Our extraordinarily ordinary age

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

With this memorable paragraph, Dickens opens A Tale Of Two Cities. He could have been writing today. But he wasn’t. He was writing in 1859 about the time of the French Revolution, which began nearly 100 years earlier.

But his point is timeless.

We are seduced by the language of the “superlative degree.” Our own noisy authorities know that this gets our attention, and so it is a rare social commentary that fails to include a generous sprinkling of superlatives.

And there is hardly a topic which inspires the social commentators more than “our time.” We stand at the crossroad of the ages. We are postmodern. We are emergent. The fate of the world depends on us. It fills their discourses with magnificent gravitas.

Just as in the time of the French Revolution, just as in Dickens’ time and its Industrial Revolution, we have good reason to think we are extraordinary. After all, we are in a technological revolution. For 50 years, our theme song has been “The times they are a-changin’.”

The soul is unchanged

But are they really? Dickens and the Scriptures challenge the weight of that claim. They remind us that for all the unique marvels of our technology- and information-saturated age, the human soul has not been transformed in thousands of years.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” is an ironic statement. Dickens goes on to say that we live in the most ordinary of times.

We could discount our mistaken belief in the importance of our age as trivial. After all, hyperbole makes for great stories. Dickens places his story in what we recognize as a pivotal moment in European history. But Dickens subtly reminds us that our appetite for the superlative hides a deep misunderstanding.

This will be a great disappointment to those who make a living writing social commentaries, but for the followers of Jesus, it is deeply reassuring.

From beginning to end, the Scriptures remind us that those men and women, those events in which we place great significance, are rarely the ones around which the biblical story revolves. Jesus meticulously used the most ordinary, daily, mundane parts of life to make his point. The Kingdom of God is like the tiny mustard seed, the mysterious action of yeast, and the lost coin. And the agent of the kingdom is the invisible Holy Spirit, which we can identify only by the dust it stirs up (John 3:8).

Why do the Scriptures so incessantly direct us away from the superlative and back to the ordinary? Because without this reminder, we miss both the working of God and the opportunity of our times.

This is reassuring because the good news of the kingdom – the message we were commissioned to proclaim – has not changed since Jesus issued our orders 2,000 years ago. It hasn’t changed because the God shaped-vacuum in the human soul has not changed. We discover the shape and substance of this vacuum, not by pondering what it might have looked like 20, 200, or 2,000 years ago; we discover it when we look into the eyes and listen to the voices of those we rub shoulders with every day.

And to hear these voices we have to refocus our eyes and retune our ears to see and hear the ordinary.

It’s reassuring because we don’t have to concoct a grand narrative before our own actions have meaning. We have been given a grand narrative, one that began with creation and will conclude with the summation of all things in the end. But in the meantime, kingdom people go to work, raise their children, prepare meals. And these things matter a great deal.

We live in extraordinarily ordinary times. Knowing this is important.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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