My Year in Books

Let’s get this out of the way: Year-end reading lists are usually more helpful for making us feel guilty about what we didn’t read than making us thankful for what we did.

My own year of reading was certainly no exception; the pile of books that I read this year seems so small compared to that of others. Yet, I think it’s important to actively fight against this feeling. There is probably a place for reading to have read, but it’s a place that is often far more prominent in my ego than it needs to be. Reading at whim and for pleasure is, all variables being equal, vastly superior to reading to keep up. The former can, and often has, turned something in my soul. The latter usually just confirms my preexisting insecurities and arrogances.

With that prologue finished, here are the books I spent the most pleasurable time with this year. This isn’t an exhaustive list of my reading (though I won’t pretend that the exhaustive list would be much bigger), nor is it a definitive breakdown of everything I liked this year. Rather, these are the books that stayed with me the longest after I read them, the books I thought about the most, the books I marinated in the deepest. Most are from 2017, though not all.

 

-Brian Jay Jones, George Lucas: A LifeA compulsively readable biography. While it doesn’t offer quite the psychological insights I hoped, Lucas’s eclectic, unlikely career is vividly told with lots of fascinating new anecdotes.

-Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option. If you haven’t read the book, you don’t quite know the argument.

-Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise. An accessible and unpretentious assessment of a major cultural development. An essential read for anyone trying to understand the impact of the internet on how we think. Speaking of which…

-Alan Jacobs, How To Think. One of my most underlined books of the year. I like to think of it as a long essay about the epistemological consequences of social media. I can hardly think of a more timely work.

-John Stott, The Cross of Christ. This was my first foray in a Christian classic. Stott’s defense of penal substitutionary atonement is beautiful—so much so that it’s odd to even call it a “defense.” Of all the nonfiction I read this year, this one drove me to prayer and worship the most.

-Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter. Greene’s psychological novels dig deep in my soul. This story about a duty-bound English police officer and his crisis of faith and marriage kept me up late hours of the evening. The ending is one of the most spiritually moving pieces of fiction I’ve read.

-Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. An exquisitely written novel about some of the most fundamental human experiences. Aspiring storytellers should know this book.

-Sarah Shin, Beyond Colorblind. This excellent work is a rare thing: An evangelical treatise on race, white privilege, and community that is both thoroughly Christian and unflaggingly level headed.

-James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love. Probably the second-best book I read this year. On that note,

-Joe Rigney, The Things of Earth. My #1 read of 2017. I will be re-reading this book regularly. It has given me something for which I’ve longed for a while: A theological perspective on enjoying what God gives, and why doing so doesn’t conflict with enjoying who God is.

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Something Better Than Friendship

Rereading my way through C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, I was struck by Lewis’s blunt words about “wanting friends” and the essence of genuine friendship:

That is why those pathetic people who simply “want friends” can never make any. The very condition of having Friends is that we should want something else besides Friends. Where the truthful answer to the question Do you see the same truth? would be “I see nothing and I don’t care about the truth; I only want a friend,” no Friendship can arise—though Affection of course may. There would be nothing for the Friendship to be about; and Friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice. Those who have nothing can share nothing; those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.

For Lewis, the focus on something outside the relationship, something objective whose reality does not depend yet confers meaning on the relationship, is what differentiates Friendship from Eros. In Eros (which does not preclude Friendship but is not synonymous with it), the lovers are bound to each other by their very bonded-ness. The relationship itself is the point. Friendship, on the other hand, is cultivated when two people discover that they are both pursuing a same thing. Friendships are not made from a devotion to the bonded-ness itself, because that comes later. Friendships are made from a commonality that begets an identity.  Thus comes Lewis’s famous line: “Hence we picture lovers face to face but Friends side by side; their eyes look ahead.”

What would this observation mean in a digital age? For one thing, we should probably admit that the internet has changed, perhaps permanently, how our culture thinks about friendship. Partly this is through the elimination of distance and the flattening of time; friends can be reached instantly (text messaging), no matter where they are (smartphones), even at a sub-literate level (Snapchat and Instagram). Whether this is a good or bad thing probably depends on many other factors, and it would likely be a mistake to either worship or anathematize the raw connective potential of technology.

