Vaping, the Soul and Proclamation

By Paul Koch –

Many years ago, Michael Foley wrote a delightful article in First Things titled “Tobacco and the Soul.” Using Plato’s classic distinction of dividing the soul into three kinds of desire; the appetitive, the spirited and the rational, Foley noted a profound correlation with the use and form of tobacco smoking popular in our country.

The correlation is fairly obvious, which I think makes it somewhat brilliant. Cigarettes correspond to the appetitive part of our soul. They are the symbol of instant gratification, fueled by an appetite that is not concerned with health but with consumption. Cigars correspond to the spirited part of our soul. They are associated with power and ambition. The simple act of smoking a cigar is an obtrusive spectacle that cannot be easily ignored by those in the vicinity. And then there is pipe smoking. Its relation to the rational part of the soul is apparent from our association of pipes with thinkers like Sherlock Holmes or even Albert Einstein. The pipe, unlike the cigar or cigarette, endures; while the tobacco is consumed, the pipe itself remains. Similarly, the questions of the philosopher outlast physical desire or ambition.

Now, if your interest is in other smokeless forms of tobacco, or for that matter the smoking of other leaves, do not worry. Foley doesn’t leave them out of his musings. But what is intriguing about his observation is how he uses these correlations between tobacco and the soul as a sort of augury for what is happening in our culture. So, over the last few decades we have seen an immense increase in female cigar smokers as women continue to enter the traditionally male world of competition. As Foley put it, “If the pipe epitomizes the intellectual way of life, then is it any surprise that it cannot be found where schools substitute politically correct ideology for real philosophy, or where the intelligentsia, instead of engaging in serious thought, pander to the latest activist fads? Is it any surprise that America’s most famous pipe-smoker in the last thirty years has been Hugh Hefner, pajama prophet of the trite philosophy of hedonism?

I wonder, then, what we might divine from the rise of vaping? It seems as if every few months a new little vape shop opens in my town. You can buy everything from disposable cigarettes and cigars to beautifully crafted and customized pipes that have now taken our long love affair with tobacco into the modern age. No longer do we need to burn the leaf; we can get all the delights of nicotine through a mystically (and battery powered) vaporized solution. It even comes in a whole rainbow of flavors. These days, when I walk through the smoking area outside the restaurant or bar, there aren’t a bunch of cigarette smokers. There are folks with these e-cigs, laughing and talking in the midst of great clouds of vapor.

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Now people will tell you that there are health benefits to this type of “smoking,” not only for the user but even with regards to second-hand smoke. This is just a better alternative to traditional smoking, no matter which of the three classic forms you might have enjoyed in the past. But let me assure you, if you haven’t tried an e-cig, the draw of such a habit is not its relative safety but its ease of use. Quite simply, what makes these devices so popular is that you don’t have to light them. You don’t have to concern yourself with an open flame, you don’t have any ash to worry about (and so no ashtrays), and you don’t have to worry about it getting too hot. You can take a few puffs and just drop it in your shirt pocket. I would argue that it is the convenience of vaping that is the real base for its popularity.

By this time, you might well be wondering what any of this has to do with preaching. Well, I think if we take our cue from Foley, it means a great deal. The popularity of this form of “smoking” says something about the souls of these people to whom the Gospel is to be proclaimed. It is not just an appetitive desire that drives them, but one in which convenience is at the center. We are a people who thrive on convenience, and our love for technology reveals how deep it goes. Our technological advancements feed our addiction to convenience. We no longer ask what we give up with the new technology. Be it an apple watch or an atomizer in a battery powered cigar, we just want to be sure that it will make life more convenient.

Now, I know there are many who will simply say along with Solomon, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Therefore, this manifestation of sin ought to not particularly worry the preacher. Just do what you’ve been doing and we’ll all be fine. But the rise of convenience, over says Hugh Heffner’s hedonism, is a much more subtle god that we ought to take seriously. In other words, if the hearer of the Gospel is primarily driven not by a quest for knowledge and propositional truth, not by status and power, not even by food and sex, but by convenience, then we are not to simply encourage someone to get his face out of his phone. Rather, we are to try and kill their love for the easy, so that Christ might give them a cross.

And that is not easy.

I think I’ll go light my pipe and ponder that for a while…

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