Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Post-Christian Party Talk

Recently I read an essay (in Newsweek, this one: “The End of Christian America,” by Jon Meacham) which purports to address the question: “Is America becoming a post-Christian nation?”

“Post-Christian” is a hot-button phrase lately among people interested in religion and culture and I have thoughts on the topic myself. I’m not going to post about “post-Christian America” today because I’m trying to work my thoughts into some kind of entertaining arrangement. But I want to make a couple of points about what passes for pop culture discussion.

It can be tricky. It’s a good idea to pay attention and not take anything too seriously.

A few years ago a famous film director and a famous writer did a commentary track for a famous movie they made together. During their discussion, they agreed their movie was a “post-modern horror film” but when they tried to explain what “post-modern” meant they puttered around and ended up laughing and admitting they had no particular idea what the phrase meant but used it because it’s a phrase that sounds smart and everyone more or less knows it means something about breaking with traditions.

Good enough for Hollywood use. (It was Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson talking about “Scream.”)

A lot of writing I’ve read about “post-Christian” is pretty similar. It’s like party talk, people just trying to be current without even attempting buttoned-down thinking.

But there is also tricky writing in a kind of devious way, too. I suspect a lot of tricky writing these days isn’t the writer consciously being devious. I suspect a lot of tricky writing these days is just adult writers acting like teenagers trying to finagle their parents into buying them expensive jeans or a new muffler for their car. It’s a sort of “say anything” approach to talking where the issue isn’t communication but something like expression, because basically that’s all kids have to do, just express themselves and then it’s the parents’ job to be all loving and giving and caring. That’s kind of what adults do now. They just express themselves and expect their friends or bosses or—in the case of writers—their readers to appreciate their feat of expression and love and respect them for it.

It’s the twenty-first century. There are no children any more and there are no adults any more. There are just people with power and people without power and the people without power are forever calculating how to acquire power and how to appease and amuse the people with power.

People have become post-human in a post-modern sort of way.

In a post-Christian sort of way, too.

The Newsweek essay is an example of a silly bit of writing. It starts with discussing post-Christian America and morphs quietly into a discussion of post-religion America as if the concept of religion were the same as one particular religion, and as if nobody would notice that it is easier to explain away the re-defining of a generality than it is to dismiss the re-defining of a particular concrete.

The Newsweek essay starts by discussing the possibility of post-Christian America and toward the end comes up with this:

America, then, is not a post-religious society—and cannot be as long as there are people in it, for faith is an intrinsic human impulse. The belief in an order or a reality beyond time and space is ancient and enduring. "All men," said Homer, "need the gods." The essential political and cultural question is to what extent those gods—or, more accurately, a particular generation's understanding of those gods—should determine the nature of life in a given time and place.

The issue, then, isn’t about sin, salvation and Jesus. The issue is just the “impulse” to believe in something “beyond time and space.”

There you go. Newsweek says America isn’t becoming post-Christian at all. The issue isn’t whether Man is fallen or whether God wants Man to be saved. The issue is whether or not people believe in, say, Zeus and his sister-wife Hera, or Cthulhu and the Great Old Ones, or, I suppose, Scientology.

At some point I’m going to do something with the topic of post-Christian America. But I’m taking my time because I want to say something that is better than saying nothing at all.

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