Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square

In our era, what’s truly Christian or conservative is not always easy to discern.

A few years ago, Bill Maher appeared on the (now shuttered) Charlie Rose Show. Maher is one of the smugger, less sufferable “New atheist” types, and has more or less made a lucrative career out of representing conservatives and religious people, especially Christians, as idiots at best and theocrats at worst. So it was a bit surprising to see a clip from his interview with Charlie Rose getting passed around with enthusiasm amongst many conservative (and Christian) politicos. Continue reading “Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square”

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Excerpts from my sent folder: Michael Gerson and evangelicalism

In Gerson’s revisited 20th century evangelicalism, the mercenary character of the Religious Right disappears because conservative Christians embrace evolution. He’s wrong, not only, as you point out, about the uncontested truthfulness of Darwinian biology, but also about the connection between causes and effects. Gerson seems to think that accepting evolution would have kept evangelical Christianity’s respectability and allowed conservative theological emphases to flourish with the broader culture. He ignores the fact that mainline Protestantism did exactly what he recommends—embrace evolution and higher criticism—and has been unraveling ever since, bleeding members while slouching toward the sexual revolution. His wistfulness for an evangelicalism that doesn’t alienate the elite universities is a day late and a denomination short.

 

New blog category blatantly stolen from Alan Jacobs.

Why Men Like Me Shouldn’t Be Pastors

Why responding to the scourge of pastoral malpractice in evangelicalism starts in the pulpit itself.

Last August, Daniel Mattson wrote a heartfelt essay for First Things entitled, “Why Men Like Me Shouldn’t Be Priests.” Continue reading “Why Men Like Me Shouldn’t Be Pastors”

On Bothsidesism

A gnat and a camel are both bad ideas to swallow, but swallowing the camel is a much worse idea.

American political culture has a nasty way of inspiring all of us to take something that is true and use or apply it in a way that makes it false. “All lives matter” is a great example. The sentence is 100% true; it is invoked almost exclusively for the purpose of rebuking someone who just said that a specific kind of life (black, immigrant, unborn, etc.) matters. Another good example is Whataboutism: The act of immediately responding to any fair critique with an example of how your opponent, or his tribe, have also failed in this category. Example: “It’s absolutely wrong for a President to talk about women or the disabled in such a derogatory way.” “What about Bill Clinton?!?!”

Bothsidesism is another example. It bears a close relationship to Whataboutism but is its own species. Bothsidesism is what you do when someone points out that a particular party or tribe is guilty of something. Rather than pushing back against the accusation, you simply remind the person making the observation that “Both sides do this,” and present an example of comparable sin committed by either a) the party/tribe generally thought to be the polar opposite of the party/tribe being accused, or b) the party/tribe that you think the person making the observation represents.

This sounds a lot like Whataboutism, but there’s an important difference. Whataboutism is an accusation of moral hypocrisy that implies the original observation is meaningless or the first speaker is inauthentic. Bothsidesism, on the other hand, is not a direct charge of hypocrisy, but rather an attempt to change the subject. “Both sides do this” is often code for, “Now instead of talking about each other, let’s talk about how awful everything is.” Whereas Whataboutism challenges the moral authority of the original point, Bothsidesism challenges whether there’s any moral authority to be had at all.

Complicating all this is the fact that neither Whatboutism nor Bothsidesism are really fallacies. It does matter, for example, that the same media institutions bemoaning toxic masculinity stood up for Bill Clinton and shamed his accusers. It does matter that, while the Democratic Party sanctions the killing of the unborn, the Republican Party has also adopted language and policies about minorities, immigrants, and others that dehumanizes and obscures the sanctity of life. These are fair points, and they have to be reckoned with if our understanding of culture is going to rise above the level of AM radio.

Last night I tweeted (I know, I know):

Isn’t it weird how abortion on demand at 30+ weeks is “complex,” “intimate,” and “hard to talk about without dividing people,” while single-payer healthcare and a wall are “matters of justice” and “the Jesus way”?

