The Propriety Advantage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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.

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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.

Three Reasons Not to Gamble on Sports

In a landmark decision today, the Supreme Court effectively struck down federal laws against sports gambling. While the full implications of the ruling will probably take time to realize, most states in the US will likely sanction and promote (though, according to this ruling, they wouldn’t have to) betting on professional sports, such as NFL, NBA, baseball, etc. It’s a major ruling for every professional sporting organization and for millions of Americans—mostly men—who gamble on their favorite sports.

I should be honest: This is the only type of gambling that’s ever slightly appealed to me. I’ve never taken the lottery seriously. I’ve never ever been to a horse race. For reasons that have to do with my personality more than my piety, I’ve just never really had any inclination to try my hand at slot machines or stuff like that. But my personality does like sports, and I’ve thought more than once that my knowledge of pro football might make me some easy money. I’ve never done it…but I’ve thought about it.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think that God doesn’t want this for me. I’ve never been able to mine anything out of Scripture resembling encouragement or even permission to gamble my money on sports. I don’t want to be heavy handed or legalistic here. I know that not all “gambling” is alike, and that not every Christian will see things the same way on this. There’s no chapter-and-verse proof text. But in my own life, every time I’ve felt the appeal of sports gambling, I’ve felt it wither next to my conscience.

Let me offer three reasons I think Christians are better off without sports gambling.

1) The Christian attitude toward money is not easy. If you’re not careful, words like “stewardship” can become meaningless platitudes that merely serve to disguise what’s being talked about. The reality is that Scripture has some difficult things to say about our money, and not just how we use it, but how we feel toward it (1 Timothy 6:9-10). The desire to make money apart from honest labor (and here I mean both physical and intellectual labor, the latter of which would include things like investing) is not a desire that gets an easy time from the Bible (Proverbs 10:2).

In Ephesians 4:28, Paul gives a somewhat counter-intuitive command: He tells the one who steals to stop stealing and work for money instead. Makes sense. But then he says that the purpose of such work is to make money that can be shared with others in need. In other words, it’s not just honesty that matters when it comes to money, it’s intentionality. Money that’s honestly gained does not thus become autonomously mine. There are moral obligations attached even to money honestly gained.

I don’t think sports gambling fits this bill. At least in my own heart, I feel the temptation to sports betting most powerfully when I am wanting some money to protect from God. My job and my writing gives me money that I use to pay bills, tithe, buy groceries, etc. Where is my money for MY stuff? Rather than either indulge this impulse or stiffly condemn it (after all, having a little spending money isn’t a bad thing), I try to bring this desire to Jesus and tell him what’s going on in my heart, what I think I need, and ask him to align me with his kingdom.

Often, these prayers have been met with unexpected opportunities to earn. Sometimes my lack of generosity has been exposed, and what I thought would be good fun money turns into money I need to give away. I think this dynamic honors the purpose of money more than the raw logic of sports gambling.

2) Sports gambling is foolish risk. Sometimes people respond to this point by saying that investing is risk, or hobbies like football cards are a risk (aren’t you paying for the chance to pull a really valuable card?). But not all risk is the same. There is inherent risk to even holding down a job—I might get injured, or miss out on an opportunity, or be fired. Those risks are real but they are not foolish risks.

The risk of sports gambling is unlike those risks because it demands far more than it gives. The rewards of sports gambling are rare, but the costs are plenteous. In fact, it’s the high degree of risk and the high probability of losing that makes sports gambling fun and intense. Addiction is a real threat in sports gambling precisely because there is so much loss and so little victory. Does that sound like an institution whose economics make kingdom sense?

There are better ways to spend my money. What if I took the 50 bucks I want to put on an NFL game and took my wife out to a special dinner? What if I gave it to friends who are raising money for an adoption? What if I simply invested it in a company whose values I believed in? All of those options carry inherent risk, but the rewards easily outweigh them. This is the path of wisdom, not to mention love.

3) I think there’s something about sports gambling that would sully my enjoyment of the game. As a Los Angeles Rams fan, I watch football each week in hopes that the Rams win, their rivals lose, and my team eventually wins the championship. While fandom can be taken out of hand and sports become an idol, there is something inherently healthy in the coming out of myself that happens when I cheer on a team. Cultivating this private pleasure can be a sanctifying way of learning to love things because they are lovely, not because I want people to like me for the things I love.

