Hatmakers and Hot Takers

One thing that concerns me about conservative evangelicalism right now is the inability we often demonstrate to let those who exist and teach outside the boundaries of historic Christianity…just stay there. I often feel like there’s a compulsion in evangelical culture to always be writing and tweeting against “false teachers,” and here I include air-quotes not because false teachers don’t exist, but because not every person who teaches false things actually rises to the level of a “false teacher.”

There is a time when polemics are needed to protect the confessional integrity of a body of believers, either at a small group, congregational, denominational, and, yes, cultural level. But the gospel urgency of such polemics should, I think, decline as we go down that scale. Unorthodoxy in small group and local church teaching should be met with quick and decisive action. Unorthodoxy in denominational teaching should likewise be addressed, but that situation is different and requires a more careful, strategic response, one that must consider how much this denominational position affects the congregation.

The cultural level is the most slippery of all categories. If you want to, you can do polemics full time against all sorts of heresies in American religious culture. But is that really what orthodox evangelicals should aspire to? Or should we practice a sort of polemical triage, keeping close watch over the corporeal bodies around us and a more marginal watch over heresies that exist outside our boundaries? This is not to say that bad teaching in other denominations or in Christian institutions of which I’m not a member are unimportant. It’s just to say that they’re not AS important.

The problem is you wouldn’t know this from reading a lot of evangelical blogs. I honestly don’t know why we’re still writing stuff about Jen Hatmaker. It’s fairly evident that she does not align with historic Christian teaching on sexuality or marriage. Yes, LifeWay has stopped selling her books. But that’s because Lifeway is an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention, a denomination with specific beliefs about sexuality which is funded by local churches that share those beliefs. Lifeway’s compelling interest to not sell books by Hatmaker or other progressive evangelicals such as Rachel Held Evans is not just a culture war interest, it’s an institutional interest. Lifeway exists because Southern Baptists go to church and give money for the support of institutions that don’t contradict the Baptist Faith and Message.

What I don’t understand is why this test of compelling institutional interest applies to our resources, but not our minds and our time. Yes, there is certainly space to write about people and doctrines “outside our tribe.” That space should be, I would submit, filled first and foremost by pastors, elders, discipleship leaders, and church teachers who have an obligation to their flocks. But blogs, Tweets, videos, and #content that is produced from within clearly defined doctrinal and institutional boundaries, directed toward people and ideas and groups that don’t share any of those boundaries (in fact, they may not posses any real boundaries of their own), feels like a validation wrapped in a rebuke.

Part of the reason for the intra-Christian animosity in the same-sex debate is a bipartisan attempt to maintain an illusion: the illusion that we really are all on the same team, and that some members of the team are just awful members. This is not true. We’re not members of the same team, a fact that would be more self-evident if we took denominational identity and doctrinal coherence seriously. To continue to wring our hands about people like Hatmaker is to continue to give the nebulous, unaccountable, and helplessly du jour concept of “online platform” a spiritual significance that it hasn’t earned. It’s not at all clear to me why Hatmaker’s opinions on same-sex marriage belong in a different category than Bart Ehrman’s opinion on the Scriptures. The latter is utterly false and damnable, but also of no immediate compelling interest to my family, my church, my denomination, or even my subset of evangelicalism. The fact that Hatmaker’s heterodoxy is more in demand than Ehrman’s may mean I should be more ready to give an answer on that issue than I might be otherwise, but it assuredly doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea for me to wage an online war against it in a way that implicitly baptizes social media as a valid ecclesial structure, or that extols getting a book deal as just as consequential to ecclesial life as being ordained for ministry.

Some people might read this and think I am calling for people, especially women, to be more marginalized and ignored, while letting the “experts” handle things for us. That’s not what I’m calling for. But I am wondering aloud whether part of our problem as American evangelicals right now is not only that we have too many bad teachers, but that we have too many teachers, period. When a charismatic speaker with a podcast writes a book that is theologically dysfunctional, I simply do not think that it’s in evangelicals’ best interest to always make “correcting” them a full time job. If the theological dysfunction were ignored rather than engaged, might it be possible that the economic incentives for such dysfunction would thin out? And if they did, might it be possible that we’d be left with a better ratio of teachers—who want to think long, slowly, and deeply about Scripture, under authority and accountability of real ecclesiastical structures—to platform builders, who want to become social media famous with the help of their resentments, and whose only accountability is their Google analytics page?

