by Anthony J. Hamilton
How often do you feel a sense of wonder?
There is a Hebrew word, pâlâ’, with the following definition:
Primitive root - to be marvelous, be wonderful, be surpassing, be extraordinary, separate by distinguishing action.
It is used in several different ways:
- for people being separated for service to God and for offerings;
- also, for miracles, such as the plagues on Egypt or the angel of the Lord ascending in the flame of the sacrifice made by Samson’s parents.
The usage under consideration here is the sense of wonder and awe something inspires in a person.
David used the term in describing his friendship with Jonathan (II Samuel 1:26). Consider that this friendship was with the son of the man trying to kill David. Jonathan was also the one who would have inherited the kingdom from Saul under normal circumstances (I Samuel 20:31). The existence of this deep friendship was a wonder.
Most frequently, it is used in praise of God and His deeds (I Chronicles 16:9, 12, 24; Job 5:9; 9:10; 10:16; 37:5, 14; 42:3; as well as around 30 times in Psalms).
While God is not doing great and awesome miracles before us these days, how often do we feel a sense of wonder for the world around us and for the things He’s done?
“There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
Four which I do not understand:
The way of an eagle in the sky,
The way of a serpent on a rock,
The way of a ship in the middle of the sea,
And the way of a man with a maid” (Proverbs 30:18-19).
Think of a small child. Many things just pass by them unnoticed, but often they are asking some form of that question that eventually drives even the most patient of parents up the wall: “Why?” How much does that one question drive us? How much should it drive us?
I recently came across an article by Matthew Lee Anderson, which is part of a book entitled The Gospel and Pornography from the Gospel for Life series. Of particular note is the section headed “The Death of Wonder and the Trivialization of What Matters,” though the entire article is quite thought-provoking.
To preface this, he talks about just how pervasive pornography is in our society. He mentions that society tries to get us to view porn as normal, or the "new normal," as it fills so many aspects of our culture, not just what people refer to as porn but the majority of movies, TV shows, music, and books where it is present. I know I personally have seen and heard far more than I ever would have imagined or ever wanted to, and also find it very disturbing how alluring it can seem, even though just a brief moment of serious contemplation makes me think how vile and disgusting it is.
“‘Let wonder seem familiar,’ Shakespeare has written, ‘and to the chapel let us presently.’ The line is from his play Much Ado about Nothing, which is nothing if not a wondrous tale. A young man mistakenly accuses his fiancée of infidelity, and she faints upon the unjust slander. He believes her dead, and sorrowfully repents on learning his error. All is made well at a wedding, where he is stunned by the vision of his fiancée alive and is chastened by her offer of forgiveness. The friar is the one who instructs us all to become friends with wonder, provided that we make our way off to the chapel for its formalization in due order. The advice is worth following.
“The path toward seeing how pornography dehumanizes begins here, in thinking about the death of wonder in our hearts and our lives. But I do not speak of wonder about sex—not yet, anyway. The death of mystery in that realm is only one manifestation of a more general disease, a pornification of our eyes and our minds that extends well beyond the realm of sexual stimulation. Whether pornography is to blame for this more general problem, or vice versa, may remain subject to debate; my only interest is in arguing that what happens in pornography is not limited to sex.
“Consider, for a moment, our practices of reading or watching other entertaining or informational ‘content.’ Our minds are often hurried and frantic, which keeps our attention strictly on the surface of things. Any pleasures that come from reading must be had quickly (especially when reading online), or we give up on the task. We skim articles and book chapters, hastily moving on to consume the next bit of information. Our eyes jump from photo to photo while scrolling our phones in line at the store. We flit about from channel to channel, awaiting the next spectacle that can seize our attention. Ours is a life in the shallows, to use Nicholar Carr’s fine phrase. We rarely expend the effort required to contemplate any farther than what appears in our direct line of sight, gorging ourselves on surfaces and images until we finally grow weary and eventually fall asleep.