But then again, Westerners are indeed lonelier than ever before, despite how easy and unobtrusive to daily life the cultivation of “friendships” has become. This is where I think Lewis can help us. Lewis’s argument is not that friendship shouldn’t exist without an objective commonality; his argument is that it cannot exist. It is the nature of friendship to bring two people out of themselves, and out of each other, into something on which their bonded-ness can grow. Without that outside something, the relationship that forms between people is bent back inwardly for each of them. The relationship’s value becomes about how valued each person feels. The friendship exists for the sake of “having friends,” which really means it exists for the satisfaction of being liked.

This is important, because our age of social media is a curated age. Networking technology empowers individual control of the social experience; you can add, delete, mute, or hide at will. Curation is the power to feel like one is among friends even when one isn’t. “Friendship technology” is not about bringing people who both, to use Lewis’s term, see the same truth. If it were, social media would not have any long term appeal over phone calls, book clubs, and church. The reason it does have such appeal is that it offers individuals the psychological experiences of friendship (“My posts are being liked, therefore I am being liked”) without the often difficult work of cultivating one’s own inner life (which is, according to Lewis’s, what is shared by friends).

I suspect that part of the epidemic loneliness in our culture stems from the fact that many of us have very little of our own inner life to truly share with another person. Our hobbies don’t even mean much to us, because if we’re honest, we do them mostly because they’re what the “liked” people on social media do. In many of our hearts, there just isn’t much for friendship to feed on. Because there’s no effort to see truth, or to really love beauty, or to accomplish something meaningful, there’s consequently nothing that another person can come alongside us for. As we age, the stresses and demands of family, and especially work, choke out our inner lives. Life is reduced to doing, and only those who happen to be doing with us in a particular season of life can become our “friends,” even though we know the friendship will dissipate when the doing ceases, as doing always does.

Lewis’s observations are a reminder to me that sharing life with a friend requires treasuring something enough to share in the first place. Loving the wrong things, like the feeling of being “liked” by avatars on a screen, is a pestilence to real friendship. A social media age glorifies non-stop connectedness, but authentic friendship relies more on what happens in the quiet hours of life, as the heart takes shape.

Eluding E-Books

Mark Bauerlein’s observations about the decline of e-reading and the “Persistence of Print” ring very true to my own experience. I have now tried on two separate occasions, and with two separate e-readers, to invest in digital books. Both times I just couldn’t do it. My Kindle Paperwhite is a fine device, elegantly crafted and certainly convenient. It’s not that the technology just isn’t sophisticated enough. It’s that its over-sophistication sours the experience of reading.

There is nothing aesthetically pleasing about e-books, except for the e-reader itself (which never changes and which one dares not mark up). Even the full-color e-books that you get on tablets look more like blog posts than books. That’s probably because, if we’re being honest, there is no meaningful difference between an e-book and a blog post. They both subsist on the same ether. Their ontology is identical, which means the ways I experience them are also identical.

For me, the pleasures of reading go beyond the printed words. A physical book is a physical experience, one that I come back to not just to be reminded of the text but also to be reminded of the pages, the binding, the cover, the underlining, etc. Books are truly owned, whereas e-books are merely “licensed” (if you don’t believe in this distinction, read this). The difference is not just legal, it’s personal. An ebook cannot be “owned” in the same way a physical book can, because its constituent nature is simply not own-able the way a printed book is. This is a big reason why book buying is such a happy event for readers. It’s one thing to know the words that are inside. It’s another thing to know the book as a material whole.

Speaking of book-buying—I suppose someone at some point is going to bring up the fact that ebook prices are just not very competitive? Unless you find one of those flash deals for $2.99, most ebooks I’ve encountered are not that much better off than the Amazon print price. If you live within a reasonable distance of a good used book store, that comparison gets even worse. There is no “secondary market” for ebooks, which means the price that you pay to download something to your Kindle is a fixed fee for licensing, and nothing more.

As tech goes, I actually admire my Kindle a lot. And there are obvious advantages of e-reading when it comes to traveling. But for my money, I prefer to have something to hold onto, something to shelve, and something to rediscover through dust, rather than just a dim backlight and a wifi connection.

