Categories
books evangelicalism

The 4 Books You Probably Shouldn’t Write

One of the hardest pills to swallow in this life is humility. Note that wanting to be humble is not a hard pill to swallow, nor is agreeing that humility is a positive trait. It’s actual humility that’s difficult, because actual humility is what puts me and you in so many situations of sacrifice, honesty, wounded pride, and generally looking very small compared to how we want to appear. And one of the truest things that can be said of humility as it relates to the kingdom of God is this: If you belong to Christ, you will be humble. The question is, are you going to humble yourself, or be humbled?

For Christian writers this couldn’t be more salient. The most common temptation away from humility in Christian writing and publishing is the temptation to write on topics that you are objectively not qualified to write on, but that you know would make money/look good/present you as a guru. Within Christian publishing there are a few “money topics” that are always selling well or going viral and, thus, always alluring to ambitious Christian writers to put two cents that they really haven’t earned. When writing comes from a place of literary thoughtfulness AND lived experience, it has a certain potency that writing that is merely thoughtful and theoretical doesn’t have. Writers, though, are often not the best judges of their own expertise, especially in an online writing economy that prioritizes speed and volume.

In the spirit of offering us all a dose of preventative humility, I’d like to offer four books that you probably shouldn’t write. Note three important words in that sentence: “You,” “Probably,” and “shouldn’t.” You probably shouldn’t write them. That doesn’t mean nobody else should. That’s the biting part of humility in the writing life: recognizing our limitations relative to others. You probably shouldn’t do it, although it’s possible you are indeed at the right place to do so helpfully. If that’s you, go for it. You probably shouldn’t write these books, not: you probably can’t write these books. If you have an ego like mine, you hear a statement like “you probably shouldn’t write this” as a dare or a motivational reverse psychology. But no, this is about should, not can’t. What a writer refrains from doing is not a criticism of them. What a writer agrees to do but does poorly is a criticism.

So, here are the four books you probably shouldn’t write:

1) Parenting

Parenting is hard. Really hard. It’s hard to do in the abstract, i.e., coming up with principles and strategies that make sense to a broad spectrum of people. It’s way harder to do in reality. The fruits of parenting take a lifetime to see. What seems like it’s working in one season will look imploded in another. This is simply one of the most intense, spiritually fraught, and difficult topics to be a reliable guide on, because the vast majority of us are still figuring so much out. You probably shouldn’t write this book. Who should? Someone who is on the far end of this journey, whose children rise up and call them blessed, and who demonstrates an ability to confess what didn’t work for them and where they needed help.

2) Why Group XYZ Is The Way They Are

This is a very popular genre of writing that addresses a particular group of people and does a deep dive into their psychology, motivations, beliefs, etc. Recently I was sent (unsolicited) a book like this by a publisher. The book compares conservative evangelicals to John Wayne and attributes their political and theological views to toxic masculinity, American nationalism, and fear and loathing of minorities. Sounds great, right? Literally the first time I skimmed the book I found multiple sweeping claims that were unverified, assertions offered without evidence, and, predictably, almost no member of this group interviewed or meaningfully interacted with. That’s par for the course with this genre. It exists to make non-members of group XYZ feel better about themselves. Don’t write this book. Who should? Proabably nobody, but if you’re a PhD in group XYZ-ology, have spent years listening to these people and trying to understand them, and can write dispassionately….actually, forget it. Don’t write it.

3) Marriage & Sex

You probably shouldn’t write a book on marriage and/or sex. First, see the above entry on “Parenting.” Second, what’s probably going to happen is that you’ll write with the assumption that your readers need exactly what you need(ed). You’ll be tempted to normalize your experiences in such a way that the book will be great for people just like you and basically no one else. Third, in order to compensate for your limited vantage point, you’ll be tempted turn this into a book of ideology. You’ll lean into the Facebook fights and Twitter outrage machines and forget to actually talk about these topics, because you’ll be so busy talking about talking about them. Who should write this book? Someone with a seasoned marriage and seasoned ministry, who’s talked to hundreds of couples and counseled in hundreds of different situations. And someone who is reasonably removed from the social media drama.