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My Year in Books

Let’s get this out of the way: Year-end reading lists are usually more helpful for making us feel guilty about what we didn’t read than making us thankful for what we did.

My own year of reading was certainly no exception; the pile of books that I read this year seems so small compared to that of others. Yet, I think it’s important to actively fight against this feeling. There is probably a place for reading to have read, but it’s a place that is often far more prominent in my ego than it needs to be. Reading at whim and for pleasure is, all variables being equal, vastly superior to reading to keep up. The former can, and often has, turned something in my soul. The latter usually just confirms my preexisting insecurities and arrogances.

With that prologue finished, here are the books I spent the most pleasurable time with this year. This isn’t an exhaustive list of my reading (though I won’t pretend that the exhaustive list would be much bigger), nor is it a definitive breakdown of everything I liked this year. Rather, these are the books that stayed with me the longest after I read them, the books I thought about the most, the books I marinated in the deepest. Most are from 2017, though not all.

 

-Brian Jay Jones, George Lucas: A LifeA compulsively readable biography. While it doesn’t offer quite the psychological insights I hoped, Lucas’s eclectic, unlikely career is vividly told with lots of fascinating new anecdotes.

-Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option. If you haven’t read the book, you don’t quite know the argument.

-Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise. An accessible and unpretentious assessment of a major cultural development. An essential read for anyone trying to understand the impact of the internet on how we think. Speaking of which…

-Alan Jacobs, How To Think. One of my most underlined books of the year. I like to think of it as a long essay about the epistemological consequences of social media. I can hardly think of a more timely work.

-John Stott, The Cross of Christ. This was my first foray in a Christian classic. Stott’s defense of penal substitutionary atonement is beautiful—so much so that it’s odd to even call it a “defense.” Of all the nonfiction I read this year, this one drove me to prayer and worship the most.

-Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter. Greene’s psychological novels dig deep in my soul. This story about a duty-bound English police officer and his crisis of faith and marriage kept me up late hours of the evening. The ending is one of the most spiritually moving pieces of fiction I’ve read.

-Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. An exquisitely written novel about some of the most fundamental human experiences. Aspiring storytellers should know this book.

-Sarah Shin, Beyond Colorblind. This excellent work is a rare thing: An evangelical treatise on race, white privilege, and community that is both thoroughly Christian and unflaggingly level headed.

-James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love. Probably the second-best book I read this year. On that note,

-Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth. My #1 read of 2017. I will be re-reading this book regularly. It has given me something for which I’ve longed for a while: A theological perspective on enjoying what God gives, and why doing so doesn’t conflict with enjoying who God is.

Should We Blame the Pro-Life Movement?

There is a strain of thinking among some evangelicals that I cannot get my head around. Here it is: The Republican Party’s collapse of virtue and embrace of sub-moral strongmen can be attributed, at least in part, to the well-intentioned but naive single-mindedness of the pro-life movement.

James K.A. Smith’s brief Tweet thread seems to repeat this point, albeit with some slippery and vague language. His complaint is seems to be that pro-lifers who wish they had a friend in the Democratic party are refusing to let go of their mistaken assumptions about the proper relationship of pro-life advocacy to a holistic political engagement. Smith declines to articulate precisely what they should do instead, which makes his analysis difficult to parse. But it’s an idea that has been repeated with more clarity enough times to make me confident of where the argument is going.

Of course, the main problem here is that the absence of concrete correctives means how one interprets this messaging largely depends on your preexisting beliefs. If you think abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, Smith’s tweet-storm should make a lot of sense to you. On the other hand, if you think abortion should be illegal in just about every circumstance, then the suggestion that you “untether” yourself from what the GOP “taught” you about abortion is less clear.

What does “untethering” oneself from the pro-life pedagogy of the Republican party look like for a person who genuinely believes that aborted unborn bodies are human persons? What is the proper response for a person who wants to be a responsible agent of human flourishing in all areas of life, yet watches doctors legally skim through hands, feet, eyes, and brain matter with the indifference of a junkyard dealer?

Put it another way. Why, in this way of thinking, is the burden of proof on the person protesting the legal dismemberment of human beings, instead of the people not protesting it? Why is it up to the pro-life advocate to be less single-minded about one issue, instead of it being up to our political parties and their leaders to not exploit their bases through ideology?

