The film Back to the Future is a prime example of the dominant cultural script of the 1980s. In the film, Michael J. Fox plays Marty McFly, who accidentally travels back in time to 1955. In the process, he accidentally causes the teenage version of his mother to fall in love with him, which creates the potential of erasing his own future existence if he can’t get his teenage parents to fall in love on they very same night they got together in his current timeline.
Back to the Future is full of the cultural themes that dominated much of the 1980s: teenage heroes, clueless adult authorities, weak females, well-intentioned but ultimately dangerous technology, and materialism. Numerous other movies from that decade feature these similar themes: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, E.T., Pretty in Pink, Footloose…
Every generation, decade, geographic location, and subculture follows a script. Films of the 1980s contain similar themes, because this was the script that was structuring the lives of American young people at the time. Cultural scripts are made up of the values and influences of a particular group that happens to dominate the society. A script is the narrative that is both controlling and being directed by this group.
In the 1980s, the United States experienced economic expansion. Reaganomics was credited for giving us cheap gas, rising wages, business growth, and low-cost goods. Material success became an important value in America. The end of Back to the Future clearly expresses this value as Marty McFly finds that when he returns to the present, his father has a good job, his family has lots of nice things, and he has a shiny new truck waiting for him in the garage. They all live happily ever after with wealth and material possessions (until Back to the Future 2).
When Marty McFly goes back to the 1950s, the cultural script that controlled much of America was the defense of the American way of life against communism. American citizens put up with the tactics of J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy, because the dominant narrative told them the evils of communism were America’s greatest threat. This narrative made patriotism Americans’ most important value and justified any action taken by the United States government.
With the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal, the cultural script changed. Unquestioning patriotism was replaced by suspicion of politicians and government. Not surprisingly, film, television, and literature reflected this change. Movies like Dirty Harry, Taxi Driver, and Network encouraged Americans to question authority and gave them a more pessimistic view of the world.
Although the broader culture tends to have a dominant script, so does every subculture. American evangelicals are no different. Their script is called the persecution narrative, and it goes something like this…
America is moving increasingly further from the will of God. This is evidenced by the endorsement of pluralism and moral relativism, blatant immorality, the growing embrace of homosexuality, the increasing acceptance of sex outside of marriage, the large number of abortions performed every year, the dysfunction of families, the disrespect and violence from young people, and the priority of issues such as environmentalism and animal rights above the well-being of humans. Christians are called to point out the way these evils are creeping into society. As people drift further from God, however, they are not responsive to his commands. They become hostile and attempt to silence the voices that point out their rebellion.God has given us specific commands in Scripture. We honor him by obeying these commands. When we obey God, we find his way is the best way to live. God loves and cares for humanity, and living outside his will results in a dysfunctional and unhealthy life.
Our enemies also want us to forget our Christian heritage, the founders who based this nation’s laws and governmental structure on Christian morals and principles. They vilify the heroes of the past by exaggerating their involvement in slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, American imperialism, and individual founders’ personal moral failings. In short, they want to deny the greatness of America’s Christian past and its exceptionality as a nation.These anti-Christian forces have been successful in removing prayer from public schools and legalizing abortion in America. Now they are hard at work attempting to remove all traces of Christianity from public life. These are the people who sue public institutions, forcing them to remove displays of the Ten Commandments or the Bible. They want “In God We Trust” removed from our currency and “Under God” taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance. They are patrolling public schools and military installations looking for displays of Christianity to attack. They are working within our government, attempting to limit religious freedom and undermine the position of Christianity in American life. They are also working from within; seeking to water down Christianity so no one will be offended by its claims or requirements.
In the present, they want to distract us from truly important spiritual and moral issues by focusing society’s attention on climate change, scientific research, civil rights, income inequality, prison reform, drug legalization, education, gender equality, and universal health care.
They also want to marginalize Christians as much as possible, excluding us from public discourse by claiming we are intolerant, minimizing the Church’s influence in society, and making us the subject of mockery in the media.
