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.

Advertisements

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.”

 

Shelter in the Shame Storm

We who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers embedded in the technology we put in our pockets.

Helen Andrews’s essay on online shaming, featuring in the forthcoming January issue of First Things, is the kind of piece that can genuinely change readers. It is a stunningly powerful meditation that is simultaneously personal and sweeping. I can’t even choose a passage to excerpt without feeling like I’m under-representing the quality of writing, so please; if you haven’t read it, stop reading this blog and go read Helen’s essay.

I’ve been trying to figure out why, beyond the exceptional literary beauty on display in the writing, this essay has left such a strong impression on me. Perhaps one reason is that more and more of my thinking and writing has been taken up with trying to understand what technology, especially social media, is doing to me and my generation. I know some friends roll their eyes whenever they read another sentence like that one, but I wonder if they roll their eyes only because they haven’t allowed themselves to really listen to what’s going on—which, ironically, is one of the most aggressive symptoms of the social media contagion. There are probably only two kinds of people whose online habits aren’t at least challenged by phenomenons like online shaming: the people who stop reading essays like Helen’s because they don’t want them to be challenged, or the people for whom online shaming is not a problem but a bonus. Four years ago I would have said the latter group didn’t exist. Four years and too much time on Twitter later, I know for a fact it does.

This is a point Helen brings up to devastating effect. “The more online shame cycles you observe,” she writes, “the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie.” In other words, people Twitter-shame not (ultimately) because they feel duty-bound to, but because they want to, because doing so is pleasurable and brings, however fleeting, satisfaction.

Not long ago it was common to hear that the internet doesn’t really “form” us, it simply removes analog inhibitions and frees up the true self. There’s probably some truth there, but all it takes is a little digital presence to quickly realize just how easy it is to become something online that bears little or no resemblance to your life offscreen. Put another way: If the tech is neutral and the only problem are the preexisting moral conditions of the users, online mobs should only be constituted of noxious people going after truly innocent targets. Alas, that’s not what happens.

At some point people like me who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers that are embedded into the technology we put in our pocket. We’re going to have to determine to understand (a dangerous resolution!) how and why it is that the avatar-ization of our thoughts and names creates on-ramps in our hearts for delighting in the suffering of people whose only crime is disagreeing with us, or being friends with somebody who does. Why does mitigating our experience of the world through screens push us toward cruelty and resentment? Is it because we’re bored? Because our dopamine receptors are so calloused by notifications and we need a bigger hit? Is it because we are created to feel the very things social media is designed to prevent us from feeling? And after all these questions: Why is it that the fear of losing “connection” or “platform” is so strong that we shrug, pray for our broken world, and then check Instagram again?

I’ll confess to living out my own anathemas. As I was reading through Helen’s piece the first time, I stopped halfway and went immediately to YouTube to look up the fateful clip she describes. It was an eminently forgivable curiosity; how many of us can read an essay about such a moment without wondering where we can access it? So I watched the clip, then resumed Helen’s essay. And then a funny thing happened. I went back to the clip and watched it again, and then another time. Even right after reading about the man who grabs his phone and unwittingly invites Helen’s now-husband to watch a moment of profound humiliation, and wagging my head at such a clueless guy, here I was, basking in someone’s lowest public moment, because I found the “cringeworthiness”….well, what did I find it? Entertaining? Funny? Educational? To be honest, I’m not sure. I don’t know why I watched that video 3 times. But I did all the same.

Let’s say that YouTube didn’t exist, and that the only way such footage was accessible to me was through an exhaustive combing of C-SPAN files. Would I have made the effort to watch it? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think the better question is whether, in a world where YouTube didn’t exist, and there wasn’t a multi-million dollar sub-industry that feasted on attention spans with “content,” there would have even been an extant clip to find. Perhaps one reason I went looking for the clip was that I knew I would find it. Perhaps another reason was that I had never stopped myself from viewing someone’s lowest professional moment before; why stop now? I don’t dislike Helen, and my guess is that we would agree on 98% of important matters. I didn’t relish her embarrassment while reading her testimony. I wasn’t piling-on. I just…watched.