4) What’s Wrong with the Church Today

First, a caveat. There is some sense in which every Christian book worth reading is about something that’s wrong in church culture today. To the degree that a book is able to name its target and speak with expertise and care into a specific issue, that’s great. The book you probably shouldn’t write is a book that makes really broad claims from a really narrow perspective. What I’ve found is that Christian writers want to make their pet topics feel meaningful to everyone else, so they pepper their writing with grandiose claims. The problem with this type of book is precisely its appeal: It can be written by literally anyone and addressed to literally everyone. It is a toothless kind of writing. It takes years to discern whether what you think is “the problem with church today” is in fact “the” problem, or whether it’s a problem you’ve experienced in a particular way. Some of the most valuable books are also the least sweeping. Who should write this book? Somebody with a rich combination of letters following their name, and somebody with an ability to think specifically.

Categories
culture evangelicalism Links

Jeering the Devil

I have a new piece up at The Gospel Coalition today on the power of sanctified laughter. With the help of Peter Hitchens and a very bad novel, I make the case that some sin deserves mockery rather than hand-wringing solemnity.

Here’s an excerpt:

I get why the suggestion that sometimes we ought to laugh at sin sounds errant, perhaps even mildly heretical. Shouldn’t we be killing sin? Isn’t laughing at sin what millions of Americans do during primetime TV sitcom hours? There is, however, a tradition in Christian thought that goes like this: all sin is ultimately absurd, and there are occasions when the absurdity of sin is disguised as seriousness, and on these occasions one of the best things steadfast believers can do is rip off the disguise.

Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal as they uselessly called out to their false god. Commenting on this passage, Matthew Henry writes, “The worship of idols is a most ridiculous thing, and it is but justice to represent it so and expose it to scorn.” The only biblical reference to God’s laughter occurs in Psalm 2, in which rebellion against the Lord and his anointed is met with a ridiculing mirth. Solemnity is occasionally an insufficient response to what is sinful and destructive. Sometimes the best response is to point out sin’s ridiculousness.

Read the whole thing here.

Categories
Christianity culture

Kobe, Worship, and Us

It didn’t take long in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death, and the outpouring of eulogies and sorrow that quickly followed, for me to hear what has become a popular refrain among conservative evangelical Christians. “Can you believe this amount of sadness for an athlete? This just goes to show what an idolatrous culture we live in. People worship Kobe. They should be worshiping God!”

Yes, it’s all true. The level of society-wide grief for the death of an athlete does point in some degree to how sports is its own quasi-religion. We’ve seen already how the floodgates of disordered love can obscure a person’s full, fallen humanity, and result in hagiography that may or may not punish those this person sinned against. And yes, what you’re seeing is indeed a form of worship. There is only One who’s worthy of it, and we ought never be embarrassed to say so.

Yes. But…

Listening to some evangelicals respond this way makes me wonder whether we fully appreciate our cultural moment, and whether we understand what’s really happening in a public spectacle such as Kobe’s death. As overwhelming as the media coverage and hashtags were, I came away not primarily irked at American idolatry of sports heroes but instead conscious of something I think is important. Our era of Western life is an era in which not just worship of the true God is scarce, but the idea of worship is implicitly and explicitly ridiculed. The mechanisms of life in our modern, mobile, digitized, secular age work against the very elements of worship, including admiration. Just as Lewis wrote that nature did not teach him that God was glorious but instead gave the word “glory” meaning for him, admiration—of created things, including fallen people—trains human beings to be able to respond in worship to what is actually worthy of it.

Admiration, the emotional response hardwired into the soul when it encounters something that moves it, is undermined often nowadays. Consider the transformation the smartphone has brought to the art gallery, as visitors stand in the presence of true greatness, snap a quick pic or selfie, and then quickly move on to the next exceptional piece. Anyone who has visited a national landmark in the last 10 years can attest to how modern people now “consume” awe-inspiring landscapes or architecture via their phones, rather than sit in silent admiration of them.

Admiration is the seed of worship because it teaches a responsive attention. To admire a sheer, deluging waterfall is to stand in its presence and know that not only is it beautiful, but that its beauty is good for me. Is the modern culture we see before us one that helps us to admire in this way? Or is it one that rapidly evaluates how well a particular beauty can help us get Likes, or make us “cultured,” or affirms our own self-esteem?

