Rules of Love

Review of “The Common Rule” by Justin Whitmel Earley

Justin Whitmel Earley. The Common Rule: Habits of a Purpose for an Age of Distraction. IVP Books, 199 pages, $18.00.

The Common Rule is the kind of book that, if its prescription is taken seriously, can probably save lives. I mean that literally. A passing awareness of the news is enough to know about the surge in depression, anxiety, and suicide among millennials, particularly professional, college-educated ones. Without any sweeping claims or controversial analysis, The Common Rule meekly presents a powerful, life-saving antidote to a restless culture that’s choking on minutia and starving for meaning. One’s only quibble would be that this is more a potent dose than a full supply.

Near the beginning of his book, Justin Earley recounts the story of a severe nervous breakdown. While an ambitious career was beginning in law school, Earley intentionally structured his life around being as available, as “connected,” and as active as possible. Convictionally, he was a Christian who believed in the worship of Jesus, but habitually, he became a worshiper of doing. “I now see that my body had finally become converted to the anxiety and busyness I’d worshiped through my habits and routine. All the years of a schedule built on going nonstop to try to earn my place in the world had finally rubbed off on my heart.” This insight is crucial to the logic of The Common Rule: We are being formed not only in the image of what we believe but what we practice. Our habits don’t just reveal our beliefs, they shape them. A more theologically profound book on this topic is James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love, but where Smith is most concerned about changing our understanding of and attitude toward habit, Earley offers an impressively thorough, and helpfully actionable, set of practices.

The “common rule” that the title refers to is a set of four daily habits and four weekly habits. Together, the eight habits form a concise, systematic rule of life for maintaining spiritual, relational, moral, and physical health. The greatest strength of the Common Rule, its specificity, is also its greatest weakness. Many of the practices of the Common Rule depend on a certain middle-class, information-economy lifestyle that many but not all Christians share. For example, the weekly rule “Curate media to four hours” is perhaps too rife with an American, upwardly mobile subtext to really mean something to especially poor or especially non-Western believers. Similarly, much of the book’s effectiveness will depend on how much readers feel distracted by digital devices or burnt out by an oppressive daily rhythm.

But of course, many American Christians do feel that way, and for them too many books about intellectual health in an omni-connected era are little more than data points mixed with self-evident truisms. Even the good books tend to try too hard to be “revolutionary” and end up offering a binary choice between technology and flourishing. A helpful, recently released general market book on this topic, Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, is persuasive and insightful, but several of Newport’s recommended practices are extreme and likely unfeasible for the very readers who most need their benefits.

Earley’s approach is far more about creating habits than erasing them. For example, Earley rightly extols interpersonal relationship in pushing back against the disembodied communication of the internet. The Common Rule thus commends one daily meal with others and one weekly, hour-long conversation with a friend. These may sound like minor, even trivial, guidelines. But that’s exactly the point. Ours is a technological time in which even the most trivial human interactions are being annihilated. Just as how we never stop needing basic theology and spiritual disciplines, we never stop needing just an hour’s worth of conversation with a being who can look us in the eye, not in the avatar. In refusing to make The Common Rule a revolutionary manifesto, Earley has made it into something more personal, more practical, and more helpful.

Earley understands that the “distraction” at the heart of 21st century life is actually a deep confusion about what a person is. An exclusive diet of digital relationships and trivial mass media frustrates and grieves us because human beings are image-bearers created for glory, not efficiency machines. The first practice of The Common Rule is a kneeling prayer three times per day, a habit that physically reminds us of the dust from where we come and of the Creator to whom we must speak and from whom we must hear. Earley’s chapter on prayer convicted me deeply of my own indifference toward the presence and word of God throughout my day. Something is going to frame my morning, afternoon, and evening. If that is not time with the Lord, what will it be?

My only critique is the somewhat low-shelf theological reflection. There are some really good sections about identity formation and beholding the world (“We become what or who we reflect…We can’t become ourselves by ourselves. The way we discover ourselves is by staring at someone else.”), but the book’s heavily practical focus leaves some important issues unsolved. I would have loved to see a chapter that weaved the 8 Common Rule practices into a thread of worship. Habits always coexist beside loves, and the Christian life defines flourishing in terms of worshiping the One who is worthy of worship, and patterning our lives worshipfully. One hopes for a future expansion of The Common Rule along these lines.

