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.

Categories
Uncategorized

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.

Categories
ethics

Safe, Legal, and Rare

The following is a lightly edited transcript of a conference call.

Legal: Good evening, friends. Thanks for joining this conversation

Safe and Rare: [together] Thank you as well. Glad to be here.

Legal: I hope both of you are OK with my emceeing this thing. It’s mainly for the sake of convenience. Besides, it’s kinda logical, right? Legal is kind of what brings us together in this.

Safe: Absolutely. No worries here.

Rare: I agree it’s logical. I’m fine with it, but I do hope our conversation will be about more than keeping abortion legal.

Legal: Oh, I agree. There are multiple layers to this issue, but my point was that the bottom layer, the thing that keeps our ideas together, is legality.  If abortion is illegal there’s no point in talking about how safe or rare it is.

Safe: Hold on right there. Can you clarify what you mean by that last sentence?

Rare: Yes, I’d like to hear more too.

Legal: Well, I’m not sure how much clearer that can be. Do we really have a disagreement over the importance of legality?

Rare: I’m not disputing that keeping abortion legal is important. But I think…

Safe: [interjecting] Right, I wanted though to ask about how you worded that sentence. You said if it abortion is illegal “there’s no point” in talking about safety. To me, though, that plays into the pro-life rhetoric. Our entire point is that keeping abortion legal will keep it regulated and therefore more safe. So in a way, I’d actually say the opposite of what you said. If abortion can’t be safe, who would want to keep it legal?

Legal: Well…

Rare [interjecting] Hold on. Safe, what did you mean by that just now?

Safe: Which part?

Rare: You said if abortion isn’t safe, why wouldn’t it automatically be rare?

Safe: Yes.

Rare: That’s not the point, though. Most abortions done by licensed professionals ARE safe. Seeking to make abortions safer is important but we need to think about how to make them less of a necessity. If you focus entirely on keeping it legal or safe, you haven’t addressed the underlying issue of why abortions happen.

Legal: Rare, I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. I think it’s fine if abortions end up less common, but making that a point of emphasis sends the wrong message. It seems to imply that abortion is a necessary evil. That kind of rhetoric won’t keep abortion an option for women very long. If something is a necessary evil, people will start asking why it is necessary.  But that’s not our message. Abortion access is absolutely necessary and it’s a human rights issue to make sure women have that option.

Safe: [interjecting] Real quick, I just want to add that SAFE abortion access is a human right. Can’t forget that word.

Legal: Certainly. Safe abortion access is a huge issue. But I wouldn’t qualify what I said. Abortion should always be a shame-free option for every woman…

Safe: Wait one second. Why are you hesitant to qualify what you said? What’s wrong with trying to keep abortion safe?

Legal: Nothing at all. But I do think it’s possible that talking so much about how to make abortion safer or better timed or whatever can obscure our point about its role in culture. Abortion is a perfectly legitimate expression of reproductive health. You can unintentionally communicate otherwise…

Safe: How?

Legal: Well, two good exmaples are parental notification laws and ultrasound requirements. The vast majority of our advocates oppose those measures, for good reason. They place illegitimate barriers between women and reproductive health. But that’s an example how emphasizing “safety” can actually encroach on abortion rights.

Rare: I’m glad you mention those two laws. I understand your concerns about them but it seems to me that if we’re concerned with making abortion less common, those kinds of measures could help with that. There are some practical benefits, I think….

Safe: Agreed, Rare. There’s some value in making sure that people aren’t being coerced or manipulated into abortion, right Legal?

Legal: Sure, but none of that changes my point. Abortion needs to be legal because it is a moral right, not mainly because it can be administered responsibly. Even if it’s not done in a moral way, abortion is still a good thing for society.  That’s why laws that obstruct it….

Rare: Wait one moment. Isn’t Kermit Gosnell an example of what happens when you empower abortion beyond the margins of safety and public good?

Safe: Yes.

Legal: Not really. Gosnell, as monstrous as he was, was almost himself a victim. He and his patients suffered under abortion’s social stigma. Without it he probably wouldn’t have been able to do what he did even if he had wanted to.

Safe: Even if you’re right…

Rare: Well I reject that completely. Kermit Gosnell was not a victim. He’s a psychopath. And…

Safe: [interjecting] That explanation doesn’t do much for his victims, or prevent future ones.

Rare: …the reason he got away with it for so long is that we don’t have a culture that encourages alternatives to abortion. We don’t have anything that meets these young girls where they are and gives guidance…

Legal: [interjecting] Ok, now you sound like a pro-lifer.

[laughter]

Legal: Seriously, Safe, explain that to me. How do you recommend preventing those kinds of atrocities.

Safe: Whenever you find someone like Gosnell you’ve found a crack that somebody slipped through. I don’t at all challenge your premise that abortion needs to be available. But the reason for that goes beyond your explanation. Abortion needs to be legal because if it’s not then a black market filled with Gosnells will flood our communities. I trust that’s something we can all agree would be a disaster.

Rare: Yes.

Legal: I agree. But how do you avoid saying that abortion should be regulated the way pro-lifers say it should be if your main goal is to keep it “safe”? If the problem with illegalizing abortion is that people will get hurt by the abortions they get, how do you consistently oppose things like ultrasound laws?

Safe: Well…

Rare: Are we absolutely sure we’re against those laws?

Legal: I certainly hope so.

Safe: If your goal is to make something safe, then I think you should assume the safer it gets, the more people can and will utilize it. I think that gets to where, Legal, you and I agree.

Legal: OK, but can you answer my question?

Safe: Listen: Keeping abortion legal and keeping it safe don’t contradict each other. We can do both. But we actually have to try. If we can’t keep legal abortion safe, we shouldn’t have it legal either.

Rare: Agreed!

Legal: See? That’s the attitude I thought I was hearing. It’s almost an apathy towards legality. If it’s a choice between taking a step down a dangerous road and risking imperfect scenarios, we should choose the latter.

Rare: Ok, one thing about this conversation worries me. Up to this point both of you have assumed that if it were possible to make as many abortions possible as safe as possible, we should do that. I don’t feel that way.

