Billy Graham Rules!

Right now the Big Thing On Twitter™ is the “Billy Graham Rule.” A new debate was flared up by news that Vice President Mike Pence practiced his own form of the rule. Some well-followed progressives wasted no time before lambasting Mr. Pence as a sexist. Some well-followed progressive evangelicals likewise jumped in by chastising the rule and Christians who practice it. Apparently, pastors who won’t meet 1 on 1 with a woman who is not family are guilty of “anti-gospel” objectification.

I’ve defended the Billy Graham rule before. I’ve also written about the many issues I have with the particular quadrant of progressive evangelicalism that concerns itself with “purity culture.” While some of the critiques that come from this space are good and helpful, a suffocating amount of them are, in my view, thinly-veiled gospel revisionism, pretenses for protesting the Bible’s clear teaching on fornication, marriage, and homosexuality. Most of the derogatory comments I’ve seen from bloggers about the BG rule confirm this suspicion. I cannot imagine this kind of hostility against a personal policy designed to protect spouses and families, except hostility that is aimed at a much wider target.

But I honestly have no desire to retread my arguments in favor of a Billy Graham rule. I do favor it, but I don’t necessarily look down on men who don’t. Issues of prudential wisdom require context and nuance. Where Scripture refuses to lay down a binding on the conscience, we shouldn’t either.

I have only one last comment about this whole thing. I think every Christian should ponder the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton:

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert-himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt…

For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.

This is the key to understand the dispute over the Billy Graham ruleThe men who I have known that take painful care to avoid situations of either temptation or compromising appearance do not doubt the value of the women in their church. They do not assume that their sisters in Christ are temptresses waiting for an opportune moment of either pleasure of blackmail. Rather, the men in my life who taught and modeled to me the value of the BG rule had a low view of themselves, and they were absolutely OK with that.

It’s this attitude that cuts so cleanly against the grain of contemporary culture. It makes absolutely no sense to Millennial ears why a person would doubt their own resolve, their own courage, their own fortitude, and seek to strengthen themselves through weakness. Such a worldview violates every possible permutation of the spirit of the age, which is: “You are enough, you are in control, and your self-actualization is what will bring you happiness.” This is the mantra of the book club, the religion of the Disney Channel. It is the air we breathe. And it has become so intrinsic to every corner of our culture that we only notice it when someone actually rages against it to the detriment of their career or reputation.

Chesterton’s point is the essence of the BG rule. A high view of my marriage covenant, a high view of the reputation of others, and a low view of myself: That’s what it’s all about. Those first two sound fine in the age of expressive individualism. The third one is heresy, and it is the worst kind of heresy–the heresy that puts the unspoken question into the air, “So what are you doing to do?”

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The Pagans Who Will Save Christian Publishing

I was reminded recently of one of my favorite anecdotes from Russell Moore. It’s about the day that Dr. Carl F.H. Henry told him that the next great Christian leaders were probably pagans right now:

Several of us were lamenting the miserable shape of the church, about so much doctrinal vacuity, vapid preaching, non-existent discipleship. We asked Dr. Henry if he saw any hope in the coming generation of evangelicals.

And I will never forget his reply.

“Why, you speak as though Christianity were genetic,” he said. “Of course, there is hope for the next generation of evangelicals. But the leaders of the next generation might not be coming from the current evangelical establishment. They are probably still pagans.”

“Who knew that Saul of Tarsus was to be the great apostle to the Gentiles?” he asked us. “Who knew that God would raise up a C.S. Lewis, a Charles Colson? They were unbelievers who, once saved by the grace of God, were mighty warriors for the faith.”

The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might be a misogynist, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist right now. The next Billy Graham might be passed out drunk in a fraternity house right now. The next Charles Spurgeon might be making posters for a Gay Pride March right now. The next Mother Teresa might be managing an abortion clinic right now.

