Loving Truth in a Narrative Age

No hashtag—and no Supreme Court seat—is worth ignoring the truth

Have you ever heard the old chestnut about the difference between truth and wisdom? It goes roughly like this: Truth is the right path, or the correct knowledge, or the good choice. It is real, but it is, in a sense, just lying there. That something is true does not mean you will automatically believe it or act on it. Wisdom, then, is the bridge between seeing the truth and making decisions that accord with it. Truth stands, and wisdom walks.

So then, we could also say something like this: Truth is the objective reality, and narrative is the idea that is weaved from the assembling of various truths. When truths collide with each other, they behave like molecules. They build something bigger than their individual selves. A narrative is a perception of reality that transcends the individual statements that prop it up. If you discover that two of your favorite businesses are closing, you may tell a friend something like, “Businesses don’t survive in this town.” The closings are reality, but the fact that your hometown is hard on businesses is a narrative.

Narratives are helpful. Without them we wouldn’t be able to put truths together into a coherent whole. And often, major positive change is brought about by someone who courageously forms a narrative out of many truths and helps other people see what they’ve been missing. But here’s an important point: Narratives are not always the same as the truths themselves. A narrative is, in fact, downstream from a worldview, a consequence of interpretation. Narratives are often shaped by someone’s experience, or presuppositions, or fears. This means that one of the most important things that thinking people, especially Christians, must do is to learn how to separate truths from narratives…not for the sake of throwing out any and all narratives, but for the sake of training ourselves to love truth regardless of the narratives that can be formed around it.

In a mass media culture like ours, truth-lovers are not nearly as popular as narrative-creators. We refer to our society as polarized—polarized by politics, religion, gender, race, class, etc. This polarization is in large part due to narratives that we construct for ourselves about the world. Polarization is what happens when our narratives about others, particularly those who are different than us, dictate our behavior. We are polarized politically when we de-friend someone because of their views, choosing to construct a narrative that says that people with these kinds of views are dishonest or dangerous. We are polarized racially when we avoid uncomfortable videos of American citizens being harassed or shot by law enforcement, due to our preexisting narrative that says that the police will only bother someone if they’re really breaking the law. And we are polarized by gender when men and women turn on one another, building narratives that either justify sexual mistreatment or presuppose its existence regardless of evidence.

Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, and the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse when he was 17, have exposed some deeply depressing hostility between our political sides, and also between men and women. Whether Kavanaugh is guilty of what Christine Blasey Ford accuses him of is unknowable for 99% of us. But un-knowability does not preclude building a narrative; in fact, narratives often thrive on the impossibility of confident knowledge. What I’ve seen in the past several weeks is a deep, emotional, and possibly destructive contrast in narratives between those who believe that Ford’s story is a watershed moment in a #MeToo reckoning, and those who believe that truth is being deliberately obscured for the sake of political advantage. The two narratives are incompatible and enemies of one another, even as the best evidence points toward the truth’s being far more complex than that.

What is happening is not that two groups on opposite sides of a cultural divide are wielding contrasting facts and arguments, and coming through reason and contemplation to two different verdicts. No. What’s happening is that two groups are unloading both of their narratives onto the other, and clinging desperately to notions about what must have happened, or what politicians always do, or how much this sounds like other cases. One narrative sees the world through a highly gendered lens in which men, especially privileged men, are instinctively predatory. The other narrative sees the world as controlled by gnawing politicians, who orchestrate far-reaching conspiracies to hold onto power and inflict their ideology onto the helpless masses.

Both narratives are informed by truth: Men can and do prey on women, and politicians can and do lie. Both narratives are buffered by experiences, the experiences of victimized women and slandered men. Most importantly, both narratives land squarely on two of the tenderest wounds in our national conscience. The Sexual Revolution has been ruthlessly cruel to women and the conservative Christian response has frequently failed to come to their aid. On the flip side, our national politics have arguably never been more cynical, more myopic, or more hostile to reason and good faith. Despair beckons, and its call is attractive.

But good news people—”evangelicals”—cannot give into despair, because despair does not accord with truth. Loving the truth in a narrative age requires cultivating habits that resist the “speak now, think later” spirit of the day. There are good books on how to do just this. But before we come to the skills, we have to remember why it is that Christians have to gravitate to truth before narrative. Narratives are formed by fallen humans trying to interpret life from a limited angle. Even narratives shaped by deep, real trauma are nonetheless liable to go wrong, because it is human nature to take something real and try to make it do something it cannot do. We cannot be known as narrative-first people, who traffic in mantras and slogans and hashtags and conspiracy theories at the expense of truth.

Whether Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Ford I do not know. Here’s what I do know: Men are sinners, and they sin against women, and they sin against women sexually. I also know that not every man has sexually abused a woman, and that not every accusation of sexual assault is true simply because it was made. I also know that drunkenness is a sin and that drunken people do indefensible things. I also know that “innocent until proven guilty” is a standard rooted in God’s law, and that an instinct to protect from allegations until evidence is presented is a good instinct that can protect poor and vulnerable people just as much as it can protect the privileged.

These are the truths I know. They do not build a tidy narrative. But I’m a gospel person, and thus I am a truth-seeking person first and foremost. No hashtag and no Supreme Court seat is worth ignoring the truth, because neither of those things can finally set us free.

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Have I Sinned Against Unbelief?

Why Christians should take suffering that inflames unbelief far more seriously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Spiritual Grace of Fandom

What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness.

You can learn something important in front of a TV on a balmy Sunday afternoon in late October. You can learn about the value of leadership as a veteran quarterback calmly and surgically leads his team to overcome a deficit in the fourth quarter. If you see a silly penalty completely change a game, you might learn what Rudyard Kipling knew, that victory usually begins with “keeping your head when all about you / are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” You may reflect on the dangers of arrogance as a haughty celebration gives way minutes later to a devastating injury, or on the beauty of the perseverance of an undrafted, un-heralded player who dazzles. Football, often scorned by its cosmopolitan cultured despisers, has much to say if we will listen.

“Lessons,” though, are not the primary reason to be a fan of sports. Viewing a football game as a microcosm of cooperation and personal virtue is helpful, but it’s a bit like opening the Bible and never reading anything but Proverbs. The truth is that fandom has a spiritual value all its own. Watching sports for the pleasure of the contest, and even more, investing oneself emotionally in the triumphs and defeats of a particular team, is a valuable moral discipline.