A Literary Reading List for Theology Students

One of my regrets from my college years is that I didn’t receive a more literary education. By God’s design I attended a Bible college that at the time had only theological or ministerial degrees (now, they offer a Humanities degree, a Philosophy-Politics-Economics honors program, and more options). So I spent the vast majority of my reading time in college reading nonfiction, usually works of systematic theology or biblical exegesis. I don’t think that time was wasted, but I have often wished I’d cultivated a love of literature during the season of life where I was most able to and most connected with friends who might share my joy in it.

Perhaps some reading this can empathize with my plight. If so, here are a few book recommendations for theology students who want to read more literature. Of course, booklists are subjective, imperfect, and you probably shouldn’t structure all your reading around them. “Read at whim” is crucially important advice for getting the most out of reading. Nevertheless, I can remember feeling like I wanted to read great literature but was swimming in an ocean of propositional theology instead, and had no idea where to go. If you’re nodding along, this list is for you:

  • The Pleasures of Reading In an Age of Distraction (Alan Jacobs). If you feel like you need to read a book on reading, don’t even consider alternatives. Read this one. It will not only help you read better, it will inflame your desire and free you from ridiculous literary legalism.
  • The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro). This short novel is one of the most completely entrancing books I’ve read, and its themes are rich for Christian interaction. If you enjoy history, too, you’ll delight in the 20th century geopolitical subtexts throughout this work.
  • The End of the Affair/The Heart of the Matter (Graham Greene). Graham Greene is an author any Christian reader needs to know. Even if his meditative prose challenges your patience, the spiritual turmoil of his characters, and the deeply humane way in which he describes them, are almost devotional in insight.
  • Til We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis). Recommending Lewis for theology students is practically a cliche, but this is one of his lesser known works. It might be the most purely literary thing Lewis ever did.
  • The Jeeves & Wooster novels (P.G. Wodehouse). These books are funnier than anything on Netflix.
  • Inferno (Dante). The Divine Comedy as a whole is a masterpiece of literary history, but if you’re looking to dip in the waters first, Inferno is widely considered the most compelling of the books. Don’t get tripped up wondering whether Dante’s descriptions of hell are literally theologically accurate. They weren’t intended to be.
  • Collected Essays (James Baldwin). This isn’t fiction obviously, but it is perhaps one of the finest collections of writing ever assembled. Not everything that Baldwin says or argues is true. Nonetheless, particularly for white evangelicals, encountering Baldwin’s rhetorical power is a shaping experience. When you’re knee deep in academic theology it’s important to remind yourself that writing is a craft. Baldwin will remind you.
  • The Harry Potter series (J.K Rowling). You might have grown up with these books, in which case, good for you. But many evangelical college students waited till adolescence or even adulthood before the scent of homeschool chain emails dissipated from their conscience. I envy any first time-reader of these books. You are in for an indescribable treat. If teenage wizard fiction isn’t your thing, give the first two books a try anyway.
  • Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe). I don’t think I’ve ever seen this book assigned in a Christian “Great Books” course, but it belongs there. Christian students in particular should wrestle with the book’s depiction of European missionaries and questions of cultural integration and colonialism.
  • Night (Ellie Wiesel). A book you’ll want to run from. Don’t. Let history and memory hit you with the force that it hit the biblical prophets.
  • Silence (Shusaku Endo). Sooner or later every obedient Christian will have to ask themselves the questions at the heart of this book. This is a story you won’t forget anytime soon. Don’t resist the impulse to pray after reading this. I hardly think you can really understand it otherwise.
  • Great Expectations (Charles Dickens). At the end of the day, the chief end of literature is to enjoy it. Slink into this novel and drink a little bit of its world every evening. Of all the books on this list, this one might rehabilitate a crippled love of reading the most.

How to Think

My review of Alan Jacobs’s forthcoming book How to Think: A Survival Guide For a World at Odds, is up at the Mere Orthodoxy main page.

