly evil, rotten to the core.

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Subsequent chapters delve into more specific critiques on choices available.  Published in 1998, it deals with works which were more popular at that time, but the principles of discernment are helpful.

A simple rule of thumb is to ask the following questions… Does the story reinforce my child’s understanding of the moral order of the universe?  Or does it undermine it?  Does it do some of both?  Do I want that?  What precisely is the author [director/creator] saying about the nature of evil?  What does he tell the reader (or viewer) about the nature of the war between good and evil? p.104

On the one hand, a parent may be so dismayed by the sheer mass of fronts on which he must now struggle that he is tempted to dismiss the problem altogether.  It is simply too much to handle, he feels.  Perhaps it is a tempest in a teacup, he argues with himself.  It is overreaction, it is alarmism, he concludes.  On the other hand, he may accept the fact that there is a real crisis under way and that children, moreover his children, are its potential victims.  Yet, feeling unequipped to deal with it, pushed into a corner, unable to answer his children’s demands for an explanation of why he rejects the questionable material, he may be tempted to an impulsive closing of all cultural doors.  He may try to put his children into quarantine, permitting them access only to books, films, and other cultural material released before the 1960s. p.112

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Both approaches are going to have negative effects on our children…There is a third approach.  The wisdom of two thousand years of Catholicism has given us a heritage that is always at our disposal.  It is called the discernment of spirits… The following are some basic principles:

1. God has chosen to create man a free being… [and] For most of us the imagination is a battleground where we often struggle with temptations to one or more of the deadly sins.

2. Those souls who are earnestly striving to cleanse themselves from sin and seek to live ever more perfectly… the devil now afflicts us with anxiety, sadness, loneliness, fear, and all kinds of false reasoning that deeply disturb the soul.

3. As the soul advances in holiness, it continues to experience periods of consolation and desolation…Prudence is needed here, not passivity or panic.  He must resist the temptations of denial or alarmism… He should pray.  p. 115

[And, finally] no mountain is more difficult to move than the human will when it is determined to cling to a vice.  No amount of lecturing, cajoling, or reasoning can free a child who has come to believe (in the inverted logic of sin) that his addiction is life itself.  I have found that in such situations, where my prayers seem to be having little or no effect (usually because sin, habits of self-indulgence, or a spirit of rebellion is involved), fasting is also necessary.  Fasting is not easy.  I’m not very good at it, but I have learned through personal experience that it can move mountains. p. 116

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O’Brien’s final chapters deal with the great Christian storytellers – George MacDonald, CS Lewis & JR Tolkien, followed by a brief conclusion reflecting on the question : “Are Christians Intolerant?”

You may have noticed that life in the twentieth century is somewhat tense…The remedy, of course, is exactly what it has always been:  Open the doors of our hearts to Jesus Christ, live the Gospels without compromise, love the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ, and pray for the flowering of love and the renewal of truth within our communities, churches, families and oneself – yes, especially oneself…  If I had to choose an image to sum up our times… I would call it the Age of Noise.  In the entire history of mankind, there has never been such a continuous battering of the human brain… How very difficult it is to resist an entire culture, and especially for children to do so, because it is a right and good thing for children to grow into awareness of a broader community.  They need culture in order to grow properly.  It is one of their primary means of learning what it is to be a fully human person in the a community of fellow human beings.  That is why the solution will never be simply a matter of criticising the false culture surrounding us.  The absolutely essential task of parents is to give their children a true culture, a sure foundation on which to stand.  p.161-166

The extensive family reading booklists at the back of this book have been the basis for our family when choosing good books for our children for many years, from picture book recommendations through to young adult fiction.  Without fail, they have all been excellent recommendations and we have not regretted one single purchase ( I use the word purchase, not library loan, as there is such an appalling lack of good literature at our local libraries).  This includes the Rosemary Sutcliff books.  I would strongly encourage you to consider this book if for nothing else but the good reading list.

Happy reading.

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