on cynicism: post tenebras lux
I have often thought America to be an optimistic land -- home of the brave and the relentlessly cheerful, where hard work makes dreams come true and endings happy. Or maybe optimism was a zeitgeist of the 90s, a sunnier time in my memory, an era when family friendly TV programming enjoyed broad popularity rather than derision.
When my friends and I talk about television today, we often notice a darkness, a despair. Or as a friend has written, "I'd like to know when killing off (and brutalizing) sympathetic characters stops being a twist." We notice that adultery is portrayed as commonplace, sex as loveless and without commitment, betrayal as inevitable, violence as conventional. If television is any indication, we don't believe in the good guys anymore. Alan Ball, creator of Six Feet Under, is reported as saying, "Heroes are much suited for movies. I'm interested in real people. And real people are ****** up." Our modern fascination is with the antihero, his flaws, addictions, and tortured complexity on high definition display. David Carr notes the shift in his NY Times column:
We used to turn on the television to see people who were happier, funnier, prettier versions of ourselves. But at the turn of the century, something fundamental changed and we began to see scarier, crazier, darker forms of the American way of life.
Somewhere along the way, North American idealism gave way to severe skepticism.
Neatly resolved half hour programming was never about sheer realism (hello, Blossom -- but seriously this intro dance is the best ever) and I don't recall having those expectations. I am all about good TV. I commend quality storytelling and beautiful cinematography. I value thoughtful entertainment that doesn't avoid hard questions. However, today's aestheticization of darkness and despair concerns me. To the extent that we unknowingly let fiction manipulate our view of reality, we may, I fear, believe the transgressive to be truer than notions of love and hope and courage.
In part, I believe our societal cynicism to be a response to the failure of our culture's ideals and dreams. Money can't buy me love. Love, as culturally defined, can't buy me happiness. And the pursuit of happiness remains the quintessential American ideal (and ya, that means it's probably Canada's too). I once asked someone what she thought the most important thing in life was.
"To be happy."
"So, are you happy?"
"Oh." Pause. "That's a good question."
We begin to believe that happiness is only an imagined, unattainable ideal. And it hurts less to hope less. Thus begins the cynical cycle. The death of a dream leads to despair. And despair is deplorable. Therefore, we prefer to view all dreams as delusional. And so we mock them.
I don't entirely disagree with Alan Ball's assessment of humanity, but it doesn't tell the whole truth. In a world without God, one may conclude that "mere anarchy is loosed upon the world," that things are falling apart, and that people are inevitable victims to the madness of their hearts. But this darkly cynical perspective ultimately falls short of reality for two reasons:
1) It disregards the inherent sinfulness and fallen nature of humanity which are the true reasons why our world is often a scary, crazy, and dark place. It depicts the selfishness of man and the fallout of sin without understanding these things in relation to God, namely, that these are the marks of rejecting and rebelling against our Creator. To misdiagnose the problem is to never see the solution.
2) It disregards the love, sovereignty, and power of the living God who is working all things for his glory and the good of those who love him, who has given his own beloved Son to rescue undeserving sinners. It cannot imagine, therefore, the very real possibility of forgiveness with God through Jesus Christ; the consequential healing, cleansing, and transformation of a heart marred by sin; the beauty of a life surrendered to Christ, now bearing the marks of God's grace, the sweet fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
As we recognize darkness on our screens, in our world, and even residing in our hearts, we can easily be led to despair, to cynicism, to an untrue view of ourselves and God. Instead, we ought to recognize our desperate need for Jesus to be our Saviour and to cast ourselves at his feet. There is so much real hope in Christ. There is a God who graciously and sufficiently binds up the brokenhearted, sets captives free, comforts those who mourn, and who wipes away the ashes of defilement, humiliation, and mourning from our faces and bestows a crown of beauty upon us. And entertainment that precludes this possibility of hope, redemption, love, and joy are dangerously truncated views of reality.
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4-5 ESV)
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV)
He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14 ESV)
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. (Isaiah 61:1-4 ESV)