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In the late 1980s when my wife was getting her Masters degree in English from Michigan State University, she was able to get tickets to a lecture series being put on by MSU featuring famous writers. The series included the likes of playwright Arthur Miller and authors Joyce Carol Oates and Pat Conroy. One of the most entertaining speakers in the lineup was Tom Wolfe.
The author, clad in his trademark all-white suit, was at that time basking in the huge success of his now classic 1980s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. At one point in his lecture, however, he lamented the fast pace of modern life. Every day things happened in the world that were so bizarre, no novelist would have ever gotten away with making it up. No respectable editor would believe that such-and-such an event in a novel manuscript could ever actually happen. At least a slim degree of verisimilitude is needed, after all. So Wolfe said something to the effect, “Pity the contemporary novelist—his or her imagination cannot keep pace with the wild things that actually happen every day.”
I thought of this recently when another outrageous Q-Anon conspiracy theory—if you can even call it that—brought a lot of people to Dallas, Texas, where allegedly at midnight on a certain day, John F. Kennedy, Jr., was going to appear (he had never really died in that plane crash) and would somehow be instrumental in reinstating Donald Trump as President. In case you missed it: JFK, Jr., was a no-show. The group then recalibrated and said that both JFK, Jr,, and his father would appear the next night at a Rolling Stones concert in Dallas. No one has come up with a name to describe the aftermath of this but perhaps we could borrow a term from the 19th century when Jesus did not return on the specific date several Christian groups had confidently promoted. This set off what is now known as “The Great Disappointment.”
As Tom Wolfe might say, you can’t make this stuff up. Who would believe you if you did? It may also go without saying that all of this is so rife with built-in parody that late night comics like Steven Colbert or Jimmy Kimmel hardly needed their writing staffs to help take potshots at this genuine lunacy.
We can and must recognize, of course, that it’s not known how many people believed that this scenario was a possibility. But it is doubtful it was millions of people. Maybe it was only several thousands. However, millions are believing things only a little less out there. Recently a reporter interviewed a man waiting to get in to a Trump rally who assured the reporter that Donald Trump is still President, is still governing, and is still commander-in-chief. Joe Biden is a complete fake. It is Trump who is still traveling the world in Air Force One. When the reporter then mentioned that this must mean the messy exit from Afghanistan is therefore Trump’s fault, the man quickly said that was not true. “But if he’s still commander-in-chief . . .” the reporter went on. But no, the man could not explain it but Trump didn’t do that part. (“I can’t explain it” was definitely the most accurate thing this man said.)
On one level we can and should pity people who seem to embrace such nonsense. And of course it may be difficult to resist the urge to join the late night comedians in flat out poking fun of such people and their wildly mistaken beliefs. We could also perhaps direct some criticism in the direction of those who are spinning out these theories designed to ensnare the vulnerable. They may or may not be out of touch with reality themselves but it’s possible they are having some fun at the expense of their followers.
But perhaps there is another thing to see in this: the insatiable human desire to find hope. Maybe this is part of John Calvin’s famous claim that all people, despite being fallen creatures, nevertheless carry within their souls a semen religionis, a seed of religion that seeks salvation and someone to follow as a residue of God’s original image in humanity. Or maybe it’s the God-shaped hole Augustine claimed is inside each of our restless hearts.
Whatever the case, perhaps there is a way to see in even the extremes of the genuinely misguided (and scary) Q-Anon phenomenon an opening to proclaim Gospel hope to those who are so desperate to grasp at any hope-esque straw that they are willing to embrace outlandish things. (Yes, I realize there are ways that Q has infiltrated the thinking of even people who already claim to be Christians, but that has to be the subject of a different blog.)
Advent is just around the corner. If the church needs a reminder why it must never tire of proclaiming the hope of Advent and of Christ, some of these recent events should prod us to continue. Alas, even those of us in the church have felt in recent days that hope itself has fallen victim to some spiritual supply chain interruption. But now as ever, what Emily Dickinson called “the thing with feathers,” hope, is exactly what people need. Let’s offer it.