I’m not sure where the shelter is from the shame storm. Today it feels as if anybody who has ever written or done anything in public is liable to be ridden out of civilization on a rail (or thread). But I’m hopeful that the same offline existence that can relieve anxiety and heal relationships can also re-calibrate our desires so as not to crave the saltiness of shame. Lord, grant me serenity to accept the Tweets I cannot change, the courage to log off, and the wisdom to know which comes first.

Andrew Sullivan’s Ghost of Liberalism Present

Andrew Sullivan yearns for a Christianity that supplies meaning and destiny. But his Christianity is too beholden to modern gods.

In his final moments with the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge sees a young boy and girl, whose monstrous, “wolfish” appearance terrifies him. The ghost explains that the boy and girl are Ignorance and Want, and without transformation of society’s attitude toward the poor, they will be doomed to a desperate fate. “Have they no refuge or resource,” asks Scrooge. The ghost then quotes Ebenezer’s own words from the opening chapter back at him: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” The ghost vanishes, and Scrooge is left alone, condemned and exposed.

A Christmas Carol is a story about a man who gets a rare mercy: A chance to see himself and the world as both truly are. The story is an evergreen classic precisely because it narrates a fundamental human experience of understanding. For we creatures who look in a glass darkly, to see the true end of our ideas and actions is a kind of personal eschaton. Mostly, we expect to be justified, and are shocked when we aren’t.

I wonder if some ghosts have been haunting Andrew Sullivan lately. His latest essay on the way Americans have replaced religion with politics reads like someone trying very hard to see the world as it really is, but lamentably turning his eyes to the wrong place at the most crucial times. While reading it, I wanted to join the Ghost of Christmas Present and scream at Sullivan, “O Man! Look here!” The problem for Sullivan is that I would be pointing at him.

Sullivan laments the thinning out of organized religion in American life. “We are a meaning-seeking species,” he writes, and meaning cannot come from material wealth or scientific conquest. In lieu of the meaning-bestowing propositions and practices of Christianity, Sullivan fears that Americans are juicing their sense of transcendence out of politics and tribalism. This could be thought of, Sullivan argues, as the conclusion of (classical) liberalism-for-liberalism’s-sake:

Liberalism is a set of procedures, with an empty center, not a manifestation of truth, let alone a reconciliation to mortality. But, critically, it has long been complemented and supported in America by a religion distinctly separate from politics, a tamed Christianity that rests, in Jesus’ formulation, on a distinction between God and Caesar. And this separation is vital for liberalism, because if your ultimate meaning is derived from religion, you have less need of deriving it from politics or ideology or trusting entirely in a single, secular leader. It’s only when your meaning has been secured that you can allow politics to be merely procedural.

That’s an outstanding final sentence, and gets to the heart, I think, of how American life has transformed in the past 30 years. The postwar solidarity that was the unseen casket next to George H.W. Bush’s this past week was a solidarity bought and paid for, in a real sense, by American Christianity. Cultural Christianity is a major problem for believers who take the euangelion literally and not just liturgically, but it does bestow certain benefits. What Sullivan rightly fears is the emerging anti-solidarity generation, an American era without shared religious experiences or thought-forms, that transfers the metaphors of sin, judgment, and salvation from the spiritual to the social. There’s good reason to be afraid of that era, and writers like Sullivan, Marilynne Robinson, and Jordan Peterson are not speaking to the whirlwind when they warn us that politically conscious secularism may be costing us something we won’t be able to get back.

But Sullivan’s prophetic mantle is a bit too see-through. Sullivan yearns for a Christianity that supplies meaning and destiny, even as he’s spent the better part of his public life rigorously advocating for a Christianity that reinvents itself in the image of modern gods. For years Sullivan was one of the most influential and impassioned advocates of legal same-sex marriage, and his “conservative case” for radically redefining matrimony drew extensively on his progressive Catholic sensibilities. During the George W. Bush administration Sullivan eviscerated traditional evangelicals over their stance on LGBT issues, even coining the term “Christianist” to evoke Islamic extremism when describing Christians to the right of him.

