Wednesday, October 07, 2009

HT to Orthocuban: new and old generations, real and imagined greatness

I am not a parent and so I am not able to emotionally understand the impulse within older people to feel like the children have failed. In fact I am more likely to simply understand being on the receiving end of the "My children have failed" sentiment. It is the bane of every generation to look at their young and say, "I screwed up or THEY screwed up." For countless generations fathers and mothers have looked at sons and daughters and have felt the painful twinge of belief that the new generation isn't a patch on the old generation. They do not measure up to our greatness, or whatever the greatest generation was.

As you can tell, if you've read earlier blog entries, it is almost impossible for me to articulate my disdain for this dynamic in humanity. Do not the scriptures themselvees warn us against taking such a view? Consider the long history of Israel. Certainly things went from bad to worse and finally into exile for God's people, yet we should not suppose that each generation was simply and entirely bad. As Ecclesiastes warns us, we should not ask ourselves where the good old days have gone that were better than these because it is stupid to ask that question. It is as foolish to pine for a lost golden age as it is to not look to the past for guidance. The scriptures present us with a book in which proverb is weighed against proverb, it is why it is necessary to have the book of Ecclesiastes in the canon.

And we must divest ourselves of the delusion that great events either presage or indicate greatness in a generation. Yes, we know that "The Greatest Generation" went and fought in the Second World War" and slogged through the Great Depression. That generation also saw fit to use the atomic bomb and was still a racially segregated society and one that coudl even look the other way while organized crime had its way with state, city, and even in some cases federal government. The problem with "greatest generation" talk is not that there is no greatness in this or that generation, the problem is that a generation may attain greatness in evil as well as good, in venality as well as nobility. To borrow an illustration from the Lord's parables, wheat grows but so do the weeds and it is in the end of all things that the Lord will ensure the wheat is separated from the weed.

My skepticism about the past as an indicator of the greatest generation is that it is ultimately a failure to grasp the eschatological significance of the message of Christ to us through the scriptures and what the Spirit tells us through them. Today if you hear God's voice turn to Him. We are enjoined to look to the past for the kindness and greatness of God and while we are to emulate the faith of the saints this is not the only reason we are urged to look backward into history. We are also warned who not to be like and it is this I will mention pointedly for consideration about "great generation" rhetoric.

The men and women who witnessed the plagues Yahweh visited on Egypt; who witnessed God's judgment against the oppression of Pharoah; who saw how yahweh destroyed the Egyptians after letting them cross the Red Sea; and who provided for His people in miraculous ways as they wandered in the desert, this was the generation that died in the wilderness having never obtained the promised land. In fact Moses himself did not get to enter the land but only to see it and he was the one through whom God chose to present the divine law! In other words, what could have been the greatest generation in the history of the faith becomes for us in the scriptures a by-word of unbelief and rebellion, a grim warning against resting on the laurels of "oh, the great things I have seen that your generation didn't get to see." A generation with a glorious beginning can have a miserable and destructive end.

Even godly and renowned rulers like Hezekiah and Josiah can end in misery and failure and their generations can end in bloody exile. Yet particularly in America we have many Christians supposing that you can plan to "end well" as though that were in your power and God may not have other plans for you. If we had followed how Josiah worked through things we would think he would have ended well and died in peace but that is not what happened. Josiah took up a fight that shouldn't have been his business, didn't heed the warning of the Lord through, ironically, a pagan conqueror, and died on the battlefield. Today's American Christian would sooner say that a godless person wouldn't be used to be an oracle of the Most High but that's the thing, we don't know what God can or can't do. The more we immerse ourselves in the scriptures, pray, and direct ourselves to the Lord the more we can be alert to when His voice is speaking, even through startling and unexpected means.

I am not nostalgic for earlier generations. Christians who pine for the days when abortion was illegal pine for days when racism was rampant. Christians who pine for the days when times were simpler don't remember how complex the times were and how often the threat of nuclear war filled people with fear. People who pine for the 1950s don't remember the Red Scare or that the affluence of that age was a catalyst for the 1960s. As Ecclesiastes warned us centuries before those times, do not askyourself where the good old days have gone that were better than these, because it is stupid to ask that question. We must fix our hope and confidence on Christ and not on one generation or another because generations come and go but Christ remains. After all, a generation that had every confidence it could remedy the problems of its day and was sure it was the greatest generation was thwarted in its grand construction project and the warning of Babel remains to this day.