7 Thoughts From the News Cycle

I will probably elaborate on some of these points in future posts. For now, I offer 7 stray observations on the last few weeks of American culture:

1) American manhood is in crisis. Men in our society lack religious affiliation, communal bonds, and healthy role models. As far as I can tell, sports, mass media, and pornography are the most important influences on most American men.

2) Evangelicalism is wholly unprepared to speak to the sexual abuse epidemic. This is not mainly because of complementarianism or lack of prophetic voice on sexual ethics. It’s mainly because evangelical culture tends to ape American political culture.

3) American conservatism is probably unfixable. Once you’ve defended Roy Moore but excoriated Bill Clinton, you’ve crossed the Rubicon of integrity. Pro-life, religious public thought will have to come from a newer movement.

4) Social media’s echo chambers, outrage cycle, and shame mechanisms will have severe psychological consequences for millennials in the years to come.

5) What Russell Moore called the “Sexual revolution’s refugee crisis” is real, and it is filled with an astonishing number of broken, victimized women.

6) It turns out both Hollywood and the Bible Belt participate in the same moral hypocrisy. It’s almost as if the mere presence of church buildings does not bestow honor.

7) Politics is a god who demands the bloodiest sacrifices for the shortest, cheapest blessings.

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Could Jeff Hood Be Your Elder?

This is one of the most bizarre interviews you’ll read this year. It took me a couple readings to determine whether it was satire. The Amazon book attributed to the interviewee is real enough, so there goes that theory.

Now, one thing I’d like to gently rebuke my fellow evangelicals for is the tendency we have to grab low-hanging fruit and brag about it. Jeff Hood is obviously not orthodox by any stretch of the imagination. He’s not a Christian. What he articulates is (at best!) a mystical fertility religion that co-opts Christian jargon to express a pagan ontology. No reasonable person could read this interview and think that Jeff Hood is representative of any serious stream of American Christianity. He’s bonkers. So it would be a mistake to grab onto this interview as “evidence” of where liberal Protestantism ends up. That’s not true, for one thing, and secondly, it’s a cheap straw-man.

BUT. I do have a simple question for writers like Matthew Vines and Rachel Held Evans.

If he were otherwise qualified, would you vote for Jeff Hood to be an elder at your church?

If the answer is “no” (as I suspect it is), then I think we can have an unexpectedly intriguing conversation about where progressive evangelicalism draws its confessional boundaries. That’s a conversation worth having, because I think the tendency for progressive evangelicalism thus far has been to default to reactionary measures against conservative evangelicalism. There’s a lack of doctrinal cohesiveness to the movement, and some of that is, I suspect, by design. But Jeff Hood is not a hypothetical scenario. He’s a real guy with real theological convictions. And it would behoove those who argue, like Evans, Vines, and others do, for a radically more inclusive church orthodoxy, to explain why someone with Jeff Hood’s views wouldn’t be able to lead a local church.

Of course, if the answer is “yes,” then the takeaway is much less interesting. There’s low-hanging fruit, and then there’s fruit that’s just lying on the ground. Trampled fruit doesn’t necessarily need to be pointed out and screamed at. Just don’t be upset when Lifeway won’t sell it.

Hate Watching

I didn’t watch the Emmys last night (in fact, I didn’t know they were on). But the morning after Hollywood award shows is always an interesting time on Christian social media. One of the most reliable tropes in evangelical “cultural engagement” is the blog or Facebook post about how godless showbiz is, and how the torturous experience of watching its self-congratulatory, often suggestive award shows confirms how out of touch the elite are with the “real” people in this country.

Here’s my plea to Christians who enjoy this yearly routine:

Please stop.

Your intentions may be noble (though you’d do well to confirm that). But the only honest takeaway from your “worldview analysis” is that you should stop watching these shows. There’s no such thing as “hate watching,” for the same reason there’s no such thing as a “hate click.” Your tuning in may be morally neutral, but it is not economically neutral. You are supporting the industry by watching. If that bothers you, you have a moral obligation to not watch, and to not blog. You won’t be a lesser person for having missed the opportunity to get retweets engage culture. Just let it go.

One of the worst trends in evangelical culture is a tendency we have to watch or listen or attend something, because we actually sorta kinda like it (or maybe we wished we liked it), but then we feel bad for liking it, and so we unleash a payload of anathemas on blogs and social media as a way of doing penance. That’s not cultural engagement. It’s not even being a good writer. It’s just being dishonest to everyone, including yourself.