Sports fandom is rarely talked about positively, and for reason. Like we do so many other things, Americans often worship sports. Sport is a seductive idol, not least because its competitive nature offers an intoxicating short hand for measuring one’s self-worth. We tend to accept radical and unhealthy commitment to sports in a way we don’t accept for hobbies, relationships, even work; a man who ignores his family so he can broker more stocks and buy a bigger house is a deadbeat, but an athlete who ignores his family to train for the Olympics simply knows what it takes. (Why athletic victory in this context is purer than money is not clear.)

Granting that we ought not worship sports, can’t we admit that, given the choice between cheering on a team and spending 3 hours thumbing through Instagram, measuring ourselves against immaculate “influencers,” the former is a better option? What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness, the opportunity to let our own personalities be swallowed up, just for a moment, in the drama of something objective, outside, and bigger.

For a social media generation, one worries that we are losing the simple practice of actually being a fan. Ours is a curated, algorithmic, selfie age, where our inner lives are constantly being farmed out by technologies that encourage us to think about ourselves more, to look at ourselves more, to compare our ourselves more. We say that digital distraction is a serious epidemic. Have we asked what it is we are so distracted by? Answer: We’re distracted by ourselves—our Likes, our Retweets, our FOMO, our image to others.

If we think in terms of cultural liturgies, we must conclude that the dominant liturgy of our Western life is one of constant attention to ourselves. Everything around us encourages us, either explicitly or implicitly, to bend inwardly on ourselves a little more, to be a little more attuned to our own emotional or psychological state. The discipline of letting ourselves get lost in something, of losing track of ourselves so that we forget to log-in and make sure that what we’re doing compares favorably to others, is a discipline that directly assaults the advertising-soaked liturgies of late capitalism. Some have suggested that in the social media era our attention spans are shortening. This may be somewhat true. Yet perhaps it’s also true that our attention spans are actually shortening when they’re directed toward offline life, but flourishing when we’re logged in. In other words, maybe we’re not losing the ability to focus on analog realities, but the desire.

There’s a spiritual cost to all of this. Screwtape understood how valuable keeping people wrapped up in a suffocating liturgy of “Look at me” can be. Self-forgetfulness fosters authentic desire, and authentic desires are vulnerable to being turned toward God.

I myself would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if is something quite trivial such as a fondness for country cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the word, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food,” the “important” books. I have known  a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

Fandom, for all its potential to be absurd and obsessive, is a “still stronger taste” that can help discipline the soul against the temptation to shape our hearts in the image of the fads and opinions of the world. A fan is a fan first and foremost because he’s having fun. He’s a fan whether he’s surrounded by fellow fans or whether he’s alone (though of course it’s more fun to be with other fans). Sports fandom can look awfully silly, but fans don’t care. Foam fingers and body paint are the artifacts of an authentic enjoyment that resists, often without even conscious awareness, the need to see if such an activity will play well with my “followers.” In this way, fandom is humble: a confession that what I’m loving is lovable on its own terms and not because it may win me approval from the internet’s marketplace of the Self.

As a fan, a little sliver of my joy is outsourced to someone and something outside myself. My favorite sports team can thrill me by playing well, winning games and exciting me throughout the season with their skill. My fandom unites me to my favorite team through the emotional investment I make in their well-being, so that my team’s wins feel like my wins. This is why you often hear sports fans say words like “we,” “us,” and “our,” under the apparent delusion that they are part of the team.

It’s this outsourcing of joy that contains spiritual grace. It’s the same grace we need in worship, to acknowledge that God doesn’t need us but we need him. It’s the same grace we need in fellowship, to (really, authentically) rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. It’s the same grace we need in acts of mercy and love, especially when we know those acts will go unnoticed and un-thanked. And it’s the same grace we need to hold fast in a world that doesn’t think highly of this grace. Enjoying sports probably won’t curry favor with the fashionable people we admire or win us more clout, and that’s precisely why it’s so valuable.

Of course, it’s not just sports fandom that offers the spiritual grace of self-forgetfulness. Other things do too. When our attention is toward little pleasures that don’t get us noticed but do help us love, we find that these little pleasures refresh us infinitely more than comparison, or outrage, or constant connectivity. And we get a valuable, increasingly rare reminder that life is bigger than our pocket, and that God’s world needs to be lived in, not just talked about.

Death By Minutia

So many things that we modern people add to our lives are utterly trivial. This is a spiritual AND political problem.

There is darkness without, and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment, and then nothing. 

This is bleak stuff from the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who, as an atheist, rejected any transcendent meaning to life or death. The best a sentient being can hope for, Russell argued, was “triviality for a moment.” Had professor Russell lived to see the age of cable news and social media, he probably would have been even more convinced of this. If you’re looking for a powerful argument for this kind of gloomy nihilism, you could do worse than the amount of triviality that drives our cultural consciousness. How difficult is it to hold forth that life is not meaningless when so much of what we give our attention is?

Trivialities shape the modern, Western soul. Our weeks and years are busier than ever and yet many report deep dissatisfaction and disillusionment. Technology has streamlined our work and curated our relationships, engineering existence for maximum efficiency, while depression, anxiety, and loneliness seem to be the most reliable fruits. Why is this? At least partially it is because a lopsided share of the things that we moderns add to our lives does not matter. They produce exhaustion but not meaning. Even many of the things that trigger outrage and righteous indignation are utterly insignificant. Politically, pscyhologically, and even spiritually, minutia is killing us.

Consider a pair of helpful illustrations from the recent news cycle. The New York Times hired a technology writer named Sarah Jeong for their editorial page. Not long afterwards, several Twitter users, including many conservative journalists, had unearthed a lot of Jeong’s old Tweets in which she quite plainly expresses contempt and dislike for white people, especially white men. Almost faster than you could read all the screenshots, a small library of thinkpieces was published from both ideological sides of the American blogosphere. Left publications like Vox and The New Republic defended Jeong and her Tweets as misrepresented victims of a racist, right-wing smear campaigns. On the other hand, others wrote that Jeong’s Tweets were clearly racist and the Left’s defense of her hire by the Times was gross hypocrisy from the social justice movement.

