Jonathan Merritt on Bible Literacy Classes

Is religious literacy valuable for society?

A few very brief thoughts on this piece from Jonathan Merritt:

1) Merritt’s point about Christian parents probably not wanting a state-approved presentation of Christianity is valid. To the degree that Christians have to let lawmakers or anyone else comb through and filter the contents of our faith in order to gain a foothold somewhere, I think we’ve already lost a big part of our mission.

2) On the other hand, Merritt’s argument is disingenuous because it basically boils down to an assumption that the kind of evangelicals likely to back a Bible literacy bill are not the kind of evangelicals likely to see value in a comparative religion-style education on Scripture. Merritt pretty much assumes from the get-go that the real reason any evangelical would want a Bible literacy class is to catechize. Aside from being a rather bad faith assumption, is he really sure that evangelicals would be outraged to hear their children were taught the Bible was fully of mythical symbolism? I mean, isn’t that what they’re pretty much taught anyway?

3) I wonder why Merritt doesn’t mention comparing a high school Bible literacy class to a college equivalent, of which there are many examples.  Public universities study the Bible all the time, and the vast majority of those classes are taught from an unbelieving point of view. I don’t recall seeing many organized evangelical protests of those classes, which are also taxpayer funded.

4) Merritt writes, “While evangelicals are generally more politically conservative, teachers in public schools might choose to emphasize the Bible’s many teachings on caring for the poor, welcoming the immigrant, and the problems of material wealth.” Ah, my least favorite genre of writing: The I’m-Arguing-From-Your-Terrible-Point-of-View essay.

5) It seems Merritt pretty much ignores the crucial question, which is, “Is religious literacy valuable for American society at large?” Stephen Prothero wrote a well-reviewed book arguing that it is. Near the book’s conclusion, Prothero quotes no less than Charles Colson on why Christians need not fear public courses on the Bible that refuse to proselytize:

“Some critics fear that merely studying the Bible’s role in history, or as literature diminishes it,” writes Colson. But such a course, he argues, does not prevent Christians from taking the “next step” and trying to convert young people to Christianity. As Colson recognizes, however, spurring young people to take this “next step” cannot be the job of public schools. “Can people be good citizens,” Colson asks, “if they don’t know their own history?” The answer, of course, is no.

6) Of course, this entire discussion presupposes that it’s possible to educate about something without prescribing it to the people being educated. Given the rigorous calls for schools to stop teaching everything that requires mature, critical moral evaluation—everything from political history to Mark Twain—I think there’s a deep confusion in Western culture as to whether that is possible at all. Right now we seem awfully comfortable simply banning stuff in the name of justice rather than engaging with our past. Merritt doesn’t find time to ask whether this is a good thing. That’s a shame.

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Is the Jordan Peterson Phenomenon Really About Angry Young Men?

Does the “anti-PC warrior” sell bitterness and a persecution complex to angry white males?

Jordan Peterson isn’t really that interesting of a topic. His videos are popular, sure, but so are FailBlog’s. His book 12 Rules for Life is well-written and articulate, but it’s not The Abolition of Man. I completely understand why people scratch their heads at Peterson’s seeming omnipresence in journalism and online discourse. He’s not that big of a deal.

On the other hand, the interest in Peterson—both the fandom and the outrage—is interesting for what it reveals. There are deep fault lines in our contemporary understanding of foundational topics such as gender, parenting, the good life, and suffering. Many of these fault lines lay hidden beneath artificial structures, like HR-style conformity to speech codes and predictable partisan politics. The Peterson phenomenon is about these fault lines more than it’s about Peterson himself. The actual divide that I see is not really between people who like Peterson’s message and those who don’t, but those who are content with the lay of the fault lines and those who aren’t.

Christine Emba’s write-up from a Peterson event illustrates this point well. She describes the interest in Peterson’s message as “depressing,” classifying Peterson’s fans as belonging to the “disaffected-young man-Internet.” Though she expresses something like appreciation for Peterson’s self-improvement tomes and willingness to challenge cultural orthodoxies, she nonetheless sees his readers as confused (and probably over-privileged):

Peterson — or, rather, the men who flock to him — clearly need something to fight against (anti-free-speech snowflakes!), and something to fight for (their leader!). Why is that? The subtitle of Peterson’s book is “An Antidote to Chaos,” and many of his readers really do feel as though they’re living lives of fracture and disarray, left to twist in the wind by broken families, a fading economy and new social norms that seem to give succor to everyone except them.

