Love Isn’t a Liberal Word

Conservative evangelicalism’s #MeToo moment is about a failure to love.

As I awoke this morning to news that Southwestern Seminary had reversed course and fired president Paige Patterson (canceling the benefits of his original transition to Emeritus), I felt no outrage, or schadenfreude, or even joy. I was glad for the future of that seminary and the future of the SBC that the right decision was finally made. But I thought a lot about Dr. Patterson, his family, and what I’m sure is his utter bewilderment at the past three weeks. Perhaps there are some who believe that Paige Patterson hates women or wants to protect predatory men. I do not, partially because I identify with Patterson’s failure to love his sisters in Christ the way he ought. His failure is my failure, too. And that’s what it is: A failure of love.

Growing up in conservative, Baptist evangelicalism, I frequently saw two ways to live the Christian life contrasted against each other. In the churches and denominational culture, I saw an emphasis on love and acceptance that often precluded believing or saying hard things. Church members who were living in open sexual sin were encouraged to participate in all aspects of church life because to confront them would be unkind and judgmental and possibly drive them from the church. On the other hand, there was the Baptist seminary and institutional culture. The dynamics of this culture were diametrically opposite of the attitudes I saw in local church life: Truth was what mattered more than people. To be serious about Scripture was more important than to be serious about sinners.

Propositionally, I never heard anyone in the seminary or institutional culture say that love was for liberals, just like I never heard anyone in the local church culture say that the Bible was for cold-hearted fundamentalists. But the emphases, the formative practices, the meta-intellectual liturgies that emanated from both worlds was crystal clear. My experience of seeing such a stark contrast drawn between mercy and morality left a deep imprint. My instincts were shaped to hear words like “compassion” and immediately call to mind Scriptures on truth. Again, none of this was articulated. It was beyond articulation. It was formation.

One thing I’ve learned in the past few months: You can’t live like this and escape your own #MeToo movement.

In our evangelical #MeToo moment, I see contours of a stark divide we’ve drawn between truth and love. Because we complementarians are not afraid to define ourselves by a theology of gender that clashes with the outside culture, our inner life is geared (in my experience) toward seeing women as issues that need to be addressed rather than people who need to be heard. Our eagerness to love the women in our churches and institutions is constantly outpaced by our eagerness to not be egalitarians, not least because our formative liturgies continually feed the latter desire but not the former.  For much of our subculture, taking seriously the concerns of those who are more sexually and socially vulnerable than men is not quite as important as maintaining a battle line opposite Democrats and social progressives. This dynamic exists not because we tell ourselves that it should exist, but because we tell ourselves other stories—stories sometimes beyond words—that make its existence inevitable.

Why does fear of turning into our theological opposites control our hearts and shape our spaces like this? Why is it so hard to find joyfully complementarian advocates of sexual abuse victims streaming out of our churches and seminaries? Why does the idea of a “listening to women” immediately awaken defensive strictures about PC culture and the hypocrisy of liberals? We could go further. #MeToo is about women, but for the evangelicalism I know and love it could just as well be about black people, or immigrants, or Democrats. The evangelicalism I know and love has so, so often walked around love because it was afraid of its germs.

I’m sure that Paige Patterson thought he was doing the right thing by encouraging the rape victim in his office to not tell the police. I’m sure he thought that by protecting the seminary from the attention of civil authorities, he was doing a service to the advance of the gospel and the formation of pastors and church leaders. I’m sure he thought that by counseling an abused woman to stay in the home with her husband he was striking a godly blow for marriage against the divorce culture. I’m sure he was out to win the war.

Evangelicalism doesn’t need a new Bible, edited by the spirit of the age. It doesn’t need a new Savior, proclaiming the good news of moralistic therapeutic deism. What evangelicalism needs is a new metaphor. It needs a way to feel toward the people of this earth that isn’t instinctively sword-drawn and battle-ready. It needs willingness to err on the side of gospel love rather than gospel swagger.

We are deathly afraid of being put in a corner next to those who are wrong, and so dutifully stay as far away from them as possible. In the meantime, we punt on abuse, we punt on racism, we punt on compassion for the poor. Let the Left handle that. Don’t contaminate our institutions with cultural Marxism. If you want to talk about those things, go to the Christ-less mainline, or go to politics. If you want to know about Christ, come to our churches.

Our seminaries and institutions are imperiled right now precisely because this does not work. Our arrangement of spirituality along American political lines has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. The change that has to come must come in the form of a willingness not to pit love and truth against each other. We’re not rethinking our biblical faith. We have to rethink our identity.

And that’s much, much harder.

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The NFL’s National Anthem Failure

The league has a right to make its own rules, but this was a missed opportunity to model a healthy public square.

The NFL’s new policy that players must stand for the national anthem or else stay in the locker room during the song is the wrong decision. Team owners, a group of 32 billionaires, took varying approaches last season to handling the public relations kerfuffle over African-American players who knelt during the anthem. The “compromise,” announced by league head Roger Goodell, is more of a mandate, a response to an unexpectedly significant public backlash that seemed to drag down the NFL’s all-important TV ratings. Of course the league has the legal right to make its own rules, but the new policy represents a failure of moral leadership.

It’s important to remember that while former quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the kneeling as a way to protest black deaths at the hands of police officers, it was President Trump who played the most important role in the melodrama. The president made vulgar and unbecoming remarks about the few (at the time) players who were not standing for the anthem. The protests, which were then small and confined to a small handful of the league’s 32 teams, grew in response to Trump’s insults, until it snowballed into ESPN’s favorite topic of the year. Can you imagine a more perfect example of our dysfunctional public square than that?

Indeed, the NFL’s new mandate smells of the authoritarian flavor of the day. Conservatives who cheer on the NFL for making an example out of football players love to emphasize that the NFL is a private business and can do what it wants. Yes, and Google was a private business when it fired James Damore, and so are the elite universities that “disinvite” conservatives from speaking, and so is Facebook when it blocks pro-life advertisements, etc etc. This is a very strange time for those who adhere to traditional beliefs to be erring on the side of corporate autonomy.