I wonder if people who regularly gamble on sports really can enjoy sports this way. Isn’t there something pure about being a fan that being a speculator would take away? If my money is on the line, so, in a way, is my sense of peace, joy, and security. A big day of losses for me as a gambler is devastating and potentially life changing, while a day of losses for me as a fan is unfortunate but nothing that a better week can’t fix. That football is unpredictable is good news for a fan but the worst news for a gambler. I want to take the fullest joy possible in the game, not my cash.

So there you are, three reasons to avoid sports gambling. Again, some Christians may not agree, or may not agree completely. That’s fine. These are just the reasons that operate in my own life, and I commend them to you.

Is “Purity Culture” a Problem?

Why the excesses of conservative evangelicalism won’t be fixed by unbelief.

I’ve been trying over the last couple years to keep in tension two things that I believe are equally true.

The first is: Many of evangelical culture’s ideas about sexuality, marriage, and relationships have borne bad fruit. I’ve heard from many people who, like me, were raised in a conservative evangelical context, but unlike me, were exposed to a grievously harsh and legalistic theology that shamed, alienated, and wounded them. Even though my own personal experience growing up in conservative evangelicalism was much better, these testimonies are not a conspiracy. There really is a heartbreaking legacy that many Christian churches passed onto the young people in their care, and it’s a legacy that has done incalculable damage to the kingdom.

Many of the men and women who suffered under this kind of legacy have given it a name. “Purity culture” may be something of a misnomer, but most people who were raised in it know what you’re talking about immediately when you mention it. Many who were preteens and teens in evangelical churches were an oppressive “purity culture” was practiced are now actively opposing it as adults, which, I think, is a testimony to how genuine the toxic effects have been.

The second truth I hold is this: Many (not all) of the critiques that are launched at “purity culture” could be (and often are) applied more generally to traditional evangelical doctrine writ large; thus, in many cases (not all), criticism of a legalistic “purity culture” within the church is also a meta-criticism of orthodox Christianity’s teaching on sexuality.

In other words, it is often difficult for me to read a blog post that excoriates evangelical purity culture, and discern where the criticism of legalism ends and the criticism of the Bible’s teachings on sex begin. Sometimes the testimony of a harsh, un-Christian, and even abusive church culture is so obvious that denouncing it is easy and essential. On the other hand, sometimes it is not clear to me that what the person is describing as oppressive “purity culture” is meaningfully different than what Christians have believed about gender, sex, and marriage for two thousand years. Thus, affirming the dangers of purity culture in that context may double as affirming the wrongness of, say, the Bible’s clear teaching about sex outside of marriage, or the need to flee sexual immorality, or the sinfulness of same-sex sexual relationships .

A good example of where I have difficulty untangling this knot is the angst that I see many people having over Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye. If you have no idea what that book is, feel free to stop reading now and move on to something more relevant. But if the title “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” triggers a lot of memories, feelings, and or even just interest in you, then you and I probably experienced much of the same “purity culture.” The short version of the story is that IKDG was a hugely influential book that advocated what some might call a “courtship” approach to Christian relationships, over and against what you might call a “dating” approach. Harris was a young, single Christian when he wrote the book, and his ideas–the dangers of “casual” dating, the need to “guard one’s heart” in all relationships, etc.–were widely approved and disseminated in conservative evangelical culture.

That was in the mid to late 90s. Now, a growing number of the teens whose youth groups made IKDG required reading are rethinking the book’s effect on them. To which I say: Me too! I’ve seen firsthand what an overly timid, emotionally paralyzed group of young Christian singles looks like, and it ain’t pretty. I remember reading IKDG and thinking that Harris oversimplified a lot, seemed to be speaking to too many situations at once, and honestly, just seemed to be laying down a law where a principle of wisdom would suffice.

So yes, I sympathize very much with the struggles of anyone whose worldview of dating and marriage was formed primarily by IKDG.

