Surviving Our Humanity

Bird Box, just recently released on Netflix, bears an obvious resemblance to John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place. The latter is a superior movie in almost every way, but that’s not my point. My point is that Bird Box and A Quiet Place are strikingly similar in how they ask the audience to consider how much less human we’re willing to become in order to survive. Each film is a horror-parable about our own humanity’s being weaponized against us.

“A Quiet Place”

In A Quiet Place, apocalyptic monsters have taken over and almost invariably kill whoever and whatever speaks above a whisper. In Bird Box, the same idea is turned to a different sense: Sight. Unseen monsters put whoever glimpses them, even for a second, into a lethal trance that ends in suicide. Thus, the heroes of both tales have to live without a part of their normal human functions: Sandra Bullock and her two children are blindfolded even while boating in rapids, and the family in A Quiet Place verbalizes nothing above ground. Human beings are threatened by the very things that make them human. The monsters are of course the problem, but they are quasi-omnipotent; they’re not going away. The real enemies are sight and speech.

I can’t help but wonder if these stories are connecting with audiences at a spiritual level. Might we think of many of the problems of contemporary life as a felt conflict between human flourishing and human nature? Take consumerism. Consuming is a natural human impulse, yet isn’t there a palpable sense right now that our consuming nature is at odds with our desire for meaning and transcendence? Or consider the setting of A Quiet Place, a world in which it is dangerous to speak. Ours is the age of near endless speech, amplified by mobile technologies that allow us to live intellectual and emotional lives out of our phones. Amazingly, this technology has been most efficiently leveraged to make us depressed, insecure, outraged, distracted, and lonely. Perhaps A Quiet Place resonates as a horror film because its premise is actually true for us right now—our sounds invite the monsters.

A similar idea emerges in Bird Box. I was disappointed the movie’s screenplay didn’t explore a bit more the monsters and their power. For example, most of the people who see the monsters immediately commit (or try to commit) suicide. But there a few who instead of killing themselves become quasi-evangelists for the monsters. They violently try to force blindfolded survivors into looking, chanting stuff like “It’s beautiful” and “You must see.” What’s the reason for the difference between the suicidal and the possessed? Regrettably the movie never comes close to saying. It’s fascinating though to consider Bird Box‘s theme of becoming what we are beholding through the lens of the monsters’ creating both victims and victimizers. Those who look at the monsters and live only do so because they are actually dead on the inside. They survive the monsters by becoming the monsters. That’s a pretty potent metaphor for the era of “call out culture” and strong man politics, not to mention the modern shipwrecking of the sexual revolution that is #MeToo.

In both movies, death comes through the body itself, through the senses. This is a provocative way to think about what Lewis famously dubbed the “abolition of man.” Lewis’s essay warned that the death of binding moral transcendence and the subjugation of nature would not liberate mankind, but merely re-enslave it to itself. “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out,” Lewis wrote, “in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.” This is the world depicted by both A Quiet Place and Bird Box, a world in which nature, especially human nature, has been weaponized against us. In both films people must find ways to live below their own full humanity, because it is the expression of their full humanity that brings violence.

To me, this is a stirring poetic summarizing how divided we feel from ourselves in a secular age. The indulgence of our nature in the affluent postwar glow of the latter 20th century failed to slake our thirst for righteousness. Now, slowly awakening from nihilism, we find our own humanity turned against us, especially through technology’s power to shape the mind. To look at modern life, in its pornographic despair, kills the soul, and to speak above a whisper invites the demons of doubt and shame.

It’s interesting to me how both films center on kids. Each story’s drama mostly concerns whether the adults will be able to save their children. Why is this? Perhaps it’s because children are a common literary stand-in for renewal of innocence. But also, perhaps it’s because one of the few motivations left in a world of living beneath one’s humanity is to protect those whom we hope may not have to do so. Perhaps it’s also because such a world inevitably slouches toward new life, one of the final touchstones of grace in a disenchanted world. I sometimes wonder whether protecting children is the closest an unrepentant mind can come to true faith, as if to say, “I cannot become like a child, but I will preserve those who still can.”

 

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Loving Truth in a Narrative Age

No hashtag—and no Supreme Court seat—is worth ignoring the truth

Have you ever heard the old chestnut about the difference between truth and wisdom? It goes roughly like this: Truth is the right path, or the correct knowledge, or the good choice. It is real, but it is, in a sense, just lying there. That something is true does not mean you will automatically believe it or act on it. Wisdom, then, is the bridge between seeing the truth and making decisions that accord with it. Truth stands, and wisdom walks.

So then, we could also say something like this: Truth is the objective reality, and narrative is the idea that is weaved from the assembling of various truths. When truths collide with each other, they behave like molecules. They build something bigger than their individual selves. A narrative is a perception of reality that transcends the individual statements that prop it up. If you discover that two of your favorite businesses are closing, you may tell a friend something like, “Businesses don’t survive in this town.” The closings are reality, but the fact that your hometown is hard on businesses is a narrative.

Narratives are helpful. Without them we wouldn’t be able to put truths together into a coherent whole. And often, major positive change is brought about by someone who courageously forms a narrative out of many truths and helps other people see what they’ve been missing. But here’s an important point: Narratives are not always the same as the truths themselves. A narrative is, in fact, downstream from a worldview, a consequence of interpretation. Narratives are often shaped by someone’s experience, or presuppositions, or fears. This means that one of the most important things that thinking people, especially Christians, must do is to learn how to separate truths from narratives…not for the sake of throwing out any and all narratives, but for the sake of training ourselves to love truth regardless of the narratives that can be formed around it.