This type of thing is almost totally irresistible to people like me, who invest time and energy in the online world of ideas. I got sucked in. I knew it was dumb, meaningless, and a waste of time, but the neural reward patterns were too much to overcome. I found myself reading thinkpieces that enraged me, scanning Twitter accounts for something to either vindicate my opinions or further anger me, and imagining all the various evils that this episode revealed about my ideological opposites. It was a thrilling exercise. I felt alive and in the know, already planning to write something that would head off the conversation among the friends I just knew must be having tons of private conversations about this Trending Topic. I went to bed full of righteous invective and eager to meet the next morning with my weapon: my “take.”

I woke up the next morning embarrassed and frustrated that I had wasted last night.  Sarah Jeong has no influence in my life, wherever she works. I had no idea who she was until I suddenly had strong opinions about her (and if I’m being honest, I didn’t really know anything about her even afterwards). An evening’s worth of attention and angst had been spilled over some journalist’s handful of 180-character sentences. I had absolutely nothing to show for my absorption, except for another ride on social media’s outrage-go-round. Worst of all, I knew I had deepened my dependance on outrage to get me thinking. Awful.

Mine is a common experience. Twitter thrives on addicting its users to triviality. Its engineers and programmers know, and in some cases admit, that the platform relies on negative emotion to drive up clicks. Stories like Sarah Jeong’s are an analytics counter’s dream come true: A polarizing trending topic that whips up strong tribal emotions but offers little offline substance. The drama is wholly contained within the frenetic subculture of social media and blogs. Sermonizing and demonizing is fine even if nobody is talking about the issue this time next week, because the point is not meaningful discourse, but per-click ad revenue. Everybody wins, except your brain.

Of course, not everything that trends on social media is trivial. Twitter at its most useful is a hub of informed conversation that offers an invaluable view into the people and places that make up the news. Consider the recent revelations of widespread abuse cover-up in the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania. While the bare legal facts are available in any traditional media outlet, reading the comments, prayers, and (yes) arguments of Catholics who are reckoning with these horrors gives me an insight into how real people are thinking about and responding to these stories, not to mention a fresh empathy and even a sense of Christian burden-sharing. That’s far beyond the capability of any journalistic institution.

But in order for this positive effect to be monetized, it has to be inexorably dependent on minutia. My Twitter feed must, by industrial necessity, offer me three doses of triviality for every one dose of significance. Even if I’m zeroed in on following the conversation and developments of the sex abuse scandals, Kanye West’s politics, or the latest protest at Starbucks, or the inchoate rants of some Reddit men’s rights activist (and the equally inchoate “clapbacks” to the same) are all pushed in my face. Truly meaningful words are buried like fossils in the sediment of minutia. This is the way Silicon Valley wants it, because it’s minutia, not meaning, that cheaply and efficiently captivates my attention.

A prime example of how meaning and minutia are purposefully conflated, to the benefit of tech like Twitter,  is Donald Trump recent insult of basketball superstar LeBron James and journalist Don Lemon. The President of the United States denigrated both James and Lemon’s intelligence before saying “I like Mike” (millennials: that’s Michael Jordan). Soon enough all those hot takes on journalism and racism swapped out “Jeong” and “New York Times” for “Trump” and “LeBron James.” The most pressing question for America became what Trump “really” meant.

Whether the President of the United States says something racist is a very legitimate question. But does this tweet really impart any new knowledge, shed any unseen light, or help us further clarify the stakes of our current political moment? I doubt it. Yet judging by Twitter, you would think this was the most important event since the election. Outrage has a way of creating the illusion of significance, and Trump understands this better than many of his opponents. As Ezra Klein notes, Trump is president in part because his team learned how to take advantage of the self-interested dysfunctions of the American media. Were we as a culture not so energized by meaningless nonsense, we wouldn’t need to care what a New York real estate baron thinks about an athlete. Now we are forced to care, a just punishment for our misplaced care then.

Social media is not the first technology to weaponize trivia. Neil Postman eviscerated television’s effect on Americans’ ability to process information in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, and his critique has been both applied to social media and cited as an example of how every generation has their Luddites. But social media, especially Twitter, is different than television in important ways. It is more mobile, more personal, and its neural rewards are more alluring. Postman warned that TV makes us empty-headed and passive. But at its worst, Twitter can make us empty-headed and passive while we think we are actually being smart and courageous. Trivialities are dangerous to the degree that we cannot actually tell them for what they are. In our age, it’s not the silly vacuity of TV that gets pride of place in our cultural imagination, but the silly vacuity of hashtags and screenshots. Television is just television. Twitter is resistance.

Confusing minutia for meaning is a surefire path toward mental and emotional burnout at best, and an existential transformation into the very things we despise at worst. Fortunately, there are off-ramps. The best way to fight this burnout is to unplug and log off, redirecting your best energies away from the ephemera of online controversies and toward analog life. Because of the neurological boost social media offers, being conscious of its effects is the first, hardest, and most important step toward resisting them. These intentional acts are likely to arouse a sense of condemnation, either from ourselves or others, for not being as “in the know” as we once felt compelled to be. But this is precisely the social media illusion: that being “in the know” about petty, trivial, insignificant trends and conversations is no different than being in the know about anything else. All it takes is a few days away from the black hole of Twitter controversies to recalibrate the mind and realize just how small and unreal they are.

This isn’t just therapeutic, either. Small, organic self-government depends on the capability of citizens to know what’s happening right in front of them. Being smothered by minutia—especially minutia that privileges the comings and goings of remote, celebrity personalities—is a good way to miss the issues and debates that really matter. Your day on Twitter is far more likely to give you a comprehensive education about an over-the-top student protest at a college you’ve only heard about once in your life than about the people and issues in your county school board. For millions of Americans coming into voting age right now, the age of distraction is the only one they know. Minutia overload is normal, maybe even desirable. Reversing this trend is integral to stopping the dangerous political and cultural trend to conceptualize “America” as the handful of economically vogue cities and a smattering of famous rich people. How different would our own national politics be, how different would the White House be, if we weren’t so enamored with glitzy meaninglessness?

