10 Suggestions for Christians When Talking About Social Justice

  1. For Christians who are uneasy about talking about things like systematic racism, sexual abuse, and economic disenfranchisement, remember that this isn’t just a theoretical argument. There are stories of real people behind the “issues” you debate.
  2. Remember that because of globalization and the internet, these stories are more accessible than ever before to people who might in previous generations never heard them. What you think is “liberalization” might just be people reading what that their parents didn’t have to read.
  3. For Christians who feel strongly about those things listed above, remember that, in America, those topics have been disingenuously weaponized against pro-life, pro-religious liberty causes. Take the time to learn about that instead of assuming indifference or ignorance.
  4. Remember that not everyone is an activist, just like how not everyone is a professional theologian or counselor. That’s OK.
  5. Brush up on American history. Your narrative—whichever one—will probably be challenged. That’s OK.
  6. If your goal is to pump up people who already agree with you instead of persuading those who disagree, that’s OK; there’s a time and place for both! But be honest with yourself about what you’re doing, and don’t get frustrated at others for not being persuaded by something that wasn’t ever meant to persuade.
  7. You should feel more community through the creeds and confessions of the church than you feel through political party or ideology. If you don’t feel that way, ask yourself which of those you’re thinking more about throughout the day.
  8. Remember that, for mass media, there’s no such thing as a hate-click. If you click it, you bought it.
  9. Remember that social and political issues are over-represented on social media because that’s what social media engineers know will get you to engage. Log off and go talk to someone in McDonald’s for a more realistic experience of “what culture is saying.” You’ll probably end up talking about sports or movies.
  10. Heed the Wisdom Pyramid.
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Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square

In our era, what’s truly Christian or conservative is not always easy to discern.

A few years ago, Bill Maher appeared on the (now shuttered) Charlie Rose Show. Maher is one of the smugger, less sufferable “New atheist” types, and has more or less made a lucrative career out of representing conservatives and religious people, especially Christians, as idiots at best and theocrats at worst. So it was a bit surprising to see a clip from his interview with Charlie Rose getting passed around with enthusiasm amongst many conservative (and Christian) politicos. Continue reading “Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square”

The Trouble with Generalism

On knowing what we don’t know.

Alastair Roberts writes:

One effect of biblical™ ideology has been to elevate pastors and theologians as universal experts. If all truth is biblical™, then the Bible experts are the universal experts. We should look to them for our psychology, philosophy, politics, economics, etc., etc. The result can be pastors who claim authority on a lot of issues about which they are naively ignorant, presenting these as matters of direct biblical™ authority in ways that end up undermining and even discrediting the authority of Scripture.

This is certainly true. It’s also true of more people than pastors and theologians. A pretense to expertise from a pastor is arguably worse because of the spiritual authority attached to his office, but it’s still pretty bad when journalists, politicians, and mommy bloggers do it too. In fact, pretense to broad authority based on specialized credentials is common enough in public life that we could consider it part of the problem with generalism.

To be a generalist is in some sense to always see continuity between issues and ideas, even—especially?—if that continuity may not really exist. Take generalist blogging. No one has done generalist blogging better or more interestingly than Andrew Sullivan. Yet it’s incredibly easy to peruse Sullivan’s archives and see where he is obviously stepping outside his knowledge. This isn’t something that a generalist blogger does despite his best intentions; it’s what he intends to do.

A lot of the American journalism industry depends on this kind of generalism. Most columnists are experts at writing, not experts at their subjects, which explains why it’s so common to see an MFA grad doling out explainers about foreign policy or the theological history of world religions. One of the secrets of the writing economy is that you don’t actually have to know anything to be a writer except how to write. The vast majority of books, articles, essays, and blogs, even the good ones, are the products of very brief research and virtually no seasoned experience.

Most of the smartest people I know are people are engineers, chemists, doctors, etc. You know what’s interesting about these friends? The vast majority of them do not blog about politics or submit articles on complementarianism. The most highly credentialed people I know are quite satisfied in their own specialized slice of life. They’ll talk circles around anyone when the topic turns to what they’ve spent years of their life learning and practicing, but they’re not going to be asked to be a columnist anytime soon, and they’d say no even if asked. The people I know who have the most to say about the highest number of topics, including myself!,  are not actually that qualified to talk about, well, any of them. We’re generalists, not experts.

