Profane Public Squares

The Amazon Top 20 nonfiction lists includes two bestsellers, both from HarperOne, that include the f-word in their title and on their covers. A single asterisk keeps both titles from their honest spellings. My memory will not win any awards, but I simply do not recall ever seeing a trade book in Barnes and Noble with the f-word on the cover like that whilst growing up. One heard swears, of course, but one never read them on window-copy bestsellers. Maybe it’s time to ask our politicians and cultural elites, who go to great lengths to talk about “protecting children,” why they would file a restraining order against me for standing outside Target and yelling profanity at their kids, but seem to think I’ll be inclined to pay $15.99 for them to return the favor.

Meanwhile, literally as I was going to type this, I see that the Cleveland Indians are going to retire their mascot, Chief Wahoo, over concerns about racial stereotypes. I guess offensiveness can lead to change. You just have to be offensive in the right way.

Advertisements

Millennials, Free Speech, and Analog Learning

I think it’s past time to admit that the hostility we see from college students toward speech and ideas they dislike is a generational issue. I know this sounds like I’m encouraging stereotypes of millennials, and reasonable people are not supposed to talk about any group in that kind of systemic language (well, almost any group). But denying the generational character of anti-free speech attitudes puts us at a serious risk, I think, of failing to understand why so many millennials feel this way in the first place.

Millennials are the first generation to grow up in an internet age. Note the wording carefully, because millennials are not the first generation to come of age with the internet (Gen-X). They are, however, the first Americans to have had their childhood shaped by the rhythms and cultures of online life. This is enormously important, because it means that millions of millennials grew up having their worldview and (more importantly) their relational identity calibrated by technology that is ephemeral. Because many millennials were online at formative intellectual and emotional times of their life, their expectations of what life is really like are shaped by digital technology…which means, among many other things, that many millennials have, since their early childhood, practiced a semi-autonomous sort of mastery over their world. The delete, cancel, log off, and block buttons have always been right by them. And for many of these millennials, adolescence meant the mobilization of this technology. Whether it’s the family PC or their own iPhone, millennials have, for what is functionally their entire existence, related to the “other” through digital medium.

To me, this suggests that what anti-free speech millennials misunderstand is not “free” but “speech.” The idea that words and ideas can exist outside their personal power to mediate them is a confusing idea, because that’s simply not how they learned about the world. When Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro or Ross Douthat write or say something that aggrieves their presuppositions, the millennial brain responds by insisting that not only are those words wrong (which is a legitimate response), but the fact that they had to hear them is a moral negative (which is not). If ideas are nothing more than words, and if words are nothing more than customizable strokes on an interface, then it does not make any moral sense that anyone should have to read or hear anything they dislike. Such a concept runs afoul of the techno-epistemological system that millennials raised on the digital age were shaped by. The entire premise of the internet is that you get what you want, and nothing more.

Analog learning, by contrast, impresses upon our minds the objective reality of words. Nothing you can do can make the words in that book go away. You can throw it out, tear out the pages, burn it if you wish (you wouldn’t be the first!), but the words are there, the book is there, and the meeting of ink with paper has produced, however small, a moment of cognitive everlastingness that can only be ignored, not erased.

Human nature craves absolutism and uniformity, not dissent and debate. Learning from books does not by itself stem this craving. Wisdom is not merely about form. But in analog learning, the relationship between me and the other is given definite shape and texture. The words will always be there, and it is my choice how to respond to them. By contrast, the internet temporalizes and commodifies thinking, so as to make the consumer as intellectually plastic and capable of more consumption as possible. This might mean, then, that shouting at millennials on Twitter to be more accepting of free speech is a loser’s cause. Recommending that they log off and read some books, however, might be a start.

Poverty, Dreher, and Story

Rod Dreher, a writer for whom I have a lot of admiration and respect, nevertheless has a tendency to overstate things, especially when those things pertain to his lived experience. Likewise, he has an unfortunate tendency to assume the worst intentions of people who push back against the conclusions he draws from his experiences. Those two flaws—which I shamefacedly confess to sharing—were on full display in the minor kerfuffle over this post. I won’t recap the mud-throwing, but suffice to say that I think Rod’s critics are right in their substantive critiques (Jemar Tisby’s, in particular), and that this whole episode might have been avoided by pondering for a few minutes longer the wisdom of defending transparently bigoted remarks by a transparently bigoted politician.

