What is the “First Fact” of Christianity?

“To preach Christianity meant primarily to preach the resurrection.”

As this qualification suggests, to preach Christianity meant primarily to preach the Resurrection. Thus people who had heard only fragments of St. Paul’s teaching at Athens got the impression that he was talking about two new gods, Jesus and Anastasis (ie, Resurrection) (Acts 17:18). The Resurrection is the central theme in every Christian sermon reported in the Acts. The Resurrection, and its consequences, were the ‘gospel’ or good news which the Christians brought: what we call the ‘gospels,’ the narratives of Our Lord’s life and death, were composed later for the benefit of those who had already accepted the gospel. They were in no sense the basis of Christianity: they were written for those already converted. The miracle of the Resurrection, and the theology of that miracle, comes first: the biography comes later as a comment on it.

Nothing could be more unhistorical than to pick out selected sayings of Christ from the gospels and to regard those as the datum and the rest of the New Testament as a construction upon it. The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection. If they had died without making anyone else believe this ‘gospel’ no gospels would ever have been written.

-C.S. Lewis, Miracles.

A blessed and joyful Easter to all.

Advertisements

Against Child Missionaries

Why it is profoundly wrong to look to children to become leaders of our culture

In conservative evangelicalism, the phrase “salt and light” can often be used as a magic elixir. Summon it at the appropriate time, and suddenly none of your parenting decisions can be questioned. Are the folks at church wondering why you let your 13 year old watch any sitcom or film they want? “I just want them to be able to be salt and light when talking about pop culture.” Feeling guilty over sending your 6 year old to the gender-bending local public school? “They will be salt and light there.” Needing to explain at Bible study why your teenage daughter is dating a future Hugh Hefner wannabe? “She can be salt and light to him!”

The reality is that many conservative Christians have a deeply flawed view of their own children. They see them as potential deep cover agents for the kingdom, carrying their unwavering beliefs and values into the nooks and crannies of culture where adults can’t fit. The temptation to think of children as just miniature versions of adults—with all the fortitude and none of the career concern—is overwhelming for many, not least because it often works. It’s one thing for a 35 year old to go door to door in the neighborhood with gospel testimony. That’s just religion. If a 7 year old does it, though…well, that’s impressive.

It turns out that the same dynamics work in secular politics too. Look no further than the eager appropriation of children as the foremost agents of critical social change. They march for their lives, prophesying with adolescent lips against the NRA and Republican Party. They likewise “lead the way” on the latest gender theory novelties. If you want the biggest media outlets to respond to your political cause, the best way to ensure it is if you have some kids you can put out in front. If a 35 year old demands gun control legislation or affirms the liquidity of his sexuality, he’s just an activist. If an elementary student does the same, she is a “generation:” nothing less than salt and light.

Child missionaries, sacred and secular alike, are a powerful force in our society. In a recent post, Alan Jacobs references Richard Beck’s 2015 book We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s as documentary proof of just how far our cultural factions can go in using children as culture warriors. Beck’s book documents the hysteria and disinformation surrounding day cares and preschools in the Reagan years and the widespread manipulation of children by well-meaning (and perhaps otherwise) adults into giving false testimonies of abuse and perversion. “The lives of many innocent people, people who cared for children rather than exploiting or abusing them, were destroyed,” Jacobs writes. “And — this may be the worst of all the many terrifying elements of Beck’s story — those who, through subtle and not-so-subtle pressure, extracted false testimonies from children have suffered virtually no repercussions for what they did.”

In fact, that kind of manipulation often goes unpunished. Why? Because of the extraordinarily sensitive and volatile nature of contradicting the words of earnest-sounding children. In most cases it is simply unacceptable to contradict or argue with another person’s child when they are sincerely telling you what they think. To do so, even with great care, is tantamount to assaulting their self-esteem, erasing their sense of identity, and bullying. Of course, in most conceivable situations, the benefits of engaging a child in this kind of serious debate (unless you are a tutor) are negligible. So most clever adults learn how useful weasel words can be for escaping this situation (‘That’s very interesting, dear. I’m sure you’re right”) without having to look forward to a far more uncomfortable confrontation with an affronted parent. Predictably, many adults have now caught on to how powerfully they can leverage this dynamic in favor of their pet ideologies.

As much as I’d like to pretend that secular progressives are worse than I in the weaponizing of children, I cannot do that. Because I grew up in evangelical culture, I’ve seen the true depth and skill with which Christians can turn their children into missionaries (figuratively and literally). Don’t misunderstand me. Believers have a clear mandate to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. This includes catechesis and practical discipleship. Any Christian home that is being faithful to Christ in this will feature young children who express their spiritual formation publicly. But the proper relationship between spiritual formation and public expression is one of predominantly quiet, intimate faithfulness, not of spectacle or parental expectations of super-spirituality.

