Commencement Address for Faith Christian Academy’s Class of 2007
It is an honor for me to address the graduating class of 2007, even though, frankly, I am not very adept at the hoo-ra-rah, motivational addresses that many graduates would probably expect. I often tell the church I pastor that one of the reasons I preach from the Bible every week, Sunday after Sunday, is because without the Bible I honestly would not have anything to say. I am not a profound person. I am not very talkative. I am definitely not a good story-teller. And I am not very wise in worldly matters.
As a speaker you often fret because you want to say something meaningful and memorable. But for this occasion some of that consternation has been tempered because I was reminded this past week that a graduation ceremony is a much like a wedding ceremony: Nobody ever remembers what the preacher says anyway.
It does not seem that long ago when I sat where you seniors now sit. I graduated from high school in 1985. But I guess that is another sign of old age when twenty-two years ago doesn’t seem that long ago.
1985 was an interesting year. The price of gas was, if I recall, about seventy-seven cents. The postage stamp had just been raised to twenty-two cents. A woman by the name of Madonna started her first road tour. Trivial Pursuit was all the rage. Dynasty, Dallas, The A-Team, and Hill Street Blues were the top-rated television shows. The Mac computer was one year old. Desktop publishing was just becoming a reality (I had to type my reports on a typewriter with lots of whiteout, or if you were lucky, you could use the newly marketed erasable typing paper – which, by the way, didn’t last very long.) Al Gore had not yet invented the internet. No DVDs, iPods, or cell phones. No caller-id and certainly no flat screen TVs.
Yes, the world has changed much in twenty-two years. And who can imagine what the world of 2029 will be like?
For the next few moments I will make a meager attempt to articulate for you the greatest challenge facing you in the new world into which you will shortly be thrust. And, by way of inference, I hope to demonstrate to you how this school – your education – has prepared you for this challenge.
I will address you in a style you are now familiar with – in the style of Classical rhetoric – by way of proposition and proofs. My hope is that the logic is sound and convincing.
I believe the greatest threat you face is the most subtle threat ever to face a generation. Your greatest threat is not a rogue terrorist, or a renewed cold war with Russia or China; it will not be an economic recession or hyper-inflation; it is not global warming or any other environmental concern.
My premise simply stated is that the greatest threat facing your moral, intellectual, and spiritual well-being is the culture of amusement, the culture of endless fun and infinite distraction. I am, of course, not the first to suggest this. It was “prophesied” in the 1950’s (about the same time as the advent of television) by a non-Christian, Aldous Huxley in his book Brave New World. Huxley argued that in the future men will not be controlled by inflicting pain, but by inflicting pleasure. He saw that people would come to love and adore the pleasures and technologies that undo humanity’s capacity to think.
Huxley’s premise was revisited in 1985 by Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman saw that Western culture had moved away from the printed word to the electronic image, and subsequently turned all of public life and discourse into a form of entertainment – everything from education, religion, and politics (I would even add to that list eating – our children need Happy Meals just to get them to eat their hamburgers).
A related premise can also be found in Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind which is a scathing critique of American institutions of higher learning. And from a Christian perspective, Mark Noll sounded a similar alarm in 1994 with his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. According to Noll, the scandal of the evangelical mind is, ironically, that there is no evangelical mind anymore. Christians have simply stopped thinking.
So Christians and non-Christians alike have recognized that the culture of amusement and entertainment has made a coup de taut over America’s mind, without a shot ever being fired or an ounce of blood shed. The constant indulgence of amusement and entertainment has sucked the intellectual and spiritual life right out of us.
And the reason the threat is so insidious is because it is virtually impossible to take seriously. If I were to warn you about a terrorist threat or a grave environmental concern you could see the obvious harm. But how do you warn somebody about fun? About having a good time? About such trivial things like TV, internet, and iPods? Would you take a doctor seriously if he said to you, “I have some very bad news for you: You are going to die a slow, pleasure-filled death.”?
But the effects of the culture of amusement have been absolutely devastating upon the mind, soul, and faith of this generation. You are entering into a world that has not only lost its desire to think, but the actual capacity to think! You will be immersed in a culture controlled not by thinking but by feeling. It is not swayed by arguments or logic, but by images and sound bytes.
Although there are many examples, I offer to you two proofs of the closing of the American mind; one example from political discourse, the other example from religious discourse.
In the world of politics we would only have to go back about one hundred and fifty years to the Lincoln-Douglas debates. These debates represented the typical political process in American at that time. Debates such as these were immensely important in deciding critical issues facing the country. In many ways, these debates represented America’s pastime. It was a diversion from their work. They could leave their fields for a break from the hard labor. One could even argue that these debates were a form of entertainment in the 19th century.