I think most readers knew that my point was about left-leaning evangelicals, many of whose prolific Trump-era political tweeting has taken an intermission since the state of New York approved a ghoulish abortion law, and the governor of Virginia offered some similarly ghoulish thoughts about which born infants can be killed. It’s an observation I’ve made many times; there’s a weird overlap between the folks who go straight to the Old Testament to explain why a certain immigration policy is wrong and the folks who seem totally unable to articulate an argument against letting live-born infants die on a medical table. It’s an overlap that has the stench of identity politics and the “age of lumping” all over it.

A friend responded to this tweet by reminding me that “Both sides do this,” by which he meant that the Republican Party and the Trump administration have sanctioned the cruel separation of families and other odious, anti-Christian policies. He’s 100% correct. Both parties are, right now, imago Dei-denying, family-subverting parties. A pox on all our houses.

And yet: Both sides are manifestly not equally OK with infanticide. That’s the point. My tweet was not intended at all to flatter the GOP. It was intended to point out a lethal confusion in many evangelical writers, several of whom have rich book contracts, sold-out speaking engagements, and influential platforms. It’s the confusion that cannot see a moral urgency to the willful, state-sanctioned killing of a perfectly recognizable tiny human. It’s the confusion that looks at abortion and sees only a “divisive wedge issue” that Christians should “get beyond,” but looks at single payer healthcare and a border wall and sees a clear biblical mandate to care for the poor and welcome the stranger. It’s not that the latter conviction is wrong; it’s that the former conviction is so very very wrong that, yes, it colors everything that comes after it. A gnat and a camel are both bad ideas to swallow, but swallowing the camel is a much worse idea.

The problem with Bothsidesism is that it assumes a moral equivalency that doesn’t exist. What matters most is not that both tribes get equally dinged. What matters most is that human life, born or unborn, white or black or brown, healthy or disabled or young or old, is respected as the crowning jewel of a sovereign Creator’s work. However such life is disrespected, it is always a tragedy; but the authorized killing of innocent human life is the worst tragedy of all because it cannot be remedied. It is permanent, forever, and irreconcilable until the resurrection. Bothsidesism is correct to point out faults in both political ideologies, but it’s wrong when it’s invoked to obscure degrees of seriousness in our faults. Without being conscious of those degrees, we cannot hope to remedy injustice.

Bothsidesism feels good in the moment because it feels like taking a wider view of things. But a wider view isn’t always helpful if what you need to see is right in front of you. The bigger failure of evangelicals in the 19th and 20th centuries wasn’t that they didn’t have a fully realized, magisterial doctrine of human dignity and the political sphere. It was that they either supported or ignored lynching, slavery, and disenfranchisement. They ignored what was right in front of them.

As do we.

Jonathan Merritt on Bible Literacy Classes

Is religious literacy valuable for society?

A few very brief thoughts on this piece from Jonathan Merritt:

1) Merritt’s point about Christian parents probably not wanting a state-approved presentation of Christianity is valid. To the degree that Christians have to let lawmakers or anyone else comb through and filter the contents of our faith in order to gain a foothold somewhere, I think we’ve already lost a big part of our mission.

2) On the other hand, Merritt’s argument is disingenuous because it basically boils down to an assumption that the kind of evangelicals likely to back a Bible literacy bill are not the kind of evangelicals likely to see value in a comparative religion-style education on Scripture. Merritt pretty much assumes from the get-go that the real reason any evangelical would want a Bible literacy class is to catechize. Aside from being a rather bad faith assumption, is he really sure that evangelicals would be outraged to hear their children were taught the Bible was fully of mythical symbolism? I mean, isn’t that what they’re pretty much taught anyway?

3) I wonder why Merritt doesn’t mention comparing a high school Bible literacy class to a college equivalent, of which there are many examples.  Public universities study the Bible all the time, and the vast majority of those classes are taught from an unbelieving point of view. I don’t recall seeing many organized evangelical protests of those classes, which are also taxpayer funded.

