Narrative

Manus Island, Narrative Frames and the Politics of Truth

After almost a month, the Manus Island crisis has come to a close — at least for now. As the crisis rolled on, its ongoing ubiquity force me to reflect upon it at some length. Images of men, despondent and listless, lying on soiled mats or drawing fetid water from makeshift wells, still confront me. Major media publications are replete with sobering stories about the increasingly decrepit structures some asylum seekers inhabited, their stubborn efforts to remain in the processing centre, and the deepening tensions between the men and local Manusians. When  such a steady stream of words and pictures is presented to one’s consciousness — and in so stark and persistent a fashion — one is compelled to pause and think about it.

None of us receive an unmediated view of what’s occurring on Manus Island. In fact, the entire debate surrounding asylum seekers — particularly as it relates to the state of Australia’s offshore processing regime — has been conducted amidst a thick pall of fog, shrouding the truth from view. There are a number of reasons for this. The present government’s foolhardy decision to maintain some kind of media blackout around Nauru and Manus Island has surely contributed to the information vacuum. Its incessant refusal to adopt a more transparent approach to the system over which it presides has only encouraged rash speculation and innuendo. Moreover, discussion concerning asylum seekers seems to give people on both sides of the divide license to abandon all sobriety; I am often bewildered by the way rumour is frequently elevated to the level of substantiated fact. On the one hand, Australia’s offshore processing centres are regularly denounced  as “gulags” or “hellholes”; on the other, every act committed by an asylum seeker is dismissed as a cynical, manipulative attempt to force the government’s hand. When divisions run this deep, a meeting of minds appears impossible.

But behind the riven nature of these debates lie competing ideological narratives, which shape and constrain one’s interpretation of the broader issue generally, and the Manus Island saga in particular. Used wisely, narrative frames are extraordinarily helpful, providing us with the means of sorting and organising the mass of information regularly assailing us. At the same time, they can encourage simplistic interpretations of what are, in reality, often complex and ambiguous events. Indeed, where they inspire slavish devotion in people, narrative frames can actually be quite misleading.

Reporting around the unfolding events on Manus — specifically as it relates to the now-concluded standoff — provides small, but telling, examples of this broader point. I should note here that my aim is pretty modest: I am seeking neither to condemn nor endorse Australia’s current approach to boat-borne asylum seekers. Nor am I concerned to provide a blanket defence of this country’s offshore processing regime. Rather, I wish to critically examine one particular strand, and to challenge it with a more balanced, nuanced perspective. Furthermore, even though I am concerned to correct what could be called a “left-wing” narrative (simplistic though I regard that term), I certainly wouldn’t want to argue that only one side of the ideological divide is susceptible to “streamlining” the truth. I think, for example, of crude conservative  voices, which characterize all refugees and asylum seekers as either potential threats (of the terroristic or criminal kind), or as nothing more than a drain on the country’s economic resources. All of us are vulnerable to motivated reasoning and unbalanced accounts. In any case, I hope in this exercise to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued the debate for so long.

It may be recalled that one of the main reasons behind the stand-off between the asylum seekers on Manus and local PNG authorities was the refusal of the former group to move to a new transit centre near the island’s main township, Lorengau. In part, it was because the men who remained in the (now decommissioned) processing centre at Lombrum claimed to fear for their safety if they moved to their new location. Tweeting about the impasse, Australian politician Nick McKim said that the detainees’ “big concern” was just that — safety. It seems plausible enough, to be sure: a number of asylum seekers have been attacked by locals, whilst violent incidents at the centre have seen several individuals either maimed or murdered. The most notorious of those was a riot in early-2014, in which Reza Barati, a young Iranian man, was bludgeoned to death. During this recent standoff, some locals (perhaps with a fair amount of braggadocio) have promised to form lynch mobs to block the transfer of asylum seekers to the new facility. These facts are not in dispute.

However, in their zeal, some activists and refugee advocates have moved beyond these basic facts to weave together a rather Manichean narrative, in which a band of innocent, beleaguered men, languishing in a tropical prison, are constantly beset by a population marked by unremitting hostility. The men themselves are often beatified — transformed into paragons of the purest morality — whilst their reluctant hosts are implicitly denigrated as an apparently rabid and merciless group, driven by little more than xenophobic animus. The same phenomenon was observed some while ago in relation to apparent tensions between asylum seekers and native Nauruans. Notwithstanding his own reasons for wanting to portray life on Nauru in a certain light, former shadow immigration minister, Richard Marles, had a point when he chastised activists for depicting the sleepy Pacific outcrop as a hotbed of rape and violence. As he noted then (and as one ought to do now), crime, whilst always traumatic for its victims, exists everywhere. Manus Island certainly isn’t immune. The temptation to repeat these errors — where every unverified claim is aired uncritically — is proving too great for current commentators and advocates.

The reasons for some of these  lurid dramatizations aren’t difficult to find. Not only was the issue of safety used to justify the remaining asylum seekers’ ongoing act of resistance (decrepit though their lodgings may be);  it provided a prop to the argument that the men, like their counterparts on Nauru, are still subject to palpable, obvious and unrelenting harm as a result of living among the native population. The conclusion is then drawn that those on Manus will only be truly safe if transferred to Australia. Behind this lies a basic view of Australia’s current policy settings vis-à-vis asylum seekers.  Certainly, there are many who would like to see the entire edifice of offshore processing dismantled, and who have sought to use incidents of violence to argue for the complete cessation of present government practices. To do this, they have emphasized attacks against asylum seekers, and magnified the danger they face. The ultimate goal, of course, is to elicit sympathy from the Australian public, thereby generating a groundswell of support for a substantive shift in policy.

Human rights lawyer Daniel Webb is representative of this view. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Webb had argued that violence against asylum seekers “highlighted the urgent need to bring those on Manus to Australia”. Similarly, lawyers Greg Barnes and Anna Talbot, in arguing for much the same position, have written of “regularly learn[ing] about asylum seekers being violently bashed by locals” (emphasis mine).  In what has to be one of the more extreme — and, as far as I can tell, unsubstantiated — claims, Elaine Pearson, Australian director of Human Rights Watch, said:

“While the October 31 deadline looms [regarding the closure of the Lombrum centre], refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island have been getting stabbed, beaten, and robbed”.