Thinking about this encouraging story, I realized that this could easily be applied to the world of Christian publishing. Not long ago I wrote about the current shape of things in the world of Christian books. My diagnosis was grim, but I held out hope for better things in the decades to come, especially if evangelicals consciously cultivate a better and more robust theology of the arts. As I’ve thought about Christian publishing since writing that post, I think I understand part of what will happen in the renewal of Christian writing:

It will happen primarily becuase of people who aren’t even Christians right now.

I really believe this. I believe that a theologically sturdy, artistically compelling, and genuinely meaningful new Christian imagination will be shaped most significantly by those who come to the faith from the outside. The important Christian novelists and poets and essayists of a post-Benedict Option church will be men and women who spent years in opposition to it. Perhaps the next Graham Greene is organizing campus protests of conservatives right now. Maybe the heir to Marilynne Robinson is, this moment, #StandingWithPlannedParenthood.

Why do I think this? Three reasons.

First, evangelicalism as a gospel-heralding, embodied church reality is much stronger than evangelicalism as an insular, Christ-against-culture ideology. The fact is that one of the reasons Christian writing is the condition that it’s in right now is that the specter of a poorly-read, culturally timid fundamentalism still haunts much of the evangelical imagination. As I’ve said before, there are too many Christians who believe “family-friendly” means Christian and order their aesthetic intake accordingly. I’m becoming convinced that the next generation of great Christian writers is going to have to be one that is far more well-versed in great art than most of Christian subculture.

Second, I think the future of truly great Christian writing will not necessarily be marketed as such. The niche markets of “faith-based” books, music, and movies is one that by its nature resists truly great art. If your goal is to target a demographic with content that is easy to sell, why would you care if your content reads more like a boilerplate Hallmark movie novelization than like “The Remains of the Day”?

It’s important to note that we’ve already seen this dynamic do utter destruction to the Christian music industry. The pretenses of music and literature designed by marketers rather than artists cannot survive the collapse of retail giants like Family Christian Stores. It’s not going to matter who sells what anymore. What’s going to matter is what’s on the page. We are going to find echoes of Eden where we don’t necessarily expect to find them.

Finally, the next generation of great writers will be writers who have passed from death to life and know it. There’s just something about people who have been converted to Christ from outright unbelief. Those who have been forgiven much, love much. The voices most able to communicate creation, fall, and redemption will not be those for whom Christ is an identity politic. It will be those who love Jesus because he first loved them. I’m reminded of how C.S. Lewis noticed how rare it is to hear of someone’s being converted from atheism to “demythologized,” liberal Christianity: “I think that when unbelievers come in at all, they come in a good deal further.”

The future of Christian writing is bright, even if right now it may be shrouded in darkness. That should come as no surprise to those of us who know how the Light works.

Purpose-Driven Premodernism

I’ve finished reading Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option.” In my view, it’s a fine book, one that articulates a theologically faithful response to the West’s cultural moment. I’ll have more thoughts on it later (and a brief review in a forthcoming issue of the ERLC’s Light Magazine) , but for now I want to share a couple quick thoughts about what I found most surprising about the book.

When I started reading, I expected this book to be mostly about how Christians can outsmart the Left. And while Rod does employ some of that culture war language, I was pleased to be proven wrong. The Benedict Option is not, at least in how Rod has laid it out in the book, primarily between Christians and secularists. It is between Christians and Christ. What surprised me about the book was how overwhelmingly concerned Rod is with Christian sanctification. This is not really a battle plan to be used against progressives. It’s an instruction manual in basic Christian faithfulness. What refreshed me about “The Benedict Option” was not how much of it seemed innovative and timely, but how much of it felt familiar and old.

At one point while reading, I wrote this in the margins: “Purpose-driven premodernism.” Here’s what I mean. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven-Life” was a massive bestseller when it was released more than 10 years ago. Now, regardless whether you think “The Purpose-Driven Life” was mostly good, mostly bad, or a mixed bag, one thing remains true: The PDL was a book that assumed the life of a Christian was structured around spiritual habits. Warren argued that a life with purpose was one that is built around faithful spiritual practices, not a life that merely tolerated them.