Sullivan doesn’t appear to consider whether the neutered Christianity that bows to politics might bear any genetic resemblance to the doctrinally plastic faith that frames his celebration of Obergefell. Indeed, it is extraordinarily telling that Sullivan thirsts for a Christianity that transcends politics, only three years after using “It is accomplished”—the Greek τετέλεσται uttered by Christ on the Cross in John 19:30—as the title of his blog announcing SCOTUS’s decision. Does Sullivan truly want a Christianity that talks down to politics? It’s difficult to know, only because there seems to be a lot of confusion in his own mind over which political issues deserve equivalency with the Atonement, and which don’t.

What Sullivan calls for in his essay is a Christianity that can bestow meaning, revelation, and identity across any political experience. Every believer should want this too! We American Christians are far too given to letting social and political categories set the agenda for the church. But as in the parable of the sower, merely wanting the message to implant and bear fruit isn’t enough. The problem for modern Westerners is that even our desire for transcendence outside politics is lethally dosed with our own desire for theological autonomy. We want Christ to tell our political opponents to find their identity in Him rather than their ideas, but we want Christ to tell us, “You guys have it right. You’re good.” We want to crack the whip at the fundamentalists changing money (and ballots) in the temple, but resist the “legalism” that scowls at our ethically-sourced porn. We want, in other words, the risen Christ to shape our deepest desires, but to retain the final say as to what those desires actually are.

Sullivan’s lifelong advocacy for same-sex marriage represents a lifelong resistance to the unanimous teaching of the Christian church and the overwhelming judgment of the Scriptures. What kind of culture-shaping transcendence can really come from a faith that has been so gutted? Asking for Christianity to be exalted over politics may not be a request Sullivan is ready to have fulfilled. The same is true for many of us, left and right, fundamentalist and woke. The vacant pews of mainline Protestantism testify to how the human heart responds to the separation of theological authenticity from authority, just like vacant worldviews of many American evangelical leaders.

Just like Scrooge, our fate depends much on how well we see. Sullivan sees an American public square fraying at the edges and hollowed out at the center. Many of us see the same thing. But what he doesn’t see is the lordship-shaped cavity in the heart of American Christian churches. The idol of politics is too strong to yield to the idol of self-determination. For Sullivan’s sake and ours, I wish he would reconsider his own role in the gutting of American Christianity, and turn to a solution more ancient, and more spiritual, than ever before.

Look Up, Child

The next Josh Harris should grow up in an evangelical culture that values consistent faithfulness rather than momentary coolness.

In a post today about Joshua Harris’s new documentary I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Tim Challies makes a very helpful observation about the mid-1990s evangelical pandemonium that made Harris and his most famous book into a “weird” moment for conservative American Protestants:

I think I was just a little too old and just a little too far outside the evangelical mainstream to be significantly impacted by I Kissed Dating Goodbye…But I do remember thinking this: Who on earth lets a twenty-one-year-old write the book on dating and courtship? Who allows someone that young to be an authority on something so important? Though I always had problems with the book, I never had a beef with Josh. I had a beef with the masses of Christians who would blindly accept it and with the Christian celebrity machine that elevated someone so young to a position of such authority. No, authority does not come through experience. But even Harris admits that he was a young man who believed far too much in his own abilities, just like every other twenty-one-year-old out there. In the film he says that when he was that age he was sure he had all the answers. But now, in his early forties, he knows that he didn’t then and still doesn’t today.

This is, I think, a reality about Harris’s book that is seriously under-discussed. Using I Kissed Dating Goodbye and its influence as a shorthand for the harmful legacy of purity culture is a more click-worthy approach, and there is some truth in it (promising more satisfying intimacy as a reward for chastity is, erm, not in the Bible), but where is the broader discussion about why a 23 year old would even have the opportunity to create such a formative moment for so many evangelicals? This isn’t to imply that 23 year olds have nothing good to say and should never be given publishing contracts, conference engagements, or public platforms. It is to imply that for an unmarried 23 year old man to write a manifesto on dating and sex is, in a very real way, an indictment on those churches and parachurch organizations that encouraged (and financed) such a radical reversal of generational discipleship.