If you’re going to be in the audience, respond like someone who was in the audience, not someone who is morbidly offended at the existence of the audience. If you are morbidly offended, obey Paul and follow your conscience’s leading, and don’t watch. If you watch and feel guilty, repent privately, but don’t think your online outrage turns what was a personal lapse into a valuable moment of prophetic analysis. Watch football instead. Or go to bed.

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Racism and the Reformed Church

I would urge you this weekend to find, or make, 50 minutes to listen to Duke Kwon’s address on racism and the Christian church. Andrew Wilson flagged it on his blog and called it the best message he’s heard all year. That’s not hyperbole. This is a powerful, uncomfortable, thoroughly Christian sermon on the history of racism within the evangelical Reformed community, and what true repentance requires.

At one point in the message, pastor Kwon makes a point about the racial legacy of the evangelical church that I’m ashamed to say has never before occurred to me. Making the point that biblical restitution requires us to be honest about how sin has injured others, Kwon argues that the cumulative effect of complicity in racism excluded–for centuries–black Christians from the life of the church, and has thus resulted in a liturgy and ecclesiastical life that looks radically different because of such exclusion than it might otherwise look. Kwon focuses his comments on the PCA, his denominational home, but everything he says could easily–in fact, more easily–be applied to the Southern Baptist Convention, my home (which was literally created for the preservation of racism).

Here’s the full quote:

In 1969 the National Committee of Black Churchmen asserted that, historically, the Christian church has served as the ‘moral cement’ of the structure of racism in this nation, and that therefore, the church should share accountability for the problem of racism in America. And they were not wrong. Two hundred and fifty years of providing the moral grounds for slavery, 90 years of complicity with Jim Crow, 60 years of blessing separate-but-equal, even in her pews, the church bears more responsibility for the racist heritage of the United States than we would want to believe.

For now, however, my attention is focused on the church’s responsibility, not out there [in secular society] more broadly–that is an important conversation that we must have–but for the church’s responsibility for providing and repairing marginalizing and racist structures within the church.

Have you noticed that in the evangelical and Reformed church, we tend to act as if the dearth of African-Americans from our communion is a morally neutral, sociological phenomenon? In fact, much of the absence of black members can be traced back to the active and passive participation in anti black racism by white Christians. What I mean is this. Evangelical and especially Reformed worship traditions aren’t alienating to black Christians and other Christians of color only because of mere differences or preferences of cultural perspective; they are alienating, in part, because of the racist legacy that not only kept them out of the pews, but also excluded them from the generation after generation development of liturgical life, community life, and confessional theology. The Presbyterian church is weak in addressing the core concerns of the black community because the Presbyterian church literally WAS one of the core concerns of the black community.

Let me say this again. The weekly discomfort that many of you feel, the weekly discomfort that an African-American feels in a mostly white PCA church, is not only the product of present cultural differences. That discomfort is also the byproduct of past immoral exercises of social and ecclesiastical power. We need to reckon with that.

Let this quote sink into your soul. And then, ask yourself: What would a Christian, confessional church culture that was never complicit in racism and hatred look like today? It’s difficult to even visualize, isn’t it?

That, friends, should make us weep with repentance.

Why I Gave Up Being a Movie Critic

At one time in my life I had very serious aspirations to sit for hours at a time in a movie theater, watch films, write about them, and make money (or at least, break even!). I no longer have those desires. I still love movies, and am rarely happier than in a cinema. And I will still write about film on occasion. But those desires–to see dozens, maybe even hundreds of films, and to swim in the narrative world and craft of movies–have all but evaporated.

Reading Kyle Smith’s commentary on the Jennifer Lawrence horror pic Mother reminded me of this. I’m not saying reading one critic’s take on a film is always sufficient to form an opinion, nor am I sure I’d have the same takeaways that Kyle had. But here’s the thing: Even if Kyle’s column is mostly true…actually, even if its partially true, I don’t want any part of Mother. I don’t want to watch it and I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want its story and its form to be part of my life. And I wouldn’t want that even if someone were offering me money to watch it and critique it.

I find myself feeling this way about a lot of movies nowadays. There are lots of good movies out there, more than most people realize. But there is also a lot to wade through to get to them. A critic’s job is to wade. I no longer believe I can or would even want to do that. A truly trustworthy critic must often stifle his strongest reactions to a movie in order to become a fair observer. He must also be willing to encounter films like Mother. Whether because of parenthood, or because of my own emotional fragility, or because I find myself desperate nowadays for any semblance of hope from pop culture, I just can’t do that anymore.