The word “need” here is intentional, and it is used in much the same way that cognitive scientists describe religious people as “needing” to believe in pattern and transcendence. “Need to believe” is a formulation that suggests the beliefs line up more with agenda than reality. And what is that agenda? Well, to fight back against an emerging socioeconomic order that seems “to give succor to everyone except them.”

In other words, Peterson is selling bitterness and a persecution complex. And disaffected young men are buying it.

There’s some measure of truth here. Peterson has indeed been lionized by some males whose worldview is all about owning the libs and feminazis. There is undoubtedly some class and sexual resentment going on as well, a fact the online community of “incels” graphically illustrates. But as I’m sure Emba would agree, it’s hard for a 400 page book to perch atop Amazon’s bestselling nonfiction lists on the backs of incels and “redpill” truants alone. The fault lines pass through them, yes, but they didn’t start there.

I was surprised to realize after re-reading Emba’s piece that in talking about Peterson’s message and appeal, she never once mentions higher ed. I would argue it’s impossible to accurately understand why Peterson’s work is connecting with so many unless you consider, objectively if possible, the culture of American universities. Not only is the campus shoutdown culture a prominent topic in Peterson’s book, it is inseparable from his platform. He is, after all, a college professor, one whose basic social, political, and religious ideas are at intense conflict with the vast majority of his colleagues. You don’t have to agree with Peterson’s particular views on transgender speech laws to empathize with him in his famous video with a belligerent interviewer from BBC Channel 4, or to be concerned with the way protesters at college campuses shout him down.

In other words, those investigating Peterson’s appeal should probably consider the possibility that at least some of the “disaffection” of his male fans comes from somewhere. Why should we assume that student activists who bring air horns and placards into school lectures to keep guests from talking speak for all their peers? Couldn’t there be some, maybe even many, who are offended at such tactics and appalled at their effectiveness? Could it be that these same people admire Peterson for his courage amidst a crumbling public square?

I’ve observed that many who register concerns and annoyance at Peterson rarely have much to say about these other phenomenons. It’s almost as if Peterson’s ideological targets are so assumed and so instinctive on the Left that his words make no sense there, like he is boxing a ghost some cannot see. My point is not that everything Peterson writes or says is true. As a Christian, in fact, I think his archetypal approach to truth itself is fatally flawed and doomed to fail eventually. But an honest appraisal cannot find that Peterson’s messaging comes from nowhere, or that it’s rooted in nothing real. Only those comfortable with these fault lines can fail to see them.

I don’t find Peterson or his book depressing. What I do find depressing are the cultural orthodoxies he attacks. Emba asks whether Peterson’s appeal means we don’t have any parents any more. Has she considered the possibility that the problem is not lack of parents but a radical transformation of parenting? All it takes is a 30 minute perusal of the bestsellers section or 10 minutes on Facebook to realize that self-esteem, meeting of felt needs, and complete supervision at the cost of independence are some of the most important principles in contemporary parenting. In fact, some have observed that the transformation of the university has been into a sort of helicopter parent, whose job is no longer to shape youth into adulthood and instill virtue where there is foolishness, but to authenticate self and pacify all grievances.

Some, of course, dispute this narrative, while others think what I’ve described in negative terms is actually healthy. Praise God for healthy disagreement. But pretending these larger fault lines of disagreement don’t exist and that Peterson’s messaging is just code for poor white males who lost the culture war will not work. Peterson’s rules resonate right now because man cannot live on equality alone, and he is one of the few public figures willing to say it. In the words of C.S. Lewis, there is a “secret signature of each soul” that cannot be expressed sufficiently through politics or science. That is Peterson’s real message, as well as his critics’ real stumbling block.

Is There a Place in Evangelicalism For Non-Ministers?

A few months before I started there, I took part in a preview weekend for the Bible college that I eventually attended. At one point I had the opportunity to ask the then-dean of the college what the vision of the school was for people (like me) who did not intend to go into vocational ministry. His answer was one I quickly became accustomed to hearing: Every Christian is a “minister” in the realest sense of the word, no matter his or her vocation. Therefore, there would always be a reason for Christians to get a theological education. Wherever we are—the church, business, or the arts—we are ministers.

I think this is true. But I also think it didn’t really answer my question. It seems to me that the question this dean actually answered was, “Why should I give a Bible college money if I don’t have intentions of pastoral ministry?” But that’s a different question. What I wanted to know that evening was whether there was a space to belong for people like me at an institution that is explicitly commissioned to train pastors. I wanted to know whether this college had a category for me (and whether I could have a category for it). To this day, I’m not sure  I completely understand the relationship between evangelicalism’s most important institutions and her non-pastor members. I don’t think I’m alone.

