How to Think

My review of Alan Jacobs’s forthcoming book How to Think: A Survival Guide For a World at Odds, is up at the Mere Orthodoxy main page.

Here’s a snippet:

Happily, How To Think is not a Trump-directed polemic or a guidebook for navigating Twitter. Readers familiar with both topics will probably get the maximum satisfaction from Jacobs’s book, but its themes are higher and deeper than that. Building on a recent surge in scholarly and popular level writing on how humans think, Jacobs asks a probing question: Why, at the end of everything, do otherwise intelligent people fail to think well? “For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: We suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking.” (17) Jacobs writes that it’s a mistake to assume that human beings are ultimately rational beings whose irrationality cannot be understood. On the contrary, human nature, and therefore human thinking, is inescapably moral. We often think and live poorly because we want to.

Read the whole review. After you do that, preorder the book. Trust me: you’ll want this one.

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Keep Kids Safe From Smartphones

“Kids need smartphones. Get over it.” Thus says Jeanne Sager at The Week. I’ll give Ms. Sager credit for going all in here. Her advocacy for giving preteen children iPhones is full throated and unequivocal, which is better than some of the self-tortured do-we-or-don’t-we parenting we often see nowadays.

Unfortunately, she’s completely wrong. Her argument is surprisingly intuitive and defenseless: Kids are safer when you give them smartphones. There’s not much in the way of evidence, though, beyond a relatively banal observation that we don’t have as many payphones as we used to, and that kids who are out late at night without a way to phone home are by definition in an unsafe situation. Both points are true. The problem is that they are almost totally irrelevant compared to the mammoth moral case against smartphones.

The idea that kids are unsafe unless they have the most cutting edge, the most unfiltered access to digital technology is just absurd. Not only are there phones that can allow calls home without the kind of private internet access that common sense and almost every expert warn against, but it’s hard to imagine what kind of situations a preteen could get herself into that would doom her to vulnerability without an iPhone. For one thing, most 12 year olds travel exclusively in packs, and you can bet your next paycheck that someone–likely everyone–in that pack has some sort of phone (many teens nowadays get together just so everyone can look at their phone). The relationship between mobile accessibility and safety is more complicated when teens start driving, of course, which is why many parents make the driver’s license a benchmark for phones. That’s understandable. Reasoning from lack of payphones to lack of safety is less so.

My wife and I had slightly different experiences with phone technology growing up. I was a senior in high school when I got my first flip phone, which could make all the calls to Mom and Dad I wanted and could text some friends for a cool $.25 per “hey man.” My wife, on the other hand, was way ahead of me: At 7th grade she got her first pay-as-you-go phone. Though our experiences with cell phones were very different, we each got our first smartphones in college. And she and I tell each other regularly how grateful we are such tech never fell into our hands before that. For all their usefulness, smartphones are an intensely absorbing media. They invite and empower private worlds where people are reduced to pixels and life’s meaning is dependent on the powerful neurological rewards of computerized community. Indeed, many observers worry that smartphones are reprogramming teens to retreat further into themselves, leading to a stunning rise in loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other problems.

Of course, one could object that smartphones have been wrongly accused, and that sociologists and cultural commentators are mistaking use for abuse in all this analysis. I don’t think that’s a good argument, but it is at least an argument. The case offered by Ms. Sager is not an argument. It’s an unfounded fear that fails, as so much of modern parenting often does, to discern the different kinds of “unsafe.” Unsafe because you don’t have a way to phone home at 10pm might be a kind of unsafe, but being totally alone with a piece of technology that offers unmitigated connection between you and the web, as well as the promise of secrecy and the thrill of maintaining an utterly private existence online, is also unsafe. Threats to teens’ cognitive development, social adaptation, and emotional well-being are every bit as serious as the dangers of violent online bullying and harassment. And I haven’t even mentioned the well-documented pandemics of pornography and sexual exploitation.

I commend Ms. Sager for writing a piece that few others are willing to write. I’m sure she speaks for many other parents when she says that the benefits of mobile connections outweigh all the risks. But as a relatively new parent (for 1 year), I too have been thinking about how I want my children to relate to mobile technology. And almost everything I see, hear, and read leads me to believe that children are a great reason to hand in my smartphone, not a reason to buy more. We are only beginning as a culture to understand the formative effects of our tech, but even the preliminary lessons are persuasive and damning.