I don’t want what Kyle describes in his review to become “normal” for me. I don’t want to lose my gag reflex over films just because, having seen so many, my categories have all been defined down. I’m glad Kyle is a critic and I’m glad he wrote what he wrote. Who knows? He may have saved me a couple hours of my life I would have been desperate to have back. I’m thankful for him. But I know that for me, I cannot imagine ever delighting in a medium enough to be glad I stayed and watched a film like Mother. Critics should be able do that. I’m not. That’s why I’m not a critic, and why I’ll probably never be.

Tweet-less

Since deactivating my Twitter account two weeks ago, the following reflections have come to me:

  1. If there were any question before that my relationship with Twitter was addictive, now that it’s gone, I have zero doubt. It seems to me that sometimes you can’t tell how hooked you are until you’re off the hook.
  2. I had a truly comforting thought a few days ago: Right now, there’s someone on Twitter saying wrong things, and I can’t see it or respond to it. There’s a genuine peace right there.
  3. I’m emailing individuals more, since I can’t Tweet them. It feels warmer and more personal to me, especially to email someone I haven’t met, just to tell them I appreciate their work or a note of encouragement. I know that technically speaking an email is just as ephemeral as a Tweet, but for some reason, it doesn’t feel that way.
  4. I’ve felt more compelled to write and more able to do so in twitter’s absence. In fact, I recently wrote a piece for TGC that I consider the best thing I’ve ever sent to them–owing partly, I suspect, to mental channels that aren’t nearly as clogged with minutiae.
  5. Not being able to Tweet out my blogs is a bummer. It’s exposed the conflict in me between the writer and the publicist, the person who wants to write from the soul and the person who wants to write so other people will tell me I’m a good writer. Like I said in point #1, I don’t know how aware of this I would be if I still had Twitter. For that reason alone, I think deactivating was a good move.

No Divination Against Israel

When Balak the king of Moab sees the victory of the Israelites against the Amorites, he calls for one of his oracles, Balaam (Numbers 22-24). “Curse this people for me, ” he says, “since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed and he whom you curse is cursed.” Balak offers Balaam an alluring reward: “Whatever you say to me I will do.” The king has offered the authority of the crown. There is no greater bribe. Surely Balaam will acquiesce and curse Moab’s enemy.

But there’s a problem:

“From Aram Balak has brought me, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains. ‘Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel!’ How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the Lord has not denounced?”

Furious at Balaam’s blessing of Israel, Balak invites him a second time to call down a spiritual curse. But it won’t work. It can’t work. Not because Balaam is too faithful, not because Israel is too righteous (more on that in a second). It’s because there simply is no curse to call down:

“He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob, nor has he seen trouble in Israel. The Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them…For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel.”

There is no enchantment, no divination, no curse for Balaam to bring down. It’s not just that the weapon has no ammo. It’s that there’s no weapon there at all. There is no spiritual power of the air that can thwart the granting of the promised land to Abraham’s seed.

C.S. Lewis said there were two mistakes that Christians could make in their thinking about demons and spiritual powers. One was to disbelieve in them, to ignore them. The other mistake was to take an obsessive  interest in them. Both are harmful. But if I’m guessing, I’d say that for most readers of this blog, gravitational pull is toward the first more than the second. There’s a tendency for Western Christians, and especially us Reformed types, to talk and think and pray and preach as if there are no spiritual forces at work in the world–as if the sum total of what we mean by spiritual warfare is our Bible reading and prayer time pitted against our temptations.

That’s not the worldview of the Bible. Scripture plainly teaches there are invisible, spiritual forces at work right now. There are realities that transcend the physical and powers that we cannot hear or see. This episode in Numbers is not given to us 21st century readers by the Holy Spirit in order that we can laugh at how primitive pagan kings were. The Bible treats this narrative with soberness; a spiritual curse is a real thing, and Balak is not a fool for asking for one for his enemy.

But what Balak doesn’t understand is that there is no spiritual curse to call down on God’s covenant people. There is no demonic force or metaphysical malice that can arm wrestle God and win a round. “For there is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel.” God’s people were united around God’s presence (Ex. 40:34-38), and in God’s presence all other spiritual strongholds are subdued.

