Friendship, Loyalty, Honesty, and Theological Controversy

In my little corner of life recently there’s been some controversy over the firing of a professor, what part another professor might have played in that firing, and What It All Means for everybody involved. I don’t feel like litigating those issues here, mostly because I don’t know enough or have even strong enough feelings to make such thoughts profitable, but also because I have personal friendships and relationships that might be strained unnecessarily, one way or the other. That raises a question for me: How important do I see friendships, partnerships, and personal loyalties when it comes to navigating controversies, especially within evangelicalism?

The issue can become complex for me personally because I have friends and relationships with people representing many different “tribes.” I have young, restless, and Reformed friends, and I have friends who read post-evangelical blogs. I have Presbyterian friends who hate Baptist political theology and I have friends at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. I have friends who believe in Biblical counseling and friends who believe in Christian psychology, friends who believe in Roger Williams’ soul freedom and friends who believing in a truly Christian public square. I have friends who believe in just war and friends who are pacifists, friends who voted for Donald Trump and friends who could not. My “loyalties” runneth over.

This can be awkward, because sometimes things are said by tribe A that tribe B interprets as uncharitable, or tribe C will announce something tribes A and B agree is heretical, or–even better–tribe D will come along and ask who in the heck all these tribes are to go around labeling stuff. There are many who would call this tribal brouhaha a tragedy of American Christianity, a symptom of a broken, dysfunctional religious identity. Maybe it is. Most of the time I find myself thankful to know and associate with Christians who really do take ideas and truth seriously enough to articulate it in a specific way. Yes, tribalism can easily turn toxic, but it needn’t. Often I find that those who complain the most frequently and loudly about Christian “tribalism” are those who always have something to sell me instead.

Anyway, back to the question. What’s a fellow to do? When Facebook becomes an overnight blog battleground, and people I respect and admire and want to keep in my life are taking opposite sides, what should I do? Should I play politics and calculate which friends I *really* want to keep and calibrate my response to satisfy them? Should I try to prove to myself and others my own ideological purity and start saying things that will let my friends know they don’t “own” me? Should I make the bad theology into a t shirt that the offended party wears? Should I do nothing?

On the one hand, personal relationships don’t determine what is true, and therefore shouldn’t have an ultimate say on what I believe. Many churches and religious institutions have prioritized unity and solidarity over reality, and many times the results have been heretical, abusive, or both. Jesus wasn’t persuaded to relent when the rich young ruler walked away sad. Paul did not determine that Peter’s refusal to associate with Gentiles was fine just because they were partners in the gospel. Relational flourishing is not the supreme good. God is.

On the other hand, an arrogant dismissal of those who have helped  and served me is wrong too. When reminding Timothy to hold fast to the gospel, Paul reminded him of the trustworthy people who had taught it to him (2 Tim 3:14). Human beings aren’t merely thinking machines that just churn after propositional truth at all costs. Truth is enfleshed and embodied, first in Christ himself, then in the gathering and practices of the church. Christian friendship is not an obstacle to truth, it’s an expression of it.

Conservative evangelicalism has oft been so zealous for right “knowing” that it has, unwittingly and otherwise, denigrated the relational character of Christianity. I grew up believing that friendship was a bad reason to go to church. One went to church to worship God, individually. It wasn’t for many years that I realized the problem with this mentality is that it doesn’t explain why believers shouldn’t just stay at home and study the Bible on Sunday. Other people are not accessories to the church, they are the meaning of it.

So I don’t want to slough off friendships in the name of good thinking or theology. Nor do I want to outsource my convictions to in-groups and exchange honesty for belonging. So where does that leave me?