That’s precisely what Rod is getting at in the Benedict Option. For all the intense debate surrounding the book, its core thesis seems absurdly simple to me: An obedient, meaningful Christian life is structured around truths and practices of the faith. Trying to remain a faithful, committed, orthodox Christian while living life outside this orbit is, for Rod, a fool’s game. It’s not going to happen. The Christianity that will survive the West’s emerging secular authoritarianism is going to be a Christianity embodied in habits of mind and heart that don’t flex for the demands of modern life.

That’s why I call the Benedict Option “purpose-driven premodernism.” The main difference, I think, between Rod’s book and Warren’s book is that while the PDL assumes that a life structured around Christian disciplines is possible without conscious retreat from culture, the BenOp assumes it’s impossible. In that, I think, Rod’s book has the benefit of hindsight. Will faithfulness to the gospel require not just a collection of spiritual disciplines but an actual physical reorientation of our lives and communities? Perhaps. And if so, I think purpose-driven premodernism might be what we need.

Review: “Beauty and the Beast” (2017)

When the history of Hollywood’s current creative stagnation is written, we very well might regard the new live action version of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” as the quintessential movie of the era. It is a remarkably efficient summation both of nostalgia’s culture’s strengths and its weaknesses. Like a newly illustrated edition of your favorite novel, “Beauty and the Beast” brings color and movement to a classic story, and that’s about it. I found myself enjoying it, and then convinced afterwards that what I had been enjoying wasn’t the film itself, but the ghost that inhabited it. “Tale as old as time,” indeed.

Like many movies I see nowadays, rehashing the plot is pointless. You either know it or else decided several sentences ago to stop reading this review. Let me say instead that those who love the 1991 film will be satisfied with what they see here. Bill Condon’s version is faithful to the animated movie, almost to the point of doggedness. Entire shots are precisely recreated, and a majority of the dialogue remains unchanged. Whether you think that’s good or bad depends almost entirely on what you want from a film like this. Will seeing exactly what you’ve seen before cause you to cheer? An entire generation of film studio CEOs are banking on it.

But, as I said above, nostalgia culture has its strengths. A film that’s as deeply embedded into our cultural memory as “Beauty and the Beast” is a prime candidate for some delightful interpretation. In this version, much of that delight comes from the casting and the visuals. All of the cast are well chosen (with one crucial exception; more on that in a second), but the great Emma Thompson and Ian McKellen stand above all others. Thompson’s rendition of the film’s title song is a perfect update of Angela Lansbury’s famous performance. McKellen has a lot of fun as the valet-cum-clock Cogsworth, and Ewan McGregor suprised me with his funny, silky (if a little obviously derivative) Lumiere. Visually, the film is breathtaking, as lush and vivid and flawless as probably any live action version of this story will ever be. Everything is in order.

Everything, that is, except for Emma Watson. Watson has been sadly and egregiously miscast as Belle. This isn’t for lack of trying, mind you; Watson is a beautiful, gifted actress and she tries hard here, but she never connects with the material, and the script demands so little from her that her talents never have a chance. The problem, I suspect, is that Watson has been chosen for her physical resemblance to the animated Belle, and her role was conceived as a flesh-and-blood stand in for a character the producers had no intention of reimagining. This is a major disappointment in a category the film shouldn’t have disappointed in.

What else can I say? You know what you’re getting here. The point of fast food is that you don’t have to wonder what you’re going to get. It may not be great, but you’ve had it before, and we don’t always have time to take risks. There’s nothing wrong with some occasional fast food filmmaking. But, if the reboot era has you stressed, it’s fine dining I suggest.

My Father’s Anger

Growing up, I did not see my father angry often. But it did happen. If my father was angry with me, it was almost certainly for one of two reasons. Either I had disrespected my mother, or else I had been cruel to my younger sister. On those occasions I did witness and endure my Dad’s anger.

