Being Christian In an Age of Fear

We live in a fearful age, and Christians are not exempt.

Are we living in a generation of fear? It’s not as simple a question as it might seem. It requires digging underneath the seemingly endless sediment of distraction and medication that frees millions of Americans every day from the task of reflection. Fear, like love, is usually only identified by its extreme manifestations, those things which we call “paranoia.” Yet for many people there seems to be an undercurrent of dread beneath their daily lives. And it could be that this dread is choking out the possibility of authentic empathy and self-understanding.

Consider the reflections of Mark Shiffman in his piece on college students and the humanities. Study of humanities has declined, Shiffman writes, in large part because students enter college driven by fear that they will leave unprepared for long term economic success. Even the students that do enroll in philosophy, literature, art or history do so almost apologetically, with an air of anxiety about the possible long-term consequences of spending (or borrowing) money on such an education. It’s not the desire for jobs that Shiffman laments, but the fear-driven, parent-constructed rituals that students go through in order to gain a rigid control of the future. Many of Shiffman’s students are scared to stop and ask themselves the big questions of life (which is the great contribution of the humanities to education), since doing so might mean falling behind in “the real world.” The students, conditioned since elementary school to do more and be more for the sake of a resume or permanent record, are frightened by their own inner lives:

When the kid at the next desk might out-­compete me, edging me out of the path to economic security, then the hope that we may prevail together gives way to the fear that I will be the one who fails. When the specter of shrinking prosperity increases competition for scarce opportunities and engenders doubt that I will do as well as my parents, that fear intensifies. At the same time, we hear of vague, unpredictable threats—global warming, economic volatilities, the terrorism that has turned airports and government buildings into places almost entirely organized around our attempt to forestall disaster. Our fear has become a pathological condition, a desperate need to bring the future under control. And we seek therapy from colleges and universities, the therapy of cumulative achievement along clearly marked pathways to success.

Fear has a tendency to crowd out reflection and real personal growth. It can create an obsession about the subjunctive and a preoccupation with the future that undermines the emotional and spiritual stability necessary to form habits of healthy thinking. And it doesn’t always have to be individualistic. Take as one example the trend of “helicopter parenting,” wherein adults make sure that every aspect of a child’s day is under close surveillance and control. In this case, the parents’ fear of danger plays a part in depriving a child of the development of physical and emotional maturity that comes through experiences shared with peers. The fear is understandable, but it is also exacerbated by Amber alerts and bestselling kidnapping memoirs.

Indeed, in our cultural exchange, fear is often its own self-fulfilling prophecy. Conspiracy theories are appealing because of their preemptive disqualification of rebuttals (“Of course that’s what the experts say, because they’re in on it!”) and the sense of control and understanding that they bring their adherents. There are extreme examples of this that are out of the mainstream, but many regular people fall prey to the cultural climate that creates them. David Brooks, contemplating the most ridiculous responses to Ebola, suggests that many people look to theories of mass collusion for vindication for their feelings of isolation and insignificance. Fear can feel empowering when it identifies the enemy.

That last point is a salient one for conservative Christians. Great cultural and political change in the country seems poised to throw traditionalist believers off the ledge of societal relevance they sidle right now. This can create understandable feelings of dread and hostility towards “mass media” or even unbelievers. Even if the culture war is indeed lost—though I’m not wholly convinced that’s true—there are still codes of honor that govern how Christians engage the city of man. Allowing fear, even fear that materializes, to drive our strategy in the coming years is not only a recipe for further defeat, it is flatly against the basic doctrines of faith, divine sovereignty, and promise of perpetual good for those who love the Lord.

Assuming a faithful posture in the face of fear is critical for Christian witness. Speaking into a culture that is without Christ is to speak to millions who operate their daily lives without any transcendent hope of good. Most people truly believe that they alone are worthy of their trust, and that the world and its ultimate fate is entirely up to culture. Into this despair the Gospel brings good news of forgiveness, reconciliation, resurrection and the redemption of all things. There simply is no better word to speak into the age of fear than the story of Jesus.
Yet it is not enough that this is said. It must be lived in vibrant community that fleshes it out.

Going back lastly to Shiffman’s essay, I think Christians involved in the discipline of cultural engagement have something in common with those fearful students. Many of us were, I think, sold a bill of goods describing what was necessary to persuade the unbelieving culture. Perhaps it was something like theology + winsomeness = persuasion? Likewise Shiffman’s students entered college convinced that if they continued the blueprint for economic stability, they could be guaranteed success. What they didn’t know was that success is more than a salary. Evangelicals should take a lesson from the students and remind themselves that there is no measure of cultural success outside simple faithfulness to Christ. Overcoming fear–of cultural marginalization and the loss of public prestige–is necessary if we are going to boldly announce our God and his kingdom.