It’s often said that Americans worship celebrities. That’s undoubtedly true. But as cancel culture now demonstrates, even the most dazzling stars now fit in the palms of our hands or laptop screens. Admiration for actors, artists, performers, and even politicians is subject to how well they remain in the public favor, how well they say the right things at the right times and never run afoul of the “rules.” Besides, human admiration fades parallel to memory. Records are broken. Beautiful people get old. This too is the conditional admiration, the worship that ultimately depends on how much the worshipers can get out of the ceremony.

That’s why I found the cultural lament for Kobe Bryant somewhat hopeful. Where some evangelicals see idolatry, I see a flickering ember of something that looks like true admiration, the responsive attention to greatness that must exist in every heart that would feel this toward its Maker. That even people who never wore his jersey or cheered his team would feel sadness and a sense of “there’s-something-wrong-with-this-world” at his death is a sign that our technology and our politics have not fully extinguished our souls’ ability to stand in the presence of something and say, “This is good.” I suppose my thinking is that even love that is misdirected is better than love that is never directed anywhere at all. A room with a poor view still reminds us that there’s such a thing as outside; a hall of mirrors cannot do that.

It’s been reported that the morning of the crash, Bryant and his daughter Gianna went to Mass. I very much hope that’s the case, and I very much hope that they were at Mass for this very reason: to sit in the presence of who is truly worthy of worship, to receive his beauty and grace and truth, and to say, “Yes, this is good, and good for me.” We should all pray that the morning of our deaths would find us like that—and our lives, too.

Categories
culture journalism

A Cancel Culture Nightmare

While the vast majority of social media was lamenting the shocking death of Kobe Bryant, something very different was happening to Washington Post reported Felicia Sonmez. I’m writing about it only because how it illustrates the radical effect that online culture has on our perception of everything, even an untimely death of an athlete.

A couple hours after Bryant and his daughter Gianna were confirmed dead in a helicopter crash in California, Sonmez posted an article, not written by her, about the 2003 sexual assault allegations against Bryant. This appears to be the first thing Sonmez posted on Twitter related to Bryant’s death (an important point that I’ll explain in a moment). Within minutes of having posted the link to the article—titled “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: the DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession”—Sonmez was besieged with hundreds of angry replies, criticizing her for bringing the allegations up while everyone was reeling from the news. The replies kept coming and escalated in tone and viciousness, and Sonmez was quickly at the bottom of a social media pile-on. Clearly taken aback by the reaction, Sonmez doubled down, explaining why it was legitimate to talk about the rape accusation, and shaming her online critics by sharing a screenshot of her email inbox, which was filled with some pretty vile sentiments.

The next morning news broke that the Post had suspended Sonmez. Reputedly the suspension is due to her posting a screenshot of her inbox, which revealed the full names of some of her critics. I’ve got no idea if that’s really why she was suspended. It seems more likely to me that the Post did what a lot of employers have done in the social media age: Panic in response to a mob.

But here’s what I’ve taken from all this. This episode is one of the most thorough and illuminating examples I’ve ever seen of just how dysfunctional discourse is when it’s conditioned by technology like Twitter. Every single player in this story looks bad.

First, there’s Sonmez. Of course Sonmez has every right to link to a piece about Bryant’s rape allegations. And those allegations are important and remain important even in the aftermath of tragedy. But Sonmez knew exactly what she was doing by posting the article when she did. Everyone who knows the culture of social media at all knows why someone who had been absolutely silent about a celebrity’s stunning death to that point would post an article like that: in order to reshape the narrative. In the world of Twitter, not even news of someone’s death exists as an objective, actual thing. In the world of Twitter, something only matters to the degree that it participates in the story you want to tell. You know that this is a conditioning effect of social media by imagining someone marching to the middle of a vigil for Kobe Bryant, standing on a soapbox, and yelling about his rape allegations. Such an action would be considered unspeakably crude and unfeeling, not to mention stunningly foolish. Yet this kind of thing is common on social media (not to mention applauded). That’s how disorienting the digital timeline is.