Here’s a snippet:

Happily, How To Think is not a Trump-directed polemic or a guidebook for navigating Twitter. Readers familiar with both topics will probably get the maximum satisfaction from Jacobs’s book, but its themes are higher and deeper than that. Building on a recent surge in scholarly and popular level writing on how humans think, Jacobs asks a probing question: Why, at the end of everything, do otherwise intelligent people fail to think well? “For me, the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will: We suffer from a settled determination to avoid thinking.” (17) Jacobs writes that it’s a mistake to assume that human beings are ultimately rational beings whose irrationality cannot be understood. On the contrary, human nature, and therefore human thinking, is inescapably moral. We often think and live poorly because we want to.

Read the whole review. After you do that, preorder the book. Trust me: you’ll want this one.

God Is & God Does

I’ve been reading Joe Rigney’s The Things of Earth: Treasuring God By Enjoying His Gifts, and cannot recommend it too highly. For me Joe’s contemplations have been like cold spring water on a thick August afternoon. For years I have felt like something was missing in my understanding of how to love the things God gives in the context of loving God himself supremely. Well, actually, it would be more accurate to say I’ve felt like everything was missing in my understanding! It’s one thing to hear John Piper say that God himself is the best thing, not his gifts, and to affirm it because of course. But it’s another thing entirely to then turn from that truth and look with love and joy and thankfulness at the universe, rather than with contempt or paralyzing anxiety. Joe’s book is about how to do that.

One thing Joe’s work has illuminated for me is a carelessness in evangelical talk. Growing up I frequently heard Bible teachers say something like the following: “Worship is adoring God for who he is, while praise is adoring God for what he does.” This makes all sorts of sense as long as you don’t go digging in the Bible to find it. It makes sense because it’s our nature to separate who God is from what God does. Part of that I imagine is due to a good desire to avoid idolatry. God gives us the universe but God himself is not one with it. Of course that’s true.

But I suspect something else is going in this way of speaking, and it’s precisely what Joe has in his crosshairs in this book. Separating who God is from what God does can be a lazy way of admitting that we don’t know how the two actually relate to another. It can mask a serious misunderstanding of the things of earth. It’s much easier to say “God is holy and loving” than it is to say, “God has created a physical universe and human beings whose very existence tell us that He is holy and loving.” The first sentence exists in the attic, away from the messy problems of evil and suffering and decay. The second sentence invites uncomfortable further inquiry.

But what if it’s actually not good–what if it’s actually sub-Christian–to think of God’s nature abstracted wholly from the things he has made? What if, as Jonathan Edwards said, God’s “supreme excellencies” are known through His works? What if the things of earth do not, in fact, grow strangely dim in light of his glory and grace? What if they ARE the light of his glory and grace?

Of course none of this means that God IS the Milky Way. In fact, it would be silly to talk about glory and grace if all we mean is pantheism. The universe has no grace. The universe has no begotten Son to send into the world. It has no cross to bear. The important point here is that Jesus of Nazareth was very man of very man, and very God of very God. His incarnated deity is what John calls the “exact representation” of the Father. There is no understanding God that is abstracted from flesh and blood, because whoever denies that God has come in the flesh is the anti-Christ (1 John 4). God’s works are not cordoned off from his glory. God’s glory shines in His works.

What Hogwarts Can Teach Us About Friendship

Why were the Harry Potter stories so wildly successful? What was it about them, as opposed to hundreds of other “young adult” novels, that embossed onto the consciousness of a generation? Why are we celebrating the 20th anniversary of their US publication with the same kind of enthusiasm as if the books were published last Christmas?

Here’s one theory. The Harry Potter books have become cultural touchstones because they are not really about magic, or heroes, or even good vs evil. They are really about friendship.

Friendship is the rosebud of American culture. Its the thing universally acknowledged as necessary and good, and the one thing that every mechanism of our daily life in a flat, atomized society violently resists. Particularly for readers of Harry Potter who were the first to grow up in a culture shaped by the internet and social media, the friendships depicted in the novels seem almost like a shameless daydream. Hogwarts is the epicenter for a kind of intimacy and interdependence that, for many of us, exists only in such fairy tales. Friendship–the kind that ties together Harry, Ron, and Hermione– is rare.

