The Propriety Advantage

A case for Christian propriety in a “handsy” culture.

A few years ago I endured one of my more embarrassing moments in adult life. My wife and I had just arrived at our church small group leader’s home for the Monday evening gathering. There was another married couple in our group with whom we were becoming good friends; the four of us were close in age and they had been married just a few months after us. Shortly after arriving my wife walked ahead into the kitchen while I attended to something  in the living room. A few minutes later I joined the group in the kitchen and saw my wife standing with her back turned toward me. I walked up behind her and gently started rubbing her shoulders. About 3 seconds into this spontaneous massage, I looked to my left and saw—my wife. With deep horror I realized I had mistaken our friend for Emily (I have insisted to this day that they had very similar haircuts). The room roared in laughter, including her and her husband, and we got good mileage out of that story the next few months.

I was very grateful that everyone in the room, especially the couple, was so good humored about it. Sometimes people describe conservative evangelical Christians as the type of folk who are scandalized by even the most innocuous impropriety. I actually think that in that kind of situation, the propriety—the sensitivity of a gathering like that to shared norms about sex, marriage, and gender—empowered the humor. My crimson blush, my wife’s awkward moment of realization, and my poor friend’s utter confusion betrayed a shared value of modesty that made the faux pas innocent and funny. What would the husband’s reaction been if, say, I had had a reputation for being handsy? How would the situation have changed if I hadn’t stopped? I think one thing is for certain: It wouldn’t have been funny.

The take du jour is that rules are bad. Everybody hates rules, especially rules between the sexes. “The man pays for the date” is sexist and archaic. The Billy Graham Rule is patriarchal and anti-friendship. Ironically, in mainstream political culture, the more intimate and explicitly sexual the interaction, the more rules—and more shaming— can apply. Try to lay down some standards for a first date or working lunch and you come off as prudish at best, pervy at worst. But if the clothes are coming off, passion must be paused for the acquisition of “informed consent.” It’s as if the rejection of public propriety has created a need for private legislation.

I don’t think many people genuinely believe that Joe Biden is a predator. For all most of us know, he could indeed be, but that’s not a conclusive inference to make from the accusations that have thus far been levied against him. It seems more correct (again, with the information available now) to say that senator Biden is a physically affectionate person who, like many, is a Thoroughly Modern Man who lives and works far above the regressive and puritanical constraints of propriety. He is “handsy” because he has no reason (until now) to not be. That’s just “who he is.”

Biden’s habits have hardly been a secret.  But they have not threatened his political viability until now because the only objections to impropriety that count in our contemporary public square are individual narratives that speak from experience and describe it in predator-victim language. Prior to the #MeToo era, a criticism of Biden’s handsy-ness that focused on its inherent impropriety—e.g., it’s always inappropriate for any man to pull his non-wife in close and smell her hair and breathe on her neck—would have been labeled regressive and sex-negative. Everyone believes Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose hosted “meetings” with female employees in their hotel rooms for sinister ulterior purposes, but hardly anyone other than oppressive religious folks have been willing to say that hotel room meetings are inherently improper. We are swimming in an ocean of spotlight investigations and civil suits, while the evasive virtue of propriety remains by far the cheapest option.

Our cultural elites are clearly struggling with how to articulate sexual morality without using any morally transcendent vocabulary. They are trying and failing to fit the round peg of a stigma-less sexual marketplace into the square hole of health, equality, and respect.

Even some conservatives seem unable to put two and two together. I like Mona Charen’s reminder of the emotional and psychological benefits of human touch, and the connection she makes to some really fascinating research showing declining sex and happiness is intriguing. But even a social conservative like Charen stops short of saying that the bridge between the humane balm of physical touch and respect for sexual boundaries and consent is propriety, habits of restraint and prudence that can be deployed indiscriminately. I’m not sure why. Perhaps the androgyny demanded by the modern market economy is just a foregone conclusion for Left and Right by this point. Perhaps we are facing a severe dearth of virtue ethics. Perhaps both.

In any case, the loss of propriety in contemporary life is an example of how sexual revolution liberates the body from constraints by severing its limbs. We need not wax foolishly nostalgic about the 1940s to see that something has been lost in the post-Woodstock age. It’s true that social propriety has often reflected a double standard for men and women, especially as regards modesty and faithfulness. A Christian propriety doesn’t wink at womanizers while branding scarlet letters on their victims. Rather, it takes seriously the physical and spiritual differences between men and women, honors marriage above market economics, and models chivalry on the perfect self-sacrifice of Christ, the church’s bridegroom. It doesn’t see every male-female interaction as an opportunity for lust, but neither does it ignore the inherently gendered character of our nature. Christian propriety expects men to behave toward women a certain way not to avoid a lawsuit or curry political favor but because they are men and women.

Sound regressive? But what has the escape from propriety and modesty achieved but a porn-shaped public soul, bad faith between the sexes, a banquet for predators, and a ruthlessly opportunistic shaming system? I shudder to think of what would have happened to a naive soul in the Democratic Party that stood up 5 years ago and told Joe Biden that men ought not make intimate gestures to women who are not their wives.

At least they would have been on the right side of history.

