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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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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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.

Would You Leave Your Church Over Politics?

Question: Would you, Christian, ever be so disappointed in the political views of your pastor or fellow church members, that you found yourself unable to even bear going to church anymore?

To be totally honest, before today, I would have dismissed this theoretical as too ridiculous for serious contemplation. It seems to me self-evident that the kind of people most likely to regularly attend church are not the same kind of people who would just decide to stop going over an election. That feels intuitive to me. I don’t believe I’ve ever met a person who admitted to abandoning their church over red vs blue.

I did however see this Twitter comment today.

Now of course, the problem with writing in response to posts on social media (and the reason I usually don’t do it and tend to look down at the practice) is that Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et al, exist in uniquely strong cultural vacuums. I’m sure the author of this tweet is telling the truth about hearing from all those people who’ve quit church since Donald Trump was elected. But I’m also sure that the people she has heard from do not represent any kind of serious movement or trend. When something written about a handful of people gets a lot of shares on social media, it’s easy to mistake something that merely reverberated in your particular slice of Twitter for something with actual consequence and meaning outside the internet.

Here’s the thing though: I do worry that the notion of leaving your church over political disagreements is one that can sell easier right now than it could have 20 years ago. In fact, if you’re paying attention to what’s going on inside college campuses, for example, finding out that there are some Christians who can’t bear to attend church because of who the President is shouldn’t stun you. It bears the stamp of the hyper-polarized, relationally recalcitrant age we live in.

Not only that, but it also seems to comport with a trendy spirit toward the institutional church, particular amongst younger religious Americans coming out of a conservative Christian childhood. It’s a spirit I’ve written about before in regards to the “purity culture” debates. The fastest way to get hip young evangelicals to heap praise on your blog is to write about how dangerous and worthy of suspicion the local church is, and to insist, contra the backward-minded (and probably Trump-voting) fogies, that if a church ever betrays your trust or makes you feel unhappy, you should leave–that church at least, and possibly faith itself (if doing so helps you get your groove back).

If you know this kind of culture within evangelicalism, then it’s hard to read about adults who can’t attend church post-election 2016 with much empathy. And that’s not a good thing, because there is something prophetic to be said about the way some church leaders and ministries turned their backs on their own theological identity in order to sell their politics. It’s good that people are grieved over that.

The problem though is that this response to sin and failure within the Body of Christ is simply trafficking in one kind of consumerism in response to another. Yes, many Christians do not have a consistently Christian politic. Yes, there are hypocrites in the church, some of them leaders. Yes, there is much to be ashamed. Yes, yes, yes. But none of this should be a surprise, and none of it is a caveat to the importance of the church. To stand over and above your brothers and sisters in the faith and say, “Your political sins disqualify you from my presence,” is to turn the entire gospel of the church on its head. It’s an intensely therapeutic and self-oriented relationship to the Christian faith.

It’s also giving politics way too much credit. The failure of many of us evangelicals has been to let politics subsume our Christian theology and identity. We’ve been “Christian conservatives” instead of conservative Christians. But that failure won’t be remedied by merely allowing our faith to be subsumed by a more progressive or more contemporary politic. Christians who cannot allow themselves to be in the same church as those who hold opposing political beliefs are, whether consciously or not, looking for a religious faith that is ultimately subservient to their politics.

One of the glorious benefits of Christian church membership is the opportunity it gives us to be shaped and formed, with others, by truths and practices that we did not create and that we cannot co-opt. And this process begins immediately in the local gathering of the church. When you find yourself worshiping and praying and confessing and hearing and singing alongside those who in any other walk of life would be an utter stranger to you, you are experiencing not just more inclusive relationships, you are experiencing spiritual realities that transcend even human relationships. When the bodies that share your pew but not your politics recite the same covenants or the same creeds as you, the idea that we are all the sum total of our own ideas explodes.

But all this is lost in a religious culture that understands church and spiritual disciplines as just more possibilities for self-actualization. The idea that a stodgy institution, filled with hypocrites and culturally illiterate patriarchs, actually deserves a self-crucifying kind of loyalty is not one that you’ll find in the pages of bestsellers. In the age of merciless autonomy, life can and should be blown up and traded-in for whatever works today. Eat, pray, love–what, to whom, and with whom you want! Spiritualized versions of this, even if accompanied with harrowing first person narratives of the horrors of old time religion, are no better in the end.