Asking whether there is space for non-ministers in evangelicalism can feel a bit like asking whether there is space for non-members in the local church. On one hand, of course there is! The church is always open like that. After all, if only existing members ever darkened the doors, the church would die. But to say there is space for non-members in this sense is not to say that the church commits to, listens to, or cedes any kind of authority to those attenders. A healthy congregational polity, after all, doesn’t let its non-member attenders cast crucial votes or wield spiritual authority. I often wonder if this is the kind of posture evangelicalism is liable to assume toward its non-ministerial members.

Conservative evangelicalism’s most important, most formative institutions are its churches and its seminaries. One might assume the seminaries exist to serve the churches, but the reality is far more complicated than that. Add in the parachurch ministries and affinity networks to the mix, and you start to get a sense how overlapping the leadership cultures of evangelical institutions really are. The overwhelming majority of influence and institutional capital in my quadrant of evangelicalism is owned by pastors and seminarians. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” The question for me is not whether this is a good or bad thing. Rather, the question for me, as a non-pastor, non-seminarian evangelical who is nonetheless invested in the life and doctrine of evangelicalism: How then shall I live?

Here’s an example of the issues this dynamic can create. Jen Michel is right, I think, to ask whether there is a “gender gap” when it comes to Christian nonfiction. Rather than framing the issue as a case of men refusing to read women, though, I believe I would frame it as a problem of institutional identities. When Jen says “men” here, she of course means Reformed, complementarian men. Who dictates what Reformed, complementarian men read? Well, to a certain extent, Christian publishing does. But what dictates Christian publishing? Aye, there’s the rub. The most doctrinally sound, most ecclesiologically minded publishing houses in evangelicalism tend to invest a large amount of their attention and resources toward pastors and seminaries. Why? Because that’s where the heartbeat of our particular theological culture lies. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. There is something healthy about not totally divorcing the teaching authority of the church and the teaching authority of trade nonfiction (though I think they’re not the same). But it does create, as Jen points out, practical consequences for those of us who don’t live at that heartbeat.

What do Christian writers and speakers do when they’re not ministers? How should they think about their calling? In case you think these are relatively insignificant questions, perhaps put the question a little more bluntly. “Who’s in charge” of, say, the evangelicals who think and writer and speak, but not from the seminarian nexus of evangelical authority? It’s tempting here to appeal to people like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Elisabeth Eliot, and Nancy Pearcey: all of them hugely influential evangelicals and none of them pastors, seminary presidents, or church network founders. But these are exceptional examples, both in talents and context. The question is not whether we have any more Lewises or Schaeffers or Eliots or Pearceys among us. The question is whether there is a visible path, in the era of Patheos Progressive and narrative-as-authority sub-evangelicalism, for lay writers to become genuine leaders.

Part of the challenge is, I suspect, that for much of conservative evangelicalism, a truly trustworthy leader is one who prioritizes evangelism over intellectualism. That’s at least one reason why the death of someone like Billy Graham looms so large over the evangelical movement, and inspires a meaningful introspection into our identity and future. Make no mistake; Graham is, humanly speaking, the most important American evangelical in history. But such a judgment also implies that evangelicals think of preaching in a way they don’t necessarily think of other things. To borrow some philosophical terms, we might say that in the worldview of evangelicalism, intellectualism and cultural engagement are accidental, but preaching is essence.

It bears saying an umpteenth time: This isn’t bad! It does, however, necessitate evangelical conscientiousness about our movement and its culture. It might also invite some uncomfortable questions about whether pastoral ministry has been inappropriately incentivized, pitched as the only serious vocational option people who want to make a difference for the kingdom. And, as Jen Michel and others have pointed out, it creates a need to articulate more about gender and evangelical authority.

I love both the pastorate and the seminary, but I know (at least as well as one can know these things) they are not in God’s sovereign design for my life. And yet I also know that I want to talk to Christians, have skin in the game, and use whatever resources and time I am given to help both believers and unbelievers see and feel glory. Whether there’s room for me to do this seriously without being a minister, I’m not sure yet. I hope so. Not just for my sake, I hope so.

Millennials, Free Speech, and Analog Learning

I think it’s past time to admit that the hostility we see from college students toward speech and ideas they dislike is a generational issue. I know this sounds like I’m encouraging stereotypes of millennials, and reasonable people are not supposed to talk about any group in that kind of systemic language (well, almost any group). But denying the generational character of anti-free speech attitudes puts us at a serious risk, I think, of failing to understand why so many millennials feel this way in the first place.