Mainstream culture craves the leadership of children. It’s why the arc of digital history now bends toward 13 year old viral celebrities whose parents haven’t a clue. It’s why kids frequently get co-opted in culture war, by both the Sexual Revolutionary Left and the Values Voter Right. There is a lot of money and a lot of influence to be had by atomizing family life into non-overlapping categories of experience; kids have their “kid stuff,” teens have their “teen stuff,” adults have everything the kids and teens don’t want. This intensely commercialized structure creates an enormous opportunity—find a child or teen who talks or acts like an adult, and you have an amazingly lucrative spectacle on your hands, since teens who use grown up words and ideas to describe their own experiences are doubly valuable as influencers of both other teens and adults who want to understand teens.

This is par for the course in late capitalism. Unfortunately, it’s also common in evangelicalism. When the eventual publisher of Harris’s book was considering his pitch, I’m almost positive the argument that won the day was that a book against dating, by a twentysomething in the prime of his dating years, was going to make a huge splash because it was so counter-intuitive for both peers and parents. Did anyone in the chain of decision making consider the theological wisdom of letting such a young author (who was neither married nor a parent, the two most formative experiences possible in these questions) draw such deep lines in the sand? They may have, but I do wonder whether there was so much attention given to the wave-making potential of a child preacher that such concern rang hollow.

What Harris is saying today, via an apology tour, a documentary, and a pretty thick social media campaign, is that he spoke too soon. He’s not the same person he was twenty years ago, and he doesn’t believe the things he believed then. Should this really be an unsettling thing to hear? Is it even possible to go from 23 to 43 without radically refining our worldview, especially on those things that are so deeply intertwined with lived experience (dating, marriage, sex, parenting)?

Of course it’s not possible. God has not designed life that way. Instead, he has designed life and faith to require what Alan Jacobs calls “temporal bandwidth,” a humble awareness of the inadequacies of our own wisdom and the conscious consultation of older generations for perspective and guidance. This is the path of wisdom, a wisdom embedded into our own anatomy, since our bodies are designed to reproduce only after several years of growth. Generational depth is our Creator’s wise intention, and to the degree that we flout this design through commercialization of discipleship and demographic greed, we sacrifice the well being of ourselves and our neighbors.

Of course, by now you are probably hoping I’ll throw some numbers out there and argue for some sort of “age of prophetic-ness.” But I can’t do that. Hard and fast rules are sometimes what we need, and other times what we need is to be brought back to the complexity of life and the need for wise posture rather than rigid position.

So here’s a possibly wise posture: Evangelical churches, ministries, publishers, websites, conferences, et al, should not value what the outside world values. They should not dice up life into demographic points. They should, rather, follow the pattern in the New Testament and let seasoned saints teach younger ones, more experienced believers lead the way, and value consistency over coolness. The flavor of evangelical discipleship should be aged rather than hip. Of course there will be valuable young voices, teens and twentysomethings who should not be looked down on account of their youth, but allowed to be an example for the church. But this ought not be the fuel that drives our engines. The next Josh Harris should be told to look up, before looking out.

Don’t Punish the Unborn with Your Vote

Christian, vote angry, but do not punish the unborn in your anger.

This week a lot of Americans, including Christians, will be voting angry. Much of that anger will be righteous and just. There is much to mourn about our national politics, much injustice to grieve, and much moral disqualification to disgust us. For that reason, I’ve seen some friends of mine post how eager they will be to get to the polls and throw a vote in the direction opposite of the White House. I get it. They’re fed up and tired.

Here’s a plea, though: Don’t punish the unborn with your angry vote. Don’t punish them by forgetting them in your zeal to see the current administration checked and the ruling party disarmed. Don’t give the abortion industry what it craves: The erstwhile support of those who know better but feel pinched into the craven dichotomies of American politics.

I’m torn about being “a single issue voter.” On the one hand, abortion is not the only injustice that matters, and we’ve seen for the past 3 years how an opportunistic political movement can manipulate pro-life convictions. Pitting the lives of unborn children against, say, the lives of unarmed black men or the lives of the unemployed poor is a depraved dualism. To the degree that single-issue pro-life politics has reinforced this dualism, it should be ashamed of itself.

On the other hand, is there a more tired, more dishonest note in our political discourse than tone-policing the pro-life movement? I fear that some well-meaning pro-lifers have inadvertently sold out their convictions by accepting the moral equivalency pushed on them by both the pro-choice left and the economic right. We are supposed to take for granted that Trump’s election has de-legitimized the pro-life movement. We are not supposed to ask the unborn children rescued at crisis pregnancy centers if they agree.