For a long time I believed that spontaneity was a synonym for happiness. As I’ve gotten a little bit older, I’m come to realize the truth at the heart of The Common Rule: My heart needs people, places, and practices that sink deeply into the ground of my life and stay there. For desperate believers who are tired of spiritual lingo peppering life that’s really devoted to becoming more like a machine, The Common Rule offers a badly needed alternative. Here’s hoping this conversation continues and does not stop anytime soon.

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Christian Wisdom Amid the Gurus

Looking for Christian wisdom in the bestsellers.

Dave Ramsey, Jordan Peterson, and Rachel Hollis are, each in their own way, three of our modern gurus. They’re a diverse group that reflects particular personalities of modern culture. Peterson is the philosophical academic, Hollis the Instagram celebrity, and Ramsey the folksy, financial counseling version of Dr. Phil. Their books don’t just sell; they live atop the bestsellers lists for years at a time. Hollis’s last two books are both currently in Amazon’s top 5. Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life has sold 10 million copies since late 2017. You have scroll a bit further to find Ramsey’s manifesto The Total Money Makeover (and its various spin-offs), but then again, Ramsey’s radio show has been reaching millions of listeners since the George W. Bush administration. Continue reading “Christian Wisdom Amid the Gurus”

Get On My Lawn

The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness.

In chapter five of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport recites a familiar but enlightening distinction. Drawing from Sherry Turkle, Newport pits Connection against Conversation. Connection is digital interaction; it’s a category of social experience that is low-grade, easy, fast, and mostly impersonal (e.g., it avoids things like facial expressions and vocal cues). Conversation is human-with-human time, an exchange of physical identities and characteristics in the course of talking. A conversation is what you have when a friend drops by for a visit, and connection is what you have when you Like or comment on that friend’s photo. Newport’s essential argument throughout Digital Minimalism is that, for the modern tech user, balancing these experiences is almost impossible, because each one requires time, and time spent on one is time taken away from the other.

I’ll have more to say about the book in the weeks ahead. But I was intrigued by the intense contrast Newport draws between connection and conversation, and the way this contrast reveals how important place is to his entire digital minimalist project. There’s no separating conversation from place, because conversation depends on the people near you, in this moment, wherever you are physically. There is no such thing as place-less conversation, and there’s no such thing as local digital connection, because the digital medium necessarily dislocates users.

If you know a little something about the history of Facebook, this point is very important. Facebook was originally structured to be a platform within specific places, called Networks. In the early days of Facebook Networks were everything; you couldn’t even join the site unless you applied for membership in a Network. The original Networks were colleges, then cities. When I joined Facebook in the summer of 2007, the site required me to indicate I was in Louisville, Kentucky’s network. In addition to curating a list of “People You May Know” from mutual networks, the network requirement—at least in its own way—tethered the experience of Facebook to place. It gave place something of an honorary role as gatekeeper for social experience. Nominally, you could not experience Facebook without belonging to a particular place.

Facebook dropped the Network requirement shortly after I registered my account. Without the Network requirement, anyone could join Facebook, and Facebook was now its own “community” instead of a digital tool for experiencing your community. The point of Facebook became one’s relationship to the site, not one’s relationship to specific people in particular places. Almost every major ill that Facebook has spilled into the public square is downstream of this change. The loss of Networks was representative of the transformation of Facebook from a site that facilitated social interaction to a one that encouraged isolation, advertising, and artificial relationships. The truest, most natural experience of Facebook now is not achieved out in the offline world, meeting friends whom you can “connect” with later. The authentic Facebook experience now is being constantly logged in, attending to one’s own digital ID and trying to master Facebook’s ever-shifting algorithms that create the impression of “good content.” We are left with connection for connection’s sake, which is to say, we are left with a platform instead of a network.

By “overcoming” place, Facebook thrust users into nowhere. The same ways that place constricts our relational bandwidth are the ways in which it richly rewards it. You cannot have the humane joys of place without also experiencing its power to locate you here instead of there, with these people rather than those people. The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness: ephemeral “connection” that demands addiction to self-consciousness in exchange for minute sensations of digital belonging.

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.

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.