Millennials are the first generation to grow up in an internet age. Note the wording carefully, because millennials are not the first generation to come of age with the internet (Gen-X). They are, however, the first Americans to have had their childhood shaped by the rhythms and cultures of online life. This is enormously important, because it means that millions of millennials grew up having their worldview and (more importantly) their relational identity calibrated by technology that is ephemeral. Because many millennials were online at formative intellectual and emotional times of their life, their expectations of what life is really like are shaped by digital technology…which means, among many other things, that many millennials have, since their early childhood, practiced a semi-autonomous sort of mastery over their world. The delete, cancel, log off, and block buttons have always been right by them. And for many of these millennials, adolescence meant the mobilization of this technology. Whether it’s the family PC or their own iPhone, millennials have, for what is functionally their entire existence, related to the “other” through digital medium.

To me, this suggests that what anti-free speech millennials misunderstand is not “free” but “speech.” The idea that words and ideas can exist outside their personal power to mediate them is a confusing idea, because that’s simply not how they learned about the world. When Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro or Ross Douthat write or say something that aggrieves their presuppositions, the millennial brain responds by insisting that not only are those words wrong (which is a legitimate response), but the fact that they had to hear them is a moral negative (which is not). If ideas are nothing more than words, and if words are nothing more than customizable strokes on an interface, then it does not make any moral sense that anyone should have to read or hear anything they dislike. Such a concept runs afoul of the techno-epistemological system that millennials raised on the digital age were shaped by. The entire premise of the internet is that you get what you want, and nothing more.

Analog learning, by contrast, impresses upon our minds the objective reality of words. Nothing you can do can make the words in that book go away. You can throw it out, tear out the pages, burn it if you wish (you wouldn’t be the first!), but the words are there, the book is there, and the meeting of ink with paper has produced, however small, a moment of cognitive everlastingness that can only be ignored, not erased.

Human nature craves absolutism and uniformity, not dissent and debate. Learning from books does not by itself stem this craving. Wisdom is not merely about form. But in analog learning, the relationship between me and the other is given definite shape and texture. The words will always be there, and it is my choice how to respond to them. By contrast, the internet temporalizes and commodifies thinking, so as to make the consumer as intellectually plastic and capable of more consumption as possible. This might mean, then, that shouting at millennials on Twitter to be more accepting of free speech is a loser’s cause. Recommending that they log off and read some books, however, might be a start.

10 Suggestions For New Bible College Students

From one Bible college graduate to another, here’s a brief word to students beginning their education this month:

  1. Do not use your school work on the Bible to replace your personal reading of the Bible. Even the most spiritually helpful class time cannot compare to the cumulative effect of a week’s worth of private quiet times.
  2. Don’t be thrown off by the way holiness has become “cool” on campus. This may seem dreamy at first, but it carries with it many temptations. If you find your popularity increasing with how righteous you are, stop whatever you’re doing and ask a trusted friend for an honest assessment.
  3. You won’t find every class, book, or topic equally interesting or helpful. That’s OK. It doesn’t mean your love for God is lacking.
  4. Read at least one work of fiction every semester, lest you unwittingly become, like Charles Darwin, a machine for grinding out (theological) facts.
  5. Don’t resent family members or former pastors who didn’t teach you all this wonderful new theology. People with fewer books than you may know something too.
  6. Don’t organize evangelism events if you have no intention of following up with or discipling those in your community. See suggestion #2.
  7. Being teachable is better, and more Christian, than being smart. That’s true in the classroom, the pew, and the dorm.
  8. Run from pornography as fast as you can. It’s a locust that will devour your years. Embrace flip phones.
  9. Remember Mom and Dad and grandma and grandpa. After all, you’ll be surprised how few of your college friends are still in contact 3 years after graduation.
  10. Go to church every week, preferably a church that would notice when you’re gone.

Not Quite a Waterloo

Carl Trueman writes that the oncoming crisis for Christian higher education is a “Waterloo” for traditional religious belief in our culture.

Well, yes–and no.

Over at the Patreon blog, I offer some mitigating perspective. Here’s an excerpt:

By calling higher education the Christian cultural “Waterloo,” Trueman has invested an enormous amount of belief in the power and influence of college campuses. It’s a belief that I think is too generous, too theologically simplistic, and also more than a bit dated.

