When I was a kid I knew The World was going to Hell in a hand basket. I didn't know what that phrase meant, still don't really, but I knew that it was one of the only times I could get away with saying hell, because it wasn't swearing. The World was actually going there.
Perhaps a couple definitions are necessary here at the outset. In my conservative, evangelical-before-we-knew-what-evangelical-was upbringing, Hell meant that very literal -- perhaps underground -- place where real flames burn real, bad people forever. And The World meant non-Christians, as in "be in the world, but not of it." Evangelicals often refer to any not-usses, any thems, as The World.
So, The World was on a steady decline to the pits of Hell, which began, well, when it all began, when the literal Adam and Eve ate the literal apple, handed them by the literal snake who literally was Satan in disguise and sin entered into the previously pristine world. The thing about this decline though, is that we were all okay with it. It's not that we wanted to live in a world that was getting worse; it was just that we didn't want to live in The World at all. And though there are many variations of this belief, typical evangelical eschatology says that in order for Jesus to come back the world has to get so bad that the only solution is to scoop up his followers, burn the whole place down and start again.
This being the case, we knew that what we were seeing around us, the fact that more and more swear words slipped through the FCC's slackening grip and made their way into our homes via our televisions, that more magazine covers revealed more skin, that PG movies were more like PG-13 movies, that a Democrat got elected, and then had a public affair, and then stayed in office; these were all signs that things were going according to plan.
The only problem, as far as my 8-year-old self was concerned, was that things weren't moving along quickly enough. My parents used to tell me stories about how in the 1970s they were certain that it was all coming to an end. But then Reagan became president and, I guess, things started looking up again for the good guys. I had to do something to help speed up the process.
My solution came in the form of one of the greatest evils of the 80s: MTV. I wasn't allowed to watch music videos, not even the harmless VH1 variety. Clearly, I concluded, the more viewers MTV had, the sooner Armageddon would happen. Therefore I resolved to make any and all of my non-Christian friends tune in often, and sometimes, even, when I was sitting on the couch beside them. I would hand a friend the remote to my family's old JC Penney television set, tell him to type in 3 and 6 and when MTV blinked on the screen and Axl Rose screamed "Take me down to Paradise City..." my friend would turn to me with a horrified look on his face and say something like, "But we're not allowed to watch this." To which I would respond, "I'm not, because I'm a Christian, but I think it's okay for you."
Diabolical, wasn't I? In the end, all this accomplished for me was a few spankings and an uncompromising love of popular culture.
Certainly this is religion as seen through a child's eyes, but it is also emblematic of the kind of Christianity I grew up in -- one so concerned with individual salvation that its very standards of morality are a means toward that end. This is the same morality that cares nothing for the earth because it will eventually be destroyed, or for those who are not receptive to evangelism as their fates are sealed.
This morality really is amorality, a void where actual care and concern for what is right should be -- rules and regulations in place of grace and virtue. If there is a list of activities that one must do or not do in order to achieve personal salvation, this list must necessarily trump everything else. I must do whatever is necessary to secure paradise for myself. My morality matters most; yours, very little.
As much as the people in my church hated the idea of relativism -- which they saw as a kind of ultimate evil that, if ever it were to take hold, would assure that there would be no ultimate evil - the relative nature of the preferred evangelical morality seems to have gone completely unnoticed.
But, Christianity is not really about personal salvation. As a Christian, my life should matter less to me than the lives of others. In this way, too, my sense of morality must reflect this understanding: it is not what I can do for myself that is of value, but how I can make life better for those around me. Or, as Hegel prescribes in his Lectures on the Philosophy of History, striving toward spiritual perfection in one's own life is not enough, rather the Christian believer must actively transform the physical world into a place more habitable for "free, spiritual beings."
This shift fortunately corresponds to a larger shift that is taking place among evangelicals, or post-evangelicals as many of us who have walked away from the warehouses and former department stores that served as the evangelical churches we were raised in are often identified as now. If evangelicalism was concerned, first and foremost, with personal salvation, we must make a conscious effort to shift our attentions outward; not to police the morality of others but to mind how our own actions help or hurt them, to ensure our motivations are right.
Granted, this outlook isn't going to speed up the onslaught of the Apocalypse, but it might make the time between now and Armageddon that much more pleasant for everyone.