Legal: Why?

Rare: Because we need to keep abortion rare. Women shouldn’t be forced into a corner.

Legal: Abortion isn’t a corner. It’s legitimate birth control.

Safe: Correct.

Rare: Wait a minute. So you don’t see anything tragic at all about an unplanned pregnancy? An unwanted child?

Legal: Those are tragic. Abortion is a solution to those tragedies. It’s not itself tragic. Let me put it this way. How can we say with a straight face that abortion is both a tragedy and a human right? Are there tragic human rights?

Safe: There are human rights that can turn into tragedies. Freedom of the press is a human right but if done wrong it can ruin lives.

Rare: I don’t understand. I was under the impression we can be both against abortion and for its legality.

Legal: That’s what politicians need to be saying, yes. But everyone knows when it comes to writing policy, you have to prioritize legality. This is why we are for requiring companies to subsidize abortafacient contraceptives in their insurance. If companies didn’t have to do that, we would probably make aborted pregnancies less common, but we would be sending the wrong message.

Rare: But can’t we be honest about the emotional stakes involved with abortion? Shouldn’t we try to prevent the circumstance in the first place? Honestly the “wrong message” stuff sounds silly.

Legal: It sounds silly only because you are playing by pro-life’s rules. If you think abortion is mainly a sad, regrettable thing, then by all means, talk it down and legislate it until it eventually disappears. How safe do you think abortions will be after that happens?

Safe: Not safe. But that doesn’t mean we should regulate its practice.

Rare: You’re making a big logical error, Legal. You seem the think the choice is between infinity abortions and zero abortions. You still haven’t explained why this can’t be both a sad and legal thing?

Legal: Just a question, Rare. Why is abortion sad?

Safe: It’s risky and invasive for one.

Rare: And it’s the loss of something.

Legal: No, you’re wrong. It’s not the loss of anything. We can’t drive within 100 yards of personhood. The minute we do that, we might as well give up.

Safe: I agree with that.

Rare: Me too. But, women do report being affected emotionally by their abortions. It’s not like getting a wart removed.

Legal: Only because we still have a culture that shames reproductive freedom. And our rhetoric has to change that. For every 1 time we say abortion should be rare, we should be saying 5 times that its a perfectly moral option for women. Period.

Rare: That’s a fair point.

Safe: Agreed.

Legal: Listen, the options are simple: Either people can make their own choices and have control of their own bodies, or, be pro-life. It’s one or the other. That’s why I said at the beginning keeping abortion legal is the central point. And I suppose I assumed there was more agreement about that than there actually is.

Safe: It needs to be legal so it can be safe. Legal harm is still harm.

Rare: It may need to be legal so it can be safe, but it needs to be a small part of our culture.

Safe: I think the one thing we agree on is this: A woman’s body is her body. A woman’s pregnancy is her pregnancy. The question is, how do we honor this autonomy?

Rare: We make abortion rare.

Safe: We make abortion safe.

Legal: We keep abortion legal.

All: Glad we agree.

Categories
culture

Death of a Critic

There was a time not very long ago at all that I would have enthusiastically agreed with Martin Scorsese’s comments about Marvel movies. For a handful of my early 20s I was in love with what Scorsese calls “cinema,” enraptured by artistry and moral ambiguity and disgusted by anything that smelled of kitsch. I once registered a blog domain called “The Astute Film Critic,” and let me assure you it was every bit as pretentious as it sounds. Even now, reading Scorsese’s comments pokes at a tender spot in my heart that conjures up joyful memories of discovery, optimism, and a feeling of genuinely falling in love with film.

And then last spring I attended a screening of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. As the end credits began flickering I knew beyond any doubt that the film buff I had aspired to become in those years was gone beyond recall. I left the theater feeling little else but contempt and scorn for what I still believe is an utterly confused movie. Yet I knew I was supposed to love it. Critics, including several whose work I still respect, tripped over themselves to declare First Reformed a brooding masterpiece. There was absolutely no square inch of my soul that concurred or even comprehended that judgment. I hated that film. And I knew immediately what that fact meant: it wasn’t meant for people like me.

First Reformed was the climax, not the beginning, of my exit from cultured cinema. By the time I was parking the car in the Yorktown AMC for the movie, I had been sensing a transformation. Cinema had lost its charm. I was bored by the same critically lauded, morally ambiguous films I had devoured in a previous life. Whilst critics lost their minds over Three Billboard Outside Ebbing Missouri, I stopped watching after 90 minutes. I’m told by multiple columnists that The King’s Speech is one of the worst Best Picture-winners ever. I really like it. See what I mean? There’s only so often you can be out of step with an aesthetic culture before you realize the differences are irreconcilable.

For the last few years my movie tastes have become what the cultured despisers call normie. I like Avengers and still love Spielberg. Noah Baumbach bores me to tears. Wes Anderson annoys me. Christopher Nolan thrills me. Don’t get me wrong, I like good movies (Phantom Thread was much better than I expected). But I agree with Scorsese…cinema is its own thing, and it’s not for me anymore.

As best I can tell, what happened to me is that I started having kids. I don’t even know why, but as soon as my inner film critic met my son, he hit the road. It’s not a logistic thing, like, “I can’t watch movies for grown ups anymore.” Nothing prevents me from streaming cinema after the kids’ bedtimes. I would just rather re-watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. It wasn’t always like this, but it’s definitely been this way since I became a dad. Is it simply nostalgia or sentimentality? Probably somewhat! But I’ve got two other theories.

1) I think becoming a father had a transformative effect on why I put myself in the way of stories. My “astute film critic” days were mostly about being an astute critic, not the film. In other words, I think for me the operative desire was not to delight and learn from and be shaped by story but to be the kind of person people thought of as intelligent, while using movies to get that desire.

