I have a new, lengthy essay at The Gospel Coalition today. It may be of interest to readers to who have followed my posts here about Jordan Peterson and the “realignment” of political and cultural struggles. This essay was several months in the making and I hope it makes a positive contribution to an important topic.
Here’s an excerpt:
The religious tone of this new progressive spirit should not surprise us. Augustine wrote that the human heart is restless for God, Bob Dylan sang that “You gotta serve somebody,” and David Foster Wallace observed, “Everybody worships.” It’s not a question of whether we will believe in a transcendent something or Someone, it’s a question of what that something or Someone will be. In an era in which many are comfortable relegating questions of religion to the sphere of “opinion” and “Whatever works for you,” the secular religion of politics reveals our innate need to discover the truth and impress that truth onto others. Secular progressives identify this truth as intersectionality, but Christians believe the ultimate truth is the gospel.
Whenever someone points out the dangers of social media and recommends curtailing use or abandoning it altogether, a response I’m starting to hear a lot more often is that abstaining from social media is an expression of privilege. Though it’s not always made explicit, I think the idea behind this argument is that social media is a democratic tool by which many people express social and political opinions or perhaps engage in activism. Thus, social media has intrinsic value as a vehicle of “engagement,” including (and maybe especially for) ethnic, sexual, or economic minorities who might otherwise never be offered a platform to speak.
Calling on folks to cancel their Twitter accounts is therefore on one hand an implicit call for less visibility of these marginalized voices; on the other hand, it’s also a failure to see (or perhaps even a failure to regard) the positive effects of social media for certain kinds of people, vs. the relative comfort and lack of social or existential disruption that majority culture people would experience by deleting their accounts.
As someone who is actively trying to reduce and ultimately eliminate my social media footprint, I take this response seriously. If it’s an accurate and coherent objection, then my deletion of certain social media memberships and my thousands of words spent critiquing the technology are de facto failures to love my marginalized neighbors, and such failure demands repentance and a change of ways. I also respect this objection because it makes an objective claim of value on social media and doesn’t impishly retreat to, “Well, whatever works for you, just don’t force your opinions on people.” In other words, full-throated defenses of social media on the basis of privilege and marginalization are arguments that actually understand the seriousness of what social media critics are saying.
Nevertheless, I think this argument is deeply flawed. More than that, I think it’s flawed in the exact ways that we should expect ideas shaped by social media culture to be flawed. Let me offer a brief rundown of these flaws.
Flaw 1: This objection accepts what social media corporations say about themselves at face value.
One of the major indictments against social media is the knowledge we’ve gleaned over the past 13 years (roughly Facebook’s lifespan) about how these Silicon Valley companies design their products. We now know they’re designed to be addictive. We now know they’re designed to hit mental triggers that release feelings of intimacy and productivity. We now know that the CEOs and braintrusts of the major social media corporations tend to have disturbing views about everything from personal well-being to utopia. To sum up, we now know not to conflate tech industry marketing with the product itself.
The argument that social media levels the playing field and gives platform to heretofore marginalized voices assumes that the kind of exposure and “platform” that happens on social media is an unmitigated good kind. But to assume this means to assume that social media technology is what it appears to be. Is there a reason to assume this? What if the “platform” of social media is actually an algorithmic illusion designed to make users more dependent on the technology and in the process less likely to understand or even care about what cannot be experienced through it? What if 10,000 retweets send a chemical affirmation to your brain of being seen and heard, but in reality half of those retweets are from people who simply wanted to join in with their friends in RTing you, 1/3 are from non-human accounts, and the remaining 2,000 are a niche group who will neither do anything about what you said or even remember it after dinner? Let’s say all that is at least plausibly true. Would it be more accurate to say that Twitter has given you a platform, or that Twitter has rewarded your time on the site with a temporary dose of extra entertainment?