Lincoln and Douglas actually debated each other many times, but the format was always very similar. Douglas would speak first for an hour. Lincoln was given an hour and a half for his rebuttal. To which a half hour was given for his response to Lincoln’s rebuttal.
One such debate took place on October 16, 1854 in Peoria, Illinois. During this debate Douglas took three hours to state his political positions. At Lincoln’s turn, he noted that he would need at least as much time as Douglas and that the time was already about 5 p.m. So he suggested that the audience take a break to be refreshed by dinner and return for the conclusion of the debate. When the audience reconvened after dinner, Lincoln spoke for four hours.
Let’s put the political candidates aside for a moment and focus on the audience. Who in the world were these people who could endure seven hours of political oratory? Were they professional politicos or party-hacks? No! They were just common, ordinary citizens who had the fortitude and desire to follow seven hours of political propositions, proofs, and logic so as to be a properly educated voter. By any of today’s standards, these people possessed extraordinary attention spans!
Soon we will face our own Presidential elections. It is remarkable how vastly different the format will be. Typically, the first candidate will be given five minutes to state their position. The other candidate will be given one minute to rebut. Is it possible to present serious political discourse in five minutes? Absolutely not! Thus, serious political discourse is reduced to sound bytes and images.
Why are these debates so short? For one, political discourse makes for terrible television. But more importantly, American’s don’t have the desire or capacity for such serious discourse! Who would sit and watch seven hours of real political debate on television? The closest we come to serious political discourse in American is found on C-SPAN. But who watches C-SPAN?
I tell you, Americans have not only lost their desire to think, they have lost their capacity to think.
In the world of religion, I suppose we would only have to go back to Colonial America and cite such men as Jonathan Edwards or George Whitefield among many others. Many of Edwards’ sermons are still in print today. And I can tell you that his sermons are taxing even to the most astute theological minds of our day.
But I would rather go back farther to an even more primitive people. To a people who had none of the technological advances or media stimulations that we enjoy today. I want to take you back to the remnant that returned to Jerusalem during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah (circa 5th Century B.C.). Let me share with the description the Bible gives of one of their assemblies. I read from Nehemiah 8,
8:1 And all the people gathered as one man at the square which was in front of the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel. 2 Then Ezra the priest brought the law before the assembly of men, women, and all who could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it before the square which was in front of the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of men and women, those who could understand; and all the people were attentive to the book of the law.
Nehemiah and the other scribes taught the people literally from “early light” until midday – a minimum of six hours! Nehemiah 8:7-8 states that during that time Nehemiah and the other scribes, “explained the law to the people while the people remained in their place. 8 And they read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading.”
These people listened to six hours of biblical exposition! Could you find one congregation in America that could endure such a mentally challenging feat as listening attentively to six hours of biblical exposition? As a preacher myself, I can tell you that many preachers would be run out of town if they dared to preach more than twenty minutes!
I tell you again, we have lost not only our desire to think, but our capacity to think! We simply cannot bear the heavy burden of thinking anymore.
Now I know I must shortly conclude this address, for I am sure I have already taxed our delicate attention spans. But I need to explain that I am not against having fun. There is a place for fun and amusement. However, from personal experience I can tell you that life is not always fun. Life is full of moral, social, political, and theological complexities that require the hard work of thinking.
As seniors at Faith Christian Academy you are successfully graduating from an institution that has trained you to think. You have been compelled to read widely, to reason logically, and to speak articulately. I believe you are eminently prepared to rise above the prevailing culture and lead it. You will be like cream that rises to the top!
Many of these students have said that they will never be able to watch a movie or listen to a commercial the same again. They are always evaluating and probing it for the worldview behind it. Seniors, you graduate from this institution equipped to think critically so that you will not fall prey to political pundits or slick election sound bytes.
In a word, you have been trained to think as Christians. You now must learn what it means to be a Christian lawyer, a Christian doctor, a Christian politician, or a Christian astronomer. But you have been given the tools to discern what that will mean in whatever field God leads you.
We bid you farewell with the great expectation that you will make a lasting impact upon a deeply broken culture. So, on behalf of the faculty and the staff, I salute you! I tell you a job well-done! May God graciously and abundantly bless each one of you!
Copyright © Timothy P Juhnke
New American Standard Bible . 1986; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1996 (electronic edition.) (Ne 8:1). La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation.