I wanted to let you know about a couple things going on around here. If you’ve been reading this blog more than a week you’ll have noticed a pretty radical design change that I implemented a few days ago. Whether you love it or hate it—and I would understand both reactions!—I should say a little bit more about it, because the redesign is actually part of a greater redirection for the blog.
I’ve been blogging at this space consistently—at least 1,000 words every single month, and in the vast majority of cases many times that per month—for about five years now. Before that I was writing equally consistently at Patheos. Long story short, I’ve been writing thousands of words every month for the better part of 7 years. It’s been extremely gratifying.
But I have to be honest. I’ve gotten tired.
Blogging is difficult. It takes a regular application of thought and discipline. It wears you out. The rewards are rich, but they’re not always proportionate. For me, the rewards of blogging have slowly but noticeably been lagging behind the costs. My traffic has been down notably this year, and I think part of the reason is that newsletters and other email-based publishing have made blogs like mine less attractive and less intuitive. Traffic is not the only reason to blog, of course. But just to be honest, 3-4,000 words per month is a lot of work to do while you’re watching the stats nosedive.
But that’s not what I’ve become so tired. There are many other rewards to blogging. However, many of the rewards depend on what a writer wants to accomplish. For a while now I’ve had a slow burning feeling that I’ve accomplished basically all that I want to with my blog. The only direction for me from here, that I see, is to continue to churn out content while unceasingly investing in social media and trying to grow my platform through marketing. That direction is neither appealing nor plausible for me right now. So, all that to say, I need to make some changes.
The main change is that I will not be blogging for a while. Instead, for the foreseeable future I’m going to pursue writing fewer but more substantive articles for outside publications. Letter & Liturgy will stay exactly where it is, and I’ll pop in from time to time with links and updates, but the regular grind is stopping. The redesign serves this change.
I’m really excited about this. I think stepping away from the compulsion to post thousands of words of generalism every month will be good for my focus. To be transparent, I really need to stop prioritizing retweets and small spikes in blog traffic, and start prioritizing thinking slowly and deeply about (fewer) meaningful issues. As much as anything, this change is about cultivating a greater love in myself for writing and thinking, and choking out the love of constant publicity.
I’m so very thankful for the many encouraging comments I’ve received here and for the people I’ve been connected to through Letter & Liturgy. There’s no greater honor for a writer than to hear back from people who’ve benefited from his words. My contact info is now on the home page of this site and I sincerely hope you will keep in touch.
The ghost of inevitability has always haunted the Star Wars films. That’s true in the stories, where the word “destiny” comes early and often from the lips of the most important characters. But it’s also true in the structure and production of the movies themselves. Return of the Jedi ended the original trilogy’s story arc on a proverbial “good guys win.” Twenty years later George Lucas produced the prequel trilogy, three films that told a story to which everyone already knew the ending. And now, twenty years after The Phantom Menace, J.J. Abrams turns off the ventilator to a franchise whose fate has been sealed for a while. The Rise of Skywalker acquits itself well as an individual piece of Disney’s sequel trilogy, but even its strengths highlight just what a mistake these three films were from the beginning.
The Rise of Skywalker is an entertaining movie and offers genuine treats for Star Wars fans. In other words, it’s pretty much the opposite of its predecessor, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, a film that held its audience in contempt and seemed to be vying instead for the affection of the New Yorker‘s circulation list. Abrams has brought the series back to the fan-servicing, nostalgic mood of The Force Awakens. That’s both good and bad. It’s good because viewers who really like the non-Disney Star Wars films feel at home. It’s bad because it reminds us it was a bad idea to leave home in the first place.
The “Skywalker Saga,” as Disney has rebranded Episodes I-IX, was truly concluded at the end of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. To justify its continuation, Disney has had to invent one more Skywalker, walk back older plot points for no apparent reason, and supply a “surprise twist” that feels almost as contrived and ad hoc as something the last person in an improv group would cook up to finish off a skit.
So why should anyone bother with the Rise of Skywalker? Well, it’s a lot of fun. Abrams opts for a breakneck pace, literally zooming his characters from one world and mission to another. More ground gets covered in The Rise of Skywalker than perhaps all the other Star Wars films combined. And why not? The environments are dazzling, the action is exciting and well edited, and the movie builds up nicely to a climax that’s a lot better than it had any business being. The three leads, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaacs are in fine form. There’s a lightsaber fight atop a Death Star submerged in water. If you’ve got something better than that to do with 2 hours and 11 bucks, good for you.
