JESUS OR NIETZSCHE? TRUSTING AGAIN IN A CYNICAL WORLD
Mark Meynell is Associate Director of Langham Partnership International. Meynell is based in London. Previously, he served for several years as a minister at All Souls Church, Langham Place in London. Meynell’s new book, A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World framed this interview. The interview was conducted by David George Moore. Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.
Moore: You mention that this book was four years in the making. What first motivated you to write such a book?
Meynell: A convergence of many things – the chance to put my (mild!) obsession with 20th Century history (and the Cold War in particular) to some good use, a love for spy novels, a conversation with a friend who in all seriousness attempted to convince me that the moon landings were a hoax, as well as some of my own hang-ups and doubts about how power operates (in and out of the church)!
Moore: Andrew Delbanco of Columbia famously said that before the Civil War people believed in God’s providence, but after the war they believed in luck. Insights from WW I and WW II are peppered throughout the earlier parts of your book. How do those two wars still reverberate in the minds of people today?
Meynell: That’s a fascinating insight. Perhaps the world wars took things even further, certainly in advancing the secularist narrative of meaningless and chaotic suffering (although sweeping generalisations are always risky!). George Orwell described how after WWI, everyone under forty was left in a “bad temper” with their elders for their “supreme incompetence” and D. H. Lawrence remarked, ““All the great words were cancelled out for that generation.”
In their different ways, though, both world wars catapulted the world into the revolutionary changes that have affected us all, in both the east and west (politically, culturally, socially). Both wars ushered in destruction and savagery on an industrial scale (and thus killed off the notion of humanity’s essential goodness for several generations). Then of course the Russian revolution at WWI’s tail end paved the way for the deepest fissure the world has ever experienced, the Cold War that immediately followed WWII. I don’t think we’ve even begun to grasp the full significance of that era’s legacy. But it seems obvious to me that some of the seeds of our contemporary culture of suspicion were sown then.
Moore: You cite Orwell who talked about the “gap between one’s real and declared aims.” Frederick Buechner likes to say that ministers are really only charged with one thing: telling the truth. Unfortunately, too many have a hard time doing so. How can all of us grow in our courage at truth-telling?
Meynell: It has become increasingly difficult I think. But that’s not because people have necessarily become more venal or dishonest. Consider just one example: the problem of getting your message heard in a culture deluged by thousands of voices and opinions. And I’m not just talking about political campaigning. Nobody owes you their time or their ears! No wonder people seek increasingly creative means of attracting attention – and thus the temptation to exaggerate the numbers, to accommodate the message, to ham up the performance. And soon that thin line between compelling communication and outright fabrication has been crossed. It’s just so subtle – which is why many Christians find themselves in trouble here. And that’s especially tragic when faced with Buechner’s great challenge. Our means have completely undermined our end.
I think the crucial thing is we map out the territory: in other words, we are especially aware of the bear-traps for any who speak into the public square – because otherwise, we’ll fall into them every time. That’s why Orwell’s brilliant essay in which he identifies that gap (Politics and the English Language) is such a helpful read.
Moore: You saw grave injustice during your work in Uganda. What helped you maintain your confidence in God during that troubling time?
Meynell: There were very dark days – but I don’t think I really appreciated how dark until we returned to the UK after 4 years in Kampala. We have some really happy and positive memories of Uganda – it’s important to say that. We made many lasting friendships, and have huge affection for the country. But in contrast to the stereotypes westerners usually have of African nations, I don’t think it’s fair to say that people are more corrupt there than in the US or UK – it’s simply that corruption is easier to get away with. The social infrastructure and justice system are simply too weak. And so ‘the big men’ in town get away with murder far too often (sometimes literally).
Moore: Your book addresses the problem of cynicism. Is modernity more vulnerable to cynicism than previous periods of history?
Meynell: Cynicism is nothing new. But the great irony of the Enlightenment is that it was built on the foundations of suspicion – from the earliest days, nothing was to be taken at face value (such as inherited views of monarchy, religion, the natural world etc). It was necessary to ‘get behind’ them in order to find out what was ‘really real’. The problem with that: once you begin, how do you stop? Pandora’s Box of suspicions had been opened – and so in post-modern thinking, the enlightenment project was itself unpicked or ‘deconstructed’.
Nietzsche was the one who led the charge and in many ways was the ‘master of suspicion,’ a quintessentially 20thCentury prophet living ahead of his time. His challenge was for people to ‘fess up’ –their claims to ‘objectivity’ and ‘truth’ were little more than fig leaves masking true intention: to wield power over others.
And in so many ways, he was right. We should never imagine that Christians can hold their heads high here – this history of Christendom (as opposed to Christ’s Kingdom) too often stands guilty as charged.
Moore: Give us three contributions/insights which your book makes uniquely.
Meynell: I don’t know about claiming to be unique! But what I really hope people take from this are:
– the recognition that the growth of a culture of suspicion can only have a corrosive effect on society unless we take it seriously. I think that means recognizing that it is the inevitable result of experiencing abuses of power. As the adage said, “once bitten, twice shy.”
– This means we must understand and wield power as much, and as well, as we understand and speak truth. To be clear, I’m not appealing for Christians to give up on truth-telling or even Truth-telling. It’s just that we have no option but to consider Nietzsche’s (and others’) charge. Are we ‘simply’ proclaiming the gospel, or is there more going on under the surface? I’m convinced that this is a central reason why contemporary people don’t give Christianity a second thought. It’s not that they don’t think Jesus is true or real; they just don’t trust the church to be a safe place any more. Will I be forced to give away all my money? Will the priests abuse my children? Will I somehow lose my personality?
– The book’s essential case is this – ironically, the gospel offers a skeptical world the only antidote to a culture of suspicion: Jesus himself. He is the only one who defies Nietzsche, for precisely the reasons the philosopher loathed him: he wielded absolute, divine power – but for the flourishing of others, not himself. In contrast to the world in which people lord it over others all the time, Jesus said ‘Not So With You.’ Instead, we are to follow his stunning example of serving rather than being served. How different things would be if we consistently did that!
Moore: You had the privilege to work with John Stott. So much has been said and written about Stott, but is there anything you would add from your time with him?
Meynell: Uncle John had retired some years before I joined the All Souls staff, so I can’t claim to have worked with him as such, but I did know him and experienced the stress of preaching with him in the congregation on a number of occasions! Then in his final years, I was one of a number who took turns to visit him in his retirement home. That was always a joy and privilege. Despite being greatly diminished physically by then, his memory was remarkably intact, and he would always show real interest in All Souls life, and the progress of the Langham work I was doing. Everyone rightly highlights that unique combination of an extraordinary mind and a great entrepreneurial spirit. But what always struck me were his simplicity of lifestyle, his generosity to friend and foe alike, and his basic kindness. These were the qualities that really set him apart from other key influencers. After all, simple kindness is not a virtue one generally associates with great heroes, is it!?