Categories
Christianity evangelicalism

Close the Churches

R.R. Reno writes from a Roman Catholic perspective when he bemoans the closure of churches and suspension of Mass during coronavirus, but I’ve seen enough similar sentiment from Protestants to know he’s not alone. HIs argument however is both rife with logical fallacy and lacking in thorough biblical reflection.

First, the either/or fallacy pops up quite a bit in the piece. Consider this line:

Whatever our judgments about public policy, church leaders need to resist the temptation to imitate the (for them correct) worldliness of those who work for public health. The Church’s concern should be to sustain the spiritual health of those entrusted to her care.

It feels like that final sentence is missing an ending. It sounds like Reno means to imply this concluding clause: “Instead of the physical health of those entrusted to her care.” I think I’m on solid ground in supposing that hidden finish, because in the next paragraph Reno writes: “In this environment the faithful need spiritual truths from their church leaders, not recapitulations of public health bulletins and exhortations to wash their hands.” The pitting of spiritual nourishment against physical care is a false dilemma that is explicitly rejected by the apostle James, and has been rejected throughout Christian history by the scores of believers who have served as evangelistic doctors, nurses, caretakers, not to mention the Christians that established such global relief organizations as the Red Cross and Salvation Army. To suggest that churches need to ignore the risks of serious illness for believers (the most serious risks being for the elderly and already infirm) so they can “sustain spiritual health” is by extension to claim that individual believers should likewise ignore the risks, and that is a bewildering claim.

I think it’s better, both biblically and ecclesiologically, to say that the gospel is an intact gospel. An intact gospel is one not divided against itself, as if there were “good news” for your soul but bad news or no news at all for your body. Indeed, Scripture relentlessly portrays the Lord as a healer (Psalm 103). The promise of Christ’s resurrection is that he will one day give life to our mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11). God loves the human body and expects us to share that love. In a season of pandemic, love of the body means taking a virus seriously, at least seriously enough to not present others with a choice between faithfulness to the Lord and protecting communities from a potentially fatal disease.

It’s quite likely that not every church in the US need cancel services right now, but there are many that do need to. This is not kowtowing to fear or the supposed preeminence of the magistrate. For churches in communities that have been visited by coronavirus, canceling physical gatherings is by far the most effective way of protecting both congregants and non-congregants from the illness. This isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. Perhaps protecting people from sickness at the cost of the worship service sounds like elevating the physical above the spiritual, but it’s not, not anymore than a man rescuing a trapped animal on the Sabbath was elevating the economic over the spiritual.

It would be an inappropriate elevation of the physical if churches were to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and say, “Actually, this whole livestream thing is just so much easier and safer and cost-effective. We’ll be going all-online now!” All those adjectives are true, yet the church exists to be physically gathered together in a way believers cannot neglect (Heb. 10:25). But suspending physical gatherings while the world withstands a brutal but temporary viral epidemic can, and I think must, acknowledge that something truly has been lost, even with a livestream. In this way the church can testify to the already-but-not-yet: in sitting under the preaching of the word online even as we yearn for the day we can come together again without members under threat of pandemic, and yearn even more for the day that death is dead forever and every tear is wiped away.

I understand the discomfort with doing church online. I think there should be some discomfort with it. But the coronavirus crisis need not be a referendum on the goodness of technology. It can instead be a referendum on the absolute goodness of our embodied selves and our embodied churches: of physical people, with faces and moods and hungers and stories and burdens. In a sense both Reno and the e-church enthusiast are making the same mistake. They are failing to properly value the humanity of Christ’s body, one through preference for technology and the other for neglect of care. Sometimes the best way to honor complementary truths is to not have a perfectly clean solution.

To this end, I would commend to you the letter that my former pastor, Greg Gilbert, wrote to the members of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, right before the suspended service last weekend. Here are two paragraphs that will encourage you:

Brothers and sisters, Christians should never be motivated by fear, not when we serve the Sovereign Lord of the Universe. But there’s a crucial difference between fear and prudence, and in this case love for our neighbors compels us to join our nation’s extraordinary efforts to minimize contact between people in order to slow the spread of this virus and “flatten the curve” of the pandemic.  We are not cancelling our services because we ourselves, as Christians, are afraid to get sick or even afraid to die.  God forbid!  “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  Rather, we are cancelling because we believe it is imperative for us to be a part of our society’s response to this virus that, at best, will be serious for the most vulnerable, and, at worst, could put even more people at risk by creating a severe and sudden spike in demand on our health care system.  So don’t be afraid or fearful, brothers and sisters.  Read God’s Word, remember God’s promises, help those who are needy, and trust in God.  He is sovereign over all, and he loves you dearly.

Brothers and sisters, thank you again for your help and understanding in these matters.  These are not easy decisions, but we think they are the best way for us to love our neighbor in a critical time.  And again, just like we’ve said before, don’t be fearful about this.  Be prudent and wise, but not afraid; there’s a profound difference between the two.  The fact is, this fallen world has always been a dangerous place.  We as Christians know this, we have always known this, the Bible teaches us to expect this, and there is a wonderful fear-smashing confidence in knowing that our God is sovereign over it all.  So let’s live our lives, let’s be wise and careful, and at the same time, let’s rest in the hands of our sovereign Lord, who is working all things together for the good of those who love him.

Categories
evangelicalism politics Technology

On the Theological Backchannel

If you’ve never read Freddie DeBoer’s essay “Of Course, There’s the Backchannel,” read it right now. Particularly if you’re somewhat interested in the disorienting culture of social media, the essay is a fascinating reflection on the lengths that modern people go to, especially politically conscious people, to craft an online identity that may be totally at odds with who they are offline. If you’ve never experienced this in yourself or in someone else, you probably will before too long. Read the essay all the way to the amazing ending.

