Who Do You Say That I Am?

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A sign of the times from Harvard, a snapshot of America’s future from the incubator of our best and brightest. One of Harvard’s Deans, an English teacher by trade named Amanda Claybaugh, had this to say about her students:

“The last time I taught ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences — like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb,”

There is a whiff of dissonance in her words. When a Harvard Dean sounds like a Valley Girl, one is momentarily nonplussed. Howsomever, The Scarlet Letter, you may recall, was a novel about adultery and its consequences among the Pilgrims of New England written by Nathanial Hawthorne in 1850. It has been recognized as “the greatest truly American novel” because of its “masterful use of symbolism”. It’s “examination of the psychological effects of sin was considered equal to Dostoevsky”.

The Scarlet Letter has been a key part of America’s literary canon, one of the books assigned by English teachers ever since. It has been the basis of at least four movies, attracting in their turn the most popular actresses of their time; Lillian Gish in 1926, Demi Moore at the height of her celebrity in 1995 and turning Emma Stone into an A -List celebrity in 2010.

But now we learn that our future Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, Senators, etc. cannot read the book, have difficulty understanding it because the sentences are too complicated.

While one is tempted to rush to judgment, it is wise to refrain from such. These are not stupid individuals else they would not be in Harvard. At the very least, their presence in Harvard is proof their family tree at one time contained some very smart people.

What it does tell us is that our best and brightest have difficulty with complex thoughts. This will probably be no obstacle to a successful career. Complexity is at a decided disadvantage in the world of Power Point presentations and social media influencing. The ability to understand complexity is not necessary for achieving the highest office – witness Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Barack Obama, George W. Bush. Even the Supreme Court is within the grasp of the shallow opportunist, as Ketanji Brown Jackson so vividly demonstrates. No one has ever accused any of those individuals of being “complicated”.

There are those who believe that wisdom the reward for wrestling with complexity. The well rid of Patriarchy believed, or at least gave lip service, to the idea that leaders should be wise. But that was another day. To finish Ms. Claybaugh’s quote, the Harvard Dean goes on to say:

“Their (her students) capacities are different, and the nineteenth century was a long time ago.”

Ms. Claybaugh is of course right. One would expect nothing else, after all even though her syntax is that of a Valley Girl, she is the Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Harvard. The 19th Century was a long time ago, and in a world of Twitter, texting and Influencers, the ability to either follow or articulate complex thoughts is hardly an advantage. As we all recognize, the hallmark of those who rise in present day America is shrewd opportunism rather than the wisdom that comes from wrestling with complex thoughts.

But even without the ability to understand those who came before, it is in the nature of the human animal to think that they can do better, particularly among the young who have not yet met the enemy Pogo so elegantly identified.

It was true in my own time and is true today. Back in my youth there was a British Blues band, Ten years After, that put the reality of youth succinctly in their aptly named song, “I’d Love to Change the World” ;

“Everywhere is freaks and hairies

Dykes and fairies, tell me where is sanity,

Tax the rich, feed the poor

‘Til there are no rich no more

I’d love to change the world

But I don’t know what to do”

“Freaks and hairies, dykes and fairies, tell me where is sanity” – how little the world has changed! One imagines that Bernie Sanders heard the song as a young man, taking it as a personal challenge to answer the question posed by the song, “But I don’t know what to do”. But Bernie had heard the song. He knew the answer, “tax the rich, feed the poor, ‘til there are no rich no more”.

From long years of a close observation of Mr. Sanders, I suspect the complexity of sentences in The Scarlet Letter gave Bernie problems as well. But Bernie Sanders and his fellow 1960’s idealists desiring to change the world wouldn’t let that stop them. While not wise, they were shrewd and arrived at a workable answer – “do well by doing good”.

It worked for them. My generation is awash with those who have spent long years in public service “doing good” and “doing very well”. One would think the world should be a much better place as a result of all those public-spirited visionaries “doing well by doing good”.

In contrast, today’s youthful aspiring leaders would not be so crass as to aspire to “do well”. “Doing well” is their birthright, in the air they breathe. Assuming the noblesse oblige of their class and station, to even think about filthy lucre is beneath them.

And in their turn, they would “love to change the world”. Cloistered in prosperous suburbs, sequestered in exclusive academic surroundings, their experience of the world is limited to books. Yet as Ms. Claybaugh notes, they are unable to handle complex sentences and the depth of thought fostered by such complexity. Perhaps this accounts for the popularity of graphic novels, the Marvel Universe and Harry Potter.

Like all children, they were close observers of their parents as they “did well by doing good”. It is the particular gift of children to see the reality of their parent’s lives, the hypocrisy through the fog of parental euphemism and special pleading. Conflating rebellion against the hypocrisy of their parents with changing the world, they have become “woke”.

Popular culture has been much taken with the genre of “zombies”, The Walking Dead serving as definition as well as the title of a most popular television series. For those unacquainted with youth novels or HP Lovecraft, zombies serve as both parody and abomination, the animated corpses of once living human beings.