When you say this, folks often get offended. They hear elitism and snobbishness. I think this is for two reasons. First, culturally, we really don’t make any distinction between free knowledge and deep knowledge. Google and iTunes U are epistemological Wal-Marts that constantly undersell the overpriced (=”elite”) competition. Everyone feels like an expert because why shouldn’t they? They’ve got the facts right in front of them, and they’re just as good as the facts at that university, right?

Second, the infrastructure of life in Western culture still does a pretty decent job of protecting ordinary people from the consequences of pretenses to authority. What Alastair is saying about evangelical pastors is definitely real, but it’s mostly a “dynamic” that is off-putting but seldom meaningful. There aren’t many stories about a church suffering a smallpox quarantine after hiring an anti-vaxxer as senior pastor (for what it’s worth, I think Jim Jones-like cults are a different kind of case). Likewise, a journalist with a bachelor’s degree who wages an ignorant Twitter war against history professors is mostly spitting into the wind. If you’re bound and determined to stick it to the “elites,” you can, of course, do so, but there’s only so much your Facebook posts can do.

All this makes it hard for most of us to feel the negative effects of generalism. It’s not that generalism is bad. It’s that generalism is generalism, not a synonym for “scholar” or “expert.” Alaistair’s point about evangelical pastors who use biblical worldview as a euphemism for selling their own intuitions and opinions is not an argument against actually doing biblical theology, or trying to live life in a biblically faithful way. It’s an argument against laziness, the laziness of wanting to constrict the complexities of life into a handful of truisms and in the process anointing Rehoboams as Solomons. It’s a temptation that everyone who likes to read and write widely faces, and it’s one we should be honest about.

Shelter in the Shame Storm

We who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers embedded in the technology we put in our pockets.

Helen Andrews’s essay on online shaming, featuring in the forthcoming January issue of First Things, is the kind of piece that can genuinely change readers. It is a stunningly powerful meditation that is simultaneously personal and sweeping. I can’t even choose a passage to excerpt without feeling like I’m under-representing the quality of writing, so please; if you haven’t read it, stop reading this blog and go read Helen’s essay.

I’ve been trying to figure out why, beyond the exceptional literary beauty on display in the writing, this essay has left such a strong impression on me. Perhaps one reason is that more and more of my thinking and writing has been taken up with trying to understand what technology, especially social media, is doing to me and my generation. I know some friends roll their eyes whenever they read another sentence like that one, but I wonder if they roll their eyes only because they haven’t allowed themselves to really listen to what’s going on—which, ironically, is one of the most aggressive symptoms of the social media contagion. There are probably only two kinds of people whose online habits aren’t at least challenged by phenomenons like online shaming: the people who stop reading essays like Helen’s because they don’t want them to be challenged, or the people for whom online shaming is not a problem but a bonus. Four years ago I would have said the latter group didn’t exist. Four years and too much time on Twitter later, I know for a fact it does.

This is a point Helen brings up to devastating effect. “The more online shame cycles you observe,” she writes, “the more obvious the pattern becomes: Everyone comes up with a principled-sounding pretext that serves as a barrier against admitting to themselves that, in fact, all they have really done is joined a mob. Once that barrier is erected, all rules of decency go out the window, but the pretext is almost always a lie.” In other words, people Twitter-shame not (ultimately) because they feel duty-bound to, but because they want to, because doing so is pleasurable and brings, however fleeting, satisfaction.

Not long ago it was common to hear that the internet doesn’t really “form” us, it simply removes analog inhibitions and frees up the true self. There’s probably some truth there, but all it takes is a little digital presence to quickly realize just how easy it is to become something online that bears little or no resemblance to your life offscreen. Put another way: If the tech is neutral and the only problem are the preexisting moral conditions of the users, online mobs should only be constituted of noxious people going after truly innocent targets. Alas, that’s not what happens.