The new policy is presented as a compromise between image-conscious owners and socially conscious players. But is it? According to the players who knelt, the entire point of the demonstration was not to express hatred of America or disgust at her citizens, but to express sadness for the centuries of racial animosity and violence that continue to gnaw at our country’s heel. You can make a good argument that kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner fails to sufficiently get this message across, but you can’t argue that forcing players who want to kneel—for reasons political, or historical, or familial—to stay in the locker room, out of sight, is an authentic compromise. Rather, it’s the exact kind of conscience gerrymandering that traditionally religious Americans are used to by now, the kind that offers “freedom of religion” in a toothless, privatized sense, but denies “freedom of religious practice” in public life.

Why the implicit comparison between racial demonstrations and religious practice? For one, the similarities between the responses to each from corporate America is too much to ignore. Secondly, the NFL is a surprisingly religious league, with more openly Christian superstars than either the NBA or major league baseball. It’s not hard to imagine that the league’s aversion to peaceful (even prayerful) demonstrations during the national anthem might be a prelude to a more holistic aversion to players whose beliefs and practices are outside the mainstream.

In fact, we don’t have to imagine this, because the NFL has already told us what they think of orthodox Christianity. By threatening to punish states that protect Christian conscience from transgender dictates, the NFL has already positioned itself as a arbiter of American ethics, fit to lecture us all on morality. The anthem mandate reveals impressive depths of moral hypocrisy: The NFL doesn’t want the views of black Americans to disturb viewers’ TV experience, but it has no problem telling those who believe in “male and female, He created them” that pro football is better off without them. So much for compromises!

Given the NFL’s commitment to the right side of secular history; given its comfort with telling players to stay out of sight if they want to take a knee; and given the number of professing Christians who play pro football, doesn’t it make sense to be concerned that sooner or later, billionaire owners are going to want their players to stop posting those bigoted Bible verses on social media?

Roger Goodell and the team owners have missed a valuable opportunity. They’ve missed an opportunity to model a healthy public square, one in which people with different perspectives on rituals and anthems can dialogue with each other in public, learn from each other, and work with each other. They’ve missed, in other words, an opportunity to model the idea of America. One doesn’t need to agree with the demonstrations themselves to see the value in a sports league that errs on the side of peaceful expression and dialogue.

The water is getting choppy these days for pro football. Millennials are less interested in touchdowns and more interested in CTE. There are some who argue that the physical costs of football render it unacceptable to moral society. Count me among the number who believe, as Roger Scruton says, that valuable things are more easily torn down than built up. I only wish the NFL would agree.

Movie Reviews and Evangelical Blind Spots

I have respect for the ministry of Plugged In and how they serve Christian families by flagging objectionable content in film. I think there’s a place for this kind of thing and have availed myself of the site frequently over several years.

But in my experience, evangelicals frequently place too much trust in services like Plugged In. Instead of using them as helpful meters to determine age-appropriate moviegoing, many Christians use content and worldview metrics to shape their entire approach to consuming culture. The problem with this reductionistic approach is not only that it frequently fails to accurately represent the nature and purpose of art, but that it relies heavily on the idiosyncratic blind spots of a religious subculture.

Here is a great example of what I’m talking about. Plugged In wrote a mostly positive, if somewhat dismissive review of the kids movie Show Dogs. After noting some bathroom humor in the content flagging portion of their review, here’s what they said in the conclusion:

 Show Dogs is a kids’ movie through and through. If you consider its story and presentation on a graduated scale—say, one that ranges from whine and scratch on the low end all the way up to a family pleasing tail-wag peak—this pic probably qualifies as a Saturday-matinee chew toy that lands on the less-enthusiastic, flea-bitten side of the scale. It feels like a talking-dog version of Miss Congeniality: a canine caper the youngsters will giggle at even as parents roll their eyes wearily.

On the plus side, it actually has plenty of action and less doggy doo-doo humor than I expected. And in the negative column, there are some extended dog-private-parts-inspection moments and a couple uses of the word “d–n” that really should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Your kids will likely think it’s silly and fun. But whatever you do, I’d suggest you leave your family dog at home. ‘Cause he’d never forgive you.

For those familiar with Plugged In’s style and language, this most certainly constitutes a positive review. Show Dogs, according to this reviewer, is fine for your kids, if a little trivial. They’ll enjoy it, you probably won’t, but it’s harmless fun.

Today—and to their credit—Plugged In ran a blog post that discusses some of the controversy that’s been growing around the film. You can read the viral review one mother wrote here, but the short summary is that many parents and sexual abuse victim advocates are extremely concerned that the way Show Dogs handles a particular subplot sends a seriously disturbing message to kids about their bodies and private parts.

Apparently, Plugged In’s positive review of Show Dogs caused some concern among their readers, concern which they wanted to address via the blog post. Here’s how they address it:

One thing we try not to do at Plugged In is infer motive, because that’s a game with no real end. Our objective at Plugged In is always to tell you what’s in a film as accurately as we can and let you, the reader, draw your own conclusions and make your own decisions. When I saw this sequence, it translated as simply as an over-long potty joke that wasn’t particularly funny in a silly movie that wasn’t particularly good.

But movies, even the most straightforward of movies, are incredibly complex things. It’s not just the moviemaker’s story that’s at play here: It’s our own stories, too. We all bring our own experiences and sensitivities and baggage to every movie we see. And so, in many respects, even when we watch the very same movie, the messages it gives can be very different. Unique.

