a lament for giants

They left us. I’m not sure when. It may have happened even before I was born. I’m having a hard time remembering lately. But I do know that they once lived among us and now they are gone.

Giants. There was a time when our nation, our world, was teeming with them. As giants tend to be, they were a mixed bag. Some were clumsy and destructive. Some, regrettably, were downright evil and trampled us under foot. Many others used their great size to lift us up to heights unimaginable. All of them were distinct in their power, and their mere presence was transformative. But now they’ve all but disappeared. It was a gradual disappearance. It was no cataclysm that did these giants in. No, like an animal that gradually loses its habitat to “civilization,” these giants just dwindled away. One day, today, as I was reflecting on the state of our world, I realized that the giants were all gone. And I miss them. We all miss them I think. We need them.

It’s a challenge to find any area of our culture still populated by giants. Take politics as an example. Like many of you, I’m sure, I grow tired of every single conversation drifting towards politics. It’s exhausting, and it’s unnatural. It’s not normal for citizens to be so obsessive about politics all the time. Life, truly living, is about so much more than politics. Our current obsession with politics is not evidence of the strength of our leaders but of their absolute weakness and ineffectiveness. Think about it. No one talks about tap water. Until the tap water is toxic, and then they can talk about little else. We obsess over politics so much because our politicians are so bad at their jobs. We no longer have leaders. The giants have exited the political landscape only to be replaced by small image-obsessed entertainers more concerned about being in the news than actually making news. There are no giants in Washington. There are only high-priced Instagram influencers looking for the next photo-op.

Or what about the civil rights movement? There is no doubt that our nation is in a significant civil rights moment reminiscent in some ways of those big moments from before many of us were alive. It has become painfully obvious that one of the differences between the 1960’s and today is the absence of giants. Does anyone else find it depressing that in over 50 years, we have yet to produce another Martin Luther King or even another Malcolm X? Where are the giants? Where are the leaders? I’m not saying that there are no important voices in our current civil rights moment, but they are often lost in a loud cacophony of competing voices. And so many of those who position themselves as leaders have more in common with grifters promoting their own personal brand than they do with authentic giants. “Buy my book. Hire me for your corporate event. Join the movement by signing up for my newsletter at only 5 bucks a month.”

What about entertainment? Where is our generation’s Tolkien? They have either been consumed by their own decadence or trapped inside their castle by an angry woke mob. If we were to have a Woodstock today, who would even be invited? My guess is that they’d invite a bunch of “bankable” acts from the 90’s to satisfy the corporate sponsors. Are there any giants left in television or movies? Johnny Carson has been replaced with a dozen clones, and arguably the most important “movie stars” today are the people sitting behind computer screens creating CGI landscapes and action sequences. Entertainment is now a land of endless content but emptied of giants.

Religion too. Where are today’s Billy Grahams preaching to Presidents and stirring the hearts of tens of thousands? Today’s Billy Grahams no longer preach to Presidents. Instead, they pander to them. Too many of today’s Billy Grahams seem more interested in carefully building a platform and an image on their way to fame rather than humbly seeking the heart of God.

Ross Douthat, in his excellent book about decadence, makes a powerful argument that even in science and technology we have stopped truly innovating. Gone are giants like Neil Armstrong willing to risk life and limb to reach new frontiers. They’ve been replaced by the tech entrepreneur hoping to become the next Silicon Valley billionaire by making modern life a fraction more entertaining or efficient with the manipulation of some 1s and 0s.

The land has been emptied of giants. And I miss them.

I wonder what happened to them. In some tragic cases, like Martin Luther King, we killed them. In other cases, we lost them over time as we lost the mono-culture. Johnny Carson lived at a time when becoming Johnny Carson was possible. That time no longer exists. We live in a different time where everyone’s voice is amplified making it hard for giants to be heard.

I think another, related explanation is that in an era where everyone’s voice is amplified, we’ve become obsessed with fame. We are more interested in amplifying ourselves than we are in lifting others up. Our leaders are leading us in this obsession. A person’s importance is judged by modern commodities like retweets and followers which often have no connection to any real ability to lead. It’s a smoke and mirrors influence economy where the illusion of leadership is sufficient. Ironically, those who pursue fame as an end are the most quickly forgotten. I don’t know if they’ll be building any monuments to Instagram influencers.

Which reminds me…

This whole post has been nostalgic and a bit depressing. I’m sorry. That’s just how I’m feeling at the moment. There has been a lot of looking backwards recently. Author Thomas Friedman once said, “When memories exceed dreams, the end is near.” I thought about this as I watched angry mobs of people tearing down monuments and statues across the country. I’ve heard all the arguments about how some of these statues needed to go. Fine. I’ll agree with that. But as crowds attack statues of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Grant, and even Frederick Douglass I couldn’t help but wonder if something else is going on. Some cling to the past for purposes nostalgia. Some cling to the past for purposes of resentment. I’m not sure if there is better evidence that the giants have left the land than seeing angry crowds toppling and defacing monuments dedicated to their memory. Giants aren’t merely extinct. Many of us have grown to despise giants. We’ve dedicated ourselves to finding their flaws and deficiencies. Rather than creating new giants, all of our efforts are for debunking or cancelling the giants of the past. We are impossibly small, and the only thing that seems to help us in our smallness is bringing the giants down to size.

Martin Luther king had a dream.

Seems like all we have are memories.