I sometimes hear worries about the “digital gap” in education. I’m presumably supposed to be concerned that my son won’t be as technologically savvy as the other 10 year olds who have iPhones and smartwatches. But I often suspect that what’s presented as concerns for safety and equality are really just disguised anxieties about being lapped by the Joneses. If smartphones and social media have trained us to do anything, they’ve trained us to always be aware of what everybody else is doing. I don’t want such a fate for my son. I want him to lose himself in something true, good, and beautiful, not constantly staring at #content. I want my son to know his friends as human beings with faces, bodies, and feelings, not just as avatars that he can friend and de-friend at leisure. I don’t want my son to feel Dad doesn’t care if he has a private online life.

That’s why I won’t be getting my son a smartphone anytime soon. I don’t think he’ll be unsafe because of it, but if there’s ever a situation we’re worried about, there are low-tech emergency options available. Often in life, a solution to a problem just takes a little creative thinking–the kind of creative thinking, by the way, that’s a lot harder when you’ve been raised on YouTube.

A Falling Out for Christians and Public Schools

Rod Dreher reprints a correspondence between one of his readers and their child’s school principal, regarding a teacher’s lesson on transgenderism and sexual orientation. As the emails indicate, the parents had requested advance notice if their child’s classrooms were going to teach on the topic, so as to officially request an exemption. When that didn’t happen, and the child received a day’s worth of ideological training on gender, the frustrated parents reached out to the principal.

After initially not responding, the principal replied:

As a mother and school leader, I can empathize with the challenge of keeping up with what our children are exposed to and wanting to be their first teacher on so many issues.

I also think well of [the teacher]. She has shown herself to be a proficient teacher and student advocate.

I do not recall a conversation about how we would handle conversations about transgender issues, but I cannot imagine agreeing either to censure such material or inform you in advance. I am sorry if [the teacher] or I led you to believe such a request would be honored.

The book used is one that is a respected text in honoring the diversity of our children. It is a text that explains a real situation that many children face in self-acceptance, acceptance by others and being true to themselves. We feel the classroom is the appropriate place to share such messages.

We would not request that these themes require permission, or clearance with families. (Different than courses on sexual education, for which we do require permission.) Quite the contrary, families have asked that we enhance our curriculum to be more inclusive of all the different groups our children and families represent, and we feel that this book achieves this purpose.

Here’s what frightens me about this. I cannot imagine a reason that the parents would lie about having talked to the principal previously. There’s nothing to gain from a lie like that (especially since the reader who showed this exchange to Dreher does not reveal the name of the school/principal/teacher). There is, however, quite a bit to gain for a school in misleading parents to feel more in the know about sexual diversity training (which is what this is, not education) than they actually will be. Of course, I don’t know that this principal lied to the parents, so it would be irresponsible to say absolutely that she did. And that’s kind of the point–the alleged conversation was off the record, so the parents can’t prove that anything was agreed to or that their trust has been betrayed. If this were a whistleblowing case involving a CEO and an employee, I think I know where initial public empathy would lie.

Up to this point I’ve resisted the idea that Christian parents have a positive moral obligation to withdraw their children from public school. I still think laying a burden where Scripture does not should be avoided at nearly all costs, and I know these issues affect lower income families in a much different way than they do upper-middle class ones. To that end, if I were a pastor, I wouldn’t (I think) say from the pulpit that parents shouldn’t enroll their children in public schools.

But I have to admit that the exchange Dreher reprints is terrifying to me. It’s terrifying because it’s a naked assertion of authority that is beyond accountability. It’s terrifying because I cannot conceive what the parents could have done differently while assuming the school and its administrators were acting in good faith. It’s terrifying because the lack of nuance, the lack of sympathy, and condescending tone of the principal in these emails suggest that there is no space in her moral imagination for people who have the concerns of these parents. They simply don’t appear on the school’s radar. They don’t count. What matters is pleasing those who want compulsory transgender training in the school, even if it means being duplicitous with parents who have religious or moral scruples.

It feels more and more like the arc of history is bent in the shape of a bow, and its arrow is pointed squarely at people like me and my family.

