The air might be full of radiation, but most in America wouldn’t know it. That’s because, according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal, “99 of 135 beta-radiation sensors in its RadNet system—which monitors in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico—aren’t working and have been turned off.” The RadNet system was built as a response to 9/11 and fears of a widespread nuclear radiation attack, but it seems as if it has been neglected as the public’s attention has moved to other concerns.
The failure is emblematic of another, more sinister challenge of our times: the lack of critical thinking in our culture. C. S. Lewis famously declared that “the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age” (The Weight of Glory). Our problem, though, is that we are like the failed RadNet sensors: we can’t even tell what the great “cataracts of nonsense” are.
There are a myriad of reasons why we can compare ourselves to the failed sensors, but perhaps the most important is that we as a culture have lowered the bar for human flourishing. We have reduced the ideal for living to a “whatever works for you” kind of pragmatism. If I’m told that I should just “follow my heart”, “follow my dreams”, and “do whatever is best for me”, why should I ever look outside myself to the place and time I’m living in? We have shunned critical thinking and replaced it with pragmatic selfishness.
As leaders this poses a constant dilemma. How do we learn to grow and develop in our ability to understand and speak truth to our culture as well as use our influence to help others grow in the same discernment? How can we become functioning cultural radiation detection sensors, able to discern and alert others to the toxicity of self-centered living and other empty philosophies?
John Webster, in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, offers two helpful suggestions. First, we need to avoid “slogans which lock the mind.” This is a kind of reductionist way of thinking that over-simplifies and thereby misconstrues what is really going on in our culture. This is one of the glaring sins of the digital, sound-byte, short attention-span culture we live in. Whereas many older American adages came from Scripture (loosely based on the book of Proverbs), most contemporary adages are based on pragmatic hedonism (doing what’s best and most fun for you).
Second, Webster suggests that we need to “offer a theological reading of the cultural and intellectual situation, so as to avoid the resignation which comes from thinking that context is fate.” In other words, we need to critically engage with the ideas being bandied about in our culture rather than simply slumping our shoulders in a fatalistic “woe-is-me” mentality. But the key words are “theological reading”. This is where we need to grow as Christian leaders. We cannot simply say to every cultural issue: “this is not biblical”, or “this goes against my Christian faith.” We have to go deeper, looking to Scripture for how we are to form our thinking. Paul encourages us in this deeper form of engagement as we read Colossians 2:3-4: “…Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this so that no one will delude you with persuasive argument…”
Here is a practical suggestion along these lines that can act as a first step to using your influence to engage more deeply with the culture: find Christian heroes. If you haven’t read Eric Metaxas’ books 7 Men, and the newly released 7 Women, I thoroughly encourage you to do so. We can learn so much from our brothers and sisters in Christ who have been down the very paths we have been, and who have lived with courage, perseverance, sacrifice, humility, and bravery. We can learn from the ways they engaged their respective cultures so that we can find encouragement for our own journey.
“Perhaps the best thing about biographies is that they enable us to slip the strictures of time and provide a bracing corrective to our tendency to see everything in the dark glass of our own era, with all its blind spots, motes, beams, and distortions.” (7 Women) We need heroes as we lead in our various spheres of responsibility. We need to be reminded we are not alone on this journey. We also need the reminder that their stories offer us, that God is always faithful, even when things seem so distorted and confusing.