A review by Peter Corney of “Strange Days” by Mark Sayers. (With a brief essay on the question of hope and the future)
Mark Sayers recent book ‘Strange Days’ (published by Moody 2017) is a very insightful and readable book and I thoroughly recommend it to thoughtful readers. He joins a lot of dots both political and cultural about our troubled times. It also points a way forward for those attempting to live a faithful Christian discipleship in today’s world.
The following comments take an in depth view of chapter four ‘Civilisations striving’ in which Mark attempts to answer the question ‘why in the West are we so anxious today?’ It’s a very relevant question when you realise that in spite of all our prosperity one in four young Australians currently suffer from some serious form of mental ill health from severe anxiety to depression and self harm.(These are the figures quoted by Dr Michael Carr Greg one of our leading experts on adolescent and young adult mental health. The figures are borne out by all the major surveys conducted over recent years.)
Chapter four sees 1989 as key date in recent history. Prior to 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union the world was dominated by the Cold War between the democratic/ liberal West and Soviet Russia. The West lived in fear of the spread of Communism and the ever present anxiety of a possible nuclear catastrophe triggered by a conflict between the two power blocks.
1989 is when the dismantling of the Berlin wall took place and so became a symbol of the collapse of the Soviet state and the failed utopian Marxist vision and the end of the Cold War.
With the end of the binary conflict between East and West it seemed that a new more positive international era was possible:
- The EU was developing – a symbol of growing nation state co-operation.
- Marxism was defeated as much by free market liberal Western capitalism as by weapons, and China another communist state was opening up and also embracing a form of the Western economic model.
- History seemed to be at one of its turning points and Francis Fukuyama wrote his book entitled ‘The End of History’, by which he meant we could now leave behind the struggle and chaos of the 20th C (WW 1 &2, The Great Depression and The Cold War) and embrace a new era of peace, globalism, prosperity and multiculturalism. There was a new optimism.
Mark makes the point that this optimism was a revival of an old one that has been part of the Western dream ever since The Enlightenment in the 18th C. The Enlightenment had many very important ideas for the Western mind, but two are very relevant to this discussion:
- With the advances in science and knowledge we believed that we could bring in a brighter and better human future.
- There was a growing confidence in human perfectibility, what we could call Optimistic Humanism. But along with this went a playing down, and in many cases a rejection of the Christian doctrine of the fallen and imperfect nature of humans.
At the end of the 19th C there was a great confidence that with universal education, better social conditions, prosperity, better health, with our new psychological knowledge and with better prisons and mental health institutions, etc. we could work our way to Utopia. This was also accompanied by dreams of a new international order of rules of co-operation and peace.
But this was all shattered and destroyed in the blood and carnage of WW1. This was followed in the 1920’s by the financial crash and the Great Depression and then the rise of fascism in Germany, Spain and Italy, WW2 and the Jewish holocaust. The Marxist dream ended in the totalitarian nightmare of Soviet Russia, the Gulags and the deaths and of millions of people and the beginning of The Cold War.
Now the events of 1989 seemed to offer a new start a renewal of the suppressed Western dream of the Enlightenment. It seemed progress was possible once more politically, morally and materially. Our technological advances were racing ahead, the internet and the W W Web was evolving with its immense connecting possibilities. The EU progressed, multiculturalism, economic globalism, ‘the global village’ emerged and ‘one world’ seemed possible again. The development of human rights and individual freedom advanced. From 1989 a new generation of young people were educated in this hope over nearly 30 years.
In 2008, 19 years after 1989, Barak Obama was campaigning for the presidency of the USA with the theme of ‘HOPE.’ As part of his campaign in July he went to Germany and stood in the symbolic city of Berlin where the wall had stood. Standing near the Brandenburg Gate he made a speech to a huge crowd in which he said “This is the moment to secure the peace of the world without nuclear weapons……..this is the moment we must come together to save the planet…..the walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls that must come down.” He was elected on Nov 4th the same year. The Obama presidency may be seen as the pinnacle, or the last gasp, of the new popular hope and optimism before the chaos that was descending upon us again gathered its present momentum!
Paul Keating in a recent article in The Australian (Sept 23/24) makes the point that American administrations from Clinton on failed to take hold of the opportunity to reshape the global order for good in the post 1989 period and Obamas rhetoric was unfortunately better than his achievements. Keating says “There was no coherent American strategic plan for the post- Cold War world. It was the biggest opportunity lost”.
And so the chaos emerges again – The following are some key events that I have selected to Show how it has emerged since 1989.
1991 The Gulf war, Iraq invades Kuwait and the US and allies defend Kuwait. The instability of the Middle East begins to gather a new momentum. (Note: From 1980-88 Iraq and Iran had been involved in an extended conflict that cost over one and a quarter million lives.)
1999 ISIS is founded – an apocalyptic and more extreme version of Al Qaeda founded in 1988. It becomes a magnet for Islamic fundamentalist frustration and anger with the Wests domination of Islamic countries and Islam’s dream of a world- wide Caliphate or rule.
1991-99 With the break- up of Yugoslavia the historic tensions between the Balkan states breaks out in a major conflict in which serious war crimes and genocide take place and threatens Europe’s security.
1999 Putin the ex KGB Colonel becomes Russian PM and begins to re assert Russian power again in Europe.
2000’s Islamic terrorism begins in the west.
2001 The US Twin Towers attacked by Islamic Terrorists (Sep 9/11)
2002 Bush’s ‘Axis of evil’ speech
2003 US invades Iraq
2007-8 The Global Financial Crisis. Discrepancy in wealth distribution accelerates in West.
