I’ve been reading some stuff on diet and exercise fads in America for a paper, and that, combined with David Brooks’s On Paradise Drive (the follow-up to Bobos In Paradise) has gotten me thinking about this odd perfectionist strain that Americans have always had from day one. Ever since the Puritans landed and started Massachusetts as “a city on a hill”, we’ve had this idea that we’re meant to be a utopia, the ideal nation. Throw in the belief in the millennial kingdom coming during our lifetime, the Protestant work ethic, and Wesleyan perfectionism, and then the Second Great Awakening, and you have a country that is striving to perfect itself. When we say that America’s the best and greatest nation in the world, that’s not just empty rhetoric; we really believe that we are closer to the ideal because of our good standards.
This, of course, carries over to the personal sector, too—we’re told from childhood that we are to be the best we can be at whatever it is we do, and that we can. So we work out and eat right (or try to, anyway), work hard for good grades, do as many extracurricular activities as possible, get good jobs, upgrade our houses and cars and appliances and gadgets, all the while trying to hit this standard we’ve set for ourselves. We want the good life, and we know we have to work for it. Physically, morally, mentally, socially, and even spiritually, we’re going to work hard to earn what we feel we deserve. Essentially, we are a nation of social Pelagians; we are all fundamentally good people who have the potential to become perfect people.
Now, this is a problem if you believe the gospel and are attempting to preach it in this kind of culture. The gospel does say that we can become better people, but that’s not ultimately the point—knowing God is. It’s not about the stuff He gives you (whether material or not); it’s about Him. And He alone can bring change and set the world right, including you and your own wicked heart that goes off in pursuit of the great American idol of success and prosperity. He is enough. This is a hard saying, and not one that’s going to make you a lot of friends. No wonder so many Christians have quit speaking it in our culture.
I don’t believe in America. She will crumble and fall like all the other empires of the world. I don’t believe in politicians’ promises to either conserve or change the culture. They are all broken people, just like me, and can only do so much. I don’t believe in culture wars. Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but the rulers and authorities in this present darkness.
I do, however, believe in the transformative power of the gospel, that the Spirit can (and does) renew us, not only as individuals, but as a community and as a culture as well. We are to be concerned for the good of the city of man, that the City of God may redeem it one day. May it come, and come quickly. Until then, there’s work to be done.