Feel lucky?

An impoverished vocabulary reveals impoverished hearts

Issue: "Mourning has broken," Sept. 29, 2001

Do you feel lucky?" It was Larry King, master interviewer, querying two young women who at the last moment had found their way out of the World Trade Center just before its horrible collapse. "Yah, I feel lucky," one of the two responded.

The exchange, which might have been riveting but wasn't, provided a subtle glimpse, I think, of one of the most profound of all the changes we're seeing right now in American life. The America you've been watching for the last couple of weeks-even in its folksy, personal expressions-has become a starkly secular America.

I can't prove my point statistically. I didn't do a formal content analysis during the 30 or 40 hours of TV and radio news I consumed or the several hundred pages of newspapers and magazines I read. But I've watched the human response to enough different crisis events to sense that something significant has vanished.

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What's disappeared may be no more profound than what you might call a "religious vocabulary." Never mind that such a vocabulary had already degenerated to an embarrassingly nominal level. The point is that when a crisis arrived in earlier years, people still had the mental, emotional, and verbal equipment to talk about God, to talk about blessing, to talk about sin, and to talk about providence. But such references last week were few and far between.

Many Christians last week applauded what they saw as signals that Americans were spiritually hungry. They rejoiced at heightened attendance at America's churches. They were glad (and so was I) when the president recited Psalm 23, and when other poignant passages of Scripture got a rare hearing on the national media. Who cannot be thankful for every opportunity for God's truth to shine through in spiritually needy times and circumstances?

But I'm not referring here to the formal and expected expressions of "religion" in cathedral services and the prayer observances in public squares-although even there, it struck me that the language was often stilted and the fervency flattened. Part of that has to do with an ever-present political correctness, but there's something much more profound than that at work.

I'm referring to what you didn't hear from the tough New York firemen and the Pentagon survivors and the relatives of the airline passengers who died on that awful Tuesday. I'm referring to what you also didn't hear from government leaders. I wasn't looking for theologically astute interpretations of events, or finely nuanced biblical analyses. All I hoped to see were a few more from-the-gut acknowledgments that maybe God had something to do with all that was happening.

I talked with my sister last weekend about this, and she told of a parallel discovery in her work as a substitute elementary teacher in the public schools of her area. "I show the kids something like this sand dollar," she said as we walked on the beach, "with its thousands of hairy little feet to swim and get around, and I ask them, 'How do you think this happens?,' and an answer I almost never get anymore is that maybe God has something to do with it."

For those schoolchildren-as for the firemen and the crash survivors and the relatives and the government officials-the issue is not nearly so much a political correctness that keeps them quiet. Now it has become the impoverishment both of their vocabularies and indeed of their very thinking processes. In earlier generations, and in earlier emergencies like the assassinations of the 1960s or the Cuban missile crisis, there was a latent God-awareness, however nominal, and a theological framework, however shallow, that simply are not there anymore. That New York fireman in similar circumstances 30 years ago might easily have referred to himself as a lapsed Catholic. Now most people can't even point to anything from which they might have lapsed.

All that may not be so bad. For there's no reason to believe that God prefers nominalists to pagans. In fact, a pagan-almost by definition-may be a little closer than a nominalist to knowing how much he needs God. God can certainly show his mercy with equal ease to either one.

But the next time you sing "God Bless America," don't be under any illusions about what an intuitively spiritual nation you live in. When luck seems more natural than blessing, something important has disappeared from the national consciousness.

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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