A play featuring Norse mythology has inspired Yale student John Aroutiounian to reflect on “diversity” and Christianity in our era.

…”Valhalla” raises unsettling questions about how people arrive at conclusions about what they want and who they are, and about how family and societal conceptions can help or hurt the process. It’s scary to weigh the possibility that the values and ideals we tell ourselves we most want may not exist as we imagine them — like Valhalla itself, a heaven of sorts in Norse mythology.

On a more concrete level, it’s startling to think about the dramatic expansion of social rights in the Americas and Europe — and increasingly, in other parts of the world — in the past fifty years. Though often socially turbulent, the years since the Vietnam War have broadly featured more attention to general welfare in thought and deed than at any point in history. Pictures, messages and friends in many places — our broad media exposure to people of many backgrounds — affect the scope of public empathy, helping to shape political outcomes. It’s the non-commercial side of the “Oprah effect“ — take the oft-mentioned example of how her show and others like it have played a key role in public acceptance of gay rights. Proximity breeds empathy.

This isn’t limited to any one issue. Anywhere and anytime people have a case for more freedom and compassion, there’s a better chance now than ever that their movement will take off. If you temporarily suspend partisan biases, this was basically the idea behind President George Bush’s Freedom Agenda, and much of that rhetoric and policy remains consistent with President Barack Obama’s administration.

In this sense, we’re living in the most authentically Christian time ever — think Sermon on the Mount, though certainly many of its themes are found in other world religions. The world being “smaller” means people have more occasions to understand and feel for each other. It’s a structural change, and technology has a lot to do with it. The gnostic impulse has got to be resisted here — we’ll never have heaven on earth. But no one can ignore the ways in which our society today is giving people the opportunity to believe that there is meaningful life possible in the material world — to escape living the Gnostic heresy.

…It’s somewhat ironic that we live in a time where it’s easier to be “true to yourself” than ever before, but likely harder to establish what that really means outside of our immediate desires and personal goals. But the years ahead give us the ideal opportunity to take a world more ready to see neighborly love and empathy and to develop it, through community, into reflections — however imperfect — of our own Valhallas.