At some point people like me who grew up with the internet are going to have to reckon with the spiritual powers that are embedded into the technology we put in our pocket. We’re going to have to determine to understand (a dangerous resolution!) how and why it is that the avatar-ization of our thoughts and names creates on-ramps in our hearts for delighting in the suffering of people whose only crime is disagreeing with us, or being friends with somebody who does. Why does mitigating our experience of the world through screens push us toward cruelty and resentment? Is it because we’re bored? Because our dopamine receptors are so calloused by notifications and we need a bigger hit? Is it because we are created to feel the very things social media is designed to prevent us from feeling? And after all these questions: Why is it that the fear of losing “connection” or “platform” is so strong that we shrug, pray for our broken world, and then check Instagram again?

I’ll confess to living out my own anathemas. As I was reading through Helen’s piece the first time, I stopped halfway and went immediately to YouTube to look up the fateful clip she describes. It was an eminently forgivable curiosity; how many of us can read an essay about such a moment without wondering where we can access it? So I watched the clip, then resumed Helen’s essay. And then a funny thing happened. I went back to the clip and watched it again, and then another time. Even right after reading about the man who grabs his phone and unwittingly invites Helen’s now-husband to watch a moment of profound humiliation, and wagging my head at such a clueless guy, here I was, basking in someone’s lowest public moment, because I found the “cringeworthiness”….well, what did I find it? Entertaining? Funny? Educational? To be honest, I’m not sure. I don’t know why I watched that video 3 times. But I did all the same.

Let’s say that YouTube didn’t exist, and that the only way such footage was accessible to me was through an exhaustive combing of C-SPAN files. Would I have made the effort to watch it? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think the better question is whether, in a world where YouTube didn’t exist, and there wasn’t a multi-million dollar sub-industry that feasted on attention spans with “content,” there would have even been an extant clip to find. Perhaps one reason I went looking for the clip was that I knew I would find it. Perhaps another reason was that I had never stopped myself from viewing someone’s lowest professional moment before; why stop now? I don’t dislike Helen, and my guess is that we would agree on 98% of important matters. I didn’t relish her embarrassment while reading her testimony. I wasn’t piling-on. I just…watched.

I’m not sure where the shelter is from the shame storm. Today it feels as if anybody who has ever written or done anything in public is liable to be ridden out of civilization on a rail (or thread). But I’m hopeful that the same offline existence that can relieve anxiety and heal relationships can also re-calibrate our desires so as not to crave the saltiness of shame. Lord, grant me serenity to accept the Tweets I cannot change, the courage to log off, and the wisdom to know which comes first.

Evangelical Christianity and the Teen Depression Epidemic

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have written an important new book titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. It’s a lucid, eye-opening and (in my opinion) convincing work. I’ll have more to say about it in a future post. But I wanted to highlight a particular chapter that left me absolutely gobsmacked—and very worried about how evangelical churches are(n’t) responding to it.

One of Haidt and Lukianoff’s premises is that iGen, the generation that came of age in the late 2000s and accounts for most undergraduate students today, is exhibiting extraordinary levels of anxiety and depression. iGen’s mental and emotional struggles are a key component of the “coddling” ethos of the modern US college campus, the ethos that promotes “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and administrative over-protection of students. In the authors’ view, because iGen students are entering college with these struggles, they expect and receive a disproportionate amount of deference from college administrators. This deference, though, is misguided, and it feeds the students’ perception that they are fragile and that the world outside them is threatening and must be held at bay—which in turn increases anxiety and emotional suffering.

Put aside for a moment whether you track with that argument (I do, but that’s for a later post). What Haidt and Lukianoff suggest is that there is a serious mental health crisis with young Americans, so serious that it has substantially transformed the philosophy and administration of centuries-old colleges and universities. If they are right, then I would submit that the anxiety and depression of a whole generation of Americans merits the focused attention of Christians and churches no less than their sociopolitical views or churchgoing habits.

