David Brooks published an opinion piece in the New York Times on 5 September (2019), in the voice of one of the apparently many angry, bitter, lonely folks who view the world principally through their screen of their phone or computer. He captures the thinking of a sizable lot of people and especially those who are so alienated that they feel the need to hurt as many others as possible to get attention. That cry for attention comes at a very high cost indeed. Yet, rather than dealing with the real issue people focus on guns. Such alienation and violence is not new. In the 1937 William Wyler film, Dead End, Humphrey Bogart rather brilliantly portrayed just such a figure, Baby Face Martin. It is fascinating to watch the other characters around him attempt to connect, to buffer the anger, to mediate, and all to no effect. Martin is a murderer on the run, who returns to the slum where he grew up to find his old girlfriend and to get out of town once for all. Of course, he cannot escape his past or justice but it is striking that film (and before that, a play) assumes the existence of human mediation and even of redemption.
The Failure Of The Experts
Fast-forward to 2019. Eighty-two years later the mediating institutions that might have intervened and even tried to intervene in Baby Face Martin’s life have declined or no longer exist. It is interesting that Marty, as his heartbroken mother and his old girlfriend (now a prostitute) both call him, is portrayed as the product of a broken home. Dad is not in the picture, as they say. Baby Face Martin fits the profile of the modern mass shooter:
First, the vast majority of mass shooters in our study experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. The nature of their exposure included parental suicide, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and/or severe bullying. The trauma was often a precursor to mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, thought disorders or suicidality.
In Dead End the players and the viewers know that the problem is not poverty—Joel McCrea portrays a character (Dave Connell) who grew up in the same neighborhood as Martin. Connell did not become a criminal. He became an architect but is reduced to odd painting jobs during the Great Depression. His poor childhood did not automatically make him a murderer. In 2019, however, we seem to have become convinced that the problem is not inside us but outside of us. Where the Great Society planners were sure sixty years ago that if only we could win the “War on Poverty,” we could more or less eradicate crime. During and just after one of the greatest economic booms in American history, however, violent crime spiked.
In Dead End, the reluctant hero disarms the bad guy and uses the bad guy’s guy to stop him. Today, however, the cultural elites in D. C., Manhattan, and Sacramento are convicted that the gun, not Martin’s soul, is the problem. Our elites do not really believe in the soul much any more. They believe in techniques and especially in law. The problem is that we have more laws today than we have ever had and the human soul is in no better condition than it was when we had fewer laws.
We do have a crisis but the cultural elites are clueless about what to do because they think of American citizens as bodies, as machines to be manipulated. They are so far removed from what everyone (even pagans) knew for millennia before now, that it never occurs to them to look beyond machines and laws. By contrast, we Christians say that human beings are created by God, in his image, and we are created body and soul. Jesus of Nazareth said: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt 10:28; ESV). Jesus understood (and still knows) that we are not merely machines to be adjusted. This is why he taught his followers to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (taxes) but to render unto God, what is God’s (the soul). “‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said to him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’” (Mark 12:16–17; ESV). The whole human person is the image of God but the human soul particularly bears the image of God. It belongs to God in a way it can never belong to Caesar.
There are things that Caesar cannot fix. Addressing the crisis created by internet mediated madness means addressing an aspect of the human person that Caesar has no real power to affect. It means addressing the soul, the nature of life, the nature of family, community, self-worth, sin, grace, and salvation—everything that the modern technocrats think can be engineered from DC, Manhattan, or Sacramento but which cannot be so easily manipulated.
It is not just the technocrats who do not understand what is happening. Our heads are all spinning. We are in the midst of a social revolution the likes of which have perhaps not been seen before. Emerging from World War II and the Great Depression, the West has experienced a tremendous growth in prosperity. The poor in America live better than European royalty lived in the early 20th century. The wealth explosion has been great fun (for those who have not participated) but it has left the West empty, lonely, and depressed. It turns out that fast cars and easy access to cocaine did not make us happy. Neither has no-fault divorce been the great boon that the social engineers promised. It turns out the kids are “resilient” but not so much so that some of them do not suffer great harm. Abortion on demand was supposed to give us only “wanted” children but that promise was a lie too. Now, of course, we have doubled down by experimenting with Same-Sex marriage and other revolutionary wonders (polygamy, polyamory etc). Stay tuned.
One of the biggest changes, of course, in the last 30 years has been the proliferation of screens. The personal computer, the internet, and the iPhone came just in time to put the social revolution on roller skates. Never in human history have we had such ready access to so much information (I did not say truth, I said information). Our lives are now dominated by screens. The probability is that you are reading this on your phone. Stop for a moment and look around you. How many others are also looking at their phones? We are alienated from our neighbors but we commune and argue with strangers we will never actually meet.
The Essential Mediating Institution
People who study these things have long commented on the collapse of so-called mediating institutions in late modernity. The most important of these is the visible, institutional church but tragically never has the church, particularly the self-identified evangelical church, been so weak and ill-prepared. During the revolution the evangelical churches shifted from being big on inerrancy and evangelism to being big. They evacuated the messages and music of any real serious content. Churches became malls, centers of therapy, morals with a valet for a god.
The collapse of the evangelical church in the face of the revolution is important because it was the one mediating institution that was supposed to transcend all the others. The corner pub, social clubs, and civic organizations all played a part in gluing us together, in keeping us connected, in facilitating communication and understanding. Before the rise of the all-dominant screen, think of the period from the 1950s–80s, a guy might to to the local bar to kvetch about his miserable life. Now, however, when he is fired we all have to worry that he will return to kill us. Now, miserable, alienated people can find ignorant, angry, diatribes blaming “those people” (whomever) for their woes and plans for how to hurt them. The miserable find a false sense of community and sometimes false courage to carry out those misbegotten plans.
The USA is not China. There are not any laws that our social managers can pass that can keep the sick and the dangerous from finding false help and hope on the web. No, this problem has to be addressed with something much more powerful than new laws. It has to be addressed by community, hospitality, by the work of the Holy Spirit, and by moral transformation, which, according to Christian teaching, is the provenance of the Holy Spirit.
D. C., Manhattan, and Sacramento do not know much about the human soul any more but Christians do. The church does (or it once did). Those resources still exist. Scripture is still God’s Word. God is still in his heaven. In his epistle to the Galatians, where he defended the gospel of free salvation against the Judaizers, the Apostle Paul spoke of the “Jerusalem that is above.” That is the capitol with the power to help us in our time of need.
The Holy Spirit is still sovereign and powerful. He still uses God’s immutable, holy, righteous moral law to convict sinners of sin. Through the proclamation of the gospel, he still gives new life, forgiveness of sins, and salvation. Through the good news (that God the Son became incarnate, that he came as the substitute for all his people, that he obeyed for them, died for them, and has been raised for them) he still he still creates genuine community, hospitality, and accountability.
The last vestiges of old Christendom are fading but the Kingdom of God is still present in the world. The Jerusalem that is above is its capitol. From that city comes hope because Jesus the Messiah is still on his throne. He still uses the gospel to give new life to his people. The church still gathers around the Word & sacraments. He still hears the prayers of Christians, who pray for each other and also for society. Because they, who were once aliens and strangers to the Kingdom of God, who have been accepted by God, invite their neighbors over for dinner. The church is the embassy to the world representing King Jesus in a broken, lonely, and alienated world. King Jesus has a message: “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.”
That is the only real hope for the alienation that we see all around us. Come to Jesus. He will receive you with open arms and so will the churches where the the law is still the law and the gospel is still the gospel.