‘Something’s Happening Here. What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear’

By Jim Tonkowich Published on February 24, 2023

“The world — or at least our culture — is going to Hell on a greased firemen’s pole” seems self-evident. Take a straight-line extrapolation of deplorable trends, add a few Bible texts and how can it be otherwise?

But history is always unpredictable because the Lord of history is unpredictable. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8). Here are three stories that make me think it might already be otherwise.

Back to Boethius

High school senior, Lola Shub, and a group of her friends at Essex Street Academy in Manhattan read Into the Wild, the story about an adventurer who died while trying to live off the land in the Alaskan wilderness. As a result, she told The New York Times, “We’ve all got this theory that we’re not just meant to be confined to buildings and work. And that guy was experiencing life. Real life. Social media and phones are not real life.”

During the COVID lockdown, “I became completely consumed [with social media]. I couldn’t not post a good picture if I had one. And I had this online personality of, ‘I don’t care,’ but I actually did. I was definitely still watching everything.” Eventually she got sick of it and deleted the social media apps. “But that wasn’t enough. So I put my phone in a box.”

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Lola helped found a “Luddite Club” at her school, students who eschew technology — including smart phones — for the sake of other, better pursuits. Meeting outdoors in a park, The Times reported, “Some drew in sketchbooks. Others painted with a watercolor kit. One of them closed their eyes to listen to the wind. Many read intently — the books in their satchels included Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Art Spiegelman’s Maus II and The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius.”

“When I got my flip phone,” Lola declared, “things instantly changed. I started using my brain.” Apparently so because no one reads Boethius (or Dostoevsky) casually. C.S. Lewis commented that to love Boethius “is almost to become naturalized in the Middle Ages.”

Luddite Clubs have spread to other schools. Whether more teens will give up smartphones and social media for Dostoevsky and Boethius has yet to be seen, but something’s happening here.

Slots and Weed

Writing in The Atlantic, physician Matthew Loftus notes, “Since the Supreme Court struck down previous restrictions on sports betting in 2018, 36 states have legalized it (26 of which allow mobile betting), and new ballot initiatives are proposed every year.” He goes on, “Only four states still prohibit all uses of marijuana. In 19 states, the recreational use of marijuana is now fully legal; all other states allow medicinal use of cannabis products.”

After all, the reasoning goes, responsible adults have the right to how they spend their money and what they put into their bodies. Give them freedom to do as they please.

The problem, Loftus contends, is that “this way of seeing the world overlooks the fact that our hearts and minds are shaped not only by reason but also by our experiences, affections, and, most importantly, our habits, which are just as often inexplicably self-destructive as they are reasonable.”

And, in fact, “responsible users” are not where the money is. Gambling companies and marijuana purveyors make most of their money from addicts. Problem gamblers, Loftus notes, account for up to 50% of gambling revenue. And “The best evidence we have suggests that marijuana is harmful to teenage brains as they develop and that more teenagers use marijuana when it is legalized in their state.”

Loftus doesn’t advocate outlawing gambling or marijuana, but concludes, “Some judicious restrictions are better for everyone…. We will need a lot more than a few regulations to help one another grow in virtue — but right now vice and its lobbyists have an unfair advantage that needs to be taken away.”

A trend? I don’t know, but something’s happening here.

Christ on Campus

Students at Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky are required to attend a certain number of chapels each semester and dutifully check the box. But on February 8, as Asbury Seminary theologian Tom McCall, writes “After the benediction, the gospel choir began to sing a final chorus — and then something began to happen that defies easy description. Students did not leave. They were struck by what seemed to be a quiet but powerful sense of transcendence, and they did not want to go. They stayed and continued to worship.”

The worship lasted day and night for two weeks with “No projector screens or high-tech integrations, just wooden sanctuary chairs filled with people, and an open altar call with an invitation to prayer.” In that two weeks, as the story spread, people came not only from the local area and nearby colleges, but from as far as Ireland and Brazil.

Cedarville University, Lee University, and Stamford University report similar events.

Such renewals happen from time to time. The Holy Spirit regularly turns indifference into renewal, unbelief into faith. The Great Awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the charismatic movement of the 1970s are of a piece with revivals under St. Francis and St. Dominic all the way down to God’s work at Asbury and elsewhere.

Will these small revivals spread as they have in the past, changing lives and culture? Again, it’s hard to say, but something’s happening here.

And so, to quote the old Buffalo Springfield song I used in the title: “I think it’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound/Everybody look what’s going down.” Look and pray for the unpredictable.


James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”

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