Using data from the CDC, the authors put together a chart on adolescent depression rates that floored me:

According to the data, in 2011 about 11% of adolescent girls reported having had a “major depressive episode in the past year.” By 2016, that number had reached 19%. In other words, the depression rate for adolescent girls nearly doubled in just five years. For adolescent boys, the depression rate did not spike this dramatically, but it has risen. In fact, the suicide rate for adolescent boys has spiked:

From 1999 to 2007, the suicide rate for adolescent boys went on a fairly consistent trajectory downwards. Around 2008, however, the story is flipped: A consistent upward trajectory that results in an almost 20-year high suicide rate in 2016.

I’ve been trying to get my mind around these statistics, and there’s something I can’t stop thinking about. Having been raised in evangelical church culture my entire life, and having quite a bit of experience in youth ministry and outreach, I don’t believe I ever, once, read or watched any treatise on discipling teens that emphasized anxiety and depression. I saw a lot on virginity, drugs, peer pressure, and the like, but never anything substantial about pointing the gospel directly and explicitly at these emotional and mental struggles. If the church hasn’t been helping here, who has?

Answer: Schools. I’m starting to believe that in the absence of serious attention to anxiety and depression within evangelical approaches to ministry, students have found their best resource in the guidance counselors and administrators of their schools. This has handed public education institutions a singular crisis that these administrators are unable to handle with anything more meaningful or life-giving than the creation of safe spaces. Conservative evangelicals like myself who rigorously criticize contemporary campus culture must awaken to the reality that this culture was created because spiritual and emotional problems went unaddressed by the people and places most in a position to offer help—not to mention the people and places that literally receive money to help!

Is there any serious movement afoot within evangelicalism to address anxiety and depression? If not, how can we blast the coddling of the American mind on college campuses, a coddling that very well may have roots in the silence of our culture’s Christian ministers on what amounts to an epidemic in our society? My thinking here is straightforward. Pastors and church leaders: think of anxiety and depression as just as real, just as serious, and just as worthy of your preaching, counseling, and attention as pornography, abortion, transgenderism, and divorce. Youth leaders: If you’re assuming that your students need help in overcoming temptation to sexual immorality, you should also assume that they need help in overcoming depression and emotional distress. We need within churches a culture of help, not of ignorance. The evidence is staring right at us.

The Sea in Which You’re Drowning Is Not All That’s Real

On (not) writing about sin.

Recently I’ve had multiple offers, all from friends representing publications and ministries I greatly respect, to write articles about pornography. I’ve declined all of them. After I wrote a piece on this for Desiring God in July, I made a resolution with myself that I wouldn’t write about pornography for the foreseeable future. For the past several years I have written thousands of words about it, encompassing everything from my personal testimony to American culture. It’s time for me to leave that topic alone for a while.

Because I’ve said all there is to be said on it? No, of course not. There is much more to be said. Because my views are changing? Definitely not.  Because it’s not as important as some people think? Hardly. If anything, it’s more important than most people think. Why then am I putting myself on a moratorium on this issue?

Because the sea in which you’re drowning is not all that’s real, and realizing this is crucial for those struggling in the fight against lust.

When you’re in the throes of addiction, nothing seems real except your addiction. Incremental victories over your addiction don’t necessarily change this. In fact, such victories can actually make this perception worse. Every heartfelt prayer becomes a prayer for God to deliver you. Every sermon is “really” about your struggle. You see all of life through the lens of this one sin that you are, by grace, making war against. It becomes the main metaphor of your life, the fact that stands like a ghost between you and every relationship, between you and every ministry opportunity.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Christian culture, at least evangelical culture, offers much to fight against this. There’s a profound streak in evangelical discipleship of reducing the Christian life to the number of days you can go without sinning. This kind of mentality inflames the sense that beating porn is all that matters. The tragedy is that this mentality blocks many of the very strongest graces that Christ offers in the war against lust, graces like fellowship with other believers (not just “accountability”!), the beauty of nature, losing oneself in an honest pleasure, etc. These are graces that are hard to see for the person who feels like their entire Christian existence is about defeating pornography. A one-note emphasis mutes the other sounds of the symphony of redemption.

