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Volume 14, Issue 6: Eschaton

Cultural Pessimism

Jack Van Deventer

Back in the old days when movies were fine, the good guys with the white hats would, defying overwhelming odds, prevail over the morally repugnant evil foisted upon the innocent. Treachery would be overcome by those possessing truth, honor, and courage. One expected that good would always find a way to triumph over evil. It was an optimistic world.

In the forty or fifty years since that time, pessimism has captured the American psyche, and the malaise seems to deepen with each passing year. Perhaps for good reason. Each day's news seems to underscore that we are inescapably trapped in a downward vortex. Peggy Noonan, Ronald Reagan's former speechwriter, recently opined in the Wall Street Journal: "[T]he institutions that keep us up and humming… continue to wobble and groan from the weight of their misconduct. The American Catholic Church is a victim of self-inflicted wounds, its corruptions as towering as its cathedrals. Big business—Enthroned. Wall Street—stock tipped, finagled and fooled by a bubble. Big accounting, by which we judge how our business investments are doing, is a joke. The FBI and the CIA are more joke fodder." Noonan's article focused on concerns that our obsessions over last September's terror attack distract us from preventing the inevitable next attack. She observed, "We live in a time in which we constantly have to try to find the line between paranoia and prudence, between superstition and sensitivity to the weirdness that reigns. One has a sense of a quickening of history, of a gathering of its forces, of things hurtling toward some unknown end." 1
The expectation of impending doom can be traced to a variety of real and perceived social sins, some of which Noonan listed. Others include ethnic violence, "hate" crimes, family disintegration, environmental sins, economic sins, etc. Previously anticipated "saviors" of mankind, such as education, science, and technology have proven ineffective. Government education has exacerbated intellectual and moral decay, compounding the problem it was supposed to solve. Science and technology have disappointed as well. We can't seem to build tools that make up for our moral failures.
Over the last several months one of the more popular books making the rounds within the Christ Church congregation has been Death of the West, the New York Times bestseller by Patrick J. Buchanan.2 The subtitle of the book is "How dying populations and immigrant invasions imperil our country and civilization." It's an ominous and compelling book, documenting among other things the rapid population decline in western countries (Europe and North America) due to abortions, overpopulation hysteria, feminism, economics, declining morality, etc.
Buchanan describes "cultural pessimism" as "a sense of alienation, of hopelessness, of despair where, even though prosperous and free, a people comes to see its society and country as oppressive, evil, and unworthy of its loyalty and love." He describes cultural pessimism as if it were a form of societal cancer, the long-term effects being antithetical to self-preservation. To illustrate, he cites the Pope's Pontifical Council for the Family that links cultural pessimism to infertility.
Within Christendom the engines of pessimism are premillennialism and amillennialism, doctrines that anticipate an irresistible moral and societal decline. These doctrines of cultural despair predict increased persecution, apostasy, and an inevitable spiral of evil that will prevail over the whole earth. Why premillennialists or amillennialists have children at all is a mystery to me. Wouldn't raising children be tantamount to raising sheep for the slaughter? Perhaps this explains why birthrates have declined even within the Christian community.
I have a friend who, in light of his conviction that severe tribulation lies just around the corner, asserts that God's mission for Christians on earth is merely to "Occupy 'til I come" (Lk. 19:13). For pessimistic believers, whose solitary hope is to wait for the rapture, this bunker mentality is the only option. Tribulation looms and things will inevitably get worse and worse. However, their vocal anticipation of the "any moment" rapture for the last 150 years is starting to get wearisome. At what point do we say alright already, enough is enough? This desperate worldview can hardly be equated with living a victorious Christian life. There's nothing victorious about it.
The Luke 19 passage above must be seen in context, the parable of the pounds. A master gave one servant ten pounds, another five, and another one pound. The servants were told "occupy 'til I come," a charge to work hard and be productive. The two faithful servants produced ten more and five more pounds, so the master put them in charge of ten cities and five cities, respectively. The unproductive servant (that is, the one with the bunker mentality) failed to produce anything with his one pound and was condemned as a "wicked servant."
Christians must be careful not to underestimate the glory and transforming power of the gospel. The renovation of cultures and countries will be forthcoming until the Great Commission is fulfilled. By God's decree, good will triumph over evil. Severe challenges are ahead, but ultimately the guys with the white hats win the battle.

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