Tuesday, May 17, 2016

"The Center Cannot Hold"

Reading an article about the deteriorating conditions of our public culture and discourse, I noted a reference to a famous poem called “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats, one of the great Irish poets of the 20th century. The line cited was, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”

That despairing comment needed a context, so I looked up the poem (I think I’d heard it before, but I’m of the age where I’m learning all sorts of things I once knew). Yeats had just lived through World War I, and had experienced other conflicts as well and saw his civilization seeming to fall apart. The first stanza of this reflection on the various wars he had lived through says,
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The “center” not holding is from that picture of a falconer spinning and his falcon on a tether moving so fast the man can no longer hold on—and that’s what Yeats thought was happening as the 20th century hit the 20-year mark. It is a powerful image of events of his day—World War I had left Europe in shambles, his beloved Ireland was in a state of rebellion, the societal stability of the Victorian era was gone, and Yeats was not optimistic! I see why the writer of the article I was reading used this line to reference contemporary conditions, where, as culture shifts dramatically toward chaos, doublespeak (thank Orwell for that term), and moral oblivion, all seems out of control.

But I think the most telling lines are the last 2 of the stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Is that true today? For all the handwringing over genderless bathrooms in stores and schools, and bakers and photographers losing businesses, the people who are most intense about their positions and their actions are those who are, in my view, the “worst.” Their hatred of God’s created order and authority to declare something good (or not) leaves them, literally, “hell bent” on making every change they can. They have momentum, and they want to add to it. We are less than one year into the era of same sex marriage, and public discourse has turned to general support of the conclusion that people are “born” transgender (the illogic of that phrase is stunning). On the other side, only a paltry few voices are raised in opposition and urging meaningful action, and some of their actions are more reactionary than thoughtful and compelling. They labor against the tide, and are either derisively laughed at, scorned, or given no platform to be heard.

And the rest? Most of those who consider themselves “good” and “reasonable” and are not supportive of this new direction may feel personally uncomfortable—maybe even unhappy--but refuse to take any action lest they be seen as opposed to the “right side of history” as it marches forward. They don't want to be targets. What they don't realize is that they already are. Respectful dissent from the new consensus doesn't seem to be an option if you want to be a part of public life.

What shall Christians do? In the days of the final antichrist, that evil leader will seek to turn everything toward evil, but there is a wonderful phrase in Daniel 11:32-33 about those who face this challenge: “…but the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action. And the wise among the people shall make many understand, though for some days they shall stumble by sword and flame, by captivity and plunder.” It won’t be easy in those days to stand firm and take action—in fact it will be harder than today. And some will pay a price. But isn’t that what makes it evident who knows their God and who does not?

I'm not announcing a boycott of anything, or telling you what to do--in many ways I'm still trying to figure that out. But passivity is one option that the godly must rule out, especially as we seek to influence those closest to us (where we can do the most good) what the truth is and why it is important.

Yeats’ poem is called “The Second Coming” and later he says that people in his day looked at the circumstances and cried out that it must be time for the Lord to return. He thought that was foolishness and that such a hope was futile. Actually, his title was much more profound than he knew. We know that the Lord will come, and this may be the time. But we also know that, until He comes, He will empower His people to stand against evil and for the truth of the gospel, even if they do have to pay a price. Knowing who is really on the right side of history makes a difference, doesn’t it?