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Pornography and the Culture of Death

The culture of death is the live manifestation of a pornographic worldview.

In pornography, the human body is both worshiped and despised. It is worshiped as a source of pleasure and delight superior to all other pleasures, and then, when the pleasure is past, it is despised as a meaningless, identity-less mass that can be used and discarded at will.

This is precisely how the culture of death works. The youth, vitality and independence of the human body are holy characteristics, which bestow meaning and purpose on the person. When Ezekiel Emanuel says he hopes to die at 75, he’s worshiping the body. When the spirit leaves the temple, the people despair. When the body has crumbled, the meaning and transcendence are gone. All that is left is avoiding becoming a burden to others (read: the otherwise independent others).

Yet in the end the body is also despised. The advocates of assisted suicide insist that people (not just patients, mind you, but doctors as well) must be given the right to choose when their quality of life is just not worth it anymore. This is a despising of the body, an elevation of the human will (the right to choose) above the human person. In this mindset, it is right that people be able to decide the relative value of their lives, and act accordingly. To infringe on their will is an infinitely greater crime than to mutilate their flesh.

This logic is the essential reason Planned Parenthood exists. The narrative works like this: We must protect women from the excruciating effects of unwanted pregnancy in any and all cases (worship of the body), and to do so means we must redefine humanity itself so as to exclude the flesh whose very existence challenges the physical autonomy of the mother. That’s why, in this way of thinking, “My body, my choice” doesn’t apply to the infant. The infant doesn’t have a body, it is a body–a character-less, will-less, and if need be, purposeless weight of “tissue.” What separates the body of the unborn from the body of the woman and the body of the abortionist is will.

Pornography is the culture of death’s literature. For in pornography we see human bodies humiliated for the sake of the ones with the will to pleasure from it. The body is worshiped, yes (that’s why the actors and models look notably dissimilar to the men and women you work with), but it is also despised for the sake of will. Lost in pornography is any sense of the beautiful, or the precious, or the valuable. If a character in a pornographic film suddenly started monologuing about the imago Dei, audiences would laugh or fast forward, even if by their enthrallment they are indeed affirming that the human body is fearfully and wonderfully made.

To understand the culture of death, we must understand how pornography has hijacked our basic categories of what it means to be a person, what it means to have a body, and why we should care about either one. If death is a cult, consider pornography its liturgy.

Millennials and their stories

Not all generational critiques are made equal. To say that baby boomers were like this or that Generation Y’ers acted like that carries with it inherent risks of overgeneralization, ad hominem, and just pure nonsense. And of course, all observation is done by an observer, and observers need to be observed too. When it comes to commenting on generational characteristics/flaws, one can never be too mindful of the proverbial plank and the proverbial speck.

But let’s put that aside for a moment and consider millennials. I am a millennial. My wife is a millennial. My closest friends are millennials, and a fair amount of my reading and personal formation has come via millennials. Millennials are many good things. They tend to be energetic, generally polite, and creative in ways that make them stand out from the averages of their parents and grandparents. But I’m afraid that one characteristic that is defining many millennials is one with very serious and troubling implications: Millennials are all about “my story.”

Millennials tend to think of the world as a movie in which they are the star. That’s not just a verbose way of saying that millennials are vain; rather, that’s how millennials relate to their world. They tend to understand the facts, events, and realities around them either in relationally immediate or relationally nonexistent categories. Either something is crucial to their well being and their life, or it’s totally irrelevant. Thus, many younger millennials are totally apathetic about politics, but the ones who care often care in a possessive, personal way. A millennial who doesn’t feel that politics is part of their “movie” often comes across as lazy and uncaring about the world, when in reality they just can’t comprehend why emotional capital should be spent on something that doesn’t involve them.

On the other hand, a millennial who cares about politics will often display an inordinate amount of passion and sensitivity about politics; to cross their views is to cross them personally. And here is where this characteristic of millennials becomes most troublesome. Because millennials view their lives as individual narratives in which the rest of the world plays a supporting role, they tend to be fiercely protective of their identities. The key part of a millennial’s identity is not (often unlike their parents) their religion, their ethnicity, or their family name. Rather, a millennial’s identity rests chiefly in their story. A millennial’s story is the fundamental part of who they are, the most important thing about the most important part of their “movie.” And it’s often the one thing that must never be challenged or questioned.

For a millennial, a story isn’t just a mark of identification, it’s a holy source of authority. I say holy with all seriousness. Even millennials with deeply held religious beliefs often talk about those beliefs not as universal realities that concern billions of people and with trans-historic importance, but as a part of their individual story. To disagree with someone’s religion is, for a millennial, not so much a challenge to an objective set of truth claims as it is a personal challenge to someone’s identity, worth, and value. To question my religion is to question me, and to question me is to try to invade my “movie” to create your own.