The more I reflect on this, the more I think bastions of “elite” opinion are pretty much all designed toward this end. It’s inner rings all the way down. Yes, if all you read is Harry Potter your imagination and your moral intuitions will be stilted, but all this means is that the Potter books are finite and limited. It doesn’t mean that the antidote is to subscribe to the New York Review of Books and farm out your soul to the coastal literati. Why not? Because—surprise!—if you do that, your imagination and your moral intuitions will likewise be stilted.

What did becoming a dad have to do with this? I’m not entirely sure, but it may be that children have a way of disabusing one’s delusions of grandeur. Want to be The Atlantic’s film critic? First, change this diaper. I wonder if even more than student loan debt, this is what keeps millennials from having kids. You can do anything in the world, until you have to do one thing.

2) When my son was born, my heart was flooded with the desire that he grow up to be a certain kind of person: Strong, courageous, compassionate, confident, etc. When I looked at the kind of movies that Scorsese dislikes, I saw, imperfect and idealistic, characters like this. When I looked at “cinema” I saw characters who were supposed to be “the real world.” The more closely I looked, though, I realized that the “real world” was actually not a real world at all, but a world created by people like Harvey Weinstein. Was this sex scene or that ideology really a reflection of the authentic world, or was it simply put in there to placate a powerful suit?

I don’t know. Not knowing is part of life, of course. And there’s something to be said for art that is personal instead of market researched. But more than anything, becoming a father has made me want to unite truth, goodness, and beauty, to keep them all together and to resist selling out to the expert opinions of people who know how to win Oscars but apparently not how to spot a hero. I just think that’s a poor trade-off.


image credit: By hashi photo – hashi photo, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9976941

Categories
evangelicalism Music pop culture

The Meaning of Kanye

The evangelical blogosphere is already bowed down under an alarmingly large stack of think-pieces on the Christendom-shaping event that is Kanye West’s Jesus is King. For the sake of everyone, I won’t belabor this post either with a detailed summary of What’s Going On (if you don’t know by now, blessed are you and highly favored…please choose another piece), or with a list of admonitions for evangelicals when hearing of celebrity conversion (that work has been done excellently by others). My only contribution to this conversation is not primarily about Ye, but we—theologically conversant evangelicals who may be learning more about ourselves than anyone else.

The widespread enthusiasim for Jesus is King in particular and for its artist’s new platform in general is not, in the end, that surprising. High profile professions of Christian faith have generated buzz among evangelicals for a long time, with the stakes ranging from the fashionable to the political. As Thomas Kidd has pointed out, interest in the Christian utterings of wealthy, powerful people is almost as much a part of evangelical history as the utterings themselves. Thus we ought not get carried away and somehow conclude that Kanye’s Twitter mentions in theological circles is evidence of some kind of transformation of our tribe. It’s rather par for the course.

Another reason the buzz makes sense is that Kanye, unlike many other fellow celebrities who’ve dabbled in Jesus, has been clear, assertive, and unapologetically evangelical in his talking points. A brief sampling of recent interviews makes it obvious why Reformed evangelicals in particular might be excited. Whereas many celebrities openly try to reconcile their God talk with the spirit of the age—this pathetic exchange on The Bachelorette comes to mind—West seems to have embraced the counter cultural implications of the gospel, resulting in some truly unexpected and intimate reflections on everything from his marriage to “spiritual but not religious” Christianity.

So the optimism expressed by many conservative evangelicals that one of the most powerful, visible and influential musical artists in the world may now be one of them is understandable, even justifiable. The evidence is there. Interpreting that evidence straightforwardly is, I think, a better option than retreating into the cynicism that dogs so much evangelical cultural engagement. Better to be found with the love that “hopes all things” and be disappointed than to be a self-protective noisy gong.

Yet the conversation cannot end there. The enthusiasm for Christian Kanye is warranted, but it is also revelatory. We conservative evangelicals have shown yet again that the warmest welcomes in our tribe are often reserved for people who say all the right things about all the right topics, and no, I’m not talking about justification by faith or substitutionary atonement. Perhaps the meaning of the evangelical Kanye moment is not necessarily the genuineness of one celebrity’s confession, but the genuineness of ours.

It is revealing to me, for example, that the Reformed evangelical water cooler could pivot so seamlessly from a dispiriting bout of mud slinging over Beth Moore and John MacArthur to a rapturous, unmitigated welcome for a millionaire rapper whose lucrative career is loaded down with pornography, hatefulness, and extreme delusions of grandeur. What has become apparent to me over the past couple of weeks is that there are more than a few evangelical Christians who already feel a deeper sense of camaraderie and solidarity with Kanye West than they do with other believers who have labored for decades in ministry, avoided both public scandal and theological heresy, but who differ on second-order doctrines of gender roles and the ordering of public worship. To be clear, I have in mind both Moore and MacArthur here, who have each (regardless how you interpret the recent dust-up) borne their fair share of truly discouraging invective from those who claim to believe in the same gospel.

I found myself discombobulated by the sheer speed of transition: One minute, entire tribes of evangelicals were viciously accusing one another of nothing less than rhetoric and behavior that compromised the very message of Christ, and the next, a rich, powerful, politically ambitious cultural kingpin was being extolled as a gospel “wrecking ball.” Does this hierarchy of values reflect the Lord’s warning that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom? Does this mindset amplify the brotherhood and sisterhood that even we who disagree on important topics enjoy in the “one new man” that Jesus has created in himself? Or, does this episode possibly reflect a systemic worldliness in how many American Christians, Reformed and otherwise, think about the kingdom: that it is threatened by complementarians or Bible study writers, but obviously strengthened by the fantastically wealthy and famous?

I don’t want anyone to read me as lamenting denominational divisions or even limits of fellowship within the Body. To say that whether a woman can preach to the assembled congregation is a second order issue is not to say it is marginal; I believe it’s a very significant question, one that has huge implications for the single most important spiritual practice of believers, the church gathering. I cannot see how those who disagree on this question could together lead a church, nor can I see the benefit in trying. As a complementarian, I could not and cannot submit to the leadership of a local church that is on the wrong side of Scripture.