In a mass media culture like ours, truth-lovers are not nearly as popular as narrative-creators. We refer to our society as polarized—polarized by politics, religion, gender, race, class, etc. This polarization is in large part due to narratives that we construct for ourselves about the world. Polarization is what happens when our narratives about others, particularly those who are different than us, dictate our behavior. We are polarized politically when we de-friend someone because of their views, choosing to construct a narrative that says that people with these kinds of views are dishonest or dangerous. We are polarized racially when we avoid uncomfortable videos of American citizens being harassed or shot by law enforcement, due to our preexisting narrative that says that the police will only bother someone if they’re really breaking the law. And we are polarized by gender when men and women turn on one another, building narratives that either justify sexual mistreatment or presuppose its existence regardless of evidence.

Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, and the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse when he was 17, have exposed some deeply depressing hostility between our political sides, and also between men and women. Whether Kavanaugh is guilty of what Christine Blasey Ford accuses him of is unknowable for 99% of us. But un-knowability does not preclude building a narrative; in fact, narratives often thrive on the impossibility of confident knowledge. What I’ve seen in the past several weeks is a deep, emotional, and possibly destructive contrast in narratives between those who believe that Ford’s story is a watershed moment in a #MeToo reckoning, and those who believe that truth is being deliberately obscured for the sake of political advantage. The two narratives are incompatible and enemies of one another, even as the best evidence points toward the truth’s being far more complex than that.

What is happening is not that two groups on opposite sides of a cultural divide are wielding contrasting facts and arguments, and coming through reason and contemplation to two different verdicts. No. What’s happening is that two groups are unloading both of their narratives onto the other, and clinging desperately to notions about what must have happened, or what politicians always do, or how much this sounds like other cases. One narrative sees the world through a highly gendered lens in which men, especially privileged men, are instinctively predatory. The other narrative sees the world as controlled by gnawing politicians, who orchestrate far-reaching conspiracies to hold onto power and inflict their ideology onto the helpless masses.

Both narratives are informed by truth: Men can and do prey on women, and politicians can and do lie. Both narratives are buffered by experiences, the experiences of victimized women and slandered men. Most importantly, both narratives land squarely on two of the tenderest wounds in our national conscience. The Sexual Revolution has been ruthlessly cruel to women and the conservative Christian response has frequently failed to come to their aid. On the flip side, our national politics have arguably never been more cynical, more myopic, or more hostile to reason and good faith. Despair beckons, and its call is attractive.

But good news people—”evangelicals”—cannot give into despair, because despair does not accord with truth. Loving the truth in a narrative age requires cultivating habits that resist the “speak now, think later” spirit of the day. There are good books on how to do just this. But before we come to the skills, we have to remember why it is that Christians have to gravitate to truth before narrative. Narratives are formed by fallen humans trying to interpret life from a limited angle. Even narratives shaped by deep, real trauma are nonetheless liable to go wrong, because it is human nature to take something real and try to make it do something it cannot do. We cannot be known as narrative-first people, who traffic in mantras and slogans and hashtags and conspiracy theories at the expense of truth.

Whether Brett Kavanaugh assaulted Christine Ford I do not know. Here’s what I do know: Men are sinners, and they sin against women, and they sin against women sexually. I also know that not every man has sexually abused a woman, and that not every accusation of sexual assault is true simply because it was made. I also know that drunkenness is a sin and that drunken people do indefensible things. I also know that “innocent until proven guilty” is a standard rooted in God’s law, and that an instinct to protect from allegations until evidence is presented is a good instinct that can protect poor and vulnerable people just as much as it can protect the privileged.

These are the truths I know. They do not build a tidy narrative. But I’m a gospel person, and thus I am a truth-seeking person first and foremost. No hashtag and no Supreme Court seat is worth ignoring the truth, because neither of those things can finally set us free.

The Spiritual Grace of Fandom

What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness.

You can learn something important in front of a TV on a balmy Sunday afternoon in late October. You can learn about the value of leadership as a veteran quarterback calmly and surgically leads his team to overcome a deficit in the fourth quarter. If you see a silly penalty completely change a game, you might learn what Rudyard Kipling knew, that victory usually begins with “keeping your head when all about you / are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” You may reflect on the dangers of arrogance as a haughty celebration gives way minutes later to a devastating injury, or on the beauty of the perseverance of an undrafted, un-heralded player who dazzles. Football, often scorned by its cosmopolitan cultured despisers, has much to say if we will listen.

“Lessons,” though, are not the primary reason to be a fan of sports. Viewing a football game as a microcosm of cooperation and personal virtue is helpful, but it’s a bit like opening the Bible and never reading anything but Proverbs. The truth is that fandom has a spiritual value all its own. Watching sports for the pleasure of the contest, and even more, investing oneself emotionally in the triumphs and defeats of a particular team, is a valuable moral discipline.

Sports fandom is rarely talked about positively, and for reason. Like we do so many other things, Americans often worship sports. Sport is a seductive idol, not least because its competitive nature offers an intoxicating short hand for measuring one’s self-worth. We tend to accept radical and unhealthy commitment to sports in a way we don’t accept for hobbies, relationships, even work; a man who ignores his family so he can broker more stocks and buy a bigger house is a deadbeat, but an athlete who ignores his family to train for the Olympics simply knows what it takes. (Why athletic victory in this context is purer than money is not clear.)

Granting that we ought not worship sports, can’t we admit that, given the choice between cheering on a team and spending 3 hours thumbing through Instagram, measuring ourselves against immaculate “influencers,” the former is a better option? What fandom offers us is precisely the thing that virtually every other facet of our culture wants to take away: Self-forgetfulness, the opportunity to let our own personalities be swallowed up, just for a moment, in the drama of something objective, outside, and bigger.