Walking Through Infertility

By Nate Martin

Shared experiences are the foundation for empathy, care, and comfort. When Paul desires to comfort the Corinthians he reminds them that experiencing God’s comfort allows one to become a vessel of comfort to others, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all comfort, who comforts us is all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves have been comforted” (2 Cor. 1:3-4).

In Walking through Infertility, Matthew Arbo, assistant professor of theological studies and director of the Center for Faith and Public Life at Oklahoma Baptist University, has shared the experiences and comfort of Patrick and Jennifer Arbo. By telling their story Arbo offers comfort to readers who might be struggling in their own season of infertility and equips readers to love, pastor, and care for couples longing for a child.

Central to Arbo’s counsel are the certain promises and presence of God. “The Creator and Redeemer of life has not forsaken the infertile but has instead given them a slightly different way of being a family, and thus of participating in the life and mission of God.” (20)

By surveying stories of infertility in the Scriptures, Arbo reminds readers that God is the giver of life. Couples struggling to get pregnant are free of guilt—they are not violating God’s creation mandate or being judged by God. Having children Abro writes is a “good thing to do, rather than an obligatory thing to do. No one is displeasing God by being unable to conceive.” (29) The biblical stories of infertility show that God’s covenantal presence is with the infertile. God has not looked away from the infertile, but has simply given them a different way of being a family to participate in God’s mission.

With theological reflections on discipleship, mission, and the church Arbo reminds readers that as Christians we are first and foremost followers of the Lord Jesus. Christians are to die to themselves and follow Christ by obeying his commands and joining in his mission. The family, then, is not ultimate. Rather, all disciples of Jesus are to obey God and participate in his mission whether married or single, fertile or infertile. The Lord in his wisdom calls his disciples in different ways. Like Paul’s reminder about singles in 1 Corinthians 7, so childless families have a particular call and can participate in God’s mission in ways that a family of five cannot.

As disciples of Jesus, the infertile always have a family to which they belong. God’s people in covenant community together, on mission together, under the Lordship of Jesus together, are a family who walk through infertility together. They weep when couples weep; they sit silently when words are too much and thus not enough, and when the pain of miscarriage shuts couples in for a season the church comes to them.

As Arbo tells the story of Patrick and Jennifer mourning their miscarriage, he also tells the story of the church who cared for them. This story teaches readers how to care for the hurting in ways that formal didactic instruction could not. As Arbo simply reminds readers, “When [Jennifer and Patrick]  hurt, the body hurt. They were the wound the body attended to.” (62) Readers who have experienced infertility and miscarriage will deeply resonate with how the church comforted the Arbos. No doubt, they will be able to smell the dinners brought to their door, feel the embraces on their couch, and hear the intercessory prayers in their ears. It was chapter three: the vitality and consolation of the church, that was the most difficult to finish. I remembered the pain of infertility and miscarriage, but also graciously remembered my local church, who loved and cared for me.

For four years my wife and I attempted to get pregnant with no success. The only positive test we saw was after the realization that my wife had unfortunately miscarried. To see a positive result under those circumstances was painful. During those four years we adopted a little boy out of foster care and were growing content with the way God had made us a family. It was just a few months ago that we learned that my wife was pregnant again, but I confess that the miscarriage still causes me pain and a fear that this too will not ultimately work out. My experience wasn’t as painful as some of my other dear friends, many of whom are still waiting. I pray that I can be a vessel of comfort to them the way that God has comforted me by his grace, through his church, and through Arbo’s new book.

Arbo concludes Walking through Infertility with an analysis of common infertility treatments. He examines the ethical implications of intrauterine insemination, in-vitro fertilization, and surrogacy. Important to Arbo’s analysis is the difference between expectation and consequences. He writes, “The moral tension…is the mismatch, common to human experience, between expectations obtaining prior to an action and consequences brought by that action.” (87) Although this review is not the place to discuss Arbo’s particular conclusions, it needs to said that given the brevity and clarity which they are presented and the increasing number of couples facing such questions, pastors and church leaders should not miss the opportunity to let Arbo help navigate them through these dilemmas.