You won’t find me denying any time soon that universities are formative centers of cultural transformation. Of course they are. But the two questions I ask of Trueman’s essay are, 1) whether we should also believe that universities are equally formative centers of cultural deconstruction, and 2) whether we should believe that universities will continue to be as formative in the near future as they have been in the near past.

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What Graduation Means

Last spring spent about four hours of a Monday night at a college graduation. My wife was being awarded her degree in elementary education, and she was joined by (according to the college president) 995 other undergraduates. Graduates were welcomed, inducted, charged, presented, and awarded, in that order. The night was long; speeches repeated, processionals and recessionals slogged, and of course, each of the 995 students were called, conferred, and congratulated individually.

It was a ceremony clearly not tailored to the entertainment generation or the babies of endless social media connectivity. Neither was it the du jour of those “radicals,” found so often on college campuses, who detest tradition and protest uniformity. Students marched in step behind large banners, signifying their membership in one of the university’s schools. Everyone wore the same traditional black gown and cap. Songs older than many US states were sung. It was, in many ways, a kind of religious ceremony, in which tradition, institution, and (academic) success made up the liturgy.

I realized at one point that for all the endless intellectual coddling and culture policing that characterizes the contemporary American university, a bachelor’s degree culminates in an event that defies such self-expressive autonomy. Graduation invites students, faculty, family and friends to believe that they are participating in something greater than themselves, to find satisfaction and joy in the idea that what they have achieved has been achieved before and will be achieved again. Yes, graduates have their names called, and yes, graduates receive their own degrees. But the entire ethos of the ceremony is one that says: “This is not ultimately about you.”

This is the opposite, of course, of what many undergraduates learn in the college classroom. We hear almost daily updates on an American university culture which at every turn empowers freshmen and sophomores to authenticate themselves through protest, rather than sit and learn about an imperfect world at the feet of imperfect people. Much of young adult life is what Alan Jacobs calls the “trade-in society,” a life of loose connection and easy escape from situations that become difficult. If institutions become ornery, if they cease to align up perfectly with my individual desires and goals, then the solution is to either give up on the institution or else demand that it change.

Nihilism in higher education has been rampant for some time. But if what I saw Monday night was an indication, it looks like it has mostly failed to leave its imprint on graduation. Presidents and executive administrators sat on the stage, above the floor of graduates; no one protested this obvious hierarchy. I didn’t see any letters to the editor in the following days demanding that the school change its individualism-stifling policy on the robe and cap. Nary a thought was given to whether the school fight song, written in 1892, might have been penned by someone with questionable social or political opinion. In other words, there seems to be no pressing need to make commencement in our sociopolitical image. The ritual is allowed to be ritual.

Why is this? Why, among all the college unrest and university politics in our culture today, is there no national movement to “democratize” commencement? Why is there no formidable backlash to its rigidity and solemnity?

Perhaps one answer is that graduation is one of the few moments remaining in our culture where achievement needs tradition. What a conferring of degrees means is dependent on what, or who, is conferring them. This is, after all, the difference between a college education and a few bucks paid to a diploma mill at a PO box. Anyone can write anything on a piece of paper. But the bigness—we might even say transcendence—of the commencement ceremony befits a time where graduates are declared matriculated by those with the (trigger warning) power to say so.

A commencement invites students to become not just graduates, but alumni. That’s why so much of the chancellor’s speech on Monday was given to exulting in the university’s history and prestige. Students aren’t just receiving degrees; they’re receiving membership, a form of covenant (however informal) that ties them to a specific place and a specific body. Implicit in the commencement is the idea that people need to belong, and that belonging to something greater than and outside oneself is not opposed to individual achievement and success.

Unfortunately, from August to April, much of college life teaches the opposite. From radical deconstructionism in the humanities, to rank scientism in mathematics and biology, to the campus hook up culture—all of these coalesce into a living liturgy of lonely autonomy and hopeless self-authentication.

Is the unraveling of the American campus really a surprise? I can’t see how it is. If everything in the classroom and commons area screams that transcendence and God are nothing but ciphers for the powerful, might one eventually want to apply the rules learned about home, country, and religion to the college itself? Why be oppressed? Higher education was comfortable directing this energy toward the general culture for decades; the only problem now is that the barrels are turned the wrong way. If Lady Thatcher was right that running out of other people’s money was the trouble with socialism, you might say the problem with nihilism in education is that, eventually, you run out of other people’s safe spaces.