But here’s an important distinction. Though I felt Dad’s anger, I always knew what kind of anger it was. It was the anger of, “You, my son, have done something wrong, and I am angry that wrong has been done.” But there’s another kind of fatherly anger that I never felt. It’s the anger that says, “You have done something wrong, and I am angry to have such a son who would do this kind of thing.” The first kind of anger came and left. Even minutes after discipline I knew I was welcomed into the love of my father.

But the second kind of anger sticks with you. It never really dissipates. The emotions will calm, and deed will be forgotten, but there’s just something about feeling the weight of that anger–anger directed, even for just a moment, at the father-son relationship itself–that darkens the heart. I’ve heard from many friends whose fathers were angry in this kind of way. Healing is possible, but the scarring is there.

One reason I believe some Christians struggle with the idea of substitutionary atonement is that they cannot convince their hearts that a God who would sacrifice his own son for their sins can really ever forgive them. They cannot imagine in their soul a Father who pours wrath, wrath over their sin, on his beloved Son, and then actually welcomes them–the one responsible!–with open arms. The idea of God’s wrath at sin is, for them, inextricable from the kind of deep-sealed anger that God must feel at having to put up with sons and daughters who caused the death of his begotten. For them, God’s anger at sin is not the anger at sin and its wages, but anger at them for being what they are. For these Christians, the gospel of Christ’s substitution does not comfort. It reinforces their fear that their heavenly Father resents them, even when he says otherwise.

It does not surprise me that people would think this about God. Fatherly anger is such a precarious thing. Children are good at hearing the heart behind the words. Vocabulary is not a disinfectant for resentment. This is why, I think, the authors of the New Testament go to such great lengths to talk about the love of God for his church. He really does love us. Not begrudgingly, not resentfully. He loves us day and night, and his love does not even sleep.

I thank God often for showing me some of Himself through my father’s anger. There were times I knew Dad was displeased. But there was never a time when I wondered if he was displeased to have me. The difference is the difference between life and death.

If You Like Your Theocracy, You Can Keep Your Theocracy

My issue with pieces like this one comes down to a question of good-faith. In a certain context, given some mutual assumptions and amongst people who share particular convictions, arguing from the New Testament to a certain political program can be persuasive and valuable. The trouble comes when such an argument appears ex nihilo in a secular worldview universe. Then it becomes a transparently manipulative attempt to appropriate a belief system that the author clearly sees no transcendent value in–aside from the value of momentarily making his opponents look like hypocrites.

This is the kind of theological co-opting that harms the gospel, whether it comes from the right or the left. I have Christian friends who believe, as Kristof apparently does, that the teachings of Jesus lead us to a particular system of healthcare in government. Their perspective is informed by Scripture and Christian ethics. But it’s also informed by a more general humility toward the lordship of Jesus Christ and the inspiration and authority of the Bible. My Christian friends who argue from a biblical perspective for their healthcare policy also believe that, for example, Jesus really was speaking through the apostle Paul when he says that those who practice fornication, adultery, homosexuality, idolatry, covetousness, etc, will not inherit the kingdom. Their perspective on healthcare comes from a place of good faith, and even if I do not agree politically, I have to reckon with their arguments as if it is indeed possible that they articulating a genuinely Christian position.

But Kristof’s op-ed comes from no such place. There is little evidence that Kristof himself operates on a biblical worldview, and there is even less evidence that he really believes a Christian-oriented political governance would be good for the country. In 2004, Kristof issued a strong rebuke to Christians who opposed same-sex marriage, attacking them for their transparently theocratic attempt to force their religion on their neighbors:

In any case, do we really want to make Paul our lawgiver? Will we enforce Paul’s instruction that women veil themselves and keep their hair long? (Note to President Bush: If you want to obey Paul, why don’t you start by veiling Laura and keeping her hair long, and only then move on to barring gay marriages.)

Given these ambiguities, is there any solution? One would be to emphasize the sentiment in Genesis that “it is not good for the human to be alone,” and allow gay lovers to marry.