The reality is that one of the most effective things a person who is struggling with pornography can do is get their mind out of the perspective of them and their computer (or phone). Look at the broader picture. Look out the window, up into the clouds. Realize how much God has created and how much God is doing in this massive, amazing universe.

So I don’t feel pressed to talk more about the sin of pornography right now. Rather, I’m pressed to take a larger view and infatuate my heart with Christ and all that he is and does for me.

I am convinced that the only people who see lasting, significant healing from the bondage of pornography are people who feel in their bones the grandness and the glory of God, a feeling that transcends (but does not exclude) the tug-of-war. The tug-of-war is important, and failing to tug has eternal consequences. But the water in which you’re drowning is not all there is, and the first thing you must do to stop drowning is to swim upward, towards the air, towards the light, where you know there’s a shore.

Leather Bound

Digital Bible apps are convenient, but physical Bibles are much more.

Recently I was sitting in a worship service and looked around me. For every physical Bible opened I saw at least one or two smartphones glowing softly. I’m not sure why, but this was surprising. Is the Bible app really that common in evangelical worship? I guess it is. Not long after this I took a more deliberate notice in my small group of who had Bibles and who had Bible apps. It was a much closer ratio than I had assumed.

Bible apps are unquestionably convenient, and of course knowing and obeying the words that are there is far more important than whether you’re holding leather or glass. I have to admit, though, that it’s hard for me to imagine ever replacing physical Bibles with apps. Aesthetic value would be lost, but something else would be lost too…a compact landmark of my spiritual memory.

For me, physical Bibles are connected to both time and place. A quick glance behind my shoulder as I write these words lets me see a row of Bibles on my shelf, each one provoking a vividly clear memory of where and when I got each of them. In several cases I even remember the individual who sold them to me. These Bibles’ physicality takes me back to a specific season of life, a process of deliberate remembrance that isn’t just nostalgia. It’s a spiritual exercise that awakens thankfulness (at least, it should!).

Opening the Bibles deepens this experience. Opening up the Bible I bought right after graduating college, I see the markings of a blue ink pen drawing attention to Psalm 4:4: “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” My markings are almost certainly at least 4 years old. Was I feeling convicted about my anger? It’s hard to recall, though I do know that I underlined this verse before I married and had a toddler son who nailed me with a toy golf club just the other day. Even as I write this I feel ashamed at my ridiculous anger over a toddler’s mistake. Had I not opened up my 5 year old Bible I likely wouldn’t have contemplated this verse today.

I still remember my first Bible, a red faux-leather King James version that frayed at the edges after years of use in Sunday school and Bible drills. I remember bringing the Bible to a National Day of Prayer event with Dad and a reporter for the local newspaper taking my picture. I remember my “Adventures in Odyssey” Bible where I, a true Baptist child, underlined Proverbs 23:31. It’s not that these Bibles give me supernatural memory of my childhood. It’s that each Bible is somehow connected to something specific, so that the memories that coalesce around each Bible become a sort of memorial. In the digital age I continually feel my sense of time attacked. It’s as if physical Bibles carry antidote.

They invite questions. Why would I underline that particular verse at that particular age? Why would I write that in the margins? Sometimes these reflections open up powerful memories of traumatic and hurtful times. Sometimes they invoke a simple joy at the quiddity of life. Sometimes they make me laugh, sometimes they make me cringe. Not all are meaningful. But each one seems to have something in common with the others, a secret thread running through every adolescent jot and grown up tittle that binds the minutia of dozens of little purchased Bibles together. In the marginalia of these Bibles I see myself, and seeing myself, I somehow see God.

To hold onto a treasured leather-bound Bible is for me a way of holding onto awareness of God’s grace in my life. Yes, Scripture is universally true all the time, but the Bible I hold in my hands was given to me at a specific place and a specific time. Perhaps a struggle in my Christian life has been to see myself not merely as mooching off the extravagant kindness of Jesus that he gives to everybody else, but as a specific target of his sovereign love. Proverbs 3:5-6 is true for everyone, but it’s underlined in my specific Bible because it’s true for me. It’s one thing to know something applies to you. It’s quite another to know it was meant for you.