I’ve thought about Freddie’s story quite a bit since reading the essay a couple years ago. I don’t know that we fully appreciate just how powerfully life on the internet affects how we feel and think about everything. Because it is largely self-contained and requires no physicality or length of time to mediate it, online conversation often becomes its “own” thing. I don’t know that anyone who uses words online regularly is exactly the same person online as offline; there are probably deeply rooted psychological and epistemological reasons why the technology itself splits personalities. But I do know that some people’s online/offline personas are more different than others, and similarly, there are topics of theology, or ethics, life issues, etc., that seem to yield a lot of this kind of digital double-takes.

What I mean is that there are certain issues, certain “conversations” that go a lot differently in the world of digital publishing, social media, blogging, etc, than they do while you’re, say, talking to people in small group or at work or over coffee. It’s as if the ecosystem of online writing rewards a particular way of talking about things that people pick up on, yet often don’t fully (or at all) translate into personal terms. If you ask a question on Twitter or in a column, you’ll get one answer. If you ask in your living room, you’ll get a different answer.. from the same people!

Again, this is all personal observation. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting what’s going on here. I’m not throwing down a #take about any particular person and/or group. It’s just something I’ve noticed. Let me offer a couple examples:

Example #1: Singleness

If your primary exposure to the thoughts of single-but-wanting-marriage 20 and 30somethings is online magazines, blogs, podcasts, and social media posts, you probably think that most single people in evangelical churches today really want married people to stop trying to pair them up; to not see them as “single” people, i.e., people with a “need” that should be met; and to give them more responsibility and ministry opportunities. In other words, the evangelical online perspective is, “Stop looking at my singleness, and start thinking of me and acting toward me like I don’t have a personal gap that needs to be filled.”

What I’ve noticed though is that almost all of the single 20 and 30somethings that I’ve talked to in the past few years, the same time frame in which I’ve seen the above narrative really catch fire in magazines and blogs, are quite upfront about their desire to be married. In community groups they talk about the struggle of seeing friends married off through the years. They admit loneliness and seem to perk up when someone says, “Hey I might know somebody.” They’re active in ministry. They do resist the bias against single people that can creep into evangelical churches, but they don’t resent the leadership of the church being overwhelmingly married folks. That’s what they want for themselves. It’s not that they’re deficient people, it’s that they have a desire that is unmet; they’re OK with people they trust and love knowing this, and praying and encouraging accordingly.

Example #2: Masculinity

If you make the mistake of Googling the phrase “biblical masculinity,” there’s no telling when your loved ones will discover your corpse, with forehead gashed through blunt force trauma of hitting yourself with your computer monitor. Consider two common, competing #takes in the Christian online world about masculinity. The first take is the “alpha male” crowd, the guys who say you’re not a real man if you don’t spit craft beer at the libs. They’re all about how “Big Eva” has emasculated Christian men. There’s a weird compulsion in this crowd to make everything about being a man, as if one could forget he’s a man and in that moment would cease to be one. The second take is the sophisticated, urbane, literary take on masculinity, which is that it basically doesn’t exist and that any guy who is concerned about becoming a Christian man is furthering the patriarchy and is probably just cosplaying John Wayne on his way to vote for Trump.

These two groups dominate online conversation about manhood. Yet are they actually representative of the guys who come to your church on Sunday morning? Of course not. And what you find out is that the lives and marriages and parenting of some of the guys who have the “edgiest” things to say about masculinity online are not all that edgy. The wife of the dude who chirps about the emasculation of evangelicalism from his blog works two jobs so that he can do his Masters degree full-time. The “masculinity is a construct of the patriarchy” guy soon acknowledges that he needs more resources about parenting boys. I’ve seen first-hand this disconnect between what tribes people sort themselves into and the actual lives they lead. Don’t hear me saying that gender roles are an unimportant issue. What I am saying is that the real-life dynamics of love, marriage, sex, parenting, and friendship are not very Tweetable.

Online Identity

The above are examples of the theological backchannel. They are genres of evangelical writing where the most prominent kinds of perspectives seem weirdly at odds with what you see offline. In DeBoer’s original piece, he uses the political/journalistic backchannel mainly as evidence that people are scared of sharing what they truly believe, since their membership in certain in-groups (which may be a lucrative membership career-wise) depends on their having the right opinions. I’ve seen a similar thing at work in the theological backchannel, particularly with how often and gleefully the genetic fallacy is deployed to show why person in tribe X is wrong about issue Y, because people in tribe X are always wrong. In the world of ideas the universe is partitioned neatly between people who are right and people who are wrong, and often the writing that follows simply seeks to establish more “turf” for all the players.

But there is an identity aspect to it as well. I think we’re just now beginning to realize that for the emerging adult generation, the internet is not simply an activity, it’s a mode of existence. That’s why we’re getting so exhausted by it. There’s no hobby that drains you like online life because online life isn’t a hobby, it’s an ecosystem in which everyone is actively trying to construct a new habitus. We’re not the same people offline that we are online. That’s the whole reason we’re online in the first place. The question then is not “Why is there a backchannel?” The question is, as time and connectivity and epistemology continue to transform, which one is actually the backchannel—online or off?

Categories
books evangelicalism

The 4 Books You Probably Shouldn’t Write

One of the hardest pills to swallow in this life is humility. Note that wanting to be humble is not a hard pill to swallow, nor is agreeing that humility is a positive trait. It’s actual humility that’s difficult, because actual humility is what puts me and you in so many situations of sacrifice, honesty, wounded pride, and generally looking very small compared to how we want to appear. And one of the truest things that can be said of humility as it relates to the kingdom of God is this: If you belong to Christ, you will be humble. The question is, are you going to humble yourself, or be humbled?

