Jonathan Merritt on Bible Literacy Classes

Is religious literacy valuable for society?

A few very brief thoughts on this piece from Jonathan Merritt:

1) Merritt’s point about Christian parents probably not wanting a state-approved presentation of Christianity is valid. To the degree that Christians have to let lawmakers or anyone else comb through and filter the contents of our faith in order to gain a foothold somewhere, I think we’ve already lost a big part of our mission.

2) On the other hand, Merritt’s argument is disingenuous because it basically boils down to an assumption that the kind of evangelicals likely to back a Bible literacy bill are not the kind of evangelicals likely to see value in a comparative religion-style education on Scripture. Merritt pretty much assumes from the get-go that the real reason any evangelical would want a Bible literacy class is to catechize. Aside from being a rather bad faith assumption, is he really sure that evangelicals would be outraged to hear their children were taught the Bible was fully of mythical symbolism? I mean, isn’t that what they’re pretty much taught anyway?

3) I wonder why Merritt doesn’t mention comparing a high school Bible literacy class to a college equivalent, of which there are many examples.  Public universities study the Bible all the time, and the vast majority of those classes are taught from an unbelieving point of view. I don’t recall seeing many organized evangelical protests of those classes, which are also taxpayer funded.

4) Merritt writes, “While evangelicals are generally more politically conservative, teachers in public schools might choose to emphasize the Bible’s many teachings on caring for the poor, welcoming the immigrant, and the problems of material wealth.” Ah, my least favorite genre of writing: The I’m-Arguing-From-Your-Terrible-Point-of-View essay.

5) It seems Merritt pretty much ignores the crucial question, which is, “Is religious literacy valuable for American society at large?” Stephen Prothero wrote a well-reviewed book arguing that it is. Near the book’s conclusion, Prothero quotes no less than Charles Colson on why Christians need not fear public courses on the Bible that refuse to proselytize:

“Some critics fear that merely studying the Bible’s role in history, or as literature diminishes it,” writes Colson. But such a course, he argues, does not prevent Christians from taking the “next step” and trying to convert young people to Christianity. As Colson recognizes, however, spurring young people to take this “next step” cannot be the job of public schools. “Can people be good citizens,” Colson asks, “if they don’t know their own history?” The answer, of course, is no.

6) Of course, this entire discussion presupposes that it’s possible to educate about something without prescribing it to the people being educated. Given the rigorous calls for schools to stop teaching everything that requires mature, critical moral evaluation—everything from political history to Mark Twain—I think there’s a deep confusion in Western culture as to whether that is possible at all. Right now we seem awfully comfortable simply banning stuff in the name of justice rather than engaging with our past. Merritt doesn’t find time to ask whether this is a good thing. That’s a shame.

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How it works

Ugh. I did it again.

Monday, January 28, 2019. 12:30pm.

Opens Spotify. Sees name of musician whose songs I enjoyed many years ago.

“Oh man, she’s really good. I haven’t listened to her in a long time. I should find some of those gems.”

Searches Spotify for some favorite songs. Starts listening.

“Wow, now I remember how good these songs are. I haven’t seen much of this woman lately, I wonder what she’s up to.”

Goes to official website. Looks around for 5 seconds, then clicks the link to the Twitter profile.

“Let’s see here.”

Sees artist Tweet about Covington Catholic/Nathan Philips. I don’t agree.

“Oh, gross. She hasn’t even corrected this bad take that she RT’d. Everyone knows by now the perspective she’s offering here is WRONG and UNFAIR. Honestly she’s probably the kind of person who would slander you online and not even apologize later.”

Sees more Tweets, including a RT of another person I admire offering same Wrong Opinion.

“Oh my gosh, these people are infuriating. They’re so smug in their wrongness. Honestly those discernment bloggers are right about these folks. ”

Realizes song is still playing by artist.

“This song’s not even that good. She’s probably just a liberal activist now. I don’t want to support that.

Stops song.

It happened again, didn’t it?

Sigh.

Bright, Dark Lights

Bryan Singer, like Harvey Weinstein, used his movies to sexually abuse others.

The Atlantic has published the results of a 12 month investigation into director/producer Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns, Bohemian Rhapsody). Of all the #MeToo bombshell articles I’ve read, and I’ve read many, this one was the hardest to read. Singer and his collaborators named in the article appear to be intensely depraved predators. The piece, which is graphic in detail, documents nothing less than an unofficial sex trafficking operation that targeted dozens, and probably hundreds, of adolescent boys. Assuming even the barest portions of this reporting are correct, Singer is a sexual menace who has continually used his work and connections to facilitate abuse.