For a social media generation, one worries that we are losing the simple practice of actually being a fan. Ours is a curated, algorithmic, selfie age, where our inner lives are constantly being farmed out by technologies that encourage us to think about ourselves more, to look at ourselves more, to compare our ourselves more. We say that digital distraction is a serious epidemic. Have we asked what it is we are so distracted by? Answer: We’re distracted by ourselves—our Likes, our Retweets, our FOMO, our image to others.

If we think in terms of cultural liturgies, we must conclude that the dominant liturgy of our Western life is one of constant attention to ourselves. Everything around us encourages us, either explicitly or implicitly, to bend inwardly on ourselves a little more, to be a little more attuned to our own emotional or psychological state. The discipline of letting ourselves get lost in something, of losing track of ourselves so that we forget to log-in and make sure that what we’re doing compares favorably to others, is a discipline that directly assaults the advertising-soaked liturgies of late capitalism. Some have suggested that in the social media era our attention spans are shortening. This may be somewhat true. Yet perhaps it’s also true that our attention spans are actually shortening when they’re directed toward offline life, but flourishing when we’re logged in. In other words, maybe we’re not losing the ability to focus on analog realities, but the desire.

There’s a spiritual cost to all of this. Screwtape understood how valuable keeping people wrapped up in a suffocating liturgy of “Look at me” can be. Self-forgetfulness fosters authentic desire, and authentic desires are vulnerable to being turned toward God.

I myself would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if is something quite trivial such as a fondness for country cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust.

The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the word, for its own sake, and without caring two pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food,” the “important” books. I have known  a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

Fandom, for all its potential to be absurd and obsessive, is a “still stronger taste” that can help discipline the soul against the temptation to shape our hearts in the image of the fads and opinions of the world. A fan is a fan first and foremost because he’s having fun. He’s a fan whether he’s surrounded by fellow fans or whether he’s alone (though of course it’s more fun to be with other fans). Sports fandom can look awfully silly, but fans don’t care. Foam fingers and body paint are the artifacts of an authentic enjoyment that resists, often without even conscious awareness, the need to see if such an activity will play well with my “followers.” In this way, fandom is humble: a confession that what I’m loving is lovable on its own terms and not because it may win me approval from the internet’s marketplace of the Self.

As a fan, a little sliver of my joy is outsourced to someone and something outside myself. My favorite sports team can thrill me by playing well, winning games and exciting me throughout the season with their skill. My fandom unites me to my favorite team through the emotional investment I make in their well-being, so that my team’s wins feel like my wins. This is why you often hear sports fans say words like “we,” “us,” and “our,” under the apparent delusion that they are part of the team.

It’s this outsourcing of joy that contains spiritual grace. It’s the same grace we need in worship, to acknowledge that God doesn’t need us but we need him. It’s the same grace we need in fellowship, to (really, authentically) rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. It’s the same grace we need in acts of mercy and love, especially when we know those acts will go unnoticed and un-thanked. And it’s the same grace we need to hold fast in a world that doesn’t think highly of this grace. Enjoying sports probably won’t curry favor with the fashionable people we admire or win us more clout, and that’s precisely why it’s so valuable.

Of course, it’s not just sports fandom that offers the spiritual grace of self-forgetfulness. Other things do too. When our attention is toward little pleasures that don’t get us noticed but do help us love, we find that these little pleasures refresh us infinitely more than comparison, or outrage, or constant connectivity. And we get a valuable, increasingly rare reminder that life is bigger than our pocket, and that God’s world needs to be lived in, not just talked about.

Doctrine Is Inevitable

A decade later, the Emergent Church discovers that you DO need boundaries. Just the right ones.

I’m old enough to remember a movement in the mid to late 2000s called “the emerging church.” I still own some of their books, because as a high school/college student raised in conservative evangelicalism, I resonated with a lot of what they taught, including the idea that conservative evangelical culture was far too obsessed with policing doctrine. I loved this point, because (at the time) it expressed a coldness I had felt for a long time growing up in the church. Emerging church literature pressed a dichotomy between relationships and religious dogma and laid the blame for the schism at the feet of fundamentalists. “Yes,” I thought, “this is why church feels so inauthentic.”

Many of these authors were explicit in their recommendations. Do away with “what we believe” lists. Stop making theology the test of church membership or teaching. For every verse you read from Paul, read the Sermon the Mount 10 times. If given the choice between insisting on a point of doctrine and welcoming someone into your fellowship, choose the latter every time. It was alluring stuff, because you could hug it, shake its hand, take it out to coffee, not just read or recite it. And it won over a lot of my generation.

I’m no longer allured by it all. For one thing, what we referred to as the “emerging church” doesn’t really exist anymore, and the cause of death is unflattering. Rob Bell went from pastoring to touring with Deepak Chopra. Velvet Elvis (his first and most broadly successful book) was wrongheaded in a lot of ways, but at least it was a book about Christianity and didn’t sound like it should be featured in a Readers Digest column by Gwyneth Paltrow. Don Miler’s Blue Like Jazz was a sort of “searching for answers my religious upbringing didn’t give me” manifesto. Miller now runs a corporate branding company and doesn’t go to church. Well then.

But here’s the most illuminating part. Many of the writers and spokespeople who talked about prioritizing relationships over doctrine have actually become quite adamant about their own theology. It just so happens that the doctrine that is worth making standards around is just a different kind. For example, opposing the death penalty is worth excommunication:

And the ordination of female elders is worth schism (and, presumably, excommunication as well):

The time has come for a schism regarding the issue of women in the church. Those of us who know that women should be accorded full participation in every aspect of church life need to visibly and forcefully separate ourselves from those who do not. Their subjugation of women is anti-Christian, and it should be tolerated no longer.

Christianity’s treatment of LGBT people, too, is worth taking a stand on:

Death penalty, gender, ordination, sexuality: Aren’t these issues that alienate people? Aren’t these divisive topics that keep people at arms length from each other instead of bringing them together around Jesus?

