Monday, April 27, 2009

Beware of Movements, and of Claiming Your Own!

To any and all leaders, writers, preachers, politicians, thinkers, poets, et al:

Refuse the temptation to make any claims whatsoever about the group, movement, community, tradition, or church to which you belong "growing," "swelling," "gaining momentum," "hungry for something different," or growing "at the grass roots level."

I watch Christopher Hitchens on C-SPAN's Q&A, and he says that people fed up with religion are growing. I read Jim Wallis and he says that people fed up with the Religious Right and the Secular Left are growing and are hungry for a third way. I read John Piper and he says that Christians across America and the world who ascribe to conservative Reformed positions are growing. I listen to Al Gore and he says that people tired of anti-environmental policies and practices are growing.

So many people, so many groups of vastly disparate worldviews -- all growing, growing, growing.

There are phrases usually bandied about like "We're small now, but more are joining every day" or "Every day people are realizing they're not happy with the status quo, and they're joining our ranks."

It can be implicit or explicit, religious or secular, political or business. If a leader or speaker or writer or whoever has big sales or big crowds or wins a few elections, apparently a movement must have been created, and it must be growing, and it must point to a larger movement nation- or even world-wide.

And I say: Stop it!

In his essay, "In Distrust of Movements," Wendell Berry begins by saying,
I have had with my friend Wes Jackson a number of useful conversations about the necessity of getting out of movements — even movements that have seemed necessary and dear to us — when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a “peace movement” becomes violent. They often become too specialized, as if finally they cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision of the institutional intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing finally in effects rather than causes. Or they deal with single issues or single solutions, as if to assure themselves that they will not be radical enough.
The point is not just that real movements are almost always self-defeating. Neither is the point that for Christians, the only "movement" worth speaking about is the kingdom of God. The point is that any sweeping claim whatsoever for "us," for those of "us" who agree with social justice or environmentalism or conservative theology or atheism, is shallow, narrow-minded, and, ultimately, goofy. No, the whole world is not jumping on the atheist train -- nor the conservative train, nor the justice train, nor any other all-for-one train. It's just not happening. Acting as if it is happening -- usually out of comparatively tiny experiences -- is merely narcissism writ large. What is important to me and to these people who buy my books or pay to listen to me speak must represent the rest of the nation -- nay, the world!

Nope. Not even close. Your little cultural momentum will ebb and flow for a bit, before finally being swept out into the sea of history as a small blip on the radar of briefly popular fads that, like so many, took hold quickly and let go just as fast. Your work's importance is not predicated upon its expansion into macro dominance or its long-lasting effects. If it is important work, value it in all its smallness. Value it for how it improves the lives of human beings. Value it for the time it lasts, for the time it has been given.

But do not make claims which are not yours to make. And do not presume you are changing the world, much less the nation, much less the state, much less the city. Be content to be changed yourself, and for those around you to have been so changed, too, by a great miracle. Be thankful, and learn silence before speech.

1 comment:

  1. It is a stark reminder that so many great movements and great works often come to fruition posthumously. We never see the full effects of our work.

    This goes the other way as well. To those who feel like they have little to show for all their work, I can speak words of assurance. You do more than you know.

    P.S. Or I'll bury you alive in a box!