I have no idea why the editors at Plugged In noted the controversy surrounding Show Dogs and decided to double down on their positive review of the film in response. Why not simply let the controversy pass you by, noting that you diligently catalogued the movie’s profanity and potty humor and adding no further comment? No clue. But what actually frustrates me about Plugged In’s post here is that it’s not really the truth. When Plugged In writes that they don’t try to infer motive or tell readers what decision to make about a movie, they’re either using definitions of those words I’ve never heard of, or they’re not being totally honest here. Plugged In infers filmmaker’s motives all the time. Plugged In tells readers to stay away from certain movies because of their messaging all the time. This kind of exhortation is intrinsic to the discernment ministry that Plugged In operates. For them to claim that they do anything less is profoundly confusing, because it’s demonstrably untrue.

I don’t fault Plugged In for missing a troubling interpretive angle of a film. Anybody can do that. What I do fault is the impulse within evangelicalism to make Christian discernment and worldview ministries the sole proprietors of virtue and vice in pop culture. There could be an important reason why a major evangelical pop culture review completely missed overtones of sexual abuse in a movie: Namely, because much of evangelicalism, including our churches and parachurch ministries, has a blind spot when it comes to sexual abuse. We fail to see what we aren’t looking for, and we fail to look for what we don’t think about enough.

Maybe Plugged In doesn’t want to publicly consider this possibility. Maybe it hasn’t crossed their minds. Either possibility doesn’t really matter in the end, just like the motives of a filmmaker who puts graphic nudity or 200 F-bombs into his film don’t really matter for a Plugged In review. What’s there is there. The question is seeing it.

This isn’t an indictment of Plugged In or a call to burn down evangelical reviews of movies. Instead, it’s a call for humility in how Christians engage culture, and a reminder that holistic approaches to art are superior to worldview litmus tests and curse word-counters. There is a place for the latter, but it shouldn’t be in front and on top of the former.

The Copycat Problem

Media outlets must change how they cover school shootings and glamorize the shooters.

I agree with National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke that the mass shooting problem in the US is also a copycat problem:

The shooter in Parkland was obsessed with the massacre at Columbine, as was the shooter in Newtown. More often than not, this is the case — even when shooters or would-be shooters do not manage to carry out their attacks as planned. Typically, the Columbine obsession takes the form of giving a would-be shooter the idea, and/or setting a bodycount target for him to “beat” (if this sounds like hyperbole, read this chilling account). Occasionally, though, it drips down into his tactics. From the early reports, that seems to have been the case here. It seems that the shooter wore a trench coat, and made pipe bombs, which he spread around the school. Now where would he have got an idea like that?

What empowers the copycat problem? Well, you could say that all school shooters share similar sociopathies. That might be true as far as it goes, but there a lot of disturbed, violent people in the world, and a lot of variety in how their commit crimes. The trench coated, bomb-planting, angry-loner profile for school shooters is too much of a template to think it’s all just coincidentally shared neuroses. Obviously there’s a deliberate attempt to imitate among these angry young men. And how do they get the information to imitate?

I guess some people might think talking about media coverage is a way for a conservative like me to avoid talking about gun control. It’s not. IN the very little space I’ve given to writing about the topic, I’ve expressed interest in unhitching conservatism from NRA-esque dis-regulation, and chided my fellow evangelicals for reading the Constitution well in its First amendment but poorly in its Second. I’m not a gun homer. I skew to the right on this issue because of intuition and tribal alignments, but that doesn’t mean the Republican Party’s platform is gospel. I’m all for talking about guns.

The problem I see is that everyone’s fine talking about guns, but practically no one wants to talk about why, literally hours after the deaths of 10 people, cable news outlets are promoting (yes, promoting) the alleged murderer’s Facebook profile, interviewing his classmates and friends, pasting his name atop the internet, and doing in-depth psychological profiles of his clothing and music. Let’s face it: This stuff is either a celebritization or else it’s a form of pornography, a soft-core concoction of tantalizing details and insinuations that titillate the imagination. Either way, this is a carb-rich media diet for desperate and violent men.

Young people in America want fame. According to one statistician who asked them, many young people want fame more than they want success, meaning, or even family. Social media is a billion dollar enterprise not least because it is a kind of parallel society in which opportunities for fame are legion compared to offline life. Is it really hard to imagine the mental process by which a lonely, rejected, isolated teenager would determine that the best thing he could do for his life would be to become infamous? Audition for American Idol and you probably won’t make it. Try to get into pro sports, and the odds aren’t good. But if you murder people in the right way—sensationally—your chances of fame skyrocket. There are tons of obscure good guys. Everyone knows the monster.

Cooke seems resigned to the fact that media will continue to print names, faces, GPAs, and hobbies of mass shooters. Maybe he’s right. But if that’s the case, we need to have the self-awareness to admit that the celebritization of mass murders continues ultimately because we want it too, because we are too satisfied to really consider alternatives, and because our assumptions about the information we are owed are 100% as consumeristic as the NRA’s messaging. We say we need to address Hollywood’s love affair with guns; by saying so we betray that we really do understand the formative effects of seeing violence lit up on our screens.

The staunch refusal to consider any change of protocol when it comes to coverage of school shootings is a morally outrageous hypocrisy. If universal background checks are possible, so are rules about photos. If bans on magazines and bump stocks are possible, so are laws against revealing intimate details of a shooter’s personal life. If how we think about gun violence is worth changing, then so is how we cover gun violence.

Anything less is a failure.

Letter to a Disappointed Graduate

Dear new college graduate,

I’m supposed to start off by saying “Congratulations,” but I doubt you want to hear that right now. If I’ve understood you correctly, today doesn’t feel like a victory to you. You say you’ve wasted most of the last few years. You’ve say you’ve been selfish, lazy, and unkind. You say for too long you were hung up on pornography and video games, and that your graduation today is mostly due to the kindness and forbearance of professors and the intervention of family and friends. Today, you say, feels good, but as you watch your classmates celebrate their high GPAs, their entrance in grad programs, and their lives that look way more fruitful than yours, all you can think about is how behind you are.