Second, there’s the mob that came after her. Sonmez was unquestionably the target of horrific attacks. These sorts of shame storms tend to only get worse as time goes on and the angry crowd pivots from expressing outrage to trying to accomplish something with it (a firing, a doxxing, etc). How ironic is it that the vox populi of the internet sends death threats and slurs in defense of a celebrity’s reputation? But that’s the moral logic of the online jungle. It’s the same for conservatives and liberals alike, men and women alike, articulate and otherwise. There’s a gravitational pull to online nastiness that seems to cut through every kind of inhibition we have. It’s not enough to disagree. We must destroy. This sure sounds like the recipe for some kind of civilization collapse.

Finally, there’s the Washington Post. The decision to suspend Sonmez is ridiculous. Sonmez was insensitive and unwise, but at the end of the day the only transgression the Post really cared about was her being the target of an outrage campaign. Her suspension, like many other online-reactive disciplinary actions before it, does two lamentable things. First, and most importantly, it sends encouragement and affirmation to online bullies, especially ones that know how to effectively troll. Second, it now gives Sonmez a credible victim narrative and distorts the extent to which her ordeal was merely a twist of fate for someone who in a moment of volatile emotions tried to cancel and ended up getting canceled herself. Nothing excuses the harassment that Sonmez experienced. Nonetheless, there’s a valuable parable in the spectacle of a journalist miscalculating her ability to reshape a public narrative. But that lesson is lost in the aftermath of another bad decision to threaten someone’s livelihood over an unwise social media moment.

This is the state of journalism and of public discourse in 2020. This is the state of our culture’s ability to grieve the loss of life. God help us.

Categories
culture

Label Me!

Everyone who knows anything at all knows you must never attribute someone’s character or behavior to their identity. It is universally agreed in polite society that no person is ever good or bad at something because of their gender, or their race, their family, sexuality, etc. To indulge in this reasoning is at best a crude stereotype, at worst an expression of flagrant bigotry. A president of Harvard University was once forced to resign simply for observing that male students displayed more consistent interest in and aptitude for mathematics and science than female students (an observation which was backed up by all the relevant data, and still is). The unwritten law is clear: A person’s ethnic, genetic, or sexual identity must never explain anything about them.

This makes the cultural fascination with personality profiling all the more intriguing to me. To listen to people talk to one another about their Enneagram numbers is to listen to urbane, educated, and socially conscious people insist on being labeled. It’s not simply that the Enneagram is fun in the same way that all self-knowledge tools are fun. There will always be a market for figuring out the “secrets” about oneself. But the Enneagram fandom I’ve seen takes it quite a bit further. Your Enneagram number is not simply descriptive, it is explanatory and authoritative. Listen closely to enthusiasts talk about their experience with the test, and you will hear explicit appeals to one’s profile as an explanation for even the most trivial facts or behaviors. Their conversation is peppered with phrases like, “I’m such a 7,” or, “Yeah, that’s a very 4 thing to say.”

The same thing happens with in introvert/extrovert conversation. Depending on which you are, certain kinds of habits or tendencies can be expected from you, and it’s a matter of social decorum for others to recognize this. Introverts get nervous at invitations to gatherings; they’d rather watch Netflix at home. Thus, relating well to the introvert in your life means (among other things) not taking offense when they don’t show up. You should also learn how to work with introverts, date them, and recognize the dozens of signs you’re probably one of them.

It took me a long time to realize just how odd this kind of pathological self-categorization really is. For one thing, I’ve always believed myself to be an introvert, and I’ve claimed the label throughout most of my adult life whenever I was uncomfortable or wanted to protect my time. For me, introversion has often been permission: permission to not be like those around me, to make choices others didn’t understand, and to be my own person.

But then I started realizing that it no other aspect of life was I as ready to sort myself into a prefabricated category. Why did I so readily accept the logic of personality profiling when that same logic, if applied to my skin color, my childhood, or anything else about me, would likely deeply offend? More to the point, why did so many people around me — people who rejected all species of stereotypes and determinism — make an exception for their personality?

