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Reflecting on 2020


When the pandemic began early this year, I thought a lot about the historical events that shaped past generations. One teacher in high school told our class a story about one of his grandparents, who had lived during the Great Depression. When this grandparent died, the family discovered large jars of decades-old cash, long since out of circulation, buried in the yard. The Great Depression had apparently been such a formative experience for his grandparents that they still distrusted banks, many of which had failed during the Great Depression.


Some events are so significant that they influence and form an entire generation. The 20th century saw no shortage of events that formed a generation. In the 20th century, we faced the First World War, the Spanish flu pandemic, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War, with all of the conflicts that came with it (including, for Americans, the massively wasteful Vietnam War). The number of people who died in each of these events, taken individually, is staggering:

  • World War I: 40 million people worldwide

  • Spanish flu pandemic: 50 million people worldwide

  • World War II: 60 million people worldwide

  • Cold War: difficult to determine; for Americans, could include deaths as a result of the Korean War and Vietnam War; for the USSR, could include everything Stalin did

The 20th century was also marked by genocides. Adolf Hitler killed about 7 million Jews in the Holocaust, and Stalin killed something like 25 million people before his death, most of whom were his own people. This doesn't include similar mass genocides under tyrants such as Pol Pot. All of this highlights yet another dimension to the 20th century. It was a century in which ideology led people either to commit horrendous acts of atrocity or to be complicit in those acts.


Finally, the 20th century was marked by profound social and cultural change. For the first time in human history, as a result of developments in academia such as Darwinism in biology and a generally anti-metaphysical outlook in philosophy, academia had become mostly resistant to theism. This would eventually lead to a widening secularism, both in the West and in atheistic tyrannical regimes in the Soviet Union and China. But not all social change was negative. In the United States, Americans came to terms with the injustices committed against black people and passed laws to right these generational wrongs. Yet, even here, we see hints of an ideological divide. Will we embrace the non-violent call to unity of Martin Luther King Jr., or the violent perspective of someone like Malcolm X? This ideological divide on race is still with us today.


I've always said that philosophy has a way of trickling down to the culture. Ideas have histories of their own. As we reflect on our current moment in history, we should always do so with an eye on the past. How has the past informed the present? It is clear that, particularly in the last 10 years or so, ideas once infiltrating mainstream academia have become mainstream in the culture. Your coworker espouses a form of feminism that denies that gender has an essence but is, instead, a social construct only? Look to Judith Butler. Your family member espouses the view that truth is relative to culture or the individual, or that truth is merely a tool the powerful use to oppress those with less power? Look to European postmodernism. Historical events have a way of bringing these ideas into the foreground and highlighting them. For example, consider how World War II, along with the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, brought to the foreground the existential dangers of fascism.


What has 2020 highlighted about the culture of the West, particularly in the United States? This is a question whose answer, I suspect, is too complex for a short blog post such as this. Books will probably be written (and have been) about the significance of this year for American culture and my generation (Millennial/Generation Z). But I wanted to highlight some points that I think are worth reflecting on for Christians as we consider the past year. In this post, I'll highlight five points worth considering:

  1. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed affluent people in the West to a shared experience of global suffering unlike anything we've experienced in this century. In light of that suffering, we're forced to face this question head-on: does my worldview equip me to face suffering meaningfully?

  2. The COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed Americans in particular to the reality of tyranny. Though this tyranny is "lighter" than that which is experienced in other countries, such as China or North Korea, Christians in particular need to think very seriously about how to respond to this encroachment on our liberties under the guise of public health.

  3. The COVID-19 pandemic, the fallout of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and the 2020 presidential race have brought to the attention of more Americans than ever the reality of a post-truth culture. It seems like everyone in places of cultural influence is more concerned with spreading narratives than seeking truth, a philosophical and political effect of living under the influence of postmodern philosophy. How will we be able to deal with this?

  4. The massive wave of support for critical theory, with a particular focus on critical race theory, has brought to the attention of many Christian apologists the fact that critical theory is now the apologetics issue of our day. How will Christian apologists address this new heresy infiltrating the Church?

  5. Finally, in light of all of this suffering and turmoil in the United States in particular (and the West generally), how will we deal with the destabilization of Western civilization? For many people with a historical lens, this cultural moment reminds them of the fall of Rome. How will we rely on the hope and beauty of the gospel and learn to lean on Christ above and beyond anything else?

First, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed affluent people in the West to a shared experience of global suffering unlike anything we've experienced in this century. In light of that suffering, we're forced to face this question head-on: does my worldview equip me to face suffering meaningfully? I have mentioned before on this blog that Paul Gould's book, Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World, was an influence and inspiration for this blog. This book has been one of the most important influences in my own approach to Christian apologetics. Gould's work has taught me that there is something reasonable in an approach to Christian apologetics that doesn't give up the presupposition that Christianity is true. To be clear, Gould is not a presuppositionalist, as far as I know, but he emphasizes the claim that we need to defend both the truth and desirability of the Christian worldview.


In defending the desirability of the Christian worldview, I began to present to unbelieving friends this claim: the Christian worldview is not only true, but the best worldview. Flourishing is found only with Christ, and cannot be found without Him. Notice that, in defending this claim, I have retained the claim that the Christian worldview is true. This approach, I think, tends to be more effective because it begins by showing that Christianity is the type of thing one would want to believe to be true. If the unbeliever desires for Christianity to be true, then it becomes much easier to argue for its truth, since the person will then be more receptive to arguments for its truth.


The past teaches us that human experienced is characterized by suffering. It is not only suffering; of course, there are glimmers of happiness and joy in a beautiful sunset, a playful child, and falling in love. On the whole, however, these glimmers are often overshadowed by pain wrought globally and evil beyond comprehension. The 20th century revealed this reality in all of its starkness and ugliness. There is a reason why, at the same time that young men died in the millions to stop a dictator from conquering Europe, existentialist philosophers declared that life itself was absurd. How can glimmers of light not be overwhelmed by such suffering and evil? The answer, if God does not exist, is that the glimmers will be overwhelmed, if they exist at all. Indeed, life itself will be extinct one day, along with you and every person you ever loved, reduced to non-existence, gone in a dying universe. Atheists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus recognized this for what it was.


The past year has taught me to face life as-is. What I mean by this is that any approach to life fails unless it dares to face life as it truly faces us, both in all of its goodness and in all of its wrongness, evil, and pain. Arguably, the extravagant affluence of the West has blinded us from the reality that life is largely miserable and has been for most of the world's population throughout history. Now the whole world has been forced to face this together, and here's the thing: I think that this is profoundly good news.


Why is this news good? I think that this is good news for two reasons. First, suffering leads to growth in Christ for the Christian who suffers (Romans 5:1-5). The beautiful hope in suffering for the child of God is that it is temporary and will one day give way to glory and goodness in God's presence for eternity. As we suffer, we ought to draw near to Jesus. This will then equip us to provide comfort to others as they suffer (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Second, suffering can soften people's hearts to the truth. We all want comfort and hope in the midst of our trials. If Jesus and the gospel offer this to us, then we can present the hope of the gospel to people as they desire what it provides. In other words, suffering has a way of doing the work for us by leading people to desire the gospel and more easily see its desirability. In 2020, suffering was felt on a global scale. I don't know how this doesn't lead to the expansion of the Kingdom of God.


Second, the COVID-19 pandemic has also exposed Americans in particular to the reality of tyranny. Though this tyranny is "lighter" than that which is experienced in other countries, such as China or North Korea, Christians in particular need to think very seriously about how to respond to this encroachment on our liberties under the guise of public health. As I write this post, Gavin Newsom has extended the stay-at-home order indefinitely for two regions in California because ICU capacity is at 0%. This seems like a reasonable decision, in light of the fact that ICU capacity is so low, but the majority of California has been under some form of stay-at-home order since the pandemic began. If ICU capacity decreases because of an increase in case load and hospitalizations, in spite of lockdowns, then the lockdowns seem to be counterproductive. In spite of this, California goes on, destroying the livelihoods of millions of its residents while allowing Hollywood to continue operating.


