America has four times had what historians sometimes call Great Awakenings: In the 1730s, in the colonies, when an evangelical movement democratized Christianity in the New World and enrolled African Americans in large numbers for the first time, which gave way to more democratic thought and eventually to the Revolution; beginning in the early 19th century, and centered in western New York, when a Protestant revival created a ferment for all manner of spiritualism and a zest for reform, in abolition, temperance and women’s rights; in the time until the early 20th century, when a Third Great Awakening yielded the Social Gospel Movement and more exotic flora such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Theosophy and Christian Science; and a disputed Fourth Great Awakening in the era after World War II, the Billy Graham era, when conservative Christian denominations grew and became politically powerful, especially in their battle against secularism – which either never happened or continues to this day.
And this day, as it happens, is a time when people are confronting external events that may test their faiths as never before. One does not need to read much commentary on our pandemic before a theme emerges, that these extraordinary events must mark us and change us in ways we had not anticipated, whether one believes they will provide a glide path to a socialist revolution and the elimination of wealth in the name of equity or, perhaps more narrowly, that we may never embrace again.
This supposed Fifth Great Awakening already looks different from the other four in not being an offshoot of Protestantism or even Christianity, as befits an increasingly multicultural and heterodox people in America in the 21st century. None of the other four were a response to specific crisis such as a pandemic. Nevertheless, on April 10, a filmmaker, Julio Vincent Gambuto, took to the Medium platform with a call that grasped at it (with the unfortunate title “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting”), a 2,000-plus-word essay that within 48 hours apparently was read by more than 3 million people.
Soon this stillness into which we’ve thrust ourselves will be broken by louder and louder calls for a return to normalcy, Gambuto writes. And what he wants is a pause within a pause to reconsider what going back means.
This crisis has shown us things that “cannot be unseen,” he says, such as the clear blue skies of Los Angeles and birds chirping in the middle of Madison Avenue, as well as a faltering health care system and financially tottering employers.“The Great Pause,” he writes, could be a great gift if we can resist the effort by the media, government and marketers “to make you believe you never saw what you saw.”
If we just take a deep breath, Gambuto says, and tune out the propaganda, we could instead “only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.”
It’s a lovely thought. And it is not impossible or even impractical; far from it. There is just, as far as we can see, one catch.
This is not a call to collective action. It is not a summons to a party line or a platform or to God. It is not an awakening of any kind so much as an invitation to reflect on our folly, as Thoreau did at Walden. It is every bit as much in the American grain as religious revivals, and it may come in handy, if you can fit it in at a time when so many Americans are thrust back upon their own resources. Deciding what is important is up to you alone.