So I think I’ll go on being inconvenienced by physical Bibles. I’ll probably open up the app every now and again, and won’t feel one bit guilty. But, Lord willing, everywhere I go I’ll bring a Bible that I can’t turn off and I can’t resist marking up. And I’ll look forward to an unknown future where I’ll open up that Bible and see what I was reading, and more importantly, what it was reading in me.

Civility, Privilege, and the Public Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


photo credit (licensed under CC 2.0)

My Latte, Your Chicken Sandwich, and Our Neighbors

The idol of politics must come down if we are to love our neighbors

Starbucks donates money to many causes with which I, a conservative Christian, strongly disagree. It supports Planned Parenthood. It supports various LGBT initiatives, the majority of which involve definitions of marriage and human flourishing that are incompatible with my faith. Based on public comments from Starbucks CEO Howard Schulz, it’s highly unlikely someone with my religious and political convictions could ascend high up their corporate ladder. I could probably become a barista, maybe even a manager (if I played my HR cards just right). But if words mean anything, I could not represent the company at a significant level.

None of this has convinced me to stop buying coffee there. Why not? Don’t I care about where my money goes? Yes, I do. But a public marketplace is populated by people, people who have free consciences and who will, in many cases, oppose my deepest beliefs. Making opposing beliefs the basis for severing a marketplace relationship only makes sense if the purpose of a marketplace is to match people with others just like them. But that’s not the point of a marketplace. None less than the apostle Paul commanded the Corinthian believers to have a free and open conscience about purchasing meat sold to them in a pagan storefront. Either Paul didn’t care about idolatry (he did), he didn’t think conscience mattered at all (he did), or else, he is working from a vision of civic life that is deeper than simply making sure Christians only do business with other Christians. It’s a vision that is deeply theological: The people of God do not belong outside the world, but in the world, representing a kingdom not of the world that will nonetheless come to the world.

What I’m beginning to realize is that religious architecture for seeing the world is crucial for having a functional vision of the public square. Americans who don’t have this theology increasingly fail to grasp any compelling reason why people with opposing political or religious views should interact at all.

Writing at Huffington Post, Noah Michelson rails against Chick-Fil-A, specifically decrying his fellow LGBT Americans who continue to patronize the restaurant. The problem is that CFA is owned by conservative evangelical Christians who have traditional beliefs about sexuality. Further, the owners give money to organizations that share these religious beliefs. For Michelson, CFA’s corporate partnership with traditionally evangelical organizations makes them unacceptable for right-thinking people:

Yeah, I know, I know ― it sucks that we can’t have waffle fries. But you know what sucks even more? Not having equal rights and contributing to the profits of a company that wants to ensure you never do because it believes you’re fundamentally disordered or unnatural or sinful or some delightful combination of all three.

Am I saying Chick-fil-A and everyone who works for it is evil? Of course not. The corporation has done a lot of good and even donated food to volunteers giving blood in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre (though, ironically, most gay men weren’t allowed to participate in that charitable effort).  But none of its generosity changes the fact that the chain has taken and continues to take an anti-queer stance and still donates large sums of money to anti-queer groups.

Note the careful wording. Michelson says that LGBT Americans ought not buy food from a company that “believes you’re fundamentally…sinful.” The problem for Michelson is not political activism or lobbyists. It’s the worldview of Chick-Fil-A’s ownership, which believes that homosexual sex is sinful. It’s their theology that makes them boycott-able to decent Americans.

It’s important to see that this is essentially an argument against people who disagree with each other interacting in the public marketplace. Buying a chicken sandwich is hardly a political donation, and the religious beliefs of CFA’s ownership does not mean that when Michelson enters the restaurant, he’s going to encounter direct hostility (he acknowledges as much). Since a fast-food transaction is impersonal, what’s the problem here? The problem is that Michelson doesn’t want to have anything to do with people who believe he is a sinner—and there’s no reason to think this standard begins and ends with owners of fast food chains.