Cutting through the fog, we see two obvious truths. One, the pro-life movement has been appropriated by politicians and activists who do not share its core convictions and who are happy to use the post-Roe divisions in American society for their own ethno-nationalist gains. Two, we still have in the United States a major political party that is devoted, hand over heart, to the easy and unchecked killing of tiny people for virtually any reason whatsoever. I can’t see any way for pro-life Christians to change these truths in 2018. We are dealt a loathsome hand. But that doesn’t mean there is no wisdom to apply.

Two years ago, many evangelicals said that they were unable to vote for either major party presidential candidate. I don’t see anything that’s happened in the past two years to change this logic, at least at a party level. There may be a pro-life argument for voting for a radically pro-choice party in a given election, but I’m not sure what that argument is. Some will say that voting along abortion lines is a non-starter since neither national party is authentically pro-life. This may very well be true (in fact, I suspect it is), but it’s a little bit like saying there’s no point in being a racial justice voter since neither party is sufficiently invested in equity and reconciliation. If you think the latter logic fails while the former logic works, you should ask yourself why you think that.

In my personal view, the Christians who are able to stand on the most consistent, most cohesive political theology are the ones who refrained from picking the lesser of two evils in 2016 and will continue to decline doing so in 2018. Unborn children will almost certainly still be at the mercy of Roe v. Wade long after the White House has been flipped.

There will be a day very, very soon when the resilient American republic will repudiate (at least for a moment) what’s happened to its national politics and some semblance of sanity will return. But until an immoral judicial fiat from 1973 is reversed, there will be millions of little, defenseless, utterly vulnerable Americans who reap no benefit from that. And there will remain an entire political machine that actively works to keep it that way. How effective that political machine’s work will be depends, in part, on how many Trump-weary Christians sigh, concede the point, and elect that machine’s favored candidates. My hope is that Christians would reject this dilemma entirely, and assert the radical un-sortableness of their kingdom citizenship.

Perhaps Gandalf said it best:

“Other evils there are that may come, for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.”

 

Growing Up with (and Past) Mr. Rogers

There are greater things ahead than the children’s TV wisdom that we (should) leave behind.

When Jesus announces that his hearers must become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God, it’s safe to assume that his audience found this comment remarkable. After all, it’s silly to tell adults to act less like adults. Here’s a question I’ve been pondering, though: Has the force of those words has been almost totally lost to contemporary Americans?  It’s hard for me to imagine that this notion does in us what it did in its original hearers because I don’t think the lines between childhood and adulthood are drawn as starkly in our own age.

One reason is that children are increasingly treated like adults. That was one of my more eye-opening takeaways from Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book The Coddling of the American Mind, which I recently reviewed. Haidt and Lukianoff present a significant amount of psychological and sociological research that shows that children, especially preteens and teens, are under enormous pressure of academic performance and vigorously monitored activity. Ironically, the upshot of this is that iGen is growing up much more slowly than previous generations because their meritocratic rhythms of life prevent them from free play and other experiences that help develop intellectual and emotional maturity. In other words, kids are basically preparing for college and career so fast that they fail to prepare for growing up.

If it’s true that American children are often viewed/treated beyond their age, I think it’s reasonable to wonder if American grown ups are likewise failing to flourish.

In a recent piece at The Atlantic, Ian Bogost criticized the prevalence of an internet meme in the aftermath of the Squirrel Hill synagogue massacre. The meme is a quote from the beloved Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood host Fred Rogers, a classic children’s TV show that has conspicuously enjoyed a resurgence of attention and affection from social media in recent years. The quote, in which Rogers recommends that whenever something bad happens we ought always “look for the helpers,”  has been widely circulated after numerous national tragedies/atrocities. It’s clear that many people, especially millennials, find Mr. Rogers and this quote deeply comforting. The problem, Bogost writes, is that the quote was never meant to comfort adults but children, and the reliance of so many adults on these sentiments may signal an unwillingness to engage hard realities with appropriate maturity:

Once a television comfort for preschoolers, “Look for the helpers” has become a consolation meme for tragedy. That’s disturbing enough; it feels as though we are one step shy of a rack of drug-store mass-murder sympathy cards. Worse, Fred Rogers’s original message has been contorted and inflated into something it was never meant to be, for an audience it was never meant to serve, in a political era very different from where it began. Fred Rogers is a national treasure, but it’s time to stop offering this particular advice.

