TED Talks: Sermons For a Secular Age

I was talking to a friend the other day about certain trends of the millennial generation. One of those trends that came up was my peers’ fascination with TED Talks. My friend was only vaguely familiar with the videos, so to help clarify what they were, I described them this way: “They’re essentially sermons for secular millennials.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that what we’re seeing in the “TED Talk” series is a secular manifestation of the sermon. If you’ve never watched a TED Talk before, I recommend you do so. That’s not necessarily because all of the videos are helpful (most aren’t, actually), but because it is utterly fascinating to watch a homiletical exercise that attracts large, young audiences, for good amounts of time (20+ minutes). I’m old enough to remember when a lot of evangelical literature urged pastors and church leaders to change their approach to preaching. “The younger generation can’t listen to a 30 minute speech,” the thinking went. “You can’t just talk to people anymore.”

It turns out you can.

Now of course, all TED Talks are different. Some are less like others. But in general, the TED Talks I’ve seen share at least two distinct similarities with traditional preaching.

First, TED Talks are very propositional. It’s true that a lot of TED Talks deal with personal stories and narratives. But what strikes me about the TED series is how proposition and information-driven it can be. There are many TED videos that consist mainly of the speaker passing on raw information or data to the audience. Some of the information can be quite techincal, such as cognitive research science or sociological data crunching.

Good Christian preaching is, of course, also quite propositional. There’s a lot of information that has to be transmitted between preacher and congregation for the meaning of the biblical text to be clear. And it’s remarkable to me that in an age where many Christian preachers are urged to eliminate as much as possible the “dry” transfer of propositional knowledge to their congregations, there are millions of people joyfully watching a lone speaker talk about statistics and research, eager to know how to apply that information to their lives.

Secondly, TED speakers are authoritative. Again, there are exceptions, but in a large number of cases the speaker in a TED Talk does not seek to have a “conversation” with the audience as much as she wants the audience to grasp how their presuppositions about something are incorrect and possibly inhibiting their lives. The TED series is filled with titles like, “Forget What You Thought You Knew About ____,” and “Why You Should Immediately Stop ____.”

In a typical TED setting, there is a clear demarcation between the knowledge that the speaker possesses and the knowledge that the audience possesses. Most TED speakers I’ve seen don’t fumble over their main points through endless reminders that “This may not apply to you” or “Your story may be different.” There is an expectation in the very essence of the TED Talk that the speaker has something which the audience needs and otherwise will probably be unable to grasp. This is authority.

Obviously, in this kind of secular setting, the speaker would not lay claim to any sort of meaningful moral authority over the audience. There’s nothing to resemble the kind of revelatory authority that evangelicals believe is invested in the faithful preaching of Scripture. But there is a kind of authority, an authority of medium that betrays our hyper-egalitarian cultural instincts. The people who come to a TED talk are not coming for a self-actualizing experience through a “conversation” with the speaker (though that word is a cultural shibboleth and is thus used to disguise the authoritative posture being taken). They’re coming to learn from someone who knows, and to walk away with something they didn’t have.

Absent a theological center, TED Talks are merely inspirational speeches from qualified teachers. But the specter of something more is obvious. We may not be as “over the whole church thing” as we think.

Advertisements

The lessons of George Bell

“You can die in such anonymity in New York.”

This lengthy story in The New York Times is a haunting, heartbreaking narrative that depicts a reality that many of us might be embarrassed to admit is one of our greatest fears: Dying utterly alone. “The Lonely Death of George Bell” is a fine piece of investigative journalism by N.R. Kleinfield, but more than that, it is a grievous commentary on the ability of lives to disappear–both by individual choice and by societal obliviousness.

Here’s an excerpt:

Neighbors had last seen him six days earlier, a Sunday. On Thursday, there was a break in his routine. The car he always kept out front and moved from one side of the street to the other to obey parking rules sat on the wrong side. A ticket was wedged beneath the wiper. The woman next door called Mr. Bell. His phone rang and rang.

Then the smell of death and the police and the sobering reason that George Bell did not move his car.

Each year around 50,000 people die in New York, and each year the mortality rate seems to graze a new low, with people living healthier and longer. A great majority of the deceased have relatives and friends who soon learn of their passing and tearfully assemble at their funeral. A reverent death notice appears. Sympathy cards accumulate. When the celebrated die or there is some heart-rending killing of the innocent, the entire city might weep.

A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.

