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The line for the Late Show with David Letterman wound completely around the block. Arriving early to stand in the cold with a horde of fans, I was accompanied by several Northwestern University students who wanted their pastor to join them in experiencing Letterman’s visit to Chicago. I was delighted at the invitation and a chance to spend time with some wonderful young men.
Decades later, I cannot tell you who was on the program that night, but I have a strong memory of something that happened as we stood in line. A group of enterprising evangelists started shouting into megaphones, calling on these Letterman fans to repent and avoid an eternity in hell.
My first response was to cringe, realizing my group of students had more in common with the embarrassing street preachers than with the captive audience standing in that line. Though we would have never taken such an approach, we couldn’t help feeling somewhat dismissed by this crowd of seasoned cynics — gathered to laugh at Letterman’s latest Top Ten mockery of any leader in the news — now laughing at the faith we held dear.
Cynicism may be contemporary society’s favorite tool to absolve itself of responsibility. Just as it is reassuring when your physician produces a label for what ails you (incomprehensible as it may be), the cynic gains a false sense of mastery over any issue simply by clothing it in absurdity and reducing it to manageable dimensions to be neatly filed away somewhere and perhaps never re-examined.
Return with me to that Letterman queue. Initially, I identified uncomfortably with those inept evangelists, but cynicism rushed to my rescue. I would never use such inept methodology. I effectively absolved myself of responsibility. A more Spirit-led response might have been to admire the evangelists’ courage in braving the abuse of Letterman fans. I could have challenged my young friends to come up with their own creative strategies to reach the particular subgroup of people standing in that line.
Our Western culture of cynicism makes church leadership in the U.S. increasingly difficult. I’m finding, to my great surprise, that most pastors in the majority world (outside North America) receive much more respect than pastors in the U.S. Consider how easily we mock the President (any president) of the United States, for example, saying things we would not dare utter if we ever had the opportunity to talk face to face.
In similar fashion, discussion about the pastor around the Sunday dinner table is often loaded with cynicism. Why? Pastors and church leaders challenge the people to change. Cynicism provides a way out of change — a response restating the issue, often humorously, and allowing for a sense of intellectual superiority before dismissing the issue out of hand. If we are honest, we must admit cynicism is quite often a cheap substitute for honest dialogue.
What should we do about our cynicism?
First, we can challenge ourselves and each other. When the laughter dies down, ask yourself or others in the group, “What issue am I (are we) trying to avoid with this cynicism?”