But there’s another contour to this thing that’s worth a very brief reflection. Part of what Rod was getting at in his original piece was that political correctness often runs counter to what people actually experience. This is a familiar beat to Rod, and it would be a mistake for people to assume that Rod has a vested emotional interest in punching down on poor people. If I’m reading him correctly, I think what Rod resents is the deliberate turning away from reality in favor of sentiments that play well with people who have no (literal and figurative) skin in the game. I think there’s something to say about that, and in an era of actual “reeducation” by our culture makers, the effects of Rightspeak are worth contemplation.

But I think what I’ve come away sensing is that Rod, and plenty of others, have not given enough contemplation. Instead, they’ve intuitively normalized their own experience of poor communities and downtrodden cultures into an argument. Rod’s desire to look for truth through experience is further confirmed when one considers the letters that he’s publishing as responses, as well as some responses to the responses. I think the best course of action is not only to reconsider tropes and stereotypes about the poor, but also to ask sharp questions of our tendency to equate experiences with an argument.

A lot of people have had a negative encounter with poor people or communities. And many of them choose to reason from their negative encounters to much bigger ideas about the moral quality of those in poverty. The problem with this is that one’s experiences are not worthy of such intellectual power. Yes, our experiences matter, and they can powerfully shape us, body and soul. But it doesn’t take much imagination how reasoning from experience is an awfully selective and unfair enterprise. If your only experience of poor Americans is being accosted by panhandlers, you’re likely going to reason from that experience that poor people are poor because they’d rather stand on the side of a highway off-ramp than find a job. Is the problem then that you haven’t had more experiences with poor people? Perhaps! But even if additional, more positive experiences broaden your horizon, continually over-relying on your experiences to inform you about the world will simply manifest itself in some other wrong, prejudiced, or naive way.

We see this everywhere right now. People who experienced judgement in a church might start a blog in which their experience of a relatively small number of people is extrapolated into huge, sweeping ideas about Christianity or the church. People who experience unexpected illness or health might intuit such experiences to big, specious notions about what is healthy and unhealthy (how do you think the essential oils business runs?). The point is not to discount our experiences entirely. We couldn’t do that even if we tried! The point is that piecing together our experiences and coming to a true knowledge of anything requires more than just gathering as many experiential narratives as we can.

The truth about American poverty lies far beyond the possibility of my experience, because it is indelibly rooted in history and ideas. I cannot visit the south side of Chicago for a weekend and come away with authoritative knowledge about poverty or urban policy. Nor can I justly conclude that a friend, associate, or Uber driver’s testimony is warrant enough for me to be dogmatic about an issue. My experiences and the truth are not coterminous.

I’m convinced that if Christians are going to coherently carry their witness to Christ and him crucified into future generations, we have to insist on this fact. I know Rod agrees with me, because I’ve read him long enough to know he does. I hope that he’ll apply this principle as liberally to issues of poverty and race as he does to modernism and confession.

Gender Equality and Gender War

I have a piece up at First Things today on the sexual revolution, #MeToo, and why women are always the biggest losers in a sexually autonomous society. Here’s an excerpt:

The two most consequential gains of the sexual revolution in my lifetime have been birth control and pornography, both of which have radically shaped the public square in the image of male desire. Both oral contraceptives and abortion have been cast as victories for female liberation, and to the degree that “liberation” means the weaponizing of our bodies against nature, this is true. But it is the men who have reaped the richest rewards (sex without children), without any of the tradeoff. Men, after all, need not concern themselves with the physiological effects of the pill, or with the surgeon’s knife, or with the risks of darkness and depression. It is the liberated women, not the men, who are asked to sacrifice their bodies for equality.

You can read the whole thing here.