Who was George Bell? Kleinfield’s inquiry into this anonymous New Yorker’s life yields very little. There are photographs of a teenage George sitting beside his father at Christmas, looking content and happy (“He was especially attached to his parents,” Kleinfield writes). As the years progress, the photos begin to depict a man with large appetites but little joy. He spent the last 20 years of his life collecting disability payments, a union pension, and, as a “hoarder,” just about anything else he could get. But he never had people over, never went out with friends. He existed, and obtained. That was the extent of George Bell’s life.

Why did this article affect me so much? I think it may be because, in a way, I identify with George Bell. Why was he the way that he was? What stopped  him every time the thought occurred to him that he should maybe, just maybe, go out with a friend, or write a letter, or call somebody? What was it that he believed about himself or about others that made a rotting, shrinking apartment more comfortable and more appealing than a week’s vacation?

The truth is I don’t know. And that’s why I identify with him. This kind of habitual solitude, this kind of perpetual retreat into one’s own decaying lifestyle, defies logic and reason, and yet, its appeal is undeniable. To never be at the mercy of someone’s probing questions. To never have to explain why it’s been so long. To never have to promise someone to get help, or to see a doctor, or to make that visit. Anonymity is the currency of autonomy. The best way to have control over my life is to make sure to keep others out.

Is that what happened with George Bell? I’m not sure. Perhaps, as the article suggests, there were psychological factors at work. But what about us? It’s easy to look at the unrestrained chaos of a New York hoarder’s apartment and scorn, but should we? We are, after all, the lonely generation. We are the lonely generation that marvels at our social networks and our mobile connectedness, collecting “Friends” and “Likes” and “Followers” much the same way that George Bell collected trinkets. Are our digital villages much better than the locked apartments of anonymous New York pensioners?

We such a desperately lonely people. Whether we read about the sad life of a George Bell, or about the angry isolation of a school shooter, we can’t deny this. We are lonely, and in most cases, we don’t even know it.

Perhaps it would be a mistake to try to draw out a simple “lesson” from the death of George Bell. Perhaps it would be too crass, an inadvertent participation in the dismissal of life that seemed to define his last two decades. But it seems right to me to reflect for a moment on the tragedy of a life spent and finished in obscurity. It doesn’t have to be like that. It was never meant to be like that. Our God is the God who puts the lonely in families, and not just families that share DNA but families that share adoption in Christ. The church is where loneliness meets its match.

Did anyone ever tell George Bell?

A Conversation With “Safe,” “Legal,” and “Rare”

The following post imagines a three-way dialogue between pro-choice talking points Safe, Legal, and Rare. 

Legal: Good evening, friends. Thanks for joining this conversation

Safe and Rare: [together] Thank you as well. Glad to be here.

Legal: I hope both of you are OK with my emceeing this thing. It’s mainly for the sake of convenience. Besides, it’s kinda logical, right? Legal is kind of what brings us together in this.

Safe: Absolutely. No worries here.

Rare: I agree it’s logical. I’m fine with it, but I do hope our conversation will be about more than keeping abortion legal.

Legal: Oh, I agree. There are multiple layers to this issue, but my point was that the bottom layer, the thing that keeps our ideas together, is legality.  If abortion is illegal there’s no point in talking about how safe or rare it is.

Safe: Hold on right there. Can you clarify what you mean by that last sentence?

Rare: Yes, I’d like to hear more too.

Legal: Well, I’m not sure how much clearer that can be. Do we really have a disagreement over the importance of legality?

Rare: I’m not disputing that keeping abortion legal is important. But I think…

Safe: [interjecting] Right, I wanted though to ask about how you worded that sentence. You said if it abortion is illegal “there’s no point” in talking about safety. To me, though, that plays into the pro-life rhetoric. Our entire point is that keeping abortion legal will keep it regulated and therefore more safe. So in a way, I’d actually say the opposite of what you said. If abortion can’t be safe, who would want to keep it legal?

Legal: Well…

Rare [interjecting] Hold on. Safe, what did you mean by that just now?

Safe: Which part?

Rare: You said if abortion isn’t safe, why wouldn’t it automatically be rare?

Safe: Yes.

Rare: That’s not the point, though. Most abortions done by licensed professionals ARE safe. Seeking to make abortions safer is important but we need to think about how to make them less of a necessity. If you focus entirely on keeping it legal or safe, you haven’t addressed the underlying issue of why abortions happen.