(In the interests of fairness, two points should be noted. First, it’s not entirely clear what kind of timeframe Pearson is operating with: six months? A few weeks? If the former, then it might be possible to interpret her claim as capturing past incidents of violence meted out against individual asylum seekers. But the latter interpretation seems to fit the context more neatly, which would seem to render her statement inaccurate. Second, as the last remaining asylum seekers were being removed from the defunct processing centre, footage emerged purporting to show some of the men being beaten — consonant with Pearson’s allegation — by PNG authorities. Having viewed the footage online, I can only say that it is inconclusive. Whilst it shows police brandishing batons in a threatening manner, knowing precisely what’s happening is far from easy. Additionally, local police commanders have denied allegations of police brutality, saying that where force was used, it was in response to restive or obstreperous asylum seekers. This doesn’t clinch the argument by any means, but it makes it exceedingly difficult to ascertain the real tenor of recent events).

It’s indeed illuminating to reflect upon the way some have framed the vexed issue of boat-borne asylum seekers at this particular point. Urgent claims that the men on Manus are in imminent danger, and were therefore engaging in a heroic act of resistance by remaining in the decommissioned centre, taps into this plotline. All shades of grey have been leached, and other facts — ones that seem to challenge, or even simply nuance, the preferred narrative — have largely been ignored. A closer examination of the issue is thus required.

A number of telling facts present themselves. Take the movement of the men on the island, for example. Even though the asylum seekers who remained in the processing centre claimed to be concerned for their safety if they moved, there were at least 77 men living in the new lodgings, outside Lorengau, by the 4th November. If those concerns were as grave as some of the men (and their advocates) have argued, is it likely that a large swathe of asylum seekers would then move to the very township which is said to be the main source of danger? It’s possible that the 77 who transferred to the transit centre reasoned that the threat of violence was outweighed by the relative comfort of functional dwellings. But again, this fails to neatly cohere with what some activists are suggesting — namely, that asylum seekers who move to their new dwellings will be “rapidly in danger“. Even the earlier-noted reference to the formation of lynch mobs seems not to have eventuated, and may well have represented the bluster of one, frustrated individual. At the very least, I think the fact that so many asylum seekers have voluntarily transferred to the apparent epicentre of anti-refugee opposition raises questions as to the various motives driving such claims.

Of course, this proves little in isolation (even if it nods in the direction of a situation more complex than some would care to admit). But reports regarding the actions of some locals — trying as they did to provide aid and succour to the remaining asylum seekers during the impasse — as well as the activity of the men themselves, would seem to cast further doubt on the broad picture that refugee advocates seek to propagate. Some media outlets referred to local Manusians making numerous attempts to supply the men with a variety of basic goods whilst they remained in the processing centre. For example, The Australian recently reported that in addition to asylum seekers leaving the centre to retrieve caches of food and medicine, locals living nearby “were regularly allowing the men to access water and recharge phones”. It was also said that local PNG authorities were turning a blind eye to this practice, and that even police themselves were bringing the men food and water — something one senior officer said reflected Melanesian hospitality (interestingly, this adds another layer to the implicit depiction of PNG authorities as violence-prone thugs).

Now, I wouldn’t want to lionise local Manusians at all; as I noted above, several acts of the most appalling barbarity have been perpetrated against asylum seekers living on the island. Openness on the one hand is consistent with violent minority opposition on the other. However, the feared brutality of the mob has so far failed to materialise, even though the stand-off had been dragging on for some weeks. Where there may be a risk, the Australian government has said that security at the new centre has been arranged. More importantly, the reported generosity of many PNG residents undercuts the monochromatic portrayal of Manus Island as a place brimming with an irrational hatred of those seeking asylum. The picture that emerges instead is one that is quite common: a people that is generally hospitable, but which grapples (as do all societies, to greater or lesser degrees) with its share of sometimes-violent criminality.

But if it’s true that the character of local New Guineans has at times been unfairly reported, then it is also the case that refugee activists have failed to paint an accurate picture of the asylum seekers on Manus Island. As I suggested earlier, the men who remained in the processing centre have been portrayed in highly flattering, if simplistic, terms. However, one might be surprised to learn that since October 2013 (around the time the current Coalition  government implemented its Sovereign Borders policy), PNG police have recorded “161 incidents of various offences involving residents [i.e., asylum seekers]…[including] assault, aggressive behaviour, unlawful entry, property damage, and contraband” (‘Sex and drugs’ at Manus village, The Australian, November 11-12, 2017; article paywalled. For further reporting, see here). Many incidents occurred in Lorengau, which implies a degree of movement between the processing centre and the island’s main township. Some of the allegations relate to sexual contact with underage girls, which would seem to cohere with other reports (featured in sympathetic media outlets like The Guardian Australia and the ABC) concerning the prosecution of crimes committed by asylum seekers against Manusian women.

Leave aside the question as to whether Australia ought to accept such men (if the allegations prove to be true). I think we can draw several tentative conclusions from the information above. Crucially, it further undercuts various features of the picture activists wish to propound: i.e., the notion that innocent asylum seekers are routinely being set upon by members of the local population, simply because they are despised by their would-be hosts. Crimes committed by some asylum seekers — particularly where they involve the exploitation of minors — would help explain whatever animus exists between them and local Manusians. On this reading, antipathy towards the men isn’t arbitrary; it hasn’t emerged from a vacuum, but remains a comprehensible (if at times utterly inexcusable) reaction to criminal acts. Indeed, current local opposition to the asylum seekers is partly grounded in fears that they might threaten the safety of PNG residents — fears that would seem to be somewhat justified, given the grave nature of some of the allegations.

These accounts also place the asylum seekers in a far more ambiguous light, morally speaking. One shouldn’t be surprised: as ordinary human beings, asylum seekers are prone to the same moral failings that everyone else is. Of course, asylum seekers aren’t uniquely gifted in the practice of human perversion — but nor are they the sainted protagonists of activist hagiography. Again, a key plank in the narrative plotted by refugee advocates is not quite as strong as it seems. This, too, appears to be true of claims that the asylum seekers could not leave the centre for fear of attack. The reports in question suggest, rather, that the men have had few qualms about travelling into Lorengau, whether for licit or illicit purposes. Contrary to the suggestion that the remaining asylum seekers were rendered paralysed by terror — and for that reason, remained holed-up in the Lombrum facility — the many allegations of misconduct outside the centre implies frequent movement, unencumbered by such concerns.

***

I referred earlier to the power of narrative to govern the way we see an issue; this, I think, has been borne out during the Manus Island saga, especially as it concerns the claims I have surveyed here. Certainly, the situation there is far more complex than the black-and-white portrayals some advocates have created, which suggests that the basic narrative frame with which they operate has, in this case, led them astray. Of course, one’s view on any issue is inevitably partial. What we are accorded does not arrive in pristine, undiluted form, but passes through many layers of mediation. A narrative frame is a particularly powerful type of mediating agent, for it establishes the very boundaries — the basic criteria — of what one considers true, plausible or even worthy of attention. This is true of both individuals and collective — including media — enterprises.