Interestingly, and purely coincidentally, my friend Alastair Roberts has a new post about “weak men” and the gender wars. He riffs on a recent interview of social psychologist Jordan Peterson, in which Peterson appears to offend his interviewer by suggesting that men who perpetually defer to women in their life are ironically frustrating the ladies they’re trying to placate. Instead of being constantly admonished to support strong women, Alastair argues, men should be encouraged to shed immature weakness of their own and assert virtuous control over their lives and responsibilities.

Alastair:

Women, Peterson argues, deeply desire competent and powerful men as partners, because they can contend with and rely upon such men. Such power is not seen in tyrannical control—in the puerile husband who live action role-plays as a micro-managing patriarch—but in competence, confidence, strength, resolve, courage, honour, self-mastery, and other such manly virtues. Many women will settle for weak men, because weak men allow them to dominate them, but such relationships are almost always unhappy and frustrating for both parties in the long run.

Just how threatening the development of powerful men is to our society and how invested our society has become in stifling men and discouraging their strength is illuminating, and the responses to Peterson are often telling here—both the instinctive resistance of many women to the prospect of more powerful men and the immense hunger of young men for a maturity they feel they lack.

And:

Contemporary feminism is a cause doomed to frustration in key respects because the healthy strength and commitment that women so desire in their partners is something that they are invested in systemically stifling elsewhere and because their natural sexual power over men has been traded off for advantages in the realm of economic participation. There is a strong connection between the weakening of men and the progression of feminism, yet the result isn’t satisfying to either sex.

Had I read Alastair’s piece before writing my own, I would have connected our two points explicitly. While the economic dynamics of modern life are tilted to favor women, the sexual dynamics are perhaps more male-biased than ever. That’s because, as Alastair and Jordan Peterson point out, contemporary culture encourages women to lay aside their natural leverage over men and embrace a homogenous sexual ethos, one that is eventually reduced to competition, resentment, and consumerism. These attitudes erode trust and communal accountability. All that’s left is litigation and the will to power, which, unsurprisingly, plays right into the hands of amoral men.

Gender equality, unmoored from a transcendent moral vision of the sexes, culminates in gender war. If we are to push back against the tide of sexual violence and exploitation, we have to push back all the way, all the way against the sexual nihilism that convinced us first of all that we could be and do whatever we want.

A Brief Word to Book Reviewers

-Sneering dismissal of an author is acceptable to the degree that his book likewise is sneering and dismissive. What works marvelously well in a review of Richard Dawkins doesn’t in a review of Mitch Albom. You might have the same opinion of both writers, and that’s fine! But responding to Mitch Albom as if he’s Richard Dawkins is not only misleading and disingenuous, it’s obnoxious, like the preacher who screams from the pulpit “He leads me beside still waters.” If a meek and mild book is silly and false, then, as meekly and mildly as you can manage, call it silly and false. Don’t use a machine gun to rid the garden of squirrels.

-If you find yourself editing a citation from the book in a way that’s advantageous to your point but that wouldn’t be advantageous if you were to cite it more fully, you are in the process of misrepresenting the book. What you think the author really wants to say is not the same as what s/he said. Acknowledge the words that are really there and then make a case why your interpretation is valid. “Here’s what I think they mean” is perfectly defensible. “Look at what they said” is not.

-Write the review for the benefit of people who don’t necessarily have presuppositions about the author or the subject. Write something that would be helpful for the people who don’t subscribe to your Twitter feed or blog newsletter. If that’s difficult, declare what you’re writing a thinkpiece instead of a review. There’s no shame in it.

-If you can’t think of anything positive to say about the book, look at the cover. In my experience a suspiciously large percentage of the books that I couldn’t think of any redeeming qualities for had excellent outer designs. Work goes into that too, y’know.

On “The Godfather Part II”

Netflix has recently added both The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II to its streaming library. Below is something I wrote in 2014 on what makes Part II so great.

“That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.” Michael Corleone is not lying when he says these words in The Godfather. He means them. He means them so much he joined the military merely to prove them. We learn about that in the penultimate scene of The Godfather Part II, a flashback that surely ranks as one of the greatest filmmaking decisions of all time. Michael, sitting with his brothers awaiting their father and Corleone patriarch, casually announces his has joined the Marines. This angers and confuses them, since young Michael was given a draft deferment (this is WWII) and—as Tom says—“Pa had to pull a lot of strings.” His family interprets this as gross ingratitude, but we know better. Michael went to war to avoid becoming a gangster.