Legal: Rare, I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. I think it’s fine if abortions end up less common, but making that a point of emphasis sends the wrong message. It seems to imply that abortion is a necessary evil. That kind of rhetoric won’t keep abortion an option for women very long. If something is a necessary evil, people will start asking why it is necessary.  But that’s not our message. Abortion access is absolutely necessary and it’s a human rights issue to make sure women have that option.

Safe: [interjecting] Real quick, I just want to add that SAFE abortion access is a human right. Can’t forget that word.

Legal: Certainly. Safe abortion access is a huge issue. But I wouldn’t qualify what I said. Abortion should always be a shame-free option for every woman…

Safe: Wait one second. Why are you hesitant to qualify what you said? What’s wrong with trying to keep abortion safe?

Legal: Nothing at all. But I do think it’s possible that talking so much about how to make abortion safer or better timed or whatever can obscure our point about its role in culture. Abortion is a perfectly legitimate expression of reproductive health. You can unintentionally communicate otherwise…

Safe: How?

Legal: Well, two good exmaples are parental notification laws and ultrasound requirements. The vast majority of our advocates oppose those measures, for good reason. They place illegitimate barriers between women and reproductive health. But that’s an example how emphasizing “safety” can actually encroach on abortion rights.

Rare: I’m glad you mention those two laws. I understand your concerns about them but it seems to me that if we’re concerned with making abortion less common, those kinds of measures could help with that. There are some practical benefits, I think….

Safe: Agreed, Rare. There’s some value in making sure that people aren’t being coerced or manipulated into abortion, right Legal?

Legal: Sure, but none of that changes my point. Abortion needs to be legal because it is a moral right, not mainly because it can be administered responsibly. Even if it’s not done in a moral way, abortion is still a good thing for society.  That’s why laws that obstruct it….

Rare: Wait one moment. Isn’t Kermit Gosnell an example of what happens when you empower abortion beyond the margins of safety and public good?

Safe: Yes.

Legal: Not really. Gosnell, as monstrous as he was, was almost himself a victim. He and his patients suffered under abortion’s social stigma. Without it he probably wouldn’t have been able to do what he did even if he had wanted to.

Safe: Even if you’re right…

Rare: Well I reject that completely. Kermit Gosnell was not a victim. He’s a psychopath. And…

Safe: [interjecting] That explanation doesn’t do much for his victims, or prevent future ones.

Rare: …the reason he got away with it for so long is that we don’t have a culture that encourages alternatives to abortion. We don’t have anything that meets these young girls where they are and gives guidance…

Legal: [interjecting] Ok, now you sound like a pro-lifer.

[laughter]

Legal: Seriously, Safe, explain that to me. How do you recommend preventing those kinds of atrocities.

Safe: Whenever you find someone like Gosnell you’ve found a crack that somebody slipped through. I don’t at all challenge your premise that abortion needs to be available. But the reason for that goes beyond your explanation. Abortion needs to be legal because if it’s not then a black market filled with Gosnells will flood our communities. I trust that’s something we can all agree would be a disaster.

Rare: Yes.

Legal: I agree. But how do you avoid saying that abortion should be regulated the way pro-lifers say it should be if your main goal is to keep it “safe”? If the problem with illegalizing abortion is that people will get hurt by the abortions they get, how do you consistently oppose things like ultrasound laws?

Safe: Well…

Rare: Are we absolutely sure we’re against those laws?

Legal: I certainly hope so.

Safe: If your goal is to make something safe, then I think you should assume the safer it gets, the more people can and will utilize it. I think that gets to where, Legal, you and I agree.

Legal: OK, but can you answer my question?

Safe: Listen: Keeping abortion legal and keeping it safe don’t contradict each other. We can do both. But we actually have to try. If we can’t keep legal abortion safe, we shouldn’t have it legal either.

Rare: Agreed!

Legal: See? That’s the attitude I thought I was hearing. It’s almost an apathy towards legality. If it’s a choice between taking a step down a dangerous road and risking imperfect scenarios, we should choose the latter.

Rare: Ok, one thing about this conversation worries me. Up to this point both of you have assumed that if it were possible to make as many abortions possible as safe as possible, we should do that. I don’t feel that way.

Legal: Why?

Rare: Because we need to keep abortion rare. Women shouldn’t be forced into a corner.

Legal: Abortion isn’t a corner. It’s legitimate birth control.

Safe: Correction, it doesn’t HAVE to be a corner.