So the drama of higher education continues. In the coming years we will see just how strong an institution it is, as it tries to fend off the threats of digitalization, debt, and decay. It very well could be that the internet age was created for such a time as this, to rescue the university from itself and provide a generation with the knowledge and intellectual formation that a coddling college culture has defaulted on. In many ways it would be, as Ross Douthat has noted, a punishment that fits academia’s crime.

Whatever the future holds, let’s hold off on tampering too much with commencement. It may be a bit tedious and self-congratulating. But it’s also a spark of meaning and permanence and truth in the cavernous culture of higher ed.

Homeschooling and the Benedict Option

While reading Charlotte Allen’s nice takedown of a fearmongering Washington Post piece about homeschooling, I was reminded again how hard it can be to extinguish certain anxieties. The anti-homeschooling activists profiled by the Post have had difficult life experiences inside homeschooling. That shouldn’t be minimized or ridiculed. But, as Allen points out, the rhetoric of these anti-homeschooling crusaders far supersedes any demonstrable harm. What animates these activists is not really evidence, but dread: The dread of social units that live outside the immediate purview of the state. Again, I’m sure some of this dread comes from abuse received and seen. But I think the point of Allen’s rebuttal piece is that this dread is more ideological than existential. It’s a dread that comes from assumptions about parenting, children, education, government, etc etc. And the reason that noxious myths about homeschooling persist, especially among progressives, is that are (for the most part) downstream from worldview rather than from experience.

Realizing this made me think about the Benedict Option. Rod Dreher’s book releases soon, and it’s already causing a fair amount of debate and controversy. I haven’t read the book, though I’m familiar with Rod’s essays and blog posts on the topic. I won’t endorse the book without reading it, and I have reservations and critiques of the whole project (many of which have been eloquently voiced by Andrew Walker). But I am broadly sympathetic with Rod’s diagnosis of Western Christianity and culture. To that end, I think the fearful mystique around homeschooling can actually educate us when it comes to the debate over the Benedict Option.

It’s not hard to see a connection between the BenOp and homeschooling. To be sure, many homeschooling families choose homeschooling for non-religious reasons. But, especially for religious families, the premise of homeschooling is attractive because it offers an internal logic that is consonant with the BenOp: A strategic withdrawal from mainstream cultural institutions (in this case, public school) and a replacement that is consistent with beliefs and convictions (in this case, curriculum, especially science and the humanities). You might consider the religious, homeschooling family a laboratory-sized microcosm of the Benedict Option.

And just like some of the more gut-level suspicions of homeschooling are fueled by ideology rather than facts, I think too some of the instinctive responses I’ve seen to the BenOp are about presuppositions. Debating the Benedict Option, like debating homeschooling, is most helpful when each side agrees on some basic assumptions. You and your neighbor can both believe that parents have a fundamental right to educate their children and that such education can and should happen in a Christian context. That agreement doesn’t mean you will both homeschool, because homeschooling entails more than those presuppositions. But if you and your neighbor disagree on those two ideas–for example, if one of you believers that children belong to the public square at least as much as they belong to parents, or if one of you believes that religion is superstition that stifles learning–then an intramural debate on the merits of religious homeschooling is useless.

I think this can apply as well to the BenOp conversation. The Benedict Option presupposes that such a thing as “secular culture” actually exists and is actually opposed to the life and witness of Christians. This is not a presupposition shared by all. If you believe, for example, that human sin can be sufficiently described by concepts such as power structures and systemic injustice, then the idea of an encroaching “secular culture” doesn’t make sense. The Sexual Revolution cannot be thought of as inherently contrary to the gospel if what we mean when we say “sin” is only–or primarily–the oppression of other people’s autonomous wills. Sexual relativism does in fact end in violent rape culture, but it doesn’t begin there, and a narrative of Christian mission that cannot coherently call to repentance “victimless” sins doesn’t have a category for something like the Benedict Option.

Like homeschooling, the BenOp assumes that Christian faithfulness entails the public square but does not terminate in it. Again, this is not a persuasion that all self-described evangelicals have. If your eschatology denies the invasive character of the coming kingdom, and instead solely articulates the transformation of the current world, then it won’t make sense to prioritize fidelity to the gospel itself–fidelity to doctrine–at the risk of losing opportunities in the public square. Believing that attending to our own Christian institutions and practices is a fundamentally selfish thing to do is not unlike believing that families who homeschool prevent their children from being salt and light.