I found Arbo’s positions to be mostly persuasive. I can’t interact with IUI, IVF, and surrogacy in this brief review. However, I want to discuss IVF briefly, given that in my experience, the infertile couples I know have considered this particular route. I agree that Christians should think seriously about whether the relationship between sex and procreation is a sacred part of God’s design. Procreation is not merely a clinical matter. The high expense of IVF likewise makes me suspicious that such money would be more wisely spent pursuing an adoption.  With these considerations and the added risk of clinical implantation, I would counsel against IVF (graciously). Ultimately, Arbo concludes, “If you are contemplating IVF, I pray you take seriously the risks involved and elect to forgo it…” (93)

Arbo communicates all his ethical instruction with love, grace, and compassion. He’s not out to shame readers who have come to different conclusions. Walking through Infertility treats a painful topic with a pastoral heart. Arbo, an ethics professor with a PhD from the University of Edinburgh, spares readers from lengthy footnotes, charts, data, and academic dullness, and instead offers up a clearly written, theologically robust, and pastorally helpful book.

By telling Patrick and Jennifer’s painful story and the comfort God provided for them, Arbo has turned them into vessels of comfort for all those who are struggling with infertility. By sharing how they leaned on the grace of God and the “thereness” of the church, Arbo, to borrow Paul’s words, allows readers to be comforted with the comfort which they themselves have been comforted.

Nathaniel Martin is pastor of Hermon Baptist Church in Waxhaw, NC, and a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Reading Towards Bethlehem

The church owes Karen Swallow Prior a debt of gratitude for reminding us of the spiritual power of imagination.

When I was in high school I wrote a poem for a girl in my English literature class. No, I’m not joking. I was young, dumb, and in like, and a steady diet of homeschooling had left me with few vehicles with which to express my feelings. So, I reached for poetry, and courageously put my soul and my singleness into verse. A couple years later we were both at her wedding—though I was watching in the third pew from the back (it worked out for all of us).

Unfortunately, this was to be one of the last times in a long time that literature would play a meaningful role in my life. I enrolled in an excellent Bible college, and it didn’t take long for any substantive trace of literature, poetry, and fiction to evaporate. My intellectual world was too awash with systematic theologies, books on baptism, Christian situational ethics, and New Testament surveys. Two semesters of “Great Books” supplied my sole ration of literature in those days, and by that time my attitude toward my old collection of Twain, Hemingway, and Austen was nostalgic but unserious.

It has always bothered me that I had to get clear of my theology-centered Christian education before I was reminded how much stories matter. That’s why I wish Karen Swallow Prior had written On Reading Well years ago. Her new book is the moral apologia for literature that many Christians, especially we Reformed types, need right now. Though the book is valuable (if imperfect) for its reflections on living the virtuous life, its greatest contribution is a vibrant paradigmatic exercise in how to not just look at great stories but to (to adapt C.S. Lewis) look “along” them.

Rather than stitching together another encyclopedia of “great books” for Christians, Prior organizes the book around virtue itself. Part One is given to the Four Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Courage), Part Two to the three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Love) and Part Three to the Heavenly Virtues (Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, Humility). Each virtue is assigned to a specific work of literature that Prior summarizes and analyzes. She shows her skill in opening up each literary work succinctly and convincingly, so that On Reading Well can ideally be read alongside each discussed work but not exclusively so (appropriately, each discussion contains spoilers).

It’s not difficult to imagine someone critiquing On Reading Well for its exclusive use of Western books and stories. While such criticism isn’t unreasonable, it’s important to note that this is not a book about essential literature for every Christian, nor is it an implicit evaluation of the “greatness” of certain cultures. This is a book about reading, not writers, and as such Prior has given her audience a sampling of literature that will be readily accessible to most.

Every chapter is two things: first, a theological/moral discussion of virtue and how to attain it, and second, a literary analysis that illuminates moral narrative and helps us find ourselves in the stories.

When it comes to the literary analysis, Prior is clearly in her element, and it’s hard to imagine a Christian writer doing a better job than this. Of The Great Gatsby’s materialistic title character (who is the subject of the book’s chapter on Temperance), Prior writes that his long sought after love interest, Daisy, “is for Gatsby like the volumes of books that fill his library shelves: with pages uncut and unread, their value is in what they symbolize, not what they are…His desire has been for something that does not even exist, and he has no taste for what really does exist.” Gatsby’s intemperance in his pursuit of pleasure, Prior writes, deadens his spiritual senses, precisely because pleasure is inescapably spiritual:

Human beings are creatures who are rational as well as spiritual and who, as such, do not approach pleasurable activities purely physically. The temperate person is one who “understands and these connections between bodily pleasures and the larger human good, and whose understanding actually tempers the desires and pleasures.” Temperance is liberating because it “allows us to be masters of our pleasure instead of becoming its slaves.”