But when second order issues assume a controlling power in how we feel, think, and behave toward one another, it is very likely that those second order issues have been allowed to become first order ones. The results of that confusion are catastrophic, as any visit to an Independent Fundamentalist church can make clear in seconds.

The marks of conversion are not the ability to recite all the theological talking points with which my tribe fully agrees. They are deeper, more intimate, more heartward. It is very, very good to hear Kanye open up about his struggles with sexual sin and his new desires for his daughter. An issue I hope that will be put in front of Ye very soon is what to do with the copious sexually explicit material that he has already produced and released, to critical and public acclaim. Zaccheus’s past was not an argument against the realness of his conversion, but Jesus did wait until the tax collector promised to repay those he had defrauded before declaring that salvation had come to his house.

Kanye’s thrilling sound bytes on the problems of individualistic religion or the delusions of liberals don’t compare in importance to his ongoing repentance and Spirit-empowered willingness to lose gain for the sake of obedience. There is also the question of whether West has been leveraging his new audience with Christians for additional platform and access to power. The evangelical blind-spot toward political manipulation, as old as Nixon and as new as Donald Trump, is not a secret to those who may be counseling Kanye. Will he be willing to settle in as a new Christian, under the authority of a local church, relinquishing any claims to theological authority, per 1 Timothy 3:6? There is much to be seen. Love hopes all things!

And if that is true for Kanye, it is also true for an evangelical culture that looks deeply fractured, increasingly held hostage by trolls and clickbaiters, willing to compromise with worldly means to get desired theological ends. Love indeed hopes all things, and if that affects how we think about the wealthiest and most famous converts, but not the brothers and sisters who have been laboring for a long time, obscure to 99% of the world, then it has not been believed quite yet.

__________

photo credit: Marcus Linder, Flickr.

Categories
Christianity evangelicalism life

The Outer Ring

The more I read C.S. Lewis’s address on “The Inner Ring,” the more I think it is one of the most important, spiritually helpful things he ever said. It’s not only that he puts his powers of observation to a vice many of us go for long stretches of life—maybe even our whole lives—without even noticing in ourselves. No, not just that. Rather, as is typical of Lewis, it’s as if his thinking about a particular thing in a particular place for a particular audience somehow anticipates the reality of readers 70 years in the future…readers removed about as far as possible from Lewis’s own intellectual and historic context.

What Lewis describes in “The Inner Ring” is, I think, the most consequential characteristic of two institutions of American life: Social media and politics. Without inner ringism I honestly don’t know if things like Twitter or Instagram could exist. The entire infrastructure of those digital platforms depends on the fact that people will do and say and approve of what they see others doing and saying and approving of. Further, social media’s effectiveness is directly dependent on how concentrated inner ringism can become in small doses: a hashtag here, a viral witticism there. The sum of social media is an ambient cry of millions of users saying, “See? I’m one of you!”

There’s a flip side to inner-ringism, though. Lewis’s address mentions it only by implication, but especially in American political discourse, this flip side has a powerful and resilient life of its own. Call it “The Outer Ring,” or outer ringism. The Outer Ring is the logical negative of the Inner Ring. If a person’s behavior or ideas can be conditioned by the desire to belong to a certain group, then the desire to not belong to a different group yields a similar conditioning, but in the opposite direction. Outer ringism is what you see when voters instinctively distrust new information because of who appears to be citing it, or when journalists, weary of thinking, quote-tweet something with, “This is something [person the tribe doesn’t like] would say.”

In his excellent little book How to Think, Alan Jacobs directs readers to a blog post by Slate Star Codex author Scott Alexander. In “I Can Tolerate Everything Except the Outgroup,” Alexander observes that people who score themselves very high on virtues like kindness, open-mindedness, progressive values, and empathy can behave very differently if the recipient of their behavior is the Wrong Kind of Person. Alexander got an illuminating education in this when some of his social media followers rebuked him for expressing relief at the death of Osama Bin Laden, and then those same followers posted obscenely jubilant content a few days later after the death of conservative British icon Margaret Thatcher. Alexander concludes:

“I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous” And that was when something clicked for me…if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.

Of course, it’s not exactly a bold take for a conservative evangelical like me to suggest that progressives aren’t all that progressive. But lest I comfort the comfortable, every single word Alexander writes about the progressives on his social media feeds could apply to more than a few Bible-believing, culture-engaging personalities. Jacobs offers two vivid examples of this from Christian history in How to Think, and I’ve written at length about how “worldview formation” can often undermine thoughtfulness by condensing a Christian’s thought-forms into Good Tribe and Bad Tribe. Hence, evangelicals who are skeptical of vaccinations because the government or Planned Parenthood is in favor of them. When all you see are connections, you can’t see anything clearly enough.

What Lewis understood is that inner ringism is a spiritual sickness, not merely an ideological one. “Of all the passions,” Lewis says, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” The same is of course true of outer ring-ism. Lewis has in mind the person who is seduced into cruelty or immorality by the promise of belonging, but it’s just as easy to imagine the person seduced into dishonesty or even apostasy by an unwillingness to grant his critics legitimacy.

A complementarian, for example, might so cultivate a distrust and dislike of people who disagree with him on gender roles that he downplays or even ignores when they have an important point to make about abuse. This might be because he’s committing the genetic fallacy and thinks that an egalitarian worldview is invariably tilted toward error. Or it might be because he himself has endured so much opposition or unkindness from feminists that granting a point simply feels like handing his enemy one more idea by which to trap him. In either case, these impulses are unlikely to be checked by his personal inner ring, precisely because our inner rings tend to shape our outer rings. The result is a complementarian who’s right about 1 Timothy but wrong about himself—a trade-off that won’t show up on the debate floor, only in his soul. (Prov. 14:12)

Outer ringism is a spiritual sickness because it, no less than the spirit which abandons the weekly worship gathering, stiff-arms humility, reinforces unearned confidences, and makes us unlikely to receive a word in season. Of the inner ring, Lewis writes:

Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. 