For years now I have quietly cringed when I see small children at pro-life rallies holding up placards and handing out literature. I get it! The pro-life movement is about children after all. It’s indeed powerful to see young, smiling faces in a moment of advocacy for life itself. But I cringe because I sense that something is fundamentally off. I want my children’s generation of pro-life advocacy to be shaped first and foremost not be public protests or political mobilization but by the gentle joys of viewing human life the way that God does. Experiencing those joys and learning that vision takes time, and time is what children need far more than roles of leadership.

Likewise, I don’t want to commission my children to be “salt and light” in ways that demand spiritual resources that they haven’t formed yet. This is, I think, what leaves the poor taste in one’s mouth when seeing children march for gun control. Many of these kids bear no weight of responsibility toward people who are utterly dependent on them for safety and provision. Of course they don’t, they’re children! The marching youth cannot fathom the complex issues of self, family, and country-defense that make up the historical foundation of the Second Amendment. They shouldn’t be expected to, because such comprehension is adult in nature, and it is a moral abomination—the spiritual logic of Roe v Wade— to desire a democracy made up of only politically savvy citizens without the naïve and foolish children. Asking our children to become our sociopolitical guardians is the same as telling them we wish they didn’t have to exist.

It is a great hypocrisy that we as a culture decry child labor but glorify child activism. It is a greater hypocrisy that often the people of the Way do no better. Remember that to the disciples, Jesus promised the opportunity to become fishers of men. What did he say to the children? “Let them come to me.” Children belong at the feet of Jesus, not full-time out in the boats.

Of Paintings and Place

How the simplest of things can teach us a theology of home

In one of my favorite parts of Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, Jayber attends seminary and begins to realize he has a host of questions. Fearing this may mean he is not called to the ministry, he goes to speak with one of his professors and unloads the laundry list of doubts and questions. The professor, Dr. Ardmire, listens to his questions. The professor speaks up and says to Jayber:

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out — perhaps a little at a time.’
And how long is that going to take?’
I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.’
That could be a long time.’
I will tell you a further mystery,’ he said. ‘It may take longer.”

This scene came to my mind on Friday when hanging a painting in my office. With it came a rush of emotions that frankly, I did not expect. It recalled memories from the past and hopes for the future.

The painting has several memories, each woven into who I am. It’s an image of the 4th of July in my hometown of Campbellsville, Kentucky. Every year we’d gather on Main Street and watch a parade of floats, horses, dirt bikes, four-wheelers, tractors, cars, and youth sports league champions. My childhood was spent on this street and in a few of the stores with my parents. I learned how to drive on this street. I spent many a Friday night cruising with my friends up and down Main Street before heading over to a bakery that would open at Midnight. We would sit in my dad’s pharmacy parking lot (located right next to the bakery) or in the church parking lot across the street. Those memories are embedded on me like a deep scar, and I look back on those times with a fondness (and embarrassment at times) that grows with age.

It is a remarkable feature of humanity that something so simple can give rise to a host of complex thoughts, regrets, and hopes. To disentangle oneself from a scenario and contemplate your own humanity is an act of the moral imagination that still befuddles. Staring at an object that is filled with history, location, context, and memories might engender a desire for halcyon days where innocence seemed to roam the interiors of your mind.

But there’s more to this painting than the memories of growing up in a small-town. This painting was in my dad’s office for as long as I can remember. I have vivid memories of walking into the back door of his pharmacy as a young child, running toward his office, and seeing this painting hanging on the wall over my father’s shoulder while in my his — very tight — embrace. When I would come home from college to see him, I’d once again race back to his office. He’d be sitting in his chair, paying bills, sorting mail, and weaving back and forth between his office and the front counter. When he would leave I’d sit in his chair, feeling like a young prince sitting in his kingly father’s throne. Directly across from his desk was this painting, always in eyesight. It was a reminder to me that, despite moving away, this place will always be a part of me. It will always be home. 

I’ve never really asked my dad if there is something uniquely special about this painting or if he just liked it. I’m not sure it matters. He retired last July and I asked if I could have the painting to put in my office. As time passed after his retirement I assumed he had forgotten my request and I didn’t really want to bother him about it. For some reason, it seemed silly to me. After Christmas he gave it to me and it’s been in my office, hung within eyesight, ever since.

Since my son was born I have been thinking about what tangible objects might we acquire or currently have that can be passed down to our children. What physical embodiments of “Bryan” and “Danielle” do we have that mean the world to us that our children can hold and admire and say, “This is something Mom loved. This thing is something Dad loved”? I’ve chosen a life project that does this in hopes that my kids will one day be able to look across the room in their offices or homes and see a physical embodiment of something that brings back the memories of their parents.

