Doing Our Job?

Michael Metzger

Christmas reminds us we’re supposed to be publishing glad tidings of great joy. A Google survey of literature suggests we’re not doing our job.

“Joy to the World” is the most-published Christmas hymn in North America. It’s right up there with “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” That’s because re-joice is a response to joy. When news of great joy is published, rejoicing results.

Which brings us to a Google NGram Viewer survey of books published in the English-speaking world over the last 200 years. It reveals a steady decline in the number of times the word “rejoice” appears. The decline begins in the late 1830s.

Which raises two questions. So what? And why did this decline begin 180 years ago?

Let’s start with so what? Language is a lagging cultural indicator. Words denote cultural impact. We’re called to make cultures. This is the cultural mandate, “the human job description.”[1] For 18 centuries, older faith traditions took the cultural mandate seriously. They saw their job as making flourishing cultures, paying attention to indicators such as words and how they are used (and not used). In so doing, they made disciples.

Why then do we see a decline in “rejoice” beginning in the late 1830s? This is when older faith traditions began to decline in North America. New faith traditions (mostly Baptist, Methodist, and independent churches) arose after the Second Great Awakenings (1790-1830s). They see their job as making disciples (the great commission). They’re not nearly as adept at making cultures. This explains the declining influence of these faith traditions since the late 1830s, especially in making flourishing cultures.[2]

But cultures will be made, one way or another. Culture-making doesn’t stop just because Christians don’t do it. New masters at making cultures arose in the mid-1800s. Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, “the masters of suspicion.”[3] They were suspicious of authority, particularly religious authority. They pointed a poetic middle finger at God. In suspicious societies, rejoicing recedes.

Marx was a joyless soul who reduced society to economy. Nietzsche was a joyless soul who reduced humanity to merely material. No meaning, no morality, no metaphysical. Freud was a joyless soul who reduced human nature to sexual instinct. The masters of suspicion, and their disciples that followed, made cultures where rejoicing declined.

But most folks don’t want to be sourpusses. The Google NGram Viewer survey reveals an uptick in “rejoice” since 2000 (the survey ends in 2008). This might correlate with a recent Gallup poll. Since the early 2000s, over 40 percent of Americans have said “yes” when asked “if a profound religious experience or awakening” had redirected their lives. These people experienced joy. But this often happened outside the faith community. This is especially true for religious “nones” and exiles.

This tells me we haven’t been doing our job. It’s difficult for those apart from the faith to take the faith seriously when it’s benefits—such as joy—are absent in literature. Older faith traditions understand this. They see it as their job to pay attention to cultural trends in order to make flourishing cultures. Newer faith traditions would benefit from doing likewise.

I hope you have a joy-full Christmas.


[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins, 1998), 23.

[2] James Davison Hunter, To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010), 19.

[3] Paul Ricœur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (Yale University Press, 1965)


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  1. I hope you’ll explore this more, Mike. What has our present faith culture replaced joy with? Being right? Creating an us vs. them? I’m content to allow the culture of suspicion to express itself – it indicates freedom of thought – gone awry as it has. That freedom expresses the response of the court jester – expressing rejection of older and present faith traditions. Perhaps the slight new uptick of joy in our literature represents its being “remembered that it is found” in its being received apart from conformity to culture. My own joy is – I find it funny to say is not even my own – I find it given to me from God In Jesus. I don’t feel that my joy comes from a culturally conformity to a faith tradition – I share my joy with others in my faith tradition, but it’s not my tradition that generates or radiates joy. So I don’t know how or why I will see culture playing a larger role in individuals discovering joy.

  2. I think you got it, Dave. Mostly us versus them. Seems to have many of us a bit angry.

    Makes me wonder if we really ‘buy’ the “us” and “them” in Jeremiah 29:7: “in their shalom, their flourishing, we find our flourishing. How can we be joyful when so many suffer? makes me wonder if many of us experience a pseudo-joy. Happy in our faith cultures, largely unaware of the joylessness experienced by many throughout the world (and in my city).

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