It’s not that grasping the truth remains impossible. However, facts are rarely apprehended in isolation; they are held together in a variety of ways, used to sustain whatever “plotline” the speaker or writer finds compelling and wishes to promote. Where the plotline is flexible, a dialectical process of mutual influence usually prevails: the significance of facts is shaped by one’s pre-understanding, whilst that pre-understanding is (where necessary) modified in accordance with new data. Of course, if one it too beholden to his preferred view, the salience of specific facts can either be minimised or magnified; simultaneously, countervailing data may be downplayed in order to maintain a certain frame of reference. I’m not suggesting that this is always done deliberately or consciously; much of the time, a person’s basic view of the world exerts its influence at a subterranean level. But we must remain alert to the fact that the truth we do grasp is always going to be leavened by a welter of other concerns, whether personal or political — lest we end up promoting a largely distorted, one-dimensional perspective. Helpful as they can be in rendering coherent a mass of otherwise disparate information, narrative rigidity is a constant danger, constraining insight, and blanketing comprehension. Sobriety and prudence, then, should be our watchwords. Given that events on Manus are mired in confusion and ambiguity, that warning seems especially germane.

 

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Murder in the First – a Biblical Analysis

Here is an essay I wrote a number of months ago for an Old Testament class I am taking at theological college. I was quite happy with it, so decided to include it on the blog for the enjoyment of my many readers (I know you’re out there – somewhere!)

Introduction                                                                                                    

A cursory glance at the account of Cain and Abel yields little more than a bizarre and bloodthirsty tale. In reality, the story of history’s first homicide is a deeply integrated part of Genesis, looking retrospectively at Chapters 2-3 and prospectively towards the rest of the book. Through artful use of literary techniques, it offers a window into central themes and motifs[1] that shape the Genesis narrative. This essay will elucidate the ways in which Gen 4:1-16 accomplishes its two-pronged role, unfolding the argument in three stages. First, an exegesis of Gen 4:1-16 will offer a summary of the unifying themes and images which link the passage to its textual environment. Second, using those findings as a springboard, it will consider how the passage both echoes and develops the central points contained within Genesis 2-3. Third, the essay will use Gen 4:1-16 to consider the enduring influence of the aforementioned ideas throughout the book – identifying the story as negative preparation for the further spiral of sinful humanity; and as positive preparation, setting the stage for God’s gracious response.

Cain and Abel – Looking Down

It is first necessary to identify, by way of brief exegesis, the various themes and motifs reflected in Gen 4:1-16. Before looking backwards or forwards, we must look down.

The passage opens with Cain’s birth, accompanied by his mother’s faith-filled exclamation (v.1). [2] Almost in passing, Abel’s birth is also mentioned – which, along with the meaning of his name, foreshadows his abrupt demise (v.2).[3] After briefly detailing the brothers’ respective vocations and relationship with the land, the narrative records the offerings they brought to God. Yahweh accepts Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s (vv.4-5), provoking the elder’s rage. God unsuccessfully attempts to persuade Cain from allowing sin – pictured as a ravenous creature at the door of his heart – to gain a foothold.[4] He is instructed to “master it”, lest there be consequences (vv.6-7). Cain’s failure to do so is immediately narrated: he deceives and kills his brother in an act of premeditated murder (v.8). God interrogates Cain as to Abel’s whereabouts, offering him a chance to confess; instead, he receives only defiance and sarcasm. In the course of a few verses, the word “brother” is used four times, throwing the heinousness of Cain’s fratricide into sharp relief (vv.8-11). It is also at this point that Abel finally speaks: he who was silent now “cries out” from the grave, exposing his brother’s crime.

God renders judgment: he pronounces a curse on Cain, consisting of expulsion from the land and a recalcitrant earth.[5] What was meant to be his source of life and livelihood has become a source of restlessness and futility (v.12).[6] The land now acts as God’s agent in judgment[7] – receiving Abel’s blood as a place of rest, whilst truculently refusing to yield to Cain. The sinner chafes at his punishment; in response, God mercifully “marks” him so that he doesn’t fall prey to another.[8] He then executes the sentence, expelling Cain to Nod, “east of Eden” (v.16).[9]

Theological Window

This brief rendition of Gen 4:1-16 unveils a constellation of themes and motifs that constitute a theological window into the Bible’s premier book. Obvious is the layered, symbiotic relationship between humanity and the land.[10] Cain and Abel ultimately derive their livelihoods from the land, participating in humanity’s ongoing vocation to harness it. Creational service, however, does not exist apart from service before the Creator, and the juxtaposition of work and worship in Gen 4:2-3 alludes to the land’s theological significance. Gen 4:1-16 thus envisions a triadic relationship between God, humans and the land – a web of connections, mutated by sin. It shatters harmonious interdependency between the earth and humanity; the land serves as an instrument of divine judgment, and its association with life is replaced by one with death. Moreover, exile from the land – as Cain correctly perceived – means banishment from God’s presence. The theological-ethical connection (for good or ill) between these three “actors”[11] is reflected throughout Genesis. Furthermore, several recurring motifs flesh out these organising principles: blessings/curses; judgment/mercy; rest/restlessness; and sibling rivalry. These, too, weave strands between the account and its literary environment.

Cain and Abel – Looking Back

Parallels

The relationship between Gen 4:1-16 and Genesis 2-3 is particularly intimate, with a series of echoes establishing deep thematic continuity.[12] Dotted across the landscape are various verbal/linguistic parallels between the two narrative sections. We may cite the frequent use of “land” language, variously described as “earth” (2:4,5; 4:14), “field” (2:5; 4:8) and, in particular, “ground” (2:5,7,19; 3:17,19,23; 4:10-12).[13] Land’s presence in Genesis 2-3 suggests that its thematic reach extends beyond Gen 4:1-16, binding the passage to its narrative predecessors and evincing the land’s consistent function as an arena for human-divine-natural interactivity.