It’s important, I think, to believe that this drive to remember, to honor those before us, is as old as humanity. From memorial stones in the Old Testament to paintings in one’s office, they are physical reminders of what Roger Scruton calls oikophilia, or a love of home. They are reminders of a “place where you and I belong and to which we return, if only in thought, at the end of all our wanderings.” What might seem lost can be restored. Home can be felt again and there is One ever-working to do precisely that. A love of home and place, under His rule and reign, takes a new — though no less physical — meaning. At the end of all our wanderings stands a bloody cross and a victorious Savior.

Freedom on the Fourth is a theology of place in a painting. Many of the individuals in the painting are likely gone from us now. Many more have grown up, forgotten the place to which we all belonged at one time and — potentially — forgotten who they are. I was painfully close to such peril. I don’t have full answers to the questions I’m seeking. Like Jayber, I have been given questions to which I cannot be given answers. I will have to live them out — perhaps a little at a time. They are important questions and I hope to consider them for the rest of my life.

The painting now hangs in my office, and now I’m able to pull my son into my arms while he looks over my shoulder with this painting in full-view.

Bryan Baise is an assistant professor of philosophy at Boyce College. He has three kids and is far too emotionally invested in his sports teams. You can follow him on Twitter.

How to Wreck Christian Love

Caring about love and unity is not a “liberal” concern. It’s a gospel concern.

My devotional reading this morning was in Romans 14. I admit this passage is a tangle for me. On the one hand, Paul adjures Christians to refrain from judging each other. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (v 4) On the other hand, isn’t “Judge not” one of the most misinterpreted, misunderstood, and misapplied passages in all of Scripture? How can I make sense of verse 13, “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer,” and the final verse of Romans 13: “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires”? Aren’t those in tension?

Yes and no. Here’s what I’m thinking.

It is possible to wreck Christian love and unity by preaching the truth (like Rom. 13:14 above) in a way that assumes that my struggle is the same struggle that everyone else is having.  When Paul says in verse 23 that “whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats [meat, presumably produced in pagan marketplaces and likely offered to false gods], because the eating is not from faith,” he’s revealing the heart of the matter. The issue is conscience. Christians whose consciences do not condemn them are free to eat the meat, because they are eating “in honor of the Lord” (v 6). Their consciences are not haunted by the false gods. By contrast, the Christians whose consciences do condemn them should refrain, because a willingness to eat when your conscience is pricked is a sinful species of unbelief, and “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (v 23).

The fault line of disunity within this community is right here. Christians who are eating assume that the problem with the Christians who don’t eat is ignorance, or failure to realize their freedom. So they eat in front of the weak-conscience Christians in order to shame their conscientiousness. Paul rebukes this as making “your brother to stumble” (v 21). On the other hand, the weak-conscience Christians may pass judgment on the Christians who eat, reasoning that their problem is that they simply don’t care about the worship of idols or about purity in holiness.

Interestingly, Paul does not affirm either camp’s view of the other. He does say that “nothing is unclean in itself,” but immediately adds that “it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” (v 14). Each camp is right AND wrong. They’re right to follow their conscience, but they’re wrong to assume they know what’s going on in the hearts of the other believers. This is what it means to “judge” one another in the way that Jesus forbids. There is indeed purity and holiness which we must exhort each other to, but we cannot exhort each other to it if we are convinced we can see inside everyone’s motivations.

This passage rebuked me. It brought to mind things I’ve written in the past, like this piece. I still agree with everything I wrote there, but I don’t believe the way I’ve applied it has always—or even often—been good. For example, I can think very clearly of examples where I saw someone on social media say they were seeing a certain movie, or I noticed a particular DVD in a friend’s house, and I drew conclusions in my heart about where they must “struggle.” It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that the struggles I envisioned for them were identical to my own struggles. Inferring from their entertainment to their spiritual life was tempting for me because it let me validate my own experiences and not think of myself as “weak.”

This wrecks Christian love. It wrecks Christian love by empowering self-righteousness. It also wrecks Christian love by keeping believers away from each other in meaningful community. That’s the tragic irony of self-righteousness; it thwarts actual righteousness by making sure that people don’t really enter into the joys, sorrows, temptations, and triumphs of others.

It wrecks Christian love too by undermining our watchcare over each other. “Do not cause your brother to stumble” assumes you that you have a stake in your brother’s spiritual life. But if you think of believers whose lives don’t look exactly like yours as spiritual lepers or pariahs, how can you think you have a stake in their spiritual health? Isn’t it more important in that case to play the prophet, and use social media and blogs to passive aggressively shame them? And all the while, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” goes ignored.