I imagine you’re frustrated at the kind of responses you get when you express this feeling to most people. I can hear in your voice a seriousness about the regrets of the past that I know from experience most Americans are deeply unable to process. I reckon you’ve been told everything from “Well, college is when you’re supposed to mess around, now it’s time to get serious,” to, “Live with no regrets,” to, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” (That last one deserves to be permanently affixed to something flammable) We modern people disagree about a lot, but the one thing we all seem able to agree on is that nothing is worth regretting, and that positive thinking is far more valuable than grief and guilt.

Everything in you is screaming that this attitude is nonsense, isn’t it? That’s because it is nonsense. The grief and regret you carry over bad that you did and the good you left undone are not your enemies (at least, not yet). Just like hunger points to the existence of food and desire to the existence of sex, shame points to the reality of sin. What you are feeling is sorrow over your sin. Don’t let misguided Christians tell you that sin in college years is insignificant. Your own conscience tells you that’s false, and in fact I could share with you a lot of stories of people I know whose youthful lusts did not stay youthful. Talking your shame down with meaningless platitudes won’t help you, as I think you know.

The reality is that a lot of people want to take college students seriously without actually taking them seriously. They want to traffic in cliches about the “next generation” and “your utterly unique place in history,” but they don’t want to hear stories about frat boys whose athletic scholarships couldn’t keep them from getting addicted to opiates, or about the National Merit scholar who seriously contemplated suicide when she realized her grades were slipping. I understand why they don’t want to hear these things. They don’t have the resources to respond well to them. Anything bad that happens in college is always the fault of “the system,” or can be solved with medication. In college there are plenty of paid counselors available to help you understand why it’s your parents’ fault, why it’s the patriarchy’s fault, or why it’s your brain’s fault.

But, happily, you know better than that. You know it’s your fault. You are reckoning with the shame. I am proud of you for doing this.

The thing about shame, though, is that you’ve got to do something with it. You can’t hold onto it forever. Some people try to hold onto it  because they don’t know what else to do, or because the regret and the anguish can be hidden in a way that real change and real reconciliation can’t be. This is a recipe for self-destruction, and I know you realize that. You don’t want to flippantly dismiss the shame and regret you feel over the last few years, but neither do you want it to swallow you whole. That’s where you need to be.

Some of the shame you feel is about academics. You didn’t always try your best (in fact, you say you rarely did). You weren’t thankful for the opportunity to live in a community of learning. You didn’t take advantage of your world of books, lectures, discussion, open professor’s doors, and late night conversation over pizza or coffee. You say, with admirable transparency, you were probably in your room watching porn while these things were happening. Now, you say, you’ve realized that walking across that graduation platform is almost certainly the last moment you will ever be in a season of life like that one, and your heart aches for the books you didn’t read, the papers you didn’t turn in, and the conversations you didn’t have.

Some of the shame you feel has to do with relationships. This is painful stuff. It’s absolutely wrenching to realize that some of the friends you shared memories with in sophomore year are no longer on speaking terms with you. You say you know it’s mostly your fault (though you are honest and humble enough to admit there were a lot of two-way streets). You were so consumed with yourself in those years that you hurt others and barely registered their pain.

And then some of the shame is just about the future. You don’t feel prepared. You don’t feel enriched for the last few years. You feel behind, almost as if you’re starting over from scratch. That GPA isn’t going to change, and employers and graduate school departments know it won’t. You told me that your mom and dad have offered to let you stay with them for a bit while you work out your next steps, but you say you’re too embarrassed to do that while many of your friends are moving across the world, or getting married, or starting med and law school.

I know this hurts. I know it does. You’re being honest, and that’s good. You know the truth about yourself. But you need to consider the whole truth, too.

The whole truth is that, at one point over the last few years, you say you came to Jesus. You say God broke you over your sin and you cried out to him, not just to save you from the power of the sins that enslaved you but from the justice that you felt in your soul you deserved. In that moment you saw God for who He really is: all-beautiful, all-loving, all-kind, all-powerful, all-just, all-compassionate, all-knowing. You saw God for the glorious One he is, and you knew in that moment that he was the source of all beauty, all kindness, all power, all compassion, and all knowledge. He was the sun that every beam that ever shone on your soul was looking for. You didn’t find him, but he found you. You knew you didn’t deserve it, but you knew he was giving it anyway. He offered his life in exchange for your death, his death in exchange for your shame.

And you took it.

I’ve got good news, my friend. There’s no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. You are new, and the old things have passed away. You were dead and have been raised back to life again. You are forgiven and free.

Here’s what this means:

-It means for you all the knowledge in the world starts not with your GPA but with Jesus Christ. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. You are no longer a student at college but you are barely a freshman in God’s wisdom. So, read. Talk. Listen. Get coffee at 8pm. Get dinner and talk about the movie. You aren’t in college anymore, but you are still learning. Wasting years in college does not mean you have wasted your mind forever, because (spoiler alert) college isn’t the end all, be all of education. God is giving you a richer portion in himself than you ever had in the classroom without Him. Take advantage of him. Pursue truth, beauty, and goodness.

-It means that no amount of pornographic images can withstand the red-hot beauty of Christ. You are not doomed to live forever with shameful memories. Your mind can and will be renewed day by day, and one glorious day soon the hands that built the Milky Way will touch your eyes and every wasted, selfish second will evaporate like water on a hot iron, never to be known again. Walk in the victory you’ve already experienced, because it really is victory. You are free indeed. Become what you are, invite others into your life to help keep you from sliding back into old habits.

-It means that your future is more secure now than it ever has been. I honestly don’t know what you’ll end up doing in life, but I know that God has pledged to work everything for your good. Don’t be ashamed to receive kindness from your Mom and Dad while you look for a more permanent situation. Don’t mooch off them, but don’t reject the healing power of family either. You are not a failure because you need people who love you. Don’t be enslaved to economics. Trust the Lord, work hard, show up on time, don’t talk yourself out of opportunities. If God can raise you from death to life, and if he can send your deepest shame to the bottom of the ocean, can’t he give you a career? Be so in awe of the love being shown to you that you forget to compare yourself to others. This can happen!

