When I saw the photo of Bruce Jenner, I didn’t recognize him, or not right away; and if that was the desired effect, then so be it. Now we know: Jenner can look like a woman, as Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams do in Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire, respectively. We’ve seen stunts like this before, at less extreme levels. Indeed, cross-dressing and transgenderism have lost their shock-value. Jenner’s case is different only because he won the decathlon in the 1976 Olympic Games, which for many years seemed to certify his manliness until those creepy photos started appearing magazines like the National Enquirer. America’s gold-medal hero and reality-show star had changed, and not for the better.
Otherwise, the story is just horrendous and tedious, at the same time, which seems impossible, but not from our perspective. As Christians, we understand the deeper causes of manifest sin and thus could anticipate these perversions, even as we also lament them. In Romans 1, Paul tells us that when people turn away from God and toward the creation—to worship some part of it instead of God himself—they do stupid, self-destructive things. No result is more predictable. This consequence follows from God’s judicial wrath against sin which takes the form of abandonment, the removal of fences keeping sinners from greater ruin. God gives them over to darkened thinking, a debased mind, and twisted desires (vv. 21, 24, 28).
In the end, the idolater embraces codes of conduct that no sane person would ever accept and tries to recruit others into his own debauched lifestyle (v. 32). Self-mutilation fits the profile, therefore. So does voluntary degradation of the kind permitted by Jenner. How much would they have to pay you to do that? Is your dignity for sale?
These days, we don’t know whether to cry or break out laughing, but we’re doing much of both these days, because that’s the news. Such are our headlines. Indeed, the big story of the Jenner case is how small it seemed to be, just days later, when something else happened, whatever that was. His Vanity Fair cover appeared on the Drudge Report for a single day, only to be bumped by Obamatrade and photos of John Boehner.
So ‘Caitlyn’ got her proverbial 15 minutes, and America moved on, which reminds us of a sad and familiar truth. Our culture has rejected God so completely, with such deep consequences, that no one notices anymore. Sulphurous vapors are rising up everywhere around us, and we Americans keep telling the guests, “It’s all good. That’s just how our country smells.” At some point, our complacency will kill us.
As the moral evil among us increases, we Americans keep smiling. It’s in our nature to deny that anything is really wrong. We say, “It’s bad right now; but we’ve always grabbed the steering wheel in time, before the whole thing goes over the cliff, and we’ll catch on soon enough.” So this won’t end badly, we think. We can fix this, too, because we’re good at learning from experience, always doing the right thing, once we’ve done every wrong thing.
But our prospects for self-correction depend on the ‘we’ who must awaken before it’s too late, and the optimists among us have themselves fallen asleep. They don’t notice how we’ve changed lately and how our nation has lost its power to sense cultural injury. We are lepers of conscience, burning our hands and feet, because we don’t’ know any better—because we can’t know any better. But this analogy suggests a bright side that we can hope and pray for, once the usual remedies have failed.
Perversity will not go out of fashion, all by itself. We won’t reach the tipping point of natural backlash, when the freak-show finally offends even the pagans next door and they join us in trying to change things. On the contrary, left to itself, deviancy will always be defined downward, until we hit bottom, with complete balkanization into bright red and dark blue—or some other far-reaching catastrophe. Enlightened self-interest, combined with good sociological data, will not do the trick this time around. The American people won’t see what prudence demands and make the necessary changes, because the problem before us is supremely impractical. It’s not like deciding how much tax anyone should pay or where oil pipelines should go. We are facing spiritual warfare.
Therefore, the sooner we lose faith in the American people—in their homespun, self-corrective wisdom—we might increase our faith in the One who can defy gravity on our behalf, doing for each of us what we cannot do for ourselves and never could. Strange and terrible stories like Jenner’s mystify us, and properly so. We cannot believe that there’s a market in polite society for synthetic nightmares, brought to Vanity Fair readers by clever airbrushing. But these events are really happening, and the sooner we get to praying about them, the better.
God can save us, one by one. He can bring the awakening that we need, with all the good side-effects that would follow from it, including a renewed culture which encourages righteousness instead of self-destruction. We’ve always know that, based on Scripture; and now, with each new headline, we can also feel its truth as never before.