Now, when it comes to religion, that characteristic has been true of many people, not just millennials. But in millennials, we often see this tendency exhibited in most subjects, not just religion. This is precisely why The Atlantic ran a recent cover story on the “coddling of the American mind,” a movement within American higher education that seeks to cater to millennials’ emotional mores through academic suppression. It’s important to remember that the young adults who are asking for administrative (and sometimes legal) intervention to prevent being confronted with offensive content are not faking it. They are not putting on airs. They are genuinely unable to process the stress and the epistemological labor of learning and being in a context that is not immediately friendly to their stories. They can’t go forward until they are reassured that who they are is who they are supposed to be, and that nothing and no one can ever legitimately challenge that.

What’s fascinating is that while the stories of millennials are often invulnerable to critique (because they are not an arguable set of facts but an extension of personal identity and experience), they are, ironically, often applied in an authoritative way towards others. For a millennial, an anecdote isn’t just an argument, it’s the best argument. A personal story in which someone is wounded or hurt by a particular law or politician is in fact far more effective and persuasive to a millennial than a complex series of logical arguments. This effect is compounded greatly by the fact that, in the age of the internet, information and knowledge are accessible to the same millions of people within seconds. Everyone is now an expert, and the best experts are not the ones who can string together the best facts and the best logic but the people who can tell the best story. That’s why anti-vaccine blogs flourish despite sharing the very medium that offers anyone without a medical degree some level of knowledge about inoculation. The anti-vaccination movement thrives not on strong logic but on strong stories (some of which are undoubtedly true).

Because millennials see their stories as authoritative, they are often as surprised to hear their narratives challenged or questioned as would be a 14 year old fundamentalist hearing the Bible questioned his first day of public high school. To say that a young twentysomething’s testimony of self-empowerment from the porn industry is incorrect and foolish is the height of arrogance to a millennial. To insist that abortion be illegal in the face of a personal story about a life seemingly saved from poverty by the termination of a pregnancy sounds not just callous and cold but breathtakingly ignorant to a millennial. That’s because what is being challenged is not merely philosophy or ideology but–in a very real sense–a sense of self.

What’s needed from the church in ministry to millennials is a presentation of Christian truth that is invasive. The gospel invades not only our intellectual presuppositions but also our baseline sense of identity and autonomy. The movie of our life in which we are stars is not, in fact, our movie, but the creative work of a Writer and Director whose authoritative control is both good and good for us. If we try as Christians to reach unbelieving millennials by appealing to their felt needs (“You should really feel the peace that Jesus gives,” “I’m so happy because of Christ”), we may unwittingly affirm their most un-Christian convictions.

There’s nothing but freedom in realizing that not even my story is ultimately about me. There’s nothing but peace and real lasting joy in losing ourselves for the sake of another, and for the sake of each other. To be invaded is a wonderful thing. There is a story better than my story, and it goes on and on, forever.

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Image Credit: “Teens sharing a song” by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

Essay: The New Puritan Shame Culture

Hester_Prynne

In the April 1886 issue of The Atlantic Monthly Julian Hawthorne, son of Nathaniel, reviewed his father’s The Scarlett Letter. Towards the conclusion of his stunning, 9,000+ word essay, the younger Hawthorne reflected on the moral irony of  Hester Prynne’s world:

 This [the scarlet A] is her punishment, the heaviest that man can afflict upon her. But, like all legal punishment, it aims much more at the protection of society than at the reformation of the culprit. Hester is to stand as a warning to others tempted as she was: if she recovers her own salvation in the process, so much the better for her; but, for better or worse, society has ceased to have any concern with her.

“We trample you down,” society says in effect to those who break its laws, “not by any means in order to save your soul,—for the welfare of that problematical adjunct to your civic personality is a matter of complete indifference to us,—but because, by some act, you have forfeited your claim to our protection, because you are a clog to our prosperity, and because the spectacle of your agony may discourage others of similar unlawful inclinations.”

But it is obvious, all the while, that the only crime which society recognizes is the crime of being found out, since a society composed of successful hypocrites would much more smoothly fulfill all social requirements than a society of such heterogeneous constituents as (human nature being what it is) necessarily enter into it now.

Continue reading “Essay: The New Puritan Shame Culture”

We are Ryan Anderson

RTAndersonEvery person in America needs to know about what has been going on with Ryan T. Anderson and his grade-school alma mater, The Friends School. Put simply, the ironically named institution has declared it wants nothing to do with Anderson, his degree from Princeton, his Ph.D from Notre Dame, or his numerous fellowships and Ivy League speeches.

Why? Because Anderson is opposed to same-sex marriage.  Continue reading “We are Ryan Anderson”