4) Merritt writes, “While evangelicals are generally more politically conservative, teachers in public schools might choose to emphasize the Bible’s many teachings on caring for the poor, welcoming the immigrant, and the problems of material wealth.” Ah, my least favorite genre of writing: The I’m-Arguing-From-Your-Terrible-Point-of-View essay.

5) It seems Merritt pretty much ignores the crucial question, which is, “Is religious literacy valuable for American society at large?” Stephen Prothero wrote a well-reviewed book arguing that it is. Near the book’s conclusion, Prothero quotes no less than Charles Colson on why Christians need not fear public courses on the Bible that refuse to proselytize:

“Some critics fear that merely studying the Bible’s role in history, or as literature diminishes it,” writes Colson. But such a course, he argues, does not prevent Christians from taking the “next step” and trying to convert young people to Christianity. As Colson recognizes, however, spurring young people to take this “next step” cannot be the job of public schools. “Can people be good citizens,” Colson asks, “if they don’t know their own history?” The answer, of course, is no.

6) Of course, this entire discussion presupposes that it’s possible to educate about something without prescribing it to the people being educated. Given the rigorous calls for schools to stop teaching everything that requires mature, critical moral evaluation—everything from political history to Mark Twain—I think there’s a deep confusion in Western culture as to whether that is possible at all. Right now we seem awfully comfortable simply banning stuff in the name of justice rather than engaging with our past. Merritt doesn’t find time to ask whether this is a good thing. That’s a shame.

Bright, Dark Lights

Bryan Singer, like Harvey Weinstein, used his movies to sexually abuse others.

The Atlantic has published the results of a 12 month investigation into director/producer Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns, Bohemian Rhapsody). Of all the #MeToo bombshell articles I’ve read, and I’ve read many, this one was the hardest to read. Singer and his collaborators named in the article appear to be intensely depraved predators. The piece, which is graphic in detail, documents nothing less than an unofficial sex trafficking operation that targeted dozens, and probably hundreds, of adolescent boys. Assuming even the barest portions of this reporting are correct, Singer is a sexual menace who has continually used his work and connections to facilitate abuse.

It’s that last part I can’t stop thinking about. As I described it to a friend this morning, you can’t read this article and discern where the entertainment industry began and the sexual predation ended. Like Harvey Weinstein, Singer made his work as a filmmaker an integral part of how he abused teens. He funded “production” companies whose sole purpose was apparently to create a pretense for getting boys to parties. He abused boys on-set. In one instance, according to the piece, a group of teenage extras in one of his movies was directed to disrobe in front of camera after being misled to believe nudity wasn’t required. The portrait this investigation paints of Bryan Singer and his co-conspirators (of whom there appear to be many) is not one of work during the day, sexual abuse during the night. The work was part of the abuse. The abuse was facilitated through the work.

This should sound very familiar to you. Recall that Harvey Weinstein told actress Salma Hayek that he would pull funding for her movie unless she did a sex scene. A major theme in Hollywood’s #MeToo nightmare is how the films and studios themselves become not only complicit but instruments of the abuse. In Hayek’s case, her accommodation of Weinstein’s predatory demands is forever captured onscreen. In the case of some of those “Bryan boys,” theirs is, too.  Can you separate the naked “just acting” that you see in the film from the threats and manipulation that put it there? At what point are we actually watching the abuse we read about?

Of course, it’s impossible to know why every sexually explicit scene on TV or in film is put there. I’m sure there are many that exist solely because a writer or director thinks it makes for good entertainment. But ask yourself this: How likely is it that Harvey Weinstein and Bryan Singer are the only Hollywood storytellers that have used their stories as pretenses to sexually exploiting somebody on that screen? So much sexual content in film is extraneous, especially in big budget films. Almost invariably onscreen nudity seems to exist wholly apart from the narrative of the film; it’s just there, and then it’s just gone. Knowing what we know now about people like Weinstein and Singer, it seems almost impossible to notice an unnecessarily explicit scene without wondering if literally the only reason it exists is to satisfy a fantasy of someone behind the camera.