For Christian writers this couldn’t be more salient. The most common temptation away from humility in Christian writing and publishing is the temptation to write on topics that you are objectively not qualified to write on, but that you know would make money/look good/present you as a guru. Within Christian publishing there are a few “money topics” that are always selling well or going viral and, thus, always alluring to ambitious Christian writers to put two cents that they really haven’t earned. When writing comes from a place of literary thoughtfulness AND lived experience, it has a certain potency that writing that is merely thoughtful and theoretical doesn’t have. Writers, though, are often not the best judges of their own expertise, especially in an online writing economy that prioritizes speed and volume.

In the spirit of offering us all a dose of preventative humility, I’d like to offer four books that you probably shouldn’t write. Note three important words in that sentence: “You,” “Probably,” and “shouldn’t.” You probably shouldn’t write them. That doesn’t mean nobody else should. That’s the biting part of humility in the writing life: recognizing our limitations relative to others. You probably shouldn’t do it, although it’s possible you are indeed at the right place to do so helpfully. If that’s you, go for it. You probably shouldn’t write these books, not: you probably can’t write these books. If you have an ego like mine, you hear a statement like “you probably shouldn’t write this” as a dare or a motivational reverse psychology. But no, this is about should, not can’t. What a writer refrains from doing is not a criticism of them. What a writer agrees to do but does poorly is a criticism.

So, here are the four books you probably shouldn’t write:

1) Parenting

Parenting is hard. Really hard. It’s hard to do in the abstract, i.e., coming up with principles and strategies that make sense to a broad spectrum of people. It’s way harder to do in reality. The fruits of parenting take a lifetime to see. What seems like it’s working in one season will look imploded in another. This is simply one of the most intense, spiritually fraught, and difficult topics to be a reliable guide on, because the vast majority of us are still figuring so much out. You probably shouldn’t write this book. Who should? Someone who is on the far end of this journey, whose children rise up and call them blessed, and who demonstrates an ability to confess what didn’t work for them and where they needed help.

2) Why Group XYZ Is The Way They Are

This is a very popular genre of writing that addresses a particular group of people and does a deep dive into their psychology, motivations, beliefs, etc. Recently I was sent (unsolicited) a book like this by a publisher. The book compares conservative evangelicals to John Wayne and attributes their political and theological views to toxic masculinity, American nationalism, and fear and loathing of minorities. Sounds great, right? Literally the first time I skimmed the book I found multiple sweeping claims that were unverified, assertions offered without evidence, and, predictably, almost no member of this group interviewed or meaningfully interacted with. That’s par for the course with this genre. It exists to make non-members of group XYZ feel better about themselves. Don’t write this book. Who should? Proabably nobody, but if you’re a PhD in group XYZ-ology, have spent years listening to these people and trying to understand them, and can write dispassionately….actually, forget it. Don’t write it.

3) Marriage & Sex

You probably shouldn’t write a book on marriage and/or sex. First, see the above entry on “Parenting.” Second, what’s probably going to happen is that you’ll write with the assumption that your readers need exactly what you need(ed). You’ll be tempted to normalize your experiences in such a way that the book will be great for people just like you and basically no one else. Third, in order to compensate for your limited vantage point, you’ll be tempted turn this into a book of ideology. You’ll lean into the Facebook fights and Twitter outrage machines and forget to actually talk about these topics, because you’ll be so busy talking about talking about them. Who should write this book? Someone with a seasoned marriage and seasoned ministry, who’s talked to hundreds of couples and counseled in hundreds of different situations. And someone who is reasonably removed from the social media drama.

4) What’s Wrong with the Church Today

First, a caveat. There is some sense in which every Christian book worth reading is about something that’s wrong in church culture today. To the degree that a book is able to name its target and speak with expertise and care into a specific issue, that’s great. The book you probably shouldn’t write is a book that makes really broad claims from a really narrow perspective. What I’ve found is that Christian writers want to make their pet topics feel meaningful to everyone else, so they pepper their writing with grandiose claims. The problem with this type of book is precisely its appeal: It can be written by literally anyone and addressed to literally everyone. It is a toothless kind of writing. It takes years to discern whether what you think is “the problem with church today” is in fact “the” problem, or whether it’s a problem you’ve experienced in a particular way. Some of the most valuable books are also the least sweeping. Who should write this book? Somebody with a rich combination of letters following their name, and somebody with an ability to think specifically.

Categories
culture evangelicalism Links

Jeering the Devil

I have a new piece up at The Gospel Coalition today on the power of sanctified laughter. With the help of Peter Hitchens and a very bad novel, I make the case that some sin deserves mockery rather than hand-wringing solemnity.

Here’s an excerpt:

I get why the suggestion that sometimes we ought to laugh at sin sounds errant, perhaps even mildly heretical. Shouldn’t we be killing sin? Isn’t laughing at sin what millions of Americans do during primetime TV sitcom hours? There is, however, a tradition in Christian thought that goes like this: all sin is ultimately absurd, and there are occasions when the absurdity of sin is disguised as seriousness, and on these occasions one of the best things steadfast believers can do is rip off the disguise.

Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal as they uselessly called out to their false god. Commenting on this passage, Matthew Henry writes, “The worship of idols is a most ridiculous thing, and it is but justice to represent it so and expose it to scorn.” The only biblical reference to God’s laughter occurs in Psalm 2, in which rebellion against the Lord and his anointed is met with a ridiculing mirth. Solemnity is occasionally an insufficient response to what is sinful and destructive. Sometimes the best response is to point out sin’s ridiculousness.

Read the whole thing here.

