This summer was a milestone for both me and my grandson when I was invited to speak at the baccalaureate service for his high school graduation. As I mingled with students and parents, I found that the only subject on their minds was—Littleton. Months after the tragedy, it is Littleton that seems to symbolize our fear for our children. I predict it will be remembered as a cultural watershed—the event that signaled the crackup of postmodernism.
As a philosophy, postmodernism draws inspiration from the writings of nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that "languages of good and evil" are rooted in neither truth nor reason, but in the will to power. Fifty years ago the Nazis fleshed out Nietzsche's ideas, resulting in horrific consequences; today two teenagers displaying Nazi symbols and slogans mowed down their classmates in cold blood.
Underlying the killers' fascination with swastikas and black uniforms was the outright embrace of evil—what literary critic Roger Shattuck calls an attitude of "approval towards moral and radical evil as evidence of superior human will and power." Denouncing the Christian ethic of love and obedience as "slave morality," Nietzsche called for a master race embracing brutality as evidence of its superior will and power. Who could imagine that two seemingly normal teens would take Nietzsche to heart?
Yet the wrenching irony is that they were only pushing to its logical conclusion the mindset of the surrounding adult culture. In the Atlantic Monthly, political scientist Francis Fukuyama says the decline in traditional morality in the West can be traced most directly to Nietzsche's view that moral principles are not objective; they are cultural inventions that serve as smokescreens for power struggles. And since they are "socially constructed," they must be "deconstructed" to unmask the underlying power grab.
Thus subverting authority becomes a good thing, breaking the rules an act of liberation. This explains why the word transgression from the King James Version has become a shibboleth in some academic circles. As Shattuck writes, postmodernists have "transform[ed] sin and evil into a positive term: 'transgression.' " They praise "transgressive" acts for breaking down oppressive moral rules.
In short, evil has become "cool." The late Michel Foucault even praised irrational violence as a way to be liberated from rules imposed in the name of reason. As these ideas filter down to popular culture, movies and rap music depict murderers as confident, efficient, unflappable. Cool. And eventually kids shoot their classmates while laughing.
A historical parallel to Littleton took place 75 years ago when two college students, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, murdered a 14-year-old boy. Their defense lawyer was the infamous Clarence Darrow, and his most dramatic appeal was to argue that Leopold had absorbed the ideas of Nietzsche at school. "Your Honor," he said, "it is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university."
In both cases, of course, the murderers were accountable for their actions. Yet the Littleton killers were acting out the logical consequences of a postmodernism taught today from university to grade school. They were mirroring in grotesque action what the adult culture advocates in abstract concepts.
Francis Schaeffer taught a method of pre-evangelism that presses people to the logical consequences of their own beliefs. Littleton illustrates what Nietzsche's philosophy leads to when lived out in the real world. It is one thing to debate the topic in a rarefied academic setting; it's quite another when a Nazi-quoting teenager sticks a gun in your face. Suddenly, you realize that world-views do matter.
Littleton also brought into bold relief the contrast between Nietzsche's legacy and the Christian world-view. The killers harbored a fierce hatred of Christianity. At least three victims were asked directly, "Do you believe in God?" and when they answered "yes" were shot on the spot. By now these teens have become heroes—Cassie Bernall, who was later found with her hands still clasped in prayer; Valeen Schnurr, who was hospitalized with 9 bullets in her body; Rachel Scott, who answered "yes" and the killer said, "Then go be with him now" and shot her in the head.
Who can forget the news photos of crosses on the hill for the slain? Or the interviews with Christian parents offering forgiveness and reconciliation? Or the funeral services broadcasting the gospel message across the nation? I cannot remember any event in recent years that produced such stunning Christian testimony.
God is not mocked. A vicious attack on his people was turned into a powerful demonstration of faith overcoming evil. These teens are inspiring others. Across the country, youth pastors are reporting revivals. At Cassie Bernall's church alone, attendance is up by 500 people. Time magazine even ran a two-page spread on the stunning revival among teens.
Littleton brought us face to face with two world-views competing for our allegiance—a postmodernism rooted in the will to power contrasted with a biblical faith rooted in the will of God. Which will America choose? The reports of spreading revival suggest that many are now ready to make the right choice.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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