By the standard that was applied ten years ago to conservatives, yes, they are. But it turns out that not all orthodoxies need be “generous.” Not all gatekeepers are bad. It’s a matter of having the right ones.

On that, I certainly agree.


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Hospitality as Friendship: A Billy Graham Rule Proposal

A proposal for married men and women to transform our view of friendship.

The “Billy Graham Rule” (alternatively known as the Mike Pence Rule) is once again a live topic of evangelical conversation. I appreciated Tish Harrison Warren’s thoughtful list of principles that she and her husband follow rather than the Rule, which she argues stifles male-female friendship and insulates Christian men from the influence of godly women. My friend Jake Meador offered what I think is the right response to Tish’s argument, acknowledging  valid concerns while pushing back gently on the assumption that rules about private encounters between the sexes are always too harsh. As Jake wrote, “The material factors of daily life in the modern west undermine the strength of marriage. In a world of weaker marriages, something must exist to protect them.” I think he’s right.

I also think it’s worth exploring Jake’s point a little further. Could it be that one reason modern American marriages are vulnerable enough to need the Pence rule is that our cultural conception of “friendship” is too atomized and individualistic? We tend to think of friendship as something individuals do, cloistered together in the coffee shop or wordlessly taking in the latest Marvel film. Consider how drastically high school and college-aged friendships tend to drop off as people age and marry. Why is this? Probably because for many of us “friendship” is more of an event than a sharing of routine life. As marriage and job give new shapes and rhythms to our lives, friendships wither because the events of adolescent friendship wither.

What does this have to do the strength of marriages? Well, I suspect that many of us don’t re-imagine friendship as we get older. Rather, we simply transfer the same mindset to adulthood, so that our “friends” are the ones who share the new events: church, the office party, the gym membership, the little league games, etc. In this, though, we hang on to the individualistic mindset. We don’t think of our families as units capable of giving and receiving friendship. Our individual relationships take priority, and thus, table-for-two “friendships” tend to form outside the home and marriage bond, often with the potential of cultivating the kind of relational intimacy that threatens marriages.

The critic of the Pence rule simply responds that men and women need to assume moral responsibility and be  wise as they cultivate meaningful friendships with each other. The advocate of the Pence rule argues instead that close-quarters relationships between unmarried people is unwise in our culture of vulnerable marriages. But what if our response was not merely to govern the 1-on-1 time between unmarried men and women, but to redefine friendship entirely so that our spouses, our homes, and our back yards were more essential than coffee shops and lunches? What if we thought of hospitality as friendship?

While marriage does not swallow up individual identity, it does permanently redefine it. The husband and wife are not two but one. Not even their bodies belong to the respective selves anymore, but each one belongs to the other spouse in a gentle mutuality. When Paul warns those eager to be married that their spiritual energies will be divided after marriage, he is not describing an obstacle that the married person has to leap over. He is telling us what God’s will is for married Christians—namely, that they must consider their spouse even in terms of their own relationship with Christ. This means that while the husband and wife remain individual selves, their selfhood is no longer singular but plural.

What does this mean for hospitality and friendship? Everything.

We ought to remember that the Graham/Pence rules are unique in their application to their namesakes. Billy Graham spent more time away from his spouse and home than most people ever will. He lived on the road and in hotels. This is an intense calling that is not normal for most of us. Graham’s aim was to protect his witness and his ministry from both temptation and rumor, which are, I think, two aims that every Christian man and woman should strive to pursue. But we shouldn’t assume that we must pursue them in the same way that Graham did.

Rather, for most of us, our daily rhythms of life can and ought to be shaped by the home. This is what Jake was referring to when he wrote that Western life undermines marriages. It does this by keeping husbands and wives and children apart from each other, in economic models that would be completely unthinkable to almost any culture before the late 19th century. Christians don’t have to accept this arrangement in their own homes and lives. We should follow Flannery O’Connor’s advice instead and push back against the age as hard as it pushes against us.

One way to do this is through recasting friendship as hopsitality. A few weeks ago I read Rosaria Butterfield’s new book The Gospel Comes With a House Key, a manifesto for a recovered Christian hospitality that is messy, unorganized, non-impressive, and radically ordinary. The hospitality that Rosaria describes in the book is a whole-family hospitality that re-imagines friendship in terms of homes, not simply individuals. In hospitality married men and women can form authentic friendship with other married men and women in a way that reinforces the covenantal reality of two becoming one instead of undermining it. What is the appeal of stealing away for a coffee when one’s home can be open and friendship expressed holistically? Why cloister people in event-oriented friendship when you can receive or be received into the home, and deepen your friendship and affection for people as they are in covenant, and not just as they are individually?

The challenge for us is that this is difficult. It requires not just changing our paradigm of friendship but being willing to come up short in “hosting.” Some might object that living rooms do not offer the privacy of corner tables. My point is not that hospitality-as-friendship is easy, but that it is healthy and right and deeply spiritual. Couples receiving singles and other couples into their homes is not only rewarding, but encouraging. It often explodes the myths we tell ourselves about our own home or marriage. Hospitable marriages go beyond event friendship to spiritual discipleship. I don’t avoid talking to my female friend when she and her husband are with me and my wife in our home. My wife isn’t “careful” not to speak a certain way with the other husband. Instead, we are experiencing the friendship of families: Knowing each other individually and corporately, and our affection growing in kind.

Hospitality as friendship can strengthen marriages and friendships by delivering us out of the adolescent and deeply modern attitude that friends are people you “hang” with until you find something better to do with your life. No Starbucks or movie theater can receive a friend as warmly as a boiling kettle or a well-worn sofa can. The reality is not that men and women cannot be friends. It’s that no one can be a friend as something they’re really not. Let’s be families and homes instead of atomized individuals.

