Don’t Argue Like Those Who Have No Hope

Christians seem hopelessly captive to the same news cycle, the same polarization, and the same grievances as unbelievers. This is tragic.

“Mansplain.” “Feminazi.” “Social Justice Warrior.” “Colonizer.” This is the argumentative vocabulary of the world, which has no hope of ultimate reconciliation, atonement, or New Creation. These are words designed to make people feel chained to an errant identity and undeserving of serious attention and care. They’re precisely the lingo we should expect from those whom Paul describes as “without God and without hope in the world.”

What’s surprising is hearing them on the lips of those who do have that hope.

Even before I write these words, I know that many Christians will be revving up their “whataboutisms” to show me how much of a hypocrite I am. Don’t I know how condescending males can be toward the opposite sex? Haven’t I read the latest ridiculous diatribe from a leading feminist? Don’t I believe in justice? What about, what about, what about.

This kind of thinking is like a carousel. It will just go around and around and never reach an exit. We can signal our political ideals, compare and contrast each group’s relative suffering and indignity, and drag out sordid examples of the opposing tribe’s worst instincts all day long (especially on Twitter). There will never not be evidence against them and evidence against us. Trying to arrive at truly transcendent truth by playing tribal politics is like trying to drive an SUV through the ocean.

But this is the only way many unbelievers know how to think. In a secularizing culture where it is increasingly possible to go through one’s entire educational career without hearing one inkling about God, nobody should be shocked at the size of our political golden calves. We are “incurably religious” people being herded away from religion and toward social micro-identities. If we won’t love God, we shall love ideology. If we won’t hate Satan, we shall hate immigrants or straight white men.

Thus is the experience of many in America. But what about in the church?

The spirit of the age has found partnership with too many of us believers when it comes to how we talk about those with whom we disagree. I used to think the Bible college dorm-room debates over Calvinism represented the low point of evangelical discourse. Then I got a Twitter account. Then Donald Trump was elected president. For my money, the problem is not just that Christians aren’t nice enough toward one another. The problem is that we seem hopelessly captive to the same news cycle, the same polarization, and the same grievances as the media moguls who stand to make a pretty penny from the coarsening of American public life. There is a continuity not only between what evangelicals and what unbelievers say, but between what captivates our attention and stokes our emotions. This is tragic.

Here’s an example. In a widely praised evangelical book about race published last year, I find the following line: “White privilege means that even if you’re the unluckiest white person born in the United States, you were still born into a fortunate race.” Now, the assertion on its face is questionable. But ask yourself this—what would the relational dynamics be like in a congregation that was preaching and teaching and structuring their benevolence ministries according to the dictum that even the poorest, most vulnerable white members were inherently better off (and thus, in less need of help) than their minority brothers and sisters? What would be the state of unity and gospel fellowship be in a local church that was committed to pigeonholing an entire ethnicity in their congregation as permanently “privileged”?

I’m certainly not interested in castigating any and all efforts to recognize the racist practices of American history as “cultural Marxism” (another dog whistle of a noun that should disappear from the mouths of serious Christians), nor am I veering toward a vanilla call for “unity” that is really code for “Stop talking about my brothers and sisters in Jesus whose experiences make me politically uncomfortable.” What I am suggesting is that too many evangelicals seem comfortable simply transposing the ideas and taxonomies of secular society into the community of faith.

But the gospel is too violent on our intuitions for that to succeed. We can’t simply baptize the excesses of intersectionality in order to correct the God-and-country Republicanism that led to a morally bankrupt Religious Right. The identitarian, truth-diminishing, Bible-ignoring lingo that some evangelicals have tried to program into Christian conversation is a sign that we’re trying, and failing, to do just that.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul has the audacity to suggest that there is a wrong way for Christians to grieve the death of their loved ones. This sounds unconscionably insensitive to modern ears. But Paul’s intrusion on our emotional lives is a glorious one: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” In other words, there is a way to grieve that acknowledges that one day a risen Jesus Christ will call all the dead out of their graves and death itself will be conquered forever. So, Paul says, don’t just grieve. Grieve like that!

To which I would add: there is a way to speak to one another and debate one another and learn from one another that acknowledges that some day we will all know as we are known, and we will all be one in an endless mutuality of love. So don’t argue like those who have no such hope.


image credit (licensed under CC 3.0)

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When Re-Conversion Is Easier Than Repentance

Many evangelical church cultures make it safer to deny last year’s Christianity than to admit you are a struggling believer.