This quotation does not flatter Kristof’s healthcare column. It exposes a mercenary use of Scripture and a disingenuous instinct toward religious belief. Those who warn against theocracy and the apostle Paul when talking about marriage are not entitled to appeal to the lordship of Christ when the topic turns to healthcare. As C.S. Lewis said, Christ did not leave us the luxury of dismissing him as merely a good moral teacher. He is a liar, a lunatic, or a lord–and the right choice doesn’t depend on which party has a majority.

(photo credit)

Sitting Athwart History

Today I’m re-upping this post from May 2016. 

Timothy George’s profile of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and its senior pastor, Mark Dever, is a joy to read. It was a joy for me personally because my wife and I are members of a church in Louisville that owes much to Dever and Capitol Hill. My pastor, Greg Gilbert, studied under Dever, and Third Avenue Baptist bears much resemblance to the vision that Dever has cast in his “9 Marks” ministry.

I was raised in very traditional Southern Baptist churches. These churches, I am told, thrived during the middle of the last century. I have to rely on the testimony of others for that information, because by the time I was old enough to notice, many of the churches I saw—including the ones I attended—were losing members yearly, becoming more insular and less evangelistic, and were often more enthralled by their internal politics than by the doctrines of Christianity. I spent my teenage years in an evangelical culture that desperately wanted to regain relevance. Thus, much of the preaching, teaching, singing, and “discipleship” that I heard was crafted carefully in the image of the “seeker-friendly” movement, which sought to make the experience of church palatable to Gen Xers and millennials who demanded entertainment and variety.

I didn’t fully realize what was going on until I arrived at Third Avenue. Then it became ridiculously obvious. For the sake of those accustomed to the secular liturgies of American culture, evangelicalism had tried to make the local church recognizable; but instead, it had made it invisible. Intellectual and spiritual formation of members was being neutered by the efforts to make church fun.

George describes how Dever pulled Capitol Hill away from this trend:

…[Dever] began to preach sermons that lasted upwards of one hour. Next, the church excised from its rolls hundreds of inactive members—some so inactive that they had long been dead! The practice of church discipline was begun. Members were also required to subscribe to a confession of faith and to say “an oath”—this is how a secular journalist described the church covenant—at the monthly communion. Entertainment-based worship was replaced by congregational singing, including many long-forgotten classic hymns from the past.

This describes perfectly my experience at Third Avenue. These churches are counter-cultural, not only in the content of their gospel but in the character of their pedagogy. And yes, pedagogy is the right word, because for churches like Third Avenue and Capitol Hill, the worship culture of the church is designed not merely to amuse or entertain, but to teach. The teaching doesn’t just begin and end with the sermon. The whole mode of worship is one that demands—and trains—intellectual and emotional maturity. Times of silence invoke the kinds of reflection and meditation that a smartphone culture often finds impossible. Old hymns with archaic but theologically rich vocabulary remind singers of big truths that require old words, not just mantras that could be found in any young adult novel. At any given point in the service there is a sense that members aren’t just spectating or even just participating in an event, but that they are learning in both word and desire.

This is the personal formation that has been lost in the noise of much evangelical church culture. It’s a loss that may carry a higher price tag than we ever thought. Could it even be that our current political crisis—and a crisis it is—is due at least part to the fact that millions of self-identified “evangelicals” are in churches that keep their attention but don’t teach them much? I’m not even talking mainly about the failure of churches to explicate a Christian view of political engagement, though that is certainly part of the problem. I’m talking mainly about the millions of people who name themselves members of evangelical churches, and yet find that reality TV lewdness and Twitter demagoguing are “speaking their language.” Instead of trying to jockey over whether they are actually “evangelical,” it might be better to acknowledge the possibility that many churches have failed to teach their members a better language.