In addition, Gen 4:1-16 uses precise words to look back at key moments in Genesis 2-3 in order to frame its message. Gen 4:2, by referencing Cain and Abel’s respective vocations, parallels similar references in Chapters 2 and 3. The words “keep” and “work”, for instance, consciously recall the role God assigned humanity (2:15).[14] Indeed, even after the first act of disobedience, Adam’s land-associated vocation endured (3:23).[15] Gen 4:2 suggests the ongoing relevance of humanity’s original commission to tend the earth (cf. 2:5). Even Cain’s defiant response to God’s question – where the word “keeper” is employed – implicitly reveals multivalent connections between land and human-to-human relationships, constituting aspects of the divine ideal.[16] Finally, Genesis 3-4 highlights sin’s previously-unknown presence, signalled through the word “desire” (3:16; 4:7). A similar relationship between sin and Cain to that of his parents (post-fall) is implied. The fall itself is portrayed as a paradigmatic act, theologically framing Cain’s crime.[17]

Underlying these linguistic/verbal echoes are fundamental structural similarities between Gen 4:1-16 and the previous two chapters, particularly Chapter 3[18]: ongoing symbiosis between God’s image-bearers and the earth (2:7,15; 4:2); introduction of a moral test (2:17; 4:6,7) God’s judicial interrogation (3:9-13; 4:9,10); personification of sin/evil as a creature (3:1; 4:7);[19] pronouncement of a “land-based” curse upon the offender, centred upon his vocation  (3:17-19; 4:11,12);[20] barrenness and banishment (to the “East”)[21] as the outcomes of divine wrath (3:3,23; 4:16); and the temperance of judgment by mercy (3:21; 4:15).[22] Importantly, the structural parallels largely embrace Genesis 3-4. However, their significance exposes contrasts between the Cain and Abel pericope and Genesis 2, which exist as a result of the events of Genesis 3. In other words, although parallels between Chapters 2 and 4 aren’t as apparent, the account of the fall links them indirectly. Abel’s murder details the outworking of primal rebellion; together, they flesh out sin’s deleterious consequences upon the ideal envisioned in Chapter 2.[23]

Developments

Thus, it would be wrong to conclude from this survey that Gen 4:1-16 simply reprises the fall, or that the situation established in Genesis 2 continued with only minor alterations. In fact, the parallels within Genesis 2-4 throw light on subtle, yet significant, differences. Gen 4:1-16 represents development from the moment of initial transgression and its effects. For instance, it alludes to sin’s growth in the midst of human experience, which was not the case in Genesis 2-3. Cain’s response to God’s disfavour – and indeed, God’s warnings to Cain – suggests sin’s already-present rootedness in human nature. Genesis 3 pictured sin as an external force; Gen 4:1-16 sees it as something internal to God’s image-bearers. A cause-and-effect relationship between vertical sin (towards God) and horizontal sin (towards others) is clearly indicated.[24] Disobedience to a command transmogrifies into murder. Similarly, God’s sentence upon Cain is an extension of his judicial reaction to Adam’s sin: he curses Cain, not merely the ground;[25] the land, instead of simply producing “thorns and thistles”, becomes completely barren; and Cain’s exile is beyond Adam’s own banishment, completing a process of graded alienation.[26] The upshot is a mournful counterpoint to God’s original plan, pictured in Chapter 2. Gen 2:2 saw God “rest” from his work in creating an environment of bounteous pleasure for humanity (cf. 2:8-14).[27] By contrast, Cain is condemned to a life of futile labour and constant restlessness. Rather than being a blessing to humans, the land’s divinely-ordained role is to mediate cursing. Finally, Cain’s fate seems to mark off any hope of intimacy with God, differing sharply from Gen 2:7,25; 3:8.

Cain and Abel – Looking Forward

Negative Preparation

By echoing and developing Genesis 2-3, Gen 4:1-16 establishes a number of themes and literary tropes. In the process, the account also precipitates a series of downward cycles throughout Genesis 4-11, charting humanity’s progressive decline. At this point, the account is akin to the stem of a funnel: supplying a microcosmic picture of the multifaceted corruption wrought by sin, which eventually spreads to take on a monstrous universality.[28] Gen 4:1-16, then, negatively prepares its audience for further moral and spiritual disintegration of God’s image-bearers.[29] It does not do this alone, but in concert with Gen 4:17-26, which details Cain’s genealogy. Whilst an identifiable literary sub-unit in its own right, Cain’s line logically extends Gen 4:1-16, and so can be considered alongside it. Moreover, the subtle reference to other people in 4:14 suggests that Cain’s experiences were never meant to be seen in isolation. Along with later descriptions of city-building and the growth of human culture (vv.17-22), it anticipates the burgeoning influence of sin within, and across, human society.

Lamech, Cain’s descendant, exemplifies this anticipatory relationship (vv.19,23-24). Like Cain, Lamech represents another stage of moral retrogression.[30] Falling from the ideal of monogamy to which even Cain adhered, Lamech boasts about murder in a manner unlike his forebear (vv.23-24). What was writ small in these individuals is, by Chapter 6, a universal phenomenon. Again, the triadic relationship between humans, the land and God – now characterised by complete discord – continues to frame the narrative. Cain’s sin becomes an exclusive, deeply-rooted reality (6:5,11-12); his expulsion and curse becomes permanent “banishment” from the land through the flood as God enacts a similar round of judgment (6:7). Genesis 11 repeats this cyclical pattern: human arrogance met with divine wrath, mediated through alienation from the land (11:8-9).[31]

Positive Preparation

Nevertheless, as with Cain, divine mercy accompanies divine judgment. Noah and his family find salvation; the people of Babel are scattered, but the original commission to multiply endures. Gen 4:1-16 thus introduces another thread, changing the trajectory of Genesis beyond Chapter 12. In this way, the Cain and Abel pericope, in addition to provoking questions about the solution to the dire situation it precipitates, prepares readers positively for the growth of God’s responsive grace and covenantal promises. Whilst some negative themes and motifs linger – sibling rivalry[32] and divine judgment, for example – its chief contribution is as a foil (in concert with the rest of Genesis 4-11) for the turn the narrative eventually takes. Hints of new beginnings are already present,[33] starting with the election of Cain’s younger brother, Seth (4:25-26). An epochal change, however, occurs at Chapter 12. Framed by the programmatic call of Abraham (12:1-3), the orientation of Genesis 12-50 is fundamentally positive, and constitutes a divinely-initiated counterpoint to Cain and his line. The contrasts between the two men can be seen below:

Cain   (Adam) Abraham
Banished from the land (4:16) Called into a good land (15:7; cf.   28:13-15)
Cursed (4:11) Blessed (12:2-3)
Driven from God’s presence (4:16) Walked with God (18:18)
Unrighteous (4:7-8) Righteous (15:6; 17:1; 18:18)
Genealogy/progeny marked by sin   (4:19,23-24) Genealogy/progeny marked by election (12:1; 17:19; 37-50; cf. 4:25; 5:21-24)