There are very good reasons to believe, as several media and technology critics are now saying, that social media culture is significantly disconnected from “real life,” and that what happens within social media culture is often self-referential and fails to escape the walls of algorithm. Assuming that’s true, we can’t say with any degree of confidence that the platform bestowed on anyone—regardless of race, gender, or class—is the kind of platform that can sustain and empower positive offline transformation. Instead, it seems just as likely that the addictive elements of social media, which translate into thousands of hours being spent on the technology every day by many of the same socially conscious users who might otherwise be doing something else, are mostly sunk costs.
Flaw 2: This objection assumes that the democratizing effects of the Internet are best mediated through social media networks.
Beneath the objection that social media abstention is an expression of socioeconomic privilege is another assumption about the nature of social media—specifically, that it really does challenge the privileged, platform the marginalized, and level the playing field better than the alternative online technologies. But this is an unnecessary and inaccurate assumption.
Measuring social media’s real-life effects are tricky. For one thing, “social media” doesn’t seem to be a monolithic entity with equivalent effects in every sphere of life. Facebook and Instagram seem to be better at helping people sell stuff, whereas Twitter is considerably more likely to affect what gets talked about in newspapers, magazines, and cable news. Which example of social media influence is more “real”? Obviously, it depends on what you mean.
The most important aspect of any social media platform is the number of users on it. But there are other, more significant things to consider, such as privacy, and it’s not at all apparent to me that the advantages of a highly populated social network should always trump concerns about user data. Someone might argue that Facebook is still worth using, despite its absolutely terrifying track record on user privacy, because of its massive user base and potential reach, but only a foolish person would argue that privacy is never worth missing out on being part of a huge network.
As it is, there are good reasons to think that the current configuration of the online economy is very broken, and that it would be better for everyone—rich, poor, white, black, straight, gay—if the Silicon Valley model were trashed and replaced with an ownership-driven digital commons. Again, you don’t have to cancel your Facebook account today in order to grant there are good reasons to question the wisdom of the social media corporations. Wise, kind, justice-oriented people are doing just that.
Flaw 3: This objection gets “privilege” backward.
It seems extraordinary to me that anyone would define privilege as “the inability or unwillingness to spend portions of my day typing out messages online for strangers.” While it may not be exactly right to say that social media per se is classed, it would definitely be fair to say that social media activism—the kind of activism this objection takes as incumbent on moral people—is an activity available to a small, select group of users. Plenty of American workers cannot even look at their phones during their work hours.
Twitter especially seems to be an online activity geared toward knowledge workers with surplus time in their day (i.e., privileged folks). According to Pew, 80% of all content on Twitter comes from 10% of the site’s accounts. In other words, what goes on in Twitter-land is dictated by a very small, very select conglomeration of power users, brands, and algorithms. Twitter reflects the experiences and views of working class Americans about as well as Lake Shore Drive does.
By arguing that social media silence is privileged, critics of digital minimalism reveal to what extent they have conflated a particular kind of sub-cultural pastime with basic responsible citizenship. This conflation isn’t only socially and economically ridiculous, it’s also hostile to the formation of an emotionally and spiritually healthy public square. Thinking, grieving, and praying in silence, away from the pressures to signal our virtues or vices in exchange for clout, is not an act of privilege as much as it is an act of humanity.
Whether you cancel your social media accounts is not as important as thinking and feeling properly toward these digital technologies. I humbly submit that one evidence we are failing to think and feel properly toward them is when we react illogically when they are critiqued. The architects of Silicon Valley are more than happy to make billions out of our neurological dependence on notifications. Everyone, from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged to the most privileged and powerful, should be more than resistant to hand it to them.
There seems a resilient misconception that pastors are less prone than the rest of us to things like exhaustion, temptation, frustration, and loneliness. I’ve seen that the opposite is actually closer to the truth. A pastor is especially vulnerable to all these things because of the constant emotional vigilance of his calling. Most of us are grateful, even unconsciously, that our spiritual lives and our vocations don’t overlap to the degree that they do in the pastorate.