This doesn’t mean that no harm can befall God’s people. God can discipline his sons and daughters, and suffering doesn’t take Him off guard (Joseph: “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”). But it does mean that even when the Ark of the Covenant is captured, the idols of the nations must bow before it (1 Sam. 5:3). Dagon kneels before the King of the cosmos, who will bring His people, adopted into His beloved Son, into their inheritance. There is no divination against Israel.

A Modesty Proposal

Here’s how to end once and for all the evangelical “modesty war”

  1. Get the Right side of the debate to admit that women aren’t inherent stumbling blocks and that sexual purity is not the greatest good.
  2. In response, the Left side of the debate acknowledges that the Bible has the right to command how we use our bodies, and that it actually does do this.

Voila. This would be a bad bargain for the evangelical blog industry, but a great one for the church.

Does Conservative Theology Empower Abuse?

Here are three things that I believe are true and that are important for honest people to admit:

  1. It is a moral travesty when religious people or organizations use their beliefs, influence, or infrastructure to hurt, control, or manipulate other people.
  2. Theologically conservative organizations have been guilty of doing this, many times, often with disastrous, multi-generational consequences.
  3. For people who believe in things like inerrancy, the exclusivity of Christ, and the necessity of the local church, the costs of using the faith in this sinful, abusive way are exponentially higher, and thus, it is a greater tragedy when it is those people who engage in it.

All these points are, I believe, completely true. You won’t find me denying any of them. As someone who was raised in theologically conservative evangelicalism, I don’t think there’s any question that all three points are correct, and further, that theologically conservative evangelicals like me should be in the business of confessing them and working accordingly.

But here’s something I’ve noticed. I’ve noticed that, for what feels like a growing number of younger professing Christians (whether they use the word evangelical or not), there seems to be a 4th statement that holds a lot of weight with them. You could put it something like this:

4. Because theologically conservative institutions and people have been guilty of this abuse, it follows that theologically conservative doctrine empowers and facilitates such abuse.

I completely reject this statement for many reasons, most of which would probably be easy to guess for readers of this blog. But what’s interesting to me is that this 4th statement is, for a lot of young religion writers, so self-evident and so important to their worldview that to deny it amounts to nothing less than an instinctive valuing of theology and ideas over human beings at best, and at worst, an ambition to likewise abuse, control, or manipulate others with our religion. Arguing with this 4th statement is almost always construed to be really arguing with the first 3. The only reason (they say) that someone would dispute statement 4 is because they’re really living in denial of statements 1-3. Either you don’t really believe that theologically conservative churches or institutions have hurt others (in which case, you’re simply in denial of reality), or else you don’t believe that such hurting actually matters.

There’s a lot going on here in this dynamic. Part of it is understandable. If you’ve been hurt by theologically conservative churches or people, it’s not hard for a reasonable person to understand why the theology you encountered in those settings might seem endemic to what you suffered. But is that the only reason this dynamic endures? I don’t think so. I think something else is happening as well, and it’s something rooted not in authentic experience, but in an ideology-driven, nakedly political equivalence.

Here’s a strong example of what I’m talking about:

https://twitter.com/d_l_mayfield/status/877246876340199424

If you read through the thread for the context, you’ll discover that what’s being talked about is a missionary who abused children, and was (allegedly) protected from exposure by people and institutions connected to his mission. Mayfield’s “main” takeaway from the story is that fundamentalism–by which she means the conservative theology of both the missionary and the people who protected him–is inherently abusive. The implication is that if the missionary or the institutions over him weren’t fundamentalist, if they weren’t all aligned together on a particular side of the doctrinal scales, such a cover up would either have not happened or else not happened to the extent that it did.

Mayfield is hardly the only representative of this belief. Almost anytime there is a scandal involving theologically conservative evangelicals, a reliable group of voices tend to make the same point, either explicitly naming Calvinism, or fundamentalism, or complementarianism, etc etc. The message is always the same: These incidents happen because people are victimized by traditionalist theologies or churches.

What’s going on here? After all, the notion seems logically faulty on its face. The Roman Catholic Church is hardly a bastion of “fundamentalism,” yet it endured one of the most widespread abuse scandals in modern history. The vast majority of abuse cover-ups do not occur within the context of any religious community, and the common factors shared by such scandals are almost always more related to power structures and financial control than to worldview. You have to assume that progressive evangelicals like Mayfield who lay such harm at the feet of fundamentalism know this. So why make the connection at all?