Let me tell you a familiar story from my days in evangelical youth ministry.

A teenager with roots in the church would make semi-regular appearances throughout the year, be respectful during Bible study/church, but otherwise seem non-cognizant of Christianity the rest of the year. Then one year, the teenager goes with the youth group on a week-long “mission trip” to a Christian camp. At one point during the week, the teenager has an emotional (possibly tearful) experience and tells their youth leader they need to be truly saved. This joyous announcement follows the teenager home where she stands in front of the whole congregation a couple Sundays later and shares her story of “realizing for the first time” that she “actually needed Jesus in her life.”

Fast forward 12 months or so. Around winter the teenager had largely dropped out of the Bible studies and fellowship nights she had been regularly attending. Everyone knows this teen is a Christian—they were there at the camp—but nobody really knows where she’s been for the past few months.

Now the youth group is taking another week-long summer trip, and she’s coming too. And just like last year, at some point in the week, she gets emotional about Jesus. Also like last year, she asks to talk to her youth minister, and yet again like last year, she comes to realize that she wasn’t “really” a Christian after all. Through tears and hugs she announces her newfound authentic faith, and again brings her testimony home to the church. But like last time, summer doesn’t last forever. By February people are asking where she’s been, and some are already becoming cynical: “Just wait til she gets saved this summer.”

***

In my evangelical church experience, “re-conversions” were as common as conversions, and sometimes more so. Emotionally charged church events, such as youth camps, revivals, etc, would almost always be the occasion for a re-conversion. Sometimes the re-conversion seemed less than authentic, but sometimes it stuck, too. At one point in my life these occasions became so common that we looked forward to the annual church camp trip simply because the trip represented a high point for the youth group that we knew wasn’t going to be repeated or even sustained throughout the year.

No matter who it was that “re-converted” at a given summer, those of us in the group generally knew what had been going on for this person. They liked church, liked their Christian friends, and enjoyed studying the Bible, but for whatever reason the person they were at youth group was not the same person they were at school, work, or online. In a lot of cases we even knew the sins our friend was confessing to the youth minister in the corner. We didn’t know why last year’s trip didn’t stick. We only knew to pray that this one would.

Looking back, youth camp trips were the practical expression of our muddled Southern Baptist ideas about “once saved, always saved.” We believed that. We also believed each tear that fell from the usual suspects each summer. If we sensed a tension between our group’s annual ritual of “really getting saved” and what we said we believed about not losing one’s salvation, we didn’t lose sleep over it. After all, one can be genuinely mistaken about their own soul, and that more than once. Right?

But here’s what has bothered me for a while now. I’m beginning to think that the summer re-conversion ritual said more about our church culture than it said about the tearful teens. I’m beginning to think that the church camp re-conversions were really about how insecure, ashamed teenagers felt safer in the group denying last year’s Christianity than admitting that they were believers who were struggling. Confessing you were a bad Christian last year was a significant social risk that could be met with suspicion and shaming. Confessing that you weren’t actually a Christian at all, but you are now, was just good news.

I’m not saying that these friends were definitely Christians or were definitely not. I don’t know that and I’m glad I don’t know. But as I’ve encountered more evangelical culture as an adult, I’ve seen and heard enough to convince me that many church-going evangelicals have a far more vibrant theology of “getting saved” than they have of ongoing repentance in the life of a believer. Evangelicalism’s mentality seems to be that “repentance” is what non-Christians do when the Holy Spirit tells them they’ve been living a phony life. What do Christians do when they’re convicted of sin? Well, we’re not really sure, because we’re not really sure what to think of Christians and sin.

Re-conversion offers many evangelicals the emotional catharsis of acknowledging sin without the social shaming or awkwardness that comes when people who claim to be Christians acknowledge sin. If you weren’t really a Christian but you are now, wonderful! Enter into our joy. But if you actually are a Christian and you have to talk about sin that you’re not entirely sure how to address, well, how close should we stand next to you? How contagious is it?

Perhaps what was happening every summer is that teens who really did have a sensitive heart toward Christ and the church were just utterly confused as to what being a Christian meant for people like them…people who wanted to be liked by the coolest kids in school, people who wanted to be invited to the best things, people who actually had a life beyond Bible studies. They knew intuitively something was off between the Sunday morning testimony in July and the missed gatherings and neglected devotions in February, but they didn’t know why it was off. They just knew they felt differently during those church trips. What was it they felt? The Holy Spirit, which is what they’ve been told shows up when we’re about to repen…erm, get saved.

