I’ve been reading America, The Farewell Tour by Chris Hedges. If you know his writing you will understand the loaded nature of that sentence. Hedges is a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize winner, and prolific author who never fails to stir my thinking. I sometimes say that I can only read one book of his per year because they all leave me depressed. It’s not because they are bad or poorly written, quite the contrary. Hedges writes hard hitting content that digs deep into the day to day and exposes what is actually happening in the world around us. He backs his writing up with about a million footnotes to show you his research. But be warned, his words are not for the faint of heart, and America, The Farewell Tour, is no exception. In seven chapters spanning 310 pages he writes about what he sees happening in America today, weaving the stories of people he has met with incisive commentary and statistics that pull back the blinders we so often like to wear to hide from the difficult reality of the culture around us. The chapter titles will give you some sense of what you will find there: Decay, Heroin, Work, Sadism, Hate, Gambling, and Freedom. Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph he gives you a tour of what he believes is a society in serious decline. You may not like all his conclusions, but it is very difficult to disagree with what he is seeing. It’s a little like driving by the scene of a horrific accident, you really want to look away, but something inside you keeps your eyes glued to the text. The one exception for me was the chapter on Sadism where he documents a shift in our culture’s preferences in regards to sexuality and what that shift says about the way we establish and cultivate the value and dignity of a human being. I had to skip long sections of this chapter because I couldn’t stomach the things he was describing. Given all that I’ve said so far you may be wondering, “What is it that keeps me coming back to his books?”
Hedges plays a necessary role in our modern day culture; that of a prophet. I’m not using this in the exact Biblical sense of the word, but in the sense it was used in one of my favourite books of all time, The Prophetic Imagination, by Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann is an Old Testament Scholar who points out the Biblical prophets of old sought to accomplish two things. First, they had to expose the painful reality that actually was. Far too often when things are going well for a privileged few they are able to forget or ignore the suffering and pain of others. I remember when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans back in 2005. As I watched the news footage of the devastation I was confronted with the extreme poverty of those who were displaced, poverty that was there long before the hurricane hit. It was as if I had just assumed that the large majority of Americans were middle to upper middle class. Watching the tragedy play out on CNN served a prophetic role for me, exposing a reality that I had been able to deny even existed because of my own wealth and privilege. That’s what Hedges does for me too. He peels back my happy go lucky delusions and reminds me of the brokenness of the world around me.
We all need that. We all need to be forced to look truth right in the face and feel its full impact. It’s important because deep down we really like our illusions, our perceptions of the world around us the way that we hope it might be. They make us feel safe and comfortable. They help us believe that the world is manageable. Into that comfort zone the prophet comes and “dis-illusions” us with words that force us to acknowledge a reality that we’d like to ignore. It’s painful, but necessary and healthy. It’s a role that church and our fellow believers should play for us, keeping our eyes on the reality that is, both in regards to the world around us, and to our true identity of Christ within us. It means that church will often be a place for difficult conversations. These words and their sting keep us awake and alert to what is actually happening. This waking up to reality is the first step we need to take in engaging our world - the world as it is, not as we think or hope it might be.
That leads to a second role that Brueggemann says a prophet plays. Prophets follow up the exposure of our real pain by helping people imagine and envision the future that God has called them to. Just as the exposing of reality causes pain and emotional discomfort, the imagining of the future God has in mind energizes and empowers us to move toward it. Will Hedges provide that for me in his book? Not sure, I’ll let you know. But for now I am thankful that this man wades into the muck and mire to help me see the world as it is. I have a belief that if I can continue to have help from people like Chris Hedges in seeing the world as it really is, while at the same time living as a part of a community of faith (Grace Baptist Church) who through their love and support remind me of the truth about what God is calling us to and doing within us, that these two actions in my life will help me become more and more surrendered to the work of God in both my life and in the lives of those around me. So thanks, Chris Hedges, for your difficult words. They inspire me for the journey.