The same is true for the outer ring. Once you’ve settled on deciding who the Wrong Kind of People are and why you won’t hear anything they’ve got to say, eventually all those good reasons for blacklisting them will magically seem to apply to more and more. The group you dismissed for their fundamentalist attitude will give way to the folks you reject for their strange hobbies. You’ll find yourself more and more instinctively looking for why that every so subtly convicting thing you heard from that one preacher or that one woman in church was not legitimate, because after all of course they’d say that. As this habit takes root you’ll eventually be unable to hear whatever you haven’t heard before, and, as Lewis says, you’ll find yourself always only looking.

The worst news is that, since Lewis spoke those ominous words, the invention of the Internet has guaranteed that those of us who only ever look can always have something to look at. Never have inner and outer rings been available in such large quantities.

My guess is the only real way to fight the allure of the outer ring is to stop curating one’s own mind for half a minute, and look at the people that a sovereign God has put right in front of you, right now. Unless you are in a truly exceptional situation, the humans in your direct eyesight are diverse enough that some may be what you feel are the Wrong Kind of People. Those are the people whom our Maker has commanded us to love and teach and learn from. Community can be received, but it’s the outer ring that must be stocked.

Categories
Christianity evangelicalism

Engaging Culture From Ahead, Not From Behind

Let me describe an experience that has become very common for me over the years.

I’ll navigate to a well-trafficked Christian blog or publication. The major headlines are almost exclusively devoted to other headlines, from a secular newspaper, journal, or magazine. You see, the entire purpose of this Christian site is to recapitulate what else has been published in mainstream journalism, and to offer a theological or political commentary on it. Whether the topic is “throuples” in Manhattan, the latest ritual at Burning Man, or a tenured professor’s tweets, the conversation is always started by the consensus of prestigious journalism institutions on what we need to be talking about.

Based on my experience, this is what a lot of evangelicals mean by “engaging culture.” Like the cast and crew commentary on the Special Features section of a DVD, this mode of engaging culture adds Christian words to a preexisting perception of the world. Here’s what the editors of The New York Times, CNN, The Atlantic, and BBC want you to be thinking about. “Here’s commentary from a Christian point of view to accompany your thinking about these things. Now you can go and think!”

There is certainly something valuable in offering believers this kind of resource. Especially for Christians whose career puts them in close contact with thoughtful unbelievers, being able to intelligently answer questions has massive evangelistic implications. It’s also true that many American Christians lack the training these resources offer.

But lately I’ve wondered whether something is insufficient, not merely with the kind of commentary being offered but with the genre of writing itself. Does this kind of cultural engagement presume something potentially untrue—namely, that Christians should be thinking heavily on the kind of stories featured in the pages of elite media? Behind that question lies another, perhaps more complex one: Does what we read in the pages and watch on the screens of American media actually represent our “culture,” or does it just represent the ambitions and imaginations of media moguls?

The 2016 presidential election raised serious doubts among many that mainstream American journalists understood their own nation. In fact, in the shocking aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, many of them said so. Trump’s victory was unthinkable to any whose vision of society was shaped by the stories and ideas promulgated by national media outlets like The Washington Post or Forbes. Some self-reflective members of the media concluded that their work culture was insular and severely disconnected from the concerns and convictions of a huge chunk of American voters. I think that’s a reasonable conclusion.

Evangelicals have sometimes thought of “culture” as a monolith, a coherent ambience that is the sum total of Hollywood, education, the bestseller lists, and journalism. In my experience it’s common for Christians to talk of “the” culture without any effort to specify whose culture is being talked about. This is evident in something I’ve talked about here before: The tendency of a lot of Christian literature to offer over-generalized aphorisms and observations that don’t take into account how different people in different places need to hear different things.

We often talk about purity culture as if it there is only one kind of purity culture, and every single evangelical in America experiences that singular purity culture in the same way. But even a minute’s reflection will reveal that to be spectacularly untrue. Evangelicals raised in rigid, homeschooling environments have a particular experience with the doctrine of chastity that another Christian with a background in nominal religious culture won’t necessarily have. One church in evangelical Christianity uses Scripture to shame and brutalize teen girls over their sin, while another church sweeps the adultery of the minister or the pornography of an elder under the rug. “Culture” is multifaceted.

If culture is not a singular, omnipresent thing, then it makes sense to suppose that perhaps it needn’t always be engaged at face value. Here’s what I mean: What evangelicals mean by “culture” when they talk about engaging culture is in a very real sense a product, something created by an individual or a group and traceable to them. It is therefore a mistake to suppose that whatever ends up in the longform section of The New York Times necessarily represents “where culture is going.” The longform section of the NYT isn’t created by “culture,” it’s created by individuals and groups that want to manufacture something: an idea, a fad, etc.

The reason this matters is that engaging culture by centering one’s intellectual orbit around what comes out of elite journalism can lead Christians to perpetually express the public implications of our faith in the direction of people least likely to heed our message, and on current events least likely to be urgent in actual churches. In other words, if your idea of culture is dictated to you by The Atlantic, you might think the most important thing you can talk about as a Christian is why polyamory is sinful, or why Drag Queen Story Hour is a moral outrage. Assuming, though, that your local church is unexceptional, the odds are incredibly good that suicide, depression, smartphone addiction, and sexless marriages are much bigger issues for you than those. If however the agenda for Christian thinking is being set by elite media, concentrated in affluent coastal bastions of progressivism, the witness of evangelicalism is always from behind—reactive—and never from ahead.

***

What would it look like to engage culture from ahead rather than behind? Simply put, it means fostering Christian publications and ministries and writers who are able to think at a theological and anthropological level rather than merely a journalistic one.

A great example of the potential for Christians to set the intellectual agenda for others is technology. Secular society for the most part sees nothing at all moral in the newest developments from Silicon Valley. But there is a growing number of secular Americans who nonetheless feel that something is being lost in the omnipresence of screens. This is a tremendous opportunity for Christians to supply unbelievers with the language they seek but lack. Christians believe in the inherent goodness of the created world, but also in the indelible tendency of fallen humans to curve the resources of this created world toward sinful, selfish ends. The reason many Americans feel alienated by the technocratic culture is that we are not designed like robots, but in the image of a relational, rational God with real presence. To be disconnected from the physical world is to become less like the God in whose image we are made, thus, to become less human.

