The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy
The Atlantic had an excellent piece this week about the crisis of white, working class America this week. Over the last couple of years the crisis in the “flyover” states has gotten more and more attention as sociologists note increase in suicides, heroin addiction and other signals of cultural disease.
This Atlantic piece focuses on class, status and self-regard.
The modern economy privileges the well-educated and highly-skilled, while giving them an excuse to denigrate the people at the bottom (both white and nonwhite) as lazy, untalented, uneducated, and unsophisticated. In a society focused on meritocratic, materialistic success, many well-off Americans from across the political spectrum scorn the white working class in particular for holding onto religious superstitions and politically incorrect views, and pity them for working lousy jobs at dollar stores and fast-food restaurants that the better-off rarely set foot in. And when other sources of meaning are hard to come by, those who struggle in the modern economy can lose their sense of self-worth.
Deep in American mythology is the subtle interplay of the values of equality and meritocracy. The dream of America is that we are all supposed to have an equal shot at the American dream. The difference in outcome is supposed to be the effort we produce. This narrative is really a morality play of sorts. Work hard and you will get ahead. Be lazy, and you will be hungry and deserve it.
The Mythical American Dream
The difference between the truth and the mythology of this American story has always been complex. There certainly are those who, by virtue of their smarts, their efforts and their good fortune have made the most of this nation. I think part of the reason Barack Obama was able to win where Hillary was not was because he was such a figure. Raised by a white, single mother with her parents he managed to get an education at Oxy in So Cal and Harvard and become president of the US. The author of Hillbilly Elegy JD Vance is another such figure. He, a white son of hillbilly stock and a terribly dysfunctional upbringing through the help of his grandmother made it through Yale law school and is now the author of a successful book.
If we are judging from outcomes, however, most of us know equally “deserving” persons who were never able to overcome obstacles and despite hard work and determination struggled all their lives without much recognition nor visible evidence of “success”.
Even these “rags to riches” stories, however, don’t really break “the game”. The rewards offered by the American dream are all the rewards of this world: status, recognition, influence, wealth, power. These are, in our secular age, the only game in town.
Lest we imagine that this is our thing, or a new thing, we should realize that this is essentially the definition of “the world” that is one of our three enemies in Scripture.
In hearing this most Americans will nod their head in agreement and says “yes, hierarchy is bad, equality is good” but that’s a gloss. It isn’t equality that we are after, not in the sense we imagine. If I were to mention Chairman Mao and his cultural revolution. We’d say “no not that kind of equality. We want equality of opportunity and a meritocracy of effort”.
Right. That is what we believe.
The American Dream meets Psychology and Eugenics
We are quick to identify past injustices as threats to the American dream. Surely those who arrived on these shores in the cargo holds of slaves ships never had an “equal shot” as compared to the children of those who purchased them.
What we mostly fail to connect with our mythical American dream are the scientific roots of inequality. All persons are not born equal by any means even before the effects of the inequalities they are born into. We all know this and so the meritocracy begins before conception. Psychologists have for a long time told us that we subconsciously prefer potential mates by evaluating them on health and reproductive strength. Men look at skin, hair, breasts and women look at size, strength and wealth. Others who produce children in less natural ways through sperm and egg banks thumb through profiles listing IQs, medical histories, donor achievements. No one shops for genetic material for the short, overweight, unhealthy, serially addicted, routinely imprisoned unemployed. Isn’t this where equality and meritocracy meet? We quietly practice eugenics while denying it for fear of looking like bigots.
The walking pig from Animal Farm proves to be the prophet in declaring “some are more equal than others”.
The Strategy of Social Affirmation
While we conveniently push away the inequalities we know by our sciences we employ other ones to attempt to shore ourselves up in our insecurities.
The Atlantic piece notes how this has gone.
And this is of course where we really get sensitive in our value of equality. We have, for a very long time now seen inequality as the cardinal vice. In order to right some obvious wrongs of history we have tried to elevate some by demonizing their adversaries or opposites. We want to motivate the lazy by rewarding the eager. We want to raise the self-regard of the historically oppressed by highlighting stories of those who have overcome. This national project runs through our land from the elementary school through the university all the way to the White House. We have high hopes for our ability to improve the individual by celebrating those who have done what we think is good.
This reveals another dirty little truth about ourselves that it is always easier to demonize than to elevate. Psychologists have also noted that it critical words are five times more powerful than positive ones because it takes 5 expressions of praise to overcome one word of criticism.
The Atlantic piece notes that it not only have changes brought by globalization undermined the wealth of white middle American which rose in the post WWII boom, but by virtue of our system we have blamed them for it.
One of my favorite illustrations of the psychology of wealth and poverty is this one where participants in an openly rigged monopoly game discover how inequality changes their self-perception and their perceptions of others.