Friend, I hope this encourages you. I love seeing what Jesus is doing in your life. I know college isn’t what you hoped it would be, but I know the future is more already glorious than you could possibly hope it to be. You are loved, you are purchased, you are commissioned. You are alive.

Congratulations!

Three Reasons Not to Gamble on Sports

In a landmark decision today, the Supreme Court effectively struck down federal laws against sports gambling. While the full implications of the ruling will probably take time to realize, most states in the US will likely sanction and promote (though, according to this ruling, they wouldn’t have to) betting on professional sports, such as NFL, NBA, baseball, etc. It’s a major ruling for every professional sporting organization and for millions of Americans—mostly men—who gamble on their favorite sports.

I should be honest: This is the only type of gambling that’s ever slightly appealed to me. I’ve never taken the lottery seriously. I’ve never ever been to a horse race. For reasons that have to do with my personality more than my piety, I’ve just never really had any inclination to try my hand at slot machines or stuff like that. But my personality does like sports, and I’ve thought more than once that my knowledge of pro football might make me some easy money. I’ve never done it…but I’ve thought about it.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think that God doesn’t want this for me. I’ve never been able to mine anything out of Scripture resembling encouragement or even permission to gamble my money on sports. I don’t want to be heavy handed or legalistic here. I know that not all “gambling” is alike, and that not every Christian will see things the same way on this. There’s no chapter-and-verse proof text. But in my own life, every time I’ve felt the appeal of sports gambling, I’ve felt it wither next to my conscience.

Let me offer three reasons I think Christians are better off without sports gambling.

1) The Christian attitude toward money is not easy. If you’re not careful, words like “stewardship” can become meaningless platitudes that merely serve to disguise what’s being talked about. The reality is that Scripture has some difficult things to say about our money, and not just how we use it, but how we feel toward it (1 Timothy 6:9-10). The desire to make money apart from honest labor (and here I mean both physical and intellectual labor, the latter of which would include things like investing) is not a desire that gets an easy time from the Bible (Proverbs 10:2).

In Ephesians 4:28, Paul gives a somewhat counter-intuitive command: He tells the one who steals to stop stealing and work for money instead. Makes sense. But then he says that the purpose of such work is to make money that can be shared with others in need. In other words, it’s not just honesty that matters when it comes to money, it’s intentionality. Money that’s honestly gained does not thus become autonomously mine. There are moral obligations attached even to money honestly gained.

I don’t think sports gambling fits this bill. At least in my own heart, I feel the temptation to sports betting most powerfully when I am wanting some money to protect from God. My job and my writing gives me money that I use to pay bills, tithe, buy groceries, etc. Where is my money for MY stuff? Rather than either indulge this impulse or stiffly condemn it (after all, having a little spending money isn’t a bad thing), I try to bring this desire to Jesus and tell him what’s going on in my heart, what I think I need, and ask him to align me with his kingdom.

Often, these prayers have been met with unexpected opportunities to earn. Sometimes my lack of generosity has been exposed, and what I thought would be good fun money turns into money I need to give away. I think this dynamic honors the purpose of money more than the raw logic of sports gambling.

2) Sports gambling is foolish risk. Sometimes people respond to this point by saying that investing is risk, or hobbies like football cards are a risk (aren’t you paying for the chance to pull a really valuable card?). But not all risk is the same. There is inherent risk to even holding down a job—I might get injured, or miss out on an opportunity, or be fired. Those risks are real but they are not foolish risks.

The risk of sports gambling is unlike those risks because it demands far more than it gives. The rewards of sports gambling are rare, but the costs are plenteous. In fact, it’s the high degree of risk and the high probability of losing that makes sports gambling fun and intense. Addiction is a real threat in sports gambling precisely because there is so much loss and so little victory. Does that sound like an institution whose economics make kingdom sense?

There are better ways to spend my money. What if I took the 50 bucks I want to put on an NFL game and took my wife out to a special dinner? What if I gave it to friends who are raising money for an adoption? What if I simply invested it in a company whose values I believed in? All of those options carry inherent risk, but the rewards easily outweigh them. This is the path of wisdom, not to mention love.

3) I think there’s something about sports gambling that would sully my enjoyment of the game. As a Los Angeles Rams fan, I watch football each week in hopes that the Rams win, their rivals lose, and my team eventually wins the championship. While fandom can be taken out of hand and sports become an idol, there is something inherently healthy in the coming out of myself that happens when I cheer on a team. Cultivating this private pleasure can be a sanctifying way of learning to love things because they are lovely, not because I want people to like me for the things I love.

I wonder if people who regularly gamble on sports really can enjoy sports this way. Isn’t there something pure about being a fan that being a speculator would take away? If my money is on the line, so, in a way, is my sense of peace, joy, and security. A big day of losses for me as a gambler is devastating and potentially life changing, while a day of losses for me as a fan is unfortunate but nothing that a better week can’t fix. That football is unpredictable is good news for a fan but the worst news for a gambler. I want to take the fullest joy possible in the game, not my cash.

So there you are, three reasons to avoid sports gambling. Again, some Christians may not agree, or may not agree completely. That’s fine. These are just the reasons that operate in my own life, and I commend them to you.

A Brief Postscript On Abuse, Church, and At-All-Costs Evangelism

An unbelieving husband’s body in a church pew is not worth more than his abused and vulnerable wife.

Evangelicals sometimes will reduce the Christian life to one thing. Sometimes that thing will be faithful church attendance. When this happens, the way these Christians speak of what it means to be a believer becomes radically attendance-centered, and often seems comfortable with a trade-off between going to church and acts of mercy, personal holiness, etc. You can often detect this attitude in churches that are filled with very superficial relationships. No one really has the knowledge or the will to get involved in the life of someone else. All that matters is that everyone’s there on Sunday.