But after reading Ruth Graham’s piece on Harris and the book in Slate, I feel like I’ve once again been transported from empathy and agreement to untangling a knot. It’s really tough for me to read the bloggers Graham mentions and not feel like Harris and IKDG are really being used as a convenient lightning rod for what is actually a full-throated dispute with Christianity’s most basic teachings about sex and marriage.

I appreciate that Harris himself seems to be walking back some of the things he wrote in the book. That’s an admirable thing to do that most authors, evangelical or otherwise, wouldn’t do. But, as Graham notes matter-of-factly, the most vociferous critics of IKDG aren’t taking “I’m sorry” for an answer. They want something more from Harris, and from the “purity culture” at large. This is where the knot tightens: The more time I spend reading these young writers, the more I am convinced that the “Anti-Purity Culture” genre is about more than righting wrongs. It’s about righting the wrong faith.

Here’s what I mean. This is an excerpt from Graham’s piece, and it bubbles with the underlying tensions I’ve been describing

I was 17 when I Kissed Dating Goodbye came out, and everyone I knew in my upper-middle-class evangelical community in suburban Chicago was talking about it. For me as a teenager, the whole topic had a pleasing ratio of certainty to ambiguity. The foundational “fact” of purity culture was that having intercourse before marriage was wrong. There was a reassuring black-and-white quality to that stricture, with the promise of a juicy wedding-night reward for my self-control.

Everything about this paragraph is fascinating. The word “fact’ in scare-quotes (is having intercourse before marriage wrong…really?); the description of Harris’ belief in pre-marital abstinence as a “black-and-white stricture.” Note that Graham isn’t even talking about IKDG’s practical rules for dating, which are certainly open to critique. She’s talking about Harris’s underlying worldview of what sexuality is for. In this critique, the fundamental fault lines within Harris’s “purity culture” start here.

Why does this matter? It matters because confessional, orthodox evangelicals have a moral obligation to correct where the “purity culture” has abused, shamed, and alienated. We have a vested interest in holding the truth with love, in preaching a gospel where Jesus died and rose again, not so that our sex lives could be spotless but so that we could be accepted by God when they’re not. There is a moral imperative on evangelical Christians to teach what the Bible says about sexuality through a lens of redemption and wholeness, not through a lens of “Don’t mess this up or you’ll regret it.”

But at the same time, how can we do this if the voices setting the agenda are ones that fundamentally reject what Christianity teaches about the ultimate meaning of sex, marriage, gender, and even love? Healing those who were wounded by oppressive legalism and graceless shaming requires healing them with something, and that “something” has to be more than a narrative of autonomy and self-authentication. Trading in the purity culture for the hook-up culture isn’t a win.

We can do better than I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Harris would agree. But we can’t do better if, seeking to restore what the locust destroyed, we plant snakes instead of bread. What Jesus teaches us about our bodies is beautiful, even if our stewardship of it has been anything but.

This post was originally published in 2016.

 

InterVarsity

In reflecting on InterVarsity’s recent decision, two things occur to me.

The first is that critics of the decision need to realize that, even though fealty to IV’s evangelical doctrinal heritage was clearly the decisive factor here, it wasn’t conservative evangelicalism that forced this kind of move. Rather, the political and cultural pressure has been coming from Obergefell champions and theological revisionists. Consider that a couple years ago the organization was “de-recognized” by the California State University system, because of its policy requiring members to hold to a New Testament ethic of sexuality. Progressive columnists praised California for enforcing its ideology and mocked evangelical concern that such a move represented a hostile posture toward historic Christian doctrine. Fast forward to this past summer’s showdown between the Golden State and Biola University, and the reality is unmissable: Organizations and institutions, no matter how much they serve students and taxpayers, are subject to sexual revolutionary tests.

What this means is that InterVarsity was given a choice, not by evangelical subculture, but by the cultural headwinds: Either you can curry favor with states like California by adopting doctrines on marriage and gender that run afoul of your history, your heritage, and your mission, or you can risk alienating some students, staff, and the right side of history, for the sake of the right side of the faith. That was a choice given to them by one side, not the other, and not both.