Categories
evangelicalism Music pop culture

The Meaning of Kanye

The evangelical blogosphere is already bowed down under an alarmingly large stack of think-pieces on the Christendom-shaping event that is Kanye West’s Jesus is King. For the sake of everyone, I won’t belabor this post either with a detailed summary of What’s Going On (if you don’t know by now, blessed are you and highly favored…please choose another piece), or with a list of admonitions for evangelicals when hearing of celebrity conversion (that work has been done excellently by others). My only contribution to this conversation is not primarily about Ye, but we—theologically conversant evangelicals who may be learning more about ourselves than anyone else.

The widespread enthusiasim for Jesus is King in particular and for its artist’s new platform in general is not, in the end, that surprising. High profile professions of Christian faith have generated buzz among evangelicals for a long time, with the stakes ranging from the fashionable to the political. As Thomas Kidd has pointed out, interest in the Christian utterings of wealthy, powerful people is almost as much a part of evangelical history as the utterings themselves. Thus we ought not get carried away and somehow conclude that Kanye’s Twitter mentions in theological circles is evidence of some kind of transformation of our tribe. It’s rather par for the course.

Another reason the buzz makes sense is that Kanye, unlike many other fellow celebrities who’ve dabbled in Jesus, has been clear, assertive, and unapologetically evangelical in his talking points. A brief sampling of recent interviews makes it obvious why Reformed evangelicals in particular might be excited. Whereas many celebrities openly try to reconcile their God talk with the spirit of the age—this pathetic exchange on The Bachelorette comes to mind—West seems to have embraced the counter cultural implications of the gospel, resulting in some truly unexpected and intimate reflections on everything from his marriage to “spiritual but not religious” Christianity.

So the optimism expressed by many conservative evangelicals that one of the most powerful, visible and influential musical artists in the world may now be one of them is understandable, even justifiable. The evidence is there. Interpreting that evidence straightforwardly is, I think, a better option than retreating into the cynicism that dogs so much evangelical cultural engagement. Better to be found with the love that “hopes all things” and be disappointed than to be a self-protective noisy gong.

Yet the conversation cannot end there. The enthusiasm for Christian Kanye is warranted, but it is also revelatory. We conservative evangelicals have shown yet again that the warmest welcomes in our tribe are often reserved for people who say all the right things about all the right topics, and no, I’m not talking about justification by faith or substitutionary atonement. Perhaps the meaning of the evangelical Kanye moment is not necessarily the genuineness of one celebrity’s confession, but the genuineness of ours.

It is revealing to me, for example, that the Reformed evangelical water cooler could pivot so seamlessly from a dispiriting bout of mud slinging over Beth Moore and John MacArthur to a rapturous, unmitigated welcome for a millionaire rapper whose lucrative career is loaded down with pornography, hatefulness, and extreme delusions of grandeur. What has become apparent to me over the past couple of weeks is that there are more than a few evangelical Christians who already feel a deeper sense of camaraderie and solidarity with Kanye West than they do with other believers who have labored for decades in ministry, avoided both public scandal and theological heresy, but who differ on second-order doctrines of gender roles and the ordering of public worship. To be clear, I have in mind both Moore and MacArthur here, who have each (regardless how you interpret the recent dust-up) borne their fair share of truly discouraging invective from those who claim to believe in the same gospel.

I found myself discombobulated by the sheer speed of transition: One minute, entire tribes of evangelicals were viciously accusing one another of nothing less than rhetoric and behavior that compromised the very message of Christ, and the next, a rich, powerful, politically ambitious cultural kingpin was being extolled as a gospel “wrecking ball.” Does this hierarchy of values reflect the Lord’s warning that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom? Does this mindset amplify the brotherhood and sisterhood that even we who disagree on important topics enjoy in the “one new man” that Jesus has created in himself? Or, does this episode possibly reflect a systemic worldliness in how many American Christians, Reformed and otherwise, think about the kingdom: that it is threatened by complementarians or Bible study writers, but obviously strengthened by the fantastically wealthy and famous?

I don’t want anyone to read me as lamenting denominational divisions or even limits of fellowship within the Body. To say that whether a woman can preach to the assembled congregation is a second order issue is not to say it is marginal; I believe it’s a very significant question, one that has huge implications for the single most important spiritual practice of believers, the church gathering. I cannot see how those who disagree on this question could together lead a church, nor can I see the benefit in trying. As a complementarian, I could not and cannot submit to the leadership of a local church that is on the wrong side of Scripture.

But when second order issues assume a controlling power in how we feel, think, and behave toward one another, it is very likely that those second order issues have been allowed to become first order ones. The results of that confusion are catastrophic, as any visit to an Independent Fundamentalist church can make clear in seconds.

The marks of conversion are not the ability to recite all the theological talking points with which my tribe fully agrees. They are deeper, more intimate, more heartward. It is very, very good to hear Kanye open up about his struggles with sexual sin and his new desires for his daughter. An issue I hope that will be put in front of Ye very soon is what to do with the copious sexually explicit material that he has already produced and released, to critical and public acclaim. Zaccheus’s past was not an argument against the realness of his conversion, but Jesus did wait until the tax collector promised to repay those he had defrauded before declaring that salvation had come to his house.

Kanye’s thrilling sound bytes on the problems of individualistic religion or the delusions of liberals don’t compare in importance to his ongoing repentance and Spirit-empowered willingness to lose gain for the sake of obedience. There is also the question of whether West has been leveraging his new audience with Christians for additional platform and access to power. The evangelical blind-spot toward political manipulation, as old as Nixon and as new as Donald Trump, is not a secret to those who may be counseling Kanye. Will he be willing to settle in as a new Christian, under the authority of a local church, relinquishing any claims to theological authority, per 1 Timothy 3:6? There is much to be seen. Love hopes all things!

And if that is true for Kanye, it is also true for an evangelical culture that looks deeply fractured, increasingly held hostage by trolls and clickbaiters, willing to compromise with worldly means to get desired theological ends. Love indeed hopes all things, and if that affects how we think about the wealthiest and most famous converts, but not the brothers and sisters who have been laboring for a long time, obscure to 99% of the world, then it has not been believed quite yet.