Sometimes we’ll reduce the Christian life to individual Bible reading and prayer. When this happens, presence at church is usually one of the first things to be sacrificed. In the off chance you do spend time with this person, they will often say something theologically suspect, and you’ll realize that this weird, untrue idea would not last very long in the company of more seasoned believers. But of course, one has to be in such company first.

And then sometimes evangelicals, especially those on my own branch of the tree, will reduce the Christian life to evangelism. These brothers and sisters talk of the church as if it’s a gas station on the world’s highway; you’ll need to stop occasionally to get refueled, but then you’re back on the road again. When evangelism becomes the end all, be all of Christian faithfulness, everything takes a back seat to reaching out, sharing, witnessing, etc. Anything that could possibly prevent a non-Christian from coming in or staying in the presence of other believers is immediately opposed and discarded. If it doesn’t result in people coming to church and making decisions for Christ, it’s not worth keeping—whatever “it” is.

I thought about this dynamic when I was reflecting on Paige Patterson’s controversial story about pastoral counsel he gave to a wife who was being abused by her husband. Patterson has since apologized for the offense taken at his words, and I don’t want to litigate the controversy right now. What struck me as I thought further about his comments was that the counsel he gave this woman fits a pattern I’ve seen so many times growing up in conservative evangelicalism. No, I’ve never heard a pastor say he was “glad” a woman came in with two bruised eyes (and that’s why I do think the outrage over the comments is fair and just), but what I have heard, literally thousands of times, is that we cannot say or do anything to an unbeliever that would cause them to flee from us. If a non-Christian is willing to sit in church, our rejoicing at their presence should outweigh any other consideration…because isn’t that why we’re here?

To express joy at an unbelieving husband’s presence at church while his abused wife stands in front of you is a severe case of Christian reductionism. Why does her battered, vulnerable body not matter as much as her husband’s rear end in the pew? There’s certainly nothing biblical about the idea that the presence of an unbeliever in church hearing the gospel is the supreme good of Christian ministry that cannot be topped. In fact, the biblical teaching of church discipline makes the opposite argument: That it is worth it to remove from fellowship a person whom you think might not be genuinely born again if doing so models the discipline of Christ and preserves the integrity of the church. Excommunication would not make sense, and would not have been commanded by the Spirit through Paul, if an unbeliever needed to be “plugged in” more than anything else.

Similarly, some evangelical churches have abandoned or ignored orthodoxy out of concern that it drives unbelievers from the church. This is the same mistake, though more palatable for many of us. A fear to confront sexual sin that leads to shifting beliefs or inconsistent praxis is the same crippling reductionism that ultimately harms both Christians and unbelievers. I wonder how many evangelicals who nod and cheer when this standard is applied against crusty Southern Baptists and domestic abuse would hedge and squirm when the topic turns to sexuality and gender. The Bible punches both left and right.

Patterson’s story reminded me how severe the consequences of this reductionism can be. When the Christian life becomes about only one thing, we become willing to move other facets of faithfulness out of the way to have a clearer shot at the one thing. The hardest part is that evangelism, out of all the things we can reduce to the Christian life to, does not feel reductionistic. It does not feel like slighting the other parts of Scripture. It feels like maximal obedience. That’s why we often don’t stop ourselves until some intensely ugly sin shows itself.

I wish the woman in Patterson’s story would have experienced a more full, a more holistically faithful vision of the Christian life, instead of being told that her husband’s sin was no big deal as long as he showed himself in church. I wish many of the churches that I know from childhood would have recovered a more balanced obedience, instead of having cookout after cookout until the body finally shriveled and died (or going door-to-door with the Romans road while having not the foggiest clue what the Bible says).

We can do better.

Is the Jordan Peterson Phenomenon Really About Angry Young Men?

Does the “anti-PC warrior” sell bitterness and a persecution complex to angry white males?

Jordan Peterson isn’t really that interesting of a topic. His videos are popular, sure, but so are FailBlog’s. His book 12 Rules for Life is well-written and articulate, but it’s not The Abolition of Man. I completely understand why people scratch their heads at Peterson’s seeming omnipresence in journalism and online discourse. He’s not that big of a deal.

On the other hand, the interest in Peterson—both the fandom and the outrage—is interesting for what it reveals. There are deep fault lines in our contemporary understanding of foundational topics such as gender, parenting, the good life, and suffering. Many of these fault lines lay hidden beneath artificial structures, like HR-style conformity to speech codes and predictable partisan politics. The Peterson phenomenon is about these fault lines more than it’s about Peterson himself. The actual divide that I see is not really between people who like Peterson’s message and those who don’t, but those who are content with the lay of the fault lines and those who aren’t.

Christine Emba’s write-up from a Peterson event illustrates this point well. She describes the interest in Peterson’s message as “depressing,” classifying Peterson’s fans as belonging to the “disaffected-young man-Internet.” Though she expresses something like appreciation for Peterson’s self-improvement tomes and willingness to challenge cultural orthodoxies, she nonetheless sees his readers as confused (and probably over-privileged):

Peterson — or, rather, the men who flock to him — clearly need something to fight against (anti-free-speech snowflakes!), and something to fight for (their leader!). Why is that? The subtitle of Peterson’s book is “An Antidote to Chaos,” and many of his readers really do feel as though they’re living lives of fracture and disarray, left to twist in the wind by broken families, a fading economy and new social norms that seem to give succor to everyone except them.

The word “need” here is intentional, and it is used in much the same way that cognitive scientists describe religious people as “needing” to believe in pattern and transcendence. “Need to believe” is a formulation that suggests the beliefs line up more with agenda than reality. And what is that agenda? Well, to fight back against an emerging socioeconomic order that seems “to give succor to everyone except them.”