It’s that last part I can’t stop thinking about. As I described it to a friend this morning, you can’t read this article and discern where the entertainment industry began and the sexual predation ended. Like Harvey Weinstein, Singer made his work as a filmmaker an integral part of how he abused teens. He funded “production” companies whose sole purpose was apparently to create a pretense for getting boys to parties. He abused boys on-set. In one instance, according to the piece, a group of teenage extras in one of his movies was directed to disrobe in front of camera after being misled to believe nudity wasn’t required. The portrait this investigation paints of Bryan Singer and his co-conspirators (of whom there appear to be many) is not one of work during the day, sexual abuse during the night. The work was part of the abuse. The abuse was facilitated through the work.

This should sound very familiar to you. Recall that Harvey Weinstein told actress Salma Hayek that he would pull funding for her movie unless she did a sex scene. A major theme in Hollywood’s #MeToo nightmare is how the films and studios themselves become not only complicit but instruments of the abuse. In Hayek’s case, her accommodation of Weinstein’s predatory demands is forever captured onscreen. In the case of some of those “Bryan boys,” theirs is, too.  Can you separate the naked “just acting” that you see in the film from the threats and manipulation that put it there? At what point are we actually watching the abuse we read about?

Of course, it’s impossible to know why every sexually explicit scene on TV or in film is put there. I’m sure there are many that exist solely because a writer or director thinks it makes for good entertainment. But ask yourself this: How likely is it that Harvey Weinstein and Bryan Singer are the only Hollywood storytellers that have used their stories as pretenses to sexually exploiting somebody on that screen? So much sexual content in film is extraneous, especially in big budget films. Almost invariably onscreen nudity seems to exist wholly apart from the narrative of the film; it’s just there, and then it’s just gone. Knowing what we know now about people like Weinstein and Singer, it seems almost impossible to notice an unnecessarily explicit scene without wondering if literally the only reason it exists is to satisfy a fantasy of someone behind the camera.

In fairness, I’ve never really admired the argument that Christians sometimes make against pornography that appeals to the exploitation of actresses as a reason not to watch. It’s not that I think such exploitation doesn’t exist (it most certainly does), nor that I think it’s fine for people to enjoy watching father-estranged girls being exploited (it’s not). My problem with using this as a reason to not watch porn is that I honestly cannot imagine such a reason ever working. Wanting to watch porn is not a desire that can be undermined by appealing to the injustice of the industry, anymore than an overwhelming desire for a Snickers bar can be blunted by an economics lesson on child labor in overseas candy factories. Lack of empathy is a real problem, but it can’t be the main focus of every ethical choice. Sometimes your heart has to turn away from something evil on the basis of what it is rather than what it does to others.

But what I find interesting is the way sensitive Christians who abstain from watching Hollywood sex scenes look a little ahead of the curve nowadays. For most of my life refusing to watch an explicit film made you a stodgy fundamentalist, on the basis that “It’s just a movie” and “Sex is a part of life, get over it.” Unless I’m very wrong, the tide is turning. As secular culture turns it attention toward sexual injustice, it catches pop culture red-handed in just the way that those stodgy Christians have suggested. Can you read these bombshell reports, watch the films named in them, and tell me where the sexual abuse ends and the “acting” begins? If not, don’t those dour fundies at least have a point?

photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr.

Shame, Guilt, God

3 quotes that help explain our digital age

Three important quotes for understanding our times.

David Brooks:

The guy who called out Emily is named Herbert. He told “Invisibilia” that calling her out gave him a rush of pleasure, like an orgasm. He was asked if he cared about the pain Emily endured. “No, I don’t care,” he replied. “I don’t care because it’s obviously something you deserve, and it’s something that’s been coming. … I literally do not care about what happens to you after the situation. I don’t care if she’s dead, alive, whatever.”

When the interviewer, Hanna Rosin, showed skepticism, he revealed that he, too, was a victim. His father beat him throughout his childhood.

In this small story, we see something of the maladies that shape our brutal cultural moment. You see how zealotry is often fueled by people working out their psychological wounds. You see that when denunciation is done through social media, you can destroy people without even knowing them. There’s no personal connection that allows apology and forgiveness.

Wilifred McClay:

The presence of vast amounts of unacknowledged sin in a culture, a culture full to the brim with its own hubristic sense of world-conquering power and agency but lacking any effectual means of achieving redemption for all the unacknowledged sin that accompanies such power: This is surely a moral crisis in the making—a kind of moral-transactional analogue to the debt crisis that threatens the world’s fiscal and monetary health. The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder, an Unbehagen that cannot be willed away by the psychoanalytic trick of pretending that it does not exist.