2008 Russia invades Georgia and claims territory – extended conflict ensues.
2011 In may Osama Bin Ladin killed by US special forces in Pakistan.
2011 The Arab Spring blossoms – a desire for democracy but is generally suppressed except in Tunisia.
2011 The Syrian civil war begins and the attempt to oust President Assad.
2013 K. Rudd “Climate change is the great moral, environmental and economic challenge of our time”
2014 Islamic Terrorism escalates in Europe.
2014 The Syrian conflict escalates triggering massive people displacement.
2014-5 Refugee/ displaced persons crisis reaches critical stage with massive people movement, the largest since WW2, the UN est. is 59.5 million. (Currently the figure is now est. at 65.6 Mill.)
2015 – 1 million refugees flood into Europe
2014 Part of Ukraine invaded by Russia. Civil passenger jet downed over Ukraine by Russian missile. Echoes of the Cold War re-emerge!
2015 Paris Climate Change Conf. Emissions targets are now urgent.
2016 Brexit . Right wing and Nationalist parties gain momentum in EU
2017 Trump elected. Obamas dreams unravel!
2017 N Korea threatens nuclear attacks. Echoes of 1950-53 Korean War and nuclear fears.
HERE WE GO AGAIN, BACK TO CHAOS!
Mark expresses the disappointment that underlies our anxiety about all this with a graphic image at the end of chapter four. The reason we feel as anxious as we do is that we don’t see what we expected. We came running in to the new world with arms raised like a boxer waiting for flowers to flood the ring. But as the darkness swirls around us, our posture shifts. Our arms slouch in confusion, as if to ask, “What is this?” Expect Utopia and dystopia is jarring.
He quotes Robert kagan the US Journalist and cultural critic who tells us that our hopes were a mirage and reminds us what the real world is really like. The world has not been transformed. In most places, the nation- state remains as strong as ever, and so too, the national ambitions, the competitions among nations that have shaped history. And so we return to the Enlightenment dream and once again have to face the facts that it remains an overoptimistic one based on an overoptimistic view of human nature.
Like in a movie this is the background music to our times. No wonder we are anxious! Speaking of movies it seems prescient that this year the much anticipated sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 iconic futuristic film ‘Blade Runner’ has just been released this October in Australia. The sequel “blade Runner 2049” is set in a time 35 years on from the original setting. The visual effects are stunning but bleak. The director Denis Villeneuve says, It’s not a bright future. It’s a very dystopic vision. I hope what we depict won’t happen. So do we, but it may just crank up our anxiety a bit more!
A brief essay
The following is a brief essay by Peter Corney in response to the questions all this raises about hope and the future and whether our anxiety is well founded? Does this mean history just keeps repeating itself? Is there no hope? What is the Christian response to this? One way of answering this is to contrast Secular and Christian Humanism and their different hopes.
Christian Humanism vs Secular Humanism and a basis for hope.
If the Enlightenment view of Optimistic Humanism is too optimistic and flawed by blindness to human imperfection and our fallen natures, what is the Christian vision of our human potential for good and progress and how does it work in this imperfect and fallen world?
Three key ideas in a Christian Humanism:
- We are made in God’s image, his character is stamped on our hearts, but we are also fallen.
- So we are capable of great good in both social and moral progress, but also great selfishness and evil and the misuse of power.
- Christian humanism is both idealistic and realistic.
- Idealistic: It is hopeful it says we can make substantial progress in human society but we are not utopian. Our model is the values of Jesus and the Kingdom of God. Jesus says in the Lord’s prayer “ when you pray say; “Our Father…..May Your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. The prayer seems to assume both a present and future dimension to the Kingdom.
- Realistic: But our Christian idealism and actions also need the moral guidance and corrections of Gods laws and Jesus’ teachings to restrain our weaknesses and fallen natures. Western culture has reflected these and introduced them into our laws and social norms and institutions over 1,000years of our history. Remember that institutions like the UN, the Charter of Human Rights, and the International Court of Justice were developed primarily by Western leaders who were either convinced Christians or strongly influenced by Christian values. (People like Dag Hammarskjold the first UN general secretary, Jacques Maritain the French Catholic philosopher and humanist, Charles Malik the Lebanese Orthodox Christian Philosopher, theologian and diplomat, and Eleanor Roosevelt the wife of the US president. Malik followed E. Roosevelt as the Chair of the UN Human Rights commission and as President of the UN General Assembly.) We also need the Gospel to transform our fallen natures. PT Forsyth put it this way, “Public liberty rests on inward freedom; and the cross alone gives moral freedom and moral independence.”
But despite our best efforts the NT tells us that the Kingdom of God will never be completely realized by us now and awaits God’s final intervention in the process of his plan of salvation in the renewal of all things in the new creation. (Rom 8:18-25) Till then we live in a tension between the powers and values of the Kingdom of God whose fulfilment is coming towards us and the powers and values of the Kingdoms of this world that are passing away. The balance between these powers will ebb and flow till ‘the new creation’. Sometimes it will ebb and flow because of Christian cultural success or failure, sometimes because the fallen worldly powers prevail and sometimes for reasons hidden from us by God.
The Churches role and the individual Christian’s role now is to live out the values of the Kingdom in our Christian communities and families and act as ‘salt and light’ in our social, economic and political communities, and at the same time evangelise so more people will embrace the kingdom of God and its values.
Peter Corney Sept 2017