And what is “Wokedom”, but the animated corpse of once living American Christianity? One sometimes thinks irony to be the animating principle of the Universe. Even as their parents were “doing good” by sitting in the pews of the mainline Christian denominations, their children were attending Sunday School and youth group. The irony is that their children actually believed what they were taught. And these now grown children are the woke warriors of today.

Perhaps nothing so well describes the Christianity of America’s mainline denominations in the past couple of generations, Catholic & Protestant, as the word – “kumbaya” – the name of a song popular in church life beginning in the 1960’s. Said to be a Negro spiritual akin to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, it celebrated our kinship, our common humanity in the times of our lives. Over the years, it came to be shorthand for a Christianity committed to the concerns of social justice.

It’s origin as a Negro spiritual, sung by an oppressed enslaved people, gave it great cachet in the heavily white prosperous Christian culture of the mainline churches. Such a history made it a natural overarching symbol for the church parishioners concerns centering on environmental stewardship, feminism, feeding the hungry, defending the helpless, uplifting the downtrodden, identifying with minorities – particularly southern Blacks. The many faces of “Kumbaya” spoke to the prosperous suburbanites of the mainline churches.

These good churchgoing folks, earnest in their beliefs for the most part, were “doing well”, but they wanted to be “doing good” as well. The thing about “doing well by doing good” is that you get to have your cake – and eat it too. There are no hard choices to make. There was a belief in the culture and in the churches of “we are the good guys and we deserve to be rewarded”.  And though the Old Testament was seldom heard, one suspects that shrewd pastors supported this belief by working the words of Moses into their sermons (Deuteronomy 25:4):

“Thou shalt not bind the mouth of the oxen threshing thy grain”

Being an adult is the ability to coexist with the gap between our ideals and our reality. Such coexistence along with the lubricating oil of little white lies is necessary for life in the real world. But like all compromise’s, this life hack borders on the edge of a slippery slope down to the sordid depths of sanctimonious hypocrisy. And once on that slippery slope, we find ourselves spending less and less time looking in the mirror.

Over time, the churches mirror- the unexpurgated Bible – came to be a harder and harder sale. There was much in the Bible a stumbling block to those “doing well by doing good”.  With the “wisdom” conferred by a college degree or office job, they came to believe much of the Bible was either myth or folktale or just not longer relevant to an enlightened people. It was okay for their uneducated parents to believe in such things, but these enlightened folk were college graduates and believed in “The Science”.

It was a common belief among the churched “that God helped those who helped themselves”. This greatly comforted those “doing well by doing good”, assuring them of their virtue and the righteousness of their lives. After all, if a store wanted their business they had better take good care of their customer’s expectations; and that applied to the church they attended.

Understanding this, savvy pastors and priests curated Scripture to fit their flocks. This is not something new by any means. The Prophet Isaiah had identified this tendency among God’s people 2,700 years before –

“They say to the seers, Do not see, And to the prophets, Do not prophesy us right things; Speak to us smooth things”

There were many pitfalls in the Good Book that could cause problems. Addressing the Bible’s teaching on purity in marriage and sexual sins to a church community of the divorced was a minefield. The sympathy felt for the victims of the burgeoning AIDS crisis fenced off even more of the Book’s teaching.

Rather than wrestling with Scripture and possibly offending those good people in the pews, the “good works” of Christianity was something most everyone could agree on, particularly if a modest stipend could be raised in support of some “good work”, giving the people “doing well” an opportunity to – do good!

And so the Christ in Christianity slowly faded away. Jesus didn’t exactly go away, he just faded into the woodwork. That Jesus, he was a good guy, taught some good stuff, worked with sick people and helped some poor folks, spoke truth to power; but . . .

Jesus also talked a lot about sin and the need for repentance, but . . . Those folks “doing well by doing good”. They won’t come right out and say it, but they are uncomfortable with the idea anyone is really better than they are – or that they might actually need to repent of anything. Of course, they are the first to say they are imperfect sinners in need of grace; but when you are the most virtuous person in the room, it’s the thing you say to make everyone else feel better about themselves.

There is one of those books in the Christian’s mirror, a real stumbling block, generating controversy almost from the day it was written. Known as the Apocalypse of John, or simply as Revelation, its imagery of God’s wrath visited on the Earth in the Last Days is both shocking and frightening. Needless to say Revelation was seldom visited in the pulpits of churches attended by those “doing well by doing good”.

Another book seldom visited, the 2nd Epistle of Paul to Timothy could have been helpful to those earnest folks in the pews averting their eyes at the mirror. Avoided because of its so-called misogynist message, II Timothy reminds us that All Scripture is profitable for instruction”.

Even if those good folks felt the need to avoid Revelation because of its supernatural subject matter, the first three chapters also had a lot to say about the problems of Christians living in the world, including those “doing well by doing good”.

