Optimism to a Hip-Hop Beat: Yes Jesus Can
A little while back, CJ Mahaney posted on Kevin DeYoung's message from the "Next" conference in May 2010 in Baltimore. CJ lauded Kevin's call for "plodding visionaries" and listed several points from Kevin's talk that developed his understanding of this term.
This term and the idea behind it caught in my filter, as the kids say nowadays. I don't know how it strikes you, but that term seems to me to nicely sum up biblical Christian living as a "missional" believer. This isn't necessarily the line of thinking that sells the most books, but it captures, I think, both the Christocentric idealism and the conscionable realism of the biblical authors. I want to look into this below (and would commend James Davison Hunter's To Change the World, which has stimulated my thinking). Adjust your goggles; set phasers to stun.
The Rebirth of Optimism
There is a need for this kind of thinking and communication in our day among young people. Twentysomethings are notoriously and historically idealistic, of course. This isn't new to our day. But it's interesting to survey the culture at present. Idealism—even an unnuanced idealism—is alive and well. This despite a twentieth century marked by devastating wars, political corruption, the overturning of conservative cultural mores, widespread loss of religious faith among many elites and cultural leaders, more wars, and more political corruption. Generation X was jaded, angry, characterized by the raging nihilism of music groups like Nirvana. Rappers told stories of cities overcome by drug wars and vice lords. The President of the USA came close to being removed from office.
Surprisingly, optimism has indeed taken root in our cultural soil in the last couple of decades. Many young people, especially, found great hope and promise in the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama. Gone was the suicidal raving of a mad guitarist; in was "Yes We Can," set to a hip hop beat and featuring a kaleidoscope of young celebrities mouthing words to Obama's stump speech. MLK had not died, or rather, he had risen again. The hopes of a generation rose with him.
All this, hastily sketched, to set the table for a bite-sized commentary on the modern church. The same idealism and passion that swells the hearts of young politicos stirs in the chest of young Christians. Having pushed away, at least in principle, from big-box, cookie-cutter, megachurchdom, we have warmed to an activist, nonjudgmental Christianity that soars with hope and promise. We can end sex trafficking, we are told; we can transform the political scene; we can end world hunger in this generation; we can go so green that the secular green movement will see our greenness and renounce its secularity; we can right the wrongs of the historic church, one state-fair confession booth at a time; we can correct the heinousness of the Religious Right and win our progressive friends to the faith; we can reclaim the life and practice of the early church; we can reconstruct the American polis through soup kitchens and after-school mentoring; we can redeem entire cities by going block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, until the whole thing is Christian; we can rediscover the secret of true community through monastic living; we can dial down the fire-breathing tone of past evangelists and win our friends, in massive numbers, through gentle conversation; we can turn back whole denominations and movements from heterodoxy and faithlessness; we can heal families, generations of them, by advocating our views; we can plant churches by the bushel and they will all succeed and flourish; we can complete, like a bulleted check list, the momentous task of evangelizing all the people of the world in this generation; we can create culture that is so beautiful, so stirring, so epic that people simply will not be able to turn away from it and deny the faith that fuels it but will embrace it in a great wave that will break over the art galleries and cinemas and coffeehouses of the upculture bohemians.
In these and many other ways, the Christian movement today is soaring with idealism. There's plenty of disagreement and discouragement, but we are an impassioned generation. Raised on the tuned-out optimism (and the ironic achievement mentality) of the 60s and 70s generation, we have seen our destiny, and it is now. We—I’m including myself—love to "dream big dreams," sometimes too much so. On a theological level, we have hope, pure hope, because that hope is Christocentric. But I do not think that this requires that we subscribe to what might be called blind or naive optimism. The Scripture is not only idealistic, after all, but honest about sin (one thinks of David’s confession in Psalm 51, or the way in which Israel is regularly described by the prophets as a harlot and whore—for example, Ezekiel 16).
The Need for Honesty—and Christ
Where does all this biblicizing intersect with our contemporary world? Well, much as we try, we cannot, in one fell swoop, with an entire generation of Christians working together, overturn the evil of this world. Perhaps that sentence angers you; perhaps it relaxes you. Do you and I feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders? Do we really think that the church can end hunger worldwide, reach every unreached person, re-transform American (to say nothing of Western) culture? Do we find ourselves saying things like "If the church would just (fill in the blank), then (fill in the blank) would be ended?" If so, I wonder if we have swallowed too much of the cultural water and have not eaten enough of the meat of Scripture.
Theologian Michael Horton had a very helpful (and, to my knowledge, largely unnoticed) piece in 9Marks three years ago about how evangelicals have the habit of taking upon themselves the Messianic ministry of Christ, of inserting themselves into the story of the world where only He can stand. I think Horton is onto something in that piece.
Those who follow Christian engagement with the culture have watched in one field after another as the Next Big Thing, the one who was supposed to singlehandedly overhaul an entire field, flamed out. Remember Dwight Howard in his rookie year in the NBA? He wanted to change the NBA logo to a cross, he was so sold out. He’s gone on to father a child out of wedlock with a Magic dancer. Switchfoot and bands like The Fray were going to transform the rock scene. Not so much. In terms of the Christian academy, Harold Ockenga, Carl F. H. Henry, and Bill Bright attempted to start schools that would dislodge anti-Christian thought from its privileged perch. That didn’t really pan out, either. Doesn’t mean that good things weren’t done—but we need to be honest here.
To fill this historically, despite the long catalog of evangelical accomplishments over the centuries, have we turned back the curse? The reformation, the Great Awakenings, the missions movement, the benevolence movement, the neo-evangelical reengagement of culture, the spread of global Christianity—all these are major works of God in my book. There are many more. Despite all these divine initiatives, have we ended suffering? Have we beat back sin? No. Only Jesus can do these things.
The Good News
Here’s the good news: Jesus has won; Satan is defeated; victory is sure. The kingdom is advancing as the gospel is advancing (praise God!). Christians, filled with a love for the Lord and a sense for how He blesses radical faith, are attempting great things for Him. May that only continue. We need to continue to push for the spread of the gospel and God-honoring works in every corner of our world. We need to pray hard and work hard and rededicate ourselves to the work before us—preaching the gospel above all, strengthening our churches through sacrificial service, fighting sex trafficking, stewarding creation, healing families, seeking to be a light in cities, advancing Christian scholarship, assuming a presence in various arts communities, adopting the fatherless, reaching out to the broken with mercy and compassion, and a thousand other absolutely essential causes. We do so not because victory in our given field is inevitable, but because God has called us to be salt and light (Matthew 5:17) and His ultimate victory is assured (Revelations 21-22).
"Plodding visionaries," indeed. Full of hope; full of honesty. This is a Genesis 3 faith with an Isaiah 53 twist—and a Revelation 21 ending.