In the beginning of the year, we were led to believe that these measures were necessary for the sake of public health. Americans were, by and large, willing to sign on to two or three weeks of stay-at-home orders to "flatten the curve" in order to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed, thinking that after the curve was flattened, they'd be allowed to go on relatively like normal. Instead, the pandemic itself became a political firestorm, as politicians all over the country started blaming others for bad policy while thousands died under their watch. Governor Cuomo, for instance, is desperately trying to sidestep a report that shows that some 6,300 elderly COVID patients were returned to nursing homes, evidently fueling an incredibly deadly outbreak in New York's nursing homes that has, to date, killed 7,602 patients in nursing homes in New York alone. In light of all of this, Cuomo has the gall to make a buck from his "leadership" by writing a book about it, congratulating himself for a job well-done in the hardest-hit state in the country. While New Yorkers mourn, their governor uses this opportunity to make himself more famous. If that weren't bad enough, the mainstream media seems to walk in lockstep with him, ensuring that the truth is obscured by the lie that the man made no mistake.


The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't just shown us that disease is a source of suffering. Injustice is a source of suffering as well. In fact, decisions made by politicians, in a context of political division, has led to suffering beyond the disease itself. The stay-at-home orders were extended far beyond two to three weeks in most of the country, reducing millions to unemployment and a state of dependence on the state. These same politicians say that you are uncaring, that you are evil, that you deny the reality of the pandemic, when you point out that these lockdowns are no longer tenable for your livelihood. Then those same politicians, while telling you to stay at home, go to restaurants and visit their own families. The message is clear: the elites can make their own decisions, and the rules don't apply to them.


In light of all of this, many Christians are considering whether civil disobedience is the answer. In spite of the protestations of some, simply quoting Romans 13:1-7 won't do. For many early Christians, the proclamation of Christ as Lord was a statement against Caesar's, and therefore the emperor's, rule. If Paul meant by this passage that we should blindly follow whatever the government says, then he wouldn't have proclaimed Christ as Lord. Instead, the passage makes clear that all earthly authority is derived from God's authority. When that earthly authority fails to rule according to God's law, then the result is injustice. When that injustice results in suffering, then loving one's neighbor as oneself may well involve resistance to unjust policy, in particular, including policy keeping people from worshiping the Lord. I don't pose this as a definitive response to the question of whether Christians should engage in civil disobedience. I'm just saying that 2020 has shown us that we need to seriously think about and discuss these issues.


Third, the COVID-19 pandemic, the fallout of the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and the 2020 presidential race have brought to the attention of more Americans than ever the reality of a post-truth culture. It seems like everyone in places of cultural influence is more concerned with spreading narratives than seeking truth, a philosophical and political effect of living under the influence of postmodern philosophy. How will we be able to deal with this? The past year has shown us what, I suppose, might have been clear to anyone paying attention for over a decade: virtually all of our major cultural institutions-including the university, the media, governmental institutions, Hollywood, etc.-are controlled by people with a view of the world that strikes most normal people as bizarre. That worldview sees truth itself as an expression of power, something to be wielded for the subjugation of others.


Consider gender. To those who espouse critical theory, gender is a social construct. There is nothing objectively real or true about gender, so people can choose to define themselves however they please. So what happens when someone with cultural influence, such as J.K. Rowling, espouses the perspective that gender is an objective feature of the world? Since truth is itself a weapon of power, Rowling's claim can be interpreted as nothing more than an attempt to wield power against transgender people.


As a philosophy, postmodernism includes the rejection of the claim that meta-narratives exist. A meta-narrative is a kind of broad, all-encompassing narrative that seeks to interpret all of history, human experience and behavior. It is a narrative about narratives. For Christians, the meta-narrative will come from Scripture and include an account of Adam and Eve, the Fall, the story of Israel, and the person and work of Jesus Christ. Human behavior will be accounted for under the dual notions of the imago dei and effects of sin. History is linear and has a purpose stated in Scripture. For postmodernists, there is no meta-narrative. Imagine that. There is no broad, all-encompassing narrative that seeks to interpret all of history, human experience and behavior. Yet different groups of people have their own narratives, and these narratives often conflict. Power, the tool sought by all individuals and groups of people to be used against others, allows certain groups to impose their values on others. If the values of Western civilization are nothing more than tools for white, cisgender, heterosexual men to impose their values on other groups, then what will replace those values? Not truth, for there is no truth. So it must be another narrative to be imposed on the oppressor.


This exceedingly dangerous view easily allows those with cultural influence to impose an alternative worldview without allowing for public discourse, since seeking truth is not the goal (in fact, if anything, it is an obstacle). The ramifications of this will be the imposition of radical values, grounded in cultural Marxism, on society from the top, from the cultural elites controlling the institutions. This has to be resisted and replaced with truth.