One of biggest tragedies of evangelical spirituality is that we’ve neglected the Bible’s tender, compassionate words to Christians. We’ve reduced Christian practice to avoiding the non-respectable sins and presenting the gospel to sinful unbelievers, trying to get them to convert and leave all that sin behind. But we’ve missed so much of the immense patience, lovingkindness, mercy, and encouragement in the Bible toward real believers who are struggling against the sin that so easily entangles. Maybe it’s because we don’t know our Bibles. Or maybe it’s because our vision of God is too much like ourselves: We think of him not as a Father who picks up our falls but as the gatekeeper to an exclusive club that demands that old, imperfect members buy a whole new membership to keep the club tidy.

I wish my church experience had seen more repentance and fewer re-conversions. Jesus promises, after all, to forgive and cleanse the unrighteousness we confess to him. Better to be who we really are in front of our loving Father than to just find a new mask to wear. That’s the gospel. Is it evangelicalism?

Leather Bound

Digital Bible apps are convenient, but physical Bibles are much more.

Recently I was sitting in a worship service and looked around me. For every physical Bible opened I saw at least one or two smartphones glowing softly. I’m not sure why, but this was surprising. Is the Bible app really that common in evangelical worship? I guess it is. Not long after this I took a more deliberate notice in my small group of who had Bibles and who had Bible apps. It was a much closer ratio than I had assumed.

Bible apps are unquestionably convenient, and of course knowing and obeying the words that are there is far more important than whether you’re holding leather or glass. I have to admit, though, that it’s hard for me to imagine ever replacing physical Bibles with apps. Aesthetic value would be lost, but something else would be lost too…a compact landmark of my spiritual memory.

For me, physical Bibles are connected to both time and place. A quick glance behind my shoulder as I write these words lets me see a row of Bibles on my shelf, each one provoking a vividly clear memory of where and when I got each of them. In several cases I even remember the individual who sold them to me. These Bibles’ physicality takes me back to a specific season of life, a process of deliberate remembrance that isn’t just nostalgia. It’s a spiritual exercise that awakens thankfulness (at least, it should!).

Opening the Bibles deepens this experience. Opening up the Bible I bought right after graduating college, I see the markings of a blue ink pen drawing attention to Psalm 4:4: “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” My markings are almost certainly at least 4 years old. Was I feeling convicted about my anger? It’s hard to recall, though I do know that I underlined this verse before I married and had a toddler son who nailed me with a toy golf club just the other day. Even as I write this I feel ashamed at my ridiculous anger over a toddler’s mistake. Had I not opened up my 5 year old Bible I likely wouldn’t have contemplated this verse today.

I still remember my first Bible, a red faux-leather King James version that frayed at the edges after years of use in Sunday school and Bible drills. I remember bringing the Bible to a National Day of Prayer event with Dad and a reporter for the local newspaper taking my picture. I remember my “Adventures in Odyssey” Bible where I, a true Baptist child, underlined Proverbs 23:31. It’s not that these Bibles give me supernatural memory of my childhood. It’s that each Bible is somehow connected to something specific, so that the memories that coalesce around each Bible become a sort of memorial. In the digital age I continually feel my sense of time attacked. It’s as if physical Bibles carry antidote.

They invite questions. Why would I underline that particular verse at that particular age? Why would I write that in the margins? Sometimes these reflections open up powerful memories of traumatic and hurtful times. Sometimes they invoke a simple joy at the quiddity of life. Sometimes they make me laugh, sometimes they make me cringe. Not all are meaningful. But each one seems to have something in common with the others, a secret thread running through every adolescent jot and grown up tittle that binds the minutia of dozens of little purchased Bibles together. In the marginalia of these Bibles I see myself, and seeing myself, I somehow see God.

To hold onto a treasured leather-bound Bible is for me a way of holding onto awareness of God’s grace in my life. Yes, Scripture is universally true all the time, but the Bible I hold in my hands was given to me at a specific place and a specific time. Perhaps a struggle in my Christian life has been to see myself not merely as mooching off the extravagant kindness of Jesus that he gives to everybody else, but as a specific target of his sovereign love. Proverbs 3:5-6 is true for everyone, but it’s underlined in my specific Bible because it’s true for me. It’s one thing to know something applies to you. It’s quite another to know it was meant for you.

