The Engaged Intellectual

The Engaged Intellectual? Even my title makes me want to yawn!  What in the world is an engaged intellectual, and who cares anyway?  Hopefully, you and I both do.  Let me explain.

Edward Said, who died in 2003, was a Palestinian intellectual who wrote passionately on Middle Eastern affairs.  He was a world class scholar, teaching at Columbia University in New York, but he grew up in Palestine.

Edward Said (1935-2003), distinguished professor at Columbia University

Palestine, as you may remember, is the Bible land.  Once the Romans destroyed the ancient nation of Israel in the year 70 A.D., the Jews scattered worldwide, leaving the former land of Israel – Palestine – wide open.  Then, in one of the greatest miracles in history, the Jews reassembled and reclaimed their land, becoming again the sovereign State of Israel in 1948.

But a vast span of nineteen centuries separated the Jews’ leaving and returning.  Palestine itself became a “many man’s land” in the duration.  The winds of time blew several countries in to control this tiny sliver of real estate.  By the modern era, a group of Arabic people claimed Palestine as home.

Yasser Arafat (1929-2004), leader of the PLO

As you might guess, these Arabic Palestinians were not happy when the Jews returned to reclaim their ancient homeland in 1948, and they have not gone down quietly.  They assembled themselves into the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), which Yasser Arafat headed, and they continue to lobby for rights in Palestine, if not actually lobbing bombs.

Edward Said was a Palestinian, living in the United States.  As a literary expert, he used his platform to engage in Middle Eastern issues, arguing persuasively against abusive use of powers.  In everything he wrote, Said promoted an ideal: the notion of the engaged intellectual.

An engaged intellectual is an informed person who responds to the need to speak out uncomfortable truths to those who hold power, whether on the international, national, or local stage.  Said believed engaged intellectuals need to speak out, because the established power bases use their vast resources to control and even manipulate culture.  Left unchecked or uncontested, those in power totally dominate their sphere of influence.

Take the media in America, by way of example.  Those who control America’s media control much in American culture: the news people hear; how they hear it; their take on it; what they watch and listen to for entertainment; what they perceive as normal or abnormal; new buzzwords and catch phrases; stylish clothing; cars of choice, etc.

Consider a current television show which airs on the MTV network: SkinsSkins skirts dangerously along the edge of teenage pornography.  Wildly popular with teens, certain lawmakers are concerned that Skins’ “in your face” raciness is dangerously suggestive to already impressionable and impulsive kids.  Taco Bell organization sensed the parental and even legal concerns with Skins, so it recently pulled its advertisements from the program.

The new Skins classmates

Skins is imported from England, where the viewing public finds the show very socially acceptable.  Why?  Why would Englishmen be more comfortable viewing partial nudity and teen pornography on nationwide television than we are in the United States?  The answer is tied to the fact that England’s established power bases manipulated culture in a morally degrading way by slowly but powerfully producing worse and worse moral media.  Soon, the English people were “controlled,” if you will.  They had grown so used to their steady diet of smut that it became the new norm.

Edward Said would say that England’s intellectuals failed their countrymen by refusing to become engaged intellectuals.  They failed to speak out critically against the power brokers in British society, and now, these decades later, they have all been unwittingly absorbed into the new culture.  They all happily watch smut such as Skins.

Consider another example of how those in power manipulate and then control culture at large, how they actually bend the way people think around to their desired end.  Adolf Hitler and the Nazis serve as a prime example.

We are all familiar with Nazi devastation and cruelty.  What few understand is how Hitler transformed one of the godliest nations in Europe into a willing participant which believed the Nazi rhetoric.  Understand, Hitler and the SS leaders weren’t the ones who personally perpetrated mass evil across Europe.  Ordinary, rank and file Germans performed the evil genocide, person by person, tallying up to the estimated six million people murdered.  German citizens believed in what they were doing; they did it with passion!

How?  How did Hitler take a once godly people and destroy their morality?  He took control of culture and over the course of about ten years reshaped it.  He controlled what information got out and how.  He controlled what people heard and read; eventually, how they thought.

