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.

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Look Up, Child

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Punish the Unborn with Your Vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps Gandalf said it best:

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

 

Growing Up with (and Past) Mr. Rogers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Trouble with Interactive Bible Teaching (on Sunday)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evangelical Christianity and the Teen Depression Epidemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Have I Sinned Against Unbelief?

Why Christians should take suffering that inflames unbelief far more seriously

While reading a remarkable book titled Christianity: The True Humanism, I was bowled over by this passage by J.I. Packer and Thomas Howard:

It is clear that many humanists in the West are stirred by a sense of outrage at what professed Christians, past and present, have done; and this makes them see their humanism as a kind of crusade, with the killing of Christianity as its prime goal. We cannot endorse their attitude, but we can understand it and respect it…

We, too, have experienced in our own persons damage done by bad Christianity—Christianity that lacks honesty, or intelligence, or regard for truth, or biblical depth, or courtesy, or all of these together. No doubt we have sometimes inflicted this kind of damage, as well as suffered it. (Lord, have mercy!) We cannot, however, think it wrong for anyone to expect much of Christians and then to feel hurt when they treat others in a way that discredits their Christian commitment. Since Christianity is about God transforming us through Jesus Christ, high expectations really are in order, and the credibility of the faith really is undermined by every uncaring and uncompassionate stand that Christians take. Loss of faith caused by bad experiences with Christians is thus often more a case of being sinned against than of sinning and merits compassion more than it does censure.

I instantly realized this was close to the opposite attitude I have had for many years. Instead, I’ve often been so occupied with undermining unbelief, with critiquing the spirit of the age and tearing down the intellectual and existential reasons people give for not following the Christ of the Bible, that I have utterly failed to take seriously the connection between being sinned against and unbelief. If Packer and Howard are right—and I believe they are—this is a major failure.

Why have I been failing here? I can think of two reasons.

First, there is a palpable cultural mood that reduces everything about life to the sum total of one’s experiences. This is the “my story” epistemology that I’ve written about before. Because there are no agreed upon central, transcendent truth claims in a secularized public square, the most truth that anyone can arrive at is their truth, and their truth is often deeply subjective interpretations of relational and social events. This mentality is powerful, and it is destructive; it blinds people to the absolute nature of our most important questions. It empowers confirmation bias. It can make people unteachable and difficult to reason with. It’s bad news.

So I think I’ve been caught up in refuting this mood so much that I’ve lost sight of the legitimate relationship between experience and objective belief. I’ve tried to swing from the one extreme of “experiences are all that matter” to the other extreme of “You should be able to think and live wholly independent of what people do to you.” Both extremes are logically impossible, though one feels more Christian than the other at this cultural moment. But Packer and Howard get to the heart of the matter when they say that unbelievers are right to have high expectations of people who claim to be actually reborn by the Spirit of Jesus. They have those expectations not because of Christians but because of Jesus! Thus, to ignore the failures of people who say they are born again to image the One in whose name they are supposedly reborn is to ignore the moral glory of Christ himself.

The second reason I think I’ve failed here is that I have consistently underestimated the power of suffering. It’s an underestimation that comes straight from my not having suffered very much. But it also, I suspect, comes from my not having listened very closely to the testimonies of people who have suffered much. This is inexcusable, and I’m sure it’s damaged in some way my connection with others.

I’ve said before that virtues like modesty and chastity have attending practices that can help us grow in them. This how I feel about stuff like the Billy Graham Rule, for example. But I think I’ve neglected the fact that empathy is also a virtue, and that like other virtues, it too has practices that must be picked up if the virtue is going to flourish in my life. What if one of those practices is not arguing all the time? What if another one is listening carefully to people who may not validate my assumptions?

Now here’s an important point. I don’t think the main reason to cultivate empathy is to become less decisive or more “open-minded.” The problem with open-mindedness is that it’s not a virtue. Its desirability depends entirely on what is trying to get into the mind. But empathy is a virtue that cuts across whether people are right or wrong, whether people believe or disbelieve. Rejecting the claims of Christ is wrong. Yet it is possible to compound a wrong by sinning in response to it. It is possible to drive a thorn deeper. Neglecting or minimizing the power of suffering, or lowering bar of expectations for believers, are both sins against unbelief. To the degree that I have done so, I’m sorry, and by God’s grace, I will grow in this.

One final thought. All of this applies very much to the way we Christians talk to people about the suffering of others. If we minimize trauma or excuse a lackadaisical response to it, for the sake of making some tribal theological or political point about someone not in the room, we are broadcasting a false view of God to the world. We are propping up a graven image in people’s minds. We are, in other words, acting in the same unbelief as those we are trying to convert.

The Sea in Which You’re Drowning Is Not All That’s Real

On (not) writing about sin.

Recently I’ve had multiple offers, all from friends representing publications and ministries I greatly respect, to write articles about pornography. I’ve declined all of them. After I wrote a piece on this for Desiring God in July, I made a resolution with myself that I wouldn’t write about pornography for the foreseeable future. For the past several years I have written thousands of words about it, encompassing everything from my personal testimony to American culture. It’s time for me to leave that topic alone for a while.

