That is the almost cloying humour of the present situation. I can say abnormal things in modern magazines. It is the normal things that I am not allowed to say. I can write in some solemn quarterly an elaborate article explaining that God is the devil; I can write in some cultured weekly an aesthetic fancy describing how I should like to eat boiled baby. The thing I must not write is rational criticism of the men and institutions of my country.
The present condition of England is briefly this: That no Englishman can say in public a twentieth part of what he says in private. One cannot say, for instance, that—But I am afraid I must leave out that instance, because one cannot say it. I cannot prove my case—because it is so true.
~G.K. Chesterton: in A Miscellany of Men. (1912)
Ok, so to be honest, this post is mostly just an excuse to share this awesome Chesterton quote. I’m continually struck by the contemporary relevance and prescience of Chesterton’s observations on the state of man and society. To read Chesterton is to be convinced of the truism that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The biggest difference between our day and Chesterton’s is the speed at which things are changing. Cultural shifts no longer take place over years or even over months. Major cultural shifts can literally happen while you were sleeping.
It used to be that a person my age (40) could talk to an older person and be shocked at how different life was back in the 1960’s or 70’s. Now it’s easy to get the same feeling when you reflect on what life was like just ten years ago in 2008. The speed of change has left many of us dizzy and trying constantly (but failingly) to keep up.
I mean, sometimes it feels like you’ve arrived home from a long trip only to find that everyone has suddenly and uniformly decided to only walk backwards. Further, it is made clear that only Nazi sympathizers would dare to walk in any other way than backwards. Now, your first impression is that of course this is crazy and inefficient and dangerous, but no one wants to be labeled a Nazi. So you shrug your shoulders and learn how to walk backwards all the while keeping your opinion (after all, it is only an opinion, right?) safely to yourself. Maybe, if you dare, you might share your opinion with a trusted group of like-minded confidants.
I know this is an exaggeration. But I can’t be the only one who has felt the “cloying humour of the present situation.” I can’t be the only one who feels like he’s walking on eggshells with every spoken (or typed) word – always just a little worried about offending or outraging the mob. We can’t even laugh without worrying that we are accidentally laughing at the wrong thing. You know we’ve crossed some sort of weird threshold when a Christian publicly honoring Billy Graham would be problematic. When what is fashionable is what is true, certain positions, beliefs, and ideas have in the blink of an eye become too unfashionable to share. At least for most people. We know there are those who, in the face of a hostile culture, broadcast their unpopular ideas loudly and widely without any attempt at discipline or restraint. We all have those friends on Facebook. But their little acts of rebellion kind of help to prove the point. The middle has been hollowed out. The only “takes” that are relevant come from the edges of either extreme. Conventional wisdom has been turned inside out. The rest of us who would dare offer any “rational criticism” must simply shut up and learn to walk backwards.
And it isn’t just rational criticism or honest debate that is dangerous. Even scientific research is now problematic. Just ask Jordan Peterson, Johnathan Haidt, or James Damore. There’s even a word for this: Lysenkoism. This is when real scientific research is changed or censured in the service of political ideology. There are some things you just can’t say – even if you’ve got the numbers to back it up.
Another word that you could use to describe our current moment is “hegemony.”
Hegemony works by getting people to think and feel for themselves that certain values and practices (e.g., same-sex marriage) are simply “common sense” or “natural” (even when they are not). An ideology has achieved hegemony when its way of looking at and behaving in the world pervades society. There is no need to fight a culture war if one side unknowingly acquiesces.
So how do we respond? Well, anyone who has ever read James knows that wisdom is found in being quick to listen and slow to speak. James also tells us that the tongue is a fire and a “world of evil among all the parts of the body.” There is no doubt that a Christian should show restraint and discipline in his words. Our words should bless, not curse; heal, not wound; encourage, not destroy. Our words should be gracious and seasoned with salt. A lesson I’m still trying to learn (I’ve got a long way to go) is that a Christian doesn’t need to go out looking for a fight just because of some “higher principle.” Christianity has always had its “cultured despisers.” I promise you will never run out of people to fight. (And sometimes what people casually dismiss “political correctness” is actually just common decency.)
So, is James telling us just to shut up and learn to walk backwards? Hardly. He exhorts us to “tame the tongue.” A tamed tongue is disciplined, careful, and restrained. But it’s also worth pointing out that a tamed tongue is not silent. A tamed tongue is a tongue set to work. As the truth embodied in the gospel becomes more unfashionable and unmentionable in a quickly changing world, a generation of Christians must be vigilant that they don’t tame their tongues into muteness. At the risk of publicly stating an unpopular truth – people all around us are held captive by evil and lies masquerading as truth. What we need isn’t silence, but the wisdom to know when (and how) to unleash our tongues in the service of the truth of the kingdom.
I’ll let you know when I figure out exactly what that looks like.