There’s an old cliche that says that “Speak the truth with love” is the dividing line between conservatives and liberals. Conservatives stop at “Speak the truth,”  liberals skip over it and say “Speak with love,” while the gospel says “Speak the truth with love.” It’s a cliche, but it’s a good one. Caring about Christian love and unity is not a “liberal” concern. Reformed Christians especially need to hear this, because we often feel satisfied merely if we’re calling others to repentance. That’s not how Paul thinks. Let’s never pit Christian love and Christian purity against each other. And let’s not assume that what God is doing in our own hearts is exactly what he’s doing in everyone else.

The Politics of Impurity

Do Christians still believe that private immorality has public consequences?

I see at least three political implications for the allegations involving the President and a pornographic actress.

1. If true, the President has demonstrated (again) a capacity and an ambivalence for breaking his promises.

2. If true, the President has demonstrated a willingness to use the financial and human resources at his disposal in order to cover up his tracks and purchase the cover of silence.

3. If true, then the United States currently has, at the top of its power structures and the most important place of cultural influence, a celebratory monument to pornography.

These are deeply political realities, not just personal moral failures.

Throughout 2016 I found it stunning to hear evangelicals do something I”d never heard them do before: Draw a hard line between the social and the personal. Growing up in evangelicalism, I’d heard hundreds of arguments against Darwinism, materialism, atheism, pornography, abortion, and adultery that explicitly connected the personal to the social. An individual commitment to secular materialism shaped how you thought about other human beings. An individual indulgence in adultery tore at the fabric of your community. Evangelicals usually take it for granted that private morality has public consequence. Two years ago, though, that formula found an exception. To what end?

Let’s briefly contemplate implication #3 above. Because of these allegations, which are eminently credible, the news cycle has been meshing the office of the President with the pornography industry. Anybody who wants to both walk in sexual purity and learn what is going on with the executive branch nowadays is going to get an education they don’t want. This is what political philosophers call the “teaching function of the law.” The president, who in many ways metaphorically represents American law, is teaching the country about adultery, pornography, and hush money through his behavior. This is the textbook definition of “normalization.” You cannot normalize anything more powerfully than a president can.

The only way to insist that this is simply not as important as political party lines is to argue that sexual morality isn’t political. Such a sentiment would be a repudiation of everything that Christians have believed since, well, ever. If one’s political calculus shows that right now is the one and only utterly unique moment in human history where Christians should do an unprecedented about-face on these issues, there’s really nothing more to be said (other than, “Repent!”). If, on the other hand, we still want the hold the line on the public implications of sexual virtue, we have to make grim judgments on our current situation.

Some might respond that all this is nice but pointless two years after a political campaign. But that’s the point. Two years after evangelicals had their intramural disagreements about voting, millions of 4th year old boys and girls are learning civics with the help of Stormy Daniels. Is it “pointless” to talk about the moral effects this kind of normalization will have on a generation that is already teetering on the edge of sexual oblivion? Is it “pointless” to talk about this in the midst of an evangelical #ChurchToo crisis?

Is it pointless, or just uncomfortable?

Why Blogging Still Matters

Why dedicated online writing spaces might be the cure for our social media ills.

Blogging is dead, right? At least among the folks in a position to say so, this seems to be the consensus. Many of blogging’s most important early practitioners have either abandoned it (Andrew Sullivan) or else transformed their writing spaces into storefronts that offer “promoted” content in exchange for patronage. The thinking goes like this: Before Mark Zuckerberg and Tweet threads, blogging was a viable way of sharing ideas online. Now, though, social media has streamlined and mobilized both content and community. Reading a blog when you could be reading what your friends are Tweeting about is like attending a lecture completely alone. It’s boring and lonely for you, and a waste of time for the lecturer.

For pay-per-click advertising models, this logic has worked well. For everybody else, though, the diminishing of the blog and the ascendance of social media has hardly been a blessing.

For one thing, traditional journalism has suffered, and not just in trivial ways. As Franklin Foer writes in his recent book World Without Mind, the power of social media to control people’s access to news and information—and to leverage this control into more profit for the platforms themselves—has radically reshaped how the journalism industry values certain kinds of news. While sensationalist journalism has always been a problem, clickbait is uniquely powerful in an age where the vast majority of visitors to a news or opinion site arrive at the page through social media, which, in turn, employs algorithms to target readers with content that the system knows the reader is likely to click. Thus, Facebook rigs the relationship between reader and content in such a way so that the reader’s habits become more self-repeating, more predictable, more dependent on Facebook, and thus, more profitable to the people who pay money for Facebook’s user data.

The internet has introduced an entirely new concept into the world of ideas: Content. Content is a shadowy netherworld between the written word and television, between intellectualism and entertainment, between thinking and watching. By being consumed by social media, the digital writing economy has been transformed into the digital content economy. Videos that aren’t quite television or film, written pieces that aren’t quite essays or reporting—this is the lifeblood of the internet in the age of social media.