Here’s one guess: Personality profiling is the last politically-acceptable way of receiving an identity, rather than crafting one. And many people today are weary of crafting their own custom identity and would very much like to belong to something instead.

It’s not been that long since the most fundamental fact about you was considered to be your family. For most of human history an individual’s life was conditioned by their parents. You lived where your parents lived (likely until death). You worked at what your parents worked. Your marriage was in large part downstream from your parents’ relationships and community. You were born into a religion, you were born into a value system, and you would born into a social fabric.

When most of us hear this description of the past we drop down on our knees and thank God that unlike our pre-liberal ancestors, we are not consigned to a pre-written fate. Every Disney film ever made is at some point a story about a person remaking themselves into their own image, getting out from under the restrictive and unfeeling expectations of their family. That’s the kind of story that resonates with Western people who feel their individuality keenly.

You won’t find me arguing that upward mobility is a bad thing, or that people should have no option to improve their life. But something is definitely lost to our humanity when the only identity available to us is one we have to tirelessly craft. There’s something in most of us that tells us that to belong and to be received is better than self-determination. It’s not an accident that The Rise of Skywalker, in its pursuit of fan satisfaction, essentially re-wrote the story of Rey to give her a family name after all. After spending two films arguing that Rey’s anonymity was immaterial and that she could build her own identity through her actions, the filmmakers end the ill-fated trilogy with a scene in which Rey assumes the last name Skywalker. To belong is better than to self-determine.

I wonder then if personality profiling is a kind of refuge for those of us who’ve been catechized in hyper-individuality. A finite amount of Enneagram numbers means that you really can belong to a group. Who you are is not opaque, it is discoverable. Maybe there’s something deep within Western people that craves the kind of self-knowledge that comes from outside rather than inside. Weary of curating our own sense of self, sometimes we just need to be assigned a number and know who we are.

Categories
life

Not Magic, But Not Nothing

The sophisticated critic looks at Western people, coming up with their New Years resolutions and commitments and “fresh starts,” and decries it as arbitrary. “There is nothing about a calendar that makes personal change more likely or more desirable,” he might say. The fetishizing of New Years, he observes, merely fills gyms in the winter and empties them in May. Genuine personal transformation doesn’t wait for a date. It comes out of a deeper need or realization and is authentically now, awake to the realities of the moment, not tethered to vague ideas of yearly progress.

To which I would say: Yes, but also no.

A secular age is also a rhythm-less age. In the absence of spiritual practices deeply embedded into cultural fabric, we are left only with raw motivation. This is generation burnout, an era where the people most immersed in the language of self-care are the same ones likely to working 60 hour weeks, binging Netflix alone in the downtime. The tell is how the word “work” has been displaced by the word “hustle.” It’s not enough to work at something; now one must have a lifestyle of frenetic motion.

Smartphone technology has destroyed our sense of seasonality and place. Selfies at Holocaust memorials don’t indicate disrespect as much as they signal the blurring of life into overlapping lines. You’re supposed to be following up on email the same time you’re having dinner. Keep up the social media clout as you vacation with the kids. Take the artsy photo of the pastor preaching while you reflect and pray. Everything is an occasion for everything else. There is no rhythm, no seasons, and certainly no sabbath. For a people allegedly domineered by the tyranny of the clock, we increasingly have absolutely no sense of time.

This is why I would push back against the New Years critic. One can agree that genuine transformation and improvement has nothing to do with the Julian calendar, while at the same time giving thanks for the persistence of one of our final truly cultural seasons. That people look to the New Year as an opportunity is a testimony to how wired the human soul is for seasons. There is something about coinciding the rising of the sun to the turning of the page that resonates deep within us. A Christian would suggest this is the resonance of an image-bearer being in tune with the physical realm he was created to help subdue and fill with glory. New Years Day is not magic, but it very well might be spiritual.

Looking to a New Year as a chance to walk more confidently in those good works we were created for is good. Slavish devotion to self-help mantras don’t usually stick, for the same reason that New Years discounts on gym memberships look less alluring in May than they did in January. Without continual awareness of the season Giver, we will almost always blur the seasons into a morass, trying with finite, self-oriented strength to once again do everything at once, be our own savior, and receive validation from the idols that broke our hearts last year. One of the great realizations of walking with Christ is that as we keep closer and closer to him, we get rest, we get order, and we get strength. He knows what the human soul needs, and he gives it freely. It’s a mistake if we think we can only receive it once a year. It’s also a mistake if we miss an annual chance to remind ourselves of it.