Such a morally oriented discussion of Jay Gatsby would surely be anathema in most university classrooms. Deconstructionist literary theory’s reduction of themes into sociopolitical tropes is an acid to reading well, and Prior’s thoroughly Christian, thoroughly researched command of this and the other pieces of literature is nothing less than a spiritually vivifying antidote.

Another wonderful example of Prior’s steady hand around literature is her chapter on Faith, which discusses Shusako Endo’s devastating novel Silence. Those who have only seen the Martin Scorcese film will have missed out on the brilliant way that Endo uses form to communicate meaning. How should we interpret the agonizing denouement of the book? Prior’s observations here are not just insightful, they’re empowering:

The narrative structure offers the most significant cue for how to read Silence. It begins with a prologue by a third-person narrator. Then the first half of the book shifts to first-person narration in the form of letters written by Rodrigues. But once Rodrigues is captured…the narrative point of view shifts back to the third person. The last chapter of the novel introduces a new narrative style in the form of diary extracts from a clerk with a Dutch merchant, followed by an appendix consisting of diary entries from an officer assigned to Rodrigues’s residence…

These narrative points of view taken together and in order effect a movement that begins at a distance from Rodrigues and his experience of faith, then moves closer, then moves away again, and then, finally, moves even further away…This interplay of subjective and objective, as well as limited and omniscient points of view, complicates the reader’s experience and suggests implications and applications of the story’s content beyond the pages of the book—in a way similar to how a parable works.

Prior admirably weaves together technical literary analysis and moral insight into a readable and re-readable whole. Rather than admitting any partition between form and content, Prior’s take on literature is holistic, applying a theological and moral framework to both style and message. This is much more helpful than either rote worldview tests on one hand or biblically tepid “cultural engagement” on the other.

If I have one mild critique of On Reading Well, it would be directed toward the non-literary parts of the book. Prior’s discussions of the virtues are reliable and spiritually faithful, but occasionally they feel too stitched together from various outside sources. On Reading Well is heavily notated, which is no surprise for a book about books, but many of the citations feel weighted toward the more didactic sections. There’s nothing wrong with quotes, of course, but the constant citation of outside sources—including books and articles from a very wide spectrum of theological traditions—gives certain sections a disjointed feel, as if we are reading a summary of the best stuff Prior found on the topic rather than a writer’s focused engagement of the ideas.

That aside, On Reading Well is a joy. For Christian book lovers already well versed in these stories, this is a treat of moral conversation and insight. For Christians who want to break into literature, this is a fine starter text to inspire your search for Christian truth in fiction. The church owes Karen Swallow Prior a debt of gratitude for reminding us of the spiritual power of imagination, and for modeling so well how to receive that power. Here is a book to read well.

Give to Liberalism What Is Liberalism’s, and to God What Is God’s

Patrick Deneen’s new book “Why Liberalism Failed”

Commenting on Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, columnist Ross Douthat once remarked: “Rod is right, even if he’s wrong.” This sentiment works equally well, I think, for Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed. Deenen’s core argument in his widely discussed book is that classical liberalism, the Enlightenment-spawned, Founding Father-adopted political philosophy of inalienable rights and self-determination, has been destroyed from the inside. The problem for the West is not ultimately that we don’t have enough liberal freedoms; it is that such freedoms have instead enslaved us to the self-destructive march of modernism and economic determinism. “Liberalism has failed,” Deneen writes, “not because it fell short, but because it was true to itself. It has failed because it has succeeded.”

A political philosophy that was launched to foster greater equity, a pluralist tapestry of different cultures and beliefs, protect human dignity, and, of course, expand liberty, in practice generates titanic inequality, enforces uniformity and homogeneity, fosters material and spiritual degradation, and undermines freedom. It success can be measured by its achievement of the opposite of what we have believed it would achieve.