Derek Rishmawy:

Are we not like Jeremiah, wondering “why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jer. 12:1). Are we not plagued with the suspicion that nothing is ever going to get done? That no matter how we vote, or whom we call, or where we protest, the powerful will keep getting away with it? The violent will keep grinding the weak into the dust? That, even though some get caught, many will still prosper because they know how to game the system and pervert the law? Are not our fears those of the psalmist, who worries the Lord is hiding himself in these times of trouble (Ps. 10:1)?

At these moments our hearts need a God who names, judges, and punishes sin. We need a God to whom we can call, “Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted” (Ps. 10:12)—in confidence that he will answer. We need a God who will eventually visit for these things

Many of us are on a quest—a quest we may not realize or admit—to justify and atone for our unrighteousness. If we can spot the sins and hypocrisies of our neighbors—however subtle to the untrained eye—we must not be guilty of them ourselves. And so we work for the good, not just because it’s right, but because we need to prove to ourselves and the watching world we aren’t complicit. Our very sense of self is on the line.

In the back of our minds, then, the thought that a righteous God will visit for these things isn’t entirely good. We wonder, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O LORD, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3).

Why Facebook Won’t Just Go Away

Comparing your first profile picture to your current one is what Facebook does best.

Over the past several days I’ve seen many of my social media friends participate in what looks like a viral experiment: Post your first ever “profile picture,” no matter how old, alongside your current photo. The results are nostalgic and charming and quite fun. It’s warming to see faces, transformed (if even slightly) by time, amidst the political screeds and clickbait links. It’s a homely and encouraging way to experience social media.

It occurred to me that this is why Facebook won’t just go away, no matter how many sins it commits against privacy, our cognitive health, or politics. The one thing Facebook threatens us all with is the one very thing it’s good at: Keeping. Facebook has become a public repository of memory, a monument by which many of us can view and re-experience our past. Facebook keeps, and in keeping, it holds for users what many of us are too embarrassed to admit out loud that we want to keep: Memories, even of the mundane and routine.

There are, of course, other ways to build repositories of memory. But many of them have fallen out of fashion. Scrapbooking has lost to Instagram. Keeping a diary depends a lot on the desire and ability to write longhand, and few have either. Technological change has tethered the ability to capture life with the obligation to share and store it digitally. Outside of the social media platforms, how much physical record of their own past do most people really own? For millions, the only meaningful artifacts to their lives are on Facebook.

Almost everything Facebook does nowadays it does poorly. It is ad-infested, link-biased, creepily intelligent, and ugly to look at. It does, however, hold onto our posts, our photos, our statuses—our digital selves. Because of that, it holds onto a part of us that we know, trembling, can disappear forever with one emptying of a virtual trash bin. We signed up for Facebook because we thought it opened up our present and defined our future. Now that future is past, and we just want to go back, and can’t. And Facebook knows it.

The Present and Future of Christian Blogging

Interacting with Tim Challies on the future of Christian blogging

A few days ago Tim Challies published a helpful article that described three different kinds of blogging. The upshot of his piece was that Christian blogging, especially the evangelical kind, has to a great extent been reduced to one variety: The large, multi-authored “ministry blog.” Tim’s observation is that, whereas a decade ago there were lots of individual bloggers publishing regularly on their own platforms, today most of those bloggers have given up writing in their own space and are instead pitching and being published by the large ministry blogs. Interestingly, Tim then makes a case that this trend actually constitutes a decline of blogging and the ascent of something (resembling a traditional journalism industry) to replace it:

What is essential to those ministry sites (the ability to solicit, accept, reject, and edit articles) contradicts an essential element of a blog (the ability to write without editorial control). Where blogging is a medium by and for amateurs, ministry blogs have a paradigm that is far more professional. Again, they have their place but, while they may displace blogs, they don’t quite replace them.

Tim’s concern is that the decline of personal blogging signals the loss of what blogging empowers among writers: The ability to freely and quickly exchange ideas without editors or publications’s “filtering” the work. So then, the displacement of personal blogging spaces by large ministry blogs brings us full circle back to the days of traditional periodicals, where editors and Boards of Directors and a handful of professional people dictate the writing agenda, select and edit pieces, and condemn most voices to obscurity.

Let me submit a qualified agreement with Tim’s concern. I think Tim’s right to believe that what made blogging useful in its heyday is precisely what’s being undermined by the proliferation of larger, edited blogs. If we think of the Christian blogosphere like an industry, with individual, personal blogs as small businesses, then the ministry blogs are the Wal-Marts and Speedways and shopping malls; they exist, in a sense, to get as big as possible and (in the process) put the other guys out of business.

