Reading Towards Bethlehem

The church owes Karen Swallow Prior a debt of gratitude for reminding us of the spiritual power of imagination.

When I was in high school I wrote a poem for a girl in my English literature class. No, I’m not joking. I was young, dumb, and in like, and a steady diet of homeschooling had left me with few vehicles with which to express my feelings. So, I reached for poetry, and courageously put my soul and my singleness into verse. A couple years later we were both at her wedding—though I was watching in the third pew from the back (it worked out for all of us).

Unfortunately, this was to be one of the last times in a long time that literature would play a meaningful role in my life. I enrolled in an excellent Bible college, and it didn’t take long for any substantive trace of literature, poetry, and fiction to evaporate. My intellectual world was too awash with systematic theologies, books on baptism, Christian situational ethics, and New Testament surveys. Two semesters of “Great Books” supplied my sole ration of literature in those days, and by that time my attitude toward my old collection of Twain, Hemingway, and Austen was nostalgic but unserious.

It has always bothered me that I had to get clear of my theology-centered Christian education before I was reminded how much stories matter. That’s why I wish Karen Swallow Prior had written On Reading Well years ago. Her new book is the moral apologia for literature that many Christians, especially we Reformed types, need right now. Though the book is valuable (if imperfect) for its reflections on living the virtuous life, its greatest contribution is a vibrant paradigmatic exercise in how to not just look at great stories but to (to adapt C.S. Lewis) look “along” them.

Rather than stitching together another encyclopedia of “great books” for Christians, Prior organizes the book around virtue itself. Part One is given to the Four Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Courage), Part Two to the three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Love) and Part Three to the Heavenly Virtues (Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, Humility). Each virtue is assigned to a specific work of literature that Prior summarizes and analyzes. She shows her skill in opening up each literary work succinctly and convincingly, so that On Reading Well can ideally be read alongside each discussed work but not exclusively so (appropriately, each discussion contains spoilers).

It’s not difficult to imagine someone critiquing On Reading Well for its exclusive use of Western books and stories. While such criticism isn’t unreasonable, it’s important to note that this is not a book about essential literature for every Christian, nor is it an implicit evaluation of the “greatness” of certain cultures. This is a book about reading, not writers, and as such Prior has given her audience a sampling of literature that will be readily accessible to most.

Every chapter is two things: first, a theological/moral discussion of virtue and how to attain it, and second, a literary analysis that illuminates moral narrative and helps us find ourselves in the stories.

When it comes to the literary analysis, Prior is clearly in her element, and it’s hard to imagine a Christian writer doing a better job than this. Of The Great Gatsby’s materialistic title character (who is the subject of the book’s chapter on Temperance), Prior writes that his long sought after love interest, Daisy, “is for Gatsby like the volumes of books that fill his library shelves: with pages uncut and unread, their value is in what they symbolize, not what they are…His desire has been for something that does not even exist, and he has no taste for what really does exist.” Gatsby’s intemperance in his pursuit of pleasure, Prior writes, deadens his spiritual senses, precisely because pleasure is inescapably spiritual:

Human beings are creatures who are rational as well as spiritual and who, as such, do not approach pleasurable activities purely physically. The temperate person is one who “understands and these connections between bodily pleasures and the larger human good, and whose understanding actually tempers the desires and pleasures.” Temperance is liberating because it “allows us to be masters of our pleasure instead of becoming its slaves.”

Such a morally oriented discussion of Jay Gatsby would surely be anathema in most university classrooms. Deconstructionist literary theory’s reduction of themes into sociopolitical tropes is an acid to reading well, and Prior’s thoroughly Christian, thoroughly researched command of this and the other pieces of literature is nothing less than a spiritually vivifying antidote.

Another wonderful example of Prior’s steady hand around literature is her chapter on Faith, which discusses Shusako Endo’s devastating novel Silence. Those who have only seen the Martin Scorcese film will have missed out on the brilliant way that Endo uses form to communicate meaning. How should we interpret the agonizing denouement of the book? Prior’s observations here are not just insightful, they’re empowering:

The narrative structure offers the most significant cue for how to read Silence. It begins with a prologue by a third-person narrator. Then the first half of the book shifts to first-person narration in the form of letters written by Rodrigues. But once Rodrigues is captured…the narrative point of view shifts back to the third person. The last chapter of the novel introduces a new narrative style in the form of diary extracts from a clerk with a Dutch merchant, followed by an appendix consisting of diary entries from an officer assigned to Rodrigues’s residence…

These narrative points of view taken together and in order effect a movement that begins at a distance from Rodrigues and his experience of faith, then moves closer, then moves away again, and then, finally, moves even further away…This interplay of subjective and objective, as well as limited and omniscient points of view, complicates the reader’s experience and suggests implications and applications of the story’s content beyond the pages of the book—in a way similar to how a parable works.