Not long ago someone asked me if I could recall the happiest period of my adolescence. I didn’t have to think long. The ages and the years are fuzzy (I was homeschooled, so all grades run together in my memory), but I could instantly remember a season of life where I was surrounded by friends from church. Though I couldn’t tell you what kind of Bible teaching impacted me then, nor most of the books that I loved, I could readily paint a mental picture of what it felt like to be tied into a group of others who cared about and looked out for me. It was a season that the college years destroyed, since most of the kids in the youth group went to different schools, and a large number used the opportunity to drop out of church altogether. When the rhythm of student ministry life was gone, so were the friendships. And the same is true for most of us, whether the rhythm is from church, or school, or neighborhood. Mobility cuts through friendship like a scythe.

Except at Hogwarts. In the Harry Potter universe, there’s no choice necessary between friends and “the next step.” In fact, as the mythology of the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that the friendships are part of the triumph of the good. The final victory over evil demands love seasoned through the years. Every time that Harry tries to accomplish by his own strength, even if his motivations are noble (like keeping his friends out of harm’s way), Ron, Hermione, and others intercede on his behalf.

This is the kind of spiritual friendship that cannot be adequately described in a context that sees shared hobbies or mutual ambitions as the extent of belonging. It’s a spiritual neighborliness that is hard to find in many churches, as ruthless age-segregation and perfunctory programming bring people together just long enough to send them away again. This liturgy of loneliness is one well-learned by many adults, especially men. In J.K. Rowling’s universe we get a vivid depiction of male friendship and compassion, as a stark contrast to our own disenchanted time, when many young men are isolated and many older men are pathologically lonely.

The Potter novels charm so many because they are an unembarrassed confession that friends matter, and that despite the best efforts of technology and consumerism, we human beings simply cannot get over the fact. That is perhaps one reason why an aggressively self-determining, self-authenticating Western audience somehow feels at home in a fantasy that clearly hearkens to a more standardized, more ritualistic experience of life. Our time has moved past antiquarian boarding schools or formalistic liturgies, but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at the bestselling novels of the modern age.

All to often, Christian voices do not challenge the relational damage of modernity. How many evangelical parents are willing for their children to explore alternatives to a far-away university? And how many youth ministries set up programming and structure that incubates young adults from the rest of the church, reinforcing the idea that the goal of life (even the goal of faith!) is to assimilate as long as possible into your assigned demographic? It’s ironic that many evangelicals were more worried about readers of Harry Potter becoming wizards and witches than they were about their becoming atomized, self-reinventing American dreamers, anxious for Rob Bell to teach them what it means to be spiritual.

If Christian communities cannot offer friendship, what can they offer? Part of believing the gospel at all is believing that it wasn’t given to individuals, but to a church. There’s much conversation right now about recovering a biblical ideal of church membership. Good! But a body part that never responds to the other body parts is probably dead, even if it’s still attached. Friendships weren’t created by God to disappear as quickly as they tend to. Covenant membership means friendship if it means anything.

Perhaps the best thing evangelicals could do to learn this is to put down the church growth manuals and the target demographic research, and read some Harry Potter.

Some Advice for Writers

Recently a few friends of mine have asked me about writing, and for some perspective and/or advice on how to get started doing it seriously. I’ve given the same advice enough times that I figured it might be helpful to put what I most frequently say here as a kind of reference.

As always, none of this advice is gospel, and don’t be surprised if some of it doesn’t end up working like I say. In a real sense, the best “advice” I can give anyone who wants to write is to immediately stop looking for writing advice, and just write. If you’re an aspiring writer, and you’ve read more books in the last month on how to be a writer than other kinds of books, you’re doing it wrong, and you may be in a lamentable state of mind where what you really want to do is be known as a writer–instead of, you know, actually writing.

Nonetheless, there are some helpful things you can do. Here they are:

-Read, read, read.

This is always my #1 piece of advice. There’s no such thing as a writer who doesn’t read. If you don’t particularly care for reading, the actual craft and discipline of writing will elude you. If you enjoy reading but you don’t read widely–say, if you read a handful of books every year, mostly all in the same genre/author/length/etc–your writing will reflect this.