So I think I’ll go on being inconvenienced by physical Bibles. I’ll probably open up the app every now and again, and won’t feel one bit guilty. But, Lord willing, everywhere I go I’ll bring a Bible that I can’t turn off and I can’t resist marking up. And I’ll look forward to an unknown future where I’ll open up that Bible and see what I was reading, and more importantly, what it was reading in me.

The Conservative Soul of Soccer

Soccer, with its order and slow, drudging progress, offers an inviting metaphor in our speed-obsessed culture.

I was the first in my family to be enchanted with soccer. None of us grew up playing it. We lived in SEC and Little League country, so when we said “sports” we almost always meant March Madness and the Super Bowl. The World Cup changed that—specifically, the 2006 World Cup, which I watched with awe and fascination in my grandmother’s guest room, avoiding extended family like a good 16 year old. But it was the 2010 tournament that sealed my affections permanently, as I watched the United States play England in the opening group stage match and plunged into romantic notions that the world was very small and that soccer was the truest bridge anyone could ever hope to build on it.

There is a global allure to the World Cup, something undeniably beautiful in the awareness that billions of people on every continent, under every solar season, are watching and screaming and praying toward the same thing. That’s what sucked me in, but it’s not really why I stay fascinated with a sport I didn’t even understand until high school. Rather, I stay in love with soccer because it has a conservative soul.

The most common thing I hear from people I love about soccer is that it’s boring. Teams don’t score enough; it takes them too long to score; games end in ties! For these folks, soccer is little more than a flesh and blood version of Pong: the ball just moves and moves. Only if you’re lucky, 90 minutes of patience is rewarded with 10 seconds of joy. We scored a point! Now what happened to my afternoon?

I get it. All of the major American sports that we dream of playing as kids define success in terms of lighting up the scoreboard. There’s nothing more glamorous in baseball than a grand slam, nothing more noteworthy in basketball than a triple double, and nothing more impressive in football than a 3 touchdown game by a player. Football, still the country’s most popular and powerful sport, has radically transformed over the past 20 years into an offensive game. It’s all about points, points, points.

Doesn’t this remind you at least a little bit of contemporary American culture? The low hanging simile would be consumerism, of course. “Get all you can while the getting is good” is how most of our society interprets e pluribus unum. But I’m even thinking of another way that scoring points dominates our cultural imagination. What about information? Isn’t there something quite “pointsy” about the way we all seem to feel obligated to be connected to smartphones and Instagram feeds and Twitter arguments all the time? To ask for moderation in these things is to ask for precisely the thing they were invented not to give us. Our uber-connected age runs on the same logic as a chaotic sporting event wherein it is impossible to go too fast or try to score too quickly.

Soccer, though, is far more inviting metaphor. If the frantic, hero-ball personality of our popular sports shows off the spirit of the current day, soccer’s drudging, almost maniacal precision evokes a spirit far older and greener.

Soccer is about the implicit advantage that defenders have over attackers. Defenders don’t have to run with a ball between their feet. Defenders don’t have to worry about offside calls. Soccer’s conflict privileges defending what you have over creating something new. This is why it’s “boring.” It’s also why it’s a deeply true-to-life game. At the heart of the conservative mindset is the belief that good things are much easier to destroy than they are to make. There are all sorts of good ways to “defend” the good thing that already is, but there are far fewer ways to create something good in the old’s place. This is the precise opposite of the progressive, revolutionary mindset, which tends to recklessly attack the status quo in the faith that new good is inevitable and cannot really be pursued in the wrong way.

What matters far more than speed in soccer is movement. Straight line speed, the raw ability to outrun a defender, is certainly valuable, but it won’t achieve much if you can’t move: Move yourself, move the ball, move your teammates. Movement and speed are not the same thing, just like progress and continuance aren’t the same thing. The world of late Western capitalism demands speed without movement, attack without deliberation, and heroism without a team. This is, more or less, the pedagogy that’s defined the modern university for the past two hundred years, and now the children are eating the parents.