Imagine a member of a entertainment-oriented church. He attends once per week, faithfully but passively. He absorbs many contemporary worship songs, some of which seem inspired by the Psalms but many of which seem inspired by Hallmark. Though he doesn’t consciously register it, the language and ritual he hears in church overlaps with that of commercialism. Everything about the church service is “accessible” to him as an average, working class American Christian. Everything feels new, and interesting, and immediately useful (or would if he could remember it after lunch). The hour he spends on Sunday morning feels like time well spent, mainly because it wasn’t much time and because there’s little cognitive dissonance between life in the church and life in the world.

Can this kind of spiritual formation provide any ballast in the wake of economic hardship, cultural alienation or political anger? Not at all. For those who aren’t being actively formed to think deeper thoughts, the rhetorical power of talk radio and social media demagogues is too invigorating and too empowering. Much of our American political rhetoric is pure showmanship, training the audience to respond as quickly as possible, as emotively as possible, to the world around them. Outrage, mockery, and hysteria feel so real, and when a moral imagination has not been trained to want something more, there’s no defense against them. If the moral imaginations of evangelicals aren’t being formed in church, where will they be formed?

The local church’s mandate of discipleship is a mandate for maturity. If evangelicalism has failed in the voting booth, perhaps that is because it is failing in the pews. Perhaps evangelical church culture cannot be satisfied with “relevance.” Perhaps what it really needs is transcendence, to risk sounding out of date and out of place if it means thinking big thoughts about big questions. This isn’t a call for mere pulpit partisanship. It’s a call for the recovery of the Christian tradition that stood up to Roman emperors for the cause of religious freedom and the end of slave trades, but also one that built monasteries. It’s a call for the church to be more than accessible—to be formative, to meet people where they are in order to raise them up.

There is a God-appointed time for Christians to come together, with unity in diversity, and learn to look at the world the way God sees it. That time is the gathering of the local church. Before evangelicals can stand athwart history, we need to sit athwart it first.

Against Snark

Snark, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as a “snide, sarcastic, or disrespectful attitude,” is the basic currency of online writing. Without mockery, sarcasm, or innuendo, a majority of published internet writing would simply evaporate. That’s unfortunate, because among the low forms of discourse, snark might be at the very bottom. It is the least interesting, least persuasive, and least honest rhetorical device a writer can employ.

Snark should not be confused with humor. Some humor is snarky, but snark itself is not funny. To borrow Screwtape’s taxonomy, snark is a subdivision of flippancy. Flippancy, Screwtape reflects, is valuable to demons because it is the mentality of the apathetic, a vain posture of above-it-all that cultivates worthlessness. “Only a clever human can make a real joke about virtue,” Screwtape says. “Anyone (read: flippant ones) can talk as if virtue is funny.” Funny people see the humor in themselves and the world. Snarky people don’t see the world at all.

In much online writing, snark is used as a transparent substitute for thought. Mark Bauerlein is correct: “If you can make fun of someone, you don’t have to debate him.” This explains why one tends to find so much more snark in conversations about really serious matters–such as morality and religion–than in debates over sports and hobbies. If someone says the Duke Blue Devils will likely win the NCAA tournament, rebutting them requires arguments and examples. On the other hand, if they say that nuns shouldn’t have to sponsor contraceptives in health insurance, you may respond by ridiculing him. If you do it well enough, you may end up famous.

The advantage of snark is that it doubly disadvantages your opponent by requiring him to not only defend his thesis, but his honor as well. For example, if Joe believes that women ought not be in military combat, Steve can register his disagreement one of two ways. He can say, “You’re wrong,” and proceed to argue for women in combat using logic and reason. Or, he can say something like, “Ha, ok,” or “Good to know.” The second response will, in all likelihood, communicate the disagreement, but its passive-aggressiveness is a bonus because Joe now has to argue for his opinion AND the right of his opinion to exist at all. It’s now up to him to prove he’s not a schmuck. That’s the upside of snark: It does your fighting for you.

Snark is intellectual weakness on the middle school playground. It thrives mostly because ours is a flippant culture that uses laughter to avoid reflection.

The Psalmist warns against “sitting in the seat of the scoffers.” Such company “are like the chaff that the wind blows away.” Let snark and flippancy be blown from our writing and our thinking.