Can My Phone Love Me?

Why would people spend hours pouring out their souls to a computer?

Take ten minutes out of your day to watch this video in its entirety. It is a haunting and often astonishing story about Replika, an artificial intelligence app, or “chatbot,” that uses your personal digital information to reflect your own personality back at you through conversation.

Like other chatbots, the potential for conversation is unlimited, because the computer on the other end is endlessly capable of repurposing what you tell it for more stuff to say. Unlike other bots, Replika is explicitly designed to make you feel emotionally intimate with it.

What stunned me about the video was not that such an application exists or the reasons a widowed software developer would create it. Rather, I was caught off guard by the number of video testimonials from ordinary users who talked about the app as if it were a close friend. “This is the first real emotional experience I’ve seen people have with a bot,” says one observer. Users confess to hours of conversation with Replika about their relationships, parents, even their trauma. This isn’t the emotional catharsis of simply writing something out that your soul needs to say. It’s a relational dynamic that facilitates trust and feelings of actual vulnerability…with a computer.

At one point, a CEO of a major software company declares: “In some ways, Replika is a better friend than your human friends.” He goes on: “It’s always fascinated, rightly so, by you, because you are the most interesting person in the universe. It’s like the only interaction you can have that isn’t judging you.”

I don’t know about you, but I found that last sentence incredibly sad. It made me wonder: Do people who pour out their soul to a personality-mirroring algorithm flee other humans out of fear of being judged? Or do they fear being judged because they flee other people?

So many people in our modern capitalistic society are lonely. We know that social media tends to make this worse, not better. Yet, so many are aggressively addicted to it, and defend the addiction by pointing to the “connectivity” they experience online. So then this connectivity is a particular kind of connectivity, a kind that doesn’t satisfy the relational voids of those who spend hours on Replika. At what point in this cycle does our conception of what relationships are like become shaped by internet technology? Are Replika’s hardcore consumers seeking refuge from the world, or are they seeking confirmation of their digitally-constructed ideas about it? How would they know?

It’s fascinating to me that while Replika cannot judge or shame you, it can apparently know you. The intimacy they feel in interactions with Replika comes from the sense of being known. Replika is, for all intents and purposes, the perfect spouse, the perfect friend, the perfect coworker, the perfect neighbor: Always ready to listen and never willing to interject. This is friendship-as-therapy.

I’ve often heard it said that evangelical culture is insensitive to the traumas of others. Pointing struggling people to Christ, to the Bible, and to the church is, I hear, a way of ignoring their real problems. There’s some truth to that. Hyper-spiritualization is a real error. But stuff like Replika makes me think that part of the challenge for contemporary Christians is that the very concept of being helped and being loved have been defined down. It seems that it’s possible for a person to say they want friendship when what they really want is to hear their intuitions repeated back to them. Technology like Replika authenticates this friendship-as-therapy. It’s relationship without mutuality and conversation without conflict. It’s a fundamentally adolescent view of the “one another.”

Why is friendship-as-therapy so alluring? Because it feels good to be heard and not spoken to. Sometimes that is what people need. But Replika is not confession. The testimonials in the video are not about how good it felt to get something off the chest once or twice. They’re about how liberating it can be to define friendship down and take it mobile. Love is difficult and friendship is tiring, but I didn’t hear any of Replika’s users say that of their app. My phone can love me, but I can always turn it off, reprogram it, or

Some will watch this video and speak of societal dystopia. That’s not really my impression at all. Yes, a few might “marry” their AI bots in ceremonies that get coverage in elite coastal magazines. And yes, robotics represents a frighteningly uncanny future for human sexuality. But those trends will be topped as soon as they emerge. What’s more permanent and more pressing is the dominance of friendship-as-therapy and the continued technological avenues for isolated self-preoccupation. Replika mirrors its users personalities back at them, which means the real relationship they have is with themselves. That’s the kind of thing from which the spirit of Christ and the fellowship of his people liberates.

And there’s no app for that.

Jordan Peterson and the Internet Anticulture

Jordan Peterson is assaulting nihilism from within and challenging secularism from the inside.

If you’re trying to understand the worldview and appeal of bestselling author/psychologist Jordan Peterson from an erudite, Christian perspective, you can’t do better than the work of Alastair Roberts. Roberts’ lengthy essays on Peterson, his new book, and the reasons for his sudden prominence are exceptional, and I commend them to you.

I read 12 Rules For Life shortly after it was published. My own interpretation of Peterson’s project is that it is first and foremost a response to nihilism. Peterson isn’t interested in making Christians or conservatives out of his readers. He is, on the other hand, committed to demolishing the post-structuralist moral lethargy of contemporary progressivism. That this goal has been widely conflated with Christian evangelism or right-wing signaling says far more about our wider culture than it does about Peterson himself. Christians who are overeager to appropriate Peterson as a deep cover operative for the gospel are unwittingly conceding secularism’s power to move the goalposts. No orthodox, Bible-bound and tradition-rooted believer can resonated fully with Peterson’s psycho-parabolic interpretations of the faith.

You can’t sum up Peterson’s growing platform merely by pointing to his rejection of progressivism. There are lots of conservatives out there, including many intellectuals. So why does Peterson’s influence seem disporportionate compared to others who are likewise thinking and writing and speaking against the same trends and ideologies?

How Jordan Peterson Conquered the Internet

The key to that question is, I think, to look where Peterson’s platform came from: The internet. Peterson’s ideas and lectures have been streamed via YouTube and other platforms for several years now. In the preface to 12 Rules, Peterson recounts that the content of the book was first iterated by him in an online app called Quora, a crowdsourcing Q & A platform on which Peterson’s ideas about psychology, parenting, marriage, gender, and motivation found an eager audience. His popular TED Talks have continually heightened his online profile, and even mediocre-quality video recordings of his 200-level courses boast hundreds of thousands of views. In other words, Jordan Peterson is internet famous.