Further, in the ascendancy of Wal-Marts and shopping malls individuals lose something more than a feeling of smallish intimacy and familiarity—we lose a significant amount of control over the industry itself. Thus, ten years ago, if you wanted to get people in your slice of conservative evangelicalism to talk about something, you could write a blog about it. Nowadays, the best way to get someone to talk about it is to convince an editor at TGC or Desiring God or Christianity Today to publish your 1,000 word article—something that most Christians (even articulate ones) won’t do and many can’t do. Tim’s point, if I’m reading him correctly, is that having a small number of paid editors basically regulate what the online evangelical world is saying is both an intellectual and literary downgrade from the days when blogs were a rule unto themselves.

Interestingly, this argument is not unlike what Alan Jacobs has written in defense of personal websites over and against social media accounts. Jacobs has privacy and ownership in mind moreso than the free flow of discourse, but it’s not difficult to see how his and Tim’s points might converge. In both cases, the impulse is against what we might call digital landlords and for a kind of cultivation of online space in ways that are personal and, thus, more responsible.

I said above I was going to offer a “qualified” agreement with Tim. In short, I agree with him that the decline of personal blogging is a net loss for Christian writers, and that there are problems to inherit with the rise and growth of larger ministry sites. Here’s my qualification: I think the proliferation of large, professionally edited sites, while a net loss for bloggers, is probably a net gain for readers.

As I see it, Tim is right in articulating the problems that come when evangelical online writing is heavily filtered toward these large sites. But I think we could add  that there are problems to deal with when it is not filtered, and that these problems are, for most Christian readers (not writers), trickier to deal with than the other kind. I’ll mention 3 of them:

i) The problem of theological authority. Tish Harrison Warren got right to the heart of the matter a while back ago when she asked, “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” As personal online platforms grow and grow, and as those platforms become a de facto source of authority in other people’s lives (most of these platforms call it being an “influencer” rather than an authority, but it’s really the same), a serious question emerges: How do we navigate the competing claims of dozens of bloggers whose voices are both equally present and equally ephemeral through the internet?

The proliferation of large ministry blogs is, I think, a partial answer to that question. You might think TGC publishes the wrong perspective on a given topic, but the point is that TGC publishes such a perspective only after a leadership group that coheres theologically (to a great extent) decides to publish it. This is part of what gives TGC’s platform a kind of spiritual authority to many people. It’s certainly an imperfect spiritual authority, as any earthly spiritual authority will be and any online spiritual authority will doubly be. But readers can locate these imperfections much more specifically and cogently because of TGC’s centralization than they could in the wild west of individual blogs.

ii) The problem of social media and online “presence.” I think it’s Tim himself who has pointed out that in the evangelical blogosphere’s golden days, the blog served the same role as Twitter now does.  Today, the only way to thrive as a blogger is to maintain an online presence through social media. For better or worse, social media is to blogging what a WiFi connection is to browsing the web: You don’t strictly have to have it, but you’re not going anywhere fast without it. Social media is by far the #1 driver of traffic to individual blogs.

Now of course, the same is probably true for the large ministry sites. But the consolidation of the evangelical blogosphere into professionally edited publications ameliorates this dynamic, especially for readers who want to become writers. One of the biggest reasons I don’t encourage more people to blog is that I know that doing so is encouraging them to cultivate a heavier presence on social media—which, I’m convinced, is something we all should be doing less of. Large ministry sites that review unsolicited pitches are a bulwark against this. You don’t have to have a bazillion Instagram followers and a gnawing sense of FOMO and despair in order to be taken seriously in your pitch.

iii) The problem of literary excellence. Near the end of his article, Tim writes that “we will develop better writing and writers when we can write substantially and freely.” I wonder if he has perhaps confused writing with blogging. While I absolutely agree that the best way to cultivate a healthy evangelical writing world is to encourage more of it, I think Tim’s formulation leaves out the integral role that editing plays in the development of literary excellence.

Blogging has always had a catch-22: It promotes writing growth through constant access to the craft, but such access is purchased by eliminating some of the things that most help develop writers. Editing, both at the conceptual and copy level, grows writers. To the degree that bloggers learn how to write underneath the process and principles of editing, you will almost certainly see writing habits that express emotivism and logical fallacies. I would argue that in the some of the darker corners of both the conservative and progressive Christian blogosphere, you can see stark examples of bloggers who have rarely, if ever, surrendered their work to someone who could evaluate their approach. I think professional editors are a welcome antidote to this. Their growing presence in the evangelical writing world has borne good fruit.