Rare: Wait a minute. So you don’t see anything tragic at all about an unplanned pregnancy? An unwanted child?

Legal: Those are tragic. Abortion is a solution to those tragedies. It’s not itself tragic.

Rare: I really don’t see how you can say that.

Legal: Well let me put it this way. How can we say with a straight face that abortion is both a tragedy and a human right? Are there tragic human rights?

Safe: There are human rights that can turn into tragedies. Freedom of the press is a human right but if done wrong it can ruin lives.

Rare: I don’t understand. I was under the impression we can be both against abortion and for its legality.

Legal: You can do that hypothetically. But when it comes writing policy, you have to prioritize legality. This is why we are for requiring companies to subsidize abortafacient contraceptives in their insurance. If companies didn’t have to do that, we would probably make aborted pregnancies less common, but we would be sending the wrong message.

Rare: But can’t we be honest about the emotional stakes involved with abortion? Shouldn’t we try to prevent the circumstance in the first place? Honestly the “wrong message” stuff sounds silly.

Legal: It sounds silly only because you are playing by pro-life’s rules. If you think abortion is mainly a sad, regrettable thing, then by all means, talk it down and legislate it until it eventually disappears. How safe do you think abortions will be after that happens?

Safe: Not safe. But that doesn’t mean we should regulate its practice.

Rare: You’re making a big logical error, Legal. You seem the think the choice is between infinity abortions and zero abortions. You still haven’t explained why this can’t be both a sad and legal thing?

Legal: Just a question, Rare. Why is abortion sad?

Safe: It’s risky and invasive for one.

Rare: And it’s the loss of something.

Legal: No, you’re wrong. It’s not the loss of anything. We can’t drive within 100 yards of personhood. The minute we do that, we might as well give up.

Safe: I agree with that.

Rare: Me too. But, women do report being affected emotionally by their abortions. It’s not like getting a wart removed.

Legal: Only because we still have a culture that shames reproductive freedom. And our rhetoric has to change that. For every 1 time we say abortion should be rare, we should be saying 5 times that its a perfectly moral option for women. Period.

Rare: I guess I don’t see it that way.

Safe: Nor I.

Legal: Listen, the options are simple: Either people can make their own choices and have control of their own bodies, or, be pro-life. It’s one or the other. That’s why I said at the beginning keeping abortion legal is the central point. And I suppose I assumed there was more agreement about that than there actually is.

Safe: It needs to be legal so it can be safe. Legal harm is still harm.

Rare: It may need to be legal so it can be safe, but it needs to be a small part of our culture.

Safe: I think the one thing we agree on is this: A woman’s body is her body. A woman’s pregnancy is her pregnancy. The question is, how do we honor this autonomy?

Rare: We make abortion rare.

Safe: We make abortion safe.

Legal: We keep abortion legal.

All: At least we agree.

The Utter Victory of Online Pornography

How powerful is online pornography? Well, it just single handedly took down Playboy magazine.

As part of a redesign that will be unveiled next March, the print edition of Playboy will still feature women in provocative poses. But they will no longer be fully nude.

Its executives admit that Playboy has been overtaken by the changes it pioneered. “That battle has been fought and won,” said Scott Flanders, the company’s chief executive. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”

We should let that sink in for a moment. Online pornography has become 1) so widespread, 2) so economic and 3) so explicit that the most powerful and most famous “adult” publication in the world has to completely change its business model. Let the reader understand: This is happening not because people find Playboy offensive or immoral, but because they find it boring.

There are people who deny that pornography is addictive, or that its consumption gradually causes elevated levels of craving. If that’s true, then there is simply no explanation for the utter triumph of hardcore, online pornography. There’s no explanation for why executives at Playboy are admitting they can’t compete with “every sex act imaginable.” In a world where porn is a self-contained diversion, this doesn’t happen. In a world where porn rewires the human brain to want more and more and get less and less, it happens.

Oh, and one more note, especially for parents. The smartphone your child is using? It has apps, and those apps–the same apps that all your child’s friends use every day–have what Playboy now aspires to.

The magazine will adopt a cleaner, more modern style, said Mr. Jones, who as chief content officer also oversees its website. There will still be a Playmate of the Month, but the pictures will be “PG-13” and less produced — more like the racier sections of Instagram.

Don’t want to give your 13 year old a free, lifetime subscription to Playboy? Skip the iPhone.

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.

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.

___________________

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”