In my 20s, you could have found me sitting cross-legged in a coffee shop, reading a real made-from-paper book with a dramatic title about economic inequality. Occasionally, I might've looked up at you to make clever, droll remarks about how the institutional church—and much of society—was missing the mark. Other days, I might've delivered a half-philosophical-diatribe, half stand-up comedy routine about the weaknesses of organized religion. And if you happened to jump in by highlighting your own list of social or religious flaws, we would've bantered back and forth like ESPN commentators until the coffee shop kicked us out at closing.
Add in the fact I was writing a book called Dear Church: Letters From a Disillusioned Generation, and I was pretty much the poster child for cynics toward religious institutions. It's probably no surprise to you that this first book sold better than my second one, even though the later one was warmer and more positive and better crafted. It's a testament to the preferences of our culture perhaps.
Let's face it. Cynicism is sexy.
Among many young people, cynicism has become a badge of pride. It suggests we have a certain sophisticated kind of intellect and dry, satirical humor, just like the witty sharp-shooters Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and all those late night guys.
Our cynicism meter soars when, say, Jimmy Kimmel poses fake questions, like "Did you watch the presidential debate last night?" and gets people on the street to go on and on about a fictional debate that never even happened. People are so full of it. These jokers can't be trusted, we cynics say with a wry smile that suggests we have a special insight about how the world works.
Politics, of course, provides the comedians with plenty of ongoing material. During the government shutdown, a Gallup survey found Americans were more cynical about government than ever before. (Only a record low 42 percent of Americans reported they had an even "fair" amount of confidence in the government's capacity to deal with domestic matters.) The shutdown led to heated political news commentary, irritated letters to editors, and a wealth of good old-fashioned and often cynical political cartoons.
Beyond politics, the almighty Onionpresents us with delicious headlines like "CEO Worked Way Up From Son Of CEO" or "Greatest Country In World Unable To Keep William H. Gross Stamp Gallery Open." Similarly, Gawker, which often offers a jilted and jaded take on pop-culture news devotes itself to pieces like "Royal Baby Wears A Dress, Is 2 Blessed 2 Be Stressed in New Portraits."
In short, America may be short on government or short on jobs, but we never seem to be short on cynicism.
Within the church, we have our own spiritualized twist on cynicism. There are parodies tweeting cynical takes on Christian celebs like Fake John Piper or Fake Mark Driscoll. And more famously, there'sLark News, which leads the naive among us to re-share stories like Woman Embalmed, Bronzed on Favorite Pew on Facebook believing they are real.
Of course, this obligates some more informed, sophisticated, and savvy cynic to break the news to them that they don't need to be outraged. It's satire.
The Christian arena also provides us with the more light-hearted and humorous Stuff Christians Like popularized by Jon Acuff, who pokes fun at the ideosyncracies of the faith. Meanwhile, a separate spinoff site—Stuff Christian Culture Likes—sometimes seems to inspire more inflammatory Facebook-follower mobs who occasionally go for the throat.
This is the natural result when you combine cynics and the instant sharing on social networks. It lets us spread skepticism and angst with one click, resulting in enough hatefulness at times to inspire me to write a blog post titled When Christians Turn Facebook Into Hatebook and a Huffington Post article on being Angry In the Name of Jesus.
There's some natural reigning in going on anyways, since we cynics only retweet and like on days when we're not being cynical about the hipster super-companies making billions off social media.
But cynicism in the end may not be funny. It may impact our physical health, with the most extreme cases being diagnosed as "dysthymia"—"a little known yet common condition characterized by chronically low mood and energy, sleep, and appetite problems as well as an aversion to social contact." Or in more moderate cases, it may at least lead to emotional imbalance as we allow our minds to be fixated and consumed by negativity.
One recent study on teenage girls found those who vented to each other about their problems were more likely to develop anxiety and depression. And according to Amanda Rose, the author of the study, the same is probably true for adult women as well.
Beyond the toll on our bodies, though, cynicism may also subtract from our faith. Some young people, like my own younger self, can be famously critical of the church, leaving researchers with all kinds of data to tally to summarize, for example, Six Reasons Young Adults Leave Church.
Practically speaking all this venting and re-hashing takes time and energy. We talk about cynicism, we pray about it, we journal about it, we read about it. Pretty soon the hours we're devoting to being cynical may be siphoning off days at a time from that life we once committed to Jesus.
Perhaps the truest rationale for de-cynicizing a cynic, however, is this last one. Plain and simple, cynicism is just ineffective. Sitting around complaining and listing social or religious flaws doesn't right the world any faster than the existing models.
Despite all the good reasons to lighten up on the cynicism, it is likely the practice will always be with us. After all, life will always be marked by imperfection and suffering, even stupidity. The church and people of faith aren't exempt from that.
But as I write in TheWell Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide for Staying Sane While Doing Good, the book that inspired much of this article, cynicism's greatest cost is that it works against hope.
People of faith being cynical is a bit of a contradiction. After all, don't we believe in a God who—even when we make mistakes—is faithful to desire to bless us and see potential wherever we put our feet?
Even though it's tempting to connect suffering or flaws with lack of hope, then, we might be wise to remember the apostle Paul actually said it was the opposite. He said we could rejoice in our sufferings because they help us persevere, which builds character and hope. Suffering, then, doesn't cancel out hope. Suffering helps make hope.
Ever a struggling cynic, I find it hard—in conclusion—not to finally turn cynicism on myself. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, the disillusioned person is "first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself."
Maybe this is not altogether impractical advice. Maybe in fact, the best way to change society or the church is to change ourselves. Perhaps you would like to join me here, being cynical of cynicism.
Sarah is an author, idea junkie, and chief servant to a 4-year-old emperor and his 1-year-old chief of staff. Her most recent book, The Well Balanced World Changer: A Field Guide To Staying Sane While Doing Good, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold. You can connect with her on Pinterest or Twitter, using the hashtag #worldchangerbook.
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