In other words, Peterson is selling bitterness and a persecution complex. And disaffected young men are buying it.

There’s some measure of truth here. Peterson has indeed been lionized by some males whose worldview is all about owning the libs and feminazis. There is undoubtedly some class and sexual resentment going on as well, a fact the online community of “incels” graphically illustrates. But as I’m sure Emba would agree, it’s hard for a 400 page book to perch atop Amazon’s bestselling nonfiction lists on the backs of incels and “redpill” truants alone. The fault lines pass through them, yes, but they didn’t start there.

I was surprised to realize after re-reading Emba’s piece that in talking about Peterson’s message and appeal, she never once mentions higher ed. I would argue it’s impossible to accurately understand why Peterson’s work is connecting with so many unless you consider, objectively if possible, the culture of American universities. Not only is the campus shoutdown culture a prominent topic in Peterson’s book, it is inseparable from his platform. He is, after all, a college professor, one whose basic social, political, and religious ideas are at intense conflict with the vast majority of his colleagues. You don’t have to agree with Peterson’s particular views on transgender speech laws to empathize with him in his famous video with a belligerent interviewer from BBC Channel 4, or to be concerned with the way protesters at college campuses shout him down.

In other words, those investigating Peterson’s appeal should probably consider the possibility that at least some of the “disaffection” of his male fans comes from somewhere. Why should we assume that student activists who bring air horns and placards into school lectures to keep guests from talking speak for all their peers? Couldn’t there be some, maybe even many, who are offended at such tactics and appalled at their effectiveness? Could it be that these same people admire Peterson for his courage amidst a crumbling public square?

I’ve observed that many who register concerns and annoyance at Peterson rarely have much to say about these other phenomenons. It’s almost as if Peterson’s ideological targets are so assumed and so instinctive on the Left that his words make no sense there, like he is boxing a ghost some cannot see. My point is not that everything Peterson writes or says is true. As a Christian, in fact, I think his archetypal approach to truth itself is fatally flawed and doomed to fail eventually. But an honest appraisal cannot find that Peterson’s messaging comes from nowhere, or that it’s rooted in nothing real. Only those comfortable with these fault lines can fail to see them.

I don’t find Peterson or his book depressing. What I do find depressing are the cultural orthodoxies he attacks. Emba asks whether Peterson’s appeal means we don’t have any parents any more. Has she considered the possibility that the problem is not lack of parents but a radical transformation of parenting? All it takes is a 30 minute perusal of the bestsellers section or 10 minutes on Facebook to realize that self-esteem, meeting of felt needs, and complete supervision at the cost of independence are some of the most important principles in contemporary parenting. In fact, some have observed that the transformation of the university has been into a sort of helicopter parent, whose job is no longer to shape youth into adulthood and instill virtue where there is foolishness, but to authenticate self and pacify all grievances.

Some, of course, dispute this narrative, while others think what I’ve described in negative terms is actually healthy. Praise God for healthy disagreement. But pretending these larger fault lines of disagreement don’t exist and that Peterson’s messaging is just code for poor white males who lost the culture war will not work. Peterson’s rules resonate right now because man cannot live on equality alone, and he is one of the few public figures willing to say it. In the words of C.S. Lewis, there is a “secret signature of each soul” that cannot be expressed sufficiently through politics or science. That is Peterson’s real message, as well as his critics’ real stumbling block.

Infinity Jest

I liked it. I’d be fine if I never saw it again.

The biggest problem with Avengers: Infinity War is its title. Sure, it makes sense given the plot, but I’m afraid Disney has rather put themselves in a corner. What can possibly top an infinity war? Unless the marketing department goes for broke next time with Double Dog Infinity War, it’s all downhill from here.

Let’s put the title aside. Hey, this movie really does work. I spent the last third of the film in humble admiration, not really for what I was watching on the screen but for the creativity and verve of those who put it there. This movie should have stunk and it does not. It should have been an incoherent mush of CGI and it is not. It should have been The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, and praise the Lord, it is not. Infinity War is fun, exciting, and surprisingly emotional. I liked it. I’d be fine if I never saw it again.

The story concerns the…eh, what’s the point. There’s a really powerful Bad Dude, who is looking for magical gem stones that will make him Baddest Dude, and it’s the job of the Good Dudes and Dudettes to come together and Stop Him. I think that’s enough to know. I’d wager that those who go in knowing less than that will have a better time than anyone. Whoops, my mistake.

I came away from Infinity War impressed with three things above all.

First, the humor of this film is more restrained and less forced than in previous Marvel episodes. I find the typical Marvel shtick of interrupting what is supposed to be a dramatically intense moment with a sick burn or golly gee willikers incredibly annoying. If I craved dumb humor I would have stayed in middle school. Infinity War dials this back and I appreciated it.

Second, this might be the best edited superhero movie I’ve ever seen. As I mentioned above, the math of a film like Infinity War usually adds up to a mess. I was very impressed at the clean action scenes, the careful pacing, and the comparable screen time for all our heroes (except for Scarlett Johansson, who continues to look like she’d rather be doing anything else). There are so many ways to make “intense” films unwatchable—see: Jackson, Peter—but Infinity War manages to be inviting, as well as loud and fast.

Third, I liked the ending. I’m told fans of the comics do not. That makes sense to me, because this is an ending for movie lovers and not necessarily for Marvel mythology lovers. If you’re a film fan like me who’s disenchanted with the superhero genre, I think you’ll watch and know what I mean by that. There’s a bravura in the film’s denouement that you won’t find in many other superhero pictures. That was a risk, and it paid off.

But of course, some will not like it. The good news for them is that journalists are currently writing entire pieces about how many upcoming Marvel films there are. There’s an old saying I heard growing up in the unpredictable daily weather of the Ohio river valley: If you don’t like the weather, keep hanging around. If you don’t like the latest Marvel film, keep hanging around.