On the issue of technology and human flourishing, Christians have the ideas and categories that explain why things are the way they are. And here’s the upshot: Almost everyone in your church, neighborhood, school, workplace, or family has a smartphone. Almost everyone is connected to the liturgies of the internet. Compare that to how many people you personally know who are sending their kids to Drag Queen Story Hour, and you have an idea what is actually relevant to your culture. True, The New Yorker is much more interested in genderqueer libraries. That doesn’t mean you should be.

Take another example: Depression and suicide. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that anxiety, loneliness, and self-harm are among the most pressing issues facing believers in the West today. The numbers are staggering, the testimonies are too numerous to count, and the severity of the problem is only rising. People are dying of despair. Lots of people. People in your town, in your church. Maybe in your own home.

You’ll get a different answer as to why this is depending on whether you listen to economists, sociologists, doctors, activists, or journalists. Shouldn’t those who believe in a God of life, a God who puts the lonely in families, a God who wipes away tears and will live inside sinners like an explosive spring of water—shouldn’t we be setting the agenda here? Deaths of despair in a rich, affluent time are not surprising to people who know the real condition of the human heart. Are we speaking to this the way we could? Or does the lack of political leverage to this story make us bored, uninterested, or even apathetic? Sometimes I wonder if labeling everything as “culture war” makes us blind to actual death.

The point is that by engaging culture from behind, we shrink our world and our mission field. Being unable to tell the difference in urgency between the carryings on of coastal trust fund socialites and the silent cries of those sitting right next to us is a colossal miscalculation. It is, actually, failing to engage culture at all. It doesn’t “engage” because it usually fails to persuade (and honestly isn’t meant to). And it mistakenly identifies as “culture” what could probably more accurately be described as “anticulture.”

Engaging culture from ahead begins with a careful posture of learning and discernment. It prioritizes life and death rather than language and signaling. And it seeks to speak into a specific need rather than a news cycle. It’s not as lucrative, and it’s frankly not as easy. But it’s obedient.

Categories
culture politics

Josh Hawley and the Need for Tech Stigma

Josh Hawley, the junior US Senator from Missouri, is waging a small war against Silicon Valley. Twice this summer Hawley has introduced legislation that targets social media corporations’ out-sized role in the lives of Americans. His latest bill is perhaps the most straightforward legal challenge to the biggest social media firms yet. The SMART Act would tightly regulate social media technology, forcing developers to make specific changes that dilute the addictive and omnipresent qualities of the apps.

In a May lecture that was published by First Things, Hawley lays out his case against Silicon Valley. He warns that Big Tech firms are pocketing obscene profits by maximizing addiction and carefully overseeing a monopoly on news and information. All the while, the American workforce is being populated by users diagnosed with elevated rates of depression, anxiety, and inability to focus.  Hawley concludes by reflecting that the culture being shaped by social media technology is an “economy that does not value the things that matter.”  Hawley: “That, I want to suggest to you, is something that we cannot afford. It is something that we cannot allow, and it is within our power to change it. And that is the great challenge and task of our time.”

David French, an evangelical columnist at National Review for whom I have great respect, dismisses Hawley’s legislative prescriptions as a misguided attempt to control consumer habits from Washington. French believes Hawley’s bills do address real problems, but establish a dangerous precedent for a “Republican Daddy State.” Writing in First Things, Jon Schweppe rebukes French and other conservative critics of Hawley’s proposals: “Historically, our politicians have determined that government should have a role when corporations exploit consumers by putting their physical or psychological health at risk,” he notes. “This is especially true when those consumers happen to be children.”

***

It’s hard to resist evaluating Hawley’s proposed laws and the debate over them in light of the larger, intra-conservative kerfuffle (also starring First Things and French!) that’s emerged in the Trump years. On the surface this looks like yet another installment in the “What is the proper role of government in the formation of virtuous citizens” question, an issue that takes on radically different shape depending not just on your politics but on your ecclesiology. Because I think David French is right about justification by faith and the mission of the church, and I think the editors of First Things are mostly wrong about them, I tend to gravitate toward a Frenchian perspective on statism.

But Jon Schweppe is right about something crucial: The question is not whether government will regulate the behavior of the citizenry, the question is how. If a legal minimum age to drink alcohol is an acceptable manifestation of a “daddy state” (and to Schweppe’s point, I don’t think any conservative columnists are arguing otherwise), why not proportionate regulations on a consumer product (social media) arguably even more omnipresent and accessible to children than alcohol?

French is right that overreaching regulation, even to fix a serious cultural malaise, could and probably would have long-term consequences. On the other hand, we’re almost certainly already signed up for long-term consequences from the overabundance of digital technology. Worse, functional monopolies held by Apple and Google make it almost impossible for creative solutions to supplant existing business models. “Digital literacy” programs come with the moral and legal authority of government to the benefit of manufacturers, all the while sites like YouTube, extolled as educational tools, oversee an algorithm-based disaster that targets children with disturbing content.

Though I share French’s view of federal intervention, “Daddy State” is a an epithet that fails to reckon with how consumer habits are conditioned and even constrained by the complex relationship between Silicon Valley and the information age. The latter is an unchangeable revolution; there is no rewinding the clock on the internet, and nostalgia is not a synonym for virtue. The former, however, is nothing more than a corporate culture that should be viewed with no less skepticism than pornography industry. What Hawley understands is that our experience of the information age has become cripplingly dependent on a fistful of companies that use jargon and confused lawmakers to exploit loopholes.  Michael Brendan Doughtery (writing in National Review, no less!) was exactly right to say that Facebook is a media and publishing company, regardless of what its executives say or the exemptions and allowances they request.

