James K. A. Smith wrote a piece for Zocalo where he discussed why the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has become so popular with millennial audiences. He says the reason is because Taylor so accurately describes the morally hollow condition of contemporary twenty-first century America. Smith says Taylor’s book, A Secular Age, is “the backstory to the fractured world in which we find ourselves.”
Fractured is a great way to describe our collective condition as we stumble into 2017. One of the main problems is that we are a broken society with too few people who want to build and grow good things. So this made me want to describe why I think we could all benefit from seeking to become builders in 2017. First, though, let’s explore more deeply just how our society is fractured.
One of the key indicators of our fractured society is our crumbling institutions. Politically, we just witnessed a massive upheaval that may not be fully complete. Jonathan Rausch’s piece in The Atlantic this summer, “How American Politics Went Insane,” accurately diagnoses the myriad reasons we’ve come to a place where our politics is so fraught with anger and frustration. Our institutions are crumbling socially too. David Brooks of the New York Times penned an incisive article in September, “The Avalanche of Distrust,” where he describes the breakdown of the social fabric of America. Here is a short excerpt:
“Over the past few decades, the decline in social trust has correlated to an epidemic of loneliness. In 1985, 10 percent of Americans said they had no close friend with whom they could discuss important matters. By 2004, 25 percent had no such friend.”
And of course as Christians we are well aware of the crumbling institutions of faith, as outlined through the findings of Pew Research Center. While the rest of the world is becoming more religious, America and Western Europe are growing in the percentage of “religiously unaffiliated.”
Beyond crumbling institutions, though, another key indicator of our fractured society is our eroding vision of what is right and wrong. Rod Dreher of The American Conservative recently highlighted an article in Cosmopolitan on the phenomena of people deciding to marry themselves, dedicating their lives to “self love.” In his comments on the article, Dreher pointedly says, “We have too much money and too little sense to live.”
However there is one more key indicator of our fractured society: our atomized, shattered relationships. One of the writers whose work I have found most valuable over the last few months has been Chris Arnade. He spent the last year driving through all parts of America, meeting people in small towns and communities. His article in The Guardian, “McDonald’s: you can sneer, but it’s the glue that holds communities together,” is a fascinating and sad exploration of the reality of many Americans.
Clearly we are a broken, fractured society in need of an army of builders. One of the best ways we can begin the process of seeking to build is to examine the habits of our life. What are the daily habits you engage in, and what kind of person are you becoming because of them? If you haven’t, you should read James K. A. Smith’s book You Are What You Love, which goes into much more detail about how the desires of our hearts drive our actions. Here are a few more brief observations on how we can seek to be builders in 2017
- Invest in things and causes bigger than yourself.
- Don’t be afraid to start something new.
- Focus on the gifts you can give through your presence, time, and attention.
- Bathe yourself in Scripture daily.
- Since we tend to overestimate what we can do in a given year, start small with a few people, one key cause, or one change of habit.
Psalm 1 is one of my favorite psalms. The image of being “planted by streams of living water” is what we must fix in our minds as we open ourselves to being builders. When we are planted by the living source of Jesus Christ, we find our true freedom through limitation—we begin to understand that to grow we must first die, and that we don’t bear fruit “on demand.” Christ works in us in his own timing and his own way, and the results are far better than any we could ever plan for on our own. Open yourself in 2017 to be a builder for Christ.