Table 1

Table 1 outlines the ongoing and contrasting significance of themes and images featured in Gen. 4:1-16. The implications, when seen in biblical-theological terms, are clear: Gen 12:1-3ff, represents a kind of reversal of all that Cain’s sin engrained within human experience.[34] Abraham himself should be seen as an antitype to Cain (and, by implication, Adam). Gen 4:1-16 detailed the various interrelationships between God, the land and humanity, as well as their resultant dissolution. The call of Abraham and his offspring play on these same themes, but with a much different complexion. Structurally, Genesis 12-50, contrasting Gen 4:1-16ff, suggests a harmonious return for humans and creation, as well as God and his image-bearers. The triadic relationship continues to feature as an interrelated macro-structure for the narrative, but with the promise of righteousness, rest and reconciliation – not sin, discord and alienation – firmly in view (cf. 50:24).[35]

Conclusion

The Cain and Abel pericope is far from an isolated tale. Instead, it fits naturally into its literary environment, looking back to Chapters 2-3, and forward to the rest of Genesis. As theological window, it offers a microcosmic look at the network of themes and images that constitute the underlying structure of the book. Through literary parallels and causal developments, Gen 4:1-16 details the catastrophic results of initial transgression, presenting a stark counterpoint to the idyllic situation envisioned in Chapter 2. Simultaneously, the account prepares readers for further exploration of the thematic patterns it establishes. Although sin and judgment are especially prominent in Genesis 4-11, Gen 4:1-16 also signals the eventual growth of divine mercy throughout Genesis 12-50. As a typological contrast with God’s chosen agent, Abraham, Cain’s trajectory subtly invites one to anticipate the gracious solution. It is with this turn that the triadic relationship between God, humanity and land, so corrupted in Gen 4:1-16, promises to be restored. The story of Cain and Abel, then, acts as a narrative and thematic bridge, clothing its message – and that of Genesis – in a tragic, yet ultimately hopeful, garb.


[1] See Roger Syren, The Forsaken Firstborn: A Study of a Recurrent Motif in the Patriarchal Narratives (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993), 11; David J.A. Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, Second Edition (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1997), 20-21, for distinctions made between “theme” and “motif”.

[2] Derek Kidner, Genesis (TOTC; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 74; R. Kent Hughes, Genesis: Beginning & Blessing (Preaching the Word; Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2004), 102.

[3] Abel can mean “breath” or “futility”. See Kidner, Genesis, 74.

[4] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (WBC 1; Waco: Word, 1985), 106.

[5] Walter Bruegemann, Genesis (Interpretation Series; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 60; Robert P. Gordon, Holy Land, Holy City – Sacred Geography and the Interpretation of the Bible (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 2004), 20.

[6] Wenham, Genesis, 108.

[7] Kristin M. Swenson, “Care and Keeping East of Eden: Gen 4:1-16 in Light of Genesis 2-3,” Interpretation 60, 4 (2006): 381-82.

[8] Bill T. Arnold, Genesis (NCBC; Cambridge University Press: New York, 2009), 80.

[9] Nod means “wandering”. See T.C. Mitchell, “Nod”, NBD 3rd ed., 827.

[10] On the land’s theological significance, see Bruegemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Challenge and Promise in Biblical Faith, Second Edition (Overtures to Biblical Theology; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 4-5.

[11] Swenson, “Care and Keeping,” 381.

[12] William Sandford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey – The Message, Form, and Background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 80.

[13] C. John Collins, Genesis 1-4 – A Linguistic, Literary and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2006), pp.189-90.

[14] Swenson, “Care and Keeping”, 374-76. See also Arnold, Genesis, 59. In Hebrew, the word for “keep” is the same in both verses.

[15] Victor H. Matthews, Old Testament Turning Points: the Narratives that Shaped a Nation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 24.

[16] Swenson, “Care and Keeping”, 374-76.

[17] William J. Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel – A Theological Survey of the Old Testament (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 24.

[18] S. McKnight, “Cain”, DOTP, 107.

[19] John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology. Volume One: Israel’s Gospel (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 151.

[20] Darrell Cosden, The Heavenly Good of Earthly Work (United Kingdom: Paternoster Press, 2006), 96. See also Peter Williams, From Eden to Egypt – Exploring the Genesis Themes (Surrey: Day One Publications, 2001), 34-5.

[21] This is substantiated by double use of the word, “driven”.

[22] Collins, Genesis 1-4, 213. See also Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 24.

[23] ibid, 210. See also M.D. Gow, “Fall,” DOTP, 286.

[24] Bruegemann, Genesis, 55. See also Tryggve N.D. Mettinger, The Eden Narrative: A Literary and Religio-historical Study of Genesis 2-3 (Winona Lake: Eisenrauns, 2007), 31.

[25] T. Desmond Alexander, From Paradise to Promised Land: An Introduction to the Pentateuch (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 118.

[26] Gordon, Holy Land, Holy City, 22; See also S. McKnight, “Cain”, 107.

[27] J. McKeown, “Blessings and Curses”, DOTP, 87.

[28] Collins, Genesis 1-4, 190. See also Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, 71.

[29] Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, 65.

[30] Collins, Genesis 1-4, 190.

[31] Clines, The Theme of the Pentateuch, 66-67. See also: John H. Sailhammer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 310-11.

[32] See Syren, The Forsaken Firstborn, for detailed exposition of this motif.

[33] Alexander, From Paradise to Promised Land, 119.

[34] L.A. Turner, “Genesis, Book of,” DOTP, 357; J. McKeown, “Land, Fertility, Famine,” DOTP, 488; Brueggemann, The Land, 19-24.

[35] Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel, 28; Arnold, Genesis, 126-7, 132.

Labor’s Crisis

Tony Abbott was a pretty good amateur boxer in his day, so he knows a thing or two about the brutality of the ring. But even he must have been surprised by the pugilistic stoush that recently took place within the ranks of the Australian Labor Party. Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and their respective allies certainly engaged in one heck of a political humdinger, as the two principals went head-to-head on February 27th to decide who would lead the ALP to defeat at the next Federal election. Abbott, I imagine, would also be rubbing his hands with glee, since the government seems to be serving up some primo material for Coalition election advertisements. We may laugh, certainly; on some level, the soap opera before us acted as a (twisted) form of voyeuristic entertainment. However, that is precisely the problem: one may well argue – and with some justification – that this fight, this conflict between two political egos, was reflective of a wider malaise in Australian politics. I shall return to that theme in a moment, but not before reflecting on some of the other things I have learned as a result of the Labor Party’s leadership stoush.