I think it leaves me with ears to hear. My instincts need to be questioned, because, like everyone else, they are fallible, biased, self-interested, and incomplete. That doesn’t mean curling up in an oven like Descartes and erasing everything I know. To be oriented toward trust in some ways and suspicion in others is to be human. We are formative creatures. I can hear someone say X and immediately think, “Knowing what I know about that person, I’m not sure I can believe X.” That’s a human instinct. But when that instinct empowers me to make up my mind in ignorance, to shut down the conversation and proceed with judgment, then I have probably cost myself friendship and mutuality. When the tingling sensation of distrust emerges, I want to be able to listen well.

When people that I know, love, and trust are accused or criticized, my striving for truth does not mean I assume that the accusations are true. It doesn’t mean tossing out the love and good faith that is so hard to build and yet so easy to destroy. I’m willing to venture that if it’s easy for you to believe bad reports about everyone, you probably love yourself more than anyone. It is the nature of love to dam suspicion. It hopes all things–and rejoices with the truth.

We are all sinners, and no sin is impossible for the best of us. Finite creatures as we are, we are almost always bereft of exhaustive knowledge. So we have to proceed in trust–trust of the Word, trust of each other, and trust in the sovereign hand of God. Trust is fragile. It doesn’t just break, it shatters. That’s why listening well and remembering our own frailty and sinfulness is important. But just because trust is fragile doesn’t mean we ought never handle it. Even when it comes to theological tribes, war, and rumors of war, a disposition of trust–bordered on all sides by humility and self-awareness–is a healthy thing.

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You Are What You Click

I commend to you this excellent essay by Gracy Olmstead on our current American news culture. The entire piece is well-worth your time and reflection, but I want to zero in on one particular point Gracy makes. Toward the end of the essay Gracy says that “the news you click on is the news you deserve.” In other words, those who complain about misleading, baiting, or frivolous content have to realize that there is no such thing as a “hate-click” in the modern writing economy. If you click it, you support it. And journalism culture right now, in all its manufactured outrage and Buzzfeedification, reflects what people support. Gracy:

It’s a sad truth, but many who complain about “clickbait” feed it via their daily habits. Whether you visit the Huffington Post or Salon, Drudge or The Blaze, many of today’s “news” websites have made their living curating headlines and stories according to the proclivities of the masses.

All news organizations—for better or worse—determine their most “successful” stories by the number of views they get on Chartbeat or Google Analytics. Stories that “break the site” or drive in monumental amounts of traffic become the standard-bearers for future reporting. But of course, it’s the most controversial, incendiary, and sensational stories that get the most clicks.

This isn’t some deep dark trade secret of journalists. It’s a basic lesson in economics. News organizations have to make money. The vast majority of them make money by selling advertisements that reimburse them based on clicks. Clicks=money, therefore, whatever leads to clicks is what news organizations will try to prioritize. The digital writing economy does not rely on your appreciation, your support, or even your agreeing. It depends on your click. 

This is precisely why the most irritating, most thoughtless opinion sites depend overwhelmingly on Facebook to get traffic. Facebook is a click machine. Most people scroll through Facebook not because they’re looking for something specific, but because they’re looking for anything. From experience, I know that many, many people who read news and opinion content via Facebook never get past the headline. That’s the point. Who needs to read a 700 word article when a headline will do your thinking for you–or better yet, tell your friends how you think and how they ought to think too?

For those of us who care about what we read and what we share, this ought to motivate us to “protect” our click. If a Facebook friend shares a conspiracy theory, I don’t click it, not even so I can disagree with it. I ignore it. Is such ignoring flouting my responsibility to engage with nonsense? No, I don’t think so, primarily because I don’t believe such responsibility actually exists. If I’m at dinner and a friend of mine sitting next to me tries to convince me that Bush did 9/11 or that George Soros hires police to kill black Americans, I will respond (as calmly as I can). But if he offers to sell me a book that explains both of those things, I’m not going to buy it or read it. That’s the thing about the online writing economy: your time and attention has an economic impact on whatever you give time and attention to. And it should be remembered that one of the most effective traffic drivers of online content are angry social media exchanges about it. Who can resist clicking when they see friends getting hot about an article?