As I said above, I think these three problems with an expansive Christian blogosphere are different problems for writers than they are for readers. Writers will always want more space to write. Writers can devote chunks of time to thinking through issues and shaping their ideas. Most readers, though, are at the mercy of social media and the level of theological confidence that online writers can project onto their own personal platforms. To the degree that large “ministry blogs” have pushed Christian bloggers to the margins, we should lament. But to the degree that they have reached more Christian readers with trustworthy content that takes form and message equally seriously, we ought to celebrate.

Surviving Our Humanity

Bird Box, just recently released on Netflix, bears an obvious resemblance to John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place. The latter is a superior movie in almost every way, but that’s not my point. My point is that Bird Box and A Quiet Place are strikingly similar in how they ask the audience to consider how much less human we’re willing to become in order to survive. Each film is a horror-parable about our own humanity’s being weaponized against us.

“A Quiet Place”

In A Quiet Place, apocalyptic monsters have taken over and almost invariably kill whoever and whatever speaks above a whisper. In Bird Box, the same idea is turned to a different sense: Sight. Unseen monsters put whoever glimpses them, even for a second, into a lethal trance that ends in suicide. Thus, the heroes of both tales have to live without a part of their normal human functions: Sandra Bullock and her two children are blindfolded even while boating in rapids, and the family in A Quiet Place verbalizes nothing above ground. Human beings are threatened by the very things that make them human. The monsters are of course the problem, but they are quasi-omnipotent; they’re not going away. The real enemies are sight and speech.

I can’t help but wonder if these stories are connecting with audiences at a spiritual level. Might we think of many of the problems of contemporary life as a felt conflict between human flourishing and human nature? Take consumerism. Consuming is a natural human impulse, yet isn’t there a palpable sense right now that our consuming nature is at odds with our desire for meaning and transcendence? Or consider the setting of A Quiet Place, a world in which it is dangerous to speak. Ours is the age of near endless speech, amplified by mobile technologies that allow us to live intellectual and emotional lives out of our phones. Amazingly, this technology has been most efficiently leveraged to make us depressed, insecure, outraged, distracted, and lonely. Perhaps A Quiet Place resonates as a horror film because its premise is actually true for us right now—our sounds invite the monsters.

A similar idea emerges in Bird Box. I was disappointed the movie’s screenplay didn’t explore a bit more the monsters and their power. For example, most of the people who see the monsters immediately commit (or try to commit) suicide. But there a few who instead of killing themselves become quasi-evangelists for the monsters. They violently try to force blindfolded survivors into looking, chanting stuff like “It’s beautiful” and “You must see.” What’s the reason for the difference between the suicidal and the possessed? Regrettably the movie never comes close to saying. It’s fascinating though to consider Bird Box‘s theme of becoming what we are beholding through the lens of the monsters’ creating both victims and victimizers. Those who look at the monsters and live only do so because they are actually dead on the inside. They survive the monsters by becoming the monsters. That’s a pretty potent metaphor for the era of “call out culture” and strong man politics, not to mention the modern shipwrecking of the sexual revolution that is #MeToo.

In both movies, death comes through the body itself, through the senses. This is a provocative way to think about what Lewis famously dubbed the “abolition of man.” Lewis’s essay warned that the death of binding moral transcendence and the subjugation of nature would not liberate mankind, but merely re-enslave it to itself. “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out,” Lewis wrote, “in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.” This is the world depicted by both A Quiet Place and Bird Box, a world in which nature, especially human nature, has been weaponized against us. In both films people must find ways to live below their own full humanity, because it is the expression of their full humanity that brings violence.

To me, this is a stirring poetic summarizing how divided we feel from ourselves in a secular age. The indulgence of our nature in the affluent postwar glow of the latter 20th century failed to slake our thirst for righteousness. Now, slowly awakening from nihilism, we find our own humanity turned against us, especially through technology’s power to shape the mind. To look at modern life, in its pornographic despair, kills the soul, and to speak above a whisper invites the demons of doubt and shame.

It’s interesting to me how both films center on kids. Each story’s drama mostly concerns whether the adults will be able to save their children. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because children are a common literary stand-in for renewal of innocence. But also, perhaps it’s because one of the few motivations left in a world of living beneath one’s humanity is to protect those whom we hope may not have to do so. Perhaps it’s also because such a world inevitably slouches toward new life, one of the final touchstones of grace in a disenchanted world. I sometimes wonder whether protecting children is the closest an unrepentant mind can come to true faith, as if to say, “I cannot become like a child, but I will preserve those who still can.”