If I had one piece of advice for all evangelical churches, it would be: Generously grant rest to your pastor. If everything falls apart when he’s not there, that’s not a reason to limit his rest, it’s a reason to seriously rethink the culture of the church. A pastor who feels like he has to choose between stewarding his mind, body, and family, and making sure the church functions well, is a pastor who is on a path to burnout (or worse).
2. A childhood filled with church attendance isn’t an immunization against sin and unbelief. But neither does requiring such attendance automatically turn kids into resentful prodigals.
Two seemingly omnipresent misconceptions: Kids will be fine if they’re in church regularly, but requiring them to come with you will foment rebellion. Both ideas are intuitive to different kinds of people in evangelical churches, but both are wrong.
My brother in law likes to say that evangelicals often think the gospel is something you catch like a cold. If you’re around infected churchgoers, eventually you’ll come down with salvation. I don’t need to go into detail about all the stories I could tell of how this cliche was proven false, sometimes with grave consequences. Youth ministry is as good a substitute for home discipleship as going to the ER is a good substitute for diet and exercise. If there’s no prayer, bible reading, or parent-child discipleship going on in your home, and everything “seems” OK, that’s cause to be alarmed.
On the other hand, I’ve seen so many parents sheepishly acknowledge that they didn’t require their 14 year old to get out of bed for church because they were nervous such requirements would turn him against church. This might be more true if human maturity and development stopped at 16. But it doesn’t, and it turns out that when the teenage years are in the rear view, it’s still pretty easy for most folks to remember what their parents did and didn’t think was important in their home.
3. PKs don’t need to see and know everything about the church that Dad sees and knows.
This is one thing that my Dad has said he wished he’d done differently with me and my siblings. Seasoned saints are more equipped to handle the frustrating parts of church government, business, or discipline than teens are. You can’t hit a button and make your child resent the local church, but you can overwhelm with its blemishes before he is able to see the beauty.
Here’s a very practical tip for pastors with kids: Think of your kid seeing business meeting fights and hearing moral failures similarly to how you think about them seeing conflicts in your marriage. You won’t be able to keep them out of the know on every tense or sinful moment with your spouse, but when they are witnesses to it, most couples will talk to them instead of assuming they’re processing it correctly. Apply that same logic to the dark side of church life. Keep your PKs out of the ecclesiological trenches as long as possible, but when they must see it, help them respond.
4. The most freeing thing a PK can feel is that his Dad and Mom don’t view him as a PK.
Hearing my Dad encourage me as I approached high school graduation that he wanted to me to follow God’s call on my life, and that that call did not at all need to be ministry, was absolutely crucial. I don’t think most pastors set out to put pressure on their kids to follow their footsteps, but what they can communicate unwittingly is that vocational ministry and “true spirituality” go hand in hand. How is this communicated? One way is by holding PKs to higher standards merely because they’re dad is the pastor. Not only is that frustrating, it communicates that the pastorate is closer to heaven than the regular jobs.
5. PKs need Dads who are more than theology nerds.
I don’t know if I can remember even 3 of my Dad’s sermons growing up, but I can remember dozens of chats over milkshakes and trips to ball games. One of my fondest memories is watching an incredible Super Bowl alone with my Dad in a hotel somewhere in Indiana while the blizzard of the decade pummeled us outside. The conference we attended later was fine, but I don’t remember most of it. I remember that night with my Dad perfectly.
In a lecture to his divinity students, Charles Spurgeon urged them to be as normal as possible, rather than bland, flavorless ministry machines.
I am persuaded that one reason why our working-men so universally keep clear of ministers is because they abhor their artificial and unmanly ways. If they saw us, in the pulpit and out of it, acting like real men, and speaking naturally, like honest men, they would come around us. Baxter’s remark still holds good: “The want of a familiar tone and expression is a great fault in most of our deliveries, and that which we should be very careful to amend.” The vice of the ministry is that ministers will parsonificate the gospel. We must have humanity along with our divinity if we would win the masses. Everybody can see through affectations, and people are not likely to be taken in by them. Fling away your stilts, brethren, and walk on your feet…
What’s true of “working-men” is even more true of pastor’s children. Pastors who cannot connect with their kids on a level beyond, say, reading (or, God forbid, politics) need to expand their horizons. Love is attention. Being attentive to more is the best way to tell a PK that their pastor-Dad loves them for the K, not the P.