My honest advice to orthodox Christian families right now would be to do everything possible–financially, logistically, even geographically–to have your young, school-age children spend their days at traditional institutions, or at home. And my urgent request to Christian churches would be for local congregations to quickly move to help families with this burden by organizing part time school opportunities as much as possible. If churches have to wait on that new gym in order to pay some volunteer instructors to teach 2 or 3 days per week, why not? If local churches have a strong group of stay at home moms, or dads with flexible schedules, why not engage these members to be proactive in Christian education? In thinking about public mercy ministries that churches can invest in, I can hardly think of a mercy ministry that would make a larger kingdom imprint than a part time day school. The moment and the opportunity is right there.

Oh, and as a postscript: How do progressive evangelicals who rebuke conservative Christian families for not supporting public schools reckon with all this? If you can look at this episode and come away still thinking that the real problem are moms and dads who want to do a “white flight” out of public schools, I’m afraid you’ve reached Sean Spicer-levels of objectivity. This isn’t a group of privileged Benedict Option religious fanatics who want their elementary and middle schools to teach the 10 Commandments on Thursdays. We’re talking about families whose only request is that their children not be forced to learn a destructive, secular liturgy. And that request is increasingly beyond the pale for public schools. Who is fleeing whom here?

Tweet-less

Since deactivating my Twitter account two weeks ago, the following reflections have come to me:

  1. If there were any question before that my relationship with Twitter was addictive, now that it’s gone, I have zero doubt. It seems to me that sometimes you can’t tell how hooked you are until you’re off the hook.
  2. I had a truly comforting thought a few days ago: Right now, there’s someone on Twitter saying wrong things, and I can’t see it or respond to it. There’s a genuine peace right there.
  3. I’m emailing individuals more, since I can’t Tweet them. It feels warmer and more personal to me, especially to email someone I haven’t met, just to tell them I appreciate their work or a note of encouragement. I know that technically speaking an email is just as ephemeral as a Tweet, but for some reason, it doesn’t feel that way.
  4. I’ve felt more compelled to write and more able to do so in twitter’s absence. In fact, I recently wrote a piece for TGC that I consider the best thing I’ve ever sent to them–owing partly, I suspect, to mental channels that aren’t nearly as clogged with minutiae.
  5. Not being able to Tweet out my blogs is a bummer. It’s exposed the conflict in me between the writer and the publicist, the person who wants to write from the soul and the person who wants to write so other people will tell me I’m a good writer. Like I said in point #1, I don’t know how aware of this I would be if I still had Twitter. For that reason alone, I think deactivating was a good move.

Colin Kaepernick and Our Dysfunctional Public Square

The NAACP’s boycott of the NFL over Colin Kaepernick’s lack of a contract exemplifies in vivid focus the many ways that the American conversation about race and culture is dysfunctional. Admittedly, the stakes in this particular drama are low; whether a professional athlete is paid tens of millions of dollars to play a game or just a few million dollars is not especially rich ground for serious cultural critiques. But the omnipresence of the Kaepernick story on national sports media, and now the official response from a respected cultural institution, means that it might be time to start asking what this whole ordeal means in a tender cultural moment.

Don’t misunderstand me. The NFL deserves its fair share of animus. We know now that it almost certainly withheld important information about concussions and CTE from players for decades. The league has also taken an astonishingly capricious and hypocritical approach to players’ domestic abuse cases, and engaged in pathetic political posturing itself. If one wants to boycott the National Football League, there are good reasons to do so.

But the unemployment of Colin Kaepernick is not one of them. Nor is it an illustration of systemic injustice and institutional racism. Rather, Kaepernick’s drama has everything to do with the powerful role that media narrative plays in shaping public discourse, especially about race, and about the dispiriting lack of good faith from both whites and blacks. Contrary to what some of my white friends think, Kaepernick is not a traitor or “ungrateful.” And contrary to what some of my black friends believe, I don’t think Kaepernick is a political martyr or victim. He’s a football player, an American, and a black man, whose three identities, combustible as they might appear from reading ESPN, are completely compatible.

