This last week my wife and I celebrated our 3rd anniversary. By the grace of God we’ve managed, however imperfectly, to honor our vows, love each other, point each other to Christ, share a bank account, learn to clean up beard clippings, and put the clip back on the tortilla chips after using them. While there’s plenty to say about three years of marriage learnings, I’d rather take some time to reflect on our celebration–in Vegas.
Yes, just a couple of days after taking our college students on a retreat to focus on the Holiness of God, my wife and I hopped in my parents’ minivan (which, let me say, has legit acceleration and handling) and headed out to the bright lights of Vegas for a couple of nights relaxation and celebration. And yes, for those wondering, there’s enough non-compromising stuff to do there that even a college pastor and his wife can have a good time. Though, I must confess, we lost $1 in the I Love Lucy slot machine out of principle. In any case, we stayed at the Vdara, in the City Center (thank you Hotwire.com!), which was nice because it was in the middle of everything, but as a non-gaming hotel, was still pretty clean and quiet. All in all, it was a lovely little break after a pretty crazy June.
Of course, even though it was a vacation, in the middle of the pool-sitting, eating, walking around, people-watching, and so forth, I was still me, which means that the theological gears kept churning the whole time. What follows are a few, rough thoughts that popped into my head as we Vegased about.
After the Disco: Visions of the Good Life. One of the lessons repeated over and over by types like James K.A. Smith and Kevin Vanhoozer, is that culture is a force that constantly responds to as well as reshapes our desires. One of the main ways it does that is by holding out a vision, or rather various visions, of the “good life”, the life which is truly life, before our eyes and our hearts. These visions are not so much propositional statements like “sex is the meaning of life”, or “money will fulfill you”, but rather they’re portraits, pictures, narratives, and songs that invite you in, and capture your imagination and the affections of your heart. Intellectually you know that statements of the sort made above are shallow and false, and yet, when presented with ads filled with laughing, beautiful, sensual people, clothed in modern finery, cavorting in exotic place, your heart stammeringly mumbles “I want to go to there.”
I go into all of this simply because if it is anything at all, Vegas is one big, high-octane, cocktail of all our culture’s most popular visions, shaken up, stirred, poured out across a city landscape and then lit on fire.
- Vegas is Money: Cash gets you luxury, the finest suites, the best food, the nicest drinks, and the best entertainment. If you gamble, it even gets your more money!
- Vegas is Comfort: You deserve the spas, the pools, the comfy beds, and everything that goes into being pampered and all that goes into really living.
- Vegas is Sex: Just look on the sidewalk, the billboards, the servers, the ads, the clubs, the shows, the…
- Vegas is Youth: Go to the pool, look at the ads, and everything tells you, to truly enjoy life, you need to be young.
I could go on and on, but, I’ll be honest, when you’re there, in the middle of the beating heart of it all, it’s easy to find your heart starting to beat in sync with the city.
It was fitting, then, that on the way out there, we turned on Broken Bells’ latest album After the Disco, which ended up being a fun yet reflective soundtrack to much of our time there. The title track “After the Disco” in particular caught my attention, especially this one line: “After your faith has let you down / I know you’ll want to run around /And follow the crowd into the night / But after the disco /All of the shine just faded away.” This is the sordid truth behind all other visions of the good life apart from that of the Kingdom of God: eventually the glitz and the shine fades away. If you’ve given your heart over to drink deeply of these visions, eventually the hangover comes, and nothing looks quite as pretty anymore.
Use and Enjoyment. All of which reminded me of St. Augustine. See, while I was out there, I actually did a little theological reading (it was vacation!) and was reminded of a very important distinction in Augustine’s thought between uti and frui:
Augustine distinguishes between the final goal of human life, the enjoyment (frui) of God, and the means we use (uti) in order to arrive at that goal (I, i, 1–iv, 9). All that we do or decide not to do must aim at love of God. Everything else we may use only in order to attain that goal. Augustine employs an image to explain what he means. Exiles who wander outside of their homeland are happy only once they are back in their homeland. They do everything in order to return to that land (I, iv, 8). With humankind it is the same. They wander about outside of God, and they must use everything in this world.
