Cynicism: The god of this age.
I was only 9 years old, in Mrs. Hagedorn’s third grade class, and to cap our economics unit at the end of that week we watched (on Laserdisc, no less - the technology of future past) a series featuring a jaunty character named “Econ” and catchy song and dance jingles designed as mnemonic devices for concepts such as supply and demand and compound interest. It was a little hokey, sure, but I can still recall “opportunity cost, opportunity cost, iiiit iiiis your opportunity cost!”
At the tender age of 9, however, I thought it was a lot more than hokey. As I sulked behind my desk, I made snide comments under my breath until one of my classmates, Amanda, turned around and yelled at me “Some of us like it, OKAY?!” Effectively shamed, I sank down farther in my desk, at once baffled by the idea that someone could genuinely enjoy something SO totally lame and jealous of her ability to do so.
How, I wonder now. How did I believe myself so debonair and jaded at the age of 9 that I, a child, was unable to enjoy a children’s program? I believe it’s because I’d already, if not necessarily intentionally - more by osmosis - absorbed the spirit of the god of this age: cynicism.
Cynicism saps the color and joy from life because it robs us of our capacity for hope. Cynicism is just nihilism with a sense of humor - albeit a mean-spirited, spiteful, ugly one. If, as Paul E. Miller says, pride is Satan’s basic game plan, the spirit of cynicism achieves that end with remarkable efficiency. You know it all, cynicism whispers seductively. You already know how the story ends and so you know enough never to hope, never to try. It may look like spring now, but winter will be here soon enough, it says. And you know everyone who does is just pitifully naive and will be crushed soon enough but is worthy only of mockery and scorn in the interim.
Cynicism pervades and saturates our culture even more thoroughly now than it did twentysome years ago. It’s the subtext, the underpinning, the ground from which we operate. We mock, we scoff, we endlessly parse the motivations of other people and project crude innuendos on everything. We simply no longer have any framework for earnestness or innocence. Postmodernism, which promised a laminate ideological field of equal validity for every belief, has in practice eroded both our ability to believe in anything and our ability to allow others to believe. As Tim Keller says of postmodernism, the demon is in deep. And yet, and yet… like me, sulking and shamed in that third grade desk, we both frantically justify ourselves and - if deep down - mourn for what seems irrevocably lost. Earnestness looks like freedom, yet we’re so deeply entrenched in the mire of cynicism that we can’t see a way out that doesn’t look like total inauthenticity. Playacting. A fairy tale.
I know the way out, though: Jesus Christ. When I’d exhausted the world, run recklessly down every deceptive cul-de-sac just trying to mute the agonizing howls of pain, alienation and unworthiness that refrained through my heart on a daily basis with varying volumes… suddenly, vividly, miraculously, there was Jesus Christ. And with his presence, the scales fell away. I could see things for the first time, untainted by my fallen projections. You see, cynicism dumps on the world the pain it feels within. It’s essentially this: if I can’t be happy, no one can be happy. If I feel like a broken, forsaken, rejected fraud then everyone else must be a fraud, too. If I can’t be earnest, than true earnestness must not exist and anyone who pretends to be must be doing so for manipulative reasons. If I can’t believe, then no one must actually believe. Cynicism believes it monopolizes true insight. It’s a Satanic perversion of true seeing through Jesus Christ.
I believe part of being born again is realizing - for me, in one cataclysmic fell swoop - that your way of looking at things, your eagle eye on the world that you believed was so piercingly and shrewdly perceptive, is - pardon the expression - radically bass-ackwards. It was both an excruciating effrontery to my ego and the sweetest relief I’d ever known, this death: to realize while I believed I owned the truth, and luxuriated in smug self-righteousness, the clue and the way home - indeed, The Truth - was right in front of me, and the people I thought were hopelessly clueless were on to it before me. So, finally, I saw. I had been brought blessedly low, and I saw things now. I saw crystalline, shimmering beauty all around me. I saw God’s hand at work, saw his radiant, overflowing, absurdly profligate yet somehow perfectly apportioned grace and mercy. And I saw the crowning beauty of all creation, Jesus Christ, and the immense weight of the burden he bore for me that somehow, mysteriously, brings me perfect freedom. WOW! How about that? (I actually typed “how bou dah” and erased it because that is terrible and please never let me do that again). God is AWESOME! Always surprising. Always unexpected. Always loving. And always, always beautiful.
I remember the first time that, as a newly converted Christian still bearing the residue of the world, with one foot still in it, to be honest, I experienced the bizarre magnanimity of a Jesus freak. We became acquainted with a couple who were interested in my art and with whom we had some mutual friends. We had them over to dinner one night and had a very pleasant evening - only the second time we’d met in person. We’d shared with them that I had an art show coming up in LA and mentioned that we wished we could attend but were obviously unable to do so. A couple of hours later, around 11 p.m., the husband - a devoted Christ follower who’d been a missionary in New York City - called Steven to excitedly share that he’d had a brilliant idea. He was going to start a Facebook page for the purpose of ‘crowdfunding’ our trip to LA, and was happily contributing as well. I was floored. Why would he do this?
Cynicism gets used to searching restlessly for ulterior motives, certain of their existence. Nothing can be as good as it seems. And this seemed unprecedented. I remember that in the course of our conversation that night - on an entirely different topic that I can’t remember - he had said “Oh, I have no problem asking people for money.” At first, I was a little appalled. But now I see why. Anyone who knows M. Bryce Olson knows he could sell ice to an Eskimo, yet he uses his skills in service of Jesus Christ. Money is in its proper place for him - it isn’t a god, and doesn’t create invisible chains of obligation where it is joyfully given and joyfully received. He isn’t naive about the ways of the world, but subverts them to the glory of God. As Michael Frost says: be so countercultural that people ask ‘who the heck are you?’ Bryce and his wife, Natalie, had me asking that question. I was intrigued, and drawn deeper to the person of Jesus Christ.
So here we are, called to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Of the swamp of cynicism, some of us were wise enough to never enter in the first place; some of us visited for a time to see what all the fuss was about and hightailed it out; and then some of us (like me) languished in that rotting belly that dresses itself up as sophistication, with its ravening lies and acid sarcasm. We’ve breathed its putrid air, and we ain’t goin back. As the beauty of Jesus flushes the cynicism from your life, space is made for joy, for childlike wonder, for awe, for mirth. I still backslide to the way of the world, quite often, but God has a way of rebuking with beauty. I expect the worst from someone, and then get the best. I expect drudgery, and then discover laughter and delight in the most unexpected places. I expect maintenance, status quo, survival, at best; and then get resurrection beyond my wildest imaginings in the person of Jesus Christ.