Last weekend was the annual L'Abri conference in Rochester. The power of L'Abri is its capacity to bring the Gospel to bear on the relevant issues of our time, and this year's conference was no different. One of the workshops that caught my eye was a session that covered the topic of cynicism in contrast to the message of hope and change in the election of Barak Obama. The speaker referred to the prevalent cynicism of the 90's as expressed by television programs like Seinfeld and Simpsons. I have noticed this move to the "dark side" by the youth culture of the last 20 years and have been very concerned by it. It was this emphasis on cynicism that drew me to the workshop.
What I wasn't expecting was the discussion of the Obama phenomenon and the appeal of his message of hope and change to this same generation that seemed mired in cynicism. Why would this skeptical and critical generation be drawn to President Obama and his optimistic message?
There are two possible explanations that come to mind; first, people (even cynical people) long for hope. When one combines President Obama's message with his demeanor, his race, his background, and his skill as a communicator we shouldn't be surprised at the numbers of people who are attracted to him. Maybe it was the cynicism in me, but I kept asking what specific things he was going to change, and therefore, what should I be hopeful about? It seems to me that this is a phenomenon similar to the New Age Movement or existentialism. It is the (likely unconscious) rejection of the rational (which produces cynicism) for the embrace of the irrational. Thus the "hope" that Obama is tapping into is the hope for hope. It is an emotion and a longing based on people's trust in what they consider to be the outstanding character of their new president. He is a remarkable man, but I am afraid that many are destined to be disappointed, simply because one man, even with the power of presidency, can't provide the change or hope we all long for.
A second possible explanation is the power of words. I have noticed over the years that political liberalism in the West has been very adept at co opting words. A recent example was a liberal church group providing asylum to an illegal immigrant in a church in California. Above the sanctuary of the church the group had hung a banner explaining their cause. The banner declared, "We seek Justice." The problem is, they were not seeking justice at all. Justice is the prevention and punishment of evil and the reward of the good. When they assist someone in breaking the law, they are not seeking "justice." I know, they can consider the law unjust, but they are using the term to justify illegal action nonetheless, and thus they are misusing the term for the sake of political manipulation.
It seems to me, as Christians, we need to be careful with words. Not only in how we use them, but discerning in how we understand them. The grand manipulators of history have always been primarily manipulators of language. They have known how to use the power of words to persuade their followers. I am not accusing President Obama of being manipulative, I think he himself believes he can initiate a mass movement that will bring about beneficial change to American society. I view him as part of the larger body of Western liberalism that has mistaken terminology and intention for pragmatic reality. So liberalism can claim to be concerned for the poor, and to be working to eliminate poverty, by creating programs that lead to welfare dependency and cyclical poverty. Or liberalism in America can proclaim its concern about education, yet have created an educational system that is more expensive and less effective than almost any in the world.
It seems to me that the problem is primarily one of definitions and understanding of truth. The great appeal of liberalism in the West are its ideals. Ideals that we all should support and even long for. Who does not want world peace? Who would not want equality and justice for all? Who does not want the elimination of poverty? On the basis of these ideals, liberalism has replaced the church (and Christianity) as the moral leader of our society. Liberalism, for at least the past 50 years, has defined the issues of good and bad in our society. In fact, their moral leadership has been a mixed bag, they were for the most part correct in dealing with race and racial prejudice, but are sadly mistaken in their views of sex and marriage. The vast majority of their diagnosis of our problems and their prescribed solutions are incorrect and will not acheive their goals.
As followers of Jesus, I donot believe it is our job to try and restore Christianity to its place of moral leadership. We exist now, and probably will until Jesus returns, as a counter-culture. Jesus calls us to be salt and light to a world filled with darkness and decay. We also are called to be "wise as serpents," that is able to clearly see what is going on in the world around us. Therefore, we can and should evaluate the "solutions" our political leaders put before us, and based upon our biblical understanding of things support or oppose them. We also need to live out our faith before our fellowmen in such a way that they see the glory of the Gospel. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Those aren't just words. As we walk with Him through this world, our lives will exhibit Life, Truth, and the one and only Way to the knowledge of God. Jesus called us to the greatest priviledge a person can have, "live in Me and I in you" (John 15:5), a personal relationship with God. May each of us, from this day onward, be living expressions of this realtiy.