The Politics of Distraction

I think Ross Douthat is exactly right about the need for some kind of positive, strategic response to the smartphone age. “Compulsions are rarely harmless,” he writes, and therein lies the key point: Digital addiction is real, and its long term consequences, though mysterious now, will not be something to receive with gladness. Some may scoff at Douthat’s idea of a “digital temperance movement,” but scoff at your own peril. If hyperconnectivity and omni-distraction are indeed what we think they are, the cultural harvest from a digitally addicted age will stun.

In any event, now is certainly no time to be underestimating the long-term shaping effects of technology. Consider how incredibly prescient Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death seems in a post-election 2016 era. Is there any doubt that the television’s impact on the public square, especially its reliance on trivialization and celebrity, played a key role last year? If you were to close your eyes and imagine a United States without cable news as it exists right now, does it get easier or harder to mentally recreate the last few years of American politics? Postman warned in Amusing that television represented a watershed in mass epistemology. In other words, television changed not just how people received information, but how they processed it, and consequently, how they responded to it. Our political culture is a TV political culture, and 2016 was irrepressible proof of that.

You don’t have to venture far from this line of thinking to see why the digital age represents similar dangers. As Douthat mentions, the soft, inviting blue glow of impersonal personality and our Pavlovian responses to “Likes” and “Retweets” are enough of a rabbit hole themselves. But consider still the effect of the digital age on information. The online information economy is overwhelmingly clickbait: “content” custom designed by algorithms to get traffic and give as little as possible in return. Even more serious news and opinion writing, when subjected to the economic demands of the internet, often relies on misleading, hyperbolic, or reactionary forms of discourse.

In the digital age, the competition is not so much for people’s patronage but for their attention, and screams and alarms always get attention. This trend isn’t just annoying for readers and exasperating for writers. It represents a fundamental challenge to the discipline of thinking, and to the moral obligation to believe and speak true things. Postman warned that using lights and flashes to blend facts with entertainment would shape culture’s expectations of truth itself. When what is interesting/fun/sexy/cool/outrageous/ becomes indistinguishable, visually, from what is true, then what is true becomes whatever is interesting/fun/sexy/cool/outrageous. If this is true for television, it is exponentially more true for the smartphone, a pocket-sized TV with infinite channels.

Who can foresee the politics of a distracted age? What kind of power will conspiracy theorists who master the art of going viral wield in years to come? What kind of political ruling class will we end up with when a generation of would-be leaders have been Twitter-shamed out of their careers? It’s hard to say.

Can we reverse these trends? I do like much of what Douthat prescribes as antidote. But the fact is that the internet, social media, and the smartphone are not merely trendy fads. They are part of an emerging technological transformation. Facebook will wither and Twitter will fade, but the “age of ephemera” will stand. Resisting it will likely depend much more on what people value than what they fear. Loneliness, for example, is endemic in the social media generation. Does the healing of lonely souls with real physical presence disarm an important motivator in online addiction? That’s a question that every parent, and every church, should be asking right now. And of course, individuals fed up with the noise of pixels will trade in their smartphones and delete their accounts.

For those who really want to resist the age of distraction, there will be ways to do so. The hardest challenge will be for those who kinda want to resist but also want to be plugged in. These are the folks to whom the smartphone is most cruel. And perhaps the best advice that can be given for those of us in this camp is: Deactivate every now and again, go to church, walk outside frequently, and read at least 1 physical book per month. A distracted age is a loud age. Thankfully, the universe is, once you’re able to really listen to it, pretty quiet.