It’s extraordinary to me that in the situation Dr. Smith imagines of a pro-life voter being drawn to the Democratic Party, it’s the pro-life voter’s fault for not embracing a more pragmatic strategy for public policy. The Democratic Party’s ruthless campaign to exile anything that resembles pro-life sentiment from their ranks is not even worth mentioning apparently. For some unthinkable reason, the dysfunction and polarization of American politics becomes attributable not to politicians who cling on to pseudoscience and judicial fiat to enforce a violent ideology, but to those poor souls who actually think this issue might be the most important, the most pressing one of the times.

It’s possible that what Smith and others are saying is that we oughtn’t be ham fisted, single-issue voters. If that’s the case, then the proper way to make this argument would be to appeal to pro-lifers that the best means to end abortion is to embrace a wider political strategy, one that can build coalitions and pass laws and galvanize communities toward pro-life law without using it as a wedge issue. That’s a fair take, and voters who would identify as single-issue voters when it comes to who they won’t vote for would do well to ask themselves whether their practice of political engagement is one that is likely to build pro-life alliances, or likely to reinforce existing polarizations. Let’s have that conversation!

The problem is, sadly, that this is not actually what Smith says. What he actually says is that pro-life voters must recalibrate their entire philosophy of civic engagement when it comes to abortion.

Pro-life voters, Smith says, are “demanding purity” and “naively” neglecting “political reality.” In a final parenthetical, Smith even suggests that abortion should not be considered an especially egregious injustice, and that it might fit suitably alongside “lots of injustices” from which our two-party system has thus far not offered an escape.

There’s no way for me to read this line of thinking without believing that it ends in “safe, legal, and rare.” Whether “single-issue voters” are being taken advantage of by a corrosive Republican party is a much different question than whether pro-life voters are simply wrong to make this issue a test of political acceptability. It’s not clear to me at all that there would even be a viable pro-life witness in American public life if it weren’t for the willingness of some brave advocates, politicians, and citizens to insist that as for them and their house, they will protect unborn bodies. Should the shooting of unarmed black men be sorted neatly alongside “lots of injustices” that we must live with, or is there something to be said for insisting that civic servants acknowledge the inherent value of human life and demonstrate their willingness and competency to defend it in those situations?

These kinds of analogies are helpful not because abortion and racial justice are identical issues, but because they force us to acknowledge our tendency to relegate abortion to the “culture war” and then demonstrate how far above we are such skirmishes. The fundamental problem of abortion law is always, “Is this a human person?” No pragmatism, no “shaping of our political imagination” that does not explicitly give this question somewhere to land, can be remotely considered pro-life.

Planned Parenthood’s human factories are not going to close themselves when people finally start realizing that tax policy matters to poor people, too. The Democratic Party is not going to acknowledge the humanness of the fetus until it is politically forced to, and that political force is going to come, first and foremost, from voters—voters who are willing to be scorned, but not willing to be fooled.

(photo credit)

Evangelicals, Politics, and Church History

Have you ever wondered why our intense conversations within evangelicalism about politics, character, and voting almost never end up citing major figures in church history? These are pretty important debates, after all. Navigating the moral failures of elected officials and choosing some sinners rather than others to wield authority over the public square seems like a fairly serious intertwining of Christian ethics, Christian social theory, Christian forgiveness/repentance, and even Christian eschatology. There’s a lot going on in the question of why a Roy Moore or Donald Trump may or may not be a suitable choice for a believer. And yet most of what is brought up as wisdom is radically contemporary. Is 2,000 years of Christian thought and church praxis just insufficient to shed light on the Republican and Democratic Party?

I have a theory as to why.

Behind the “lesser of two evils” debate stands an unspoken but very real theology of work. Most American Christians do not feel that the moral demands of the gospel comprehensively inform how they labor. Their “on the job” performance is one sphere. Their spiritual life is another. To borrow one equally unfortunate phrase, work and faith are considered non-overlapping magisterium. For many evangelicals especially, the paradigms of the gospel, the teachings of Christ, the narrative sweep of Scripture, and the mission of the church are singularly vertical concerns between them and their Creator, and possibly them and their pastor. Practically, these truths make next to zero difference in how—and why—they carry out their 9-to-5 existence.