When Kaepernick began sitting out the national anthem during last year’s NFL season, many white fans interpreted it as a sign of disrespect for the country, for the game, and (presumably) for them. At the time that his actions began, remember, the 2016 election was still slouching toward Mar-A-Lago. Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling had both been killed by police officers, their deaths circulated on video through social media. Racial tensions were (and are) real. Thus, Kaepernick explained in a press conference after a 49ers preseason game, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Whether Kaepernick was right or wrong in his historical judgment on the United States, it would be wrong to not empathize with his perspective. Christians who believe in sinful human natures are obliged to affirm that such sinfulness can and does seep into the political and cultural superstructures that we create. To deny this would be to embrace a civic gnosticism that denies the role of individual human wills in society. White football fans who angrily dismissed Kaepernick as anti-American fail to respond to his claim. Additionally, there’s an unmissable irony in the assertions of some whites that people like Kaepernick are wrong to think about history and cultural context when they themselves are wealthy athletes. Aren’t these the same people who insist that confederate monuments ought to be protected in the name of “heritage”? If “it’s history” is why we ought not rename Jefferson Davis Highway, why should history suddenly not matter for a black quarterback who wants to talk about justice and racial equality?

This is a valuable example of the failures of the modern American conservative movement on race. It’s an unthinking tribalism that creates hypocrites out of supposedly small-government conservatives who suddenly think any questioning of law enforcement is by definition not “patriotism.” Count me out.

So does that make Kaepernick a true victim of a racist sports league? Hardly. Again, this whole episode is nothing if not a dramatic presentation of the dysfunctional public conversation about race. On the one hand are white football fans preoccupied with vacuous (and vaguely anti-free speech) notions of patriotism. But on the other hand, we see a political and media class that drives home, day after day, week after week, a conspiracy theory about a black quarterback in a black-dominated sports league.

Why is Colin Kaepernick unemployed? Lets answer that question with another question: Why do most NFL players go from active roster to free agent? There are several causes, but two are primary. The first is that they do not perform well enough to make a team’s final 53-man roster. This happens to hundreds of players in the NFL every year, many of whom were highly coveted as draft picks but for various reasons could not rise to the level that professional football demanded. The second reason is that a player can be released because he no longer wants to play under his current contract or for his current team. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement stipulates the existence of “opt-outs” in certain contracts, where a player can choose not to return for the final year of a contract. Sometimes players do this because they are tired of playing for the team. More often they choose to do so because they believe another team would be willing to pay them more money.

Why recite these? Well, it turns out that Kaepernick actually made a fair case for meeting both of these benchmarks. Since going to a Super Bowl under Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s performance with the 49ers slowly but surely declined. After Harbaugh left, the bottom fell out of Kaepernick’s play, with many analysts wondering if it had been the coach’s offensive system that allowed Kaepernick to flourish. In 2015, well before Kaepernick’s anthem protests, he lost his starting job with the 49ers and was benched. He did, however, get a second chance in 2016, being named the starter to replace a woeful Blaine Gabbert.

Which brings me to the second point. At the end of the 2016 season Kaepernick “opted-out” of his contract with the 49ers in order to hit the free agent market. Why? Presumably, he wanted to play for a team that would pay him more money than the 49ers. This is completely understandable for a professional athlete. It does mean however that Kaepernick wasn’t “cut” or disciplined for his anthem protests. Kaepernick is unemployed chiefly and most immediately because he didn’t want to play on the 49ers anymore. In other words, Kaepernick could be and most likely would be an NFL roster right now had he wanted to finish his contract with his previous team. If the NFL is determined not to allow a woke Kaepernick to play, why wasn’t he cut during the season, or prevented from playing, or cut after the season?

Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped media outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated from making Kaepernick’s unemployment the dominant story in all of pro sports for a year. Never mind that players like Marshawn Lynch also do not stand for the anthem, but are currently on active rosters. Never mind that league heroes like Adrian Peterson (also on an active roster) have gone so far as to compare life in pro football to chattel slavery. Those obnoxious facts are worthless in promoting a juicy and politically powerful narrative, a narrative of corporate oppression and athletic McCarthyism. Meanwhile, sports media sits back and enjoys web traffic and headline-omnipresence as its narrative becomes stronger and stronger and polarizes more and more people.

There’s a final point that needs to be addressed. Even with all these mitigating factors, isn’t it possible that Kaepernick is a valuable symbolic figure for the struggles of African-Americans? But here’s where we should be cautious. To dismiss facts and good faith because the alternative narrative serves a valuable social purpose is precisely the kind of “post-truth” culture that generated a Trump White House. The anger that black NFL fans feel toward the NFL is rooted in misinformation and misrepresentation, both of which have been proffered by a sports media culture desperate to politicize its internal drama for maximum clickage. On the other hand, the resentment that white football fans feel toward Kaepernick and others like him is likewise often fueled by political myths and culturally convenient jargon. The result is that both of these factions scream past one another, each taking the other’s hostility as evidence they are acting in racist or anti-American bad faith. A vicious, almost impenetrable cycle of distrust, cynicism, and anger.