It seems there was a church in Laodicea, a wealthy city approximately 150 miles east of Ephesus situated on major trade routes and a major banking center. In Revelation’s 3rd chapter, the Risen Jesus Christ, introducing himself as “the Faithful and True Witness, the Ruler of God’s Creation”, gives John a message for the church in Laodicea. Revelation’s words are “profitable for instruction” to a church of those “doing well by doing good”.

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I would that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.

Because you say, ‘I am wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked,”

Saying “I told you so” is a risky business for us sinners, but looking at the state of mainline Christianity today, one is surely tempted to connect the dots about a lukewarm church being spit from our Savior’s mouth. While there is a deep sadness in the contemplation of those now empty churches, we must remember that the path to redemption, admittedly narrow, is always open. Jesus has always raised a robust new church from the ashes of the old. Revival is an old much misused word, but it speaks to the history of Jesus with his Church.

But today we are left with “Wokedom”, the zombie like animated corpse of America’s cultural Christianity that remains. The children attending Sunday School and youth group who were taught the social gospel have grown up and now “they’d love to change the world”. They learned that Jesus “loved the little children”, but otherwise . . .  The social gospel is what was engraved into their hearts.

One of the conceits to the modern age is a credulous trust in the righteous and redeeming power of young people’s idealism. Our children’s classrooms, from kindergarten to post-grad are filled with posters exhorting them to “change the world”. That gap between our ideals and our reality confuse children and young adults in particular. But confused or not, the future is theirs and they have been taught since the cradle it is their mandate to change the world.

There is concern among those like myself, an older generation so steeped in faith and country that we often confuse the two. The Christian morality and its attendant world view we once relied on is a rapidly receding ebb tide. But perhaps we miss the forest as we mourn our once familiar trees.

Even as public morality descends into chaos and the mainline churches sit as a vacant testimony to what once was, most Americans remain open to faith. There are many growing and vibrant churches, even or maybe especially in the heartlands of “Wokedom”. A great majority of unchurched Americans say they are “spiritual but not religious” or “believe in God”.

Perhaps things were not so different in Jesus time. The religious establishment, the older generation of observant Jews, was definitely a “doing well by doing good” crowd. The younger generation, confused by the difference between the ideals and reality of their parents, embraced Israel’s party of Zealots desiring “to change the world”.

Jesus walked, ministered and preached among this mix of faith, of ideals, of different realities. His disciples, young men all, were searching for something better, wanting to “change the world”. His young disciples believed in a 1st Century version of the social gospel as well, freedom from their Roman occupiers.

There came a time when Jesus asked them – “Who do people say the Son of Man (referring to himself) is?” Perhaps caught short and surprised, various disciples answered – “Some say John the Baptist; and others Elijah; but still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

How different is that from today? What would that young person on a college campus who “believes in God, is spiritual but not religious” answer?

But Jesus then narrowed the question to one that left no wriggle room. “Who do you say that I am?”

It is a question to each one of us, a question we cannot avoid, a question we must answer truthfully. At some future date, each of us will look into the eyes of the Lord of lords and King of kings and there and then – we will be held accountable for our answer.

When Jesus put that question to his disciples, Peter memorably answers; “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

It is the question that each member of “Wokedom” must answer. As Amanda Claybaugh reports, they are pretty much on their own. Millenia of thought and commentary by humanity’s finest minds is unavailable to them as it seems they cannot read it and understand it. Simply one more way in which we have failed them.

It is indeed a problem, but then Christ himself tells us that to enter his kingdom we must “become like children”. Peter himself was an uneducated fisherman, as were many of Jesus’ other disciples. So perhaps being unable to deal with complexity is no barrier to arrival at the foot of the cross.

If the members of “Wokedom” answer as Peter did, the future of our country is one of revival with the social gospel the name remembered as being the best of Christianity. But if not, instead answering Jesus was a good teacher or just another religious leader or philosopher – then the social gospel will be the chains leaving us enslaved to all that is worst in the human heart.

4 Responses to “Who Do You Say That I Am?”

  1. Jim Emery says:

    I always especially enjoy your articles with a religious message.
    You are right on with today’s liberally educated with their view that “it’s all about the science”. (Thus, Fauci)
    Have a Blessed Easter

  2. Jeffrey N Esbenshade says:

    Another New Testament scripture that is overlooked today is
    1 Corinthians Chapter 6 verse 1 thru 20.

  3. Stephen B. Westfall says:

    Well said, Bill. Peter, when he made his declaration, did not understand all that the Christship of Jesus entailed, nor of His real purpose on the earth, but God did indeed reveal to Peter that Jesus was Messiah. Wokedom tries to deify mankind and deny God and deny the deity of His son. This denial has become hatred for anything that doesn’t align with their “theology”.

  4. Dave Wilson says:

    That was a good article. It reminds me of what C. S. Lewis famously said that Jesus only gave us three options; that He was either a liar, a lunatic or the Son of God. It’s obvious that the universe couldn’t have created itself out of nothingness. But modern man has chosen the philosophy of meaninglessness; where there is no real God or truth or meaning to life, and all that matters is what they personally think and feel. Then, they are surprised that after pursuing emptiness, they become empty.

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