The gospel according to John begins with a poem, a party, and a protest. The poem is the Prologue in chapter one. The party is held at Cana in the first half of chapter two. The protest is in the Jerusalem temple in the second half of chapter two. The poem does not have the utility of a shopping list. The party could be seen by some as a waste of both time and wine. The protest may have made lots of noise, but it didn’t appear to change anything of substance in that historical moment.
The first two chapters of the Johannine account could be regarded, in the words of Marva Dawn’s great old book, as “a royal waste of time.” Don’t get me wrong here. The events may not be particularly “useful” in any social, political, or economic sense at the moment. But they are deeply significant, both in the Johannine account and in our walk as disciples.
In the previous post, we talked about time and its meaning in the Johannine account. I was reminded of the Ephesian reference to “getting the most out of the time.” As I reflect further, I think I’d like to take that translation back. I’m not sure it’s all that helpful. That translation can easily slide into a neoliberal, capitalist interpretation that reinforces our obsession with making every second productive in economic and political terms.
I’m reading Jenny Odell’s 2019 book, How to Do Nothing. She notes that her book is “a field guide to doing nothing as an act of political resistance to the attention economy…” (page xi). She argues that we live more and more in a system where what we do with our time can never be enough, how we accumulate our stuff can never be enough, and who we are as people can never be enough.
“The point of doing nothing, as I define it,” Odell writes, “isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive” (page xii). She wants us to wrestle ourselves away from the “attention economy,” where every waking second of our lives is available to be monetized by strangers in the virtual world and to replant our focus back in a public and physical space.
I think about an example which is not quite in Odell’s direct argument but makes the same point. Nearly twenty years ago, Andrew Fischer rented out his forehead to SnoreStop for over thirty-seven thousand dollars. This spawned a small industry dedicated to monetizing the physical geography of human bodies in order to promote a variety of products. It was a good deal for Mr. Fischer, and he made the whole enterprise into a business beyond serving as a walking billboard.
In effect, such an enterprise treats human bodies as spaces which can be commercially exploited for private gain. Let me be clear. No one forced Fischer to do anything. I’m not making that argument. But he viewed his body in the same way that our culture views time – as a tangible asset to be mined for everything it’s worth. And if we’re not producing something of economic value, then we’re “useless.”
The first thing Jesus does in the Johannine gospel, after responding to the curiosity of the first disciples with a call to following, is to attend a party. When he’s asked to do something “useful” at the party, he gets snarky with his own mother and says something like, “Hey, I’m off the clock, Mom.” Then when he does respond to the request, he makes a whole bunch of wine. He doesn’t give sight or hearing or anything else. He starts by being a bit less than “useful.”
And he does it for free. Now, that’s downright un-American.
In a neoliberal, capitalist worldview, regular worship makes no sense. Regular worship doesn’t produce any capital gains. We don’t make anything. We may not even learn anything. I had an inactive parishioner in a congregation once who finally came clean with me on why he didn’t attend worship. He couldn’t afford to waste time like that.
Sunday morning was a time when he could find lots of people at home. Since he was in direct sales, that time was one of his biggest earning blocks of the week. Spending a couple of hours getting ready for, traveling to, attending, and then traveling back from regular worship was, in his view, a bad investment. I thanked him for his honesty and stopped asking him questions.
Many folks deal with this lack of usefulness in worship and other church activities by turning these events into self-help or personal growth experiences. They may not be able to monetize their time at church, but they can justify the expenditure on the basis of “what they get out of it.” Consumerism remains the framework through which they understand worship and account for their time.
This is most obvious when someone changes churches (or synagogues or mosques or other communities, I assume) because “I’m not getting anything out of it.” The more spiritual and pious form of this complaint is that “I’m not being fed.” People have mismatches with faith communities, and I think people should participate where they can be of most service. But the arrow of causation tends to run from congregant as consumer to church as vendor.
“We live in an age and a culture that want instead to turn the worship of God into a matter of personal taste and time, convenience and comfort,” Marva Dawn writes. “Consequently, we need the biggest dose of God we can get when we gather for worship on Sunday morning – to shake us out of this societal sloth and somnambulism and summon us to behold God’s splendor and respond with adoration and service and sacrifice” (Kindle Locations 121-123).
But if our gospel reading is any indicator, sometimes making the most of the time might mean doing nothing really productive. “Worship is a royal waste of time that spirals into passion for living as Christians and back into more passionate worship,” Dawn argues. “It is totally irrelevant, not efficient, not powerful, not spectacular, not productive, sometimes not even satisfying to us. It is also the only hope for changing the world” (Kindle Locations 245-246).
Worship is such a force for hope because it requires us to pay attention for the sake of attention rather than to fill someone’s pockets. Worship is not a means to an end but rather an end in itself. It is an expression of our love for God “for nothing.” We might want to love God for what produces, but that is not love for God. That is really love for self. Relating to God for God’s sake needs to justification and provides no profit.
No wonder most people don’t care much for it.
Marva J. Dawn. A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World Kindle Edition.
Odell, Jenny. How to Do Nothing. Melville House. Kindle Edition.