***

But there is something missing from Hawley’s agenda. The senator is eager to handcuff developers with laws about “infinite scroll” and time limits. This is interesting, but it plays into Big Tech’s hands. The problem with targeting granular technologies is that such technologies are always on the cusp of changing anyway. What does infinite scroll look like in, say, an augmented reality channel? Unless you’re well versed in the psychology and coding of this tech, you probably have no idea, and if there’s one thing Mark Zuckerberg proved, it’s that befuddling aging Congressmen with terminology almost any 13 year old would recognize isn’t that difficult.

What Hawley’s efforts lack is an element of stigma. Rather than trying to play the developer’s game, legal efforts to help our tech addiction should try to put a social stigma on always looking at your phone, or spending hours on YouTube, or anonymous message-based sites that foster radicalization. There should be a social shame to digital addiction that is comparable to the stigma around pornography, which is mediated through age-gate laws, laws that protect the depiction of minors, and other statutes, as well as practices in the private sector (such as cordoned off “adult” sections).  While of course most of us would say that social stigma around pornography is far too weak, since pornography is still too common and accessible, there is reason to think that promoting a stigma around tech sickness would be better and more effective than targeting the zeroes and ones of software.

In a brilliant essay almost twenty years ago, Roger Scruton pointed out that the contemporary West has introduced law and politics as a replacement stigma and custom. This is decidedly not how societies past operated:

In almost all matters that touched upon the core requirements of social order, they [generations past] believed that the genial pressure of manners, morals, and customs—enforced by the various forms of disapproval, stigma, shame, and reproach—was a more powerful guarantor of civilized and lawful behavior than the laws themselves. Inner sanctions, they argued, more dependably maintain society than such external ones as policemen and courts.

Stigma is not effective at eliminating a social ill. But that’s precisely the point. There are some social ills that cannot be radically destroyed, and efforts to do so may seriously damage the underlying social fabric. Scruton uses sexual morality as an example of a communal virtue that protects the vulnerable when it is enforced from within, but tends to turn abusive and corrupt when such enforcement is outsourced to the governing authorities. Of course, there is no hard and fast dichotomy between social stigma and the law, because the law teaches as well as restricts; thus, men who abandon their families must pay child support under the threat of the law.

Might the same principle work for responding to the crisis of digital addiction? Restricting social media to legal adults, for example, would not eliminate its addictive qualities or even fully prevent children from using the services, but requiring a credit card number or some other age-verification tool would create a “mature audiences only” stigma that highlights social media’s addictiveness and tendencies toward vice. Another stigma would be requiring that smartphones or internet-capable tablets not be sold to anyone under 16, and requiring parents purchasing such equipment for minors to sign informational disclaimers about addiction, psychological development, distracted driving, etc. Without restricting speech, such laws would introduce moderate hurdles to using such tech, making it especially difficult for children to have their own private digital lives.

We need a digital stigma. Rather than assuming that mobile, interactive technology is inherently valuable, we should assume that Silicon Valley’s products are comparable to cigarettes and alcohol: Not for children, not for habitual use, and certainly not for tax exemptions and public school programs. This of course doesn’t solve the problem of distraction sickness, nor does it even guarantee that parents would have the will to protect their kids. But it would strike a blow in the cause of cognitive and emotional flourishing, and puts Silicon Valley billionaires off the pedestal of philosopher kings and in the corner, where they belong.

Categories
life

Faithfulness With a Full Quiver

At 18-years-old, in the midst of goofing off with friends and playing a lot of Call of Duty, I discovered that I wanted to work in ministry. After support and confirmation from pastors, mentors, friends, and family, I decided that I needed to go to seminary. Five years later, my goal was the same, but my circumstances could not have been more different. I was married with a newborn, finishing my undergraduate degree online, working a full time labor job, and I was the youth director at my home church. Before we got married, my wife and I both knew seminary was on the horizon. But even though we were confident in this trajectory of our life, it was not easy. See, I inefficiently made my way through my online undergraduate program. I did fine, but it was time consuming and extremely taxing, and if I was going to put my young family through one of the more difficult seminary curriculum in the country, something had to give regarding productivity.

Thus, my search for productivity hacks began. It wasn’t long however until I ran into a significant but not surprising problem: Most of the “productivity lit” is  curated for the unmarried and childless audience. Some of the advice was just not going to cut it given my position. When I finally entered seminary and began this new stage of life, I happened to find a few work habits that helped my family and I survive what was the most difficult season of our life (thus far). To be sure, no one magic trick makes taking 16-18 units a semester, working part-time, and being a husband and dad to 2 babies easy (yes, we had another one during seminary). However, some methods and habits made it less strenuous.

Early Mornings or Late Nights?

Whether you are working on a side project, or pursuing higher education, an inevitable choice to make is whether you will do your work early in the morning or late at night. While the option is up to you, I believe early mornings are the preferred choice. Here are three reasons why:

  • You can look forward to ending the day with family. If you know you have a significant amount of work to get to after the kids get to bed, you will be distracted all through your dinner and the kid’s bedtime routine. This is unavoidable at times, sure, but you do not want to give your already distracted mind anymore excuses to be absentminded. An increased workload will inevitably effect your entire family, but you are the one who should bear the most inconvenient schedule, not your family. This was honestly the least I could do given the circumstances, but in all of life, if it comes down to your family spending and exhausting themselves for your efficiency, or you doign that for them, the choice is obvious. Plus, if the work you would typically do at night is out of the way before the day begins, then you can look forward to your time with your family as the capstone to your day.
  • You can start your work fresh, rather than tired. Albeit, you will be tired and groggy if you wake up at 4am, but this does not last long. The opposite is true if you stay up late, where you only grow more tired. The full range of experiences through a day is taxing, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. Moreover, with kids and a spouse, their day’s experiences, good and bad, become things you bear as well. If you practice rejoicing with and weeping with your family, this is difficult to shut off only to focus on tedious or technical work.
  • You need Scripture and prayer. Perhaps you think early mornings will allow you the extra time to write a blog post a day, get ahead in school assignments, or get through a week’s worth of email, or whatever. That may be, but in this life, our workload is never-ending. Your work will not naturally mitigate itself; it will take over your life if you let it. As long as there is extra time in the morning for work, there is extra time (even if it’s a small amount) for focused and intentional time spent in prayer and hearing from God’s word. I have many regrets during my time in seminary, allowing my work to overrun this part of my life more often than I care to admit is at the very top.

