This will sound like I’m a pessimist who is weary about the future of his society. The reason for that is that I’m a pessimist who is weary about the future of his society. And judging by the number and frequency of regular posts and tweets that read (or include the words) “So sad,” “Heartbroken,” “Praying for…”, “My heart goes out to …”, etc., a lot of people are less than enthusiastic about how things are going in the world.
I understand the widespread concern demonstrated by this reactionary tweet/post echochamber, and I’ll return to that a little later. Why, though, am I pessimistic at this point about our ability to get a handle on our many problems? Let me disabuse the reader of some things that are NOT my reason(s):
It’s not because the job numbers are low.
It’s not because of too many guns or lack of respect for the 2nd Amendment.
It’s not because of systemic or institutional racism.
It’s not because of poverty or “income inequality.”
It’s not because we need to vote in more Republicans.
It’s not because of gender identity and bathroom use issues.
It’s not because of immigration or xenophobia.
It’s not because of terrorism or Islamophobia.
These are a lot of the usual suspects. These eat up most of the time spent on the airwaves. Some of them are certainly symptoms or results, but none of them is the root of our current overall problem. Our larger problem contributes to why we struggle to solve – or even deal with – all of these things, despite the aforementioned time spent (or wasted) on them via the airwaves and the internet.
No Depth and No Substance
The major crisis we face has to do with how we think (or don’t). The dramatic changes in technology, communication and entertainment that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime have yielded terrible side effects. It is similar to the way that sometimes a new medication that looks promising and helpful is found to carry really unfortunate side effects, and often these side effects are only realized long after years of usage.
Here we sit now, years after becoming accustomed to the new way of living, with a phone in every pocket capable of instant access to everything in the world, connected at every moment to hordes of people we know (even if we haven’t seen them in decades). The new reality includes a dizzying array of on-demand entertainment options sucking us into way too many hours of viewing. We’re all potatoes for whom anywhere and everywhere is our couch.
Maybe most pertinent to my immediate point, in the new reality (which doesn’t even seem very new anymore), news and opinions are shared immediately and constantly. The rapid-fire nature of news and opinions means we have little time to stop and contemplate one piece of it before we’re on to the next one. We’re just scrolling through them endlessly, firing off our own contributions, adding our droplets to the rapid but very shallow rushing river.
Both the speed of this process and the built-in character limitations have had the increasing effect of making every issue – no matter how serious or grave – reducible to bite (or byte) size, which serves to trivialize it. Add this phenomenon to the ever shrinking attention spans of minds made flabby from lack of exercise, and the effect is a hollowing out of the public discussion.
Our minds get little resistance training anymore. They feast on the snack foods of entertainment. We don’t challenge ourselves intellectually at all. We don’t want to think too hard. We don’t have the time or discipline to read anything too taxing or lengthy. As Os Guinness suggested in his book Fit Bodies, Fat Minds, this is like an intellectual obesity epidemic. We’ve gorged on that which is devoid of nutritional value. We’re the 400 lb. patient offended and angry at the doctor for telling us that our impending death is our own fault for a decade of cheese puffs & Mt. Dew.
This shallowness of mind and hollowness of soul constitutes, I say, the root of our problem as a culture. So a mass shooting takes place, and I see nothing but emotionally loaded responses that are surface-level and sometimes only barely rational. They amount to repetitious pronouncements of either personal feelings (“This hurts my heart”) or the revelations of Captain Obvious (“Racism is wrong”). Here is the usual order of events:
- Something shockingly terrible happens.
- Instantaneous news feeds and tweets let everyone know the basics of it immediately.
- Social media explodes with a million expressions of people’s sadness, sympathy, and solidarity, their “thoughts and prayers,” asking how this could happen, and so on.
- Politically opportunistic public voices rehearse predictable responses about whichever of their handful of favorite topics seem most relevant: guns, race, violence, poverty, terrorism, etc.
- The topic fades as quickly as it arose and dissipates from social media within days as some new topic of the moment replaces it.
In each case when I look back I see that in this process not much was learned. There was little serious reflection or substantive thinking. What happened in the quickie news/spin cycle was that the event was mass generalized and oversimplified. People emoted publicly. Memes were created and passed around the internet. There was a lot of heat and almost no light.
Truth, Reason and Honesty
Some readers will say, “You are neglecting the spiritual reality here and the vital role that our beliefs play in all of this.” You will ask, “Aren’t you one of those people who always says that it’s our deeper beliefs – our worldview commitments, values and presuppositions – that matter in all of these things?”
The answer to that question is, Yes I am one of those people. But I have come to realize that all of the correct and truthful teaching and proclamation comes to nothing if the recipients are unwilling to use their God-given capacity to really listen and understand. There is a reason we don’t evangelize or build schools for fish, birds and reptiles. If they had the capacity to receive truth, wisdom and instruction, I’m sure we would. We could teach the animals a lot of things that would be extremely beneficial to them and to us.
One important element of the image of God in human beings is the capacity to apprehend truth, to contemplate, to reflect, to weigh, to discern, to make distinctions, to recognize and employ logic, etc. Everyone possesses it. But vast numbers of people today seem to make the choice not to exercise this quintessentially human trait, or at least only to exercise it very minimally. It is as if we use about 5% of our potential problem-solving wisdom out of some combination of laziness, over-scheduling, distraction, apathy, or just overall fallenness, to put it in theological terms.
Piper is correct in his piece on the recent events in which he emphasizes truth as the rare jewel in our current public discourse. But truth requires honesty, and that can be as hard as critical thinking, which is why both are so uncommon and neglected. Honesty, Billy Joel sang, is such a lonely word. In certain cases, nobody wants to be the unpopular one who goes against the socially prescribed narrative. Honesty is an intellectual virtue that ends up requiring others, like boldness and willingness to be attacked or ridiculed by people who don’t like the discomfort that comes with unvarnished truth. But it’s not optional. Along with sober dedication to careful reasoning you must add the moral requirement of honesty.
Time to be Counter-Culture
There is no disguising it. We have to stop going along with the current of this shallow stream. People thinking, talking and acting like we are en masse can’t possibly diagnose and deal with problems of the magnitude of those we face. Why should we think we can? Why think we deserve any better if we’re going to be shallow, petty, lazy and dishonest?
Christians will always be counter-culture in one way or another if they are true to God and themselves. Today it has become counter-culture just to follow the simple principles I have outlined: be a careful and critical thinker, take time to digest and discern the specific things involved, let reason guide you more than raw emotion, be honest about what is true and what is real. We don’t hold the values we hold arbitrarily because of blind obedience to an ancient book someone told us had the answers. We have very good reasons for thinking that the truth and wisdom of that collection corresponds to reality and to that degree shows itself to be “God-breathed” as its writers claimed. And that revelation, I might add, has a number of admonitions to think, to discern, to be clear-headed and fair-minded, to test everything and then to embrace what’s true while discarding what’s false.
The prophetic words of George Orwell apply now more than ever: “We have sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent people.” Could this be why, after the recent events involving police & minority communities, many people felt the need to state, as though it were profound and groundbreaking, that it is possible and OK to be against both wrongful killing by police AND random killing of cops? Retired comedian Jon Stewart was apparently one of many who tauted this gem of moral wisdom & was memed triumphantly as though he were a veritable modern-day amalgam of Mother Theresa, Yoda, the Dalai Lama & MLK, Jr.
In The Abolition of Man C. S. Lewis wrote about the tragically ironic potential of mankind to regress back to the level of beasts while thinking he is marching forward into the evolutionary future. Our abandonment of truth, wisdom, and moral objectivism, corresponding with and resulting from a departure from the foundational recognition of God as the chief source and end of man, steps us down and pulls us back from our own humanity. We end up subsumed by nature as we act according to our immediate impulses and are led by passions rather than reason. For all of our scientific progress, we end up rejoining the rest of the animal kingdom. As Lewis said,
“All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was leading us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us forever. … Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness … till the moon falls or the sun grows cold.”
Think of the irrational nature of the modern-day mass shooter. To shoot people at random because of personal anger you feel about a news story is depraved in the most idiotic way. It’s the same sick stupidity that caused people to attack Sikhs after 9-11 due to vague resemblance (turbans and long beards), or that makes people vandalize a local mosque or synagogue because of something that happened in the Middle East that angered them. There’s only the shallowest connection between the victims and the sordid motive of the killer. The victims are like victims of bear attacks. Animals, after all, do not employ reason or ethics, and thus can be very unpredictable. A shark may attack you because you look kinda like a sea lion. And some disturbed moron may shoot you because you look kinda like a cop he saw beating someone on a video on the internet.
These events amount to emotion-driven, childish lashing out, only by adults whose tantrums cause the deaths of people. Perhaps it is fitting that a culture that has become as shallow as ours finds the most surface-level ties between people to be sufficient to take out or pent up emotions of rage on them. Of all the distinctions people have, racial characteristics – essentially visible physical traits – are the least substantive. And yet that is our national obsession. It is the most trivial thing of all, but it is all we can seem to see since we are incapable, it seems, of looking beneath the surface – beneath the skin, if you will – of just about anything.
The resurrection of logic in our discourse and the re-engagement of our minds in the serious events taking place in the world is a prerequisite to our having a prayer of stopping the bleeding. If the patient dies in this case, it will be because a whole generation of bystanders was too distracted, too confused, too misled by the false worldview of the media-entertainment complex, and too devoid of wisdom and perspective to do anything. We may see universal college tuition, more rights for more people with marginalized sexual inclinations, and so on. We may, as a society, symbolically catch the most rare Pokemon that a progressive dreamer might envision. But we will have wagered everything that matters and makes us human. We will be dumb animals awaiting our slaughter in a godless, meaningless world of our own making.
I told you I’d sound like a pessimist.
P.S. Don’t miss our special broadcast of Apologetics Unplugged addressing race relations in America.
Clint Roberts has taught Philosophy, Religion, Ethics, Critical Thinking, Apologetics, and a few less interesting subjects over the last decade plus. He long ago attended a fine theological institution. Later his doctorate focused on famous arguments by Clive Staples Lewis. He and Wanda lived in Texas, Idaho, & Utah before coming to Oklahoma. They have six kids & several species of animal. You can find him ascending weekly unto the Free Methodist pulpit on Sundays & continuing to teach at local universities.