© 2016 Robert Osburn
My international students are largely mum as they observe, close up, the train wreck called the 2016 US presidential election abut which I wrote several weeks ago. I think some feel a sense of embarrassment for Americans, while others, secure in the knowledge that their graduate assistantships are funded, bury their heads in books. The train wreck, after all, is American made and engineered. But, train wrecks, as we saw in Hoboken, New Jersey a few days ago, can harm many who just happened to be in the vicinity. International students may be more vulnerable, even if only because of the high levels of uncertainty associated with this election.
Nevertheless, optimist that I am, I look for a silver lining, something good out of all the wreckage. It just may have to do with a fresh yearning for transcendent authority. Let me explain.
In last week’s blog, I noted the Economist attributed post-truth politics, in part, to antiauthoritarianism. And while I’m still persuaded that the root problem behind post-truth politics is the rise of postmodern thought, I wonder if some Americans are yearning for divine help to bring order out of our cacophony and chaos. As it is, America is headed for either growing chaos or greater coercion (forced respect for presidential authority). In fact, earlier this summer I suggested this yearning for order amidst chaos was the basis for the appeal of one of our major presidential candidates.
But, what if God stepped in the midst of our wreck, as I am calling it, and used His authority to bring beauty and order? Amidst the darkening of twilight, are we Americans ready for a divine symphony conductor, so to speak, whose authority we would finally welcome instead of reject?
In his marvelous book Up with Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings (2010), theologian Victor Lee Austin explains that for authority to be real, it must not be coerced; rather, it must be voluntarily embraced, much as the musicians in an orchestra voluntarily put themselves under the authority of a conductor who uses his authority to help the musicians make greater beauty together than they ever could individually.
In years ahead, will Americans, especially those whose consciences are attuned to the normal and natural human desire for the good, the true, and the beautiful, yearn once again for God’s authority, the key factor that shaped the American psyche from its founding in the early 17th century? He not only promises forgiveness for real moral guilt, but He creates people whose internal moral compass is designed for ordered liberty, the kind that simultaneously maximizes order and freedom.
The political train wreck of the next American presidency may create a hunger to rediscover the virtues of Christ-centered authority. I also wonder if the evidences of 50 years of growing cultural decay—epitomized in America’s astounding levels of family fragmentation that fuel a drug epidemic, violence in public schools, and, particularly, urban chaos—haven’t already created a hunger for Someone who can bring cultural order without sacrificing our freedoms. Cultural analysts like Baylor University professor Rodney Stark keenly recognize that behind American vibrance lies a wealth of cultural capital that flowed from the side of the One whose blood flowed freely to atone for our sins. That cultural capital—the ideas, institutions, and practices that make up civil society—gave Americans a common basis for agreement about right and wrong because they shared a similar respect for Christian cultural authority. But in the mid 60s, Boomers declared “Down with authority!” We now have aspiring presidential leadership that lives down to that diminished vision of authority.
While the desire for the transcendent authority of Jesus may elicit by a growing hunger for cultural and political order, I am, frankly, less sure that many of our churches would know what to do with this hunger. At the same time, I am more and more confident that the emerging but still nascent movement of Christian study centers at American universities does know what to do. In centers like Anselm House (formerly MacLaurin Institute), leaders are cultivating a new community of young Christian scholars whose Christian faith is vibrant and engaged with the cultural, political, and economic realities of our world. The divine symphony conductor is making beauty in these communities that abut major universities.
Churches, however, are the natural and God-ordained system for discipling followers of Christ to self-controlled folk worthy of the political and cultural order they desire. However, many American churches have reduced the Gospel to a message of personal salvation while yielding the cultural and political order to politicians and academicians who have bequeathed a post-truth world that produces presidential train wrecks but not the political and cultural order we need. Church pastors are wise to begin partnering with Christian study centers who can help introduce robust Christian cultural discipleship into the local church.
Will Americans, hostile to authority for the past half century, give way to a genuine, heartfelt quest for transcendent authority, most certainly the authority of Jesus Christ and His Word? Will our churches be ready to welcome and catechize those who want to follow His authority as the Conductor who can restore the Symphony for which we were created and which we most certainly need?
We need a symphony conductor when all we have is a train wreck.