If Peterson were a Florida-based talk radio host, almost nothing he says in his lectures or in 12 Rules for Life would be noteworthy. If he were a fellow at, say, the Heritage Foundation, or a National Review columnist, it’s difficult to imagine anyone singling him out in a positive way. Peterson’s notability rather comes from two complementary facts about him: He is an online commodity, but he doesn’t talk like he is. He is a figure of “internet culture” whose ideas and language cut across that culture. He has a prophetic and energizing appeal, in other words, to people who are exhausted from living under the anticulture of the internet.

In his book Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen describes “anticulture” as what is left behind when radical individualism subsumes cultural norms and shared understandings. Because the language of autonomous personal rights is inherently at odds with the language of community and culture, the implementation of those rights—especially by a central state—demands the destruction of existing culture. Because human beings cannot live together without culture, however, there must be something to take its place. The only culture that is compatible with radical liberal individualism is anticulture. It is the culture of nothing, made by no one in particular, for no particular reason. The norms and values of anticulture can be summed up in only one idea: People are free to be and do whatever they like, and you cannot question this.

It may sound strange to talk of the Internet as if it has a culture, but it does. Online life has particular rhythms and languages that people who spend time online must learn in order to properly assimilate. Two very different but equally helpful examples of what happens when someone fails to assimilate into online culture are former governor Mike Huckabee and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Both Huckabee and Tyson are accomplished men who command a lot of respect from their respective ideological tribes. Neither of them, though, seem able to use Twitter well. Huckabee’s attempts at humor are groan-worthy, too on-the-nose, and come off extremely self-important. Likewise Tyson shows a painful lack of self-awareness as he earnestly and pedantically explains (among many other things) why Star Wars is not scientific.

Online Anticulture

These are trivial examples, but they illustrate the point. The internet has a culture, a culture that can be detected most clearly when people run afoul of it. On closer inspection, however, the culture of the internet is much more akin to Deneen’s anticulture than a flourishing community of norms and mutual understandings. For one thing,  digital technology depersonalizes individuals by removing their physical presence and compressing their identities into things that can be easily exchanged in online society—things like personal narratives, or ideologies, or subculture, or even victim status. Because people in the online community can only know one another through these markers that the technology enables and the individuals permit, the internet’s social “rules of engagement” —its culture—are overwhelmingly deferential and censorious. There is nothing in online living to parallel the complexities and challenges of, say, cross-ethnic interaction offline, where proximity and physical presence often disarm stereotypes and biases  and reveal shared elements of culture.

Instead, the anticulture of the internet often leaves no alternatives to either immediate deference and validation of someone else’s identity—their narrative—or else outraged dominance of the other. Those who choose the latter strategy are rightly denounced as trolls and are identifies as outside the civilized space of online community. That means that the first option, instinctive deference and authentication of mutually contradicting narratives, is the only one for people who want to be liked and respected online.

The essential feature of online life is that it fosters a curated homogeneity. In a 2014 essay for the MIT Technology Review, Manuel Castells described, positively, the community of social media as a community of radical individuality:

Our current “network society” is a product of the digital revolution and some major sociocultural changes. One of these is the rise of the “Me-centered society,” marked by an increased focus on individual growth and a decline in community understood in terms of space, work, family, and ascription in general. But individuation does not mean isolation, or the end of community. Instead, social relationships are being reconstructed on the basis of individual interests, values, and projects. Community is formed through individuals’ quests for like-minded people in a process that combines online interaction with offline interaction, cyberspace, and the local space…

The virtual life is becoming more social than the physical life, but it is less a virtual reality than a real virtuality, facilitating real-life work and urban living.

This “real virtuality” is nothing less than an alternative epistemological and social structure that powerfully shapes how we think and how we interact with one another. The real virtuality has a defined anticulture, expressed through social media’s outrage mobs and ironic detachment from moral earnestness through enforced expressive individualism.

Jordan Peterson’s messaging clashes violently against this anticulture, and the conflict is all the more compelling because Peterson is an active member of the virtual community. Where the internet anticulture downplays the disciplines of routine life, Peterson says “If you want to find meaning, clean your room.” Where the internet anticulture either pornifies women or depersonalizes gender into meaningless social categories, Peterson posits metaphysical, even mystical differences between the sexes. Where the internet anticulture eschews religion as a symbol of the regressive, Peterson offers an explanation for all of human history that is rooted in God. To the millions of people who consume the anticulture of the internet for hours every day, Peterson’s ideas sound either astonishingly violent or revolutionarily liberating. The fact that they are actually neither goes missed because of the context from which Peterson is speaking. He is assaulting nihilism from the inside and questioning secularism from within.

Conclusion

We do not yet fully understand the sociological ramifications of online communities. Social media and smartphone technology have undone the normal architectures of human experience much faster than most could have predicted. For Millennials especially, the experience of growing up with the internet is one that has not yet borne all its fruit. Our nieces and nephews have grown up not only with the internet but with mobile omni-connectivity. What does this mean for us as people?

Peterson’s growing platform may be a clue. It’s possible that in the coming years the anticulture of the internet will be combined with the market power of a few elite tech companies that use algorithms to actually create community thinking. Curation will empower more homogeneity, more virtue signaling, and more resistance to people and institutions that cut across the anticulture. This resistance will, like all cultural resistances do, inspire more fringe interest in dissenting voices. As many commenters have pointed out, Peterson’s worldview is not a culture warring one. He is received as a culture warrior not because his ideas are extreme but because his audience is. If online connectivity keeps consuming all aspects of public life, this dynamic will only intensify.

