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The longevity of REM’s song “The End of the World as we Know it” speaks to it’s symbolic creativity. It pops up in the strangest places—from movies like Chicken Little, to political speeches decrying the cultural shifts that have transformed the idyllic peace and harmony of mid twentieth century American culture into the turmoil of today. I just think the song is catchy. Truth be told, I’m fine with the end of the world. As traumatic and painful as it can be, it’s also necessary. Of course I’m not talking about the end of the physical earth and temporal life, I’m talking about the conceptual worlds we construct to give our lives meaning. Our human tendency it to make these worlds after our own image, to constantly construct idols (as Calvin says) as a way to name and control. Like the architects of the Tower of Babel we get to work building our institutions, our systems, our forms of Christian culture, not as a way of receiving the revelation of God and our neighbor, but as a way to manage and control the message. Christian piety in this context becomes a way of baptizing the status quo—do everything for Jesus and the “Glory of God”. I’m reminded of the story in Judges…“For the Lord, and Gideon!” Wait, what?
During a conversation around the dinner table I told my kids that the movie “God is not Dead” (and for that matter “God is not Dead II”) is a terrible movie. (“Stupid” is the word I think I used.) My kids like it when I offer a critique of movies; they always remind me of how I told them that “Heaven is for Real” is not for real. I tried to give them a Nietzsche lesson but it quickly deteriorated into giggling. I want my kids to know that Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God is an affirmation of life. Like the “end of the world”, the “death of God” refers to the obliteration of our idols, of all the ways we make God in our own image. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer this manifests itself in the call for a “religionless” form of Christianity. For Karl Barth, it is the call to a particular form of Christian faith that rejects religious idolatry as we are opened up in faith to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Barth writes,
The atheism that is the real enemy is the ‘Christianity’ that professes faith in God very much as a matter of course, perhaps with great emphasis, and perhaps with righteous indignation at atheism wild or mild, while in its practical thinking and behavior it carries on exactly as if there were no God. It professes its belief in him, lauds and praises him, while in practice he is the last of the things it thinks about, takes seriously, fears or loves. . . God is spoken of, but what is meant is an idol that one treats as one sees fit. Who can acquit himself of this third form of atheism? Let all who believe themselves to be Christians consider this: that in this third form atheism is a really evil thing. But this is the form in which it prospers in Christian families, homes (including ministers’ homes), groups, associations, institutions, [political] parties and newspapers. This is the form of atheism that is fertile soil for the growth first of the mild, then of the wild, first of the Western and then of the Eastern type, and from which both continually draw their strength. The atheists of the other kind live on the fact that we are not better Christians.
So here’s to “the end of the world as we know it”, to the death of God as the revelation of God’s love for the cosmos in Jesus Christ, and to the affirmation of a life grounded in faith.