The other day I was surprised by rage. I was driving a homeless young man to a house. I, and others, had been helping him with blankets, food, drink, and trips to his parole officer. As we headed out of town, he shared how his parents had never been involved much in his life. He had lived with a grandmother and couch surfed a lot.
Suddenly, he ducked down and said, “Shit! I hope he didn’t see me. That’s my younger brother. He’s more messed up with drugs than I am.”
I asked him, “Does that mean I shouldn’t pick him up on the way back?”
“No. Don’t help him. He will steal anything he can get his hands on.”
The brokenness of his family seemed endless. It turned out that the house I dropped my passenger off at belonged to his girlfriend’s brother who had been arrested and would be in jail and eventually prison for several years. The house had no electricity or water, but it was better than the ground he had been sleeping on.
As I pulled away and headed back into town, I began to fume and rant. I felt genuine rage. Not rage at the young man who had politely thanked me for the ride and all the other help. Rage at the big lie that so many have followed into misery, dysfunction, and despair. The destructive power of the lie was unrelenting and pervasive.
The lie has many tentacles, but its essence is that the laws and ways of God must be forsaken for people to be truly happy. It is a lie against the character of God—that somehow God is out to ruin our fun and withhold all the good stuff the world can offer.
The lie is as old as the serpent in the garden, but it was loosed into American culture in a powerful way during the Sixties with its celebration of sex, drugs, rebellion, and rock and roll. But even earlier than this, we see the lie expressed in novels, plays, and poetry that portrayed marriage as oppressive and traditional morality as boring. Bourgeois values were the target throughout the 19th and 20th century. Ticky-tacky houses with white fences were mocked as the American suburban nightmare.
Well, many have escaped that nightmare. The house where I left my homeless friend had a burned-out car in the yard and no utilities. Others who have escaped the nightmare of suburban America sleep in the woods and beg on the corners. Some struggle with mental illness, others with years of life-destroying addiction. Many have families that are blown apart or were never together.
More than in most places, the Sixties never died in Oregon. Many of the counter-cultural values of the Sixties and Seventies have become institutionalized. This has made striking the pose as rebel tricky. No matter how dominant radical values become or how many positions of authority are held by these champions of individualism, radicals of the Sixties and Seventies still want to strike the pose of the lone rebel fighting against the establishment. But it is hard to deny that at most colleges, they have been the establishment for decades. The lie about transgressive morality setting us free has been institutionalized.
There are, of course, some genuine rebels. I have had a few of these rebels in my classes. They reject recreational sex, marry before having their kids, and don’t abuse drugs. I had one rebel student who reported her parents to the local drug task force because they kept trying to sell drugs to her high school friends. Some rebels have the audacity to go to church and wear pajamas to bed instead of Walmart.
The rejection of common place goods is one of the most virulent expressions of the big lie. But in my work with broken families and those with drug addictions, the simple traditions of families shine like the golden walls of a lost city. My passenger shared how excited he was because this would be the first birthday in seven years that he wasn’t in jail. I wished I had a cake and candles to celebrate his 27th birthday. After we adopted our kids, they declared anything we did twice “a family tradition.”
Another tentacle of the lie is the idolatry of personal autonomy—the supremacy of personal rights and desires. I once taught a college literature class at Powers High School, a small school nestled into the northern edge of the Siskiyou Mountains. We were reading Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House and discussing why the heroine left her husband and family “to find herself.” Few works of literature had done more to popularize the idea of marriage as oppressive. I then asked, “Has making the pursuit of personal identity and happiness the highest good been good or bad for our culture?” We talked about how men in mid-life crises also left families and wives to go find themselves and pursue their dream—often a sports car and younger woman.
I noticed one girl in the back of the room gently sobbing. As the students filed out of the room at the end of class, I gently asked her if she was okay. She wiped away a few tears and said, “When my mother left my father and me, she said the same thing that Nora said in Ibsen’s play. She said she needed to find herself.” She looked at me and with a breaking voice, and asked, “Why couldn’t she find herself and still be my mother?” I said something lame about how relevant the play was to our lives. But her question was a good one and pointed out the unacknowledged consequences of the big lie.
We may have left behind the corny sayings of the Sixties about following one’s bliss or doing whatever floats your boat, but self-realization and self-expression reign supreme in our culture. This is part of the big lie—that if we live expressive and transgressive lives, if we eat the forbidden fruit, we can become gods. Or to use more contemporary language, we can realize our inner god principle and determine right and wrong for ourselves. We have been doing this for a while here in Oregon.
The serpent’s lie in the garden was not just a lie against God’s goodness and a lie about the glories of eating of the forbidden tree. It is also a lie about the goodness of all the other trees God had given. For us the other trees are the many good things of a moral and well-ordered life: a happy marriage, a mother and father raising their children, the satisfaction of hard work, backyard barbecues, grandchildren slipping their hands into yours, and the distant roar of a high school football game on a Friday night.
I have lived long enough in one place to see the generational impacts of the big lie—lives ruined, kids in foster care, single moms holding down a job while working on a degree. Three generations of addiction or incarceration are common. The more compassionate I have become, the deeper my rage against the Lie. What is so intolerable is that so few draw a line between the lie and the misery. The lie skips happily away from the devastation it leaves behind.
I had a wise pastor from the backwaters of Arkansas who would often ask people who rejected God, “How is that working for you?” A few would say “fine”, but most would think awhile and then admit that it wasn’t working too well. As a culture, we aren’t too honest about this. Often, we double-down, and insist that the sexual revolution hasn’t worked because we are still too repressed. The god of personal autonomy hasn’t delivered because there are still a few things that limit us—biology, genetics, age, and gravity.
This is not a call to culture wars. It is a call to reject the lie that true life comes from the forbidden tree. It is an invitation to feast joyously from all the other trees in the garden. It is a call to enjoy a walk with God in the cool of the day. It is call to rage against the lie by living the truth. It is a call to hospitality and compassion toward all those wounded and bewildered by the lie.
Some years back Teckla and I threw a birthday party for a long-time meth addict in Myrtle Point. It was his first party in many years and joy lit up his weathered face. The simple goodness of the party and his laughter was bracing and clean. It gave our friend a taste of what living in the truth might be like. The cake did not end his addiction, but our love pointed to Jesus—the only one strong enough to destroy the Lie.