April 2007

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I wonder if we are developing a culture of crisis – not a culture in crisis, but a culture of crisis?

Of course, this perspective may be personally skewed by a horrendous year of two family deaths, a difficult inheritance for me to arbitrate, and the depressing impact of Alzheimer’s. No, make that three difficult years of serious back operation and recovery for my beloved, Micki. No, better make that six difficult years, including the divorce and re-formation of my daughter. Anyway, you get the point. My perspective may be skewed by a whole heap of personal stress (and I haven’t begun to talk about my current stress points, which are doozies).

But watching the coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre, I began to wonder if “crisis mode” is becoming the mode of choice, or the common way to think about life. The first statement from the mouth of a major TV news anchor was, “In the future, we will all know where we were when we first heard about the massacre.” Hmm. I hadn’t thought to remember where I was when I first heard of it, and that made me feel that somehow I wasn’t taking it seriously enough. My point is not that the shootings were anything but horrific – I literally wept, thinking of the anguish of the parents involved, and imagining what such pain would be like. But if I had not already wept, the TV coverage was determined that I would – and more than once, if possible. And this horror will be drained of all possible emotional content until another arises to replace it.

The nature of modern media – not just TV, but now the internet and cell phones – assures that selected crises can and will draw the attention of the entire nation. In other words, our own personal trials are no longer enough. Now, we must enter into the personal torment of others – others we do not know, and whose agonies are chosen for us by the whims of the larger media.

I suppose this only seems natural to generations who have watched thousands and thousands of brief stories on TV and in the movies, from westerns to comedies to dramas. Every one of them, from Gunsmoke to CSI, to Mash, to Lord of the Rings, are designed to grip our souls and take us through a crisis to its resolution in one sitting. Before movies and TV, people would only be exposed to that kind of theatrical art on only a couple of occasions in a lifetime. Earlier, most drama had been in the form of reading, which invites the thoughtful, active participation of the reader, rather than the hotter medium of theater, which is much more passive for the participant.

Anyway, my point is that I wonder whether managed news-casting has added another dimension to modern theater, and that using theater to model our response to crisis has become our chief method for learning how to live. In other words, are we learning how to behave by imbibing scripted crises and watching how they are resolved?

If so, this is especially significant because in this country, Christian faith used to play a larger role in such a response, even in the media. This response included not only comfort and hope, but also humility before God’s judgment and supplication for his grace.

Now, however, secular institutions have largely taken over that priestly role. Alongside the traditional impact of TV and movies, the news media determines what emotionally stresses us, while the comments of institutional leaders and the reactions of the newscasters give us the cues that condition how to respond correctly.

Case in point: the memorial service at Virginia Tech. Representatives from four religious traditions, Islam, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian, all said essentially the same thing as the psychologist, which was that we simply had to hang in there and collectively cope with the insanity of life. No answers, no reason. Just the well meaning but ultimately empty encouragement to cling to others until you can once again get on with your own goals.

Presenting the gospel in such a setting would have been hard for most to hear. Not that it is hard to speak of God’s love, of course. But after a bit, we need more than that. We need to understand the issues that put God and mankind against each other and justly expose us to the horrible consequences of our own sin. Unfortunately, those who condition our collective response these days demand that religion – all religions – fall in line and contribute to the liturgy of we are wonderful; God is nice; too bad life is insane; lets help each other get through this sad-but-temporary blip so we can all get back to our personal dreams.

The Virginia Tech community and families deserve more than that. I deserve more than that. As a creature made in the image of God, I deserve to be faced with the real truth about sin, and the truth about real redemption.

But day after day, one horror after another works to emotionally tear us down and condition our response. An increasing number of these crises are forced upon us by the larger media and shepherded by a new priesthood of secular institutions who use community spirit to maintain the “sacredness” of personal aspirations in a world they insist makes no ultimate sense at all. In the long run, this will only cultivate more and more self-centeredness and despair.

Obviously, my intent is not to impugn or denigrate any the people who are trying their best to deal with an unimaginable horror. I appreciate their efforts, and my heart goes out to them. My point is that contemporary Christians live in a milieu in which the biblical worldview is desperately needed, while those who condition cultural behavior maintain a death grip on a philosophy that insists on personal meaning without any rational underpinnings. As a consequence, one of the most difficult challenges for those who love the biblical gospel is to find an effective way to speak in today’s public forum. There will be no way to avoid sounding “foolish,” as the Apostle Paul put it, but we must try to find a way to compellingly offer the gospel of rational hope as an alternative to brave despair.