By James M. Kushiner, Touchstone, May 22,2020
Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Beep! Thus began my writing this Friday afternoon: Rudely interrupted by the warning sound of on those modern devices inhabiting our homes, homes new and improved from medieval times, with dishwashers, freezers, electricity, internet and Wi-Fi, air conditioning, and so on.
Where were the beeps coming from? I entered our bedroom and waited—the beeps came again, but not from the CO detector but from farther away. It must be downstairs. I stand under the smoke alarm—Beeps! but now from the stairwell. I forgot, there’s another smoke alarm upstairs. I go back up. Beeps!—It’s definitely from downstairs. Beeps! Ah, it’s the First Alert CO detector in the wall socket near the floor!
But what does the alarm mean? There’s a chart on the back in tiny script. I squint—four beeps means… CO alarm. How many beeps did I hear? Maybe five: Five beeps in a minute with the display reading “End”—which it does—means “End of Life. Replace Alarm.” Four beeps means end of my life if I ignore the alarms; five means the end of the alarm’s life. I’ve remove the battery and put it to rest.
We have alarms for smoke, for carbon monoxide—and alarms for the alarms. Of course, smoke and CO can kill you. But our society encounters such a multitude of warnings that the vast majority of them are routinely ignored and thrown into the trash whenever we open a packaged product: Warning! children may choke on small pieces! They may get strangled in cords of the mini-blinds! Warning: Use of this product will cause cancer or hiccups! Some of the warnings are even funny—who would use a clothes iron to iron a shirt while wearing it?
I don’t say that all warnings are bogus, just that they are so ubiquitous that the boy who cried wolf has nothing on a society that has created such a din of alarms that we tune them out—do you pay attention to all possible side effects mentioned in pharmaceutical ads on television and radio? “May, in some cases, cause death”! Well, you take your chances.
For a society that has grown so obsessed with warnings (mostly due to litigation threats), it is strangely unconcerned about serious matters that threaten us beyond physical death:
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” Luke 12:4
Our God is an alarming God, for our good. We have warnings from the Law, the Psalms, the Prophets, and from our Lord and Creator himself about the real End of Life. We don’t get replaced, but judged.
The word alarm harkens back to Old French alarme and Italian all’arme— “to arms!” a call in the face of danger or an enemy.
Sometimes words develop other meanings that are nearly opposite of the original. Take salvo, which comes ultimately from salute, a gesture of wishing health—salus—to someone. A twenty-one-gun salute is a salvo of guns to honor someone. But a salvo could also be a battery of cannons fired simultaneously at an enemy. The good health of the recipients is the last thing on the minds of artillery men.
Alarm as a verb did not develop into a sense opposite of “to arms,” but to be alarmed has come to mean, rather than “summoned to arms,” to be surprised with an apprehension of danger.
Douglas Farrow, in the current issue of Touchstone, writes of divine alarms in both senses. “Should we not always be fighting, fighting the good fight of faith?” And also, our Lord said, “See that you are not alarmed, for this is not the end.” Jesus is using alarmed here in our second sense, “to be surprised with an apprehension of danger.”
While we are not to become alarmed, our Lord also calls us to arms: “Taking take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints…” Today, our society is obsessed with avoiding death, but not sin, which leads to eternal death. Now that should be alarming.
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