Second, it seems pretty clear to me that InterVarsity didn’t make this decision because they wanted to “win.” If you were a person in charge of making sure that IV had political protection, sufficient funding, and great PR in the next few decades, would you have advised them to adopt this policy? Of course not. And this is important because it gets to the heart of what many progressive evangelicals accuse traditionalists of–namely, exploiting the culture war for gain. For years, mainline Protestants and others have argued time and time again that conservative evangelical institutions thrive when they play culture war. Thus, it is reasoned, we have an obsession over issues like homosexuality and abortion, rather than mercy and justice, because the former are politically profitable and the latter are not.

But can anyone with a shred of intellectual responsibility look at the cultural and political landscape that InterVarsity finds itself in, and argue that they are engorging themselves on wedge issues? One point that needs to be said repeatedly is that by adopting a formal policy, InterVarsity is showing its LGBT and affirming students and staff that it has no interest in profiting from their confusion. I’m sure this is a difficult time for some who love InterVarsity, but by playing both ends against the middle, never saying anything certain but always nodding a head in both directions–is that really a better culture for InterVarsity to build for those on opposite sides of this theological divide?

You may disagree vehemently with InterVarsity. But what everyone, regardless of conviction, should agree on is that we have here an example of people who are selling out to principle. Right or wrong, truth or fiction–that’s worthy of respect, and also worthy of a moment of grief for a society that so often encourages the opposite.

Lust, Lies, and Laziness

Today I have a new piece at Boundless.org, entitled “How Pornography Kills Ambition.” I suppose I sound like a broken record when I say this, but it just can’t be said enough: Online pornography destroys the self. And one of the ways it does this is by collapsing personality into secretive voyeurism.

Here’s an excerpt:

In a letter to an American reader, C.S. Lewis once wrote the danger of self-oriented lust is that it “sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides … Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself.”

Pornography thus kills holy ambition by killing love. Love, expressed through marriage and faithful sexual intimacy, is a gift from God that’s meant to pull us out from ourselves toward one another. But pornography aims the mind and heart back at oneself. By collapsing into ourselves, we in turn become less and less like what we are created to be.

Read the whole piece here.

The Roots of Conspiracy Theory Rage

Are your political opponents evil–or just wrong?

Checking my spam folder today, I saw an email from a conservative watchdog group. The email opened like this:

Dear Fellow Conservative,

Do you ever just wonder: what on earth is going on with the liberals in the Democrat party? 

Do they just have no clue what they’re doing to America? Or are they are so spiteful of the American way of life that they are actively working to destroy it?

Note the bold font on the last sentence, meant to draw the reader’s eye and suggest the author’s own beliefs. The writer of the email wants you to believe that the reason your political opponents are so wrong isn’t that they’re mistaken, it’s that they’re evil. In just a few words, the issue has shifted from the wrongness of liberalism’s ideas to the wicked, hostile intentions of its adherents.

But why? What evidence is there to suggest that liberals are “spiteful” of people like me? Well, evidence is largely beside the point; the email is meant to confirm suspiciousness in me that’s already there long before it arrives. And we have to concede this to the sender: This is indeed how so much of our political discourse in America goes right now. The space between “wrong” and “evil” has shrunk so badly that it’s almost obligatory now to preface criticism of someone with, “I don’t think they’re a bad person.” In a culture where people’s first assumption was that disagreements happen because of competing ideas, not  because minions want to ruin everything, no such preface would be necessary. It’s necessary in our culture because “This person is wrong about issue X” is almost always interpreted as a commentary on their character. If someone gets issue X wrong, it’s because they know they’re wrong and just want to hurt others.

This is, I think, a very important element in conspiracy theory thinking. Once you’re sold on the idea that honest wrongness is impossible, everything your opponents say becomes, in your eyes, evidence of their treason. Consider the usual progression of straw-man fallacies. Person A says to person B, “I think your real goal is to do Y to America.” Person B replies, “No, that’s not my goal at all,” to which person A says, “Well of course you’d deny it if it really was!” Bias confirmation kicks in, and there’s almost no way to convince person A otherwise, because everything they see is either what they predicted or evidence that person B is hiding something. That’s conspiracy theory thinking. And there’s no clean way off that psychological merry-go-round.

