Algebraic symbols of the unknown, feeble attempts to draw meaning from the turning of a few zeros on the Western odometer, epochal placeholders, your usefulness--already fading long before 11 September--is past. We are no longer, as Richard John Neuhaus put it so trenchantly this week, "on a hedonistic holiday from history." History is back. And we're all in it together.
If there is one lesson the church can learn from 11 September, it's the futility of trying to be relevant to the culture. How many PowerPoint presentations on the characteristics of--take your pick--"postmodern culture," of "young people today," of "what seekers are looking for" are going to be dragged to the Trash icon in the next few months? The ill-fated attempt to move from description of culture to prediction always eventually founders on the sheer contingency of human life, the refusal of history to be anything but a random walk. From the length of hemlines to the list of things that "everybody knows," culture always zags when the experts think it will zig.
It's happened thousands of times before--from the Babylonian juggernaut rolling into Jerusalem in 587 BCE to the five-week roll of the dice that gave us our current president. On 11 September, it happened again.
Shortly before an airplane crashed into the Pentagon a few miles from where I sat toying with the remains of an oversized banana muffin, I had said to a colleague with a perfectly straight face, "Like most people my age, I have very few real heroes." Oh, I was a Gen Xer straight out of central casting--quick to see the flawed human core of every noble endeavor, emphatically including my own.
The result is a surfeit of evangelical Christians who, assuming that the gospel side of the eternal dance between gospel and culture is pretty much figured out, have devoted themselves to figuring out how to get the attention of the culture. It's the same project that occupied post-war mainline Protestantism, and it threatens to have the same result--a hollowed-out gospel (back then, it was "the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man") being proffered to a culture that ever so quickly moves on to the next new thing.
We have become experts at exegeting the culture, and novices at exegeting the gospel. But our endless explorations of the nuances of postmodern, Generation-Fill-In-the-Blank culture now have as much relevance as last Tuesday morning's Wall Street Journal.
At moments like this certain segments of the church start predicting "revival." It probably won't be that simple, or that easy. For these are neither simple nor easy times-if for no other reason than the fact that unless the coming revival brings millions to faith in Allah the Most Merciful and Muhammad his Messenger, the next wave of terrorists is not likely to give a damn.
What is needed in this moment is nothing less than virtue--which is to revival what Thanksgiving dinner is to McDonald's. There are questions of societal virtue (notwithstanding Reinhold Niebuhr's caution about "immoral society"). What does it mean to be prudent in the pursuit of justice? Where is the line between force and violence? What does it mean to be safe? What does it mean to be free? What does it mean for the
These stories and thousands more--tragic, terrible, and triumphant alike--have demolished so many fantasies that occupied us a few days ago. Britney Spears's appearance at the MTV Music Awards, and her decision that, since she already appeared all but naked in last year's show, she might as well add a live snake to the act this time, now seems worse than a bad joke. It is not insignificant that the entertainment industry, professional sports, even Disney World, for goodness sake--in short, all our usual means of averting that quintessentially American horror, boredom--came to a halt. Long ago having decided to ignore such things, I have no idea what hot new fashion trend suburban girls were coveting in the malls of America on Monday afternoon. Now, I bet, neither do they.
It is so easy now to see that trying to be "relevant to the culture"--the culture of the upticking (though temporarily depressed) NASDAQ, the culture of freedom from with no countervailing freedom for, the culture of endless preoccupation with (and profit from) the tiniest differences in taste, the culture of extended adolescence, the culture of must-have $150 sneakers, the culture of extreme-sports adrenaline and scar-as-fashion-accessory, the culture of whatever latest band the slightly desperate marketeers thought would make a good cover for Rolling Stone, the culture of going to a "good" college and living in a "good" neighborhood and raising "good" kids while holding down a "good" job (at someplace like the World Trade Center, perhaps?)-that trying to be relevant to that culture was tantamount to tending bar in the Far City while the prodigal son's wallet was still bulging with banknotes.
And there are questions of personal virtue. When a bomb goes off next door to our home, which way will we run? What do we truly hope for, in this life and the next? Do our lives reflect even slightly the convictions we claim to hold?
The answers to all of these questions depend not one bit upon an understanding of last month's top hip-hop artists. They hang entirely upon how deeply and richly we have read the Word of God--that endlessly fascinating tragicomic love story--and how deeply and richly we have known the Word made flesh-that incomparably human one, the Son of Man, who discloses to us, and creates in us, the life that is really life.
These answers come only through a sustained collective listening to a Word that cannot be distilled into sound bites or six easy steps. They come at the painful price of self-renunciation, humility, patience, and discipline. They come finally not as answers at all but as possibilities, ways of living differently, "as dying, and see--we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything."
Who we are, and who we become, in this moment will disclose whether turn-of-the-millennium American Christianity was made of gold or straw. Because a desperately searching world doesn't care how hip you are. They want to know which way you were going on the stairs.