Read widely, and read, as Alan Jacobs says, “at whim.” Reading and relishing 1 good book by a talented author will probably do more for your own writing than reading 3 books on how to write. It’s been said that “leaders are readers.” It’s even more true that writers are readers.

-Write, write, write

It’s exactly like it sounds. Try to write every day. Register a free blog. Or just open Word on your computer and start writing. Glean writing ideas from your own reading (don’t put too much stock in artificial “prompts,” like the ones you find inside journals; they can be useful, but focus more on prompting yourself through interacting with what you’re reading).

-Figure out what you’re most interested in, and write more about that.

One of the mistakes people make when they try to start writing regularly is that they think being a good writer means being able to write about anything and everything. Not so. Most of the best writers are not really “generalists” that can churn out solid essays on everything from politics, to movies, to literature, to fashion. There’s nothing wrong with having thoughts about a lot of topics, but don’t fear the beat. Embrace the fact that you don’t have unlimited time or (most importantly) unlimited thoughtfulness. Find the one thing you want to talk about more than others, and sharpen it.

-Pitch your ideas to editors, not robots

In general, don’t bother wasting your time with “Submissions” portals. Find editors who work for places you admire and introduce yourself. Do as much “networking” as you can think to do (but don’t network at the expense of your actual craft). This will do 2 things for you: It will greatly raise your chances of having a pitch accepted, and it will put you in contact with people who can improve your writing.

-Go analog

The demise of paper and pen has been highly exaggerated. Invest in some analog writing tools and use them to capture ideas. Physical writing tools come with much fewer distractions, which is nice, but even better, they reduce the process to the essentials of the craft. The literary life is beset with temptations to vanity. Even writing itself can become more about announcing to the world that I’m a Writer than about the word. Analog processes can help you do some self-accountability. If you’re not willing to write unless you can tweet out your stuff within seconds, you may not be in it for the right reasons.

-Embrace failure and inferiority

Your pitches will be rejected. Your blog won’t be Retweeted. Your writing won’t catch the eye you hoped. You will feel like an impostor, like a joke, like a horribly misled little soul that has deluded itself. You will wonder with disgust and anxiety why you can’t write like your favorite authors.

Embrace it. Live with it. You’re not the world’s greatest writer. You probably won’t write a bestseller. That’s OK, because words are valuable and beautiful and worth it even if they don’t fly off a shelf or garner a big advance. You’ll keep coming back despite all the frustration, not because you love attention, but because you love to write. You need to write. Those words have to get out.

If that’s you, then congrats: You’re in the right line of work.

Everything Is Awful (But Only On Twitter)

I’m headed to the mountains for vacation tomorrow, and will be signing out of all social media for the duration of my holiday. Unplugging from social media and taking vacation seem to go hand in hand, for a lot of us. But have you wondered why this is? I have a feeling James K.A. Smith got close to the point here:

I am endlessly perplexed by people who say–and there are many who do–that social media and the internet “community” are the best measures of What’s Really Happening in the world today. These folks will point us to Twitter if we want to know what’s really making an impact in our culture, the things people are really talking about. There’s an entire journalism industry, in fact, being formed around the idea that the internet has a personality, and that this personality is every bit as consequential to your experience of the world as the 10PM news. Thus, you get stories in your news feed like, “Celebrity XYZ Recently Said This, and the Internet is NOT Happy About It.”

If you spend most of your day scanning social media sites and blogs, you will probably come away with a very specific idea of what American culture is like. The latest hashtags will probably convey some sense of despair or outrage; the latest viral videos will either do the same, or else distract. But here’s the thing: Because of the effect of digital media on human attention, the internet is designed to be totally absorbing and supremely now. If you’re riding the bus and two people behind you are quarreling, you probably won’t get off the bus and feel a palpable sense of depression for the rest of the day at how selfish human beings can be. On the other hand, if you’re reading Twitter hashtags and following back-and-forths between really angry users and the target of their outrage, you will almost certainly turn off your phone and feel consumed by it. That’s not because the outrage you just watched is more real (actually the opposite is probably true), it’s because your brain absorbed it in a qualitatively different way than it absorbed the bus ride (for more on this topic, I recommend this outstanding book)

This is exactly why a dive into social media will lead you to believe that the world is probably a terrible place to live right now. Everything, from the littlest of impolite slights to the most difficult issues of human justice, is magnified with unending intensity on the screen. If you turn off your phone and head down to the library or the coffee shop, though, it kinda seems the people you’re sitting next to don’t have any idea that they should be packing their bags for the bomb shelter. They talk normally, seem relatively calm, maybe even kind. It’s almost as if you’re experiencing two distinct cultures: One a perpetually moving but never anchored sea of consciousness, bent every which way by advertising and technology; and the other, a culture of place, permanence, and sunshine.