__________

photo credit: Marcus Linder, Flickr.

Categories
Christianity evangelicalism life

The Outer Ring

The more I read C.S. Lewis’s address on “The Inner Ring,” the more I think it is one of the most important, spiritually helpful things he ever said. It’s not only that he puts his powers of observation to a vice many of us go for long stretches of life—maybe even our whole lives—without even noticing in ourselves. No, not just that. Rather, as is typical of Lewis, it’s as if his thinking about a particular thing in a particular place for a particular audience somehow anticipates the reality of readers 70 years in the future…readers removed about as far as possible from Lewis’s own intellectual and historic context.

What Lewis describes in “The Inner Ring” is, I think, the most consequential characteristic of two institutions of American life: Social media and politics. Without inner ringism I honestly don’t know if things like Twitter or Instagram could exist. The entire infrastructure of those digital platforms depends on the fact that people will do and say and approve of what they see others doing and saying and approving of. Further, social media’s effectiveness is directly dependent on how concentrated inner ringism can become in small doses: a hashtag here, a viral witticism there. The sum of social media is an ambient cry of millions of users saying, “See? I’m one of you!”

There’s a flip side to inner-ringism, though. Lewis’s address mentions it only by implication, but especially in American political discourse, this flip side has a powerful and resilient life of its own. Call it “The Outer Ring,” or outer ringism. The Outer Ring is the logical negative of the Inner Ring. If a person’s behavior or ideas can be conditioned by the desire to belong to a certain group, then the desire to not belong to a different group yields a similar conditioning, but in the opposite direction. Outer ringism is what you see when voters instinctively distrust new information because of who appears to be citing it, or when journalists, weary of thinking, quote-tweet something with, “This is something [person the tribe doesn’t like] would say.”

In his excellent little book How to Think, Alan Jacobs directs readers to a blog post by Slate Star Codex author Scott Alexander. In “I Can Tolerate Everything Except the Outgroup,” Alexander observes that people who score themselves very high on virtues like kindness, open-mindedness, progressive values, and empathy can behave very differently if the recipient of their behavior is the Wrong Kind of Person. Alexander got an illuminating education in this when some of his social media followers rebuked him for expressing relief at the death of Osama Bin Laden, and then those same followers posted obscenely jubilant content a few days later after the death of conservative British icon Margaret Thatcher. Alexander concludes:

“I gently pointed this out at the time, and mostly got a bunch of “yeah, so what?”, combined with links to an article claiming that “the demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous” And that was when something clicked for me…if you’re part of the Blue Tribe, then your outgroup isn’t al-Qaeda, or Muslims, or blacks, or gays, or transpeople, or Jews, or atheists – it’s the Red Tribe.

Of course, it’s not exactly a bold take for a conservative evangelical like me to suggest that progressives aren’t all that progressive. But lest I comfort the comfortable, every single word Alexander writes about the progressives on his social media feeds could apply to more than a few Bible-believing, culture-engaging personalities. Jacobs offers two vivid examples of this from Christian history in How to Think, and I’ve written at length about how “worldview formation” can often undermine thoughtfulness by condensing a Christian’s thought-forms into Good Tribe and Bad Tribe. Hence, evangelicals who are skeptical of vaccinations because the government or Planned Parenthood is in favor of them. When all you see are connections, you can’t see anything clearly enough.

What Lewis understood is that inner ringism is a spiritual sickness, not merely an ideological one. “Of all the passions,” Lewis says, “the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.” The same is of course true of outer ring-ism. Lewis has in mind the person who is seduced into cruelty or immorality by the promise of belonging, but it’s just as easy to imagine the person seduced into dishonesty or even apostasy by an unwillingness to grant his critics legitimacy.

A complementarian, for example, might so cultivate a distrust and dislike of people who disagree with him on gender roles that he downplays or even ignores when they have an important point to make about abuse. This might be because he’s committing the genetic fallacy and thinks that an egalitarian worldview is invariably tilted toward error. Or it might be because he himself has endured so much opposition or unkindness from feminists that granting a point simply feels like handing his enemy one more idea by which to trap him. In either case, these impulses are unlikely to be checked by his personal inner ring, precisely because our inner rings tend to shape our outer rings. The result is a complementarian who’s right about 1 Timothy but wrong about himself—a trade-off that won’t show up on the debate floor, only in his soul. (Prov. 14:12)

Outer ringism is a spiritual sickness because it, no less than the spirit which abandons the weekly worship gathering, stiff-arms humility, reinforces unearned confidences, and makes us unlikely to receive a word in season. Of the inner ring, Lewis writes:

Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. 

The same is true for the outer ring. Once you’ve settled on deciding who the Wrong Kind of People are and why you won’t hear anything they’ve got to say, eventually all those good reasons for blacklisting them will magically seem to apply to more and more. The group you dismissed for their fundamentalist attitude will give way to the folks you reject for their strange hobbies. You’ll find yourself more and more instinctively looking for why that every so subtly convicting thing you heard from that one preacher or that one woman in church was not legitimate, because after all of course they’d say that. As this habit takes root you’ll eventually be unable to hear whatever you haven’t heard before, and, as Lewis says, you’ll find yourself always only looking.

The worst news is that, since Lewis spoke those ominous words, the invention of the Internet has guaranteed that those of us who only ever look can always have something to look at. Never have inner and outer rings been available in such large quantities.

My guess is the only real way to fight the allure of the outer ring is to stop curating one’s own mind for half a minute, and look at the people that a sovereign God has put right in front of you, right now. Unless you are in a truly exceptional situation, the humans in your direct eyesight are diverse enough that some may be what you feel are the Wrong Kind of People. Those are the people whom our Maker has commanded us to love and teach and learn from. Community can be received, but it’s the outer ring that must be stocked.