Our spirits always eventually mirror what we behold. Putting outrage-ridden triviality in front of our faces throughout the week, throughout the month, and throughout the year is not a neutral hobby. It’s a spiritual practice that makes us less able to feel the beauty of transcendent realities more deeply and less willing to make the effort to do so. If Bertrand Russell was right about existence’s only being “triviality for a moment, then nothing,” let us eat, tweet, and be merry, for tomorrow we and all the people we dislike die. If he was wrong, and more specifically, if all of human history is actually heading to a particular place and a particular Person in the light of whose glory and grace the trivial things of earth will grow strangely dim, then we’ve got a lot of work to do.

The Conservative Soul of Soccer

Soccer, with its order and slow, drudging progress, offers an inviting metaphor in our speed-obsessed culture.

I was the first in my family to be enchanted with soccer. None of us grew up playing it. We lived in SEC and Little League country, so when we said “sports” we almost always meant March Madness and the Super Bowl. The World Cup changed that—specifically, the 2006 World Cup, which I watched with awe and fascination in my grandmother’s guest room, avoiding extended family like a good 16 year old. But it was the 2010 tournament that sealed my affections permanently, as I watched the United States play England in the opening group stage match and plunged into romantic notions that the world was very small and that soccer was the truest bridge anyone could ever hope to build on it.

There is a global allure to the World Cup, something undeniably beautiful in the awareness that billions of people on every continent, under every solar season, are watching and screaming and praying toward the same thing. That’s what sucked me in, but it’s not really why I stay fascinated with a sport I didn’t even understand until high school. Rather, I stay in love with soccer because it has a conservative soul.

The most common thing I hear from people I love about soccer is that it’s boring. Teams don’t score enough; it takes them too long to score; games end in ties! For these folks, soccer is little more than a flesh and blood version of Pong: the ball just moves and moves. Only if you’re lucky, 90 minutes of patience is rewarded with 10 seconds of joy. We scored a point! Now what happened to my afternoon?

I get it. All of the major American sports that we dream of playing as kids define success in terms of lighting up the scoreboard. There’s nothing more glamorous in baseball than a grand slam, nothing more noteworthy in basketball than a triple double, and nothing more impressive in football than a 3 touchdown game by a player. Football, still the country’s most popular and powerful sport, has radically transformed over the past 20 years into an offensive game. It’s all about points, points, points.

Doesn’t this remind you at least a little bit of contemporary American culture? The low hanging simile would be consumerism, of course. “Get all you can while the getting is good” is how most of our society interprets e pluribus unum. But I’m even thinking of another way that scoring points dominates our cultural imagination. What about information? Isn’t there something quite “pointsy” about the way we all seem to feel obligated to be connected to smartphones and Instagram feeds and Twitter arguments all the time? To ask for moderation in these things is to ask for precisely the thing they were invented not to give us. Our uber-connected age runs on the same logic as a chaotic sporting event wherein it is impossible to go too fast or try to score too quickly.

Soccer, though, is far more inviting metaphor. If the frantic, hero-ball personality of our popular sports shows off the spirit of the current day, soccer’s drudging, almost maniacal precision evokes a spirit far older and greener.

Soccer is about the implicit advantage that defenders have over attackers. Defenders don’t have to run with a ball between their feet. Defenders don’t have to worry about offside calls. Soccer’s conflict privileges defending what you have over creating something new. This is why it’s “boring.” It’s also why it’s a deeply true-to-life game. At the heart of the conservative mindset is the belief that good things are much easier to destroy than they are to make. There are all sorts of good ways to “defend” the good thing that already is, but there are far fewer ways to create something good in the old’s place. This is the precise opposite of the progressive, revolutionary mindset, which tends to recklessly attack the status quo in the faith that new good is inevitable and cannot really be pursued in the wrong way.

What matters far more than speed in soccer is movement. Straight line speed, the raw ability to outrun a defender, is certainly valuable, but it won’t achieve much if you can’t move: Move yourself, move the ball, move your teammates. Movement and speed are not the same thing, just like progress and continuance aren’t the same thing. The world of late Western capitalism demands speed without movement, attack without deliberation, and heroism without a team. This is, more or less, the pedagogy that’s defined the modern university for the past two hundred years, and now the children are eating the parents.

Speed without movement is incoherence. This isn’t business or productivity jargon, either. It’s what most people in my generation have forgotten. In the race to actualize ourselves, tell “our truth,” and shape the right side of history, we’ve slipped and fallen into the weeds of depression, paranoia, anxiety, and loneliness. We are learned but don’t know what to do. We are connected but haven’t a soul to talk to. We are accomplished and bright but feel lost and hopeless.

To watch soccer is to be reminded that life, especially the Christian life, is a long obedience in the same direction, not an inspired sprint. There is more movement than speed, more plodding than attacking. For those souls who see themselves primarily as agents of revolutionary change in their generation, and especially for those who have drunk deeply of cynicism toward existing institutions and transcendent claims on their identity, soccer looks like failure. But to those who understand the order of the universe—fixed, but not static; orderly, but not un-invaded—soccer looks a lot like the rhythm of life itself. There’s a lot of passing, a lot of staying where you are, a lot of making sure you’re where the people around you need you. And there are opportunities for glory, indeed. But they’ll be forfeited without deliberate care. A triple double is probably not in your future, but you may very well be part of a movement that does something special…if you can resist sprinting.

Soccer is a beautiful visual liturgy of the conservative spirit. One watches with wonder how individual players can function so cohesively as units, such that the one seems to know where the other is going even before he does. Give it a passing glance and all you’ll see is a ball moving seemingly aimlessly. Pass, pass, backward pass, sideways pass, pass. But the ball is going forward. Just keep watching.

Civility, Privilege, and the Public Square

Civility isn’t merely a way to protect the powerful and privileged. It’s the normal burden common people must bear.

A few years ago I was working in the marketing department of a regional mortgage lender. My office was staffed predominantly with progressive Catholics, and my desire for most of my time there was to find a different job as quickly as possible, so it didn’t take long to learn the benefits of tuning out political and ethical conversations.

One day, though, our graphic designer and I were chatting, and somehow the subject turned to parenting (he was a father of two; I was soon to be married at this point). His exact phrasing escapes my memory, but the essence of his comment—which I am positive he did not expect any resistance to—was that spanking, all spanking, was definitely child abuse.