Categories
culture politics

Yeah, But What if the ‘Elites’ Are Right?

Mark Galli and the editorial leadership of Christianity Today believe that Donald Trump should be removed from office. Carl Trueman writes that this is a perfectly defensible position, but takes serious issue with Galli’s notion that Christian faithfulness entails it. I too worry that Galli’s editorial took the wrong angle, emphasizing the constitutional case against Trump and implying that consistent, Bible-believing Christians can come to consensus on that issue. That seems to me to be a category error, as if we can know from Scripture whether the president of Ukraine was pressured into a political favor. If that’s genuinely what Galli meant, it’s a bad take.

Yet is it what he meant? I doubt it. The last sentence of Trueman’s response bothers me: “Lambasting populist evangelicals as hypocrites or dimwits will simply perpetuate the divide.” I certainly agree. But why does Donald Trump somehow stand-in for all Christian populism? Must the demerits against his character, his behavior, and his qualifications trickle down and apply to any and all who are disaffected by America’s two-party administration?  I can’t see any reason why they should.

Galli writes: “That [the President] should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.” This isn’t how I would have worded it. But Trueman’s complaint that this line accuses “every Trump voter of heinous sin, however reluctant or conflicted he may be,” both misses and undersells the point. It misses the context of this line, which is Galli’s citation of CT’s editorializing against Bill Clinton in the 1990s, at which time the magazine also declared the elected president of the US as morally unfit for his office. This is a strange track record of consistency if Galli and CT are simply intellectual elites, unmoved by the plights of the Christian working class (more on that in a minute).

But I think this response (which has come from many more people) also undersells something Galli’s editorial understands. It’s not enough to say that there are understandable reasons to vote for Trump, and so no one can dogmatically claim that doing so is a sin. Trueman points out that many evangelical Trump voters despise infidelity and coarseness, yet felt as if their political alternative was worse. But is this reasoning not also subject to moral evaluation? Is the existence of Planned Parenthood and GLAAD really a biblically and ethically sufficient justification for endorsing—hesitantly or not, joyfully or not—this president? Galli has an answer to this question: No. Perhaps that’s the wrong answer, but it is an answer.

What’s not an answer is to double back on #NeverTrump evangelicals, label them elites, and declare the conversation pointless. I wish so much that evangelicals would fully resist the allure of identity politics, especially the versions that seem to be popular in our conservative theological circles. Substitute the word “white” for “elite” in much evangelical political discourse, and you would end up with lengthy essays that would be logically indistinguishable from those of the wokest SJWs.

Whether Galli and the staff at CT are elites has absolutely no bearing on whether they’re right about this president and the morality of supporting him. The argument fails for the same reason the common pro-choice canard about pro-life’s being “out of touch” with the physical and social trauma of unplanned pregnancy fails. I completely accept the fact that I, a white, middle-class, nuclear-family raised male, cannot sufficiently empathize with a poor, disadvantaged, unwed mother, just as I accept that the editor in chief of a large Christian magazine cannot sufficiently empathize with my rural, pastoring, Trump-supporting relatives. A failure to empathize is not synonymous with a failure to speak truth. Babies are still babies, and low character is still low character—regardless who’s elite and who’s not.

And in any case, are we so sure there’s not something to be said for being at least a little out of touch with populist conservatism? Just last night I was visiting my grandmother. The television was muted but tuned into Fox News, where the chyron read, “SOME ON THE LEFT SAY LITTLE WOMEN IS TOO WHITE.” From what I could gather host Mark Levin had rounded up a couple of obnoxious Tweets from “the Left” and, wham, a segment was born. I found myself wondering what it would be like to consume this kind of “news” hour after hour, day after day. I think I’d be a rather angry person, though I suspect I’d be unable to name the people I was mad at. If you ask me, that’s the kind of thing that can perpetuate a divide, too.

