One of the questions I like to ask people is, “what is the first news story you remember following?” People’s response to this question will tell you a lot about their worldview and their generational perspective. The first “news story” I can remember being aware of was the Challenger Explosion which took place 2 days after my 4th birthday on January 28th, 1986. I kind of remember the presidential race of 1988 between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis and I definitely remember my mom picking me up from school on November 9, 1989 and explaining to me that the Berlin Wall was falling. But the first story I can remember following, like actually keeping up with on TV and reading the articles in the newspaper about was the OJ Simpson trial, and really I have been an avid news follower ever since.
It was a Friday night and I still remember being at home watching the NBA finals when the coverage was interrupted to report on the “slow speed chase” wherein the LAPD was “chasing” OJ Simpson through the streets of Los Angeles. Ninety-five million Americans joined me at their televisions to watch one of the most fascinating stories of the past 50 years unfold before our eyes. It was hard to know at that time the impact that this “chase” would have on America, but it was significant. Soon after OJ was tried in the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman and names like Marsha Clark, Lance Ito, and Kato Kaelin would become household names for the American public. The entire trial was covered for the whole nation to watch by CNN and more than 40% of the American public tuned in, in the middle of a workday to hear the verdict on October 5, 1995.
The trial marked a shift in the American psyche. My early childhood was a world of American Patriotism. We wanted to beat the Soviets in the Cold War. After the fall of the Soviet Union, America needed something else to be interested in and we landed on being interested in celebrities. Not that people haven’t always been interested in celebrities, but the OJ trial took a court case and made it entertainment. The Simpson Trial marked the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle hat has now become such a regular part of our lives. Channels like The Fox News Channel and MSNBC were clearly born out of the OJ Simpson media frenzy. The trial also was the beginning of reality TV. Shows like Survivor, Jersey Shore, and certainly Keeping Up with the Kardashians were born out the Simpson trial culture shift.
Beyond the cultural implications, the OJ Simpson trial also had gospel implications for the American public. The law of the state in America has always been grounded in the natural law of God, and historically the American public has recognized that there are absolute truths in the world. Historically, we have been a people who believed that beyond any particular circumstance that there are things that are right, and things that are wrong. This was especially clear throughout the Cold War, which was in the mind of the American people a struggle between good and evil. The OJ Simpson trial however, marked the beginning of the end of absolutes in America on a popular level. It is where postmodernism came into the public square and the postmodern view of non-absolutes has become the dominant worldview in America ever since. The trial was also a reminder that people’s highest level of allegiance in America was not to the truth or to justice, as people ignored justice and truth in order to stand by a man of whom they were a fan, or of whom they shared a common race. It is also interesting to note that in the past 20 years the primary culture shaping medium has shifted in large part from the pulpit to cable news shows, blogs, and talk radio programs. So much of this is the result of the media frenzy that was the OJ trial.
Ultimately the OJ Simpson trial marked a great breakdown of cultural Christianity in America. It proved that many Americans were not as convictional, confessional, or as clear on the gospel as the church would have liked to believe 20 years ago. The cultural Christianity that was so prevalent in America from World War II through the end of the Cold War is now gone. While this is discouraging to me as an American it actually encourages me as a Christian. My prayer for the American church 20 years after OJ is that we would commit to being clear on the gospel, clear on the biblical truth, and fervently on mission for the Kingdom of Christ. An American church like this will be the kind of church that will radically shape the culture of America in the next 20 years, it will be a church that will bring glory to Christ, and hope for our country.
I’m Jason Dees encouraging you to think through it.