One theory: Attributing endemic abusiveness to theology is a handy way of avoiding doctrinal arguments, and of marginalizing theological opponents.

After all, if fundamentalism empowers and enables abuse, if it’s the theology of choice for those who want to coerce and harm others, why on earth would you need to spend time figuring out if the Bible really says what the fundies claim it says? Why waste precious seconds thinking about what’s true when you can know for certain that those who believe opposite of you do so for nefarious, ulterior motives?

This is precisely what I mean when I talk of things like “polarization.” The essential characterizing of polarization is not that people disagree with each other. It’s that they use such disagreement as the grounds for attributing the worst possible motivations to those on the other side. You don’t need to be told how often this happens in politics. But it happens a lot in theology as well, and especially in a culture that increasingly prioritizes personal narrative and “my story” as the only authoritative touchstones for knowledge and truth.

Engaging both Scripture and the world honestly means allowing for two things. First, all human beings are sinful and, apart from preventative grace and normal means of restraint, all of us tend to seek our own good at the expense of others. This is a Christian doctrine, not a challenge to it. The idea that people in our theological, political, or social tribes are somehow less prone to this tendency, or the idea that those outside our tribes are more prone or are somehow inevitably given to it, are both heretical ideas. There is no hint in Scripture that people who know the truth are automatically more holy because of it. In fact, Jesus taught something close to the opposite.

But a second thing is also true. Objective truth is real, and human beings who behave wretchedly are not automatically wrong about everything they believe because of it. “The people who believe this hurt me” is not, in fact, an actual evidence against an idea. It’s only evidence against a person. We all live beneath our  best ideals, and this fact does not actually mean our ideals are false. This is why “fundamentalism empowers abuse” is not only wrong, but deeply deceptive. It implies that a theology’s truth claims are irrelevant compared to how its practitioners behave. It’s true that the world knows we are Christ’s because of our love, but that doesn’t mean the world will know who Christ is because of it. There are realities above and beyond our daily obedience of them.

Again, the three statements I laid out at the beginning are totally true, and I believe them. We have to humbly accept our own failures, and those of our tribe. But statement #4, while increasingly popular in a “post-evangelical” age, is not honest thinking. It may engender a lot of empathy in a narrative-oriented age, but its fruit is merely polarization and shoddy thinking.

My Father’s Best Gift

My father’s best gift to me was his obscurity. In the 20+ years in which he pastored churches and his children grew up, he never published anything other than a newsletter article, spoke anywhere other than a church pulpit, or was known by anyone other than those who had met him or us. Whatever the opposite of a “celebrity pastor” is, that’s what Dad was in those years. And it was the best thing that could have ever happened to a son.

I was a man when I first encountered the pressure that is on ministers to create something for people to remember them by. And in my life I’ve known some sons of pastors and ministers who did indeed have large platforms, impressive CV’s, and the like. I’ve known some children of these “celebrity” ministers. Of all these children I’ve known and talked to, not one of them expressed gratitude for their father’s celebrity. Most of them loved and admired their dads, yes. Most of them weren’t bitter and resentful (with some exceptions). But none of them actually said they were glad their dads were as famous and accomplished as they were. In fact, most of them who still tender-hearted toward their fathers and faithful to the gospel intimated that it was despite their fathers’ successes, not because of it.

Don’t read some imprecatory analysis into this. I write only what I’ve seen. For this pastor’s son, coming to grips with my own Dad’s struggles in the ministry has not always been easy. There’s been temptation to blame hard seasons of life on him, or on the church, or on God, or on myself. Obscurity is not an elixir. Life is hard and painful and mysterious no matter how many people know your name. The problem of suffering is history’s great equalizer.

But I do know that my Dad’s obscurity has taught me something I’m not sure I would have learned otherwise. It’s taught me that what most people, even Christians, mean by “success” is perilous. Success for the celebrity pastor might mean failures for the celebrity pastor’s son. Failures for the struggling yet faithful minister might mean success for the son. My own life might have even to this point looked very different if Dad had valued his own success the way some of the books and conferences wanted him to. But he didn’t. And now, in his 60s, with no book contracts to his name and none on the horizon, with no legacy of expertise to leave behind for strangers, the whole of my Dad’s faithfulness is known only to the objects of it: His savior, his wife, his children, his flocks.

I cherish my father’s obscurity. In the moments I find myself not aspiring to it, I aspire that I would.