Voices

Death in the city

Reading Jeremiah puts events in a somber light

Issue: "9/11 remembered," Aug. 17, 2002

YOU WON'T WANT TO HEAR WHAT I HAVE TO SAY on the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11. I've been reading all the wrong books to be able to come up with a sensible, balanced, and measured opinion. If I were perusing more friendly, lighthearted fare (HarperCollins publisher Judith Regan, for instance, has given us The Eyebrow, gushing that author and beautician "Robyn Cosio changed my life"), you would have caught me in a more sanguine and amenable mood. But my Bible schedule landed me in Jeremiah for the summer, and this has totally skewed my thinking.

I don't know what Bruce Springsteen's been reading, but the music rags say he was deeply affected by the events of last year, and to prove it released a new disc on that theme called The Rising, which is being promoted in a multimedia publicity blitz including a 46-city tour. Exerpts such as "Don't worry, we're going to find a way" and "This too shall pass" lead me to think he hasn't been hanging out with Jeremiah.

If I know the seer from Anathoth, he would call that stuff "wind" (5:13) and toss it on the heap with words from all those other self-styled prophets who heal "the wound of my people lightly, saying, 'Peace, peace,' when there is no peace" (8:11). He would say they are "filling you with vain hopes" (23:16).

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Jeremiah was no fun. William F. Buckley Jr. once observed of the swank Beltway parties he attended that if you mention God once, you're OK, and twice you may get away with, but if at a third soirée you broach the topic, you're branded a party pariah. That's Jeremiah all over-never letting up, never simmering down to a more moderate point of view when everybody else in town has changed the subject.

Jeremiah lived at a time of gross idolatry, apostasy, adultery, decadence, treachery, and injustice; that is, a time like our own. It's possible, of course, that God doesn't send down fire and brimstone and 757 shrapnel anymore on the reprobate, but Francis Schaeffer didn't buy it: "Man is justly under the wrath of God ... , and if the justice of that wrath is obvious concerning any generation, it is our own. There is only one perspective we can have of the post-Christian world of our generation: an understanding that our culture and our country is under the wrath of God" (Death in the City).

America got religion on Sept. 11. I know because that's the week Time magazine pulled the Joel Stein column that I used guiltily to read. Suddenly, self-absorbed, depraved, narcissistic moral relativism wasn't funny anymore; reality kicked the concept of moral absolutes back into play, such that even Madalyn Murray O'Hair would have wondered for a moment if there wasn't such a thing as right and wrong after all.

But repentance proved to be "like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes early away" (Hosea 6:4). "You have struck them down, but they felt no anguish; you have consumed them, but they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; they have refused to repent" (Jeremiah 5:3). Those who dared to see the finger of God in the toppling of the towers were quickly pounced on by the pack and silenced from the public discourse.

A sense of decorum and good taste were maintained for a while, notwithstanding. Even the bad boy of late-night TV, David Letterman, behaved. It looked as if a miracle were brewing, a by-the-bootstraps moral reform of the country-and all without God. A self-reformation bypassing Luther and Calvin's Book, the triumph of the Emersonian Transcendentalists! Praise the Force!

But all the while those rascals in Hollywood, people smarter than Christians in their own generation (Luke 16:8), who knew we would all be back to our bawdy selves by summer, were busily producing Austin Powers in Goldmember, a new low in smut that shocked even movie critic Richard Corliss, who's seen everything and pitched his own jeremiad against the industry's "infectious greed" in marketing this filth to children. ("Infectious greed." Wasn't that Alan Greenspan's terse summary of those other 9/11 disasters and warnings of the year: Enron 12/15, and WorldCom 7/21? Say, could these be the "bowls" of Revelation 16?)

"It is a horrible thing for a man like myself to look back and see my country and my culture go down the drain in my own lifetime," said Schaeffer, who saw further back and further forward than I. "And if we are going to help our own generation, our perspective must be that of Jeremiah, that weeping prophet."

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