I’ve noted before that I’m susceptible to the frequent lament of Christians that Christianity is fast-fading from our culture. I worry about the church in a world that seems indifferent, even hostile to the faith. But it’s not just Christians who are feeling burdened by a decline in commonly-held values. Our culture as a whole is foundering in a tidal wave of pessimism. “In Nothing We Trust” (National Journal, April 19, 2012) explores how trust in any “public good” has plummeted. The authors note that seven in 10 Americans believe their country is on the wrong track, naming a loss of hope in government, banks, business, and media spokespersons. Additionally, “Less than half the population expresses ‘a great deal’ of confidence in the public-school system or organized religion.” Sociologist prof Laura Hansen sums up: “We have lost our gods.”
It just so happens that I recently embarked on my own non-scientific experiment and came to a conclusion that speaks to this malaise. I was on one of my daily walks, my brain a furious whorl of thought about the intersection of faith and culture, when a fish-shaped stalk of grass on the ground impinged my peripheral vision. I had to laugh at my hyper-spirituality. I was seeing Jesus everywhere! Next thing you know, I scolded myself, you’ll being seeing Jesus’s face in the spaghetti and sending photos of your supper to all your Facebook friends!
But, just for fun, I started logging how often Christian images intruded on my consciousness apart from my regular devotions and church-related activities. That night I happened to watch “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Well, to clarify, tried to watch. I spent a good part of the movie averting my eyes, the nudity and violence verging on voyeuristic. But I was surprised to note that the protagonist’s daughter was a Christian. She wears a cross, says grace before a meal, and informs her dad she is heading off to Bible camp. Moreover, she is the one who oh-so-casually solves a puzzling mystery for her journalist father, identifying a series of number sequences as Scripture verses. I kept waiting for her to be reviled, ridiculed or victimized, but it never happened. In fact, she is portrayed as a subtle redemptive influence on her callous and self-absorbed parent.
Over and over again, as I paid attention, Jesus was there in my world. His cross was everywhere, sometimes in admittedly strange places, like hanging on the neck of Steven Tyler (American Idol), or Teresa Lisbon, (a character on The Mentalist), or on the wrist band of rap singer Flo Rida in his music video “I got a good feeling.” Country band Rascal Flatts sang an openly Christian song on a recent Dancing with the Stars episode. So did contestant Colton Dixon before he was eliminated on American Idol. Mark and I watched a documentary series together on the Vietnam War. All kinds of crosses there, hanging with dog tags on teenage chests – chunky wooden ones on leather thongs, gold or silver ones on chains.
Jesus flashes on my Facebook page as well, in posts from fellow-Christians, in ads (Play Gospel Adventure!), or in news clips and shared links. References run the gamut from earnest to stupifyingly pious to plainly offensive.
And then there’s the world of serious journalism. National Geographic’s March cover story was “In the Footsteps of the Apostles.” The same month Huffington Post ran a story called “Seven Reasons Why Young Adults Quit the Church.” Newsweek’s April cover featured a well-groomed hipster Jesus. Publishing trade mag Folio reports that having Jesus on the cover pumps up sales by 45%.
I didn’t exert myself in any way to find these examples. Jesus was simply omnipresent in my day-to-day media consumption. How does this all pull together for me? Post-Easter 2012, like my homeboy Thomas, I’m sheepishly reminded: Jesus is still alive and well. He is risen indeed. He “ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge the living and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” That consummation proclaimed in the Nicene Creed may come in ways I don’t expect or fathom. I may decry these images of Jesus in the maw of a ravening media monster. I may worry (Lord, help my unbelief) that, unlike his servant Jonah, he might be consumed beyond his ability to be spit out whole from the belly of such a leviathan. But Jesus won’t be counted out. That ballooning despair expressed by seven in 10 regarding the “gods” of our culture has the potential to trigger a gold rush, to propel a massive sifting through a mountain of dirt for something of value – something more precious, more lasting, more genuine than the superficial connectedness of social media or the soothing drone of the entertainment factory – something more like a “living Stone” (1 Peter 2:4). Jesus is still moving souls to seek him in the 21st century. It’s his reality show, after all.