I raised my eyebrows slightly and said, trying my best for an air of impersonal objectivity, that my problem with hearing those kinds of comments was that my parents had spanked me growing up. Hence, to tell me that spanking is always child abuse is to directly accuse my Mom and Dad of being unrepentant abusers. He looked at me as if I had just whipped out and shown him a heretofore secret Ph.D. in ethics. He mumbled something about not having thought about that before, and went back to his office. The topic never came up again.

This story has come back to mind in recent days as the conversation in my corner of the blogosphere/Twitterverse has turned to civility, and the lack thereof in our contemporary public square. Several writers, including many conservatives, have bemoaned how uncivil our cultural discourse has become, seen especially in Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ being refused service as a Virginia restaurant. While some on the Left agree, many have criticized calls for civility as a tone-deaf response to genuine political and social evil.

At Vox, Nicole Hemmer points out that conservatives once accused Martin Luther King Jr. of incivility, which makes their contemporary concerns suspect. The Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn is more explicit, arguing that civility is a red herring where this president is concerned: “Sorry, no, I won’t suffer lectures about civility from members of a party led by a swaggering, unrepentant bully.”

In other words, whereas conservatives like myself think the loss of civility in American life is worth mourning and trying to correct right now, #TheResistance quadrant of young, socially active Americans is more interested in being effective opponents of (in their view) wicked authority.

Hemmer’s piece seems especially representative of a line of thinking that I’m seeing among anti-Trump friends and colleagues. She writes that calls for civility and consensus “have historically worked to protect the powerful and sustain the status quo,” which is another way of saying what CNN’s Symone Sanders said: “The folks calling for civility [toward Sarah Huckabee Sanders] might need to check their privilege.” In other words, all this hand wringing we see about the loss of good faith in American culture is really a pretense for annoyance that historically marginalized voices now have the microphone. Civility is privilege.

This is a revealing argument. Not only does it illustrate some of the slipperiness of privilege language (some of the poorest, most socially disadvantaged people you meet are the most kind), it shows just how rootless and social media-centered our conception of public good is.

The notion that civility protects the privileged is true on Twitter and false everywhere else. On the contrary, the vast majority of Americans work every day under a vast and powerful architecture of enforced civility called Human Resources. Refusing to cooperate with a coworker because she voted for a politician you dislike is, for most of us, a one-way ticket to the unemployment line. Most Americans do not have the job, the social capital, or the personal network to empower them to live revolutionary attitudes toward the people and institutions they personally oppose. Instead, we live and work and play with written and unwritten codes of neighborliness and cooperation. Disregarding these codes is a serious risk, and though whether the power of such codes is a good or bad thing is debatable, their existence is not.

There are few things that exhibit a person’s privilege more than their eager willingness to offend and alienate others. There is a reason that some of the more destructive and noxious exhibitions of incivility have come from campus protests. College students at elite universities, living off their parents’ tuition payments, have very little to lose. Likewise, the media economy has created an elite class of “professional sayers,” whose remuneration depends on getting clicks and shares and who, consequently, have wide latitude to say whatever they want to whomever they want as long as their sponsors see traffic. Their heated rhetoric and angry othering are not challenges to privilege, but blatant expressions of it.

If I had expressed offense at my coworker’s statement and informed my boss that I refused to work with him, my boss would have given me an ultimatum, not him. This doesn’t mean that my coworker was somehow privileged. It means that the normal social contract demands a certain level of coexistence and good faith, and that those who want/need the benefits of public life—employment, community, even health—must be willing to live a certain way.

Now, some will read that last sentence and immediately remember Justice Kennedy’s ominous phrase “the cost of citizenship.” Let me stop you right there. Ideological conformity is not the cost of citizenship, nor is violation of one’s conscience. Civility is not the cost of citizenship but the expression of it. While being rude and uncharitable and mean spirited does not make one less of an American (in fact, it might make them the most powerful American), it does make one less of a person.

This is what is missing in our contemporary political culture: a definition of virtue that goes beyond policy initiatives and speaks to personal formation. The debate around civility will go nowhere fruitful as long as it is framed as a question of political effectiveness. Civility matters because political effectiveness is not the most important thing in the world. Far from this being a “privileged” point of view, it’s an attitude that most un-privileged in our society, who tend simultaneously to be the most religious, often understand well. Civility doesn’t seem useful to an economically privileged upper middle class that treats politics as a de facto religion. For those who don’t see politics this way, the “usefulness” of civility is not the point. Love of neighbor, especially as an outflow of love for God, is the point.

Our public square is in bad shape right now. Incivility is not the only problem, but it is a problem. The only solution is to rethink our entire moral framework and arrive at a fundamentally different conclusion about the purpose of living and working with people not like us. Until that happens, civility will continue to be a burden that the common people bear, while envying the media class that can afford to merely talk about it.


photo credit (licensed under CC 2.0)

Is #MeToo an Indictment of Complementarianism?

Should we now disown “masculine Christianity”?

Dale Coulter’s argument that evangelicals should repudiate “masculine Christianity” begins with an important omission. His opening paragraph recounts the turmoil swirling in the Southern Baptist Convention over indefensible comments and behavior from (former) Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson. He submits both Patterson and “the authoritarian leadership structure” that supported him as exhibits A and A1 as to why evangelicalism must throw off the noxious, fundamentalist idea that only men should be teaching pastors in the church. At surface glance, this feels like a logical move. Wouldn’t opening the pulpit to women graft them more fully into the fabric of the church, thereby cutting off sinful attitudes like the one Patterson expressed?

But has professor Coulter already forgotten about Bill Hybels? Hybels was, until recently, the founding pastor of Willow Creek church in Chicago, one of the biggest and most influential evangelical churches in the entire world. Hybels resigned from his pastorate amidst a growing chorus of accusations of sexual harassment, including accusations from women whom Hybels had empowered in roles of leadership in his ministry (he has denied most of the allegations, though he did confess to being in “situations that would have been far wiser to avoid”). Hybels is an outspoken gender egalitarian, and Willow Creek quickly named Heather Larson as their new senior pastor.