Because I’ve said all there is to be said on it? No, of course not. There is much more to be said. Because my views are changing? Definitely not.  Because it’s not as important as some people think? Hardly. If anything, it’s more important than most people think. Why then am I putting myself on a moratorium on this issue?

Because the sea in which you’re drowning is not all that’s real, and realizing this is crucial for those struggling in the fight against lust.

When you’re in the throes of addiction, nothing seems real except your addiction. Incremental victories over your addiction don’t necessarily change this. In fact, such victories can actually make this perception worse. Every heartfelt prayer becomes a prayer for God to deliver you. Every sermon is “really” about your struggle. You see all of life through the lens of this one sin that you are, by grace, making war against. It becomes the main metaphor of your life, the fact that stands like a ghost between you and every relationship, between you and every ministry opportunity.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Christian culture, at least evangelical culture, offers much to fight against this. There’s a profound streak in evangelical discipleship of reducing the Christian life to the number of days you can go without sinning. This kind of mentality inflames the sense that beating porn is all that matters. The tragedy is that this mentality blocks many of the very strongest graces that Christ offers in the war against lust, graces like fellowship with other believers (not just “accountability”!), the beauty of nature, losing oneself in an honest pleasure, etc. These are graces that are hard to see for the person who feels like their entire Christian existence is about defeating pornography. A one-note emphasis mutes the other sounds of the symphony of redemption.

The reality is that one of the most effective things a person who is struggling with pornography can do is get their mind out of the perspective of them and their computer (or phone). Look at the broader picture. Look out the window, up into the clouds. Realize how much God has created and how much God is doing in this massive, amazing universe.

So I don’t feel pressed to talk more about the sin of pornography right now. Rather, I’m pressed to take a larger view and infatuate my heart with Christ and all that he is and does for me.

I am convinced that the only people who see lasting, significant healing from the bondage of pornography are people who feel in their bones the grandness and the glory of God, a feeling that transcends (but does not exclude) the tug-of-war. The tug-of-war is important, and failing to tug has eternal consequences. But the water in which you’re drowning is not all there is, and the first thing you must do to stop drowning is to swim upward, towards the air, towards the light, where you know there’s a shore.

Doctrine Is Inevitable

A decade later, the Emergent Church discovers that you DO need boundaries. Just the right ones.

I’m old enough to remember a movement in the mid to late 2000s called “the emerging church.” I still own some of their books, because as a high school/college student raised in conservative evangelicalism, I resonated with a lot of what they taught, including the idea that conservative evangelical culture was far too obsessed with policing doctrine. I loved this point, because (at the time) it expressed a coldness I had felt for a long time growing up in the church. Emerging church literature pressed a dichotomy between relationships and religious dogma and laid the blame for the schism at the feet of fundamentalists. “Yes,” I thought, “this is why church feels so inauthentic.”

Many of these authors were explicit in their recommendations. Do away with “what we believe” lists. Stop making theology the test of church membership or teaching. For every verse you read from Paul, read the Sermon the Mount 10 times. If given the choice between insisting on a point of doctrine and welcoming someone into your fellowship, choose the latter every time. It was alluring stuff, because you could hug it, shake its hand, take it out to coffee, not just read or recite it. And it won over a lot of my generation.

I’m no longer allured by it all. For one thing, what we referred to as the “emerging church” doesn’t really exist anymore, and the cause of death is unflattering. Rob Bell went from pastoring to touring with Deepak Chopra. Velvet Elvis (his first and most broadly successful book) was wrongheaded in a lot of ways, but at least it was a book about Christianity and didn’t sound like it should be featured in a Readers Digest column by Gwyneth Paltrow. Don Miler’s Blue Like Jazz was a sort of “searching for answers my religious upbringing didn’t give me” manifesto. Miller now runs a corporate branding company and doesn’t go to church. Well then.

But here’s the most illuminating part. Many of the writers and spokespeople who talked about prioritizing relationships over doctrine have actually become quite adamant about their own theology. It just so happens that the doctrine that is worth making standards around is just a different kind. For example, opposing the death penalty is worth excommunication:

And the ordination of female elders is worth schism (and, presumably, excommunication as well):

The time has come for a schism regarding the issue of women in the church. Those of us who know that women should be accorded full participation in every aspect of church life need to visibly and forcefully separate ourselves from those who do not. Their subjugation of women is anti-Christian, and it should be tolerated no longer.

Christianity’s treatment of LGBT people, too, is worth taking a stand on:

Death penalty, gender, ordination, sexuality: Aren’t these issues that alienate people? Aren’t these divisive topics that keep people at arms length from each other instead of bringing them together around Jesus?

By the standard that was applied ten years ago to conservatives, yes, they are. But it turns out that not all orthodoxies need be “generous.” Not all gatekeepers are bad. It’s a matter of having the right ones.

On that, I certainly agree.


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