Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Good soil for crazy theories: what's happening to the minds of our nation?

image Many of the thinkers which are trying to understand the shift from a modern to a postmodern perspective say that today's emerging culture is allergic to the "metanarrative", the grand story which tries to explain everything. The fear, or so it is thought, comes from granting one particular metanarrative too much power. It does not matter if a metanarrative can accurately enable someone to understand and explain events, because such motivations mask a desire to manipulate and control others.

Frank Furedi writes an amusing article which anticipates the coming round of conspiracy theories which will undoubtedly be generated by the report on the seventh tower, soon to be released by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He says that the conspiracy theorists (both left and right) will dismiss the report without reading it, since they are not concerned with argumentation. They are concerned with attempting to ferret out the hidden figures behind the events, the evil powers which control the destiny of the world.

I have always loved listening to conspiracy theories, for two reasons. First, the theories are always amusing in their elegant and diabolical simplicity. From a particular point of view, if you sort of squint, you can see why they might think that--and that gives you a little thrill that "you've seen through the facade and know the TRUTH". The second reason is that it is so fun to watch the theorists themselves as they expound their theories. Their eyes glaze over, a fiery passion wells up in their speech, and you see that they take this stuff so seriously, somewhere along the line they've slid into cookyness.

But what happens when a whole culture begins to buy into conspiracy-like thinking? What happens when people give in to the laziness of thinking and thrill of (false) secret knowledge which permits conspiracy theories to propagate? It's one thing to turn on a cable access channel and see Joe with his tinfoil hat warning against the dangers of Captain Bush and the New World Order. It's another thing entirely when members of congress stand with Charlie Sheen and "report the truth."

Furedi writes:image

"History shows us that nothing is more frightening than when a community lacks a system of meaning through which it can understand the problems it confronts. In such circumstances, people feel powerless and confused, and are sometimes drawn towards a simplistic version of events where everything appears black or white or good and evil."

The Christian faith is itself a vast metanarrative. It is quite possible to take a conspiracy theorist's view of Christian faith and make of it a mockery of reason. It is easy to take Christian concepts and symbols and paste them simplistically over the world around us and arrive at the same silliness of black-and-white, us-and-them that marks the conspiracy theorists.

And yet, I find it comforting that within the metanarrative of Christian faith, the tendency and clear teaching is against this sort of thinking. Instead of looking outside, instead of discerning behind every bush (pun intended) for some causality of the pain and evil we experience, the Christian faith reminds us that much of that evil we experience comes from within. Our world is broken by ordinary evil, propagated by ordinary people in the course of their (sometimes) well-meaning lives. That sort of teaching doesn't make for the exciting, breathless conversations of conspiracy theorists. It doesn't thrill my blood to know that I contribute daily to my own suffering and the suffering of the people around me.

But I am comforted to know that it will not always be this way; and that even now, the grace of God is breaking through into our world in unexpected ways, and that there is One who is working to upend, reverse, and heal the catastrophic evil--and the ordinary evil--that is stirred into the pot of our experience every day. And I am comforted to know that there is someone working within me that is helping me to put aside those ordinary evils and replace them with unexpected goods.

"Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord." St. Paul, Romans 7:24-25

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