But these three movies all serve one ultimate purpose. They highlight just how remarkable George Lucas is as a world-builder and myth-maker. His wooden dialogue and cringe-inducing love scenes are failures of execution, not failures of imagination. The Disney era Star Wars is a failure of imagination. People will laugh at Anakin’s dialogue in Attack of the Clones for years to come, but they’re going to watch it anyway. I can’t say I think the same of these movies.
Whenever someone points out the dangers of social media and recommends curtailing use or abandoning it altogether, a response I’m starting to hear a lot more often is that abstaining from social media is an expression of privilege. Though it’s not always made explicit, I think the idea behind this argument is that social media is a democratic tool by which many people express social and political opinions or perhaps engage in activism. Thus, social media has intrinsic value as a vehicle of “engagement,” including (and maybe especially for) ethnic, sexual, or economic minorities who might otherwise never be offered a platform to speak.
Calling on folks to cancel their Twitter accounts is therefore on one hand an implicit call for less visibility of these marginalized voices; on the other hand, it’s also a failure to see (or perhaps even a failure to regard) the positive effects of social media for certain kinds of people, vs. the relative comfort and lack of social or existential disruption that majority culture people would experience by deleting their accounts.
As someone who is actively trying to reduce and ultimately eliminate my social media footprint, I take this response seriously. If it’s an accurate and coherent objection, then my deletion of certain social media memberships and my thousands of words spent critiquing the technology are de facto failures to love my marginalized neighbors, and such failure demands repentance and a change of ways. I also respect this objection because it makes an objective claim of value on social media and doesn’t impishly retreat to, “Well, whatever works for you, just don’t force your opinions on people.” In other words, full-throated defenses of social media on the basis of privilege and marginalization are arguments that actually understand the seriousness of what social media critics are saying.
Nevertheless, I think this argument is deeply flawed. More than that, I think it’s flawed in the exact ways that we should expect ideas shaped by social media culture to be flawed. Let me offer a brief rundown of these flaws.
Flaw 1: This objection accepts what social media corporations say about themselves at face value.
One of the major indictments against social media is the knowledge we’ve gleaned over the past 13 years (roughly Facebook’s lifespan) about how these Silicon Valley companies design their products. We now know they’re designed to be addictive. We now know they’re designed to hit mental triggers that release feelings of intimacy and productivity. We now know that the CEOs and braintrusts of the major social media corporations tend to have disturbing views about everything from personal well-being to utopia. To sum up, we now know not to conflate tech industry marketing with the product itself.
The argument that social media levels the playing field and gives platform to heretofore marginalized voices assumes that the kind of exposure and “platform” that happens on social media is an unmitigated good kind. But to assume this means to assume that social media technology is what it appears to be. Is there a reason to assume this? What if the “platform” of social media is actually an algorithmic illusion designed to make users more dependent on the technology and in the process less likely to understand or even care about what cannot be experienced through it? What if 10,000 retweets send a chemical affirmation to your brain of being seen and heard, but in reality half of those retweets are from people who simply wanted to join in with their friends in RTing you, 1/3 are from non-human accounts, and the remaining 2,000 are a niche group who will neither do anything about what you said or even remember it after dinner? Let’s say all that is at least plausibly true. Would it be more accurate to say that Twitter has given you a platform, or that Twitter has rewarded your time on the site with a temporary dose of extra entertainment?
There are very good reasons to believe, as several media and technology critics are now saying, that social media culture is significantly disconnected from “real life,” and that what happens within social media culture is often self-referential and fails to escape the walls of algorithm. Assuming that’s true, we can’t say with any degree of confidence that the platform bestowed on anyone—regardless of race, gender, or class—is the kind of platform that can sustain and empower positive offline transformation. Instead, it seems just as likely that the addictive elements of social media, which translate into thousands of hours being spent on the technology every day by many of the same socially conscious users who might otherwise be doing something else, are mostly sunk costs.
Flaw 2: This objection assumes that the democratizing effects of the Internet are best mediated through social media networks.
Beneath the objection that social media abstention is an expression of socioeconomic privilege is another assumption about the nature of social media—specifically, that it really does challenge the privileged, platform the marginalized, and level the playing field better than the alternative online technologies. But this is an unnecessary and inaccurate assumption.
