The Plague of Contented Mediocrity

In February 2015, Leroy Butler gave a speech at Samford University on “Diversity in Missions.” It raises unique challenges at a University that was only integrated in the late 1960s and that is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly affluent. I wasn’t surprised but I was frustrated to see that from my vantage point, it seemed like almost everyone in Reid Chapel was completely disengaged. In some cases, they were texting or playing around on social media. In others, they were doing homework or something for another class. At least one person had his headphones on and was making no attempt to hide it. They got their cards swiped for convo attendance, but they wasted their time

It is difficult to write about such things without feeling like a sad old man lamenting my misspent youth. I fear, though, that as a people we are too content to “just be OK.” This contented mediocrity does not strike me as wise stewardship of the faith with which we have been entrusted and the gospel we have received. As Butler mentioned to the students assembled in Reid Chapel and as we read in Hebrews 11, people were sawed in half, beheaded, and fed to lions so they could bring us the gospel. In Return of the Jedi, we’re told, “many bothans died to bring us this information.” It’s a solemn moment that adds just the right touch to a space shoot-em-up. How much more should we reflect calmly and prayerfully on the gospel with which we have been entrusted? Later that month, 21 Egyptian Christians were beheaded by ISIS. It is a solemn reminder that the gospel is not free, the gospel is not costly, and many who have come before us have given their lives to bring us this good news.

Butler said, “It is required of stewards that we be found….” and he left a pregnant pause. The word we were to fill in is “faithful.” it is a great and tragic irony that he said this to a room full of people who were most definitely not being faithful stewards of what God has entrusted to us. This isn’t to say I don’t waste time, and it’s been said that if you get a base hit 30% of the time in baseball it’s enough for the hall of fame. I strive (or try to strive) for bettering what I do.

I was overcome with a certain sadness on reflection about Butler’s talk. How are we going to listen to the Holy Spirit when he says, “go to the Nations,” if we aren’t willing to listen when He’s probably saying, “put down your phone”? The benefit is not zero, even for the checked-out, but “you might get a bit of Jesus on you” is pretty weak sauce. If we believe a guy got up from the dead, why can’t we go across town?

It’s more than an issue of individual immaturity. There is a spillover from the distraction that comes from another’s screen combined with the fact that in splitting our minds and splitting our attentions breaks our communion with the speaker and breaks our communion with those who have come before. The meaning is not strictly economic; rather, it is sacramental–and even in economics the literature shows that sunk costs can be a strategic way to signal brand quality.

On April 14, 2014, theologian Stanley Hauerwas visited Samford University to discuss his views on war and peace. The evening before his large public lecture, he participated in a discussion of virtue ethics. He noted, quoting Iris Murdoch, that, “‘Decisions’ are what you make when the virtues are finished,” and he went on to discuss the people who make a university work, noting further that universities have betrayed their donors (Duke, for example, says “Everything at Duke will be done in the character of Jesus of Nazareth”). Quoting Hauerwas, “We are an excellent university, but we don’t know what ‘excellence’ means.” The purpose of the university, in his view, is to produce people of eloquence who have obtained that eloquence by reading the great works of western civilization. We have, in the university, four years “set aside to do nothing but read books.” Why, he asks, would we “waste it on not knowing how to read?”

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