Prior admirably weaves together technical literary analysis and moral insight into a readable and re-readable whole. Rather than admitting any partition between form and content, Prior’s take on literature is holistic, applying a theological and moral framework to both style and message. This is much more helpful than either rote worldview tests on one hand or biblically tepid “cultural engagement” on the other.

If I have one mild critique of On Reading Well, it would be directed toward the non-literary parts of the book. Prior’s discussions of the virtues are reliable and spiritually faithful, but occasionally they feel too stitched together from various outside sources. On Reading Well is heavily notated, which is no surprise for a book about books, but many of the citations feel weighted toward the more didactic sections. There’s nothing wrong with quotes, of course, but the constant citation of outside sources—including books and articles from a very wide spectrum of theological traditions—gives certain sections a disjointed feel, as if we are reading a summary of the best stuff Prior found on the topic rather than a writer’s focused engagement of the ideas.

That aside, On Reading Well is a joy. For Christian book lovers already well versed in these stories, this is a treat of moral conversation and insight. For Christians who want to break into literature, this is a fine starter text to inspire your search for Christian truth in fiction. The church owes Karen Swallow Prior a debt of gratitude for reminding us of the spiritual power of imagination, and for modeling so well how to receive that power. Here is a book to read well.

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Death By Minutia

So many things that we modern people add to our lives are utterly trivial. This is a spiritual AND political problem.

There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment, and then nothing. 

This is bleak stuff from the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who, as an atheist, rejected any transcendent meaning to life or death. The best a sentient being can hope for, Russell argued, was “triviality for a moment.” Had professor Russell lived to see the age of cable news and social media, he probably would have been even more convinced of this. If you’re looking for a powerful argument for this kind of gloomy nihilism, you could do worse than the amount of triviality that drives our cultural consciousness. How difficult is it to hold forth that life is not meaningless when so much of what we give our attention is?

Trivialities shape the modern, Western soul. Our weeks and years are busier than ever and yet many report deep dissatisfaction and disillusionment. Technology has streamlined our work and curated our relationships, engineering existence for maximum efficiency, while depression, anxiety, and loneliness seem to be the most reliable fruits. Why is this? At least partially it is because a lopsided share of the things that we moderns add to our lives does not matter. They produce exhaustion but not meaning. Even many of the things that trigger outrage and righteous indignation are utterly insignificant. Politically, pscyhologically, and even spiritually, minutia is killing us.

Consider a pair of helpful illustrations from the recent news cycle. The New York Times hired a technology writer named Sarah Jeong for their editorial page. Not long afterwards, several Twitter users, including many conservative journalists, had unearthed a lot of Jeong’s old Tweets in which she quite plainly expresses contempt and dislike for white people, especially white men. Almost faster than you could read all the screenshots, a small library of thinkpieces was published from both ideological sides of the American blogosphere. Left publications like Vox and The New Republic defended Jeong and her Tweets as misrepresented victims of a racist, right-wing smear campaigns. On the other hand, others wrote that Jeong’s Tweets were clearly racist and the Left’s defense of her hire by the Times was gross hypocrisy from the social justice movement.

This type of thing is almost totally irresistible to people like me, who invest time and energy in the online world of ideas. I got sucked in. I knew it was dumb, meaningless, and a waste of time, but the neural reward patterns were too much to overcome. I found myself reading thinkpieces that enraged me, scanning Twitter accounts for something to either vindicate my opinions or further anger me, and imagining all the various evils that this episode revealed about my ideological opposites. It was a thrilling exercise. I felt alive and in the know, already planning to write something that would head off the conversation among the friends I just knew must be having tons of private conversations about this Trending Topic. I went to bed full of righteous invective and eager to meet the next morning with my weapon: my “take.”

I woke up the next morning embarrassed and frustrated that I had wasted last night.  Sarah Jeong has no influence in my life, wherever she works. I had no idea who she was until I suddenly had strong opinions about her (and if I’m being honest, I didn’t really know anything about her even afterwards). An evening’s worth of attention and angst had been spilled over some journalist’s handful of 180-character sentences. I had absolutely nothing to show for my absorption, except for another ride on social media’s outrage-go-round. Worst of all, I knew I had deepened my dependance on outrage to get me thinking. Awful.