So, when you try to tell an evangelical Republican that character counts, and that not even a pro-life politician is automatically worthy of a vote if there is credible, serious allegations against his moral character, you are asking him to apply a standard to this politician that he does not even apply to himself. Evangelicalism’s politics are downstream from their praxis; because there is no viable theology of work, because most evangelicals view how they do their job, how they interact with subordinates and superiors, and why they labor at all as a self-referential sphere disconnected from the euangelion, demanding that they connect New Testament ethics to politicians sounds ridiculous. What the President of the United States says about women shouldn’t affect our judgment of whether or not he can be a good president. What a senatorial candidate did in his car or at the mall years ago with underaged women doesn’t mean he’d be a bad senator. Of course, you might not want either of those men are your pastor or even your son-in-law. But that doesn’t remotely affect how they’d do as your president, does it?

This hard detachment of role from revelation is what, I think, the great figures of church history would have found stunning. Listen to what these church history giants have to say about the relationship between a civic ruler’s character and the actual consequences of his reign:

“The studies and character of priests and bishops are a potent factor in this matter, I admit, but not nearly so much so as are those of princes. Men are more ready to decry the clergy if they sin than they are to emulate them in their good points. So it is that monks who are really pious do not excite people to follow their example because they seem only to be practicing what they preach. But on the other hand, if they are sinful everyone is shocked beyond measure. But there is no one who is not stimulated to follow in the footsteps of his prince! For this very reason the prince should take special care not to sin, because he makes so many followers in his wrongdoings, but rather to devote himself to being virtuous so that so many more good men may result.”

Likewise,

Augustine argued that a king has to be master of himself before he can master people, and should “prefer mastery over their base desires” to lordship of nations. Christian rulers rule well when they “offer to their true God the sacrifice of humility and mercy and prayer” for their sins.

What both Erasmus and Augustine assume here is a close, even inexorable connection between the duties of the magistrate and the magistrate’s soul. This is not a theology of labor that you hear in modern evangelicalism, particularly in parts of the country where “God and country” civil religion has played tentpole to an un-virtuous capitalism. What would the chagrin of Christian business owners be like if their local church elders had knowledge of how they treated their employees, and possessed the theology to confront them with the demands of their faith in all aspects of their life?

What’s missing from all these debates about politicians and virtue is the voice of our religious forefathers. If we hear it, we will have to admit that it cuts deeply against the grain of our personal autonomy and theological poverty. Even more startling: It sounds nothing like Fox News.

Children and the Peril of Internet Fame

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

A parent records their child doing/saying something moving/saddening/remarkable. The parent then posts the video of their child to social media. Social media reacts strongly to the video, and before you know it, the video—and the child—are “viral” digital sensations. They start trending on Buzzfeed, being re-shared by celebrities and athletes, and almost everyone seems to be talking about this child and what he or she said or did.

Unfortunately, the people of the internet start looking for some information about this child and his family. When they find some, it turns out that the family, and especially the parent who recorded the viral video, has some unsavory, even morally offensive social media posts on their account. Just as it did with the original video, the online “community” ensures that the new information about the family, including screenshots and pictures, goes viral.The same internet that was just a few days ago sharing the video with captions of admiration and appreciation is now outraged that any family or adult with such offensive ideas/posts could be given a platform.

This is precisely the story now of the video of Keaton, a young boy whose tears have been shared by many people in my social media feeds. Keaton is bullied at school, and his mother decided to record an emotional moment for her son and post it online. Oceans of sympathetic well-wishes poured in from millions of people who watched the video. But some Twitter users found the mother’s own Facebook account, where she posts pictures of her kids holding confederate battle flags and screeds against black NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. Just hours ago the online world wanted to support Keaton. Now they wish he and his family would go away.

Perhaps we need periodic reminders that children and the internet are not usually a good combination. I’m not trying to be holier-than-thou here. I’ve posted photos and videos of my son online, too. But this episode with Keaton and his family reminds me that I probably shouldn’t be comfortable about that fact. My concern is not that this family is being treated unfairly by an outraged online mob (though I think there might be a point to make about the inherently non-redemptive outrage of the internet). My concern is that Keaton’s vulnerable, emotionally fragile moment, a moment that thousands of other kids identify with every day, was broadcast to millions of strangers, the overwhelming majority of whom do not really care about him. The online fame paid off in one sense, and backfired horribly in another. Keaton’s grief over being bullied by people he knew in flesh and blood at the school is now compounded by the angry crowd that wants to hold him accountable for political and racial ideas likely far beyond his comprehension.