For myself, early mornings amount to waking up at 4am. While in seminary, this gave me at least 2-3 hours of uninterrupted work every day. The main reason, however, that I maintained this routine through seminary was that I was not willing to sacrifice Saturdays for studying. When I did study on the weekend, it was minimal. My wife and I did not look at weekends as “free time,” but a time that we needed to especially strengthen ourselves and our little ones through rest and creativity. Part and parcel to weekends is time without mandatory obligations; for the most part, there is no work, no class, no meetings, etc. I suggest taking full advantage of days like these, not to get extra work done, but to cultivate memorable and meaningful times with your kids and spouse.

Think in time, not assignments or projects.

Suffice it to say; time is of the essence when you have a young family. If you think of all you have to do to merely get through the day, from breakfast to bath and bedtime, not to mention additional work or projects, it can all feel overwhelming. What works against parents with young kids is when our work and goals are ambiguous. For instance, if our to-do list looks like this: “write paper for class,” “lose weight,” “workout,” “build dining room table,” etc., chances are when we look at this, it will feel overwhelming.

A friend in seminary helped me find a solution to the problem of ambiguity. His advice was that you want to see every single thing you have to do in one place, namely, your calendar. What this looked like was, instead of carrying around six different syllabi, I merged them all into one master list. Now that I had a master list of everything I needed to do each week to complete the entire semester, I evaluated each assignment in terms of minutes/hours. When I saw a 120-page reading assignment, I translated that to 4 hours of reading, and then I scheduled those hours in my calendar. This is easier said than done because depending on the master list of your project; this can take a day’s work by itself. While we might think we do this in our heads naturally, I advise against that. When you put something on paper, you begin to see what it’s going to take to accomplish it. An equivalent to this would be a reminder on your calendar that, instead of saying, “go to the gym,” it should contain the entire regiment of your workout over the span of 13 weeks. If you know what you need to accomplish in a specific amount of time to achieve goal or project x, it alleviates a significant amount of the stress around each task in your schedule.

The opposite of this is seen in TV shows and movies, where a character is struck with inspiration over goal or project x, and they stay up all night working on it to finish at sunrise. That’s a convenient way to move the story forward, but it is nothing to be modeled. If we wait for a sudden burst of inspiration to climb our proverbial Mt. Everest, we will get nowhere. By all means, strike when the iron is hot, but do not depend on those creative bursts of energy to propel you through our work.

Keeping a detailed and broken down to-do list also gives you feedback on your performance. If you had an hour to read 25 pages and you only read 18, you can chalk it up to being distracted or less than diligent with your time.

I cannot stress how beneficial this is for your spouse, as well. Ambiguity in your schedule equates to ambiguity and frustration in the life of your marriage. Seminary was extremely hard on my wife and I, and the hardest days were those that my wife was not qued in on what I needed to accomplish that day. While my vocation changed as a student, my wife’s work changed as well. Her workload increased immensely, not only because we had another child in seminary but because I was not always home to do the tasks that were normally mine. For the most part I did spend my time well and worked diligently, but there was also a good many lunch hours spent pontificating with my friends and classmates. Communication regarding my tasks each day created a needed sense of stability for us and gave us a “light at the end of the tunnel” to look forward to.

Do not reinvent the wheel.

Much of the advice on productivity begins with, “just do it.” This advice focuses on people’s hesitancy to start whatever they want to do: write, workout, go to school, etc. However, as I learned in seminary, having a strong work ethic is pointless if you are working in the wrong direction. For my first Greek quiz, we had to do the simple task of writing out the alphabet by memory. I memorized the alphabet alright, but I shuffled my flashcards, so when I sat down to take my first quiz, I realized I had no idea the order of the alphabet. Rookie mistake, right? That’s precisely the point. If we assume we know how to accomplish even the most straightforward task, we are likely missing out on the more efficient methods of our friends and peers. It was through friends in seminary that I learned that the bibliographies of journal articles are the best place to look for resources for my papers, that memorizing 20 pages of 10 point font is possible by memorizing the outlines of topics, and that studying for an exam also means studying with the peculiarities of each professor in mind. Reading self-help material outside of the work you are in can only take you so far. You have to find someone who has been there and done that. You won’t only need their advice, but you will need someone who can genuinely empathize with you because your spouse will not always want to commiserate about your work. They will help share the burden in other ways without having to “get it,” and that’s completely fine.

Conclusion

While the worksheets, schedules, and productivity hacks ultimately belong to the realm of common grace, an essential truth for Christians to remember in our work is how God is at work in us. Sanctification is a particular work, in that it is ongoing, and it employs our actions. Even though we are never told to justify ourselves, God exhorts us to “put to death what is earthly in you” (Col. 3:5), “purify yourselves from all unrighteousness” (2 Cor. 7:1), etc. In the work of sanctification, God treats us as human beings. That is, our humanness does not change upon being saved. As a professor of mine explained to me, we can’t flip a switch and not desire alcohol after abusing it, and we can’t flip a switch and become a concert pianist. Even though God is the guarantor and giver of sanctification, it is a long work of rehabituation, where our habits are reformed over time. I do not mean the process of ‘running the race’ and ‘fighting the good fight’ is analogous to productivity, but I do mean that when we go about our work, we must remember that God’s work in us after our decree of justification does not work like an on and off switch. Our work will be full of roadblocks and failures (Gen. 3:17), and while our plans are easily upset due to our fragile frames (Ps. 103:14), God is still working out our salvation in us to his good pleasure. So, when your plans of productivity get interrupted by your 1-year-old who is still not sleeping through the night, remember God’s promise to work all things together for good (Rom. 8:28). There is not an ounce of our work that can guarantee that promise. Acknowledge and be thankful that even though our to-do lists fail, God’s work does not fail. From here, of course, adjust your goals and plans accordingly, and keep on working.