This is, sadly, the cultural moment we find ourselves in. It can, and must, be transcended. Our national racial wounds are deep and are in the shape of the slaveholder’s whip. Reckoning with a sinful past is never easy, either individually or corporately, but it must be done for God’s sake. And it cannot be done while seeds of hostility are sown by peddlers of narrative instead of truth.

10 Suggestions For New Bible College Students

From one Bible college graduate to another, here’s a brief word to students beginning their education this month:

  1. Do not use your school work on the Bible to replace your personal reading of the Bible. Even the most spiritually helpful class time cannot compare to the cumulative effect of a week’s worth of private quiet times.
  2. Don’t be thrown off by the way holiness has become “cool” on campus. This may seem dreamy at first, but it carries with it many temptations. If you find your popularity increasing with how righteous you are, stop whatever you’re doing and ask a trusted friend for an honest assessment.
  3. You won’t find every class, book, or topic equally interesting or helpful. That’s OK. It doesn’t mean your love for God is lacking.
  4. Read at least one work of fiction every semester, lest you unwittingly become, like Charles Darwin, a machine for grinding out (theological) facts.
  5. Don’t resent family members or former pastors who didn’t teach you all this wonderful new theology. People with fewer books than you may know something too.
  6. Don’t organize evangelism events if you have no intention of following up with or discipling those in your community. See suggestion #2.
  7. Being teachable is better, and more Christian, than being smart. That’s true in the classroom, the pew, and the dorm.
  8. Run from pornography as fast as you can. It’s a locust that will devour your years. Embrace flip phones.
  9. Remember Mom and Dad and grandma and grandpa. After all, you’ll be surprised how few of your college friends are still in contact 3 years after graduation.
  10. Go to church every week, preferably a church that would notice when you’re gone.

How Christians Hate

One thing I am continually appalled at is how many professing Christians I know seem to think the following line of thinking is OK:

“When I look at the people who dislike President Trump, that makes me like him all the more.”

I want us to get honest for a minute about what this sentence really means, and I think we can get there if we simply change the context.

Imagine that you, a Christian, have a 16-year old child. Despite your best efforts, this 16 year old of yours hated Christianity, hated the Bible, and hated the church with a passion. Their animosity toward the things of God breaks your heart on a daily basis. You pray continually for their repentance. And you cling to God in faith, trusting in His promises, despite all the temptation you feel to compromise for the sake of growing closer to your child.

Now imagine that one Sunday after church, a fellow member approaches you. As you talk, the conversation turns to your wayward child. Burden, pain, and desire fill your soul as you think about this person you love who has taken a wrong turn. But then, completely out of the blue, this fellow church member utters this: “You know, when I think about the fact that someone like your kid hates the gospel and hates the church so much, heh, it makes me love both even more!”

Question: What do you think this fellow church member has just said about your child? Have they said they are praying every day for their restoration? Or have they just admitted to you that their personal hatred for your child expresses itself in a kind of gleeful satisfaction that rejoices in their lostness, and congratulates itself for not being that kind of worthless person?

Could you carry on this conversation after such a remark? If right now you’re thinking, “No,” then you have sensed, possibly even beyond an intellectual level, what it means for a person to be so controlled by a sense of self-righteousness that they admit that people who disagree with them are useful only for validating it. Not only is it astonishingly illogical for a person to gain validation of their worldview from the kind of people who oppose it (because one can be an obnoxious person and still be right), it is profoundly inhumane. We wouldn’t, as this thought experiment demonstrates, want to hear people we love talked about in such a way. Why do we talk about our political opponents like that?

The answers to that question, I’m afraid, just get more uncomfortable.

Writing Ourselves Off

Freddie deBoer explains why he’s planning to drop out of the freelance business:

I just find, at this point, that the process of pitching, composing, shepherding through edits, promoting, and trying to get paid sucks the life out of me. The commercial interests of publications require editors to ask for things that are tied to the news cycle in the most facile way imaginable. I get it, and I don’t blame them personally. But I’m opting out. And it’s increasingly hard for me to explain to editors what I want a piece to do and say without writing the piece. I’m just really not interested in the “beats” of a piece of nonfiction anymore; the argument, in the sense that people traditionally mean, is just about the least interesting aspect of nonfiction writing…

Meanwhile, the money generally sucks. I am very grateful for the LAT [Los Angeles Times] publishing me in their print edition, for example, and I knew what the rate was going in. But writing and editing a thousand-plus word piece for one of the biggest newspapers in the country got me $200. So many younger writers I know think that the higher profile, more established places are where the money is, but often that’s not true. Not anymore. And if I don’t enjoy it and the money’s not good, what’s the point?