Categories
Christianity evangelicalism

Engaging Culture From Ahead, Not From Behind

Let me describe an experience that has become very common for me over the years.

I’ll navigate to a well-trafficked Christian blog or publication. The major headlines are almost exclusively devoted to other headlines, from a secular newspaper, journal, or magazine. You see, the entire purpose of this Christian site is to recapitulate what else has been published in mainstream journalism, and to offer a theological or political commentary on it. Whether the topic is “throuples” in Manhattan, the latest ritual at Burning Man, or a tenured professor’s tweets, the conversation is always started by the consensus of prestigious journalism institutions on what we need to be talking about.

Based on my experience, this is what a lot of evangelicals mean by “engaging culture.” Like the cast and crew commentary on the Special Features section of a DVD, this mode of engaging culture adds Christian words to a preexisting perception of the world. Here’s what the editors of The New York Times, CNN, The Atlantic, and BBC want you to be thinking about. “Here’s commentary from a Christian point of view to accompany your thinking about these things. Now you can go and think!”

There is certainly something valuable in offering believers this kind of resource. Especially for Christians whose career puts them in close contact with thoughtful unbelievers, being able to intelligently answer questions has massive evangelistic implications. It’s also true that many American Christians lack the training these resources offer.

But lately I’ve wondered whether something is insufficient, not merely with the kind of commentary being offered but with the genre of writing itself. Does this kind of cultural engagement presume something potentially untrue—namely, that Christians should be thinking heavily on the kind of stories featured in the pages of elite media? Behind that question lies another, perhaps more complex one: Does what we read in the pages and watch on the screens of American media actually represent our “culture,” or does it just represent the ambitions and imaginations of media moguls?

The 2016 presidential election raised serious doubts among many that mainstream American journalists understood their own nation. In fact, in the shocking aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, many of them said so. Trump’s victory was unthinkable to any whose vision of society was shaped by the stories and ideas promulgated by national media outlets like The Washington Post or Forbes. Some self-reflective members of the media concluded that their work culture was insular and severely disconnected from the concerns and convictions of a huge chunk of American voters. I think that’s a reasonable conclusion.

Evangelicals have sometimes thought of “culture” as a monolith, a coherent ambience that is the sum total of Hollywood, education, the bestseller lists, and journalism. In my experience it’s common for Christians to talk of “the” culture without any effort to specify whose culture is being talked about. This is evident in something I’ve talked about here before: The tendency of a lot of Christian literature to offer over-generalized aphorisms and observations that don’t take into account how different people in different places need to hear different things.

We often talk about purity culture as if it there is only one kind of purity culture, and every single evangelical in America experiences that singular purity culture in the same way. But even a minute’s reflection will reveal that to be spectacularly untrue. Evangelicals raised in rigid, homeschooling environments have a particular experience with the doctrine of chastity that another Christian with a background in nominal religious culture won’t necessarily have. One church in evangelical Christianity uses Scripture to shame and brutalize teen girls over their sin, while another church sweeps the adultery of the minister or the pornography of an elder under the rug. “Culture” is multifaceted.

If culture is not a singular, omnipresent thing, then it makes sense to suppose that perhaps it needn’t always be engaged at face value. Here’s what I mean: What evangelicals mean by “culture” when they talk about engaging culture is in a very real sense a product, something created by an individual or a group and traceable to them. It is therefore a mistake to suppose that whatever ends up in the longform section of The New York Times necessarily represents “where culture is going.” The longform section of the NYT isn’t created by “culture,” it’s created by individuals and groups that want to manufacture something: an idea, a fad, etc.

The reason this matters is that engaging culture by centering one’s intellectual orbit around what comes out of elite journalism can lead Christians to perpetually express the public implications of our faith in the direction of people least likely to heed our message, and on current events least likely to be urgent in actual churches. In other words, if your idea of culture is dictated to you by The Atlantic, you might think the most important thing you can talk about as a Christian is why polyamory is sinful, or why Drag Queen Story Hour is a moral outrage. Assuming, though, that your local church is unexceptional, the odds are incredibly good that suicide, depression, smartphone addiction, and sexless marriages are much bigger issues for you than those. If however the agenda for Christian thinking is being set by elite media, concentrated in affluent coastal bastions of progressivism, the witness of evangelicalism is always from behind—reactive—and never from ahead.

***

What would it look like to engage culture from ahead rather than behind? Simply put, it means fostering Christian publications and ministries and writers who are able to think at a theological and anthropological level rather than merely a journalistic one.

A great example of the potential for Christians to set the intellectual agenda for others is technology. Secular society for the most part sees nothing at all moral in the newest developments from Silicon Valley. But there is a growing number of secular Americans who nonetheless feel that something is being lost in the omnipresence of screens. This is a tremendous opportunity for Christians to supply unbelievers with the language they seek but lack. Christians believe in the inherent goodness of the created world, but also in the indelible tendency of fallen humans to curve the resources of this created world toward sinful, selfish ends. The reason many Americans feel alienated by the technocratic culture is that we are not designed like robots, but in the image of a relational, rational God with real presence. To be disconnected from the physical world is to become less like the God in whose image we are made, thus, to become less human.

On the issue of technology and human flourishing, Christians have the ideas and categories that explain why things are the way they are. And here’s the upshot: Almost everyone in your church, neighborhood, school, workplace, or family has a smartphone. Almost everyone is connected to the liturgies of the internet. Compare that to how many people you personally know who are sending their kids to Drag Queen Story Hour, and you have an idea what is actually relevant to your culture. True, The New Yorker is much more interested in genderqueer libraries. That doesn’t mean you should be.