Mine is a common experience. Twitter thrives on addicting its users to triviality. Its engineers and programmers know, and in some cases admit, that the platform relies on negative emotion to drive up clicks. Stories like Sarah Jeong’s are an analytics counter’s dream come true: A polarizing trending topic that whips up strong tribal emotions but offers little offline substance. The drama is wholly contained within the frenetic subculture of social media and blogs. Sermonizing and demonizing is fine even if nobody is talking about the issue this time next week, because the point is not meaningful discourse, but per-click ad revenue. Everybody wins, except your brain.

Of course, not everything that trends on social media is trivial. Twitter at its most useful is a hub of informed conversation that offers an invaluable view into the people and places that make up the news. Consider the recent revelations of widespread abuse cover-up in the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania. While the bare legal facts are available in any traditional media outlet, reading the comments, prayers, and (yes) arguments of Catholics who are reckoning with these horrors gives me an insight into how real people are thinking about and responding to these stories, not to mention a fresh empathy and even a sense of Christian burden-sharing. That’s far beyond the capability of any journalistic institution.

But in order for this positive effect to be monetized, it has to be inexorably dependent on minutia. My Twitter feed must, by industrial necessity, offer me three doses of triviality for every one dose of significance. Even if I’m zeroed in on following the conversation and developments of the sex abuse scandals, Kanye West’s politics, or the latest protest at Starbucks, or the inchoate rants of some Reddit men’s rights activist (and the equally inchoate “clapbacks” to the same) are all pushed in my face. Truly meaningful words are buried like fossils in the sediment of minutia. This is the way Silicon Valley wants it, because it’s minutia, not meaning, that cheaply and efficiently captivates my attention.

A prime example of how meaning and minutia are purposefully conflated, to the benefit of tech like Twitter,  is Donald Trump recent insult of basketball superstar LeBron James and journalist Don Lemon. The President of the United States denigrated both James and Lemon’s intelligence before saying “I like Mike” (millennials: that’s Michael Jordan). Soon enough all those hot takes on journalism and racism swapped out “Jeong” and “New York Times” for “Trump” and “LeBron James.” The most pressing question for America became what Trump “really” meant.

Whether the President of the United States says something racist is a very legitimate question. But does this tweet really impart any new knowledge, shed any unseen light, or help us further clarify the stakes of our current political moment? I doubt it. Yet judging by Twitter, you would think this was the most important event since the election. Outrage has a way of creating the illusion of significance, and Trump understands this better than many of his opponents. As Ezra Klein notes, Trump is president in part because his team learned how to take advantage of the self-interested dysfunctions of the American media. Were we as a culture not so energized by meaningless nonsense, we wouldn’t need to care what a New York real estate baron thinks about an athlete. Now we are forced to care, a just punishment for our misplaced care then.

Social media is not the first technology to weaponize trivia. Neil Postman eviscerated television’s effect on Americans’ ability to process information in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, and his critique has been both applied to social media and cited as an example of how every generation has their Luddites. But social media, especially Twitter, is different than television in important ways. It is more mobile, more personal, and its neural rewards are more alluring. Postman warned that TV makes us empty-headed and passive. But at its worst, Twitter can make us empty-headed and passive while we think we are actually being smart and courageous. Trivialities are dangerous to the degree that we cannot actually tell them for what they are. In our age, it’s not the silly vacuity of TV that gets pride of place in our cultural imagination, but the silly vacuity of hashtags and screenshots. Television is just television. Twitter is resistance.

Confusing minutia for meaning is a surefire path toward mental and emotional burnout at best, and an existential transformation into the very things we despise at worst. Fortunately, there are off-ramps. The best way to fight this burnout is to unplug and log off, redirecting your best energies away from the ephemera of online controversies and toward analog life. Because of the neurological boost social media offers, being conscious of its effects is the first, hardest, and most important step toward resisting them. These intentional acts are likely to arouse a sense of condemnation, either from ourselves or others, for not being as “in the know” as we once felt compelled to be. But this is precisely the social media illusion: that being “in the know” about petty, trivial, insignificant trends and conversations is no different than being in the know about anything else. All it takes is a few days away from the black hole of Twitter controversies to recalibrate the mind and realize just how small and unreal they are.