Evangelicalism could use better politics. But first, it needs members. It doesn’t matter how well we know the social justice implications of the kingdom if what we mean by the “kingdom” is merely the sum total of our individualistic lives. The church is imperfect, not despite me and you, but precisely because of me and you. Keep that in mind the next time you think of politics and feel tempted to skip Sunday.

Does Sex Make Movies “Authentic”?

I have a quick word on this take on movies and culture from Freddie deBoer. I agree with 99% of what he says, and have tried at various times to make the point he makes. But I do have one issue with his thinking, and that is his notion that a film without sex is hollow and inauthentic. I think the equivocation of sexuality with authenticity in movies is actually a terrible idea that is ironically responsible for some of the dysfunctions in Hollywood that Freddie picks up on.

Freddie is hardly alone in supposing that sexlessness means inauthentic. Most respected film critics would agree, and most successful film studios seem to as well; for a long time there’s been a disproportionate amount of sexuality in Oscar-contenders, compared to the high grossing blockbusters. Sexuality means seriousness, so goes the thinking.

I see immediately 4 problems with this idea:

1) Healthy people usually devote a comparatively small amount of their life to their sexuality. The idea that a film without sexual activity is “inauthentic” should trigger the response, “Inauthentic to what?” 

One of the major realizations of adulthood is that what Hollywood and pop culture think of as “sex” doesn’t really exist. If you go into marriage expecting that part of your life to look like the hot and steamy stuff you’ve seen onscreen, you will be incredibly disappointed, and such disappointment can indeed threaten relationships. Cinematic sexuality is not authentic to begin with. It’s not really designed to be. It’s designed to be sexy: titillating, exciting, and perhaps more than a little addicting.

I’m reminded here of the stories about the lead actors of “50 Shades of Grey” and their offscreen awkwardness, frustrations and even hostility. There’s something about the exploitation of sexuality for public enthrallment (read: money) that actually undermines the healthier sexual impulses of real people. In much pop culture, sex is the center of existence for everyone. In real life, sex is only the center of existence for desperate, sad, lonely people.

2) Most of the movies that spend a lot of time “exploring” sexual issues are gross-out comedies, not profound artistic pieces. 

Admittedly, this point may not have been true 30 years ago, but I think it’s true now. Equivocating sexuality to authenticity may sound good in theory, but if you look to sexualized films for existential meaning and aesthetic weight, you’re going to be frustrated. The overwhelming majority of films most fixated on sexual themes turn those themes into set ups and punchlines. If there’s anything meaningful to say, it almost always comes in the form of a half-baked, whimsical moral in the conclusion, usually about the very cliches that Freddie talks about (“Everyone is special,” “You shouldn’t be mean to people,” etc etc).

3) If truly authentic films depict sexuality, most of the greatest movies of all time are at least somewhat inauthentic. 

Citizen Kane, The Godfather Part II, Vertigo, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lawrence of Arabia, The Sound of Music–all these films would, by this standard, be inauthentic. Obviously that’s not a position anyone would want to seriously take. But flip the equation around. Accepting that these are indeed existentially “authentic” films, what makes them authentic, in the absence of overt sexual themes or scenes? It’s an odd question, because the answer really is: Well, everything! We don’t doubt the profundity of these stories. It’s self-evident. The fact that these movies are “sexless” doesn’t at all mitigate their effect on the imagination, precisely because an emotionally healthy audience doesn’t look for authenticity merely in sexuality.

It would be a strange person indeed who came away from It’s a Wonderful Life frustrated that the film didn’t really probe into the images and inflections of George Bailey’s bedroom. Most people would agree that such a response would be not only wrong, but troubling. The very modern, very Freudian, and also very market-driven notion that all humans are walking around obsessed with sex is merely a projection of our culture’s anxiousness to justify itself.

4) Perhaps it is not the superhero movies that are remarkably sexless. Perhaps its the recent corpus of Hollywood that is remarkably sex-obsessed.