In a powerful psychological move, Hitler whispered loudly, in a hundred different ways, to the German race: “You are superior.” His whisperings found a welcome home in German hearts.  People innately want to believe better of themselves relative to everyone else; it’s part of our prideful sin nature.  Hitler fed this elitist passion in the Germans, and they wanted to believe him.  So they found it very easy to see Jews and other races as inferior, even less than human.  Mistreatment of other people didn’t amount to a moral issue, because, to the Germans, these were sub humans.  Certainly, it made sense to preserve the purest of races, the Aryans.

This 1940 poster advertises the worst of the Nazi anti-Semitic films, “The Eternal Jew.” Hitler utilized relentless Nazi propaganda to sway German opinion.

Hitler effectively bent people’s thinking around to his desired ends, and he did so by manipulating culture.  And importantly, crucially, he immediately silenced those who Edward Said would later call engaged intellectuals.  Not many dared standing up to challenge Hitler’s insanity; he crushed those who did.

How does any of this apply to you and me?  Big deal that people in power manipulate resources at their disposal to shape culture.  Why is it crucial that engaged intellectuals challenge the powerful voices of authority?  We can easily answer these questions, I believe, if we focus our thoughts and strain to see our world through the lens of Scripture.

Let me start with the basics: You are an intellectual!  “Me?” you might question.  Yes, you!  You are an intellectual, even if your high school diploma represents your greatest educational achievement.

How?  When God worked the great miracle of breathing new life into your spiritually dead soul, He placed in you the greatest knowledge of all: your desperate need to worship the God of the universe.  This knowledge represents an ageless wisdom that transcends and confounds the wisest sages of earth.  Though you may not fancy yourself a person of great intellect, you are light years beyond brilliant scientists and scholars if they don’t believe the gospel of Jesus Christ.

My grandfather was a farmer, a World War II soldier, and then a refinery worker whose education ended at eighth grade; yet, he was wise beyond the world in that he agreed with the apostle Peter who said of Jesus, “You are the Christ!”  My grandfather, therefore, saw the world through the lens of Scripture, and it colored everything he said and did.

You, if you are a Christian, possess the profound truth of the universe: mankind’s sin will send him to eternal hell; his rebellion against God will culminate in a frustrating, meaning-seeking – but never finding – life-wasting existence.  You and your fellow Christians are uniquely equipped to see through the lies and deceptions with which Satan, the “god of this age,” dupes people.

I confidently declare to you, therefore, that you are an intellectual, of the highest order!  But will you become an engaged intellectual?  Will you speak truth into a deceived world?  Will you address cultural issues which our culture shapers have manipulated to fit their desired ends?

Will you?  If not, American culture will continue to erode into further ungodliness.  Remember, godly Germany’s fall occurred in the span of a decade!  Once-faithful Europe is now home to a Christian population that represents, at best, two to five percent of the total.  I believe we in the church have a small window of time in which to become engaged intellectuals in American culture.

“How?” you might ask.  “I’m not a scholar or important government figure.  I stand on no platform from which to speak persuasively.”  You’re correct.  But I’m not suggesting political activism; neither am I making a call to challenge culture, such as boycotting certain TV shows.  What I have in mind is for you and me to become engaged intellectuals in our unique, individual spheres of influence – our own little worlds where we live, shop, attend sporting events, go to parties, attend church, etc.

People in your world are lost and going to hell, and most are blissfully ignorant of this fact.  Many, many people you come into contact with will live their entire life deceived by Satan and by cultural influences he controls.  These people are in dire need of you, who know the truth, to speak powerfully against the powers that shape the way they think and live.

You are intellectual, in the sense that God has now shown you the truth.  You understand how life works, that “life under the sun” (see Ecclesiastes) is futilely meaningless, and that “life under heaven,” – life with God at the center – is the only way to truly live and escape hell.

So, how can you enter your world as an engaged intellectual?  Here’s how: listen to people talk; listen to their “take” on issues that affect our world.  News headlines are chock full of conversation starters that provide a natural platform from which to engage people in conversation.