I understand why professor Coulter would not incorporate Hybels’ scandal into his analysis. For one thing, the coverage of and conversation about the Willow Creek accusations has paled in comparison to the ink that’s been spilled about Paige Patterson. For another, the evangelical response to the two situations has been notably different. Even before evidence emerged that Patterson had tried to conceal a rape at Southeastern Seminary from police, Southern Baptists and other evangelicals used controversy over his pastoral counsel to a victim of domestic abuse as an opportunity for soul-searching. Patterson’s troubling comments warranted some hard self-examination among conservative evangelicals about gender dynamics and whether our churches and institutions were more concerned about waging a culture war than protecting and cherishing women. Because Patterson is a traditionalist on gender, many evangelicals—rightly—took his seemingly cavalier attitude toward abuse as an indication that something was deeply broken in their wider traditionalist culture.

Interestingly, the allegations around Bill Hybels didn’t seem to provoke an analogous self-examination for those on the other side of the theological fence. In fact, it almost did the opposite. In the wake of the Hybels story, both Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren and evangelical writer Aimee Byrd published pieces, at Christianity Today and First Things, respectively, rebuking not Hybels but conservative evangelicals who were practicing “the Billy Graham rule” of not being alone with a member of the opposite sex. On May 23, before Patterson was ultimately fired by the seminary’s trustee board, the evangelical magazine Relevant published an essay by Tyler Hucakbee titled “Paige Patterson’s Non-Punishment Shows the Church Is Not Prepared for True Repentance.” A search on their archives for “Bill Hybels” shows several news items reporting on the allegations, but not a single piece of analysis similar to the Patterson one.

My point is not that a pinch of hypocrisy proves anything. It doesn’t. Nor is my point that the Patterson and Hybels situations are totally equivalent. They aren’t. My point is rather that the straight line that many seem to want to draw from Patterson’s Southern Baptist convictions on gender to his apparent low regard for vulnerable women is a far more complicated matter than they assume. If our national #MeToo moment has proved anything, it’s that no one ideological camp has a monopoly on destructiveness. Whether it’s the self-described feminist and progressive Harvey Weinstein, the elder conservative culture critic Bill Cosby, or two ministers on opposite ends of the theological spectrum, sin, selfishness, and abuse are equal opportunity forces. Healthy change in any of these represented subcultures must begin with a penitent acknowledgment that no one is inherently better than their opposing tribe. All have sinned and fallen short.

With this acknowledgment in hand, evangelicals would do well to heed some of professor Coulter’s admonishment. He’s right that many evangelicals have little to no coherent vision for the role women should play in the life of the church. Coulter’s counsel is to fix this by heading straightway to church history and appropriating the perspectives especially of the Pentecostal movement. But while church history and tradition are certainly vital for evangelicalism, Scripture matters more. Grounding our doctrine of gender and polity in the Bible should take priority over picking and choosing from a smorgasbord of theological movements to assuage our #MeToo guilt.

Of course, this brings us back to very old debates about the meaning of passages such as 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man”) and wider theological questions such as the parallelism between the church and family, among many others. These are arguments worth having, and worth having well. But evangelicals cannot assume that their institutions will be magically reformed when it comes to hearing and protecting women simply by yelling “Fundamentalist!” and running as fast as possible the other direction. Without grounding our theology of gender firmly in Scripture, we are not merely being unfaithful; we are setting the stage for future exposures.

While urging evangelicals to throw off “masculine Christianity” may feel reasonable in the cultural moment, this kind of mantra does more harm than good. It conflates masculinity with misogyny (something that’s difficult if we take 1 Corinthians 16:13 as inspired Scripture). It obscures the beautifully gendered worldview of Scripture, which, far from flattening sexual distinctiveness, exults in it. And it inadvertently relieves men of their moral responsibility toward others and puts it on depersonalized systems and populism.

For theological conservatives, holding a dogmatic line on female pastors while equivocating on domestic abuse and sexual harassment has proven to be a catastrophic formula. Coulter is absolutely right to call us to sincere repentance. But he’s wrong to frame the choice as one between complementarian practice and Christian compassion. Coulter strangely suggests that recovering a tradition of female preachers and teachers would not “require complementarians to violate their consciences with respect to the Word of God.” Well, yes, it would. But complementarian consciences are not in the end that important. What’s far more important is the church of Jesus Christ, built upon the foundation of the life-changing, culture-transforming Scriptures.

We don’t have to ignore the hard, counter-cultural sayings of the Bible in order to hold the line against any and all forms of sexual abuse. The same apostle who wrote that he didn’t permit women to be pastors also commanded Timothy to see the women of the church as mothers and sisters, and to treat them “in all purity:” not as objects to be used, or temptresses to be fled, or strangers to be ignored, but as family.

Lord, make it so.

Saving Private Ryan and the Moral Calculus of Human Life

Saving Private Ryan turns 20 this year. It still offers insight and wisdom for our cultural moment.

[Note: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan turns 20 this year.]

Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List are two sides of the same Spielbergian coin. Both films are about the moral calculus of human life, and how a few ordinary, flawed people responded to an extraordinary moment when this calculus turned deadly. List is the greater film, but Ryan is the more philosophical. Both movies put the same question to its characters: How much is one person worth? The answers in Schindler’s List are definitive; the answers in Saving Private Ryan are complex.

Ryan has been criticized as a pro-war film. Particularly in the aftermath of the Iraq war, there seemed to me a shift in critical opinion toward the film. It’s popular today to argue that the first 30 minutes of the movie—the astonishing and excruciatingly violent D-Day beach sequence—are truly great, but the rest is replaceable. I’m not so sure. What Spielberg accomplishes in Ryan is a spiritual biography of the American soldier. It’s not a pro-war film (no movie that sought to be pro-war would film anything close to that beach sequence), but it’s not an anti-war film either. As a documentary of war, Ryan dismantles the John Wayne/Golden Age of Hollywood delusion, and as a reflection on the value of human life in a world set to destroy it, it likewise challenges the cynicism and utilitarianism of the post-Vietnam mind. It is a great movie because it makes the audience small and the questions big.