The first thing I noticed about the ALP’s internal power struggle is that the two candidates who vied for leadership of this once-great and noble party seemed to have adopted the belief that the one who could heap enough verbal opprobrium upon his opponent would have the best chance of emerging victorious. Parliamentarians have nipped at the heels of sitting Prime Minister’s before: Rudd and Gillard, though occupying opposite roles in slightly different circumstances, have been here already. One also thinks of Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, way back in 1991. There, the Treasurer made a bold play for leadership of the ALP, and hence, the country. In doing so, he deposed a PM that had been in the position for over eight years. So, challenging the leadership – even if the leader is the prime ministerial incumbent – is far from unheard of. What distinguished this latest round of political infighting (to my mind, at least) was the barrage of criticism being hurled at the respective rivals. Ms. Gillard’s supporters seemed to turn this practice into a fine art, flinging verbal barbs at Mr. Rudd that, had they been offered elsewhere, could well have landed their authors in court defending themselves against charges of slander.

By contrast, the public heard very little about actual policy or contrasting political visions. That kind of intellectual acumen was noticeably absent in what had degenerated into a schoolyard scrap. If two people are going to vie for the leadership of one of Australia’s two major political parties (and the one that is currently holding the reins of power), then they need to offer far more than verbal abuse and crude epithets. As far as I can see, neither Mr. Rudd nor Ms. Gillard presented a coherent argument as to why either of them is fit to lead the ALP. It’s already quite clear that Gillard lacks a cogent narrative to carry her through to the next election and beyond (about which I will say more). Even more disappointing was the fact that Mr. Rudd seemed not to possess one either. Instead, he relied on a populist campaign in an effort to apply pressure on the Labor caucus.

Caucus members were in a bind – would they vote for the Prime Minister, whom they knew the public disliked and mistrusted? Or would they vote to re-instate a man whom they knew to be insufferable as a boss (as well as a major source of all their present ills)? In the end, they went with the former, but not because of superior ideas or policy wisdom. Indeed, one could argue that both candidates were afflicted with an acute case of political myopia: with sights narrowed and vision blurred, they were unable to see beyond the leadership bout and the caucus ballot. Granted the fact that such a stoush would have exercised the minds of both Mr. Rudd and Ms. Gillard to a great extent, it was disappointing (though unsurprising) to see them focus so much of their energies on the aggrandizement and subversion of personality – a poor and vapid substitute for the construction of a persuasive political-policy narrative and the intellectual rigour such a project requires. Stripped of these assets, the two rivals had only themselves to try and persuade their colleagues before the ballot. That, however, exposed one of the deep-rooted problems that presently besets the ALP, and one that seems to be an implicit part of contemporary Australian politics. Political egos and personalities loom so large, particularly in the Labor Party, that considered and rational policy positions, diligent attention to the minutia of government, and a commitment to a compelling ideological/philosophical narrative have been squeezed out.

Individual thirst for power and a consistent commitment to the unity of the party – two qualities that are both, sometimes in simultaneous and contradictory fashion, willed upon politicians – need to be held in a tight balance if a party is to thrive. Both are certainly necessary. Individual ambition is required from politicians, since it compels them to pursue excellence in their chosen field. Properly channelled, such ambition is a boon to party success. But, like an unpredictable river or waterway, which may be given to periodic flooding, individual ambition can become swollen – morphing into a turgid egotism that is interested in little more than personal glory. The very quality that brings life and verve to a party can, if unchecked, lead to its ruin. It is this phenomenon that has, shamefully, been on display within the ALP recently. I think especially of Mr. Rudd and his campaign to win back the leadership. He epitomised what I am referring to – namely, the unadulterated desire for power. His was a destabilising presence within the ALP, and has contributed to the impression that this is a party that is fractious and divided, filled with people who have gained skills in the arts of electoral management and political machinations. Mr. Rudd’s attempts to win back the leadership of the Labor Party were based, it seems, on little more than a thirst for the prize. But his plot was merely the latest episode in an ongoing saga for the ALP, marked as it has been by a consistent fixation on plain electoral advantage and the naked acquisition (or retention) of power.

*   *   *

One might have hoped that with Ms. Gillard’s comprehensive victory over Mr. Rudd, the business of government could go on, and Australia’s oldest political party would be able to emerge from its crisis with a new sense of purpose and unity. That hope, I suspect, is held in vain. Of course, it takes time for a party to recover from something as destabilising as what we have observed, but the signs are already ominous. The ALP, it seems, is characterised by “instability of…government, smallness of…vision and…mediocrity of…performance” (Greg Sheridan, “Carr Drive-by a Loss for Gillard”, The Australian, 1st March, 2012). It had already proved itself to be woefully inept before the leadership battle between Mr. Rudd and Ms. Gillard. Now that this latest chapter is over (for now), the public is left to believe that Labor is truly bereft of the very qualities that are required for good government. Individuals who are politically and intellectually naked are all that’s left. Far from rescuing the ALP’s image with the electorate, the recent leadership stoush has consolidated an already-accurate narrative regarding its current structural and philosophical problems (in other words, that it has no structure and is bereft of a unifying political philosophy). It has exposed completely the deep-rooted problems that have plagued it for several years now. Greg Sheridan’s words were written in reference to the damage wrought on Australia’s international image as a result of the leadership conflict. This is no doubt true. But I would also suggest that those words are equally apt in a domestic context. What the nation has witnessed over the past few weeks has simply laid bare the lack of any kind of substantive vision that would make Labor a compelling and attractive party. Its fallback position – the force of personality – has done nothing to counter the impression that present-day Labor is intellectually and politically barren.

Ms. Gillard’s bungled attempt to invite former NSW Premier, Bob Carr, to take up Mr. Rudd’s old post as Foreign Affairs Minister, demonstrates the party’s chronic ineptitude nicely. Although he has now been installed as Mr. Rudd’s replacement, Ms. Gillard made a hash of the process. After sounding out Mr. Carr on the possibility of taking over Mr. Rudd’s old portfolio, Ms. Gillard denied ever having proposed such an idea. But Mr. Carr, when asked directly, contradicted his (now) boss. Ms. Gillard continued to play with the truth in a cavalier manner, when all the while, senior ministers such as Stephen Smith and Simon Crean, threatened a revolt if Ms. Gillard were to press ahead with recruiting the former Premier. Now we see him in that very position, but only after a rather circuitous route that seems to confirm suspicions this current crop of politicians are – to put it kindly – amateurish. One may have thought that, with the leadership question settled, Ms. Gillard and her team would be able to work in a professional and unified manner; I mean, after such a protracted and rancorous affair, one might think that the ALP had learned its lesson. Sadly, the opposite appears to be the case. The ineptitude, chaos and artless politics that characterised the ALP before the leadership stoush are still present.