An idea like the Benedict Option makes an assortment of presuppositions about the nature of Christian faith and the mission of the church. These presuppositions may be right or they may be wrong, but they are at the foundation, either way, of something much larger than just an intramural scrimmage over a new book. I think what we are seeing, particularly in some of the more visceral responses to the BenOp, is a division over major theological and ethical questions that evangelicals have too often pretended weren’t there or weren’t “relevant” to the life of the church. To the extent that this conversation over Dreher’s ideas brings more clarity to these divisions, I think we can be grateful for it.

Keep Teenagers Weird

A couple years ago, Jan Hoffman wrote a piece for The New York Times on the disparity in quality of life between adults who were “cool kids” in middle and high school, and the adults who spent those same years in obscurity or unpopularity. “Cool at 13, Adrift at 23” cited a study which reported on a group of American kids from age 13 all the way to age 23. Among other things, the study discovered that the kids who enjoyed popularity and social ease in their early teens were significantly more troubled and at risk by the time they reached early adulthood than their less admired peers.

An excerpt from Hoffman:

A constellation of three popularity-seeking behaviors characterized pseudomaturity, Dr. Allen and his colleagues found. These young teenagers sought out friends who were physically attractive; their romances were more numerous, emotionally intense and sexually exploring than those of their peers; and they dabbled in minor delinquency — skipping school, sneaking into movies, vandalism.

As they turned 23, the study found that when compared to their socially slower-moving middle-school peers, they had a 45 percent greater rate of problems resulting from alcohol and marijuana use and a 40 percent higher level of actual use of those substances. They also had a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior, from theft to assaults.

Why is this? Why do the “cool kids” of middle and high school struggle once they leave their social circles? The sociologists responsible for the study suggest an intriguing answer: the superfluousness of popularity prevents these teens from developing actual relational skills and inner maturity. They’re so busy trying to be liked that they don’t cultivate a self-identity or the ability to be at ease by themselves. By 17 or 18, the relationships and cliques that made them admired have evaporated, and, no longer able to define themselves in that way, they can only persist in the “pseudomature” behaviors that eventually become habit.

Shortly after reading Hoffman’s piece, I told my wife Emily about it.  Several of Emily’s popular classmates in middle and high school have borne children out of wedlock. Others have struggled with unemployment, substance abuse and even suicide.  Of course, everyone will have personal struggles, regardless of what the teenage years bring; but my wife has noticed that, like the study demonstrates, those friends who had lower profiles in school have tended to fare much better in life outside school.

The pressure in adolescence to be liked is often all-consuming. I’m constantly reminded of Jake Halpern’s “fame survey,” part of the research he did for his 2007 book Fame Junkies. Halpern polled over 600 American teenagers with questions that measured desire for popularity and fame against other life ambitions. The results of Halpern’s study are sobering: Teenage girls were more likely to choose fame over intelligence and both boys and girls said they would rather be a personal assistant to a celebrity than a university president, a Senator, or a major CEO. Of course, it doesn’t come as a shock that teenagers want to be admired. But if Hoffman’s study is reliable, then we have a better idea of how crippling that desire can become for many teens.

In thinking about this from the perspective of the church,  one thing seems clear: It is a fatal mistake to shape ministry to youths that looks like popular culture. An extremely helpful guide in this for me has been professor James K.A. Smith’s work on Christian education and personal formation. The problem, according to Dr. Smith, is that an overriding emphasis on forming a Christian worldview is actually built on a non-Christian assumption, namely, that humans are primarily cognitive and rational beings as opposed to primarily desiring and emotive ones. Rather than focus on instilling the right kinds of information in Christian students, Dr. Smith says that Christian education should be concerned with the kind of people that emerge from it, concerned with having the right desires and emotions.

 Why do youth ministers often struggle to get the students in their care to understand how the promises of the Gospel override the fleeting pleasures of fame and popularity in this world? How is it that students with impressive knowledge of the Bible and even faithful attendance to the church’s programming are nonetheless more deeply moved at the images and (to borrow Dr. Smith’s terminology) liturgy of popular culture than they are at Christian life and discipleship?

Perhaps one answer is that the desire to be loved by strangers is ultimately stronger than the desire to get the answers right at Bible study group. In fact, the loudness and busyness of most evangelical student ministry programming might actually be reinforcing the very worldly liturgies its trying to contest. Listen to what Hoffman writes near the end of her piece:

Dr. Allen suggested that while they were chasing popularity, they were missing a critical developmental period. At the same time, other young teenagers were learning about soldering same-gender friendships while engaged in drama-free activities like watching a movie at home together on a Friday night, eating ice cream. Parents should support that behavior and not fret that their young teenagers aren’t “popular,” he said.