The Case Against Liberalism

Deneen’s case against classical liberalism could be summarized as an appeal to the moral disintegration of 3 “s” words: Self, society, and the state.

Self: Classical liberalism’s emphasis (from John Locke) on the autonomy of the individual and the absolute right to determine oneself through social contract has resulted in an incoherent and immoral worldview of the self. Rather than seeing ourselves as created for a virtuous purpose, and defining the good life in terms of our alignment with that transcendent reason, we define happiness almost exclusively in terms of self-expression. “The most basic and distinctive aspect of liberalism,” writes Deneen, “is to base politics upon the idea of voluntarism—the unfettered and autonomous choice of individuals.”

Society: The cultural effects of this worldview of voluntarism have been widespread inequality and mutual hostilities. Social bonds, once upon a time inexorably tied to one’s geographic place, have been disintegrated through “upward mobility” and the inalienable right of people to change anything they want, whenever they want. Believing in a God-given right to make of one’s life whatever one desires is the same as believing that both parents and unborn descendants don’t really count (unless, of course, you want them to count!). Thus the philosophical link between individuals and groups is destroyed, culture becomes anticulture, and society is fragmented beyond recognition.

The State: Deneen writes that classical liberalism requires an ever-more powerful central state to enforce its “freedoms.” Though conservatives and progressives may argue about words and means, Deneen believes that the modern Right and the modern Left are equally committed to this kind of statism. Each political philosophy “can be counted as liberal because of this fundamental commitment to liberation of the individual and tot he use of natural science, aided by the state, as a primary means for achieving practical liberation from nature’s limitations. Thus statism and individualism grow together while local institutions and respect for natural limits diminish.”

All in all, the portrait Deneen paints is of a sociopolitical worldview that exchanges permanence for libertarian freedom, close community for universal rights, and, ultimately, transcendent meaning for self-authentication.

Regardless of anything else about Why Liberalism Failed, Deneen’s grim diagnosis of Western society seems inarguably true. We don’t need to look very deep or very far to see the evidence. Americans are deeply polarized and alienated from one another, and many of the institutions that served as cultural touchstones in the past—especially religious institutions—are fraying. The horrific opioid epidemic epitomizes the despair and isolation of capitalism’s losers. Economic inequality and resentment are widespread, and both were major factors in the election of Donald Trump and in the resurgence of an angry, nativist populism all around the world. At the same time, government institutions take children away from their parents seemingly at whim, and religious citizens—even nuns!—are taken to court and stripped of their livelihood for their antiquated beliefs. It would be difficult indeed to overstate the dysfunctions facing our country. We can easily say that Deneen is right as to the what, even if he’s wrong as to the how.

Christians and Liberalism

Deneen is a conservative Catholic, and there are unmistakably religious elements to his argument. However, Why Liberalism Failed is a book of political philosophy, not of religion. He does not, for example, ground his case against liberalism in Scripture but in premodern classical thought. While this is an observation and certainly not a criticism, the absence of a robustly theological framework in Deneen’s book leaves much work to evangelical readers in working out the implications of the gospel for anti-liberalism.

One major question that Why Liberalism Failed leaves largely untouched is how we should think of the legacy of religious freedom. It’s only fair to point out that widespread religious liberty, especially for religious minorities, was not a feature of most premodern societies, and certainly was not a feature of the Greco-Roman cultures on which Deneen bases much of his appreciation for pre-modernity. Deneen rightly points out that Christianity exercised a positive influence on Western society in terms of human dignity and the image of God. But this observation doesn’t resolve the tension, since even Christendom eventually expressed itself violently against foreign peoples and beliefs. Deneen’s argument, recall, is not that classic liberalism needs to be more faithfully adhered to or more consistently applied, but that its sins and destructive consequences are endemic to it.

In order to make a case for religious liberty for religious minorities within an anti-liberal framework, Deneen must either a) qualify his argument to say that most, but not all characteristics of liberalism have destructive effects, or b) argue that such religious liberty is not really a feature of liberalism at all, thus we can have it without having liberalism.  The trouble with option B is, as I’ve alluded to, coming up with historical examples of non-liberal societies where religious minorities are safe and protected. The trouble with option A is that this is clearly not what Deneen says.

