Tempering the utopian impulse
AFA Journal staff writer
Christians are called to fight evil and pursue good – not in pursuit of a society that is perfect, but in pursuit of a Being who is. ~Teddy James
April 2016 – Good books have an uncanny ability to transcend the time and culture in which they were written. On rare occurrences, a book creates a word or concept that takes on a life of its own and becomes more popular than the work itself. Such is the case from Thomas More’s 1516 Utopia.
In the book, which contains the first printed use of the word utopia, More describes a paradisiacal island where people are governed by logic and reason. His utopians rejected the notion of private property, resulting in everyone living in comfort.
Other writers picked up the utopian torch from More and began crafting their own fictional places where optimism ran unabashed, each defined as much by what it entailed as by what it lacked.
Utopias in literature were peaceful places lacking the pain, suffering, and strife of the real world. While each world was created to be an expression of a near-perfect place, not even in a fictional kingdom could mankind fill the God-designed desire for heaven.
Although More was the first to coin the phrase, the concept predates even Plato’s description of Atlantis. (See below.) The yearning to find a location of peace and rest can be dated to the eviction of man from Eden. And although many believe Eden to be as fictional and fanciful as Atlantis, there is still a distinct desire to return to it.
Writers, philosophers, and dreamers give their utopias new names with new characteristics, but one thing remains constant. Every iteration of a new utopia illustrates the fact that something wrecked this world, and humankind was not created to live in this broken state.
As creative as Atlantis, Utopia, Oceana, or other utopian societies are in literature, they all reveal what their respective authors considered to be the biggest problems within their cultures and societies and what they believed was needed to solve them.
Some authors argued governments were too dependent on emotions and made rash decisions resulting in pain and suffering among their constituents. Others believed business and competition brought out the worst in individuals, and thus easing the stresses of modern life would bring about comfort and peace. Still others believed a lack of religious adherence was the primary problem of society and dreamed of a place where any act of sin was violently punished with extreme harshness.
This era of unabashed optimism met its antithesis in anti-utopian, or dystopian, literature. In this genre, authors typically presented protagonists standing against a government that tried to attain a utopian society by force and control. This type of literature has seen many variations and earned renewed popularity, especially in young adult novels and films.
No matter which side a work of fiction falls on, one truth remains constant throughout both genres: Man’s best-laid plans cannot fix the problems of the world. Even in a realm where a writer – the creator – has complete control, problems and conflicts arise. There is no scenario in which man can create a place absent of problems because the problems these authors are attempting to solve are too small, and thus so are the solutions.
Utopia is not an idea stuck in fictional literature. Many charismatic leaders have tried to create a utopian society.
For example, in 1841, George Ripley established Brook Farm on 200 acres to escape capitalism and embrace transcendentalism. Everyone was to share the workload of the farm and enjoy a peaceful life. Due to a smallpox outbreak and Ripley’s attempt at instituting more and more strict rules, the community disbanded after only five years.
Other attempts at utopia do not end as quietly. Another group established a socialist paradise on 3,800 acres in Guyana in 1974. After a small sect of the group wished to return to America, the leader, Jim Jones, ordered each citizen of Jonestown to commit “revolutionary suicide.” Only two of the 909 members of Jones’s People’s Temple Agricultural Project survived.
While these two attempts represent extremes, the longing for utopia is subtly inserted in many situations. In nearly every campaign speech, political candidates insinuate their intent to bring about a utopia after they win an election.
Their utopia can consist of lower taxes, an absence of gun violence, or a government running on bipartisanship.
Neither dream speaks to what ultimately ails mankind: sin.
Although each of these scenarios and others like them are promised to become reality, they are as fictional as the works of More and Plato. While low taxes might make people happy, and a world without violence would help people sleep better, neither dream speaks to what ultimately ails mankind: sin.
The majority of man’s attempts at utopia are not evil. But they miss the most important element. Their experiments and literary adventures miss Jesus.
While it is true that sin was defeated more than 2,000 years ago, it is still an ever-present reality for the world. And every living creature feels its impact. Until sin is eradicated by the final judgment of God, no utopia can be realized. This reality creates tension in the life of all followers of Jesus. They want to solve the problems of the world, but know they never will this side of eternity.
Does this mean Christians should not even try?
If the attempt is to escape the darkness of this world and create a safe haven where everything is nice and happy, the answer is no. That is making an idol of comfort. Jesus did not surrender His life on the cross to build individual kingdoms or make this life comfortable.
But just as Christ redeemed the nature of the Believer, He also redeemed the yearning for utopia. What was once driven by an attempt to escape problems and suffering can now be driven by a desire to make God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Christian movements to solve problems of the world are not intended to be the solution, but to point people to the One who is the solution.
Christians are called to fight evil and pursue good – not in pursuit of a society that is perfect, but in pursuit of a Being who is.
Influential utopian, dystopian literature
▶ Plato has two stories describing utopian societies. One is The Republic (380 BC), the other is the city of Atlantis, introduced in Timaeus (360 BC). Both focus on justice.
▶ The City of the Sun by Tommaso Campanella (1602). The city is a place where teaching and freedom of thought is central although the powerful central government runs individuals’ lives.
▶ The Iron Heel by Jack London (1908). Largely considered the originator of modern dystopian literature, this work deconstructs the politics of a tyrannical future American government.
▶ 1984 by George Orwell (1949). The name “Big Brother” for any large and powerful government originates in this dystopian classic.
Politics According to the Bible by Wayne Grudem is a comprehensive resource for understanding modern political and societal issues in light of Scripture. Available at christianbook.com.
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