Social media’s conquering of the online writing economy has forced writers to rethink not just their how, but their why. If your goal with your online writing is to build as big a daily readership as possible, you are much better off spending 40 hours a week mastering the ins-and-outs of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram than actually writing. In the content race, the quality of your writing has almost no connection to the health of your digital publishing business. In fact, when considering the role that social media visibility plays, it’s often the case that the relationship between good business and quality of writing is inverse: The better the writing, the fewer clicks. Digital content creators have to constantly ask themselves why they’re doing what they’re doing. Is it to share an idea, or to sell a product? Both?

Contrasting against all of this is the pure experience of blogging. Blogging—regularly writing on the internet in a self-contained space—is an act of relocation. As Alan Jacobs has written, one of the most pressing reasons that digital writers should rethink their dependence on social media is that each of these platforms are corporations that own everybody’s content in a legal sense. Because they own the content, Facebook and Twitter also own the experience of that content, which means, as Jacobs argues, that social media companies represent a real threat to an intellectually free internet:

…users [of social media] should realize that everything they find desirable and beneficial about those sites could disappear tomorrow and leave them with absolutely no recourse, no one to whom to protest, no claim that they could make to anyone. When George Orwell was a scholarship boy at an English prep school, his headmaster, when angry, would tell him, “You are living on my bounty.” If you’re on Facebook, you are living on Mark Zuckerberg’s bounty.

This is of course a choice you are free to make. The problem comes when, by living in conditions of such dependence, you forget that there’s any other way to live—and therefore cannot teach another way to those who come after you. Your present-day social-media ecology eclipses the future social-media ecology of others. What if they don’t want their social lives to be bought and sold? What if they don’t want to live on the bounty of the factory owners of Silicon Valley?

The answer, Jacobs concludes, is to teach young students the fundamentals of internet work: Basic coding, domains, photography, etc. By equipping young people with these tools, the felt dependence on the mediation of social media corporations can be broken, and individuals can be empowered to really “own” their digital spaces, away from the financial interests and epistemological problems of Big Tech.

I would submit that blogging is part of the solution here. I’m old enough to remember a time when blogging was considered a regrettable phenomenon, one that invited non-credentialed nobodies to pretentiously pontificate about any issue under the sun. Of course, that’s still a problem, but in the Facebook era, it’s almost a quaint problem compared to the issue of politicians and corporations purchasing the power to shove their ideas in the faces of millions of souls who are dependent on the seller of that power for their information. The answer to what Tom Nichols refers to as the death of expertise is to make the experience of the internet more centered around localized creative control and the free exchange of ideas that such localization fosters.

Not only that, but blogging matters because it is an intellectual exercise in a passive, “content”-absorbed internet culture. On social media, even writing itself tends to be transformed into an unthinking spectacle rather than a careful expression of ideas. Twitter is notorious for this. The  most effective Tweeters—and by effective I mean the people who seem most able to take advantage of Twitter’s algorithms to get their tweets in front of people who do not ask for them and would not know they exist any other way—are people who are good at snark, GIFs, and gainsaying. Even worse, the unmitigated immediacy of Twitter’s ecosystem encourages a hive mentality. I’ve watched as people I respect have shifted in their beliefs for no better reason than the punishing experiences they’ve had after saying something that offended the wrong people online. Trolling has authentic power, and Twitter makes it a point of business to put trolls and their targets as closely together as possible.

Blogging, on the other hand, allows writers to think. Good bloggers use their spaces to both publish and practice. Thinking and writing are not purely sequential events. Writing is thinking, and thinking shapes itself through writing. Blogging is still, by far, the best option for non-professional writers to expand their gifts and sharpen their habits. Blogging is also a slice of personalism in a fragmented online age. Because social media and the online content industry demand maximum mobility and applicability over as many platforms as possible,  much of what you see is thoroughly generic (and most of the generic-ness is either generically progressive and identity-obsessed or generically conservative and angrily conspiratorial). Blogging brings out a more holistic vision from the author for both form and function.

This is not even to mention the benefits of moving our information economy away from the emotionally toxic effects of social media. There is good reason to believe that apps like Facebook and Instagram make people feel lonelier and less satisfied with their life. An information economy that requires aspiring writers to heavily invest in technologies that promote FOMO and cultivate tribal resentments is probably not an information economy that is making a lot of honest writers. By slowing down the pace of online life, blogging enables a more genuine interaction between people. Good social media managers need to win the rat race; good bloggers want to connect with readers in a meaningful way beyond analytics.

