Mark Sayers hears it all the time: Between the election of Donald Trump, Britain’s exit from the European Union, clashes over transgender bathroom use, and the horrors of ISIS, doesn’t it feel like the world has gone mad? In Strange Days: Life in the Spirit in a Time of Upheaval (Moody), the Australian author and pastor applies a biblical lens to the craziness that surrounds us. Hunter Baker, professor of political science at Union University, asked Sayers how Christians can keep their bearings and live kingdom-oriented lives when the world makes no sense.
Why do you suspect that the modern world is making us miserable?
When it comes to ease and comfort, the infrastructure of the modern world is unsurpassed. However, the recent epidemic of mental health challenges is telling us that something else is going on. There’s an interesting phenomenon called the Immigrant Paradox: People migrating from the majority world to the West often experience an initial improvement in health and well-being. Yet, as they become fully assimilated into Western culture, the gains are reversed. It seems there is something about the perks of modernity, and the skewed expectations they create, that throws us off balance.
What do you mean when you say that a secular society has never existed?
God made us as religious creatures. We cannot not worship; the only question is who—or what—we worship. Thus the whole of human life is lived in a religious key. Part of the reason for our increasingly fractious and extreme political culture is this religious impulse. The post–World War II political order attempted to avoid the extremes of left and right. But this is struggling to hold, as many push with religious fervor for the utopias of nationalism or globalism.
As the Catholic historian Christopher Dawson noted, the root of the word culture comes from the Latin term cultus, which refers to worship. This shows why even the most ardent program of secularism will end up wearing religious garb.
At the end of the Cold War, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama famously claimed that humanity had reached the “end of history,” when most everyone would recognize the superiority of democracy and free-market economies. What did he miss?
Fukuyama is a nuanced thinker who held out the possibility of getting things wrong. However, his predictions convinced many people that the days of struggle were over, and some anticipated an era of unending economic growth. Politicians believed that conflicts could be ended and countries reshaped with intervention and global coalitions.
But humans—religiously wired, born for struggle, marked by the Fall—find ways to upend peace. The chaos and shock of the last couple of years is not the world going mad, but the world as it’s always been: a chaotic, complex, and broken place.
How has Fukuyama-type optimism affected millennials?
Millennials were privileged to be born during this post–Cold War period. Many came of age during an economic boom that lasted until the global financial crisis in 2008. This was also a period when education was permeated with the self-esteem ethos that emphasized feelings, and downplayed the possibility of disappointments and difficulties that strengthen us.
All this, coupled with the rise of social media, has given them inflated life expectations at a time when the world is becoming more chaotic and possibly more dangerous. Millennials are much maligned and mocked, but we should have compassion, because their teachers, parents, and leaders have encouraged them to live out a faulty life script.