These Days!

These Days!

Pause. Place head in hands. Cue the anguish. Look up wistfully. 

Chicken Little's famously overdone exertions and under-heard exhortations have absolutely nothing on a day I experienced back in early September.

It was an altogether casual-feeling late-summer day in which the sky—and, how can I put this without truly scaring you to death?—well, it simply didn't fall. You would not have believed it. Honestly. The world was sitting there, full of itself, tempting itself with a fall, a melodramatic one, in fact, from a rather ridiculous precipice. Made for TV stuff. But nothing. Except disappointment.

A transition from folk tale to nursery rhyme might be in order. You recall that formative story about a fat egg, a royal type who sat on a wall and eventually fell, and, it's true, he couldn't be put back together. Before what I am about to say, then, I sense the need to say: I am the kind of person who believes that some things do fall, from time to time. Just not the world. Notwithstanding these days.

stolen bike.jpg

First, sometime relatively early in the morning, like many creatures who arise and walk on two legs in the Western world in the early 21st century, I checked my Facebook account. Mundane banality for the most part. But the social medium that it is, Facebook soon yielded a complete gem of a short post from one of my 900+ "friends"—a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, a large public university in an urban context where I work as a campus minister.

The post read: "I told someone at work that my bike got stolen the night before last. He said [in] all seriousness, 'You know what you need to do? Steal someone else's bike.' It amazes me how people think these days."

OK, admittedly, it is hard not to appreciate how said dude suggested a revenge-steal of another person's bike as a way to mete out his visceral sense of human justice: a random eye for an eye, an unwitting bike for a bike. Props where props are due, right? Said dude was brimming with confidence; not skipping a beat; not ever going to be paralyzed by in-action.

However, as colorful as said dude's advice was, I would argue that the shocked-and-awed university student offers a more theologically revealing case study, for the would-be follower of Jesus, with his—gasp! horror!—reaction: "It amazes me how people think these days."

These days? Ah, yes. Here we go. And, which these days are these days exactly? Oh that's right: these days. But relative to, as opposed to, which other days? You can feel the quandary. Perpetual.

The occasion reminded me of everyone's favorite home visitation—that moment when Jehovah's Witness door-knockers are earnestly trying (with Chicken Little, I imagine, as the wind in their neighborhood-canvasing sails) to get you to nod a slight bit of intellectual assent to one of their conversation-starting tenets. These days, they say, are so inexorably drenched with sinful corruption that we simply must be residing in the very last days. Yeah, OK, if you say so.

I could not help but think: Was said dude's bike-stealing advice—which, by the way, is essentially karma in the hands of an angry young male—so indicative of a uniquely outlandish or outsized moral decay? Was it something that necessitates a whole other category entirely, one that, as it turns out, is one of the oldest, tried-and-true categories generation after generation after generation? These days.

Civil War heritage.jpg

Second, later in the day, I happened into an unsuspecting earful from a 20-something freelancer-of-many-things whose Facebook profile is scattered with photos from his regular stints as a Civil War re-enactor. In other words: I should've known.

Just kidding, of course. However, the central feature in his wandering diatribe was the massive misunderstanding—from his enlightened perspective, I suppose—that so many people seem to maintain with regard to Southern U.S. history and, in particular, Civil War history.

It didn't stop there; it was only getting started. Sharp accusations revealed a brooding angst over the loss of history and the lost place of history in the American culture at-large. On cue came the R word: revisionism. Revisionist, in his mind, was simply another term for most historians, who, apparently, have a well-deserved reservation in a hell similar to Dante's Inferno—in the sixth circle perhaps.    

Next up: the kids. Or, more precisely: youth. Actually: youth today. These days.

Having experienced a few encounters-of-a-rude-kind with adolescents as a substitute teacher, this Civil War re-enactor by now had fomented into a volcanic burst. He was truly imploring me to agree: the leading barometer showing forth the end of the world was, essentially, youthful knuckleheaded-ness.

I could see at this point that he was absolutely beside himself. He was an inconsolable fellow. Which is why I so badly wanted to recommend that he immediately watch this video:

Finally, toward the end of the day—not the end-of-days, mind you, just the end of a very long day—I hopped on Facebook yet again. (I'm aware that a common thread throughout this tale is the omnipresence of Facebook. Run with that: Facebook is a portent of these days.)

Anyway, this time, I came across an article on Syria, recommended to me courtesy of the Facebook Group "Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy." The article briefly examined how this of-the-moment biblical text found in Isaiah, "Behold, Damascus will cease to be a city and will become a heap of ruins," when read as a prophetic literalism, has become for some American Christians a special kind of "evidence" that the end is near—helped along by the Syrian government's sincere commitment to perpetrate various aspects of hell on earth in these days.

Photo: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi. 

Photo: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi. 

In his analysis, North Carolina State University professor Jason C. Bivins writes: 

"As I wring my hands along with the rest of the world, anxious about what has happened in Syria and about what might happen still, I perceive that one of the many discourses swirling around this focus is what I'd call a permanent religious apocalyptic. While it would be wrong to attribute this way of reading to the conspiratorial proper, it shares with anti-political pop a tone, a context, and a meaning made through a kind of abandonment of a shared world."

Bivins' language and argument speak to what so often irks me about Chicken-Little Christians. They salivate to default to a "permanent religious apocalyptic" when trying to make sense of Syria or the Middle East or, dear God, a stolen bike, some guy's half-cocked suggestion about bike-justice, a misunderstanding of true Civil War history, a preponderance of obnoxious kids, including, yes, the one and only Miley Cyrus. Bivins is saying that these are attempts to make meaning of the world by, in effect, abandoning the world—or at least abdicating from it.

Honing in, Bivins says:

"What is more relevant than the endless clashing of opinions about such fearful events is how the introduction of 'religion' into politics gives us all a way of naming and also avoiding our shared condition: one where the experience of simply being overwhelmed coexists with a fantastic apathy, leaving a state where outrage and proclamations of the end mask our inability to shape a shapeless world." 

Marked by fear and apathy, this orientation stands in dynamic contrast to what, I think, should be the under-girding disposition or mood of the follower of Jesus. Jesus—who made himself quite clear that he is quite keen to not take his followers out of the world.

In reality, being in the world for the sake of the world (and for the sake of the God of this world) is one of the measures of any authentic Christianity worth its incarnation. "In this world you will have trouble," Jesus said, "But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33; NIV). We are to stay heartened even as we stay fully within these days—no matter if, at times, it seems the world is hanging on its edge.

Furthermore, this orientation's inclination toward abandonment or abdication profoundly distracts the follower of Jesus from what he or she should be up the real world. This distraction can sabotage us from a positive, constructive participation in God's kingdom and in his ongoing reconciliation-and-renewal project.

It is a project, or story, very much unfolding in exactly these days. And it is a divine story in which God graciously desires to partner with us in bringing back together—toward wholeness and well-being—all the broken pieces of a desperately fractured human story.

In the end, these days—undoubtedly—have always been, merely, these days. Nothing more, nothing less. God is still in his sky. And the sky is not falling.

Tough Like a Man

Tough Like a Man

Down the Hall

Down the Hall