–Maarten Wisse, in Willem J. Van Asselt ed. Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Kindle Locations 973-977).
As I sat there eating a very nice breakfast one morning with my wife, it struck me that this was at the heart of what had been nagging at me all weekend as I looked around. See, although Vegas often holds out distorted versions of the various goods mentioned above, most of those goods themselves aren’t bad inherently. Money used wisely and generously can be a blessing. Sex between a husband and wife can be life-giving and joyous. Youth is a gift with particular joys given to all to be valued alongside Age. Comfort can be, well, comforting after hard work and exertion. To be very clear: my wife and I had a lot fun in Vegas. The food was good, the bed was comfy, and we had a lovely time spending time with each other out on the town.
The problem wasn’t so much with the things themselves, but with the place they’re given. In Augustine’s theology, all of these things are good gifts to be used in order to enjoy God as the giver of these gifts. Instead, if Vegas acknowledges God at all, he is the one to be used to enjoy the various gifts as ends in and of themselves. Actually, that’s the source of the distortions. When Sex is the ultimate good to be enjoyed, you eventually come to the point where its natural use reaches its limit; it was never supposed to be more than a gift pointing beyond itself. But when it becomes ultimate, well then, there are no bounds to be observed in your pursuit of it–you have to wring the juice out in every unlawful, twisted fashion you can imagine.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to sex. It’s with anything. If food, or the experience, or comfort, is the ultimate you’re chasing in Vegas, there’s buffets, show upon show upon show, and exclusive spa upon exclusive spa. Incidentally, that’s how they can charge so much–if your coffee is the beginning to your perfect experience, then you’re going to pay the two bucks extra for the exact same cup you get at home.
This is why the lights eventually fade–it never lives up to promise, and the cost eventually takes its toll.
Three shorter observations.
Marriage Changes Things. I felt like marriage changed things for me a bit this time around. Walking around with my wife, my biggest partner in the faith, helped keep the both of us grounded as we saw the beautiful shops and the beautiful people with the beautiful things. Having someone with you who can remind you of the fading and temporal character nature of the things we were enjoying (in the non-Augustinian sense), really makes a difference. I’m not saying that singles can’t go there and have fun without falling into gross sin or something. Still, having the person who most knows your heart, your struggles, your fears, and has your faith in mind can make a world of difference in the way you approach diversion and rest.
People With Stories. That kind of came out as we walked around various shops and restaurants. In one particular case, we sat down for dinner at this hip burger place at the bar (there were no tables available), and had a very lovely time chatting with our bartender. She was a sweet lady, six-months pregnant who talked to us about our marriage, anniversary, time in Vegas, and the blessings of the last few years. It’s easy to forget, everywhere you go, no matter what you’re doing, you’re going to run into people with stories and souls who want to be known, loved, and heard. What’s more, even though we didn’t get to share it then and there, opportunities for the Gospel abound–even on vacation.
Stress and True Peace in God. I don’t want to give the wrong impression here, though, like my wife and I came off scot-free, using things to enjoy God and loving random strangers for Jesus, as perfect little Christians. Our hearts had to fight off a little Vegas arrhythmia of their own, only in our case, I think we had both temporarily bought into the vision of situational peace. Though everything had been going smoothly enough, there came a moment in the middle of our trip when we realized we weren’t experiencing the peace we thought some time by the pool, maybe a purchase or two, and a nice dinner out were going to provide. Work still loomed. Bodies still ached. The bright lights hadn’t been enough to drown out the dark shadows of certain fears.
So, right there in the middle of the vacation we found ourselves giving it to God and reminding ourselves that He Himself is our peace. Funny enough, it was a little after that we started to enjoy ourselves more freely. Once the expectations of existential peace had been lifted off our vacation, we were to able to receive it for what it was: a good gift pointing to a much greater God. It sounds too picture perfect, but honestly, we enjoyed cheaper food more, laughed easier, stayed out later, and slept deeper that night as Augustine’s exiles, knowing these things were but the tiniest little foretaste of rest to come.
Soli Deo Gloria