How does this mentality lead us anywhere but a radically dysfunctional public square? It doesn’t, but for those who lack a vision of human dignity and human fate—for those without a transcendent moral framework of human relationships—political purity must play the role of divine judgment. “Come out from among them and be separate” isn’t just a parochial mantra; it’s human nature, an expression of our incurably religious sense of ourselves.

I pay for my Starbucks latte (too much) and drink it as an evangelical Christian because I do not believe that Starbucks’ political and social views have the last word. Like a Corinthian, I eat what’s sold in the market because I reject the idols that “blessed” my purchase. The idol of politics is a strong cult, and refusing to bow down puts one at risk of attack from many of the faithful, both Left and Right. But the idol must come down if we are to love our neighbors.

Jesus plainly taught that neighbor-love means nothing if by “neighbor” you always mean people whom you like and who like you. Neighbor-love according to Jesus is love of enemies, even enemies that would not hire you or buy your coffee or nuggets or vote for you. Neighbor love goes beyond political categorization…and that’s why only those who have a category beyond politics can love like this.

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Letter to a Disappointed Graduate

Dear new college graduate,

I’m supposed to start off by saying “Congratulations,” but I doubt you want to hear that right now. If I’ve understood you correctly, today doesn’t feel like a victory to you. You say you’ve wasted most of the last few years. You’ve say you’ve been selfish, lazy, and unkind. You say for too long you were hung up on pornography and video games, and that your graduation today is mostly due to the kindness and forbearance of professors and the intervention of family and friends. Today, you say, feels good, but as you watch your classmates celebrate their high GPAs, their entrance in grad programs, and their lives that look way more fruitful than yours, all you can think about is how behind you are.

I imagine you’re frustrated at the kind of responses you get when you express this feeling to most people. I can hear in your voice a seriousness about the regrets of the past that I know from experience most Americans are deeply unable to process. I reckon you’ve been told everything from “Well, college is when you’re supposed to mess around, now it’s time to get serious,” to, “Live with no regrets,” to, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” (That last one deserves to be permanently affixed to something flammable) We modern people disagree about a lot, but the one thing we all seem able to agree on is that nothing is worth regretting, and that positive thinking is far more valuable than grief and guilt.

Everything in you is screaming that this attitude is nonsense, isn’t it? That’s because it is nonsense. The grief and regret you carry over bad that you did and the good you left undone are not your enemies (at least, not yet). Just like hunger points to the existence of food and desire to the existence of sex, shame points to the reality of sin. What you are feeling is sorrow over your sin. Don’t let misguided Christians tell you that sin in college years is insignificant. Your own conscience tells you that’s false, and in fact I could share with you a lot of stories of people I know whose youthful lusts did not stay youthful. Talking your shame down with meaningless platitudes won’t help you, as I think you know.

The reality is that a lot of people want to take college students seriously without actually taking them seriously. They want to traffic in cliches about the “next generation” and “your utterly unique place in history,” but they don’t want to hear stories about frat boys whose athletic scholarships couldn’t keep them from getting addicted to opiates, or about the National Merit scholar who seriously contemplated suicide when she realized her grades were slipping. I understand why they don’t want to hear these things. They don’t have the resources to respond well to them. Anything bad that happens in college is always the fault of “the system,” or can be solved with medication. In college there are plenty of paid counselors available to help you understand why it’s your parents’ fault, why it’s the patriarchy’s fault, or why it’s your brain’s fault.

But, happily, you know better than that. You know it’s your fault. You are reckoning with the shame. I am proud of you for doing this.

The thing about shame, though, is that you’ve got to do something with it. You can’t hold onto it forever. Some people try to hold onto it  because they don’t know what else to do, or because the regret and the anguish can be hidden in a way that real change and real reconciliation can’t be. This is a recipe for self-destruction, and I know you realize that. You don’t want to flippantly dismiss the shame and regret you feel over the last few years, but neither do you want it to swallow you whole. That’s where you need to be.