The Birth of Jesus
The story of Jesus’ birth comes in Luke 2. The story begins with Mary and Joseph at the mercy of imperial power. They, without status make their way to Bethlehem where there is no room in a human habitation, so Jesus is born in a space with the animals and is laid in a manger.
The scene then shifts to shepherds keeping watch over flocks and night and an angel chorus appears and sings.
All of the elements are there to locate Jesus among not the wealthy but the poor and the disadvantaged. The tension in the story is the difference between who the writer of the story says he is, the Son of God, and how he is perceived and the surroundings that receive him, all humble.
If we were to ask about what kind of self-regard this newborn king might have psychologically speaking the prospects might seem dim. Although he’s got an impressive genealogy it connect him not to the top people of the world, the Roman elite and their friends, but rather to a conquered, marginalized people who have through sheer stubbornness resisted assimilation and therefore cultural genocide into the vast sea of the Greco-Roman world.
The wildcard that the biblical gospels play with is supernatural and miraculous power and notably the only element of that in this story is the choir of angels.
The first thing I want us to do is pause to clear out a lot of the current cultural assumptions about angels. Angels are stock characters in folktales, stories, TV and movies and our writers have cast them into many different roles even in Christian circles. If we are going to figure out how angels function in the Christmas story we should pause and see what happens when people and angels are together in the Bible.
Verse 9 is actually very consistent with many angelic appearances in the Bible. Before the choir shows up one angel comes to speak with the shepherds all alone. Verse 9 is very clear on their response to him. The angel shows up with the “glory” of the Lord shown around them and they “were terrified”. The English here is a lot weaker than the Greek. They were “terrified with a great terror”.
Think about how afraid you can possibly be, so afraid that you can’t do anything except fall frozen in terror. That is the picture.
Now you might note that while it is most common for angels to incite terror in their audience, thus prompting the usual first words “don’t be afraid” because fear is natural, we should acknowledge that angels so show up in the Bible incognito. They can, in moments, hide their “glory” and appear like regular folk. We might in this moment that this seems to be exactly how Jesus was. He didn’t shine or have a halo or anything. He looked like you or I.
Angels, Terror and Glory
It is interesting in this well known passage how the glory is cited but we never connect it to the terror. We regard glory kind of like we regard angels, as something tamed and domesticated. The “they were terrified with great terror” is the response to the angel complete with the glory of the Lord shown around them. We tend to domesticate and de-militarize glory by reducing it to the kind of light that a light bulb, or a candle or a screen might be producing. We maybe should pause, and hold the through that perhaps the terror is there at least as much because of the glory as to the angel.
The appearance of the one angel is followed up by a host of angels. If you know your Bible you’ll realize that while “hosts of angels” are often referred to seldom are they seen. Angels usually show up just one or a few at a time. We can think of “Jacob’s ladder” where sleeping Jacob is an observer of the gate to heaven, or the unseen army of God surrounding the besieged city where Elisha is dwelling in 2 Kings 6, but this appearance is dramatic given the standards we find in the Bible. It is exceptional. If one angel with glory brought “terrified with great terror” what would an ARMY of them produce!
I don’t want us to miss the dramatic contrast between this army of angels announcing Jesus’ birth and this newborn covered with blood, followed by a placenta, soiling up the swaddling clothes. One is the most powerful thing the world would flee in terror of, the other the most vulnerable.
While today we might have some romantic idea of shepherds, at this time they were considered by Rabbis to be of such low moral rank that they were disqualified from appearing in courts to offer legal testimony. They were little better than thieves as the took flocks and grazed them on land that didn’t belong to them. Shepherds were the kinds of scrappy, unscrupulous laborers that had much to fear from law and religion not unlike working class people’s today in terms of their social status. Isn’t this partly the point of the Atlantic article?
Now it is to these group that God decides to send this outsized miracle. The army of angels don’t go sing to the priests assembled at the temple. They don’t fly over to Rome to show themselves to the Roman Senate to tell their legions to stand down lest they face divine obliteration. God brings this show to shepherds whose word won’t be valued by anyone else in society.
What to do with untrustworthy shepherds
The Atlantic piece, in noting the communal disdain by the elites upon the poor and uneducated tries to remedy the situation by what it calls “grace”. It tries to borrow from Christianity, while at the same time trying to be multi-cultural by looking for “grace” facsimiles in other religions in hopes of asking for a broad application from whom, we’re not really sure, perhaps the elites towards the underclass.
Unlike an egalitarian viewpoint focused on measuring and leveling inequalities, grace rejects categories of right and wrong, just and unjust, and offers neither retribution nor restitution, but forgiveness.
With a perspective of grace, it becomes clearer that America, the wealthiest of nations, possesses enough prosperity to provide adequately for all. It becomes easier to part with one’s hard-won treasure in order to pull others up, even if those being helped seem “undeserving”—a label that today serves as a justification for opposing the sharing of wealth on the grounds that it is a greedy plea from the resentful, idle, and envious.
