This text is adapted from a speech delivered at the Augustine Collective Conference on January 24, 2020. The Augustine Collective is a programme of the Veritas Forum, which seeks to help students and faculty ask life’s hardest questions. The speech is published with permission of the Veritas Forum.
On any given day, a quick glance at the top-selling books on Amazon reveals that there is a lot of need in our country. First, people desperately want to know what’s true. They’re hungry for some sort of grounding: they want something solid, whether it’s found in self-help manuals or popular physics books about the nature of the universe.
Second, people need relief from paralysing fear: fear of Trump, of climate change, of “the libs”, of nuclear war, of immigration… People are also afraid that they don’t know what they’re doing in life: afraid of losing control, of not having choices, of downward mobility. Hence the success of books like Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules For Life, and of books on mental health, on loneliness and on basic life skills. At Penguin Random House we’ve seen the emotional landscape change dramatically. What people said their major concerns were was consistent from 2001 to 2016. Then, in 2016, a new one jumped to the top: “My family’s safety”.
I think a lot of us can relate to that. You’re afraid of losing control, you’re afraid of not having choices, of downward mobility. A lot of people who experience these fears don’t look afraid, but if you shake them a little, you’ll see the abject panic there.
Third, people need connection. They need to understand how they are not fully autonomous. We live in a world that encourages us to find fulfilment by maximising choice and individual autonomy. Economic and sexual libertarianism drive a lot of the conversation, but fewer books on that point are selling now. Atomised lives are not fulfilling; people are looking for alternatives.
In all three areas, Christians can speak to these needs. We can seek truth confidently and freely; as Francis Schaeffer put it: “The ancients were afraid that if they went to the end of the earth they would fall off and be consumed by dragons. But once we understand that Christianity is true to what is there, true to the ultimate environment – the infinite, personal God who is really there – then our minds are freed. We can pursue any question and can be sure that we will not fall off the end of the earth.”
As for people’s fears: Christians don’t get to be exempt from fear but we do have access to the perfect love that casts it out. The more we see Christians standing up on campuses or talking to people through their books and saying, “Things are very, very bad but we can face life without fear,” the more winsome our testimony will be.
Finally, Christians are well-placed to understand interdependence: as members of the Church, we depend on each other. We know we are more fully alive within the Church, that we are not most truly human when we isolate ourselves. And we have a God who became a baby, was born of a woman – that’s pretty interdependent – and we all depend on Him.
I am glum and pessimistic about many things in the world, but I am excited about the appetite I am seeing for these topics and I think that appetite will only grow. And I’m hopeful that Christians will help provide what people are looking for.
Bria Sandford is a senior editor at Penguin Random House and editorial director of Sentinel