“This ravenous lust of vision is classically known as curiositas, curiosity. Curiositas is a restlessness of the spirit and mind, an unsettled anxiety that pursues new spectacles to consume. Such pleasurable novelties provide cheap mental stimulation with little to no work. The momentary Facebook check ‘just to see’ gives us a brief respite from the responsibilities before us. We may not care about what we find; what matters is that we have found something new, and that we are entertained. Curiosity fixes our attention on the ‘things below,’ the things that are seen, the things that we can dispense with the moment we are done. But because such visions lack depth they will never satisfy. And because they are ubiquitous they must become more outlandish. The only way to arrest the attention of the curious is by making a scene, and then attempting to outdo yourself the next time around.
“A society animated by this kind of curiosity will have two compatible, paradoxical sentiments.
"First, it will attempt to peel back the curtain and lay bare sordid and dirty secrets. Curiosity aims to expose what ought not be known. Our society’s rampant fascination with the inner workings of the lives of celebrities — lives we will never have — may seem benign. But the voyeurism that moves someone to gaze lustfully through a window operates according to the same logic, only in a sexual key. We will have our spectacles wherever we can find them — and the more secret, the better.
“Second, curiosity undercuts our stomach for more serious ventures. ‘Cat videos don’t really matter,’ we say — and that is why our interest in them is damning. Curiosity is attentive only to the surface. It cannot abide the matter, the substance, or the depths before us. Curiosity is content with the image; but loving attention needs bodies. The curious has not the patience required for sustained consideration, much less the openness to the consuming immersiveness of wondrous rapture.
“It is easy to see the spirit of curiositas at work in pornography. Porn offers the most alluring sort of spectacle. Depictions of individuals engaged in secret acts of grave importance can be viewed, enjoyed, and discarded with no investment or pain on the viewer’s part. The rapid-fire, disposable quality of pornography suits and fosters the restlessness of those who view it. It leads them to continue scrolling and hunting for the look or scene that might momentarily awaken their imaginations. All that matters are the surfaces, and the more and more provocative, the better.
“There is no room within curiositas for reverential awe, for a sense that there are some mysteries that are not ours to unveil. The Christian objection to porn is not motivated by a fear of sexuality or by ‘sex negativity,’ but by a sanctified sense of wonder at the beauty of the human being, fully alive and fully revealed. And such wondrous treasures desire secrecy: hiddenness is the native habitat of glory. But our curious society has long shed its reluctance to profane the most holy places: the body in its sexual presentation is now merely one more trivial amusement meant for the satisfaction of momentary and passing interests, leaving no permanent mark on the soul or the society. Sex no longer matters—which is why it will no longer be fun. For the comedy, the ordinariness, and the mundane weirdness of sex draw energy and life from the enchanted awe that tempts us to kneel in chaste humility before the glory of another human being. No longer sacred, sex has become nothing at all.”
[Matthew Lee Anderson, "How Pornography Makes Us Less Human and Less Humane," The Gospel Colalition, 26 August 2019.]
Consider that line right after Agur's list of things too wonderful for him. "This is the way of an adulterous woman: she eats and wipes her mouth, and says, 'I have done no wickedness'" (Proverbs 30:20). The adulteress takes one of those things that Agar said was too wonderful for him, “the way of a man with a maid”, partakes of it in a defiling manner, and then brushes it aside as if it were nothing. Rather than holding the marriage in honor (Hebrews 13:4), pornography holds it in contempt and derision.
Consider how most children are after a few years of school. All too often, they hate schoolwork; they find it a drudgery. And too many people go through most of their lives the same way, their work, their home life, everything is viewed as drudgery.
One of my favorite books I’ve read and listened to in recent years is “Dawn of Wonder.” Besides being free of vulgarity and profanity (all too rare these days), one of my favorite things about the book was that Jonathan Renshaw managed to keep a childlike sense of wonder alive and growing throughout the entire story.
How much do you wonder? What instills wonder in your mind? Do you find it in the Creation and the incredible beauty of the world around you? Do you see it in how the world works -- from how a tree grows and where does the material come from, to why this piece of metal is magnetic while that one is not? What about your spouse’s love for you? If you don’t feel a sense of wonder there, one might begin to wonder what is wrong in the relationship.
And what of God’s love for you (I John 4:10; Romans 5:1-11)?
Is wonder alive or is it dead in you?