It’s depressing, mostly because it’s true. Freddie has published in some of the country’s most important media outlets, like the New York Times, The Atlantic, etc, and still he finds himself mounting a herculean effort to think and plan and write and edit quality content, for roughly the cost of a pair of Beats headphones. And that transaction is considered “success” in the freelance industry, which traffics overwhelmingly in unpaid content.

Alan Jacobs puts it even more directly:

Here’s the way the game works: You should write newspaper pieces for peanuts because that will bring you to the attention of the monthlies, where you should write for peanuts because that will bring you to the attention of the trade publishing houses, who will give you a contract that over the course of your book’s life will pay you, if you calculate the hours you spend writing, well short of minimum wage — but that’s okay, because your book will bring you to the attention of the newspapers.

I don’t think many young writers, particularly Christian ones, are hoping to get rich off their words; it would take a pretty oblivious person to earnestly hope that. But the dynamic that Jacobs describes is what many of us get sucked into. Print is the promised land, but as you soon find out, it’s often reserved for writers who already have history there. “Exposure” turns out to be something of a con; being published at many non-paying outlets only really helps you get “in” to other non-paying outlets. Making the transition from “exposure” to “fee” is far more a matter of developing the right relationships–something you’re likely not doing very much of if you’re too busy cranking out free weekly content in the desperate hope of being picked up (which, if we’re being honest, doesn’t happen anymore).

I was talking about this stuff with a friend the other day. We both observed that the one apparent equalizer in the new writing economy was social media “platform.” It’s sad to say, but if you have 10,000 Twitter followers or Facebook “Likes,” you probably don’t need to be as good a writer or even as well-connected. Publications want clicks, and if a writer’s social media following alone guarantees a few hundred of those, that’s the game. This has the dual effect of training young writers to focus more on platform than on their work, and also shaping the culture of writing and journalism in the image of marketing and PR, rather than ideas. Thoughtful writers find themselves pressured to use manipulation and/or dishonesty in titles and opening paragraphs, for example, or issue half-brained reactions to the day’s Trending Topics–since they are, in a very real sense, “selling” their writing to readers instead of to publications. It’s Don Draper all the way down.

If you try to figure out how this dynamic can be fixed, you’ll end up confronting the inconvenient truth: Click-based advertising, the agriculture of the internet, is the crucial factor, and it’s probably not going anywhere anytime soon. The best thing a young writer can do for their passion is to get a regular full time job, support themselves sufficiently with that, and then write in the margins of their week. No one can thrive in a vocation if they have to constantly make a choice between paying their bills and doing honest, excellent work, which is precisely the dilemma facing young writers who want to go full-time. Nor is it healthy, I think, to invest hours and hours and hours every week into growing a social media platform, a lifestyle that by necessity requires you think small thoughts about small things. Is mastering the meme culture of Facebook or the insta-snark of Twitter really worth the sacrifice of being unable to finish books or focus on a train of thought for more than a couple minutes? What will it profit a young writer to gain a platform and lose her mind?

To end on a personal note, I’ll confess that I don’t have a good social media platform. Very, very few people know my writing, and only the tiniest fraction of that group would pay to read it. That’s ok, because I’ve been blessed with a wonderful day job that I enjoy very much. That’s a privilege I don’t take for granted. And yet, I still write, because I still love to write and still need to write. I love the writing life and (almost) everything it entails. I want to write for bigger and more respectable publications because I take ideas seriously, and sharing my ideas with wise editors and large readerships is part of the satisfaction of the writing life.

Over the past year I’ve felt a powerful urge to step away from social media and the pursuit of its platform. I deleted my personal Twitter account last week, after a several months-long period of trying different methods to control my use and put boundaries around my experience. The straightforward use of Twitter was swallowing my time and emotions to a degree that, honestly, no hobby of mine ever has before. It’s embarrassing to admit that you stay on a page clicking refresh, or search 20 times per day for anyone linking to your blog, but that’s where I was. Worst of all, I was becoming easily angered over stuff that had no legitimate impact on me, and I was feeling what was obviously the psychological effect of byte-sized information intake. My book-reading pace has become much slower than it was in college. I struggle to finish even a couple pages at a time without checking my phone. Philip Yancey’s “Reading Wars” blog hit me like a revival sermon. I knew the disease he described was mine.