How will Christians be able to deal with this? The power to proclaim one's views in the public square is a kind of soft power, which, in the past in the United States, had been, in principle, guaranteed to everyone. As long as it's still guaranteed to everyone, then anyone can wield it without censure. But when some language is labeled as evil, then that power can be denied to some. Christians are quickly finding themselves in a place where they are denied that power. We may have to proclaim the gospel in a context where its proclamation is considered evil and is censored.


My encouragement to brothers and sisters in Christ is to get courageous. Stop letting insecurity keep you from proclaiming the truth. And learn from the Church in the past, when she faced persecution, no matter how severe, and still advanced the Kingdom.


Fourth, the massive wave of support for critical theory, with a particular focus on critical race theory, has brought to the attention of many Christian apologists the fact that critical theory is now the apologetics issue of our day. How will Christian apologists address this new heresy infiltrating the Church? There's not much more to say about this that I haven't already said or will soon say. There's a reason that I have an entire page dedicated to this topic.


That being said, what do I mean by saying that critical theory is now the apologetics issue of our day? I mean by this that critical theory has now asserted the sort of cultural influence that is leading Christians away from the faith and keeping people from placing their faith in Christ. Its massive cultural influence extends far beyond the movement of New Atheism that Christian apologists were addressing about a decade ago. In fact, atheists such as Eric Weinstein have found themselves in an odd sort of alliance with Christians, since they're beginning to realize that they have more in common with many theists than other colleagues in academia. This loose cadre of allies, including people like Eric Weinstein, Jordan Peterson, and Ben Shapiro, has come to be called the Intellectual Dark Web and has come under fierce criticism (falsely) as a safe space for white supremacy (someone might want to let Ben Shapiro know, since he is an orthodox Jew). In one sense, this criticism proves the point, but I digress.


My point is that critical theory, in its reliance on ideas from postmodern philosophy and relativism, is in stark opposition to Christianity and leads people to reject not only the truth but the goodness of the Christian worldview. I was once sharing a ministry experience that I had had with an atheist friend that involved street evangelism, and she responded to my experience by calling it colonialism. By sharing the gospel on the street, I was imposing my values as a privileged person on less privileged people, thereby exercising power in oppressing them. Sharing the gospel, then, is not an expression of love extended to people who do not know the truth. It is a political act intended to preserve my power as a white, cisgender, heterosexual, American Christian. In light of this interpretation, how will she respond if I share the gospel with her? Notice that this woman's atheism sort of falls into the background in light of her interpretation. She could be a Muslim, Wiccan, Mormon, or, indeed, a so-called "progressive Christian" because, in fact, her view of the world is guided by critical theory. In light of the proliferation of critical theory in Western culture, the gospel will not get a hearing. If it is, it will be rejected as evil. As apologists, we must oppose critical theory if we want the gospel to to be shared in our culture.


If you want to learn more about critical theory, check out the page I have on this website dedicated to it. I've linked to it above.


Finally, in light of all of this suffering and turmoil in the United States in particular (and the West generally), how will we deal with the destabilization of Western civilization? For many people with a historical lens, this cultural moment reminds them of the fall of Rome. How will we rely on the hope and beauty of the gospel and learn to lean on Christ above and beyond anything else? This is a huge question that deserves a series of posts to explore. I cannot even hope to get toward an answer to this question, but I have some thoughts.


First, what does it mean to say that Western civilization is being destabilized? What I mean is that, in particular over the last 50 years or so, there has been an erosion of the basic presuppositions shared by people in the West. These presuppositions are philosophical and concern how people are to come together to govern and be governed. They also deal with the presuppositions we have about human beings, as beings created by God with rights that must be recognized by a relatively limited government meant to protect those rights. At the same time, individuals have a propensity to evil, especially if given power, and this propensity must be controlled and limited, in particular, by the rule of law. Many of these presuppositions trace their origin to the Christian worldview, as well Greek and Roman political philosophy. On an even more fundamental level, people in the West shared a belief in objective truth and moral standards, by which we ought to live, including the virtues we ought to embody in our everyday lives.