At the same time, grace reminds the well-educated and well-off to be less self-righteous and less hostile toward other people’s values. Without a doubt, opposing racism and other forms of bigotry is imperative. There are different ways to go about it, though, and ignorance shouldn’t be considered an irremediable sin.
The irony of this section in this Atlantic piece is that no-one from the “basket of deplorables” will miss the condescending tone of elitism here. “Ignorance shouldn’t be considered an irremediable sin…”
What began as a critique of academic education settles into an assumption of moral education. Some are still more equal than others.
The “grace” the piece refers to is the most common usage today. It’s roughly equivalent to kindness or patience or second chances or latitude. It’s flexibility in the law, but not its transformation.
The author is faced with the fact that the elites with their “oughts” in the culture war are facing off against the white, working classes who are now themselves victims and their “grace” is that they won’t crush them for what their political and moral sins deserve. What, of course, the underclass notes is that nothing has changed. They remain the underclass and that the rules of the world still hold. They, who have been humbled by the winds of globalism, the same winds that have brought a wealthy windfall to the new elites, must lay down their votes for the wrong candidates and submit to the education required by their overclass.
This also sets up the dynamic of convenient “grace” as they call it or situational “grace”. If the underclass is down on their luck, marginalized, without power then the overclass can afford to extend them “grace”. What happens if the underclass rises up? What happens if they win an election? What happens if they take power? Then of course those who imagine themselves the rightful superiors by virtue of their education and morality won’t be able to afford, nor will need to extend such “grace” but will instead continue in the culture war to once again put the underclass back in its place. Do we really not understand how all of this works after 6000 years of human history?
The World’s Source of Glory
The Atlantic’s piece beings with a crisis of self-regard. The economic and political underclass (who won the election and controls all three branches of government btw). Notice the contradictory messages.
- The source of your identity and self-regard must come from within
- The source of status, authority and regard of the overclass comes from their superior education, moral and financial position.
The crisis of self-regard by the poor working whites is because they have lost their status in the political/financial world. Does anyone really believe the “looking within” will really work? Remember in the rigged monopoly game those given the position of wealth “looked within” to see what was actually the projection of their favored status in the game.
I think a more objective viewpoint of the sources of glory would be that we attempt to obtain, feel and enjoy “glory” by the praise of others. If we have high status by virtue of the power that money gives us, and how powerful wealth and other things that confer power in this world make us feel, then we feel glorious.
Here’s my question. Could this glory stand up to the glory of the Lord brought by even one angel?
The Debate about the Angel’s Song
There is a debate over what verse 14 actually means in Greek. The best judgment is that God declares peace upon “people of his good pleasure”. The debate rages over the scope of this declaration. Is it for everyone? The phrase was a standard phrase in Judaism for God’s elect.
This causes a crisis for us. We have our values of inclusivity and equality and this phrase makes it sound like God is doing the picking and choosing! Shouldn’t we all come equal before the throne?
Let’s pause our reaction and notice again the audience God chooses for the performance of the angel choir. If God were selecting an audience by the world’s standards of the day, the ones who had wealth and power and how considered their status to require “patronage” of them upon the lesser masses, God would have sent the choir to the Herods and the Romans.
If we would buy a religious narrative then God would have sent the choir to the moral superiors of the scribes and Pharisees who scrupulously studied, observed and tried to obey the moral law. They don’t go there either, nor to the temple.
He sends them to shepherds who were grazing flocks maybe in someone else’s field. These are not the wealthy patrons nor the moral superiors. We also shouldn’t get lost in romanticism about noble laborers or the noble poor.
Luke also has the crowds (in Luke) of disciples responding to the angelic chorus in Luke 19 “peace in heaven and glory in the highest”. Luke I think is trying to tell us something.
Fake Grace and True Grace
In our self-righteous tribalism we blithely fly the flags of inclusion while practicing the same worldly games of status/money/power and moral superiority over one another. We don’t fool those we relegate as inferior in these games and we don’t fool God. The only ones these games fool are ourselves, who count ourselves always better than average, giving points to ourselves and those who agree with us.
We are offended by God exercising the right to pick and choose while denying that we are doing precisely the same thing, at the same time congratulating ourselves for the “grace” we extend, as defined by mere “latitude” or “flexibility”.
While the angels are singing the one for whom they sing lies helplessly in a manger soiling his swaddling clothes. The angels sing to the shepherds because the true King himself will willingly become the victim of us all. His grace will not be a merely convenient latitude until the underclass or the moral inferiors get the upper hand, it will be the kind of costly grace that makes him the loser, his then adult body splayed naked on a Roman cross. The Romans of course will justify the violence as being “for their own good.”