Homeschooling and the Benedict Option

While reading Charlotte Allen’s nice takedown of a fearmongering Washington Post piece about homeschooling, I was reminded again how hard it can be to extinguish certain anxieties. The anti-homeschooling activists profiled by the Post have had difficult life experiences inside homeschooling. That shouldn’t be minimized or ridiculed. But, as Allen points out, the rhetoric of these anti-homeschooling crusaders far supersedes any demonstrable harm. What animates these activists is not really evidence, but dread: The dread of social units that live outside the immediate purview of the state. Again, I’m sure some of this dread comes from abuse received and seen. But I think the point of Allen’s rebuttal piece is that this dread is more ideological than existential. It’s a dread that comes from assumptions about parenting, children, education, government, etc etc. And the reason that noxious myths about homeschooling persist, especially among progressives, is that are (for the most part) downstream from worldview rather than from experience.

Realizing this made me think about the Benedict Option. Rod Dreher’s book releases soon, and it’s already causing a fair amount of debate and controversy. I haven’t read the book, though I’m familiar with Rod’s essays and blog posts on the topic. I won’t endorse the book without reading it, and I have reservations and critiques of the whole project (many of which have been eloquently voiced by Andrew Walker). But I am broadly sympathetic with Rod’s diagnosis of Western Christianity and culture. To that end, I think the fearful mystique around homeschooling can actually educate us when it comes to the debate over the Benedict Option.

It’s not hard to see a connection between the BenOp and homeschooling. To be sure, many homeschooling families choose homeschooling for non-religious reasons. But, especially for religious families, the premise of homeschooling is attractive because it offers an internal logic that is consonant with the BenOp: A strategic withdrawal from mainstream cultural institutions (in this case, public school) and a replacement that is consistent with beliefs and convictions (in this case, curriculum, especially science and the humanities). You might consider the religious, homeschooling family a laboratory-sized microcosm of the Benedict Option.

And just like some of the more gut-level suspicions of homeschooling are fueled by ideology rather than facts, I think too some of the instinctive responses I’ve seen to the BenOp are about presuppositions. Debating the Benedict Option, like debating homeschooling, is most helpful when each side agrees on some basic assumptions. You and your neighbor can both believe that parents have a fundamental right to educate their children and that such education can and should happen in a Christian context. That agreement doesn’t mean you will both homeschool, because homeschooling entails more than those presuppositions. But if you and your neighbor disagree on those two ideas–for example, if one of you believers that children belong to the public square at least as much as they belong to parents, or if one of you believes that religion is superstition that stifles learning–then an intramural debate on the merits of religious homeschooling is useless.

I think this can apply as well to the BenOp conversation. The Benedict Option presupposes that such a thing as “secular culture” actually exists and is actually opposed to the life and witness of Christians. This is not a presupposition shared by all. If you believe, for example, that human sin can be sufficiently described by concepts such as power structures and systemic injustice, then the idea of an encroaching “secular culture” doesn’t make sense. The Sexual Revolution cannot be thought of as inherently contrary to the gospel if what we mean when we say “sin” is only–or primarily–the oppression of other people’s autonomous wills. Sexual relativism does in fact end in violent rape culture, but it doesn’t begin there, and a narrative of Christian mission that cannot coherently call to repentance “victimless” sins doesn’t have a category for something like the Benedict Option.

Like homeschooling, the BenOp assumes that Christian faithfulness entails the public square but does not terminate in it. Again, this is not a persuasion that all self-described evangelicals have. If your eschatology denies the invasive character of the coming kingdom, and instead solely articulates the transformation of the current world, then it won’t make sense to prioritize fidelity to the gospel itself–fidelity to doctrine–at the risk of losing opportunities in the public square. Believing that attending to our own Christian institutions and practices is a fundamentally selfish thing to do is not unlike believing that families who homeschool prevent their children from being salt and light.

An idea like the Benedict Option makes an assortment of presuppositions about the nature of Christian faith and the mission of the church. These presuppositions may be right or they may be wrong, but they are at the foundation, either way, of something much larger than just an intramural scrimmage over a new book. I think what we are seeing, particularly in some of the more visceral responses to the BenOp, is a division over major theological and ethical questions that evangelicals have too often pretended weren’t there or weren’t “relevant” to the life of the church. To the extent that this conversation over Dreher’s ideas brings more clarity to these divisions, I think we can be grateful for it.