The persecution narrative says Christians are the underdogs being attacked by the combined forces of atheists, liberals, socialists, and multiculturalists. It tells us we are in danger from the gay agenda, the liberal agenda, and the militant Muslim agenda. The persecution narrative conflates Christianity with American ideals, convincing us that patriotism is a Christian virtue. Therefore, in addition to attacks on our faith, we should also fear gun control, illegal immigration, and government-mandated healthcare. In this effort to win back the culture, the government is seen as both our greatest ally and our worst enemy. It tells us that our best days are behind us, and we should fear the future, fighting for a return to the cultural values of the 1950s, or perhaps even the 1770s. Christians are being repressed, persecuted. We must take action.All of this amounts to an organized effort to persecute Christians in America. Some Christians do not recognize this persecution. They are asleep. Those of us who do recognize the persecution must stand against it. Standing against persecution can take many forms: speaking out against the blatantly anti-Christian efforts of secularists, protesting laws that limit religious freedom, voting for those who will uphold the Christian heritage of this nation, and speaking loudly and clearly about the dangers of immorality.
Persecutory delusion is a physiological condition characterized by a perception that someone is attempting to harm the afflicted individual. This condition is often associated with schizophrenia. The DSM-IV-TR (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) describes a person suffering from persecutory delusion as believing “he or she is being tormented, followed, tricked, spied on, or ridiculed.”
The story of John Nash is told in the film A Beautiful Mind. Nash was a brilliant mathematician whose theories have been used in a wide range of disciplines, including economics, evolutionary biology, and artificial intelligence. In 1994, he received a Nobel Prize in economic sciences. Despite his brilliance, at times Nash believed people were secretly plotting against and persecuting him. That’s because Nash struggled with mental illness, including paranoid schizophrenia.
Unlike many people who suffer from such afflictions, Nash was able to overcome his delusions. He states in his autobiography, “Then gradually I began to intellectually reject some of the delusionally influenced lines of thinking which had been characteristic of my orientation.” Although Nash’s incredible mental ability enabled him to overcome his mental illness, for many people, schizophrenia, persecutory delusion, and paranoia are terribly debilitating.
I do not wish to characterize American Evangelicals as clinically delusional. However, I do believe that what many American Evangelicals regard as persecution is similar to symptoms experienced by people afflicted with this mental disorder.
As I have mentioned, in many circles of Christianity, the idea that we are a persecuted minority is continually reinforced in children’s lessons, teen curriculums, novels, movies, Sunday sermons, and so on. For some, the assumption of persecution is as much a part of the Christian life as baptism and the Bible. Well-known pastor John Piper wrote, “Once upon a time, there was a safe, private place to take your controversial stand for Jesus. No more. If you are going to stand, you will be shot at—either figuratively or literally.”
Viewing ourselves as the persecuted minority is ironic, because much of the broader culture sees Christians, especially conservative Evangelicals, as the oppressive majority. A report published by People for the American Way published in May 2014 addresses the issues of religious persecution. The conclusion of this report says, “Religious freedom is a core constitutional value and a cornerstone of our liberty. But the Religious Right’s narrative of religious persecution is not only far from the truth; in many cases the narrative itself serves to undermine true religious liberty and individual freedom for all.”
In many cases the perception of American Christians regarding persecution is completely out of line with the cultural reality. We have embraced a delusion—the persecution complex.
What If We Are Wrong?
The persecution narrative can only exist in an environment of pride, because, it is completely self-centered. It takes hold when Christians insist they fully understand the truth and believe it is their responsibility to defend that truth. The persecution narrative loses its grip, however, when Christians embrace humility and place the needs of others above their own.
Embracing humility means admitting we might be wrong. It means having more confidence in God and less confidence in ourselves. It means admitting that sometimes we get things wrong when we try to understand God’s heart and carry out God’s will. It means holding our doctrine loosely while holding tightly to Jesus.
Rather than inciting us to humility, the persecution narrative incites pride, fear, and selfishness. It causes us to cling tightly to particular beliefs, because if we lose them, we fear we’ll lose the culture. If we can begin to loosen our grip, accept that we might be wrong about some things, and then enter into dialogue on these points, then the delusion of the persecution complex also begins to loosen its hold on us.