I know people currently going through incredibly trying times right now. Unemployment, illness, loneliness, family disintegration–you name it. There is a lot of suffering in this world. Almost always however, the most miserable people I run into are not these people. The most miserable people are the ones who don’t suffer, but merely hover–attached to the world by ether, spending their time and emotions on a diet of pixels.

The best antidote I know of for this is just to turn stuff off. Which is what I shall do, starting now.

The Death of Expertise

Remember that famous scene in Peter Weir’s “Dead Poets Society,” in which professor Keating (played by Robin Williams) orders his English literature students to tear out the introductory pages of their poetry textbook? Those pages, Keating explains, are the soulless pontifications of a scholar trying to explain verse. Nonsense, says Keating. Poetry isn’t what some expert says it is. It’s about “sucking the marrow out of life,” about spontaneous utterances of the subconscious and chasing your dreams and sticking it to your parents and headmaster. Forget the experts, boys; carpe diem!

As a misguided defense of the humanities, “Dead Poets Society” is easy enough to dismiss. The bigger problem is that Keating’s heedless disregard for truth and knowledge is a pretty accurate picture of how many Americans think and live. That’s the contention of Tom Nichols in his new book “The Death of Expertise,” a brief yet persuasive work that laments our generation’s factual free-for-all.

Americans, Nichols believes, are not just subsisting on a low amount of general knowledge. That wouldn’t exactly be a new development. Rather, Nichols is disturbed by the “emergence of a positive hostility” to established, credentialed, and professional knowledge, one that “represents the aggressive replacement of expert views or established knowledge with the insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other.”

According to Nichols, what White House press secretaries might call “alternative facts” have become common cultural currency. If love means never having to say you’re sorry, the Internet means never having to say you’re wrong.

For many people, a first-person blog post is (at least) as authoritative as a peer-reviewed study, and a Facebook link offers truth too hot for professional journalists and fact checkers to handle. This ethos doesn’t just promulgate wrong information, which would be bad enough. Nichols argues that, even worse, it fosters a deep distrust and cynicism toward established knowledge and credentialed communities.

Nichols’s book puts the symptoms of the death of expertise on a spectrum. Some effects are clearly more harmful than others. It’s no revelation that “low-information voters” feel as vehement as ever about a plethora of fictitious things. More worrisome, however, is the growing public comfort with dangerous conspiracy theories. Both of these trends owe much to the “University of Google” (to borrow one celebrity’s self-proclaimed credentials for rejecting vaccinations). With so much access to so much information available to so many people, the web has seriously undermined the responsible dissemination of verified facts and blurred the distinction between truth and talking point. Nichols writes:

The internet lets a billion flowers bloom and most of them stink, including everything from the idle thoughts of random bloggers and the conspiracy theories of cranks all the way to the sophisticated campaigns of disinformation conducted by groups and governments. Some of the information on the Internet is wrong because of sloppiness, some of it is wrong because well-meaning people just don’t know any better, and some of it is wrong because it was put there out of greed or even sheer malice. The medium itself, without comment or editorial intervention, displays it all with equal speed. The internet is a vessel, not a referee.

Nichols doesn’t lay all the blame on the internet. Higher education has contributed to the death of expertise, Nichols writes, both by churning out poor thinkers from its ranks and by defining education itself down to mean little more than payment in exchange for a degree. “When everyone has attended a university,” Nichols observes, “it gets that much more difficult to sort out actual achievement and expertise among all those ‘university graduates.’” Similarly, public trust in professional journalism has been harmed by incompetence on one end and clickbait on the other. All of this, Nichols argues, combines to foster an instinctive cynicism toward expertise and established knowledge. When experts get it wrong, well, of course they did; when they get it right, there’s probably more to the story.