But the war ended, Michael (Al Pacino) returned home, and the rest is history told in the first movie. The dinner flashback at the end of Part II is crucial to the narrative of the Corleone family because it inserts the final missing piece of our understanding of its youngest son. Why, for example, does Vito tell Michael in the first film, “I never wanted this for you”? Why does Michael, years later, ask his mother if it is possible to lose a family? The answer is that Michael no longer knows himself.

It is important to see that famous final scene of The Godfather—in which the door to Michael’s world is literally shut on Kay (Diane Keaton)—as a beginning and not an end. It’s at that moment that Kay, who represents director Francis Ford Coppola’s audience, realizes that she will never really know her husband. In the terrifying and flawlessly acted scene in Part II in which Kay tells Michael that she aborted his unborn son, we understand she no longer wants to. “It was a son, and I had it killed because this must all end,” she thunders, right before Michael hits her (bringing to our remembrance the murder of Carlo, who married and then abused Connie Corleone so a rival family could assassinate Sonny). The “this” in that sentence is the first and only time Kay makes explicit reference to the Corleone family’s organized crime. The illusion of “It’s not me” has died. Michael has become a monster.

Most monsters become what they do to protect something truly valuable. In Michael’s case, it was his wife and children. His downward spiral is precipitated by a botched assassination attempt in his home. It has to be an inside job. “Keep them alive,” Michael instructs his men as they hunt the gunmen. Later on, impatient with a relative who doesn’t seem to understand What’s At Stake Here, he indignantly screams, “In my home! Where my wife sleeps and my children play!” Whatever happened to “it’s not personal, just business”?

But that’s the point, isn’t it? It was always personal. Murder is never strictly business. The parallel story line in Part II shows us the ascendancy of Vito Corleone and his empire. We watch as his mother is shot right in front of him by a local mobster. He escapes Italy and emigrates to New York, where he works hard and loves his family. When another mobster tries to extort him, he kills him, and thus begins a life of violence that is business and very personal, a point driven home when he returns to Italy as a prosperous adult to stab the old man who killed his mother.

The difference between father and son seems to be that Vito knew this kind of power is ultimately meaningless, and Michael doesn’t. When Michael senses his empire slipping away, he doubles down. He violates the dictum that he gave to young Fredo in Part I (“Never take sides with anyone against the family—ever”) and aligns himself with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), believing that the Jewish bankroller can finance him into a position of unassailable power. “We’re bigger than US Steel,” Roth intones, one of The Godfather Part II’s most recognizable lines. By the third act, Michael is no longer thinking about his family, but about his empire and revenge. Right after the assassination attempt, Michael departs for Miami to meet Roth. An odd choice; did he not question the wisdom of leaving his family at such a time? There’s a haunting scene after Michael returns home that shows him arriving at an eerily silent house and creeping his way to the bedroom where Kay is knitting. Rather than embrace his wife, he retreats into the shadows, perhaps ashamed, perhaps unsure. Nina Rota’s score plays sad, somber notes, music for a love gone cold.

All of this makes the film’s most important moment—Michael’s execution of his brother Fredo—comprehensible. The word “family” no longer means what it used to for Michael. There are only friends and enemies. Fredo’s assistance to the assassins (never fully explained in the film) makes him an enemy. The key scene is Michael’s confrontation of Fredo, which becomes a familial airing of grievances for two fatherless boys (“I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!”). Cinematographer Gordon Willis made a masterful decision to put the two characters on either side of the shot and in shadow, emphasizing the beautiful but lonely snowfall of the exterior. The brothers are strangers to one another now, joined only by the kingdom which winter is now burying.

John Cazale plays Fredo perfectly. He’s weak and sexually unconfident, and resents the opinion, shared by Michael, that he is too dumb and soft to be of much use to the family. Cazale died of cancer at only 42 years old, and those who knew him said he also was fragile and sensitive. Notice the way he trembles when explaining how he feels disrespected, and then recall how he fumbled his gun in while gangsters shot his father in Part I. He feels things deeply, and in the Corelone world, that’s a liability.

