There are chilly winds blowing in the world. And yet we have a way of selectively reading reality, filtering out or minimizing the things we don't want to think about, turning up our collar to a frigid truth if we venture out, warming ourselves by the glow of hearth and home. But sometimes reality gushes in, and we realize that indeed a hard rain is falling.
Two recent articles in First Things changed the normally sunny weather I travel in. In one by Wesley J. Smith, entitled "Medicinal Murder," the author documents the steady expansion of euthanasia in Europe. As case in point, he cites Belgium, where suicides are termed by many in the medical community as a "beautiful death," not merely suicides of terminally ill persons but even of those who, because of depression or lack of will to live, are ready to end it all. Furthermore, he documents the ungodly linkage of euthanasia with organ harvesting. Society now benefits from mercy killings. And when there are legal violations of euthanasia laws, enforcement is lax or nonexistent. Thus, a cultural shift has ocurred where death is celebrated as one more benefit of human autonomy: you can choose when to die, and society and the medical profession will help you and even profit from your death. Smith notes that once euthanasia is legalized, the categories of people eligible for it expand, but the rest of society ceases to think it matters. He believes this trend is symptomatic of cultural nihilism.
Perhaps you know this. Perhaps the essay only confirms what we already know. But it is worth reading for the last paragraph, where Smith offers the antidote:
What is the antidote? Love. We all age. We fall ill. We grow weak. We become disabled. Life can get very hard. Euthanasia raises the fundamental question of whether our culture will retain the moral capacity to sustain a culture of care for those who have entered life's most difficult stages. On that question, it seems to me, hangs the moral future of Western civilization. For as the Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne has cogently warned: "A society that believes in nothing can offer no argument even against death. A culture that has lost its faith in life cannot comprehend why it should be endured.
So that's it? Love? Not taking to the courts, mounting advocacy for life, passing laws to protect the elderly and infirm? Just love?
In that same issue of First Things, in an article entitled "Lena Dunhams's Inviolable Self," Alan Jacobs contrasts the moral world of Jane Austen and the apparently amoral world of Girls, an HBO series in its first season. He describes a sexual fantasy that one of the main characters, Adam, has about his rape of an 11-year old heroin addict. As shocking as this is, what Jacobs focuses on is even more shocking: In all the reviews of the show none of the journalists admit to the possibility that there could be a moral dimension to Adam's reverie. And apparently fans have no problem with all this either. They continue to watch. This is in contrast to the moral world of Jane Austen, where there are categories of right and wrong and we all know what they are.
Once again, however, the antidote to this amorality is not, Jacobs says, to meet it head on. He concludes: "To someone who thinks Adam's fantasies are unproblematic, or even commendable, there is nothing for me to say. I confront a linguistically unbridgeable gap; I confront incommensurability." In other words, these two worlds do not connect. As I said to someone I was having a heated discussion with many years ago, we have lost the ability to communicate, at least propositionally, as we do not share the same understanding of the world and, in a sense, the same language. We talk past each other.
So what do we do? Jacobs says that what we need "is not condemnation. . . but better art and better stories --- better fictional worlds. . . . [N]ot the abolition of mythic sandboxes but the making of sandboxes in which to play with true, or truer, myths." Rather than simply condemning the fictive world of Girls, we can write and film truer stories that capture the imagination, that give viewers or readers a vision of a different reality. Rather than shows about the "beautiful death" of assisted suicide, we offer up excellent stories of the reverberating compassion and love that might surround the disabled or aged, stories that help people imagine that compassion grows in the face of suffering, in standing with the dying, not in ending their lives.
We may reach some people by arguing propositional truth. But in this time we may reach more by telling better stories, by opening a portal to the True Truth at the heart of Reality. In a culture that no longer speaks our language, our venue for persuasion has shifted.
A decade ago I was standing at the back of the Acoustic Stage at the Cornerstone Music Festival when a muddied grunge-rock fan ambled up. He stood gaping at what he heard. "This is beautiful, man, just beautiful. What is it?" The acoustic, story-driven songs resonated with him. All he had heard was the loud and gutteral screaming of the bands playing in the tent next door. He was mesmerized by the different reality of the Acoustic Stage. And as a result, I was able to tell him what he was hearing.
"Art," Picasso said, "is the lie that tells the truth." "Tell it slant," said Emily Dickenson. Christians, get busy lying. And get busy loving. That's the antidote for a culture gone wrong. That just might change the weather.