One issue that seems relevant here, and one that Nichols lamentably doesn’t really parse, is the triumph of subjective narrative over objective arguments. Americans have always loved a good story, but what seems unique about our time is the way that story and first person narrative have assumed an authoritative role in culture, often to the contradiction and exclusion of factual debate. Instead of trading in truth claims, many simply trade in anecdotes, and shape their worldview strictly in line with experiences and felt needs.

The privileging of story over knowledge is a glaring feature, for example, of much contemporary religion. While real theological literacy is alarmingly rare, what are far more common are self-actualizing narratives of experience. These authoritative narratives take all kinds of forms—they’re the diaries of the “spiritual but not religious” Oprah denizens, and they’re also the cottage industry of “ex-[insert denomination/church name]” watchdog bloggers. In both cases, when jolting stories about the problems of the religious expert class collide with more established doctrine or practices, the tales triumph.

What’s more, young evangelicals in particular seem more likely to get their theological and spiritual formation outside the purview of pastors, churches, and seminaries (a triad that could be considered representative of a religious “expert” class). Blogs, podcasts, and TED Talks seem to offer many American Christians a spiritual life more attractive than the one lived in institutions like the local church and seminary. Indeed, a casual disregard for formal theological education seems to be a common marker amongst many young, progressive evangelicals, several of whom enjoy publishing platforms and high website traffic despite their near total lack of supervised training. An Master of Divinity may be nice, but a punchy blog and a healthy Twitter following is even better (you don’t have to think long or hard before you see this dynamic’s potential for heterodoxy).

Perhaps we ought to consider this the “Yelp” effect on American culture. In an economy of endless choices, “user reviews” are often the first and most important resource that many of us consult in making decisions. Putting trust in the aggregated consensus of the crowd is likely more endemic in our daily experiences than we think. It’s how we decide where to have dinner, which car to buy, what insurance company to rely on–and, increasingly, whether or not to inoculate our children, and which interpretation of the New Testament to accept. When the self-reported experiences of our peers are just a couple clicks away, and our first instinct toward expertise and credentialed wisdom is suspicion of bias and elitism, it’s not hard to see how we got here.

So what’s the solution? Unfortunately, Nichols’s book doesn’t offer many answers for the death of expertise. This is somewhat understandable; there are only so many different ways to say “epistemic humility,” after all. There is obvious need for self-awareness, both among laypeople and among the expert class. As Nichols notes, credentialed experts should “stay in their lane,” not risking credibility in order to appear omni-competent. Likewise, readers should acknowledge the inherent value in professional training and the processes of verification and review. While these things do not make expertise infallible, they do make expertise more reliable than sheer intuition.

But in order for this epistemic humility to take place, something else needs to happen first, and that is the re-cultivation of trust. Trust has fallen on hard times. Mutual trust in the public square is increasingly rare. In many cases, good faith dialogue and hearty debate have been exchanged for competing “righteous minds” that suspect the worst of ideological opponents. The “death of expertise” is, in an important sense, the death of trust—the death of trust in our public square, the death of trust in our institutions and cultural touchstones, and even the death of trust in each other.

Believing in the inherent value of experts requires us to accept fallen human nature in its limitations. It requires us to to admit that individuals with a laptop and a curious mind are limited, and that “limited” does not here mean “stupid.” The value of experts—whether professors, doctors, theologians, architects, or, gasp, even government officials–is value that we see when we accept that time and training and accountability and certification are helpful precisely because they impose a control on individual passions and abilities. The fact that not everyone is an expert is a good thing, because human flourishing is not when, as the joke goes, “everybody is above average,” but when people learn from each other in striving for the common good.

Expertise is not an infallible panacea. Nor is it a politically motivated trap. It is the natural consequence of being made in the image of a knowing God, who gives gifts and graces to each, for the good of all. Humility to sit under this kingdom economy is the key to resurrecting a culture of trust—and with it, a flourishing, mutually beneficial age of experts.