For now, it is enough to say that Jordan Peterson is successful at this moment because he is offering real help to those disillusioned with the anticulture of the internet. Christians should take note, and realize that even in places where resistance to the gospel seems most entrenched, the field is ripe for harvest.

Churchyard Faithfulness

The cure for evangelical celebrity culture is to remember our own death.

I haven’t stopped thinking about Andy Crouch’s piece on Christians and celebrity since I first read it. Two reasons for this, I think.

One: I have spent several years now in Christian institutions, movements, and networks that are particularly afflicted with this problem. In many of our strongest, most trendsetting evangelical people and places, platform is what matters above all. The rat race is on. Even spaces that purportedly exist to train future ministers adapt a ruthlessly celebritarian mindset when it comes to how their stuff is run. In every situation where I’ve experienced this, there was a total lack of self-awareness as to the culture this mindset was creating. Everyone was in denial. Gospel-centeredness was supposed to make us immune to that sort of thing…right?

Two: My Dad was a pastor for over twenty years. His legacy is one of faithful obscurity. That hasn’t always sat well with me. I’ve struggled with the idea that my Dad’s war wounds in tireless ministry (in 20 years of pastoring, we took one (1) 2-week vacation as a family; no sabbatical, no furlough, no breaks) somehow will mean less than the blogs and podcasts of M.Div. students who were fortunate enough to be social media savvy at the right time in American evangelical history. Watching a Spirit-filled, Jesus-obsessed, family-treasuring, church-serving father has challenged my instincts about what matters in conservative evangelicalism.

So, Andy’s piece resonated deeply with me. Please don’t get the idea that I write as somebody who think he’s “above it all.” Quite the contrary. Just last week I had to pray earnestly that God would help me rejoice with friends who were rejoicing in their growing platforms. Jealousy is pathetic. I could not possibly recall all the ways that I am blessed beyond measure right now, but I still have to hit my knees to avoid bitterness at friends (friends!) who seem to be getting what I want and don’t have.

That’s the point. A cavernous thirst for more success, more publicity, more book deals, more Retweets, more “Likes,” more speaking invitations…all that is perfectly ordinary. It’s perfectly worldly. It’s the way that successful and ambitious people have to think if they want to get ahead. It’s not shocking that CEOs do this. It’s shocking when disciples of Jesus Christ do it too. In the world, such an attitude is normal. In the church it is (or should be) spiritual warfare.

Andy’s essay is an alarm that something is broken, not being fixed, and has destroyed much and will destroy much more if we don’t repent. I believe this. I believe that the half-dozen scandals of conservative evangelical churches and movements that I can think of merely as I’m typing this are a warning. The brokenness is not in our theology, it’s in our desires. It’s not the people who rarely or never go to church, it’s those of us who scramble to go to every conference. We need more visits to graves. We need a churchyard faithfulness.

Churchyard faithfulness is the gospel among the tombstones. It’s ambition that’s pointed down, not up. Churchyard faithfulness is the non-extraordinary, non-Instagrammable, non-TED Talkable life of quiet obedience, patient chastity, behind-the-scenes generosity, anonymous service, and low-profile Christlikeness.  It’s the sanctification of memento mori: Remember your death, and live your life and position your joy as if no one will be able to find your tombstone in a churchyard 100 years from now.

Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is more than a beautiful poem. It’s a manifesto about the kingdom. In the poem, Gray observes a collection of anonymous, seemingly unremarkable graves. Do these unremarkable graves reveal meaningless lives? On the contrary:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
         Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
         The short and simple annals of the poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
         And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
         The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

The picture attached to this post is of a church my wife and I passed on the way home from an Easter dinner. The church’s parking lot was closed for some reason and the grounds are right off a busy highway, so unfortunately the best I could do was slow down to look and let her take a picture. The beauty of the sight smote my soul. The church was small but its white steeple contrasted against the grey churchyard in a way that exploded with spiritual meaning for me. I felt there was something deeply correct about a graveyard connected to a church. The two places seem to exist in harmony.

The virus at the center of evangelical celebrity culture is the virus of mortality forgetfulness. Churchyard faithfulness is not fun. It may not let you buy your dream home. It won’t ensure that people know your name (in fact, it may prevent it!). But churchyard faithfulness is the faithfulness that lives in the shadow of mortality. It’s reined in by the humility that comes from considering how well the world runs without you and how well it will run long after you are an Ancestry.com pop-up. The sight of the churchyard makes the rat race feel ridiculous. That’s how we as Christians need to feel about it.

Churchyards are hard to find nowadays. The modern church planting movements don’t see much value in them. But I love how Russell Moore once described the spiritual value of graves on church grounds:

When you get a moment, find an old church graveyard and walk through it. Not for the goose bumps or ghost stories, of course, but to remind yourself of some matters of eternal weight. Walk about and see the headstones weathered and ground down by the elements. Contemplate the fact that beneath your feet are men and women who once had youthful skin and quick steps and hectic calendars, but who are now piles of forgotten bones. Think about the fact that the scattered teeth in the earth below you once sang hymns of hope–maybe “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder I’ll Be There” or “When We All Get to Heaven.”

They are silent now. But they will sing again. They will preach again. They will testify again.

Those singing voices are not the voices of the platformed. They’re not the voices of the supremely talented, the exceptionally skilled or the really, really ridiculously good looking. They’re the voices of the kingdom. They will one day inherit the earth. And at that moment we will swear we knew their names all along.

What is the “First Fact” of Christianity?

“To preach Christianity meant primarily to preach the resurrection.”