Glory that Crushes
The glory we are trying to manage in the newly awakened crisis of the elites to the discontent of the poor whites in flyover country is a weak one. Glory is the regard of the other. We derive glory, or weightiness by the approval of our peers or even those we regard as our superiors in status, beauty, wealth, power or morality.
If we recognize this it shines a light on ourselves that is deeply unflattering and problematic.
Why do we object to God as chooser? Do we have more faith in the choice of those around us who have high status to choose rightly or wisely or generously? Do we really have more faith in them than we have in God?
Do we prefer the choice for glory of human beings because we believe that we can finally exercise some control over them? We can perhaps hide our flaws and present ourselves as worthy by showing a selection of who we really are and what we really do?
God is terrifying on this regard if we have any appreciation for what the term “god” implies. That he sees all, knows all, is absolutely pure and whose justice goes all the way to the bottom of our hearts and systems. We are not stupid to prefer human judges to confer glory upon us than a divine one. We are not stupid but our choice is revealed as convenient.
Maybe we now know why the shepherds were in terror at the light of God’s glory, that in that glory they could see themselves for who they really were in the eyes of God. Who in fact can stand before such searing and exposing light?
From the start we have wanted to be the world’s owners and we have exercised that ownership. That ownership results in the power and status games of this world that we see played out in the politics and economics of today. It is a game of winners and losers, of power and corruption where we do all we can to secure for ourselves the means to attract the approving glory of our peers. Maybe if we’re generous we will lecture the losers on how they might receive our approval if they follow our rules, and we call that “grace”.
CS Lewis and Glory
When CS Lewis was becoming a Christian he tried to figure out what glory was. He imagined it could be mere approval.
When I began to look into this matter I was shocked to find such different Christians as Milton, Johnson, and Thomas Aquinas taking heavenly glory quite frankly in the sense of fame or good report. But not fame conferred by our fellow creatures—fame with God, approval or (I might say) “appreciation” by God. And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural; nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” With that, a good deal of what I had been thinking all my life fell down like a house of cards. I suddenly remembered that no one can enter heaven except as a child; and nothing is so obvious in a child—not in a conceited child, but in a good child—as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised.
Lewis, C. S.. Weight of Glory (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (pp. 36-37). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Suddenly we must realize we were made for glory. This is why the poor white voters of fly-over country feel crushed by the elites. This is why the elites feel themselves so superior. This is why so often both sides of any war, culture or hot believe that they are right and God is on their side. God is not the chooser, he becomes the divine reflector of our ideas and schemes.
This is also why, probably, the angelic choir can likely do the most good, and perhaps the least damage (in considering the shape of Satan’s temptations of Jesus later on), by appearing to shepherds. These men how had no political standing, financial standing, or moral standing and who know exactly how people really are, might instead take a chance on God himself because they’ve really got not much left to lose.
This is the only reason we finally abandon our games and look to the one for whom the light of his opinion either crushes us or transforms us into glory.
What we must learn are the specific pleasures of the inferior.
Apparently what I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures—nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before his teacher, a creature before its Creator.
Lewis, C. S.. Weight of Glory (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 37). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
This is what the business with the angelic choir, the shepherds and the infant Jesus must bring us to. We must see God, in his crushing glory displaying his pleasure before untrustworthy and immoral shepherds, and displaying his love in an infant in a manger, as indistinguishable and vulnerable as any other on the planet. This is what true grace looks like, not simply condescension or latitude but costly grace where it takes on risk and threat and pain and death for the well-being of the other. This makes the kind of self-congratulatory condescension we see in the world exposed as the self-serving game of the world as it has always been.
I read in a periodical the other day that the fundamental thing is how we think of God. By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important. Indeed, how we think of Him is of no importance except insofar as it is related to how He thinks of us. It is written that we shall “stand before” Him, shall appear, shall be inspected. The promise of glory is the promise, almost incredible and only possible by the work of Christ, that some of us, that any of us who really chooses, shall actually survive that examination, shall find approval, shall please God. To please God…to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness…to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a son—it seems impossible, a weight or burden of glory which our thoughts can hardly sustain. But so it is.
Lewis, C. S.. Weight of Glory (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (pp. 38-39). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Now what will you do?
The story is laid before us not unlike the child in the manger.
The shepherds sought out the child and amazed a village including the infant’s mother.
The baby did grow up and became the kind of a man who didn’t live to curry the favor of his observers or followers, but in every interaction expressed both the humility of a servant and the authority of God.
The infinite, eternal God is standing before you now with greasy hair and a bit of fish in his beard, bidding you who are weary to come to him and he will give you rest. To turn away in offence from this person is natural, expected, even reasonable. Yet to turn towards such a one is to turn away from all that has a false claim on your identity and into the one who defines what it is to exist. Family, nation, religion, and ideology are “put in their place.”
Backhouse, Stephen. Kierkegaard: A Single Life (p. 207). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.