After talking to a couple friends who had also deleted Twitter, I followed suit, knowing full well that my Twitter readership was meaningful and that not publishing my writing there would be eliminate a good portion of my “platform.” I did it not because I’m an incredibly self-disciplined person but because I am the opposite of that, and because I knew that it wasn’t going to get easier, and because an addiction to anything but grace is a snare.

And so now I write practically without a social media platform. Instead, I have invited readers to participate more directly in what I do, through my Patreon. At the risk of “selling” to you, let me just once again express my appreciation for those who have supported me through Patreon, and my gratitude for anyone who would consider giving me money to help me write the best I can write. I’m willing to bet a lot that friends are better than followers and patrons are better than ads. I can only hope that the future of evangelical writing agrees with me.

 

image credit

Jesus vs the Confederacy

Amidst the violence and brokenness in Charlottesville, Virginia, this picture (I’m unsure of the source) has been circulating widely:

There’s a lot going on here, and probably nothing as striking as the image of a black police officer standing guard for the safety of a group that looks with nostalgia on the time when Americans like him were lynched. For that reason alone, this picture is worth a Pulitzer nomination.

But look a little bit more closely. To the viewer’s left of the police officer, a protester carrying a confederate battle flag in his right hand also carries a placard in his right. The sign reads, in part, “Jews are Satan’s Children.” More interestingly, the sign then lists some biblical passages, two of which are clearly readable: John 8: 31-47, and John 10: 22-33. The protester believes that these passages vindicate his racism, and of course, blogging atheists are all too happy to use this as more evidence of Christianity’s inherent bigotry.

But there’s a slight problem. The passages listed by this protester do not mean what he thinks they do. In fact, they mean something very close to the opposite.

Let’s look at the second reference first, John 10:22-33. I’ll admit to being unsure why this protester thinks this passage supports his claim. It could be that he’s referencing Jesus’ words in verse 26, in which he tells a group of unbelieving Jews that “you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” The problems with appropriating this passage for anti-Semitic messaging should be obvious. The sheep that Jesus means are the sheep that believe in Him, which, according to John in both verse 21 and verse 42, includes many Jews. The difference between being one Jesus’ sheep and not being one of Jesus’ sheep is the question of response to Jesus himself, not ethnicity. To say this verse supports ethnic condemnations of Jewish’s people is a rather banal moment of illiteracy.

But what about the first passage, John 8:31-47? This passage is a bit more interesting, because Jesus does indeed tell a group of Jews that they are children of Satan. Verse 44: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.” Does this passage vindicate this neo-Confederate protester?

Far from it. Look more closely at John 8, beginning in verse 39. “As he was saying these things, many believed in him. So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” This dialogue is a dialogue between Jesus and Jews who have made a profession of faith in him. This point is crucial, because Jesus’ goal is in this dialogue is to expose these people’s hypocrisy. They have appeared to believe in him, but they are inwardly resistant to what Jesus is saying.

How do we know this? Verse 33: “They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham, and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, “You will become free?” This group of alleged believers resents Jesus’ implication that they aren’t free. In fact, they expose their unbelief in Jesus in a startling way. They appeal to their ethnic ancestry as proof that they are already God’s people, and that they don’t need the freedom Jesus offers (verse 39: “Abraham is our father”).

The shocking irony behind all this is that Jesus’ words “You are of your father the devil” are addressed to people who have claimed to believe Jesus but whose real religion is their ethnic, ritualistic identity. When the claims of Jesus run up against what these people believe about themselves and their ancestors, they angrily dismiss Jesus and ultimately seek to destroy him (v.59)–just as Jesus himself told them they would (v.37).

So the news for this card-carrying neo-Confederate is doubly disappointing. It turns out that the Bible he claims to know doesn’t actually condemn Jewish people, or African-American people, or immigrant people as children of Satan. But to make it all worse, it turns out that when Jesus is talking about what it means to be a child of the devil, he’s actually talking about unbelief–an unbelief that looks quite a bit like southern white supremacy.