Categories
Uncategorized

The Rise of Skywalker

The ghost of inevitability has always haunted the Star Wars films. That’s true in the stories, where the word “destiny” comes early and often from the lips of the most important characters. But it’s also true in the structure and production of the movies themselves. Return of the Jedi ended the original trilogy’s story arc on a proverbial “good guys win.” Twenty years later George Lucas produced the prequel trilogy, three films that told a story to which everyone already knew the ending. And now, twenty years after The Phantom Menace, J.J. Abrams turns off the ventilator to a franchise whose fate has been sealed for a while. The Rise of Skywalker acquits itself well as an individual piece of Disney’s sequel trilogy, but even its strengths highlight just what a mistake these three films were from the beginning.

The Rise of Skywalker is an entertaining movie and offers genuine treats for Star Wars fans. In other words, it’s pretty much the opposite of its predecessor, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, a film that held its audience in contempt and seemed to be vying instead for the affection of the New Yorker‘s circulation list. Abrams has brought the series back to the fan-servicing, nostalgic mood of The Force Awakens. That’s both good and bad. It’s good because viewers who really like the non-Disney Star Wars films feel at home. It’s bad because it reminds us it was a bad idea to leave home in the first place.

The “Skywalker Saga,” as Disney has rebranded Episodes I-IX, was truly concluded at the end of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. To justify its continuation, Disney has had to invent one more Skywalker, walk back older plot points for no apparent reason, and supply a “surprise twist” that feels almost as contrived and ad hoc as something the last person in an improv group would cook up to finish off a skit.

So why should anyone bother with the Rise of Skywalker? Well, it’s a lot of fun. Abrams opts for a breakneck pace, literally zooming his characters from one world and mission to another. More ground gets covered in The Rise of Skywalker than perhaps all the other Star Wars films combined. And why not? The environments are dazzling, the action is exciting and well edited, and the movie builds up nicely to a climax that’s a lot better than it had any business being. The three leads, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaacs are in fine form. There’s a lightsaber fight atop a Death Star submerged in water. If you’ve got something better than that to do with 2 hours and 11 bucks, good for you.

But these three movies all serve one ultimate purpose. They highlight just how remarkable George Lucas is as a world-builder and myth-maker. His wooden dialogue and cringe-inducing love scenes are failures of execution, not failures of imagination. The Disney era Star Wars is a failure of imagination. People will laugh at Anakin’s dialogue in Attack of the Clones for years to come, but they’re going to watch it anyway. I can’t say I think the same of these movies.

Categories
Christianity life

There Are No Extraordinary Means

I’m suspicious that one reason older generations of Christians tended to be skeptical toward ambition—even calling it a sin on occasion—is that they were able to see something more clearly than we moderns can. Life in the 21st century West is by definition fast, mobile, and wandering. If you want to do something else, you can. If you want to be something else, you can. For most people alive right now there’s never been another reality except this one. Like the fish in David Foster Wallace’s famous illustration, we don’t really see this, we simply live within it.

Older saints, on the other hand, were more likely to see freedom and upward mobility as a singular thing, something that stood out when someone you knew claimed it surrounded by family and friends and community that were more or less resigned to their lot in life. For moderns ambition is ambient, but for them it was a condition with a definable list of attributes and consequences.

My point is this: When you’re removed from something in this way, removed enough to recognize it as something other and not just swim in it, you probably have a better angle of vision on it than others. And I think one thing that these older Christians saw within ambition was a rule of diminishing return with spiritual side effects. It’s what I’m learning right now in my own life and thinking:

There’s always something else.

The problem with most species of ambition is not that they seek good change or more success or greater mastery. The problem is that most species of ambition are self-referential. Ambitious people don’t generally say they want to make a million dollars or start 3 companies or earn 2 doctorates. They don’t put numbers to their ambition. They simply say, “I’m ambitious,” by which they mean, “I’m always moving.” The constancy and restlessness shift from the means to the end. Spiritually speaking, continual dissatisfaction—a resilient inability to say, “Ok, I’m good now”—has almost always been flagged as dangerous.

