How Does Sanctification Work? by David Powlison, Free for CAPC Members
David Powlison dispels the myth that there is a “key to sanctification” and then lays the biblical groundwork for spiritual growth.
It’s Friday night and the couch beckons. You’ve decided to watch How to Be Single, the 2016 comedy starring Dakota Johnson and Rebel Wilson. It’s a genuinely fun movie with likable characters and an energetic pace. Fun enough, in fact, that you’re willing to overlook a few things. For instance, that a receptionist in New York City seems to have an unlimited wardrobe budget. Or that copious amounts of drinking and casual sex never cause the slightest medical or emotional complication. After all, movies like this require a certain suspension of disbelief.
. . . before we can know how to be single, we first have to know how to be human.But there’s one shortcoming that’s especially peculiar: How to Be Single is unable to answer its own question. It cannot tell you how to be single. This isn’t exactly a fatal flaw. You may still laugh when Rebel Wilson’s character awkwardly announces, “I once had sex with an albino.” But it’s troubling nonetheless.
Alice, the protagonist and narrator played by Dakota Johnson, begins the movie by assuring us that “there’s a right way to be single and a wrong way to be single.” But as the movie unfolds, it becomes more and more difficult to share her confidence. Take the scene near the end in which Alice is narrating resolutions for all of the story’s various plot lines. She’s doling out pithy truisms to her best friend, sister, and other miscellaneous characters. These unassuming bits of advice are so disjointed and haphazard that anyone taking them seriously might feel a touch of vertigo.
For instance, the first piece of wisdom that she gives us comes in the form of a warning. Don’t get too good at being alone. Otherwise you might “miss out on the chance to be with somebody great.” Did you catch that? You’re supposed to stay a little bit inept at singleness. How would this admonition be followed? Should single people take pains to remain incompetent in certain areas? Build little inefficiencies into their routine?
There’s little time to ponder the matter before she goes on to claim that “some people take baby steps to settle down.” This seems to imply that “settling down” is the goal. As if the answer to the titular question of how to be single is “stop being single.”
But she’s already moved on to the next koan in which she seems to be identifying “settling down” with “settling” in the negative sense. So that’s confusing. And finally, to round out the blitzkrieg of nonsensical advice, she tells us that “sometimes it’s not statistics, it’s just chemistry. And sometimes just because it’s over doesn’t mean the love ends.”
The movie flounders just at the moment when it should be strongest. Rather than presenting some coherent vision of what it means to be single, it devolves into platitudes. Here we see a desire to understand the human condition but without the requisite understanding to do so.
As an artifact of culture, this movie raises an alarming possibility. Could it be that a great many people are walking about with the anxious desire to answer important questions, but with a crippling inability to do so? Sure, opinions are profuse. They are generated ad nauseum at the slightest provocation. But these opinions do not cohere. There is no integrity of thought holding them together, no overarching view of humanity’s place in the cosmos.
Perhaps this is unsurprising. It may go without saying that popular comedies shouldn’t be expected to answer satisfactorily the questions they raise. But to say so is simply to admit that the problem runs deep—that indeed, in an age when someone can pull her phone from her pocket to find out the distance in inches from the earth to the sun, that same person cannot seem to determine who she is or what she is doing here.
This puts American Christians in a unique situation. It reveals that they are members of two distinct cultures. On the one hand, they are a part of the culture that produced How to Be Single. They are immersed in a time and place that is unknown to itself. That culture is part of the very air they breathe, affecting them in ways that are hard to anticipate.
Yet they are also part of another culture. They are members of the worldwide and historic church. As such, they belong to the tradition that produced Augustine’s Confessions, Calvin’s Institutes, and Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. These works aren’t merely brilliant, they are also integrated. They offer coherent answers to the dilemmas of being human.
Christian anthropology is a fecund soil from which has grown a bountiful variety of fruit. Thomas Aquinas, the towering figure of medieval philosophy, is one example. He understood human action in light of seven virtues. For him, the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, courage, and temperance) along with the three Christian virtues (faith, hope, and love) constituted a system of human flourishing. An excellent introduction to Aquinas’s concept of the virtues can be found in a slim volume by Josef Pieper called The Christian Idea of Man. Pieper, a twentieth century German philosopher, concisely lays out the meaning of each of the seven virtues, explaining their significance within that system.
Pieper also laments the fact that many Christians are currently ignorant of Christian anthropology. They know little of the rich tradition of Christian thinking regarding humanity’s place in the world. As such, they may know what they’re supposed to do but not who they’re supposed to be: “The average Christian would not expect our moral and ethical teaching to tell us anything about the true being of man, about his true image” (4).
Understood this way, How to Be Single is an invitation. It invites Christians to acquaint themselves with the deep well of thought known as Christian anthropology. And it’s also an invitation to listen and engage in the conversations surrounding them about what it means to live well. The thoughtful Christian can provide real insight into such discussions. After all, before we can know how to be single, we first have to know how to be human.
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