But it is not just the ALP generally that seems to be suffering from a certain kind of malaise. The Prime Minister herself seems to be afflicted with the same propensity to bungle the art of government and politics. If the apparently “answered” leadership question has done little to change the direction of the Labor Party (if initial signs are anything to go by), it has done little to transform Ms. Gillard. The “Carr-bungle” (oh the wit!) has underlined several elements that serve as themes for her leadership, and which were not excised by victory at the caucus ballot: the air of dishonesty that has clouded her tenure; a distinct lack of political nous; and an absence of authority.

On the first point, it seems that ever since Ms. Gillard stepped into the role of Prime Minister, the circumstances by which she did so have cast a pall over her integrity. Now, it isn’t the first time a sitting PM has been deposed (see above), so I can’t comment on the act itself. But recent revelations seem to suggest that Ms. Gillard knew of plans to oust Mr. Rudd when he was Prime Minister earlier than she initially suggested. If true, it is fishy enough. However, it appears that her obfuscation over what she knew of Mr. Rudd’s fate prior to his being deposed as PM is just one of several examples of what appears to be a consistent, and artless, form of political skulduggery. Think of her welching on a promise not to introduce a carbon tax, which has hung over her since its announcement. Fudging the details of what she said to Mr. Carr simply contributes to a sense that she lacks integrity. Nothing stemming from her victory last Monday seems to have changed that. On the second point, Ms. Gillard seemed to betray a certain lack of political finesse when handling her attempt to recruit Mr. Carr to the ministry. Her reaction to media questioning (this, after senior ministers threatened revolt if Mr. Carr were installed as Foreign Affairs Minister) suggested a lack of political maturity – not just dishonesty, but also to an inability to respond calmly under pressure. Her initial instinct to fudge the issue suggests she panicked, which in turn suggests that she is not a “good driver in heavy traffic” (to borrow a phrase from the late football coach, Alan Jeans). Again, this is not an isolated incident. From the aborted “cash for clunkers” scheme, to promises that the “real Julia” would appear, Ms. Gillard has, time and again, demonstrated a fundamental lack of sound political judgment.

Finally, on the third point, one might say that Ms. Gillard’s lack of authority is the source of her other problems. Or perhaps they form a vicious cycle. Who knows? But what is clear is that senior ministers felt able to openly contest her attempts to recruit Mr. Carr to the ministry, despite the fact that she had won a comprehensive leadership victory just days earlier. Moreover, Mr. Crean’s repeated calls for Ms. Gillard to be more “assertive” simply underline the depressing truth that she has been unable to exhibit this quality thus far.  True, she has now managed to force through Mr. Carr as foreign minister, but not before engaging in rigmarole that has subverted her leadership credentials. Once again, the stoush with Mr. Rudd, though ending in victory for our Prime Minister, has done nothing to enhance or galvanise her authority. Indeed, as Tom Switzer of the Institute for Public Affairs recently said, “authority is draining away from the PM as if from an open wound” (“Now Love Lost Between Rudd and Labor,” The Wall Street Journal, 28th February, 2012).

*  *  *

What has caused the incremental implosion of a once-great party? What has led the ALP, so long known for its commitment to the working class, to put power ahead of principles? And where to from here? One can offer all manner of answers, but in the end, it’s conjecture. In many ways, the problems afflicting the ALP seem to be symptomatic of Australian political culture generally. The endless news cycle, which can drain the life out of a government and compel it to rely on the vapidity of “spin” in order to hold the gaze of a relentless media, may be partly to blame. But one wonders whether this reliance on spin and appearance has more to do with the specific problems that are afflicting Labor at the moment than they do the profusion of media channels and the ceaseless glare of the spotlight.

Perhaps the rot set in years ago, and is now so deep that naked power plays are all that’s left. I mean, the ALP has been drifting further left for some years now, leaving behind its traditional working-class roots (which reflects a more fluid social and economic structure) and taking up inner-urban left-wing causes. The political marriage with the Greens after the 2010 election consummated a de facto relationship that had been gestating for some time. But with this change, tension was bound to arise between the old guard and the new – tension that has undoubtedly led to a loss of politico-philosophical unity and a corresponding increase in the reliance on spin, personality and power politics to survive. We should not forget, too, that the cynical application of such tactics to Federal Labor stemmed from a culture embedded in the NSW right faction of the party. I am uncertain why this strategy has been adopted at a national level, though I’m sure others more knowledgeable than me could answer that question. But it’s clear that short-term victory has been won at the expense of long-term political and philosophical ossification.

As to the question, “Where to from here?”, the short answer is, “I’m not sure”. It’s unclear what the latest developments within the ALP signify in terms of Australian politics. I can only hope that the party is able to quickly put aside these divisions and internal crises, and re-focus its efforts on the business of government. Taking a longer-term approach, I wonder whether Labor’s internecine conflict has simply reinforced the jaded opinion a lot of Australians have of their elected officials. The ALP, over the past few years, seems to be at the mercy of two, paradoxically juxtaposed, forces. On the one hand, so-called “faceless men” – back-room party bosses who seem unaccountable to no one – have wielded a great degree of influence over the direction of the party. On the other hand, however, the ALP has often reduced itself to the most artless and cynical form of electoral populism, allowing the caprice of polling data to govern its trajectory. All parties have to adopt a certain degree of pragmatism to retain (or acquire) power; the ALP, however, has taken this to new extremes. Our current Prime Minister seems to embody Labor’s current dilemma: she appears to possess few core convictions, and her shifting views and pronouncements only galvanise suspicions that she, and the party she leads, are without a unifying narrative. If Labor continues down the path upon which it currently finds itself, then I suspect the electorate will only grow more exhausted and cynical. And an exhausted, disinterested and cynical electorate is, I submit, the very antithesis of a robust and thriving democracy.

I said before that many might have laughed at the political soap opera of the past few weeks. It’s hard to deny them that opportunity. Nevertheless, the petulance and rancour on display is a blight on the character of one of Australia’s major political parties. We ought to be saddened – even those of us on the conservative side of the political divide – by the demise of the ALP. I am certainly not suggesting that it is dead; not at all. But failure to arrest the decline and stem the rot bodes ill for Labor and for the prospect of Australian democracy in general. Regardless of one’s political convictions, this should concern us all.