This isn’t just therapeutic, either. Small, organic self-government depends on the capability of citizens to know what’s happening right in front of them. Being smothered by minutia—especially minutia that privileges the comings and goings of remote, celebrity personalities—is a good way to miss the issues and debates that really matter. Your day on Twitter is far more likely to give you a comprehensive education about an over-the-top student protest at a college you’ve only heard about once in your life than about the people and issues in your county school board. For millions of Americans coming into voting age right now, the age of distraction is the only one they know. Minutia overload is normal, maybe even desirable. Reversing this trend is integral to stopping the dangerous political and cultural trend to conceptualize “America” as the handful of economically vogue cities and a smattering of famous rich people. How different would our own national politics be, how different would the White House be, if we weren’t so enamored with glitzy meaninglessness?

Our spirits always eventually mirror what we behold. Putting outrage-ridden triviality in front of our faces throughout the week, throughout the month, and throughout the year is not a neutral hobby. It’s a spiritual practice that makes us less able to feel the beauty of transcendent realities more deeply and less willing to make the effort to do so. If Bertrand Russell was right about existence’s only being “triviality for a moment, then nothing,” let us eat, tweet, and be merry, for tomorrow we and all the people we dislike die. If he was wrong, and more specifically, if all of human history is actually heading to a particular place and a particular Person in the light of whose glory and grace the trivial things of earth will grow strangely dim, then we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Has Trump De-Legitimized the Pro-Life Movement?

My answer in First Things: No.

Excerpt:

Warnings about the optics of Trump as a leader of religious conservatives aren’t totally misguided. Trump’s pro-life politics almost certainly arise from convention and convenience, rather than conviction. His rhetoric is incompatible with a holistically Christian worldview, and there may be some political blowback to the pro-life agenda in the midterms and 2020 elections. But the notion that the pro-life movement can be identified with Trump or the Republican Party is specious. It bespeaks a political and moral math that seems to apply to abortion and nothing else. That some think one politician can singlehandedly delegitimize the pro-life cause is evidence of Screwtape’s success in fogging up the abortion debate with propaganda.

Read the whole thing here.

Doctrine Is Inevitable

A decade later, the Emergent Church discovers that you DO need boundaries. Just the right ones.

I’m old enough to remember a movement in the mid to late 2000s called “the emerging church.” I still own some of their books, because as a high school/college student raised in conservative evangelicalism, I resonated with a lot of what they taught, including the idea that conservative evangelical culture was far too obsessed with policing doctrine. I loved this point, because (at the time) it expressed a coldness I had felt for a long time growing up in the church. Emerging church literature pressed a dichotomy between relationships and religious dogma and laid the blame for the schism at the feet of fundamentalists. “Yes,” I thought, “this is why church feels so inauthentic.”

Many of these authors were explicit in their recommendations. Do away with “what we believe” lists. Stop making theology the test of church membership or teaching. For every verse you read from Paul, read the Sermon the Mount 10 times. If given the choice between insisting on a point of doctrine and welcoming someone into your fellowship, choose the latter every time. It was alluring stuff, because you could hug it, shake its hand, take it out to coffee, not just read or recite it. And it won over a lot of my generation.

I’m no longer allured by it all. For one thing, what we referred to as the “emerging church” doesn’t really exist anymore, and the cause of death is unflattering. Rob Bell went from pastoring to touring with Deepak Chopra. Velvet Elvis (his first and most broadly successful book) was wrongheaded in a lot of ways, but at least it was a book about Christianity and didn’t sound like it should be featured in a Readers Digest column by Gwyneth Paltrow. Don Miler’s Blue Like Jazz was a sort of “searching for answers my religious upbringing didn’t give me” manifesto. Miller now runs a corporate branding company and doesn’t go to church. Well then.

But here’s the most illuminating part. Many of the writers and spokespeople who talked about prioritizing relationships over doctrine have actually become quite adamant about their own theology. It just so happens that the doctrine that is worth making standards around is just a different kind. For example, opposing the death penalty is worth excommunication:

And the ordination of female elders is worth schism (and, presumably, excommunication as well):

The time has come for a schism regarding the issue of women in the church. Those of us who know that women should be accorded full participation in every aspect of church life need to visibly and forcefully separate ourselves from those who do not. Their subjugation of women is anti-Christian, and it should be tolerated no longer.

Christianity’s treatment of LGBT people, too, is worth taking a stand on:

Death penalty, gender, ordination, sexuality: Aren’t these issues that alienate people? Aren’t these divisive topics that keep people at arms length from each other instead of bringing them together around Jesus?

By the standard that was applied ten years ago to conservatives, yes, they are. But it turns out that not all orthodoxies need be “generous.” Not all gatekeepers are bad. It’s a matter of having the right ones.

On that, I certainly agree.


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