Life lessons aren’t something to be sought after. They simply happen to find us.
That’s what I found on a summer day moving junk wood in the backyard of a man who I had just met. It was initially just an odd job that a mutual friend of ours had connected me to, but as we tossed the carcass of an old shed into the back of his pickup, he took the opportunity to speak into my life while Johnny Cash’s crooning bass-baritone carried on in the background. He told me that he had terrible arthritis in his feet, and, being both a pastor and high school mathematics teacher, many assumed his were particularly hurtful occupations. Nevertheless, he persevered, and when those with furrowed brows would ask just why he would put himself through such an ordeal on a daily basis, his reply was that, at the end of the day, the only thing he is always responsible for is his mood. Circumstances come and go, but his response to them is what matters in the eyes of God.
As I’ve entered into my twenties, I’ve realized that the mood which has gripped me these past couple of years is one that demands my circumstances directly correlate to my ideals at all times. In this mood, fulfillment and self-actualization in my work and relationships must be instantaneous. Opportunities that came my way, however exhilarating and undeserved they might be, were ultimately judged according to what benefit they brought to my public image. Even those closest to me began to be measured on a scale of the degree to which they affirmed me in all my insecurities without truly holding me accountable for what were festering character flaws (not just personality quirks). Yet it took those same people’s finally revealing the concern they had been harboring for me for so long to get me to realize how my irrepressible need for approval had led to the suppression of divine wisdom. That wisdom is calling me back to the yoke of costly, committed discipleship and authenticity in my relationships with others.
How exactly had I gotten here? Surely an education from a prestigious evangelical seminary would plead my case on my behalf. But amidst all the fluttering of textbooks and rebuttals in class, I had forgotten who I was apart from it all. No amount of fame gained from a platform would be able to hide the brokenness beneath. I was still a ragged soul whose scars could not be covered by any amount of contributions to society. My reputation could never be the source of my justification.
At the heart of all of this, I bought the lie that success in life is to slay dragons. A dragon is an infernal beast, a creature that has committed terrible acts against others out of a spirit of either greed or pure malice. When they are confronted, we are never the problem; they most certainly are. We often never stop to consider what the state of our armor might be or whether we have the mettle to endure the battle ahead. But deeper than all of this, a terrible truth lurches forth behind us as we enter the keep of the castle and see the fire and the red scales glisten: this might just be a mirror.
I had sauntered through so many blessings without once thinking about how what I was doing in the moment would ultimately come to benefit those I had been appointed to serve. I assumed that I had simply earned it, and that the furtherance of my self-aggrandizement would bring my turbulent soul some serenity. But as the waves continued to crash, I realized that I had been outrunning my design. My gifts were meant to be stewarded, not squandered on megalomania. A good name and glowing compliments never save.
The only way in which we ever gain anything is if it is done in the service of the very same Creator who gave us those capabilities in the first place. They were meant for employment in the working out of his will. Exercised outside of it, they’re idols that only offer us a thousand-yard stare in return. I had forgotten about my humble place in the tapestry of God’s kingdom. I was a speck, but a beloved speck nonetheless.
Captain Ahab made the mistake of thinking it was about the dragons. As Herman Melville masterfully explores the problem of obsession in Moby Dick, we read how Ahab completely disregarded the safety of his entire crew as he doggedly pursued the great white whale. In the end, one fateful encounter with the object of Ahab’s rage spelled out the demise of the ship and its crew. As the narrator Ishmael floats along with the wreckage, he spots a ship called Rachel, and he is reminded of Jeremiah 31:15, “A voice was heard in Ramah, a lament with bitter weeping–Rachel weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for her children because they are no more.”