Drifting Youths and the Death of the Metanarrative

I was one half of a radio duo this morning, and my on-air partner and I were discussing the relatively recent phenomenon of “emerging adulthood”. This is something that has emerged (pardon the pun) over the past twenty years or so, but has only garnered scholarly attention and comment from cultural observers in the last few years. This scrutiny focuses upon a growing segment of social development within western societies, lying between adolescence and full-blown adulthood. The members of this segment are known as “emerging adults”, and are marked by several things: a lack of financial stability or independence; impermanent romantic and sexual relationships; and a similar lack of permanence when it comes to careers or vocations. There is probably much more to say about this, but it seems that these characteristics do a good job of distilling the essence of emerging adulthood. Such individuals have entered into what one would normally call adulthood, but are still carrying with them the angst, uncertainty and transient longings of teens and adolescents.

My radio partner and I were talking about this phenomenon, and he asked me why I thought this was the case. The answer I gave there forms the bulk of my blog entry here. The basic premise of my answer rested upon the fact that our world is increasingly characterised by a post-modern narrative. Now, post-modernism is many things – some necessary, some gratuitous – but one thing that it most certainly rejects is the notion of the metanarrative. Irony notwithstanding (I mean, postmodernism, in the very act of rejecting modernism, has simply swapped one metanarrative for another), post-modernism has cast a powerful spell upon contemporary youth culture, especially when it comes to the repudiation of any kind of metanarrative. Now, before some of you run for the hills because you fear that this blog entry has now gone the way of esoteric philosophy, let me assure you that a metanarrative is very easy to understand. It simply refers to a broad way of looking at the world, a conceptual framework or worldview. It shapes our understanding, and allows us to place ourselves within a kind of story that provides us with direction, purpose and meaning. Above all, it is a story that suggests order and directionality in the world.

That may well seem somewhat abstract, but it is worth remembering that we, as followers of Jesus, live according to the Christian metanarrative. We believe that this world is God’s good world; that it has been marred by humanity’s sin; that God has graciously provided the means for salvation for his creation, including the salvation of his image-bearing creatures; that this plan began with the calling of Abraham, on through the chequered fortunes of Israel, and climaxing with the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus; and will be consummated with the coming of God’s Kingdom, when this world – and those who have accepted Jesus – will enjoy redemption from sin and death.

That is the Christian metanarrative in a nutshell. We live in it, and it gives us an overarching sense of meaning and purpose. Otherwise, our lives as Christians would be a chaotic and meaningless patchwork of events, decisions and uncertainties without any discernible thread. Of course, we do not embrace the Christian gospel simply because it affords us a convenient source of significance or existential coherency. We embrace it because we believe it to be true. But one of the off-shoots of that embrace is the entry into a conceptual and narratival framework that bestows upon us purpose and meaning that extends far beyond any meaning inherent in our own lives. I should point out that Christians are not the only people to embrace a metanarrative. Many people, quite unconsciously, have embraced the Enlightenment metanarrative, which places trust in autonomous human reason, scientific prowess and secularisation as the means by which society can progress and reach utopia (however that is defined). Marxism is a particularly obvious example of the way in which one metanarrative can grow up in place of the diminishing power of another metanarrative (in this case, the Christian story). Nevertheless, it is largely clear that people of whatever religious, ethical or philosophical stripe, have embraced some kind of worldview – however consciously or systematically defined – in order to make sense of their world and experiences.

This is what post-modernism has rejected, since metanarratives are seen as oppressive forces, used by the powerful to shape, and even quash, the autonomy of the individual. “Truth”, according to the post-modernist, is no longer an objective concept to be discovered; it is instead something that is created in order to exercise power over others. Even the Enlightenment project, which upheld – and still upholds – the primacy of the autonomous rational subject, constitutes a philosophical and narrative framework that shapes the individual. To be sure, this kind of characterisation is to some degree correct. Think for a moment of the brutality of the socialist ideology, built upon the metanarrative of the economic base of historical change and the eventual triumph of the proletariat. However, whether or not the post-modern rejection of this way of organising knowledge and human lives is correct is a moot point. My intention is neither to suggest that post-modernism is wholly accurate, nor that any kind of overarching story in which one might place oneself is wholly bad. How could I, since I myself adhere to the Christian story? But what is clear is that post-modernism, for all its excesses, has had a profound – though often unacknowledged – effect on young people today, which is having demonstrable effects.

Indeed, if it is true that post-modernism rejects all metanarratives; and if it is true that many young people today are members of the “emerging adult” generation that seems to have imbibed the tenets of this philosophical stream; then it becomes clear why many in this social cohort are living such impermanent, transient, and seemingly purposeless lives. This is how I answered the question put to me on the radio, and it is what I see quite clearly now. Because a complete rejection of overarching stories – whether Christian or secular – is a central plank in the post-modernist agenda, those who have embraced it have nothing beyond themselves to which they might cling. Any sense of meaning or significance beyond oneself is lost, and the incentive to work and labour for a project or a goal that extends beyond the quotidian pleasures that seem to characterise so many young people vanishes. I am not arguing that all those who live this way, do so because of a conscious acceptance of post-modernism’s claims. If asked, I am sure that many would not even be able to identify or describe this strain of philosophy. But that has not prevented it from filtering down from the institutions to general culture, permeating thought and deed alike.

Thus, we ought to acknowledge the reality for those who have swallowed the ostensibly liberating notions touted by post-modernism. And it is no coincidence that the current generation, which, more than any other, seems to have embraced the tenets of post-modernism without critique, is also the generation that has lost its way and seems to be suffering from a perpetual state of drift. When one rejects the notion of an overarching purpose according to which one works, and an overarching goal towards which one labours, then one only has the morass of the present, the dominance of pleasure, or the journal of so-called self-discovery (for there is nothing beyond the self). The lone individual, shorn of all purpose and context, is all that stands. But it appears that such an individual suffers from an acute case of myopia when it comes to the things of life.

I think the writer of Proverbs had it right: “when there is no vision, the people perish…” (Proverbs 29:18). Of course, he was speaking about supernatural visions, but the point holds. An ability to see beyond one’s immediate future, one’s immediate cravings, and one’s own life is a crucial skill if one is to leave behind the purposelessness that characterises emerging adults. And yet, the collapse of all-embracing narratives, and the ascendancy of post-modernism’s reification of the “hyper-individual”, makes this a rather far-off prospect.