Whether or not one agrees with Bogost about this particular issue will probably depend on how seriously one takes internet memes (I doubt that most of the people who Retweeted it consciously did so in lieu of activism or donating). But I think Bogost is on to something when he flags the feverish popularity of Mr. Rogers-style aphorisms in our current culture. Why is there such an intense interest among American millennials in Mr. Rogers after all? Nostalgia is likely part of it, but as Bogost points out, social media users share (and re-share) clips and quotes from Fred Rogers especially when there is something horrific in the news cycle. It looks more like an emotional catharsis that transcends 80s nostalgia.

As someone who was raised on the show and has been introducing my young son to it, I’ve been confused by the intensity of the appreciation. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was/is a brilliant program, and Fred Rogers possessed an obvious talent for connecting with and helping children. Multiple recent documentaries on Rogers, and numerous first-person pieces about the show’s legacy, demonstrate his gift. But the show is quite plainly directed at young children, and every facet—from Rogers’ slow, simple speech, to the colorful set of his home, to the simplistic aphorisms—is very much childlike. It’s not a profound or devotional show, nor should it be. It’s precisely the kind of thing a very young child, still discovering emotional self-awareness and her own fragility, loves to see and hear. Even the most pointed moments are little more than wistful conversation between a loving grandfatherly figure and a wide-eyed child. If Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood were a church, it would be a church that adults would be thrilled to drop off their kids at, but certainly not one they would willingly attend for themselves.

So why do American millennials not only like Mr. Rogers, but consult him? I’ll offer two brief guesses on this.

First, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is a showcase for a strong, sympathetic masculinity that fills an important (and contested) void in modern American culture. Choked between the sexual thuggishness of Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly and the deconstructionism of gender theory, many Americans do not know what it means to be, or see, a man. For the millions of millennials who did not know a present, loving father in their childhood, the grandfatherly way of Fred Rogers is not just a balm, it’s a revelation of the way things should be.

My second guess is a little more cynical: Lots of American twenty and thirtysomethings need to be talked to as if they are children because that’s how they feel inside. The architecture of American life in the 21st century is relentlessly adolescent. Consider how closely social media tends to resemble the in-groups of public school, or how an overwhelming percentage of our literary and cinematic heroes are either kids or adults becoming more like kids. Has it ever been easier in American society to resist the pull of adulthood? Everything from technology to education to parenting undersells growing up.

In a fragmented, entertainment-soaked public life, rites of passage into adulthood are notoriously fuzzy, if they exist at all. The school-to-college-to-career pipeline is, for many of us, a monochromatic experience that fails to satisfy. Nowadays it is rarely clear when our childhood games ended and test-prep began, or when wide-eyed-wonder at the world gave way to building our identity and resume. Might it be that Mr. Rogers’ gentle, childlike wisdom seems profound to us right now because we never actually learned it in the first place?

It’s probably not for nothing that almost every episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood begins and ends in a home. As I was watching a portion of the episode I turned on for my son, I marveled at how such a small set (a single tracking shot showed all of Mr. Rogers’ house in about 4 seconds) could feel so comfortable and permanent on the show. My fear is that the resurgence of popularity for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is really about a generation’s turning toward a home in the absence of other options, and mistaking the sounds of welcome for profundity.

Don’t get me wrong: Mr. Rogers is a great show, and I’m glad that God put Fred Rogers on this earth to make it. But I think there’s always something amiss when grown ups continually return to the snack-sized wisdom and comfort of a TV show. I think Bogost is correct that taking what is meant to calm a confused, immature soul as normative way of calibrating our emotional response to the world is a way of failing to think and feel truthfully. This is why Christ calls us to come to him for rest as well as truth. There are greater things ahead than what we leave behind—including the neighborhood.

The Campus Crisis is a Parenting Crisis

Mere Orthodoxy has kindly published my long review/essay of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. The piece is lengthy, because I think Christians need to grapple with the book’s arguments very carefully.