The key moment in the movie is not the beach landing, but the scene in which Captain Miller’s (Tom Hanks) company nearly begins to kill itself, literally, out of fury and frustration at not having found Ryan. The company sergeant pulls a gun on a private who says he’s “done with this mission” and will not go further. Most of the men want to execute a German prisoner; the cowardly translator Upham wants to spare him. Miller angers the group by releasing the prisoner, forcing something to give. At the last moment Miller reveals something the soldiers say he’s never told them: where he’s from and what he does. The line “I’m a schoolteacher” breaks over the tension like water on a parched battlefield. It’s the film’s pivotal moment, wherein Miller permanently wins his men’s loyalty by revealing his inner conflict and family-ward sense of duty. That the stoic and courageous Captain is an English teacher from rural Pennsylvania is a beautifully poetic irony. It epitomizes Spielberg’s big idea. In this moment, Miller is not just a captain, he is America itself—killing and being killed, exercising his duty and yet feeling (as he puts it) further and further away from home with every successful shot.

Miller’s confession that he personally doesn’t care about Ryan is poignant. It de-romanticizes both him and his mission. He’s not Captain America; he’s just trying to return home to his wife. This is a brilliant portrayal of how ordinary people calculate the value of human life. Real human beings are not bottomless wells of altruism. We make moral evaluations based on what matters to us, what helps us, so to speak, get home.

This is a good lesson for the pro-life movement. Much pro-life rhetoric is far too stoic and hollow, as if the personhood of the unborn or the immigrant are mere intellectual exercises that people should “agree” with. Human lives, though, are not the point in and of themselves. Losing the religious edge to our pro-life worldview may briefly open doors for co-belligerency, but it risks veering into an inchoate “body-ism” that ignores the fundamentally spiritual character of human life. Often the American effort in WWII is mythologized as a group of utterly selfless men running heedless into battle merely for the sake of flag and country. This misrepresentation fails to take into account how wives, children, fathers, mothers, churches, and friends sturdy the soul in the face of catastrophe. This is also the formula for a dangerous mutation of “patriotism:” A nationalism made up of nothing but symbols and gestures, and utterly insensitive to the real people who make up one’s country (this is the “patriotism” of far too many conservatives right now).

In other words, one of the reasons Saving Private Ryan is so effective is that it strips muddy generalizations away from our moral calculus of human life, and reminds us that real people lay themselves down for others only when there is a love in the soul for something greater than life itself. Secular culture desires a directionless human love, an endlessly general affection for everything and everyone and nothing in particular. This isn’t the love of real people, or of real soldiers, or of real Christians. We are all trying to get back home. The question is how much we want to get back there, and what our path toward home goes through.

Christian Repentance in a Callout Culture

The online shame culture is an opportunity for Christians to hold forth the gracious and healing practice of Christian repentance

Our culture is increasingly a shame culture. “Callout” refers to the common practice of using one’s social media account to name and shame, often with the intended goal of inspiring those who follow your posts to likewise pile-on the other party. As many are discovering, these kinds of shaming campaigns can have real power, especially if the offending party is supported by a corporate brand which fears the effect of such negative publicity.

This shame culture has interesting depth. For one thing, it seems to serve a very ancient function that has been lost to liberal society for a long time—namely, community-driven enforcement of moral norms. Writers such as Wendell Berry and Roger Scruton have long commented on the displacement of community by the political state as the chief arbiter of public moral behavior. When a person is shamed online, it’s not hard to conceive that, at least in one sense, what’s happening to them is an expression of cultural nostalgia for a time in which human beings were not (as they are now) totally isolated, atomized, and mobile.

The flip side of this, however, is that social media is not a community. This may sound strange or even offensive to some, but social media cannot be a community because it requires depersonalization in order to function. Human beings must be reduced to accounts. Beliefs must be reduced to words. Behavior must be reduced to what’s published on a commercial platform. If this is a community, it’s a community in the same way that the characters on a scripted TV sitcom are a “community.” They do not exist independent of our watching them.

Because social media is not a real community, the fact that it seeks to behave as if it were a community leads to a host of complications, and perhaps none of those is so complicated as the Christian practice of repentance.

Repentance in our Western culture is already complicated by the fact that our sense of bondedness is incredibly liquid and loose. We are a fanatically voluntaristic society, and most Americans demand that virtually experience in their daily life be voluntaristic to the core. Contemporary society cherishes breakable bonds. Few words are more attractive to the modern consumer than “no-contract,” and this attitude has spilled into our social fabric. Alan Jacobs considered this dynamic in a 2016 essay for The American Conservative titled “The Trade-In Culture.” Jacobs observes the tendency in American culture to blow up whatever aspects of life aren’t working the way we’d like them to at the moment. Instead of laying anchor and remaining committed to improving a bad situation, it’s become common for us to “trade-in” jobs, relationships, and affiliations as soon as they become hard. “We are becoming habituated to making the nuclear option the first option, or very close to the first option, when we can,” Jacobs writes. “Trying to come to terms with a difficult person, or a difficult situation, is an endeavor fraught with uncertainty: it might work, but it might not, and even if it does work, I could end up paying a big emotional price. Why not just bail out and start over.”

The trade-in culture is a spectre hovering over all of liberal society’s institutions and relationships. Everyone goes to the altar knowing what divorce is. Everyone joins a church knowing they could switch for any reason. Everyone knows they have a choice between parenting and alimony. And everyone feels shame knowing the easier and more political thing to do would be to disappear instead of repent, to reconcile with obscurity rather than with the sinned against. In the liquid, shame-ridden trade-in culture, the relationship between sinner and sin is political rather than personal. The best thing a person being targeted by a social media campaign can do is stop posting [i.e., disappear]. This “call” for “repentance” is entirely about removing the blight from the online experience of the community, just as no-fault divorce is entirely about removing the difficult marriage or church-hopping is entirely about removing the awkwardness of corporate worship.

***

So what does this have to do with repentance? For one thing, the Christian practice of repentance is not political. It is not an act that seeks to mitigate harm to the brand or satisfy all the desires of those who might be persuaded to support the penitent one day. The Christian practice of repentance carries with two biblical commands that are equally devastating to our contemporary mindset: “Confess your sins one to another” and “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.” These are not mantras of the trade-in society. They are not handy slogans for political morality. On the one hand, we are commanded to confess our sins, to relinquish the fantasy of autonomy over our lives and to invite shame rather than flee it. On the other hand, we are commanded to forgive the offenses of others; commanded, even, on the basis that failure to do so might jeopardize our own standing before God. In contemporary society, the motivations for forgiveness are almost always therapeutic; even a popular pastor once remarked that failing to forgive others was bad because it allowed the offender to live “rent-free in your head.”