Take another example: Depression and suicide. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that anxiety, loneliness, and self-harm are among the most pressing issues facing believers in the West today. The numbers are staggering, the testimonies are too numerous to count, and the severity of the problem is only rising. People are dying of despair. Lots of people. People in your town, in your church. Maybe in your own home.

You’ll get a different answer as to why this is depending on whether you listen to economists, sociologists, doctors, activists, or journalists. Shouldn’t those who believe in a God of life, a God who puts the lonely in families, a God who wipes away tears and will live inside sinners like an explosive spring of water—shouldn’t we be setting the agenda here? Deaths of despair in a rich, affluent time are not surprising to people who know the real condition of the human heart. Are we speaking to this the way we could? Or does the lack of political leverage to this story make us bored, uninterested, or even apathetic? Sometimes I wonder if labeling everything as “culture war” makes us blind to actual death.

The point is that by engaging culture from behind, we shrink our world and our mission field. Being unable to tell the difference in urgency between the carryings on of coastal trust fund socialites and the silent cries of those sitting right next to us is a colossal miscalculation. It is, actually, failing to engage culture at all. It doesn’t “engage” because it usually fails to persuade (and honestly isn’t meant to). And it mistakenly identifies as “culture” what could probably more accurately be described as “anticulture.”

Engaging culture from ahead begins with a careful posture of learning and discernment. It prioritizes life and death rather than language and signaling. And it seeks to speak into a specific need rather than a news cycle. It’s not as lucrative, and it’s frankly not as easy. But it’s obedient.

Categories
evangelicalism Theology

A Complementarian Crisis

A couple years ago Ray Ortlund memorably described the typical lifespan of an American evangelical church as “Movement, monument, then mausoleum.” The early years are the movement, as enthusiasm and purposefulness characterize the church’s charter members and leaders. If the movement finds success, over time the church tends to lose its missional passion and instead devotes most of its energy to preserving itself against the sands of time. The result is an insular, nostalgic culture that can be stirring when excitement is highest but spends most of the time curved in on its own identity. If this habit goes unbroken long enough, eventually the church simply runs out of people who remember “the good old days” and has nothing and no one to replace them with.

Many evangelicals, including yours truly, can personally attest to how true to life this narrative is. You don’t have to go far in America to find a large, beautiful, ornate, empty church. Ironically, though many churches have abandoned the old practice of keeping a cemetery on their grounds, a sobering number of congregations have become their own kind of cemetery, where evangelism and community lie interred. While it might be oversimplified, the movement-monument-mausoleum narrative is certainly true of enough.

That’s at least one reason why many evangelical complementarians, like me, are a bit uneasy nowadays. What’s true of the institutions and movements explicitly commissioned by Jesus (churches) is doubly true of the institutions and movements that are mostly just extra, and in some cases the downward slopes are steeper outside congregational walls. As someone who is solidly convinced that the Bible teaches complementary gender theology over and against both secular feminism and Christian egalitarianism, the complementarian spectacle has not been pleasant of late.

Let me describe the spectacle as I see it.

First, evangelical complementarianism, based on the messaging and activity of its most important institutions and advocates, seems to currently lack a compelling identity. The debate over the Trinity a few years back was an impressive exchange of massively important theological ideas between gifted and faithful scholars, but it’s not at all clear to me what, exactly, that dialogue accomplished. There seems (at least to me, an interested layperson) to be no better consensus on issues such as the eternal functional subordination of the Son (EFS) now than there was in the smoke.

Such a lack of closure on what appears to be the most significant theological moment for complementarianism in the last ten years exemplifies what feels like a broad uncertainty over what evangelical complementarianism is: a position (on which issues?), a movement (including which people?), a dialogue (between whom?), a response (to what?), etc.  Hence, the feeling of some that current complementarianism, lacking a clear center of gravity, has turned its polemic energy on itself.

That is the second concerning trend. The uncertainty lingering after the trinity debate has led (at least partly) to a widening gap within complementarianism, between the “thin” and the “thick.” Again, the terms are maddeningly unclear. Thin complementarians appear to be mostly responding to arguments from divine ordering and natural law that bind consciences on questions like what jobs and roles women can have in the public square. The thick comps seem to view at least openness to such gendered ordering of the public square as integral to an authentically biblical theology of male and female.

It’s important to acknowledge the significance of this intramural rift for complementarianism writ large. The complementarianism of the Danvers days was explicitly presented as a response to evangelical feminism, e.g., the ordination of women in Christian churches and the downplaying of male-female distinctions in culture and politics. Most self-described “thin” complementarians accept male-only eldership and reject both same-sex marriage and transgender ideology (by contrast, a significant percentage of self-identified egalitarians seem to be LGBT and transgender affirming). Thus, the current rift between thin and thick complementarianism is not a rift over the core content of classic complementarianism as it has been most often articulated, but a rift borne of a newer, more active search to chart the true implications of this theology. No matter whether you identify as thick or thin, the biggest point here is where complementarian energies are being expended, and divided—not so much over the ordering of the home and church, but in the potential implications for public theology outside.

It’s certainly true that the various disputes between the thin and thick camps matter, and should not be dismissed or avoided. If nothing else, pastors and church leaders should define themselves as clearly as possible to avoid potentially catastrophic illusions of unity on issues that have real implications for the congregation. Granted that, I think it’s fair to wonder if the thin vs thick faceoff is doomed by the law of diminishing return. It’s hard to imagine a robust, coherent complementarianism with lots of different splinter cells, servicing competing evangelical sub-tribes that share digital space at places like TGC but work behind the scenes to undermine one another. Perhaps thin vs thick is not such a harbinger. Perhaps it’s a watershed moment that will yield a liberating amount of theological clarity and solidarity. Perhaps not, too.