This just isn’t how it’s supposed to be. There are deeply troubling dynamics to online fame, and they only get worse when applied to children. Keaton’s anguish belonged off-camera. His very real heartbreak should never have been given to the masses. If Keaton’s mom thought online fame would balm her son’s wounds, she may have been right, but then what does that mean for Keaton going forward? Is the only suffering worth living through the suffering that can help us go viral?

The internet is a double-edged sword. Its greatest strength is that it can get anywhere. Its greatest threat is that it can get anywhere. Its pervasive presence in all aspects of public life is what gives the social media age its power for good, and its power for evil. When we stop thinking seriously about the costs of online life, we will start to sacrifice much, much more than our privacy.

I wish the best for young Keaton. I hope that he will understand that bullying is not the last word, that he is loved and fearfully and wonderfully made. And I hope he will learn quickly not to test that truth against the approval, or outrage, of the digital age.

Something Better Than Friendship

Rereading my way through C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, I was struck by Lewis’s blunt words about “wanting friends” and the essence of genuine friendship:

That is why those pathetic people who simply “want friends” can never make any. The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be “I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a friend,” no Friendship can arise—though Affection of course may. There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.

For Lewis, the focus on something outside the relationship, something objective whose reality does not depend yet confers meaning on the relationship, is what differentiates Friendship from Eros. In Eros (which does not preclude Friendship but is not synonymous with it), the lovers are bound to each other by their very bonded-ness. The relationship itself is the point. Friendship, on the other hand, is cultivated when two people discover that they are both pursuing a same thing. Friendships are not made from a devotion to the bonded-ness itself, because that comes later. Friendships are made from a commonality that begets an identity.  Thus comes Lewis’s famous line: “Hence we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.”

What would this observation mean in a digital age? For one thing, we should probably admit that the internet has changed, perhaps permanently, how our culture thinks about friendship. Partly this is through the elimination of distance and the flattening of time; friends can be reached instantly (text messaging), no matter where they are (smartphones), even at a sub-literate level (Snapchat and Instagram). Whether this is a good or bad thing probably depends on many other factors, and it would likely be a mistake to either worship or anathematize the raw connective potential of technology.

But then again, Westerners are indeed lonelier than ever before, despite how easy and unobtrusive to daily life the cultivation of “friendships” has become. This is where I think Lewis can help us. Lewis’s argument is not that friendship shouldn’t exist without an objective commonality; his argument is that it cannot exist. It is the nature of friendship to bring two people out of themselves, and out of each other, into something on which their bonded-ness can grow. Without that outside something, the relationship that forms between people is bent back inwardly for each of them. The relationship’s value becomes about how valued each person feels. The friendship exists for the sake of “having friends,” which really means it exists for the satisfaction of being liked.

This is important, because our age of social media is a curated age. Networking technology empowers individual control of the social experience; you can add, delete, mute, or hide at will. Curation is the power to feel like one is among friends even when one isn’t. “Friendship technology” is not about bringing people who both, to use Lewis’s term, see the same truth. If it were, social media would not have any long term appeal over phone calls, book clubs, and church. The reason it does have such appeal is that it offers individuals the psychological experiences of friendship (“My posts are being liked, therefore I am being liked”) without the often difficult work of cultivating one’s own inner life (which is, according to Lewis’s, what is shared by friends).

I suspect that part of the epidemic loneliness in our culture stems from the fact that many of us have very little of our own inner life to truly share with another person. Our hobbies don’t even mean much to us, because if we’re honest, we do them mostly because they’re what the “liked” people on social media do. In many of our hearts, there just isn’t much for friendship to feed on. Because there’s no effort to see truth, or to really love beauty, or to accomplish something meaningful, there’s consequently nothing that another person can come alongside us for. As we age, the stresses and demands of family, and especially work, choke out our inner lives. Life is reduced to doing, and only those who happen to be doing with us in a particular season of life can become our “friends,” even though we know the friendship will dissipate when the doing ceases, as doing always does.

Lewis’s observations are a reminder to me that sharing life with a friend requires treasuring something enough to share in the first place. Loving the wrong things, like the feeling of being “liked” by avatars on a screen, is a pestilence to real friendship. A social media age glorifies non-stop connectedness, but authentic friendship relies more on what happens in the quiet hours of life, as the heart takes shape.