David Foster Wallace once imagined a movie that was so entertaining it killed its audiences. I’m slowly coming to terms with the realization that I’ll be taking my grandchildren to see Avengers 32 and the 20th reboot of Spider-Man, featuring an androgynous AI as Peter Parker. At the rate we’re going, there’s a good chance I’ll pass away watching a Marvel movie. Oh well.

Hospitality as Friendship: A Billy Graham Rule Proposal

A proposal for married men and women to transform our view of friendship.

The “Billy Graham Rule” (alternatively known as the Mike Pence Rule) is once again a live topic of evangelical conversation. I appreciated Tish Harrison Warren’s thoughtful list of principles that she and her husband follow rather than the Rule, which she argues stifles male-female friendship and insulates Christian men from the influence of godly women. My friend Jake Meador offered what I think is the right response to Tish’s argument, acknowledging  valid concerns while pushing back gently on the assumption that rules about private encounters between the sexes are always too harsh. As Jake wrote, “The material factors of daily life in the modern west undermine the strength of marriage. In a world of weaker marriages, something must exist to protect them.” I think he’s right.

I also think it’s worth exploring Jake’s point a little further. Could it be that one reason modern American marriages are vulnerable enough to need the Pence rule is that our cultural conception of “friendship” is too atomized and individualistic? We tend to think of friendship as something individuals do, cloistered together in the coffee shop or wordlessly taking in the latest Marvel film. Consider how drastically high school and college-aged friendships tend to drop off as people age and marry. Why is this? Probably because for many of us “friendship” is more of an event than a sharing of routine life. As marriage and job give new shapes and rhythms to our lives, friendships wither because the events of adolescent friendship wither.

What does this have to do the strength of marriages? Well, I suspect that many of us don’t re-imagine friendship as we get older. Rather, we simply transfer the same mindset to adulthood, so that our “friends” are the ones who share the new events: church, the office party, the gym membership, the little league games, etc. In this, though, we hang on to the individualistic mindset. We don’t think of our families as units capable of giving and receiving friendship. Our individual relationships take priority, and thus, table-for-two “friendships” tend to form outside the home and marriage bond, often with the potential of cultivating the kind of relational intimacy that threatens marriages.

The critic of the Pence rule simply responds that men and women need to assume moral responsibility and be  wise as they cultivate meaningful friendships with each other. The advocate of the Pence rule argues instead that close-quarters relationships between unmarried people is unwise in our culture of vulnerable marriages. But what if our response was not merely to govern the 1-on-1 time between unmarried men and women, but to redefine friendship entirely so that our spouses, our homes, and our back yards were more essential than coffee shops and lunches? What if we thought of hospitality as friendship?

While marriage does not swallow up individual identity, it does permanently redefine it. The husband and wife are not two but one. Not even their bodies belong to the respective selves anymore, but each one belongs to the other spouse in a gentle mutuality. When Paul warns those eager to be married that their spiritual energies will be divided after marriage, he is not describing an obstacle that the married person has to leap over. He is telling us what God’s will is for married Christians—namely, that they must consider their spouse even in terms of their own relationship with Christ. This means that while the husband and wife remain individual selves, their selfhood is no longer singular but plural.

What does this mean for hospitality and friendship? Everything.

We ought to remember that the Graham/Pence rules are unique in their application to their namesakes. Billy Graham spent more time away from his spouse and home than most people ever will. He lived on the road and in hotels. This is an intense calling that is not normal for most of us. Graham’s aim was to protect his witness and his ministry from both temptation and rumor, which are, I think, two aims that every Christian man and woman should strive to pursue. But we shouldn’t assume that we must pursue them in the same way that Graham did.

Rather, for most of us, our daily rhythms of life can and ought to be shaped by the home. This is what Jake was referring to when he wrote that Western life undermines marriages. It does this by keeping husbands and wives and children apart from each other, in economic models that would be completely unthinkable to almost any culture before the late 19th century. Christians don’t have to accept this arrangement in their own homes and lives. We should follow Flannery O’Connor’s advice instead and push back against the age as hard as it pushes against us.

One way to do this is through recasting friendship as hopsitality. A few weeks ago I read Rosaria Butterfield’s new book The Gospel Comes With a House Key, a manifesto for a recovered Christian hospitality that is messy, unorganized, non-impressive, and radically ordinary. The hospitality that Rosaria describes in the book is a whole-family hospitality that re-imagines friendship in terms of homes, not simply individuals. In hospitality married men and women can form authentic friendship with other married men and women in a way that reinforces the covenantal reality of two becoming one instead of undermining it. What is the appeal of stealing away for a coffee when one’s home can be open and friendship expressed holistically? Why cloister people in event-oriented friendship when you can receive or be received into the home, and deepen your friendship and affection for people as they are in covenant, and not just as they are individually?

The challenge for us is that this is difficult. It requires not just changing our paradigm of friendship but being willing to come up short in “hosting.” Some might object that living rooms do not offer the privacy of corner tables. My point is not that hospitality-as-friendship is easy, but that it is healthy and right and deeply spiritual. Couples receiving singles and other couples into their homes is not only rewarding, but encouraging. It often explodes the myths we tell ourselves about our own home or marriage. Hospitable marriages go beyond event friendship to spiritual discipleship. I don’t avoid talking to my female friend when she and her husband are with me and my wife in our home. My wife isn’t “careful” not to speak a certain way with the other husband. Instead, we are experiencing the friendship of families: Knowing each other individually and corporately, and our affection growing in kind.

Hospitality as friendship can strengthen marriages and friendships by delivering us out of the adolescent and deeply modern attitude that friends are people you “hang” with until you find something better to do with your life. No Starbucks or movie theater can receive a friend as warmly as a boiling kettle or a well-worn sofa can. The reality is not that men and women cannot be friends. It’s that no one can be a friend as something they’re really not. Let’s be families and homes instead of atomized individuals.