Just last week, I read an article about eugenics, which is the idea that we can determine who should be born and who should not be born – the idea of playing God.  The most obvious example of a culture which embraced eugenics is Nazi Germany.  One report noted: “In 1939, Germany’s mental hospitals became killing fields.  Gas chambers replaced sterilization as the final solution to the problem of supporting ‘lives not worth living.'”  What most people don’t know, however, is that America led the way long before the Nazis.  Between 1907 and 1927, the United States became the pioneer in state-sanctioned programs to rid society of the “unfit.”  Forced sterilization was the method of choice.

A descriptive page from a "scholarly" report from the American Eugenics Movement

Thirty states enacted forced sterilization laws designed to rid American culture of what Theodore Roosevelt referred to as the “wrong kind.”  And it didn’t take much to be considered “unfit.”  In its first twenty-five years of eugenic legislation, California sterilized 9,782 individuals, mostly women.  Many were classified simply as “bad girls.”  New York was on the verge of making it illegal for those who wore eye glasses to marry those who did not.  The goal was to eliminate people with bad eye sight – the “wrong kind.”  Interestingly, Teddy Roosevelt himself wore glasses!  Isn’t irony baffling?  As it turns out, Hitler was part Jewish!

In the end, Nazi crimes and atrocities exposed the horror of eugenics and the war on the weak it entails.  But eugenics has never gone away.  What Edwin Black (author of War Against the Weak) calls “newgenics” seeks to achieve many of the same goals in a “kinder, gentler” way.  The most obvious example is prenatal genetic testing.  This is how we get Down Syndrome children identified in the womb and kill them.

Think back to your childhood; recall how many smiling faces of Down Syndrome children come to mind.  Stop now and try to remember the last one you’ve seen.  If you’re like most people, you haven’t seen a Down Syndrome child in years…ever since prenatal genetic testing tempted parents to play God and kill their child.

All parents want a healthy, “normal” child.  Only God knows why He allows birth defects.  What I know, however, is that families who welcomed their precious, God-given, Down Syndrome child into their home would fight you to the death if you suggested there is something wrong with their baby!  These children bring great joy and happiness into their family.  Their siblings, through prolonged interaction, learn to love, defend, and help those who are more helpless.  They learn that they have much to learn from a child whom society deems “unfit.”  Down Syndrome children’s smiles light their worlds.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and her husband Todd hold their Down Syndrome baby boy

Who are we to play God with eugenics?  This is just such a conversation that Christians – engaged intellectuals – can have with the people in their world, their sphere of influence.  What better opportunity to prompt people to question the source and value of life, the meaning of existence.  What an awesome chance to speak of the Creator God and His amazing miracle of creating men and women in His image.  What better time to highlight that humankind holds immeasurable value – from conception to natural death?

Life in America is full of opportunities such as this.  Raise, for instance, the topic of the moral debate surrounding Skins on MTV.  Transition into the weird and seldom discussed fact of Hollywood: even though Rated G and PG movies are historically more profitable than Rated R flicks, producers continue to pump out smut.  It is a statistic which begs the question, “Why?”

Ask your friends “why?”  The only answer which makes sense is that the powers-that-be in Hollywood are interested in an outcome driven by something other than profitability.  Could they have an agenda in mind?  Are they willing to lose money so they can attain a higher level goal?  Would they take advantage of their media control to bend the thinking of American culture to meet their desired ends?

The same questions could have been asked of the Nazis.  It cost them far more money to exterminate six million Jews than it would have if they just left them alone.  Clearly, the Nazis had an agenda, and they were willing to invest significant money and effort to bring it to fruition.

Americans are being shaped and influenced by our culture shapers – count on it.  Love them enough, Christian – as an engaged intellectual – to speak forth uncomfortable truths into their darkened minds.  Read, think, and question.  See your world through the lens of Scripture.  Prayerfully engage your friends and acquaintances with the cultural issues that color our day.  Engage your fellow man that he might see the light of truth and throw himself on the mercy of Jesus Christ.