The Godfather Part II is, in any functional sense of the word, perfect. There are no needless scenes or busy characters. The screenplay by Coppola and Mario Puzo is so confident in its narrative that we get scenes of contemplation and atmosphere, and nothing for the sake of merely keeping our attention. Nina Rota’s music is iconic and the film’s famous “Immigrant” theme is bold and anthemic without ever becoming distracting. Every element of the movie ties into the stories. That’s the definition of great art.

Both De Niro and Pacino were nominated for Oscars. De Niro won, not undeservingly, but The Godfather Part II really belongs to Pacino. He is asked to transform before our very eyes in a way that De Niro wasn’t asked to do (since the latter’s character is split into two actors playing a boy and a man). Coppola said years later that the decision to cast Pacino in Part I was largely due to the way Pacino “communicated” with his eyes. Watch the penultimate scene between Kay and Michael and you’ll see what he means.

The film’s last shot gives me chills. It’s one of the boldest and most unnerving close ups I can remember. An aging Michael is seen on a park bench, staring out into space. We watch his tired eyes and ask if the entire film was simply a replay of his memories as he sits here. He is alone and knows why he is alone. As Rota’s famous theme plays, I find myself torn: Do I want to know what he’s thinking?

Defining Pro-Life Down

I have only a brief thought on Matt Loftus’s recent essay (and follow-up blog post) on whether we should use the term “pro-life” to refer to issues other than the traditional referents.

It seems to me that you can’t make the term “pro-life” do more by making it mean less. I think that’s what Matt is getting at in his essay. Much like the word “gospel,” there’s a tendency amongst some in my tribe to want to heighten the moral urgency of certain things by using words that signal importance but not meaning. For example, you don’t have to go far before finding someone who will refer to, say, expositional preaching or love of the city as a “gospel issue.” In this phraseology, the word “gospel” doesn’t actually mean anything other than “This is really important.” The gospel is not about expositional preaching and it’s not about our love for the city. Perhaps paradoxically, everyone in the conversation where such language is used already knows this. They understand what’s being said and don’t stumble over it—simply because they already get that the point is not to say something about the gospel, but about their own sense of urgency toward an issue.

But in the meantime, something unfortunate is happening to the word “gospel.” It has started doing more but meaning less. After a few rounds, it becomes impossible to know what someone means by “gospel issue” at all, but it becomes very easy to know that you ought to care about…well, whatever’s being talked about.

I think the same philological corrosion happens when the word “pro-life” is used too much. And let me add one final point to Matt’s excellent thoughts.

The idea that we ought to talk about immigration, welfare, zoning, and other issues the same way we talk about abortion is deeply deceiving. It is an implicit concession to that odious pro-choice caricature that says that pro-lifers care about babies until they’re born. The problem with this mantra isn’t that it’s rude, it’s that it’s dishonest. And it’s dishonest all the way down. Pro-lifers are pro-life because they think unborn infants have inherent value that cannot be subjugated de facto to the will of another person. The question of whether an unborn infant is such a being is totally and completely independent of how pro-lifers think about other issues. One can be anti-abortion and the most feckless NRA advocate on the planet, and any thoughtlessness about guns does not in any way inform whether that person is authentically pro-life. Why not? Because pro-life is a response to abortion, not the other way around. Pro-life does not exist because people who are apathetic about Sandy Hook need a political pet issue. Pro-life exists because Planned Parenthood says dilation and curettage should exist. You cannot separate the word “pro-life” from the gore of the forceps.

It’s absolutely true that what we believe about human rights and digntiy should inform our entire politic. But to call issues like single-payer healthcare a pro-life matter is a most brazen kind of revisionism. While such an instinct might be well-motivated, it ultimately ends in euphemisms like “safe, legal, and rare.” You might have a good argument for single-payer, but I can promise you I have a much better argument against partial birth abortion. Those two concepts are not cousins, and to say otherwise can only strengthen the former by helping people to take their minds off the latter.

No thanks.