2 thoughts on “a lament for giants

  1. Chad, I would highly recommend reading “THE DREAM: Martin Luther King, JR., and the speech that inspired a nation’ by Drew Hansen. I was reading this book while visiting our daughter in Atlanta just a few days ago… we were there the night Rayshard Brooks was killed. As I was reading it I thought that this would be great material for a homiletic class or even a study of the times and the methods he used. His subsequent thoughts after The March left him in despair that the dream he spoke of had turned into a nightmare. There are so many things in this book that put today’s struggle in context. If you don’t read anything else, read chapter four: PROPHECY. Good stuff.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Though I agree with the sentiment, I disagree with the argument. Often Dr. Cornel West talks about the Santa Classification of Dr. King — all of the nostalgia and none of the radical, all of the race and none of the class. I think we do this across sectors and we forget that the most compelling part of Butler’s Lives of the Saints is that the saints are scoundrels: we follow each one for some reasons and not for others. Francis for wood and field and fowl. Thomas for book and brain. We don’t follow Francis for systematic theology, but ethics and art. We don’t follow Thomas for his skill with the nativity set or passion play. Augustine’s confessions sort of sets the standard on both ends.

    That in mind, King pushed books at every event. A lot of them. There’s an argument to be made that this is how they funded much of the movement: off his cult of personality. I don’t know that I agree with that as a means, but it’s hardly something to disagree rationally when it comes to history. (The same could be said of the entire Graham family or even, if Ben Franklin’s autobiography is to be believed, the entire history of revivalist preaching).

    As for Malcolm X, dude used as much violence as someone like Killer Mike and in a similar manner. Or several others we could point to.

    In the modern time, it’s also overlooked that Erica Garner died of a heart attack at 27 while seeking justice for her father, Eric. It’s not nothing. It at least rhymes with previous history.

    I’m sure the Gen Xer in you considered the irony of talking about blog grifters… on a blog. So I won’t belabor that point. But I will say the barriers of expression create a scarcity of expression which we can hardly exaggerate: people have argued over and over again that the first thing the printing press is for is scripture and the second thing is pornography. Out of the overflow of the heart, the pen writes speech for the eye.

    That aside, time in general filters out the peers of the giants. That’s Lewis’s point in ON READING THE OLD BOOKS: time is the great sieve that tells us which voices rise to universality and which simply emerged as products of their age. Name ten of Tolkien’s contemporaries. Or twenty of MLK’s and Malcolm X’s. Or all of the other late night comedians that competed with Johnny Carson. List two dozen bands from Woodstock. Or, honestly, a single movie star from the MGM era not (1) dependent upon that era’s special effects [one might argue that’s all a “moving picture” even _is_] and (2) wasn’t made to sell large quantities of passive, consumptive, thoughtless propaganda as Tolkien (above) argued.

    Billy Graham, as I remember, historically regretted _not_ speaking up to JFK — an irony only matched by the historical politics playing out from a right-wing Evangelical who considered himself an evangelist to a left-wing Catholic. It seems to have never crossed his mind that the gospel he preached was predicated on the Nicene creed that Catholic affirmed.

    As for life and limb, three astronauts put themselves at great risk on a private rocket recently that vibrated magnitudes of order more violently than the space shuttle they remember — a rocket that landed on its but, upright, in a way that was only considered to be possible in literal comic books like TinTin. Whether that’s good or bad, it’s certainly comparable with the NASA program. This part in particular reminds me of the time Donald Miller lambasted millennials for doing something we never do — claim Steve Jobs as a product of our generation. He argued we ride the coattails of boomers. He did this on a Facebook post, a platform invented by millennials. Both, arguably, did as much damage to the world in terms of tech and ethics and the rest. But the irony wasn’t lost on me: we simply aren’t looking for the giants among us. They’re still suffering from growing pains. Jobs, the jerk, has died. Zuck, the jerk, has not. And, frankly, both suffer for want of stature in my book, but I don’t think my stricter canon matters: by the standards of giants in this post, they’re peers with one another and with Edison, the jerk. They all three stole from the IBMs and MySpaces and Nicolae Teslas of the world, none of which are considered “giants” by the metric in question.

    I think, what’s more likely, is that we’ve grown so accustomed to the protestant tradition of tearing down saints yoked to the French spin on the Miltonian tradition of free speech that exists — most often — in modern journalism and everything it touches (hello there, Twitter). We’re more interested in proving someone a sinner than celebrating saints. We don’t even, most of us, _believe_ in saints anymore. Or if we do, it’s basically anyone who “prays this prayer,” which is another way of saying no one. The ancient idea of saints was that anyone can be saved and sanctified, but among everyone, THESE specific people in THESE specific times and THESE specific places with THESE specific callings to redeem the time using THESE specific gifts are, we know for certain, saved and sanctified and in the great cloud of witnesses: foolproof examples to follow. As Flannery O’Conner said, a good man is hard to find simply because we’re not looking anymore for the people that “have someone there to shoot them every day of their life.” Anyone can be a saint. Spare few have picked up their crosses so consistently over the course of their lives that we can look and say, without flinching, “Be like Patrick when you meet a pirate” or “Be like Claire when you’re with a brother like Francis” or “Be like Momma T with the sick.”

    And when you take that away and leave a protest-less Protestantism, you have nothing left but a 500-year old bitterness with a 500-year-old habit of cynicism that echoes in weeping and gnashing of teeth. We fight, like dogs, over our last shreds of dignity and divinity.

    As for fame, I’ll consider — yet again — deleting my website and mailing list. That’s my takeaway. That in mind, how does a writer earn a living without either these days? I’m no Oxford don, there’s no more significant fellowships, and publishing advances (which haven’t risen since 1970 for the least unionized craft in favor of six mega corporations) are withheld until you’ve sold thousands of copies of 99¢ digital books.

    Of course money isn’t the point, but it — just barely — carried one man across the finish line. He had a child with a weak heart, the flu, a wife with cancer, a flooded basement, and a request to be a cryptographer for the war that all — in the same year — nearly stopped The Lord of the Rings from ever being written at all.

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