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Practices of Love in an Unimoon Era

Christianity offers something better than dating yourself.

This morning I read the following passage in Justin Whitmel Earley’s excellent new book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction:

One of my favorite cultural critics, Ken Myers, argues that the kind of atheism we experience in America today is not a conclusion but a mood…If secularism is not a conclusion but a mood, we cannot disrupt it with an argument. We must disrupt it with a presence.

The truth is that we live in a culture where most people are remarkably resistant to hearing verbal proclamations of the gospel. What’s more, it seems some of them really can’t hear it. We not longer share a common vocabulary for communicating whether truth exists, what can be called good, and what love means. But that is okay. God is not alarmed. Our secular age is not a barrier to evangelism; it is simply the place of evangelism.

Ever since returning from China, I’ve had an abiding interest in asking this question: “How is it that the West can be re-evangelized?” One of the reasons I’m so compelled by the life of habit is that I see habits as a way of light in an age of darkness. Cultivating a life of transcendent habits means that our ordinary ways of living should stand out in our culture, dancing like candles on a dark mantle. As Madeline L’Engle once wrote, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe . . . but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

Though I think this passage risks short changing the value of intellectual argument, the overall point being made is, I believe, extremely important. Continue reading “Practices of Love in an Unimoon Era”

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”

The Trouble with Generalism

On knowing what we don’t know.

Alastair Roberts writes:

One effect of biblical™ ideology has been to elevate pastors and theologians as universal experts. If all truth is biblical™, then the Bible experts are the universal experts. We should look to them for our psychology, philosophy, politics, economics, etc., etc. The result can be pastors who claim authority on a lot of issues about which they are naively ignorant, presenting these as matters of direct biblical™ authority in ways that end up undermining and even discrediting the authority of Scripture.

This is certainly true. It’s also true of more people than pastors and theologians. A pretense to expertise from a pastor is arguably worse because of the spiritual authority attached to his office, but it’s still pretty bad when journalists, politicians, and mommy bloggers do it too. In fact, pretense to broad authority based on specialized credentials is common enough in public life that we could consider it part of the problem with generalism.

To be a generalist is in some sense to always see continuity between issues and ideas, even—especially?—if that continuity may not really exist. Take generalist blogging. No one has done generalist blogging better or more interestingly than Andrew Sullivan. Yet it’s incredibly easy to peruse Sullivan’s archives and see where he is obviously stepping outside his knowledge. This isn’t something that a generalist blogger does despite his best intentions; it’s what he intends to do.

A lot of the American journalism industry depends on this kind of generalism. Most columnists are experts at writing, not experts at their subjects, which explains why it’s so common to see an MFA grad doling out explainers about foreign policy or the theological history of world religions. One of the secrets of the writing economy is that you don’t actually have to know anything to be a writer except how to write. The vast majority of books, articles, essays, and blogs, even the good ones, are the products of very brief research and virtually no seasoned experience.

Most of the smartest people I know are people are engineers, chemists, doctors, etc. You know what’s interesting about these friends? The vast majority of them do not blog about politics or submit articles on complementarianism. The most highly credentialed people I know are quite satisfied in their own specialized slice of life. They’ll talk circles around anyone when the topic turns to what they’ve spent years of their life learning and practicing, but they’re not going to be asked to be a columnist anytime soon, and they’d say no even if asked. The people I know who have the most to say about the highest number of topics, including myself!,  are not actually that qualified to talk about, well, any of them. We’re generalists, not experts.

When you say this, folks often get offended. They hear elitism and snobbishness. I think this is for two reasons. First, culturally, we really don’t make any distinction between free knowledge and deep knowledge. Google and iTunes U are epistemological Wal-Marts that constantly undersell the overpriced (=”elite”) competition. Everyone feels like an expert because why shouldn’t they? They’ve got the facts right in front of them, and they’re just as good as the facts at that university, right?

Second, the infrastructure of life in Western culture still does a pretty decent job of protecting ordinary people from the consequences of pretenses to authority. What Alastair is saying about evangelical pastors is definitely real, but it’s mostly a “dynamic” that is off-putting but seldom meaningful. There aren’t many stories about a church suffering a smallpox quarantine after hiring an anti-vaxxer as senior pastor (for what it’s worth, I think Jim Jones-like cults are a different kind of case). Likewise, a journalist with a bachelor’s degree who wages an ignorant Twitter war against history professors is mostly spitting into the wind. If you’re bound and determined to stick it to the “elites,” you can, of course, do so, but there’s only so much your Facebook posts can do.

All this makes it hard for most of us to feel the negative effects of generalism. It’s not that generalism is bad. It’s that generalism is generalism, not a synonym for “scholar” or “expert.” Alaistair’s point about evangelical pastors who use biblical worldview as a euphemism for selling their own intuitions and opinions is not an argument against actually doing biblical theology, or trying to live life in a biblically faithful way. It’s an argument against laziness, the laziness of wanting to constrict the complexities of life into a handful of truisms and in the process anointing Rehoboams as Solomons. It’s a temptation that everyone who likes to read and write widely faces, and it’s one we should be honest about.

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”

Get On My Lawn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.