The Slough of Internet Despond

The latest nominee for Tweet of the Year comes from professor James K.A. Smith:

I am endlessly perplexed by people who say–and there are many who do–that social media and the internet “community” are the best measures of What’s Really Happening in the world today. These folks will point us to Twitter if we want to know what’s really making an impact in our culture, the things people are really talking about. There’s an entire journalism industry, in fact, being formed around the idea that the internet has a personality, and that this personality is every bit as consequential to your experience of the world as the 10PM news. Thus, you get stories in your news feed like, “Celebrity XYZ Recently Said This, and the Internet is NOT Happy About It.”

If you spend most of your day scanning social media sites and blogs, you will probably come away with a very specific idea of what American culture is like. The latest hashtags will probably convey some sense of despair or outrage; the latest viral videos will either do the same, or else distract. But here’s the thing: Because of the effect of digital media on human attention, the internet is designed to be totally absorbing and supremely now. If you’re riding the bus and two people behind you are quarreling, you probably won’t get off the bus and feel a palpable sense of depression for the rest of the day at how selfish human beings can be. On the other hand, if you’re reading Twitter hashtags and following back-and-forths between really angry users and the target of their outrage, you will almost certainly turn off your phone and feel consumed by it. That’s not because the outrage you just watched is more real (actually the opposite is probably true), it’s because your brain absorbed it in a qualitatively different way than it absorbed the bus ride (for more on this topic, I recommend this outstanding book)

This is exactly why a dive into social media will lead you to believe that the world is probably a terrible place to live right now. Everything, from the littlest of impolite slights to the most difficult issues of human justice, is magnified with unending intensity on the screen. If you turn off your phone and head down to the library or the coffee shop, though, it kinda seems the people you’re sitting next to don’t have any idea that they should be packing their bags for the bomb shelter. They talk normally, seem relatively calm, maybe even kind. It’s almost as if you’re experiencing two distinct cultures: One a perpetually moving but never anchored sea of consciousness, bent every which way by advertising and technology; and the other, a culture of place, permanence, and sunshine.

I know a lot of people, some very close to me, who are going through difficult times right now. There are thousands of people in Louisiana this second who have suffered cataclysmic loss. Yet invariably, the most miserable people I run into are not these people. The most miserable people are the ones who don’t suffer, but merely hover–attached to the world by ether, spending their emotions and their hours consuming a diet of pixels.

 

How the Internet Rescued Planned Parenthood

Last week, NARAL, one of the country’s oldest and most vociferous champions of the abortion industry, released a YouTube sketch called “Comedians In Cars Getting Abortions.” The video isn’t funny by any stretch of imagination, pro-life or otherwise. But I doubt very much whether NARAL’s purpose in producing the sketch was even to score laughter. Rather, the whole video feels like an exercise in what C.S. Lewis called “flippancy,” the lowest species of humor wherein morals and good taste are always assumed to be their own punchline. The point is not to get people to laugh at abortion, it’s to get them to scoff at the idea that one shouldn’t laugh bout it.

Anyway. The video isn’t really worth much angst. What was far more interesting than the content of the video, however, was the timing. NARAL published the sketch on YouTube on the anniversary week of the Center for Medical Progress’s video expose on Planned Parenthood. Those series of undercover videos recorded Planned Parenthood executives discussing the methods of “harvesting” the tissue and anatomy of aborted infants, for the purpose of selling them to research labs. The videos progressively go deeper into a ghoulish world of unborn human trafficking, and at every turn, the employees and doctors running the show demonstrate a chilling apathy toward their visceral marketplace.

When the videos first started to release last year, many pro-life activists believed they would be hugely consequential for Planned Parenthood. The Center for Medical Progress framed the sting as conclusive video evidence that the abortion provider was violating multiple federal laws prohibiting the profitable business of selling human body parts. Calls for Congressional investigations began immediately. Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards initially ignored the videos but eventually apologized for the “insensitive” language recorded on camera. For several weeks, it looked like the most important player in the abortion lobby had finally seen its foot slide in due time.

But nothing happened.