The Bible Is Not a Slideshow For Your Hot Take

The suicide of a public figure almost invariably triggers a cringe-worthy season in the evangelical blogosphere. Time after time, Christian writers succumb to the temptation to wring a tragedy for its newsworthiness, then smash out a 700-word blog about it. At that point it almost doesn’t matter what the blog says. Meaning is irrelevant. The point of cranking out #content in the immediate aftermath of a celebrity suicide is that social media analytics make it more likely you’ll get clicks. On the one hand, this kind of base motivation is almost a relief, because in the majority of cases what goes into these hot takes is simply copy–perhaps a brief recitation of why this celebrity was a celebrity, a 1 paragraph personal appreciation, and then a quick tour of creation-fall-redemption, with a post script about the fleeting pleasures of fame and fortune. Perhaps banal, but all harmless, and most of it true.

On the other hand, though, there is often something pernicious in all this, even if unintended. And one particular example stands out.

Three years ago, Robin Williams’ suicide was a shocking cultural moment. For weeks social media reeled under the news, and Christians were no exception. Williams was beloved by many in my generation, and it seemed he was omnipresent in the movies and media we grew up loving (and then became nostalgic for). There’s no question that we would talk about his death, no dispute that the circumstances of it put the topic of depression and self-harm into our conversation. This was good, and normal.

What wasn’t normal, what still isn’t normal and what must never be taken as normal, is the way some Christian writers responded to it. Yet again, many Christian bloggers succumbed to the pull for easy “reflections” on Williams, and even worse, on depression and suicide. I saw blog after blog, article after article, about why Williams’ death was a “reminder” that only Jesus could satisfy us, that the fame and fortune and prescription drugs Williams took refuge in is never enough, and that self-hatred and suicide were the inevitable fate of those who missed the gospel. (“Like what you see? Please click share!”)

Let me explain briefly why Christians should never, ever write like this.

Three years after Robin Williams’ death, I am reading an editorial that his widow wrote in Neurology magazine. It’s a lengthy read, so I’ll summarize the most important part. Robin Williams suffered from an aggressive form of dementia known as “Lewy body dementia,” or LBD. While this is not an uncommon disease, doctors who studied Williams’ brain tissue after his death concluded that his was an uncommonly advanced case. From the article:

Not until the coroner’s report, 3 months after his death, would I learn that it was diffuse LBD that took him. All 4 of the doctors I met with afterwards and who had reviewed his records indicated his was one of the worst pathologies they had seen. He had about 40% loss of dopamine neurons and almost no neurons were free of Lewy bodies throughout the entire brain and brainstem.

Dopamine, you may recall, is the chemical created by the brain that helps us rest and feel at peace. Williams’ LBD literally robbed his brain of its ability to naturally rest and feel calm. This was not an effect of Williams’ being a Hollywood actor or not being “gospel-centered.” This was the effect of a brain illness.

Hear me: I’m not saying that spiritual issues are irrelevant when it comes depression and mental issues. I’m not saying there’s nothing distinctively Christian to say about Robin Williams or about other public figures, like Chester Bennington, who commit suicide. What I am saying is that cheaply thought, cheaply written responses to these events by definition betray the Christian commitment to the centrality of truth. As Christians, we believe in objective truth, and that means objective truth exists both in the soul and the body. We are not disembodied spirits whose only problems are sin and lostness. We are enfleshed creatures whose bodies, under the degenerative curse of a cosmos waiting for its redemption, can wage war against our spirits.

To ignore this, to draw straight lines from suicide and self-harm to theological cliches, is to foully disrespect the Bible. The Bible is not a PowerPoint slideshow in our hot takes. It doesn’t exist so that we can have answers to current events that come quick enough to get hot blog traffic. Turning the Scriptures into slogans devalues both the Bible and the people to whom we would proclaim it. Admitting our fallibility, our lack of comprehensive knowledge, and even our inability to perfectly apply the truths of Scripture doesn’t make for good platforming, but it does make for more honest, more effective, and more Christ-like people.

I realize there are intense debates amongst Christians about how to think and talk about issues of mental illness and the sufficiency of Scripture. That’s a discussion worth having. But wrestling with these deep questions is not the same as presuming to know how it all works, and cranking out Tweetable aphorisms that would make you look like an utter fool if someone with more knowledge read them. The Christian blogosphere can do better than that.