A bull's-eye God

He insists on being at the center of our existence

Issue: "Chaos in Colorado," May 1, 1999

There will be those who say that to take a symbol from the world of guns and weapons in the wake of Littleton, Colo., is in poor taste. To which I say that when you're desperate, as our society certainly is right about now, poor taste (or being politically incorrect) is one of the last things you worry about. So let's make this point first: Societies regularly tend to think they have the option of doing one of three things with God. They put Him at the bull's-eye center of their existence, which is what many in our culture did during its earliest days. Or they totally exclude Him from the target, which is what our public society has formally sought to do during the last generation or two. Or they try to tolerate Him at the margins, somewhere in the outer rings of the target-which is what we typically do when we have a shooting at a public high school, a war, a hurricane, or some other violent emergency. For the last week, you've been watching American society scramble back from the bleakness of trying to live with God totally off the target of their lives, struggling desperately now to find at least a little place for Him again in the outer rings. No one pictured that more poignantly last week than columnist Peggy Noonan, writing in The Wall Street Journal on "The Culture of Death." Ms. Noonan wrote: "People have had it. Something is different about this story. We've been through it before but the reaction this time suggests some critical mass has been reached. "You could see it even in the unnerving sameness, the jarring predictability of what we saw on television as this very specific tragedy unfolded. We all know the Kabuki now, we know it by heart. First the aerial shots of kids fleeing the shooting, then the shot of the girl sobbing in the arms of her friends; after that the Associated Press photo of the boy with his baseball hat turned backwards, gesturing over a body; then the memorial at the local church with kids sobbing and a stricken pastor speaking; then the yearbook pictures of the perpetrators-'He was kind of quiet, kind of a weird guy'-then the neighbor's testimony about video games and Marilyn Manson; then the debate: 'It's the gun culture.' 'It's the community.' "We all know how to do this now. We have been here before, and too often.... We all know our part. We all know what's next. The difference this time, so far, is that the finger pointing seems wan, halfhearted. People seem to be groping for that elusive thing, a satisfying answer-or partial answer-or a piece of the puzzle." Then, after grimly describing the dark "culture of death" that has come to pervade the lives of American children, Ms. Noonan-right there in The Wall Street Journal-makes a startling point: "A man called into Christian radio this morning and said a true thing. He said, and I am paraphrasing: Those kids were sick and sad, and if a teacher had talked to one of them and said, 'Listen, there's a way out, there really is love out there that will never stop loving you, there's a real God and I want to be able to talk to you about him'-if that teacher had intervened that way, he would have been hauled into court. "Yes, he would have. It occurs to me at the moment that a gun and a Bible have a few things in common. Both are small, black, have an immediate heft, and are dangerous-the first to life, the second to the culture of death. "One more thing: I think every intelligent person I know has been having thoughts like this for years, and they don't want to, and they're right not to want to, because it just may be true that this is one problem our resourceful and brilliant country cannot solve. The dark genie is out of the bottle and swims in the seas." Yet right as Ms. Noonan is, there's this critical follow-up point: The God of the Bible is not someone who simply wants to be reintroduced to the outer rings of our culture's targets and goals. It's easy to forget that what preceded the generation-long effort to exclude God altogether was a century-long effort to marginalize Him. But marginalization leaves everyone dissatisfied; believers are no longer nourished, while unbelievers can't stand even vestigial reminders of the past. So now's a good time to remind ourselves: Our dying culture will not pass from death to life by a few nominal reversals of some of our worst denials of God. Allowing a symbolic Bible here and there, permitting a nonsectarian prayer now and then, tacking a summary of the Ten Commandments back up as a cultural icon-all those may satisfy an outrage here and there. But that's not what Ms. Noonan's "culture of death" concern is ultimately about. To respond with integrity to the cries we heard from Colorado last week means coming to grips with a bull's-eye God and hearing His insistence that He will not settle for anything other than the center of our existence. We've tried nominalism in the past; we've tried relegating this God to the outer rings. And we ought to know by now that it doesn't work.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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