As this qualification suggests, to preach Christianity meant primarily to preach the Resurrection. Thus people who had heard only fragments of St. Paul’s teaching at Athens got the impression that he was talking about two new gods, Jesus and Anastasis (ie, Resurrection) (Acts 17:18). The Resurrection is the central theme in every Christian sermon reported in the Acts. The Resurrection, and its consequences, were the ‘gospel’ or good news which the Christians brought: what we call the ‘gospels,’ the narratives of Our Lord’s life and death, were composed later for the benefit of those who had already accepted the gospel. They were in no sense the basis of Christianity: they were written for those already converted. The miracle of the Resurrection, and the theology of that miracle, comes first: the biography comes later as a comment on it.

Nothing could be more unhistorical than to pick out selected sayings of Christ from the gospels and to regard those as the datum and the rest of the New Testament as a construction upon it. The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection. If they had died without making anyone else believe this ‘gospel’ no gospels would ever have been written.

-C.S. Lewis, Miracles.

A blessed and joyful Easter to all.

Why Christians Should Rediscover Old Movies

On digging into the treasures of the past to answer the problems of the present.

I am an Anglican parish priest. In that role, I get to hear some of the concerns of my congregants and other Christians on a fairly regular basis. I know many, many faithful Christians who complain about “all the trash that’s on TV and in movies.” Parents and grandparents in particular worry about the corroding effect that current shows, films, music, and commercials may have on their children.

They have my sympathies. Gone are the days when you could go downtown in the evening with a couple bucks to watch a fun, kid-friendly western, and munch on some popcorn. There’s a fair bit of nostalgia mixed with this kind of moral concern as many of us reflect that what used to be a happy childhood diversion has become a perilous spiritual minefield of gore, f-bombs, sex scenes, and disrespect toward parents (as just a small sampling of Decalogue-breaking inducements springing forth from Hollywood). As the Statler Brothers once opined, “Whatever happened to Randolph Scott?”

I saw a recent article outlining how a growing amount of children’s television will feature characters with sexually immoral lifestyles, a trend that’s been on the rise for a couple years now. This normalization of spiritually sinful practices is of course not new to American pop culture. On the other hand, as Dean Abbott has so clearly argued, modern’s children entertainment seems to be getting notably worse (with even some non-Christians noticing)

Predictably, this creates a good deal of hand-wringing in the pews. I have had more than one parent, grandparent, aunt, and uncle voice frustration that there isn’t anything “wholesome” on television or the movies anymore. Some film companies feed off of this desperation, which is how we get atrocious, embarrassing flicks like God’s Not Dead and Facing the Giants. Too often it feels as if the choice for believers is between morally un-compromised cheese and aesethetically excellent garbage. Many Christian parents are unaware of or are (understandably) unwilling to force the former category on their homes. The net result, though, is that unthinking consumption of every new film or sitcom has become the norm for many.

But why? Perhaps it’s time to admit that this problem is self-created. What motivates our acquiescence and lack of discernment is often nothing more than hype and FOMO (fear of missing out). Even worse, the screen has become an alluring babysitter for many Christians. Faced with the fact that a large amount of American entertainment cannot be consumed in good conscience, what is a “plugged in” Christian to do?

In the first place, Christians need to be the foremost people rethinking the omnipresence of screens in home life. You don’t have to go far to find good reasons why people, especially children, are generally better off outside or buried in a book than glued to a soft blue glow. American culture has a whole especially needs to recover the idea of play, and not the overly regimented, helicopter parented type. I don’t presume to have expert suggestions here, but ought not Christians of all people be willing to take radical steps to counter the inert, pornified, disaffected spirit of the age?  This may mean no video game systems until the teen years, or no smart phones until legal adulthood. Such are matters of Christian liberty and prudence, though I’ve found Andy Crouch’s The Tech Wise Family to be an incredibly helpful guide on such matters.

But there’s another opportunity here. Consider the reality that older films, television, and music were often (at least at a surface level) morally and even artistically better than a majority of what is produced today. It is a tragedy that most American teenagers are completely unaware, for example, of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” movies. It’s a tragedy not only of Christian discernment but of cultural heritage (especially when we consider films and music of particular excellence). Christians should be paying closer attention to old things.

There is a vast ocean of classic movies and music, much of which, if not explicitly spiritual, at least does not actively undermine Christian moral formation. Many of these films and albums are inexpensive. For the cost of taking the kids to a cinema matinee, one can stock up on dozens of excellent movies. Put some time in to study the keystones of American cinema which reach back nearly a century. Request and borrow them from a local library if your budget is tight. Save up and acquire copies of era-defining television dramas that delighted your own parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. You can even buy re-runs of Looney Tunes and those pulpy Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoons like Johnny Quest. The threat of “binge-watching” notwithstanding, these options can last a family a long time.

This is an invitation to Christians who love pop culture to become real students of it, by reaching back in the past to preserve and enjoy excellently made things. Perhaps we should think of the steward of film and music as not unlike a discriminating librarian: he highlights and saves that which is best. We all currently endure what John Lukacs called an “inflation of ideas:” more and more works that seem to say less and less. Children as well as adults need to have our tastes formed, matured, and perfected. And that weighty task need not be unpleasant.

Yet again, I think it is time for Christians to be different from other Americans and not be among the heaviest consumers of entertainment media–especially not the newest and latest. Unplug a bit. Build up a library of good films and shows that are examples of good art. It rarely hurt anyone to skip over the latest, shiniest, and untested. I’m not the first to suggest this, and I won’t be the last. But I can’t help noticing that this is what I start thinking about when folks complain about these issues. Pull the plug. Be weird. It’s not going to kill you to miss pop culture references. Take it from a happy homeschool alumnus. The western world is going mad; not need to drive yourself crazy keeping up with it.

Barton Gingerich is an assistant priest at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Richmond, VA and a contributor to the Faith and Honor podcast. He earned his B.A. in History from Patrick Henry College and his M.Div. with a concentration in historical theology from Reformed Episcopal Seminary.