In fairness, I’ve never really admired the argument that Christians sometimes make against pornography that appeals to the exploitation of actresses as a reason not to watch. It’s not that I think such exploitation doesn’t exist (it most certainly does), nor that I think it’s fine for people to enjoy watching father-estranged girls being exploited (it’s not). My problem with using this as a reason to not watch porn is that I honestly cannot imagine such a reason ever working. Wanting to watch porn is not a desire that can be undermined by appealing to the injustice of the industry, anymore than an overwhelming desire for a Snickers bar can be blunted by an economics lesson on child labor in overseas candy factories. Lack of empathy is a real problem, but it can’t be the main focus of every ethical choice. Sometimes your heart has to turn away from something evil on the basis of what it is rather than what it does to others.

But what I find interesting is the way sensitive Christians who abstain from watching Hollywood sex scenes look a little ahead of the curve nowadays. For most of my life refusing to watch an explicit film made you a stodgy fundamentalist, on the basis that “It’s just a movie” and “Sex is a part of life, get over it.” Unless I’m very wrong, the tide is turning. As secular culture turns it attention toward sexual injustice, it catches pop culture red-handed in just the way that those stodgy Christians have suggested. Can you read these bombshell reports, watch the films named in them, and tell me where the sexual abuse ends and the “acting” begins? If not, don’t those dour fundies at least have a point?

photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr.

Shame, Guilt, God

3 quotes that help explain our digital age

Three important quotes for understanding our times.

David Brooks:

The guy who called out Emily is named Herbert. He told “Invisibilia” that calling her out gave him a rush of pleasure, like an orgasm. He was asked if he cared about the pain Emily endured. “No, I don’t care,” he replied. “I don’t care because it’s obviously something you deserve, and it’s something that’s been coming. … I literally do not care about what happens to you after the situation. I don’t care if she’s dead, alive, whatever.”

When the interviewer, Hanna Rosin, showed skepticism, he revealed that he, too, was a victim. His father beat him throughout his childhood.

In this small story, we see something of the maladies that shape our brutal cultural moment. You see how zealotry is often fueled by people working out their psychological wounds. You see that when denunciation is done through social media, you can destroy people without even knowing them. There’s no personal connection that allows apology and forgiveness.

Wilifred McClay:

The presence of vast amounts of unacknowledged sin in a culture, a culture full to the brim with its own hubristic sense of world-conquering power and agency but lacking any effectual means of achieving redemption for all the unacknowledged sin that accompanies such power: This is surely a moral crisis in the making—a kind of moral-transactional analogue to the debt crisis that threatens the world’s fiscal and monetary health. The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder, an Unbehagen that cannot be willed away by the psychoanalytic trick of pretending that it does not exist.

Derek Rishmawy:

Are we not like Jeremiah, wondering “why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jer. 12:1). Are we not plagued with the suspicion that nothing is ever going to get done? That no matter how we vote, or whom we call, or where we protest, the powerful will keep getting away with it? The violent will keep grinding the weak into the dust? That, even though some get caught, many will still prosper because they know how to game the system and pervert the law? Are not our fears those of the psalmist, who worries the Lord is hiding himself in these times of trouble (Ps. 10:1)?

At these moments our hearts need a God who names, judges, and punishes sin. We need a God to whom we can call, “Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted” (Ps. 10:12)—in confidence that he will answer. We need a God who will eventually visit for these things

Many of us are on a quest—a quest we may not realize or admit—to justify and atone for our unrighteousness. If we can spot the sins and hypocrisies of our neighbors—however subtle to the untrained eye—we must not be guilty of them ourselves. And so we work for the good, not just because it’s right, but because we need to prove to ourselves and the watching world we aren’t complicit. Our very sense of self is on the line.

In the back of our minds, then, the thought that a righteous God will visit for these things isn’t entirely good. We wonder, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O LORD, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3).

Shelter in the Shame Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew Sullivan’s Ghost of Liberalism Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look Up, Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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