Blogging still matters, because it’s still the medium that most ably combines the best aspects of online writing. If we want to escape the echo chambers that dominate our online lives; if we want something other than the hottest takes and the pithiest putdowns; if we have any aspiration for exchange and debate that goes beyond outrage or mindlessness, we should reinvest our time, resources, and attention in the humble blog.

The Problem with Cool Church

The spiritual danger of grabbing souls by their insecurities

In my older teens and early 20s I attended a midweek worship service put on by the student  ministry of my hometown’s megachurch. I did so because I was a pastor’s kid at a small, aging, rural Baptist church, and I wanted to go to a church service with people closer to my age. That service was the epitome of “cool church:” Dimmed LEDs, tasteful fog on the stage, Coldplay-esque guitar solos, and a couple hundred teenagers and twentysomethings. It bore little resemblance to the dusty, green-carpeted, and piano-driven service I was at Sunday after unremarkable Sunday. Best of all, the people at the megachurch service were young, attractive, and on Facebook. Cool church felt like it was for me, and for the people I wanted to like me. It was a powerful experience.

This is why I can’t be flippant or judgmental toward the minister and the church featured in this New York Times piece. When the pastor tells the Times reporter, “If we aren’t making people laugh, what are we doing? What is the point?” I know what he means. He’s not being ridiculous. He’s not trying to mock the church or Christianity. He’s asking why church of all places shouldn’t be a place where people feel good. It’s a good question, one that many evangelicals, to their shame, merely scoff at and refuse to answer.

Cool church often begins as an effort to meet a real need. The problem of Christians who turn the cosmos-exploding truths of Christ into pretenses for being sullen, angry, and boring is a problem as old as Jonah. Many traditional evangelical churches are stunningly joyless places. Cool church is never joyless. It cannot be, since the premise of cool church is that we ought to be happy when we’re there. There were legitimate reasons that I wanted, as an 19 year old, to be at a megachurch on Tuesday evenings if I had to be at my Dad’s church on Sunday mornings.

The liturgy of cool church demands that I enjoy it. That’s why the preaching at the midweek service was always 30 minutes or less. Don’t get me wrong: There were faithful preachers in that space, and the Word never returns void. But there’s an internal logic to why the sermons at cool church are almost never longer than a sitcom. Cool church isn’t nearly as concerned with the content of the sermon as it is with the experience itself. Everything flows perfectly at cool church; the music team always picks the right “response” song (the sacrifices of God are a contrite spirit and minor chords), the preacher is always the right amount of funny, and the order of worship never leaves you too little time to hang out in the foyer or too much time with just your thoughts.

Why is this so powerful? At least for me, I think the answer is that cool church let me hang onto my insecurities while I pretended to forget about them. It is almost impossible to overstate how important “cool” is to the typical American teen. It is the end-all, be-all. If you’re cool, nothing else matters; if you’re not, nothing else matters. Compounding this is the fact is that every facet of American culture mythologizes adolescence and connects happiness to perpetuating it as long as possible. The ethos of cool church is a throng of worshipful 18 year olds who don’t particularly care what the New Birth means. What they really want is to know they’re not weird and destined for eternal loneliness. Cool church is powerful because it appears to relieve the tension between the absolute claims of the gospel and the far less cosmic but far more throbbing need we have to be cool kids.

For well-meaning people who really do care about reaching their generation of Jesus, the temptation to grab adolescent souls by their insecurities is severe. For one thing, it sure looks like it works. Cool church will never struggle to draw a crowd. In some places and seasons it’s the only kind of church that can draw one. Secondly, because evangelicals have grown to rely on the vague language of subjective experience rather than the concrete words of Scripture, cool church sounds biblical and healthy. “I had an encounter with Jesus” is an incontestable sentence, right? “I felt God tonight.” Who can say you didn’t? And maybe you did. That’s kind of the point, isn’t it? In the insecure heart, where the promises of Jesus have not taken root and where the temporary and trivial minutia of adolescence have been mistaken for existential crises, forms of Christian worship can be cathartic. And that catharsis is easily confused for faith.

I can vividly remember the circle of friends that I worshiped with at the megachurch service. The vast majority of them no longer attend any church. One of them divorced after only about a year of marriage, and remarried soon after. One now identifies as agnostic. In almost every instance, I only know of the current state of their life because of social media. We fell out of real contact some time ago. The friendships, the worship music, the preaching, and the praying that had felt so real and so forever nearly a decade ago have mostly fallen like seeds on a rocky path. Back then, we would have sworn that it was Jesus we were meeting with every Tuesday night. Sworn.

The Glory of Permanent Words

Why I love the Bible

Picture everyday life, but without anything permanent.