Most of us don’t intuitively think of our online habits this way. The content is free. The article is short. The Facebook friend is earnest. So what if the words published are silly, irresponsible, or even a little dishonest? What’s the big deal? But Gracy reminds us that not only do we have a moral obligation to think truthfully and honestly, but our entertaining of deception and clickbait rewards those who design it. In the online age, it doesn’t matter whether you click to learn or to debate. It only matters that you click. When it comes to changing the toxic problems in our public square, we’d do well to remember: We aren’t what we think, but we are what we click.

A new way to read this blog

More times than I can count I’ve been asked how to subscribe to this blog via email. Until today I didn’t have a way to do that. I do now.

If you go to this link and fill out your name and email, you will receive new posts here when they publish. I wish I could insert a signup form into this post, but alas, it’s not possible. Just click the link, enter your information, and you will receive everything I post here via email.

Atheism vs “Thoughts & Prayers”

It’s becoming common nowadays to see atheists and skeptics ridicule prayer in the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Harvey. One clever meme that I’ve seen this time around contains a picture of an empty truck, with the caption, “Good news! Your shipment of prayers has arrived.” Funny, right?

Secular scoffers who speak thus usually explain that expressions of “thoughts and prayers” aren’t only obnoxious, but harmful, since (they reason) such sentiments are offered as substitutes for actual, material aid. People who might otherwise donate money and time are exempted from doing so because their prayers and positivity feel like sufficient effort. Hence, the atheist concludes, we have another example of how religion poisons everything.

There are two things I find interesting about this mindset. The first is how detached from reality it is. Prayerful, religious people are consistently some of the most giving, most voluntaristic citizens. The alleged connection between prayer and inactivity is little more than an assumption based on a presupposition. Atheists, after all, believe that the reason people pray in the first place is that they are overwhelmed by life and lack either the ability or the willingness to face it honestly. Accusations of hiding behind “thoughts and prayers” an excuse not to serve others looks good to skeptics on paper because it confirms a preexisting set of beliefs about why humans chose to believe rather than disbelieve. So the old irony appears again–it turns out that atheists act very fundamentalistically when it comes to how they think of others who don’t think like them.

The second thing I find interesting is that prayer, unlike almost every other religious practice, is naturally private and personal in a way that secularists generally enjoy. New Atheists go hoarse explaining that they don’t want to outlaw religion or railroad private religious beliefs out of existence. They just want to make sure that religion stays private–out of public education, out of public policy, out of public influence. If there’s one religious discipline that should fit this bill perfectly, it’s private prayer, right? Isn’t prayer what we want religious people doing in lieu of actually going out and spreading their beliefs?

So why the animosity toward prayer? I don’t think it’s because praying people are stingy people, as I’ve said. Rather, I suspect that secularists dislike expressions of prayer in times of tragedy because such expressions are reminders of the limitations of human effort. “Thoughts and prayers” irritate those who cannot offer them. In moments of true human empathy, where we want to reach out and fix something broken about the world but cannot reach far enough, there’s something written on our hearts that tells us that Someone should be able to reach for us. Prayer is an invocation of that Someone. That’s why the skeptic, whose universe begins and end with human evolution and revolution, resists it.

This is why the fracture of the world, rather than its design, is the strongest apologetic for the Creator. For the materialist, all the suffering, all the agony, and all the sympathy in the universe adds up to little more than a footnote in human history. There is nothing, and ultimately no one, above or below it. The voice in the soul that whispers that drowning mothers and trapped elderly and destroyed homes are not the way the universe is meant to work has nowhere to direct its message in the mind of the prayerless. Such sentiment either reverberates hollowly against an indifferent natural universe, or else is suppressed as meaningless neurological events. For the prayerful, however, the hurricane brings with it reminders that families weren’t designed to die, and that somewhere this truth holds fast.

“Thoughts and prayers” suggest that hurricanes cannot destroy everything that is really real. For the prayerless, this is terrifying. For the prayerful, it’s the best of news.