In Defense (Somewhat) of Self-Help

When I was in Bible college, few things received scorn as unanimously and frequently as the self-help genre. The corner of your local bookstore dominated by big, bright covers and names like Oprah and Tony Robbins was, almost all of us young, restless, Reformed pre-seminarians agreed, poison. We understood that the self-help genre was a gospel-less, Jesus-less, church-less, and worst of all, theology-less morass of pop psychotherapy and New Agey gobbledygook. The enormous sales numbers of such books was an implicit challenge to my generation of Christian leaders: Whatever the cost, get these books out of your church members’ homes, and get them reading the Bible instead.

To this day, I still feel a twinge of guilt whenever I am listening to a “motivational speaker,” the same kind of twinge I got as a 15 year old sneaking down to the basement to listen to Top 40 radio. Though I can’t hear any bad words, I know this “sound” is not something I, as a Christian, should enjoy. The sound of someone telling me to focus more, to identify my purpose, to take more charge of my days and to understand my limits and my potential and my calling—well, that’s the sound of non-gospel. Right? Right?

Here’s what I’m having a hard time with nowadays. For all my theological education, I tend to have only the foggiest, most vague ideas about my life. I know that the whole universe exists for God’s glory. That fact, alas, did not translate into a workable budget for me last year. I know that God works all things to the purposes of His will, and that no one can thwart him. But not one person in my church or seminary life has ever explained to me that the reason I feel behind at the end of most weeks is that I haven’t identified what was most important to me at a personal level. A few weeks ago, I randomly stumbled across a YouTube video of a motivational speaker who warned his audience against failing to set priorities. If you don’t identify what matters, he said, your days and then weeks would bleed into a directionless, reactionary existence. Whoops.

For all my Christian culture’s scorn of self-help, couldn’t we at least have talked about actually living life in a non-theoretical, non-gospelly cliche way?

One of the things I am having to slowly unlearn is the idea that having good theology is the most important thing in life. I cringe even as I write that sentence, because for years to even think a sentence like that indicated, I believed, a willingness to embrace bad theology. The only people who talked about moderating the importance of theology, I was convinced, were people who wanted me to believe the wrong thing. It turns out I was wrong on both counts. It turns out, on the contrary, that while those whose professional lives rest comfortably at the intersection of study and theoretics (which describes a huge percentage of the “thought leaders” in my corner of Reformed evangelicalism) can afford to say “theology” when they mean “all wisdom everywhere,” many of us cannot afford to do the same.

Sometimes it was supposed in Bible college that the real reason people read self-help books is that they don’t want to be confronted with the moral demands of the Bible. I actually think that’s incorrect. I think most people read self-help lit because they know they need insight, motivation, and perspective from outside themselves. What’s more, I think many Christians read secular self-help lit because they have tried and failed to resize their life to fit a 20 minute per-day devotional box. They read books on becoming a better them because they believe, rightly, that Jesus calls them to be something greater than what they naturally are, but so much of their “gospel-driven” books seem to think that their problems will go away if they know more about divine sovereignty and human agency. In the absence of a relatable explanation of what following Jesus means for being an authentic human being, most people will assume that what they need to know about being an authentic human being and what they need to know about following Jesus are two separate issues.

In my experience, Reformed evangelicals are often so eager to engage in polemics against culture that we often create a conflict that isn’t actually there. And in this case, we tend to create a conflict between common sense and faith. Self-discipline, forward-thinking, intentionality, awareness of one’s own weaknesses and strengths—how is any of this inherently frictional with Christian confession? If it’s not, then another question: Where is the theologically orthodox and accessibly literary body of Christian self-help literature? Perhaps we balk at the phrase “self-help.” Fine. What ideas do we have for alternatives? Is there a space for Christians writing about motivation and inspiration and discipline in a way that is decidedly spiritual but not decidedly reducing life to propositional theology?

I hope all will understand that my point is not that our reading or thinking should be less Christian. My point is that there’s something to be said for not setting up false antitheses, and for articulating a Christian vision of human flourishing that actually meets felt needs, not just intellectual ones. If we sigh at pop culture’s flocking to the latest TED Talk for spiritual guidance—and there’s much to sigh about there—perhaps we should ask ourselves what our seminaries and churches are doing about it.

 

image credit