Speed without movement is incoherence. This isn’t business or productivity jargon, either. It’s what most people in my generation have forgotten. In the race to actualize ourselves, tell “our truth,” and shape the right side of history, we’ve slipped and fallen into the weeds of depression, paranoia, anxiety, and loneliness. We are learned but don’t know what to do. We are connected but haven’t a soul to talk to. We are accomplished and bright but feel lost and hopeless.

To watch soccer is to be reminded that life, especially the Christian life, is a long obedience in the same direction, not an inspired sprint. There is more movement than speed, more plodding than attacking. For those souls who see themselves primarily as agents of revolutionary change in their generation, and especially for those who have drunk deeply of cynicism toward existing institutions and transcendent claims on their identity, soccer looks like failure. But to those who understand the order of the universe—fixed, but not static; orderly, but not un-invaded—soccer looks a lot like the rhythm of life itself. There’s a lot of passing, a lot of staying where you are, a lot of making sure you’re where the people around you need you. And there are opportunities for glory, indeed. But they’ll be forfeited without deliberate care. A triple double is probably not in your future, but you may very well be part of a movement that does something special…if you can resist sprinting.

Soccer is a beautiful visual liturgy of the conservative spirit. One watches with wonder how individual players can function so cohesively as units, such that the one seems to know where the other is going even before he does. Give it a passing glance and all you’ll see is a ball moving seemingly aimlessly. Pass, pass, backward pass, sideways pass, pass. But the ball is going forward. Just keep watching.

Contempt Is Not a Cure: C.S. Lewis on Owning the Elites

Why C.S. Lewis would have rebuked a common conservative attitude as the work of the devil.

It’s become common on the Right to hear people talk about “the elites” in a very peculiar way. Not only are the elites people we must loathe and refuse to imitate, but they are inverse moral examples. What they do and believe is the opposite of what we ought to do and believe. If a particular idea or behavior or line of reasoning is one that is used by an “elite,” that fact alone is an argument against it. Large swaths of contemporary conservatives seem to organize their entire political and ethical life around the goal of sticking a finger in the eyes of elites.

I think C.S. Lewis would have some strong things to say about this. Listen to the way he describes the sin of pride as being less bad in the stage of vanity (caring too much what others think of us) and much worse in the state of contempt. Lewis’s description of contempt in Mere Christianity suits the conservative attitude toward “elites” almost perfectly:

The more you delight in yourself and the less you delight in the praise, the worse you are becoming. When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom. That is why vanity, though it is the sort of Pride which shows most on the surface, is really the least bad and most pardonable sort. The vain person wants praise, applause, admiration, too much and is always angling for it. It is a fault, but a child-like and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It shows that you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration. You value other people enough to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The real black, diabolical Pride, comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you.

Of course, it is very right, and often our duty, not to care what people think of us, if we do so for the right reason; namely, because we care so incomparably more what God thinks. But the Proud man has a different reason for not caring. He says ‘Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinion were worth anything? And even if their opinions were of value, am I the sort of man to blush with pleasure at a compliment like some chit of a girl at her first dance? No, I am an integrated, adult personality. All I have done has been done to satisfy my own ideals—or my artistic conscience—or the traditions of my family—or, in a word, because I’m That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They’re nothing to me.’ In this way real thorough-going pride may act as a check on vanity; for, as I said a moment ago, the devil loves ‘curing’ a small fault by giving you a great one. We must try not to be vain, but we must never call in our Pride to cure our vanity.

Of course, contempt is what many working class Americans believe the elite feel toward them, and they’re often right. Lewis was not naive about class. He was deeply skeptical especially about the intellectual establishment of his time, believing it to largely be (especially in university) a morally and spiritually bankrupt “inner ring.” Lewis understood the power that wealthy, influential people wield over the lives of others, and he challenged this power as forcefully as any Christian writer I’ve read.

Nonetheless, Lewis eschewed the kind of reverse identity-formation that soaks through much Western life. Note how Lewis includes “the traditions of my family” as a motivation for contempt. Even “blue-collar” goods like family tradition and community sensibility can be co-opted as license to resent. Whereas the popular notion is that being looked down upon by someone with wealth and privilege is an infinitely worse evil than our resentment of them, Lewis thinks (correctly) that pride is an equal opportunity destroyer. Our place in the social strata does not determine how well our souls can tolerate the devil’s work.

Contempt is not a cure. Conservative Christians who love “owning” the elites, and who are willing to sacrifice their moral compass in order to do so, should remember that.