If certain dynamics continue unchanged, there’s reason to worry about the above scenario coming true. In fact, it’s already started to happen. This is the third concerning trend: a surplus of “lumping,” a frustrating infatuation with ephemeral social media trends, and growing suspicion that what’s being talked about isn’t what’s really being talked about.

One vivid example took place just last week at the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention. After giving the ERLC’s annual report, president Russell Moore took questions from the floor. One of the questions was a pitifully obvious attempt at a gotcha: The delegate quoted an old piece by Dr. Moore that vigorously asserted a complementarian position on churches that allow preaching by women. “Do you still believe this,” the delegate asked, and only some of the members present would have been able to hear the dog-whistle for a condemnation of Beth Moore.

Of course, one question from one delegate at the Southern Baptist Convention does not a narrative make. Still, the Beth Moore “moment” that swept through large portions of influential complementarian social media was a disconcerting episode—not because a woman’s preaching on Mother’s Day is a good idea complementarians should just get over, but because the stakes of public complementarian theology are much bigger than subtweets and a Hallmark holiday.

These disconcerting trends have one possible, unifying explanation. It could be that the evangelical complementarian vision has pivoted from its focused, theologically hefty “movement” phase, and is currently more concerned with recreating its old polemical energy. In this hypothesis, what the “monument” phase looks like for complementarians is an attempt to re-win a war already won, regardless that evangelical feminism has largely collapsed fully into the mainline denominations and has, for the most part, become one thread in a thoroughly non-evangelical garment. Without the same clearly delineated purpose and target, a restless complementarianism turns on itself and becomes a monument to its former role and rhetoric.

Assuming this is at least partly true, what now? I go back to Ortlund’s original blog post, because the path he offers churches to renewal and rejuvenation rings true in more ways than one:

The responsibility of a church’s leaders is to discern when their movement is starting to level off as a monument. It is at this crucial point that they must face themselves honestly and discover why they have lost their edge, go into repentance and return to the costly commitments that made them great to begin with. They may need to deconstruct much of what they have become, which is painful and embarrassing. But if the leaders will have the humility, clarity, and courage to do this, their church will go into renewal and re-launch as a movement once more. Jesus will become real again, people will be helped again, and those bold, humble leaders will never regret the price they paid.

Unpacking this rich paragraph, I count several steps forward for a renewed complementarian vision:

1) Complementarians don’t need to agree about all the reasons in order to acknowledge that the movement needs help and revitalization. From #MeToo to the Trinity to trolls, complementarian culture needs to honestly assess its current health.

2) Complementarians need to repent of the role that any spiritual pride or anger may have played in the decay of the movement, especially that which may have caused us to deflect faithful criticism and compromise with un-Christian means to accomplish (in our view) Christian ends.

3) Complementarians should enter a season of self-examination, consciously pressing pause on polemics in order to define, clearly, what we believe Jesus is calling us to be and do. There needs to be a “return to fundamentals” in theology, resisting temptations to answer challenges with slippery slope angst and credential-checking and instead going ad fontes, to the heart of the full biblical narrative on gender and God’s image.

4) Complementarians should pray urgently that the Holy Spirit would be discernible to outsiders, including all His fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These aren’t the ingredients to heavy blog traffic or snazzy headlines, but they are the only fruits that matter to the Judge of all the earth.

I don’t believe complementarianism is a generational fad. Rather, I think it is the best, most serious attempt thus yet to make sense of the Bible’s radically counter-cultural ideas about maleness and femaleness. Biblical complementarity, like biblical sexuality, offers deep joy and real flourishing. The challenge, as always, is to resist making a theology that isn’t about us, really about us, and in so doing stand squarely between the world and the joy and flourishing offered by our risen Savior. Of course, Christ doesn’t let even mausoleums get in the way of his mission. The question is, will we?

Categories
books Christianity evangelicalism

Christian Wisdom Amid the Gurus

Dave Ramsey, Jordan Peterson, and Rachel Hollis are, each in their own way, three of our modern gurus. They’re a diverse group that reflects particular personalities of modern culture. Peterson is the philosophical academic, Hollis the Instagram celebrity, and Ramsey the folksy, financial counseling version of Dr. Phil. Their books don’t just sell; they live atop the bestsellers lists for years at a time. Hollis’s last two books are both currently in Amazon’s top 5. Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life has sold 10 million copies since late 2017. You have scroll a bit further to find Ramsey’s manifesto The Total Money Makeover (and its various spin-offs), but then again, Ramsey’s radio show has been reaching millions of listeners since the George W. Bush administration.

Categories
culture evangelicalism

Practices of Love in an Unimoon Era

This morning I read the following passage in Justin Whitmel Earley’s excellent new book, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction:

One of my favorite cultural critics, Ken Myers, argues that the kind of atheism we experience in America today is not a conclusion but a mood…If secularism is not a conclusion but a mood, we cannot disrupt it with an argument. We must disrupt it with a presence.

The truth is that we live in a culture where most people are remarkably resistant to hearing verbal proclamations of the gospel. What’s more, it seems some of them really can’t hear it. We not longer share a common vocabulary for communicating whether truth exists, what can be called good, and what love means. But that is okay. God is not alarmed. Our secular age is not a barrier to evangelism; it is simply the place of evangelism.

Ever since returning from China, I’ve had an abiding interest in asking this question: “How is it that the West can be re-evangelized?” One of the reasons I’m so compelled by the life of habit is that I see habits as a way of light in an age of darkness. Cultivating a life of transcendent habits means that our ordinary ways of living should stand out in our culture, dancing like candles on a dark mantle. As Madeline L’Engle once wrote, “We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe . . . but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

Though I think this passage risks short changing the value of intellectual argument, the overall point being made is, I believe, extremely important.