Today, Western culture is not characterized by these things. On the one hand, people who support critical theory and cultural Marxism actively oppose these presupposition, and support for their positions is growing as these people gain control of our cultural institutions. On the other hand, our culture has, for well over a century now, been characterized by extravagant affluence and decadence. To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with wealth. But wealth without virtue is very dangerous (as is poverty without virtue). I remember first reading Aristotle's book Nicomachean Ethics, which is about how we ought to go about growing in virtues in seeking a life of flourishing, and thinking, "Virtue is dead today." We tend not to consider any more how we can, by our actions, grow in qualities of character or virtue.


Instead, our culture is characterized by an aberrant and voracious pursuit of pleasure in temporal and evil things. Throwing caution to the wind, without anything for which to live, people have run headlong into every kind of sin imaginable. I don't even need to mention specific examples. If you doubt what I'm saying, open your eyes and look around. What kind of culture not only listens to a song like "WAP" but celebrates it as a proclamation of female empowerment, as a "feminist anthem?" Let's be very clear. If you want to know God's perspective on the kind of attitude Cardi B apparently thinks women should take regarding their bodies and sexuality, take a minute to read Ezekiel 16. The idea that a song like this could be praised as empowering to women, thereby encouraging women to think of themselves in such a degrading and debased way, has to be an indictment of the culture itself. For further reference, read Romans 1. (If you have no clue what I'm talking about, then take a look at the lyrics. But I must warn you; this song is pornography masquerading a music. Read at your own risk and, if you are a woman, ask yourself if you feel respected or loved.)


Let's also be clear that Cardi B is nothing new. Popular music has been characterized for decades by the wild pursuit of pleasure. Both men and women like Nicki Minaj, Jason Derulo, R. Kelly, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus, and many others have been sporting these lies about sexuality for many years, and the influence of their work and status as someone with any clout to be speaking authoritatively about these issues must, again, be an indictment of the culture itself.


In particular, this reflects Gould's claim that Western culture is anti-intellectual, sensate, and hedonistic. Because of this, we've become a self-obsessed people seeking sensual pleasure and living for nothing. Something must fill that void, and perspectives like critical theory offer a way to do that. In this sense, I compare our current cultural moment with the fall of Rome, which had been characterized by a fall into moral decay and decadence.


The effects of this are twofold. First, I do not believe that we should presume upon the continued survival of Western civilization. Larger empires lasted longer and still fell. This is scary but, ultimately, unsurprising. The only kingdom that will last forever is God's Kingdom, and we, if we are in Christ, are citizens of that Kingdom. Let's strive to live as better citizens in the period to which God has called us, no matter what happens. If virtue has died, let's resurrect it in the Church. Second, I believe that this destabilization has the potential to lead the Church to become the beacon of light it's meant to be. Let's look to history for lessons from the Church in the midst of harder times and collapsing empires. The only thing, if anything, that will stop the trajectory of the culture is the gospel, so let's advance it in the culture, no matter what. This, I think, is the point that extends far beyond 2020. The past year has merely highlighted in detail that trajectory and, perhaps, accelerated it.


As 2020 comes to a close, I know that many people will be reflecting on what has undoubtedly been the hardest year in recent memory. Thinking back, it is almost overwhelming to think about everything that has happened this year. I wanted to provide a reflection that could point brothers and sisters (and myself) forward into the next year. How will we use this year to learn lessons for the future? Hopefully, I've provided some points that are edifying for you and helpful for you as you reflect on the year.


I started this blog in late February just as the pandemic began. For me, today represents not only the end of a tough year, both globally and personally, but also an opportunity to reflect on what I've written. Though its reach is still very small, it has been good to receive some feedback and know that someone is reading it and finding it helpful. In the next year, I hope to extend its small reach and to receive more feedback, at the same time that I'm happy to operate with whatever the Lord provides. I never expected to dedicate so much of this website to critical theory, but no one saw this coming in February. What will I write about in the next year? I'm not sure, but I know that God calls apologists to respond to whatever opposes Christianity in their context. I hope to meet that challenge and to equip others to do the same.


That's it for this post. I hope that you've enjoyed time with family and friends, both during Christmas and the New Year! If you've been reading for a while, thank you for spending time reading this content! I'm thankful for it and to know that it's benefiting someone. Thank you for reading, and see you in 2021, Lord willing!

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