Here’s an excerpt:

Herein lies the ironic failure of contemporary parenting: In trying to insulate children from the exterior threats to their physical safety and academic performance, we have made kids exponentially more vulnerable to other threats to their flourishing—threats that seem less worrisome in principle but make up for the deficit in sheer omnipresence and residuality. The failure to see the trade-off is why, for example, so many parents have been blindsided by the research showing negative effects of screen time and social media. When your imagination is filled with images of kids getting snatched off the sidewalk or murdered on their way home from school, it’s almost impossible to feel a proper trepidation at the thought of their safely and warmly spending the weekend on the couch scrolling through Facebook or Instagram.

The result is a generation of American citizens who have been prohibited from valuable experiences that teach them their own antifragility and capacity to empathize with those unlike them.

Read the whole piece here.

My Trouble with Interactive Bible Teaching (on Sunday)

Three reasons to save those questions and comments until after the class.

Here’s a thought I’ve been sitting on for several years and haven’t been able to get rid of—Sunday morning Bible teaching should not allow for mid-sermon or mid-lesson comments from the congregation/class. This may sound weird because most evangelical churches don’t welcome comments from the congregation in the middle of the sermon, though I have seen that. On the other hand, very many Sunday school lectures, classroom Bible studies, and other church teaching times do allow for members to interject their own thoughts in the flow of the class time. I think this is a mistake that (usually) doesn’t serve the purpose people assume it does.

I realize that saying that a Bible lesson should not stop for contributions from those in the class sounds to some incredibly elitist and anti-democratic, maybe even sub-Protestant! But my thinking here is not that regular church members are incapable of shedding light on theology or spiritual wisdom. Far from it. Rather, it’s that the actual practice almost always, at least in my experience, benefits the person speaking far more than it benefits the others in the class. In other words, interactive Bible times that muddle the distinction between a teacher’s teaching and members’ teaching tend to obscure helpful truth for everyone.

Let me offer three brief arguments from this: one argument from Scripture, and two from experience/reason.

The Scriptural argument is that in the New Testament, “teaching” is not just something that incidentally happens in the church. It is a spiritual gift that invokes both authority and competency (2 Tim. 2:22). This is why the Holy Spirit intentionally gives teachers to the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11). The kind of teaching that God uses doesn’t happen spontaneously by aggregating the insights of the whole congregation. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there is some divinely engineered IQ or temperament that makes some people teachers and others people not. Any kind of person can teach (though there’s good reason for restricting a congregation-wide teaching role to men). But the one who teaches must be competent to teach, and that competency can be recognized specifically rather than generically.

When a person stands up, for example, in Sunday school to offer their two cents on the topic, they are, in a real sense, briefly assuming the role of teacher. There are contexts where I think this kind of contribution is totally good and valuable–midweek Bible study groups for example. But those groups differ than the Sunday morning class time in two important respects. First, those Bible study groups are groups rather than classes, and most people (in my experience) can intuit the difference between facilitator of group discussion and a teacher. Second, a Sunday morning class time is created and facilitated by the church itself, which means that the church leadership implicitly endorses the teaching competency of the class leader. A person who stands to offer a lengthy riposte or addition to the teacher is, likely unwittingly, functioning as an un-vetted, unaccountable teacher—something that I sincerely don’t believe the New Testament recognizes.

Finally, a couple arguments from experience. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a mid-lesson comment from a congregant during a Sunday school lecture or class that was genuinely helpful. I could be wrong. But I also don’t believe that I’ve ever given a mid-lesson comment that was actually helpful. In fact, as I look into my own heart, I can see that the vast majority of times that I’ve felt the need to interject in those times I have done so because I wanted the other people in the class to think I was insightful. Not only is this unhelpful for the other people in the room (who don’t care how smart I am), but it’s actually spiritually counterproductive for me—since motives matter and desiring the praise of other people is a snare (John 5:44). My guess is that this is a common motivation in these kinds of incidents. Wouldn’t it be helpful for the spiritual health of people like me if classes simply set aside enough time after the end of the lesson to ask questions and give feedback?