Though several states did vote to cease any taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood, the fallout for the country’s biggest abortion provider was miniscule. Hearings in Washington went nowhere. Cecile Richards kept her job. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called the videos “disturbing” during the first few weeks of outcry, but promptly reaffirmed her support (with PP returning the favor). National opinion on abortion law saw little or no change. One state even exonerated Planned Parenthood and indicted instead David Daleiden, the head of the Center for Medical Progress (those charges have since been thrown out).

By the end of last year, it was clear that the videos had skipped off the surface of public consciousness like a stone on a lake. There would be no reckoning, no cultural moment. Why?

The videos’ producers probably bear some responsibility. As Joe Carter has noted, the release of the videos was (seemingly) unaccompanied by any larger, coherent strategy. There seemed to have been a tactical failure to think through, “What are we asking the public to do with this information?” By the time that media outlets were begrudgingly acknowledging the sting’s existence, the space for narrative and action had been ceded already to Planned Parenthood and its legions of allies.

But the strategic failures are only part of the explanation. The CMP may not have come up with the best plan for releasing their footage, but such a misfire doesn’t take away from what the videos actually show. The pro-life community was almost immediately mobilized, and as mentioned, several state legislatures felt pressure to respond. It’s not as if the videos were (as many in Planned Parenthood’s corner have insisted) simply smokescreens. So what happened?

The truth is that the sting’s impact was limited by social media. That may seem like a self-evidently false statement, given the fact that for a long while social media seemed to be the only outlet where the videos could be seen. Sure, the number of times that the videos were streamed, counted against how many mainstream media outlets refused to acknowledge them, may seem like a victory for conservative conscience on social media. But the failure of the videos to translate into a wider sociopolitical moment is actually a commentary on the inherent limitations of social media.

Popular perception is that Facebook, Twitter, and internet commenting threads are populist locales, providing a kind of grassroots rebuttal to the “elite” culture of big media. This is only partly true, though. When Facebook employees acknowledged a few months ago that their news aggregation services were explicitly designed to exclude conservative news outlets, they were revealing how deep of a misconception the “populist” imagery of social media really is.

Before Twitter and Facebook are communities, they are inevitably corporations—corporations with leaders who have ideologies. Every single that happens on social media happens—consciously or not—in a business context. This is why social media can never be a new kind of “town hall.” A town hall binds members together by space, membership and physicality. Social media binds members together by consent to what amounts to a business contract. The business of social media is to make money off its users. This impulse affects not just what social media companies allow on their platform, but even how they present what is allowed. Thus, videos on Facebook are surrounded by “Suggested” videos that have no meaningful tie to the original content. The goal is to get clicks, because clicks are profitable. Distraction means more clicks. Focused contemplation—the kind of thinking that leads to some action—is an enemy of distraction, and thus, an enemy of profit. Therefore, the entire superstructure of social media is one that undermines the appeals to conscience that the CMP’s videos employed.

Unless you woke up each morning last summer determined to take down the abortion lobby, there’s a good chance that your outrage at Planned parenthood didn’t survive the next viral video or trending hashtag that came along. How could it, when there is just so much content to look at it, and so little time for any one thing to stick? When your feed stopped talking about the videos, did it feel wrong, or merely normal? Or did you even notice?

The fuzzy, pixelated thinking that social media foments is a good conduit for getting angry, but it’s not actually good at getting things done. This is one lesson that we should learn from an otherwise lamentable protest culture in American universities. Though social media undoubtedly has played an important role in organization, the campus protests that crippled Missouri and made a think piece out of Oberlin have been remarkably present, physical affairs, protests that are connected in meaningful ways to place and people. With Planned Parenthood, there were indeed local protests and rallies. But these gatherings were not unique to a specific cultural moment. Once the assembling was over, the internet consumed the evidence.

The pro-life movement has historically been remarkably good at mobilizing communities. In this sense, the Planned Parenthood protests were unique in their ineffectiveness. But there is a long term lesson for pro-life here. The kind of social change that will throw off one of the Sexual Revolutions’ most precious and protected dogmas will not happen amongst people who just need their “click fix.” It will happen amongst people for whom wanton destruction of unborn life matters enough to build relationships and make appearances (and not just at protest rallies). The comfort of the social media echo chamber is seductive, but benefits those who are fine with likes, comments, and retweets–just not change.