Some of the shame you feel is about academics. You didn’t always try your best (in fact, you say you rarely did). You weren’t thankful for the opportunity to live in a community of learning. You didn’t take advantage of your world of books, lectures, discussion, open professor’s doors, and late night conversation over pizza or coffee. You say, with admirable transparency, you were probably in your room watching porn while these things were happening. Now, you say, you’ve realized that walking across that graduation platform is almost certainly the last moment you will ever be in a season of life like that one, and your heart aches for the books you didn’t read, the papers you didn’t turn in, and the conversations you didn’t have.

Some of the shame you feel has to do with relationships. This is painful stuff. It’s absolutely wrenching to realize that some of the friends you shared memories with in sophomore year are no longer on speaking terms with you. You say you know it’s mostly your fault (though you are honest and humble enough to admit there were a lot of two-way streets). You were so consumed with yourself in those years that you hurt others and barely registered their pain.

And then some of the shame is just about the future. You don’t feel prepared. You don’t feel enriched for the last few years. You feel behind, almost as if you’re starting over from scratch. That GPA isn’t going to change, and employers and graduate school departments know it won’t. You told me that your mom and dad have offered to let you stay with them for a bit while you work out your next steps, but you say you’re too embarrassed to do that while many of your friends are moving across the world, or getting married, or starting med and law school.

I know this hurts. I know it does. You’re being honest, and that’s good. You know the truth about yourself. But you need to consider the whole truth, too.

The whole truth is that, at one point over the last few years, you say you came to Jesus. You say God broke you over your sin and you cried out to him, not just to save you from the power of the sins that enslaved you but from the justice that you felt in your soul you deserved. In that moment you saw God for who He really is: all-beautiful, all-loving, all-kind, all-powerful, all-just, all-compassionate, all-knowing. You saw God for the glorious One he is, and you knew in that moment that he was the source of all beauty, all kindness, all power, all compassion, and all knowledge. He was the sun that every beam that ever shone on your soul was looking for. You didn’t find him, but he found you. You knew you didn’t deserve it, but you knew he was giving it anyway. He offered his life in exchange for your death, his death in exchange for your shame.

And you took it.

I’ve got good news, my friend. There’s no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. You are new, and the old things have passed away. You were dead and have been raised back to life again. You are forgiven and free.

Here’s what this means:

-It means for you all the knowledge in the world starts not with your GPA but with Jesus Christ. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. You are no longer a student at college but you are barely a freshman in God’s wisdom. So, read. Talk. Listen. Get coffee at 8pm. Get dinner and talk about the movie. You aren’t in college anymore, but you are still learning. Wasting years in college does not mean you have wasted your mind forever, because (spoiler alert) college isn’t the end all, be all of education. God is giving you a richer portion in himself than you ever had in the classroom without Him. Take advantage of him. Pursue truth, beauty, and goodness.

-It means that no amount of pornographic images can withstand the red-hot beauty of Christ. You are not doomed to live forever with shameful memories. Your mind can and will be renewed day by day, and one glorious day soon the hands that built the Milky Way will touch your eyes and every wasted, selfish second will evaporate like water on a hot iron, never to be known again. Walk in the victory you’ve already experienced, because it really is victory. You are free indeed. Become what you are, invite others into your life to help keep you from sliding back into old habits.

-It means that your future is more secure now than it ever has been. I honestly don’t know what you’ll end up doing in life, but I know that God has pledged to work everything for your good. Don’t be ashamed to receive kindness from your Mom and Dad while you look for a more permanent situation. Don’t mooch off them, but don’t reject the healing power of family either. You are not a failure because you need people who love you. Don’t be enslaved to economics. Trust the Lord, work hard, show up on time, don’t talk yourself out of opportunities. If God can raise you from death to life, and if he can send your deepest shame to the bottom of the ocean, can’t he give you a career? Be so in awe of the love being shown to you that you forget to compare yourself to others. This can happen!

Friend, I hope this encourages you. I love seeing what Jesus is doing in your life. I know college isn’t what you hoped it would be, but I know the future is more already glorious than you could possibly hope it to be. You are loved, you are purchased, you are commissioned. You are alive.

Congratulations!