Second, I think one service the church should be offering Christians is a deeply counter-cultural reordering of our epistemology. What I mean is that the age of the internet has ruthlessly democratized information so much that a lot of people struggle to cultivate and apply wisdom merely because there are so many voices in their head (social media, Google, cable news, etc). A church teaching time that doesn’t make a sufficient distinction between the person with the competency and gifting to engage with Scripture and communicate truth clearly to the Body, and the people who stand to benefit from the Spirit’s gift in that person, is a time that reinforces the death of expertise and the myth of crowdsourced wisdom. Hierarchy is not a swear word, and there’s a lot that evangelicals can do to be salt and light in a wisdom-starved age.

Evangelical Christianity and the Teen Depression Epidemic

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have written an important new book titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. It’s a lucid, eye-opening and (in my opinion) convincing work. I’ll have more to say about it in a future post. But I wanted to highlight a particular chapter that left me absolutely gobsmacked—and very worried about how evangelical churches are(n’t) responding to it.

One of Haidt and Lukianoff’s premises is that iGen, the generation that came of age in the late 2000s and accounts for most undergraduate students today, is exhibiting extraordinary levels of anxiety and depression. iGen’s mental and emotional struggles are a key component of the “coddling” ethos of the modern US college campus, the ethos that promotes “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and administrative over-protection of students. In the authors’ view, because iGen students are entering college with these struggles, they expect and receive a disproportionate amount of deference from college administrators. This deference, though, is misguided, and it feeds the students’ perception that they are fragile and that the world outside them is threatening and must be held at bay—which in turn increases anxiety and emotional suffering.

Put aside for a moment whether you track with that argument (I do, but that’s for a later post). What Haidt and Lukianoff suggest is that there is a serious mental health crisis with young Americans, so serious that it has substantially transformed the philosophy and administration of centuries-old colleges and universities. If they are right, then I would submit that the anxiety and depression of a whole generation of Americans merits the focused attention of Christians and churches no less than their sociopolitical views or churchgoing habits.

Using data from the CDC, the authors put together a chart on adolescent depression rates that floored me:

According to the data, in 2011 about 11% of adolescent girls reported having had a “major depressive episode in the past year.” By 2016, that number had reached 19%. In other words, the depression rate for adolescent girls nearly doubled in just five years. For adolescent boys, the depression rate did not spike this dramatically, but it has risen. In fact, the suicide rate for adolescent boys has spiked:

From 1999 to 2007, the suicide rate for adolescent boys went on a fairly consistent trajectory downwards. Around 2008, however, the story is flipped: A consistent upward trajectory that results in an almost 20-year high suicide rate in 2016.

I’ve been trying to get my mind around these statistics, and there’s something I can’t stop thinking about. Having been raised in evangelical church culture my entire life, and having quite a bit of experience in youth ministry and outreach, I don’t believe I ever, once, read or watched any treatise on discipling teens that emphasized anxiety and depression. I saw a lot on virginity, drugs, peer pressure, and the like, but never anything substantial about pointing the gospel directly and explicitly at these emotional and mental struggles. If the church hasn’t been helping here, who has?

Answer: Schools. I’m starting to believe that in the absence of serious attention to anxiety and depression within evangelical approaches to ministry, students have found their best resource in the guidance counselors and administrators of their schools. This has handed public education institutions a singular crisis that these administrators are unable to handle with anything more meaningful or life-giving than the creation of safe spaces. Conservative evangelicals like myself who rigorously criticize contemporary campus culture must awaken to the reality that this culture was created because spiritual and emotional problems went unaddressed by the people and places most in a position to offer help—not to mention the people and places that literally receive money to help!

Is there any serious movement afoot within evangelicalism to address anxiety and depression? If not, how can we blast the coddling of the American mind on college campuses, a coddling that very well may have roots in the silence of our culture’s Christian ministers on what amounts to an epidemic in our society? My thinking here is straightforward. Pastors and church leaders: think of anxiety and depression as just as real, just as serious, and just as worthy of your preaching, counseling, and attention as pornography, abortion, transgenderism, and divorce. Youth leaders: If you’re assuming that your students need help in overcoming temptation to sexual immorality, you should also assume that they need help in overcoming depression and emotional distress. We need within churches a culture of help, not of ignorance. The evidence is staring right at us.