My theory is that audiences flock to superhero films not because such experiences are blissfully sexless but because they are, however inconsequential, 120-minute reminders that courage and intelligence and goodness are real things, not just euphemisms. Perhaps the Avengers and Star Wars are refreshing breaths in the digital age that has monetized sexual addiction and dysfunction more aggressively than any other generation in human history. Perhaps “sexless” stories are not sexless after all, but are actually stories that speak to our sexuality by pointing us to life beyond passion and pleasure. Perhaps, at the end of the day, pop culture’s lack of authenticity is traceable to its insistence on a hedonistic, flawless, pregnancy-free existence.

Perhaps.

Michael Novak & Me

Michael Novak passed away today. I owe this remarkable Catholic intellectual a debt of gratitude, because his lecture “Awakening From Nihilism” was crucially formative for me. At the First Things blog, I’ve written a brief reflection on Novak’s insights and why they are so relevant right now.

Here’s an except from the blog:

What I found in “Awakening From Nihilism” was (at last) a coherent, fully-formed case for truth. In my evangelical education, every teacher I learned from cared about and loved truth, but few could explain why truth mattered to freedom. My evangelical teachers stressed, rightly, that without regard for the truth, Christ and his kingdom were inaccessible. But for many of my peers, the pursuit of truth was—and is—diametrically opposed to the pursuit of freedom. “Truth” is often received as a frozen, cerebral word; “love,” “justice,” and “authenticity,” by contrast, are the words of the artist and humanist. Even those in my life who knew that truth mattered seemed resigned to this mentality, appealing to truth over and against freedom in the name of religious obligation, not human flourishing.

In his lecture, Michael Novak destroyed this false dichotomy.

Read the whole piece here.

A (Very) Brief Word About the Education Debate

For the last two weeks my social media feeds have burst with punditry on Betsy DeVos. Probably the majority of my feed think her appointment as Secretary of Education is a mistake. The rest wonder aloud when it was that so many people suddenly became education policy wonks overnight. As the conversation around DeVos has continued, however, it seems to have expanded into a more theoretical debate over the merits of public schools, the wisdom of school choice programs, and, least interestingly, Why This Writer’s Personal Narrative Proves Your Political Opinion Is Wrong.

Truthfully, I don’t have a horse in the DeVos debate. I don’t know much about her or the Department she now leads, and I don’t care enough about either topic to learn more. I do though have something more of a perspective on the public school-school choice subjects. Here’s a bullet point summary of what I think:

  • What a person believes about public education in this country is shaped largely by their own personal experience and the experiences of those close to them. That’s OK. It’s OK to have your opinion formed by experience. As far as I’m concerned with education, results matter more than ideology. The effects the rules have on people is absolutely part of the conversation.
  • That being said, a person’s personal experience is personal, which means it describes what happened to them and not necessarily what happens/has happened/will happen to others. Being able to draw knowledge and perspective from one’s own experience without making that experience the sole basis of how one understands the world is a mark of intellectual maturity. Intellectual maturity, alas, is not social media’s strong point.
  • Those who have a more sympathetic perspective toward American public schools should not behave as if public education is really ever on the line here. Public schools will never disappear from this country. No serious person wants that to happen or is working toward it. Construing criticism of the current system as a wholesale assault on the ideal of public education is hysteria, not serious thinking.
  • It seems to me that those who resist school choice programs often misunderstand where the other side is coming from. I’ve seen a lot of friends on social media belittle homeschooling and private schooling families for “white flight,” for not caring about poorer students or inner city students. What I haven’t seen yet is an honest explanation from an anti-school choice evangelical of why Christian families who send their children to public school should not be concerned about the upcoming Supreme Court case concerning school bathrooms and transgendered students. What I haven’t seen yet is a validation of the concerns many parents have about gender ideology in the classroom, or about the dissemination of pornography in school halls. What I haven’t seen yet, in other words, is an evangelical critic of school choice who takes seriously the mistrust that many Christians have toward the public school system. I have to conclude that either A) these evangelicals don’t know how seriously many of their fellow believers take these issues, or B) these evangelicals do know how seriously they take them, but don’t agree that they should take them seriously. Either way, the lack of understanding from school choice critics that I’m seeing is disheartening.