This past Sunday, New York Times columnist Frank Rich offered a critical look at the lack of knowledge among many Americans regarding the ongoing protests in Egypt. As though to underscore the point, on the same day a friend of mine issued a request on Twitter for a comprehensive resource to provide information about the situation. My friend is educated, engaged, and interested and I believe the problem lies not with him but, as Mr. Rich points out, with the media's portrayal (or lack thereof) of the protests.
The bulk of Rich's column is spent railing against the assumption that "the Egyptian uprising . . . must be powered by the twin American-born phenomena of Twitter and Facebook." I don't care to argue here about the extent of the influence of social networking on the protests. Rather, I want to use Rich's conclusion as a jumping off point for a look at the way many people do perceive the situation.
Rich links our ignorance about affairs in the Middle East to a rise in Islamaphobia, and concludes that it was this very lack of knowledge that got us into the mess we found ourselves in not long after we all watched, cluelessly, the "Shock and Awe" campaign that began the Iraq War. He writes, "It took months, even years, for us to learn the hard way that in truth we really had no idea what was going on."
While I agree that a large swath of the population chooses ignorance over understanding the complexities of this particular moment in the history of the Middle East, I am sure that that there is another large portion of the population that, rather than having "no idea what was going on," attempts to fill that void of information with whatever interpretive framework they find ready to hand. That is, I'm afraid many Western Christians are attempting to understand the protests in Egypt exclusively through the lens of Old Testament story and prophecy.
This association can be seen in a variety of places, from Britain's Daily Mail referring to the conflict as an "Old Testament-style fight," to Glenn Beck's end-times prophesying. Even Saturday Night Live jumped in on the fun on a Weekend Update in which Fred Armisen, as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, joked that, "Egyptians have never been great with symbols. Read the Bible."
I can see both positive and negative aspects of this phenomenon, although the positive seems not positive enough to overshadow the negative. That the Old Testament stories of Exodus, stories that Christians believe tell us not only about who we are and where we come from, but also inform our understanding of the nature of God, so permeate our culture in 2011 speaks to their enduring power and persuasiveness. And yet, on the other side of this same coin lies the problem: it is too easy to force current events into a biblical narrative that may not actually fit.
Aside from the fear-mongering that often results from this kind of reconfiguring of current events, the most serious harm may be the way it allows us to overlook the painfully real struggle in Egypt and elsewhere. If we only understand the events in terms of what they mean for the past and future, we fail to recognize what they mean for today. Our attempt to adhere to a scriptural view of world events ultimately ends up causing us to falter from responding to them scripturally. That is, the real need for a truly Christian response is easily overlooked when we search for meaning that isn't there.
Frank Rich is correct that the media is, in a very real sense, responsible for the lack of knowledge about the events in Egypt and other similar world events that are left behind in the heedless pursuit of ratings. But a lack of knowledge, though tragic, is less problematic than a dearth of the wrong knowledge. Christians should let their knowledge of the Bible inform their outlook, and scripture is of course a solid foundation on which to build a worldview, but our engagement should not stop there. We must continue to seek to understand, and to lead the way in responding to the events in Egypt in a comprehensively biblical way. More than simply looking for correlations and making predictions, let's consider how our understanding of scripture requires us to respond to the struggles of our brothers and sisters in Egypt with justice and mercy, in the present.