You wake up in a different bed on Thursday than you did on Tuesday. Your house, in one zip code last weekend, is a few miles elsewhere today. Your morning commute changes every other workday: interstates some days, unfamiliar back roads other days. The people at your job constantly shuffle in and out of your life. One week your cubicle mate is somebody, then the next week it changes. Relationships in general shift around you. Things may stabilize for a little bit but they are sure to change soon. Life has no discernible rhythm, just endless novelty and transition.

Most people would not be able to live like this. There are lots of films and books about the anxieties of boring life, but this is true only because human nature by default looks for repetition and permanence. Nobody wants all new friends every two weeks. Nobody could function if their daily experiences of life were always shifting. There’s something life-giving about the same bed each morning, the same faces to wake up to in the same house. Permanence is an anchor, and while anchors are heavy and can be hard to get away from, they keep us from being lost at sea forever. Life without permanence is hardly life.

This is true for daily life, and it’s true for intellectual life.

My days are filled with words. Between my job in publishing, my writing, my editing, and my intake of newspapers, blogs, magazines, and social media feeds, I face an onslaught of words every day. These words change every day. Particularly online, there’s something new to think/worry/get angry about every hour. New voices every week, new issues every day, and new phrases every minute. This world of words is endlessly transient.

We are still learning how this kind of intellectual ecosystem affects our minds. The best indications so far are that the consequences aren’t good. Attention is not a limitless resource, and thoughtfulness is subject to a law of diminishing return. The internet’s tyranny of the Now can hijack our emotional and spiritual life and overload us with information. Even worse, this overloading can become addictive, and we can develop an impulsive need for more and newer words to keep up the neurological rewards we get for discovering new stuff. In this phenomenon, meaning is destroyed. What matters is keeping up the frantic but satisfying pace of new things to know.

But what I crave, at least when the chemical highs of internet life abate for a minute, are permanent words. Just like I want a permanent bed to come home to after a day of new people or new challenges, and just like I need the same rhythms of morning and evening to cope with life that shifts all around me, I need words that don’t change. I need to hear phrases and sentences that aren’t whimsical or subject to the tyranny of Now. I need permanent words that stand on the page and on my heart like the walls of our home. Permanent words are words that don’t get rebooted like a comic book franchise. They don’t get subjected to the whirlwind of public debate like a Twitter thread. Permanent words aren’t the outrage of the day or the fad of the week. Permanent words are here when everything else is scattered; they’re stone pillars in intellectual sand dunes.

This is why I love the Bible. In Scripture I find words with real permanence. They’re corporeal and fixed, not ephemeral and guesswork. I’m not pretending that the Bible needs no interpretation, or that one can never grow or shift in understanding of Scripture. My point is that there’s a restful eternality in the words of Scripture that heal the relentlessly temporal state of my mind.

I read many good things online, but even the best of them tend to be weightless. Timeless books are better than articles and blogs. But even then, many of the books disagree, or age poorly, or are simply wrong. I try to read widely and, as Alan Jacobs advises, at whim. This is rewarding and enlightening for me, and there’s delight in it. But the billions of pages I could live in for a few moments do not add up to even a fraction of the sheer cosmic density of the words of Scripture. The Bible does not blend into the crowd, and that’s what makes it permanent. That’s what makes it strong. And that’s what makes me strong.

Temporal words can color life, but permanent words are the beams of light behind the color. Life is diverse and seasonal, but that diversity and seasonality is only welcome if there’s somewhere to lay our head down at the end of the day. My mind and heart need permanent words. Thank God they have them.

Is “Purity Culture” a Problem?

Why the excesses of conservative evangelicalism won’t be fixed by unbelief.

I’ve been trying over the last couple years to keep in tension two things that I believe are equally true.

The first is: Many of evangelical culture’s ideas about sexuality, marriage, and relationships have borne bad fruit. I’ve heard from many people who, like me, were raised in a conservative evangelical context, but unlike me, were exposed to a grievously harsh and legalistic theology that shamed, alienated, and wounded them. Even though my own personal experience growing up in conservative evangelicalism was much better, these testimonies are not a conspiracy. There really is a heartbreaking legacy that many Christian churches passed onto the young people in their care, and it’s a legacy that has done incalculable damage to the kingdom.

Many of the men and women who suffered under this kind of legacy have given it a name. “Purity culture” may be something of a misnomer, but most people who were raised in it know what you’re talking about immediately when you mention it. Many who were preteens and teens in evangelical churches were an oppressive “purity culture” was practiced are now actively opposing it as adults, which, I think, is a testimony to how genuine the toxic effects have been.

The second truth I hold is this: Many (not all) of the critiques that are launched at “purity culture” could be (and often are) applied more generally to traditional evangelical doctrine writ large; thus, in many cases (not all), criticism of a legalistic “purity culture” within the church is also a meta-criticism of orthodox Christianity’s teaching on sexuality.