“To be truly mature as an early adolescent means you’re able to be a good, loyal friend, supportive, hardworking and responsible,” Dr. Allen said. “But that doesn’t get a lot of airplay on Monday morning in a ninth-grade homeroom.”

In other words, it is the formation of quiet virtues and the cultivation of meaning that create a mature person. How many of our Christian student ministries are built on personal formation rather than membership in a Christianized clique?

Perhaps our evangelical student ministries can reach more deeply in the souls of students by promising more than the right answers with the right people. Perhaps the formation of teens in our churches should start out by reassuring them that God made everybody weird and that is OK. Perhaps rather than promising a great summer retreat or a fun filled calendar of programming, youth ministers could promise relationships and covenant bonds that don’t wilt as the years go by. Perhaps we could offer community rooted in the gospel as a retreat from the cruel meritocracy of pop culture.

The Politics of Never Growing Up

Consider for a moment the portrait that is currently emerging of the young American adult.

Let’s begin with college. Despite its many dysfunctions and uncertain economic future, higher education is still considered to be the crucial pivot into adulthood for most American youth. Crippling college debt exists not so much because teens and parents are willing to spend so much on an education, but because they are willing to spend on an education experience. Come for the tuition, stay for the dorm and student life fees.

And what is the college experience nowadays? For insight, we might turn to Nathan Heller’s essay in the latest issue of The New Yorker. He writes from Oberlin University, whose culture and institutional stability is systematically being ripped apart by a student body of 19 year old “activists” who demand instantaneous, sweeping, and authoritarian intervention on a daily basis. Heller is clearly sympathetic to Oberlin’s progressive ethos, and his observations do not incriminate the students as much as they contextualize them. Nevertheless, his essay’s depiction of life at Oberlin—in classrooms to the common areas alike—is terrifying. At one point Heller recounts an incident that epitomizes the school’s culture of ruthless value enforcement:

For years, a campus café and performance space called the Cat in the Cream had a music-themed mural, painted by an alumnus, that celebrated multiculturalism: it featured a turbanned snake charmer, a black man playing a saxophone, and so on. Students recently raised concerns that the mural was exoticizing. “We ended up putting drywall over it, and painting over that,” Robert Bonfiglio, who had been the chair of the Student Union Board, told me. “They were saying, ‘Students are being harmed. Just do something now.’ ” But if individuals’ feelings were grounds to efface art work, he reasoned, every piece of art at Oberlin would be in constant danger of being covered up, or worse—a practice with uncomfortable antecedents. “The fear in class isn’t getting something wrong but having your voice rejected,” he said. “People are so amazed that other people could have a different opinion from them that they don’t want to hear it.”

Heller’s essay is vivid, but the culture he describes at Oberlin is by no means exceptional. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have written, the “coddling of the American mind” is not isolated to a selective slew of elite universities. It is a phenomenon embedded into American higher education at large. There was a time not long ago when college was considered an intellectual sanctuary for coming of age. But for these universities that submit their entire existence to the experiences and felt needs of undergraduates, it is not the students who are expected to grow up, but the institutions themselves. The students are In The Know; it’s the educators that must protect what is already there, not grow it. College has become Never-Never Land.

What about life outside the ivory tower? For this, we might consult some new data from the Pew Center. The headline is self-analyzing: “For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18-34 Year Olds.” Men in particular have become startlingly immobile: More than a third of men aged 18-34 live with parents rather than alone or with a romantic partner.

This kind of existential paralysis isn’t just a matter of changing economic contexts (though that certainly is part of the problem). For men especially, the prolonged delay of marriage and relational commitment often means a perpetual adolescence in other areas of life. Love and sex are arguably the best incentives for men to assert their adulthood and achieve in  life. But in the safety and comfort of mom and dad’s basement, young men get to live out their fantasies without the friction of real life, often turning to porn and video games to give their static lives the imitation of thrill. Growing up is optional.

The basement is Never Land. The university is Never Land. Even dating is Never Land, thanks to Tinder and a hook up culture that eschews commitment with the safety of online anonymity. Pop culture, with its endless fixation on comic books, child fantasy adventures, and nostalgia, is Never Land. Our American landscape is a monument to the heedless pleasures of knowing it all, playing it all, and sexing it all.

C.S. Lewis rebuked the cowardice of secularized modernity. “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise,” he wrote. “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” With apologies to J.M. Barrie, we could say it another way: We tell our Lost Boys to flee to Never Land, and are shocked when they vote for the pirate.