The Body Politic: Just so that our readers know, you’re back in England and we are conducting this interview by phone. However, we met for the first time when you were recently in the United States promoting your book, A Wilderness of Mirrors: Trusting Again in a Cynical World. Tell us a bit about the theme of the book.
Mark Meynell: The presenting issue is the widespread culture of suspicion in the West. You see it in opinion polls—left, right, and center. You see it in how people talk. You see it in the proliferation of conspiracy theories. People do not trust those in power. They do not trust the institutions and offices that were our traditional refuges in a crazy, messed-up world. The effect, cumulatively, is devastating. And it profoundly affects the church—the church is not immune.
It’s not just the West that has this problem—it’s there when I travel in eastern Europe and southern Europe and outside Europe. But for my own sake, and to give a focus to the book, I wanted to think about how this culture of suspicion has affected the West. In order to do something about it, we’ve got to diagnose it and identify the root problems that can be tackled and (hopefully) righted.
TBP: To some degree, though, isn’t suspicion warranted? All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
MM: There have always been conspiracies. There has always been all kinds of skulduggery and untoward actions going on at the centers of power. You can look at any country’s history—It doesn’t matter which one you choose—and you will find all kinds of skeletons in the closet.
You point to the issue of sin. I think that’s right. I think one of the things we need to do is have a robust anthropology, a robust doctrine of humanity. One of the things this culture of suspicion does is take legitimate grounds for suspicion, definite reasons for a degree of cynicism, and leave us with nothing to prevent ourselves from sliding downhill or getting buried under the avalanche. You can’t put the brakes on it.
One of the things I try to do in the last third of the book is to say that the extremes that our world goes to in trying to understand human nature fail everybody. At the end of the Victorian era, there was this confidence that everyone was essentially good and it’s just a matter of getting the circumstances, the education, the resources, the opportunities right.
Well, two world wars and a Cold War sure put an end to that. (There was a sort of in the 60s where suddenly everyone thought people were okay again but that didn’t last very long.) The opposite extreme, today’s dangerous prevailing idea, is that people have no intrinsic merit or worth. People are basically bad. We’re like the virus that the agents in The Matrix want to wipe out. When we’re confronted with a big issue, like, say, global overpopulation—well, whether it is overpopulation…that really is a loaded term, isn’t it? Let’s try this again: When we’re confronted with the issue of global population gathering pace, if you take this extremely negative view that humans are essentially bad, then losing a couple billion doesn’t really matter. One of the biggest challenges we really have as Christians is to argue for the worth of humanity while at the same time demonstrating realism about what goes wrong. The irony is that the Bible is the only place that you get that tight-rope walked well: People are created in the image Of God and therefore have intrinsic worth and value and a degree of goodness, while also recognizing the sinfulness of our hearts and the fact that we have actually turned away from God.
TBP: We do seem to be in a moment of cultural extremism or moral over-simplicity, where if something bad about you is true, then we cannot allow for the possibility that anything good about you could also still be true. Someone who is good cannot do anything bad, and if you do something bad, then any good you tried to contribute is invalidated.
MM: The way I described it is, we turn adjectives into nouns. Someone who has a, for example, racist thought becomes A Racist, and that is set in stone. Your entire existence is written off. There’s no redemption from that or forgiveness for that. You are utterly dismissed.
As Christians, we’ve got a unique perspective that I don’t hear very much. Usually, I hear preachers banging on about sin without actually explaining why sin is problematic for us. Sin is a problem because the people sinning were made in God’s image! That fact is something we really need to flesh out for the world around us, because it’s not something that world easily understands at the moment.