But it’s not just material ambition. What about spiritual ambition? Recently in my reading I came across this sentence from a theologian and it stopped me in my tracks: “There are no extraordinary means of grace in the Christian life.” I lingered over that line for a while as it delivered a broadside to most of my Christian walk. How many years have I spent as a believer earnestly, diligently, even tirelessly, seeking an extraordinary means by which I would finally feel the intimacy with Christ I desire and the temptations that beset me just fall off like sawdust? The matter-of-factness of that sentence pummeled me. That one book, that one sermon, that one conference or that one conversation I’m looking for to put all the jagged parts of my spiritual life into an incandescent whole…it does not exist. There’s always something else to do, but there are no extraordinary means of grace.

Extraordinary means are what most people want: in their spiritual lives, in their careers, and even in politics. Most political discourse, at least in the US, can be reduced to the following formula:

My unique solution + my unique implementation – the obnoxious, interchangeable input of others = the outcome you want.

This is one reason why politicians always contrast, and almost never compare, the current moment with history. You never hear things like, “This is exactly the kind of problem we were facing in 1930, and here’s what we learned then.” What you hear is some variation of, “We are at a utterly unique moment in our history and this is the most important election of our lifetime.” Nobody even cares that most adults can remember when the same politicians said the same words about the election four years ago. We just expect potential leaders to say this, possibly because we want it to be true.

Extraordinary means are sold everywhere. I love how Scott Alexander summarizes therapy lit:

All therapy books start with a claim that their form of therapy will change everything. Previous forms of therapy have required years or even decades to produce ambiguous results. Our form of therapy can produce total transformation in five to ten sessions! Previous forms of therapy have only helped ameliorate the stress of symptoms. Our form of therapy destroys symptoms at the root.

What we want are extraordinary fixes to ordinary problems. In this desire we miss the reality that there’s always something else to fix, there’s always something else to do, and there’s always something we’ll miss. Looking for extraordinary means is a roadmap to variously intense levels of personal frustration.

Ordinary means of grace are sufficient because our problems are ordinary. This is one of the things that becomes gloriously clear when you read books older than your parents, or heck, even when you just talk to your parents. The market of extraordinary means thrives in direct proportion to how little we are aware of the past, of the lives of others, or even the nature of objective reality. When you become hermetically sealed in the present, ordinary becomes a synonym for “ineffective.” The gnawing craving for a spectacular new solution becomes like water to a fish: all we know.

Consider the case of someone trying to break a pornography habit. I know from experience that the temptation here to look for an extraordinary means of grace—the one book, the one article—is overwhelming. This is why I’m almost to the point where I wish evangelicals would write a little bit less about porn. It’s become the topic du jure for Christian living content pieces (particularly those trying to get the attention of male readers), but I wonder if the sheer amount of words about overcoming pornography actually betray the most reliable sources of grace–namely, the church, the Word, and the ordinances. None of these things automatically destroy a guy’s porn habit. But what if God knows that, and still intends them to be the primary conduits of transformation? What if God values the kind of change that these ordinary means offer more than he values the speed which books and sermons implicitly offer?

Consider someone who is unsure about their future or calling. She’s stuck in what sure looks like a dead-end job, or a fruitless ministry, or an exhausting care-taking role. There’s a good chance she’ll attend the Christian conference looking for that one plenary message that will illuminate and inspire and create lasting satisfaction and contentment. What if the plenary messages all took the opportunity to say, “Actually, what you’re going through is normal, God is doing something good through it, and he’s given you a community of believers, his word, the ministry of prayer, and the Lord’s Supper to sustain you in this season?” That’s not going to sell many books. But it’s true.

I’ve been both of these people at different times of my life. I’m finally coming to the realization that there’s always something else; an extraordinary means will just run out of gas and leave two more issues for every one it seemed to fix. This is why ordinary means are so much better. They’re not for sale and they don’t expire. The URL won’t break and the guru won’t commit a moral failing. They’re wonderfully, gloriously, there, have been there, and will be there. Just like our troubles, and just like his grace.

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Letters of news and such

A quick announcement that I’ve launched a little newsletter. I’ll be doing some short form writing in it, as well as sharing stuff I find interesting, life updates, and more (but not much more).

Read the first newsletter here and while you’re there subscribe.