In other words, it is often difficult for me to read a blog post that excoriates evangelical purity culture, and discern where the criticism of legalism ends and the criticism of the Bible’s teachings on sex begin. Sometimes the testimony of a harsh, un-Christian, and even abusive church culture is so obvious that denouncing it is easy and essential. On the other hand, sometimes it is not clear to me that what the person is describing as oppressive “purity culture” is meaningfully different than what Christians have believed about gender, sex, and marriage for two thousand years. Thus, affirming the dangers of purity culture in that context may double as affirming the wrongness of, say, the Bible’s clear teaching about sex outside of marriage, or the need to flee sexual immorality, or the sinfulness of same-sex sexual relationships .

A good example of where I have difficulty untangling this knot is the angst that I see many people having over Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. If you have no idea what that book is, feel free to stop reading now and move on to something more relevant. But if the title “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” triggers a lot of memories, feelings, and or even just interest in you, then you and I probably experienced much of the same “purity culture.” The short version of the story is that IKDG was a hugely influential book that advocated what some might call a “courtship” approach to Christian relationships, over and against what you might call a “dating” approach. Harris was a young, single Christian when he wrote the book, and his ideas–the dangers of “casual” dating, the need to “guard one’s heart” in all relationships, etc.–were widely approved and disseminated in conservative evangelical culture.

That was in the mid to late 90s. Now, a growing number of the teens whose youth groups made IKDG required reading are rethinking the book’s effect on them. To which I say: Me too! I’ve seen firsthand what an overly timid, emotionally paralyzed group of young Christian singles looks like, and it ain’t pretty. I remember reading IKDG and thinking that Harris oversimplified a lot, seemed to be speaking to too many situations at once, and honestly, just seemed to be laying down a law where a principle of wisdom would suffice.

So yes, I sympathize very much with the struggles of anyone whose worldview of dating and marriage was formed primarily by IKDG.

But after reading Ruth Graham’s piece on Harris and the book in Slate, I feel like I’ve once again been transported from empathy and agreement to untangling a knot. It’s really tough for me to read the bloggers Graham mentions and not feel like Harris and IKDG are really being used as a convenient lightning rod for what is actually a full-throated dispute with Christianity’s most basic teachings about sex and marriage.

I appreciate that Harris himself seems to be walking back some of the things he wrote in the book. That’s an admirable thing to do that most authors, evangelical or otherwise, wouldn’t do. But, as Graham notes matter-of-factly, the most vociferous critics of IKDG aren’t taking “I’m sorry” for an answer. They want something more from Harris, and from the “purity culture” at large. This is where the knot tightens: The more time I spend reading these young writers, the more I am convinced that the “Anti-Purity Culture” genre is about more than righting wrongs. It’s about righting the wrong faith.

Here’s what I mean. This is an excerpt from Graham’s piece, and it bubbles with the underlying tensions I’ve been describing

I was 17 when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out, and everyone I knew in my upper-middle-class evangelical community in suburban Chicago was talking about it. For me as a teenager, the whole topic had a pleasing ratio of certainty to ambiguity. The foundational “fact” of purity culture was that having intercourse before marriage was wrong. There was a reassuring black-and-white quality to that stricture, with the promise of a juicy wedding-night reward for my self-control.

Everything about this paragraph is fascinating. The word “fact’ in scare-quotes (is having intercourse before marriage wrong…really?); the description of Harris’ belief in pre-marital abstinence as a “black-and-white stricture.” Note that Graham isn’t even talking about IKDG’s practical rules for dating, which are certainly open to critique. She’s talking about Harris’s underlying worldview of what sexuality is for. In this critique, the fundamental fault lines within Harris’s “purity culture” start here.

Why does this matter? It matters because confessional, orthodox evangelicals have a moral obligation to correct where the “purity culture” has abused, shamed, and alienated. We have a vested interest in holding the truth with love, in preaching a gospel where Jesus died and rose again, not so that our sex lives could be spotless but so that we could be accepted by God when they’re not. There is a moral imperative on evangelical Christians to teach what the Bible says about sexuality through a lens of redemption and wholeness, not through a lens of “Don’t mess this up or you’ll regret it.”

But at the same time, how can we do this if the voices setting the agenda are ones that fundamentally reject what Christianity teaches about the ultimate meaning of sex, marriage, gender, and even love? Healing those who were wounded by oppressive legalism and graceless shaming requires healing them with something, and that “something” has to be more than a narrative of autonomy and self-authentication. Trading in the purity culture for the hook-up culture isn’t a win.

We can do better than I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Harris would agree. But we can’t do better if, seeking to restore what the locust destroyed, we plant snakes instead of bread. What Jesus teaches us about our bodies is beautiful, even if our stewardship of it has been anything but.

This post was originally published in 2016.