Is religious liberty really that important for a Christian political philosophy? I would argue it is. For one thing, a healthy separation of church and state (not to be confused with the quarantine of church from state) preserves the possibility of ecclesiological integrity in the church. A state church cannot require evidences of regeneration as a basis for church membership anymore than the US government can require a high IQ for voting rights. Both a state-enforced church and voting rights have the same legal basis: Political citizenship. The problem with a state-enforced church is that the theological basis of membership is not political but spiritual. The church is the community of the people of God, and that identity cannot be mediated through political ends.

The best way to preserve the integrity of the church’s membership is to not tie it to a political system. And the best way to avoid tying it to a political system is through a political culture of religious liberty. What Christian anti-liberal thinkers must articulate is how a pre or anti-liberal society can promote this kind of religious liberty.

Some Christians who are enthusiastically behind the anti-liberal project have suggested that it is (or will be) impossible to be simultaneously for classical liberalism and Christian virtue. While there is some truth in that, I would caution against relocating the source of Christian virtue. Rolling back the nihilism of modernity is a necessary project because Christian faith and practice repudiate it. But sociopolitical structures do not in themselves produce Christian virtue. Not even Christian cultures can by themselves do this, a lesson we’ve learned from watching evangelical “values voters” bend over backwards to dole out indulgences to presidents. The most authentic Christian virtue comes from the regenerated soul, the imagination and heart that are resurrected through faith and empowered by the Spirit. Whether this kind of virtue can live on in a liberal age is a foregone conclusion. It not only can, but it will.

Why Liberalism Failed is a valuable book, eloquently written and thoroughly clearsighted about the way that cultures and traditions can shape us. It is indeed time for Americans to question whether our basic assumptions about rights and community are actually undermining both. And Christians also need to examine ourselves, to see whether we are bringing to the public square a vision for human flourishing that is rooted in an absolute right to self-determination, or in the beauty and harmony of life under our wise Creator, King, and Redeemer, who, unlike liberalism, can never fail us.

Profane Public Squares

The Amazon Top 20 nonfiction lists includes two bestsellers, both from HarperOne, that include the f-word in their title and on their covers. A single asterisk keeps both titles from their honest spellings. My memory will not win any awards, but I simply do not recall ever seeing a trade book in Barnes and Noble with the f-word on the cover like that whilst growing up. One heard swears, of course, but one never read them on window-copy bestsellers. Maybe it’s time to ask our politicians and cultural elites, who go to great lengths to talk about “protecting children,” why they would file a restraining order against me for standing outside Target and yelling profanity at their kids, but seem to think I’ll be inclined to pay $15.99 for them to return the favor.

Meanwhile, literally as I was going to type this, I see that the Cleveland Indians are going to retire their mascot, Chief Wahoo, over concerns about racial stereotypes. I guess offensiveness can lead to change. You just have to be offensive in the right way.

A Brief Word to Book Reviewers

-Sneering dismissal of an author is acceptable to the degree that his book likewise is sneering and dismissive. What works marvelously well in a review of Richard Dawkins doesn’t in a review of Mitch Albom. You might have the same opinion of both writers, and that’s fine! But responding to Mitch Albom as if he’s Richard Dawkins is not only misleading and disingenuous, it’s obnoxious, like the preacher who screams from the pulpit “He leads me beside still waters.” If a meek and mild book is silly and false, then, as meekly and mildly as you can manage, call it silly and false. Don’t use a machine gun to rid the garden of squirrels.

-If you find yourself editing a citation from the book in a way that’s advantageous to your point but that wouldn’t be advantageous if you were to cite it more fully, you are in the process of misrepresenting the book. What you think the author really wants to say is not the same as what s/he said. Acknowledge the words that are really there and then make a case why your interpretation is valid. “Here’s what I think they mean” is perfectly defensible. “Look at what they said” is not.

-Write the review for the benefit of people who don’t necessarily have presuppositions about the author or the subject. Write something that would be helpful for the people who don’t subscribe to your Twitter feed or blog newsletter. If that’s difficult, declare what you’re writing a thinkpiece instead of a review. There’s no shame in it.

-If you can’t think of anything positive to say about the book, look at the cover. In my experience a suspiciously large percentage of the books that I couldn’t think of any redeeming qualities for had excellent outer designs. Work goes into that too, y’know.