We might even go so far as to suggest that callout culture and the ruthless personal shaming of social media is a response to our civilization’s hollowing out of sin and shame. It is fascinating to observe how much online shaming utilizes the language of political oppression. It’s as if the soul of modern liberalism cries out for a justice—an atonement—that it doesn’t believe in and cannot bring itself to conceive, and in this absence, “re-stories” the world as a black and white narrative of oppressor and oppressed, of bias and biased against. In a stunning essay titled “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” Wilifred McClay summarizes the trauma of an age which refuses to come to terms with moral guilt and substitutes political guilt in its place:

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.

In other words, in the absence of a truly moral sense of sin and guilt, modern people simulate these fundamental human senses through rituals. This fact alone should make recovering and inhabiting the Christian practice of repentance a priority for believers. The worldly liturgy is simultaneously apathetic and merciless, loving the sin and hating the sinner. A major part of being the church in the days ahead will be ministering to those who have been catechized both to make peace with their inner sense of moral guilt and to feel worthless and abandoned because of their sin. This is part of what Russell Moore calls the “sexual revolution’s refugee crisis:” A generation of people fleeing from the broken promises of secularism but unsure where to go. The Christian church must be ready for them.

Christian repentance is a balm to the wounded soul of sinners. In 1 Samuel 12, the prophet demonstrates the counter-intuitive nature of grace in responding to his nation’s sin in asking for a king. They realize they have rejected God and cry out to Samuel to intercede for them. Samuel’s astonishing next two words could be the anthem of the church to a callout culture: “Do not be afraid. You have done all this evil.” In other words, yes, your shame is valid, and yes, your failure is real. But do not be afraid. Come to Jesus. He will take your failure upon himself. Repent to a loving Savior, not a bloodthirsty mob. He is waiting…but so are they.

Love Isn’t a Liberal Word

Conservative evangelicalism’s #MeToo moment is about a failure to love.

As I awoke this morning to news that Southwestern Seminary had reversed course and fired president Paige Patterson (canceling the benefits of his original transition to Emeritus), I felt no outrage, or schadenfreude, or even joy. I was glad for the future of that seminary and the future of the SBC that the right decision was finally made. But I thought a lot about Dr. Patterson, his family, and what I’m sure is his utter bewilderment at the past three weeks. Perhaps there are some who believe that Paige Patterson hates women or wants to protect predatory men. I do not, partially because I identify with Patterson’s failure to love his sisters in Christ the way he ought. His failure is my failure, too. And that’s what it is: A failure of love.

Growing up in conservative, Baptist evangelicalism, I frequently saw two ways to live the Christian life contrasted against each other. In the churches and denominational culture, I saw an emphasis on love and acceptance that often precluded believing or saying hard things. Church members who were living in open sexual sin were encouraged to participate in all aspects of church life because to confront them would be unkind and judgmental and possibly drive them from the church. On the other hand, there was the Baptist seminary and institutional culture. The dynamics of this culture were diametrically opposite of the attitudes I saw in local church life: Truth was what mattered more than people. To be serious about Scripture was more important than to be serious about sinners.

Propositionally, I never heard anyone in the seminary or institutional culture say that love was for liberals, just like I never heard anyone in the local church culture say that the Bible was for cold-hearted fundamentalists. But the emphases, the formative practices, the meta-intellectual liturgies that emanated from both worlds was crystal clear. My experience of seeing such a stark contrast drawn between mercy and morality left a deep imprint. My instincts were shaped to hear words like “compassion” and immediately call to mind Scriptures on truth. Again, none of this was articulated. It was beyond articulation. It was formation.

One thing I’ve learned in the past few months: You can’t live like this and escape your own #MeToo movement.

In our evangelical #MeToo moment, I see contours of a stark divide we’ve drawn between truth and love. Because we complementarians are not afraid to define ourselves by a theology of gender that clashes with the outside culture, our inner life is geared (in my experience) toward seeing women as issues that need to be addressed rather than people who need to be heard. Our eagerness to love the women in our churches and institutions is constantly outpaced by our eagerness to not be egalitarians, not least because our formative liturgies continually feed the latter desire but not the former.  For much of our subculture, taking seriously the concerns of those who are more sexually and socially vulnerable than men is not quite as important as maintaining a battle line opposite Democrats and social progressives. This dynamic exists not because we tell ourselves that it should exist, but because we tell ourselves other stories—stories sometimes beyond words—that make its existence inevitable.

Why does fear of turning into our theological opposites control our hearts and shape our spaces like this? Why is it so hard to find joyfully complementarian advocates of sexual abuse victims streaming out of our churches and seminaries? Why does the idea of a “listening to women” immediately awaken defensive strictures about PC culture and the hypocrisy of liberals? We could go further. #MeToo is about women, but for the evangelicalism I know and love it could just as well be about black people, or immigrants, or Democrats. The evangelicalism I know and love has so, so often walked around love because it was afraid of its germs.

I’m sure that Paige Patterson thought he was doing the right thing by encouraging the rape victim in his office to not tell the police. I’m sure he thought that by protecting the seminary from the attention of civil authorities, he was doing a service to the advance of the gospel and the formation of pastors and church leaders. I’m sure he thought that by counseling an abused woman to stay in the home with her husband he was striking a godly blow for marriage against the divorce culture. I’m sure he was out to win the war.

Evangelicalism doesn’t need a new Bible, edited by the spirit of the age. It doesn’t need a new Savior, proclaiming the good news of moralistic therapeutic deism. What evangelicalism needs is a new metaphor. It needs a way to feel toward the people of this earth that isn’t instinctively sword-drawn and battle-ready. It needs willingness to err on the side of gospel love rather than gospel swagger.

We are deathly afraid of being put in a corner next to those who are wrong, and so dutifully stay as far away from them as possible. In the meantime, we punt on abuse, we punt on racism, we punt on compassion for the poor. Let the Left handle that. Don’t contaminate our institutions with cultural Marxism. If you want to talk about those things, go to the Christ-less mainline, or go to politics. If you want to know about Christ, come to our churches.

Our seminaries and institutions are imperiled right now precisely because this does not work. Our arrangement of spirituality along American political lines has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. The change that has to come must come in the form of a willingness not to pit love and truth against each other. We’re not rethinking our biblical faith. We have to rethink our identity.

And that’s much, much harder.