Mark Sayers hears it all the time: Between the election of Donald Trump, Britain’s exit from the European Union, clashes over transgender bathroom use, and the horrors of ISIS, doesn’t it feel like the world has gone mad? In Strange Days: Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval (Moody), the Australian author and pastor applies a biblical lens to the craziness that surrounds us. Hunter Baker, professor of political science at Union University, asked Sayers how Christians can keep their bearings and live kingdom-oriented lives when the world makes no sense.
Why do you suspect that the modern world is making us miserable?
When it comes to ease and comfort, the infrastructure of the modern world is unsurpassed. However, the recent epidemic of mental health challenges is telling us that something else is going on. There’s an interesting phenomenon called the Immigrant Paradox: People migrating from the majority world to the West often experience an initial improvement in health and well-being. Yet, as they become fully assimilated into Western culture, the gains are reversed. It seems there is something about the perks of modernity, and the skewed expectations they create, that throws us off balance.
What do you mean when you say that a secular society has never existed?
God made us as religious creatures. We cannot not worship; the only question is who—or what—we worship. Thus the whole of human life is lived in a religious key. Part of the reason for our increasingly fractious and extreme political culture is this religious impulse. The post–World War II political order attempted to avoid the extremes of left and right. But this is struggling to hold, as many push with religious fervor for the utopias of nationalism or globalism.
As the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson noted, the root of the word culture comes from the Latin term cultus, which refers to worship. This shows why even the most ardent program of secularism will end up wearing religious garb.
At the end of the Cold War, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama famously claimed that humanity had reached the “end of history,” when most everyone would recognize the superiority of democracy and free-market economies. What did he miss?
Fukuyama is a nuanced thinker who held out the possibility of getting things wrong. However, his predictions convinced many people that the days of struggle were over, and some anticipated an era of unending economic growth. Politicians believed that conflicts could be ended and countries reshaped with intervention and global coalitions.
But humans—religiously wired, born for struggle, marked by the Fall—find ways to upend peace. The chaos and shock of the last couple of years is not the world going mad, but the world as it’s always been: a chaotic, complex, and broken place.
How has Fukuyama-type optimism affected millennials?
Millennials were privileged to be born during this post–Cold War period. Many came of age during an economic boom that lasted until the global financial crisis in 2008. This was also a period when education was permeated with the self-esteem ethos that emphasized feelings, and downplayed the possibility of disappointments and difficulties that strengthen us.
All this, coupled with the rise of social media, has given them inflated life expectations at a time when the world is becoming more chaotic and possibly more dangerous. Millennials are much maligned and mocked, but we should have compassion, because their teachers, parents, and leaders have encouraged them to live out a faulty life script.
How can the church avoid what you call the “dangerous dance with blood, soil, and flag”?
Across the globe there is a pushback against globalism, which attempts to create a global culture based upon Western progressive values. In reacting against this, the church can fall into nationalist temptation, as sometimes happened in the 1930s. The people of God transcend the blood and soil of nationalism. We are aliens, citizens of heaven, and we cannot bow our knee at any national altar. We are simply servants in God’s great endeavor to remake the world.
You emphasize the importance of “going with the grain” of God’s created order. Why is it so hard to make societies do this?
It’s important to understand the different approaches that cultures take. Some create stifling, disciplinary regimes full of prohibitions and taboos that crush the individual. Western culture, built upon radical individualism, bucks against these sorts of restraints. It buys the idea that utopia can be reached through freedom, unlimited human expression, and the liberty to self-define.
But this sort of ideology is incredibly difficult to manage in a multicultural environment. Recently, at the mall, I walked past two tattooed lesbian body-builders holding hands; right behind them were two Islamic girls, covered in strikingly fashionable niqabs. This is multiculturalism on display. Yet once you get beyond buzzwords like “diversity” and “tolerance,” you see large areas of political, social, and religious tension. The West has yet to fully grasp these contradictions, and those in power often clumsily attempt to enforce tolerance in a manner that’s far from tolerant.
Why do you connect the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch to the church’s understanding of human sexuality?
In the biblical vision, the freedom that comes with life in the Spirit doesn’t erase the creational order. Gender, marriage, and family aren’t viewed as inherently oppressive, but rather as gifts that sustain us between Jesus’ resurrection and his return.
But what about those who find themselves outside the creational framework? Those, for instance, who struggle with their sexual orientation or gender identity. What is the good news for them? The Ethiopian eunuch encountered by Philip, possibly the first apostle to Africa, hints at a fascinating answer. This man, de-gendered, robbed of his masculinity and sexuality, is searching the Scriptures. Philip encounters him reading the Book of Isaiah, which contains a promise that eunuchs who please God and keep his covenant will receive a place in his home, a monument, and an everlasting name (56:4–5).
God offers the eunuch something greater than mere recognition of his “identity.” Instead of being encouraged to simply suck it up until the next age, he is promised something greater than marriage, sexual fulfillment, and family.
We tend to compare our situation, as believers, to the Jewish exile in Babylon, and invoke Jeremiah’s encouragement to seek the welfare of the city. Why do you say this analogy is incomplete?
It’s also important to view things through a New Testament lens. If Christ has come, then our exile is not primarily Babylonian. Instead, we are called to be salt and light in the world, and to proclaim that humanity’s exile from God is over—that he has come close.
Without this perspective, we can fall into the trap of simply hunkering down and enjoying the fruits of contemporary culture uncritically. We accept the triumph of secularism, sitting back and enjoying the artisanal coffee.
Why do you counsel “quiet living” in such chaotic times?
For all the hype around advertising and social media, we still live enfleshed lives, centered around the mundane patterns humans have always followed. It is here that kingdom living breaks out. Paul’s instruction in 1 Thessalonians to live quiet lives can seem boring to those raised on sensation and entertainment. But the invitation to live out God’s way in the midst of broken humanity will always be powerful.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.