Measuring social media’s real-life effects are tricky. For one thing, “social media” doesn’t seem to be a monolithic entity with equivalent effects in every sphere of life. Facebook and Instagram seem to be better at helping people sell stuff, whereas Twitter is considerably more likely to affect what gets talked about in newspapers, magazines, and cable news. Which example of social media influence is more “real”? Obviously, it depends on what you mean.
The most important aspect of any social media platform is the number of users on it. But there are other, more significant things to consider, such as privacy, and it’s not at all apparent to me that the advantages of a highly populated social network should always trump concerns about user data. Someone might argue that Facebook is still worth using, despite its absolutely terrifying track record on user privacy, because of its massive user base and potential reach, but only a foolish person would argue that privacy is never worth missing out on being part of a huge network.
As it is, there are good reasons to think that the current configuration of the online economy is very broken, and that it would be better for everyone—rich, poor, white, black, straight, gay—if the Silicon Valley model were trashed and replaced with an ownership-driven digital commons. Again, you don’t have to cancel your Facebook account today in order to grant there are good reasons to question the wisdom of the social media corporations. Wise, kind, justice-oriented people are doing just that.
Flaw 3: This objection gets “privilege” backward.
It seems extraordinary to me that anyone would define privilege as “the inability or unwillingness to spend portions of my day typing out messages online for strangers.” While it may not be exactly right to say that social media per se is classed, it would definitely be fair to say that social media activism—the kind of activism this objection takes as incumbent on moral people—is an activity available to a small, select group of users. Plenty of American workers cannot even look at their phones during their work hours.
Twitter especially seems to be an online activity geared toward knowledge workers with surplus time in their day (i.e., privileged folks). According to Pew, 80% of all content on Twitter comes from 10% of the site’s accounts. In other words, what goes on in Twitter-land is dictated by a very small, very select conglomeration of power users, brands, and algorithms. Twitter reflects the experiences and views of working class Americans about as well as Lake Shore Drive does.
By arguing that social media silence is privileged, critics of digital minimalism reveal to what extent they have conflated a particular kind of sub-cultural pastime with basic responsible citizenship. This conflation isn’t only socially and economically ridiculous, it’s also hostile to the formation of an emotionally and spiritually healthy public square. Thinking, grieving, and praying in silence, away from the pressures to signal our virtues or vices in exchange for clout, is not an act of privilege as much as it is an act of humanity.
Whether you cancel your social media accounts is not as important as thinking and feeling properly toward these digital technologies. I humbly submit that one evidence we are failing to think and feel properly toward them is when we react illogically when they are critiqued. The architects of Silicon Valley are more than happy to make billions out of our neurological dependence on notifications. Everyone, from the most vulnerable and disadvantaged to the most privileged and powerful, should be more than resistant to hand it to them.
On Tuesday I was at the funeral for my grandmother, Wilma V. James. Wilma lived most of her 95 years in an industrial town named Owensboro, Kentucky. She raised three boys and worked at General Electric for decades. She outlived my grandfather by almost 22 years. You won’t likely read anything about her other than obituary. Hers was a little, beautiful life.
Do we value little lives? Do we see them as beautiful? Perhaps not. It’s easy to find someone preaching to follow your dreams, to aim for the stars, to become somebody. It’s even easy to baptize the fear of obscurity with Christian lingo, so that the measure of a life’s worth becomes how “radical” it is. What’s not easy is to hear a little life, given to a little family in a little town, held up as desirable. So much of modern life seems to be about escaping, through whatever means available, smallness. This seems tragic to me. There’s beauty in that smallness.
My guess is that we don’t value little lives because we don’t value what God values. Reflect for a moment how much God loves the unseen and the seemingly “pointless.” Reflect on the planets in the visible universe that are uninhabitable, dark, cold, and remote. AS far as we know there are millions of planetary bodies that seem to be little more than floating landscapes. Have you ever thought about why God has made a universe and galaxies so enormous that we will almost certainly never even see most of it, let alone “use” or understand it? Perhaps it’s merely because God thinks such invisible, “useless” creations are beautiful. Perhaps it’s merely because He likes them. God likes what we cannot even perceive.
Perhaps we misjudge the value of little lives also because we don’t evaluate correctly. We all know how to quantify selling millions of albums or getting a six-figure advance or pastoring a 10,000 member church. We don’t know how to quantify feeding a family that turned around and fed another family, and another, and another. We know how to quantify being an “influencer” with a million followers, but we don’t know how to value parenting future parents of parents. In other words, we only see concentrated value, not generational value. This is the definition of failing to think in terms of eternity.
I wonder sometimes if it’s always been this way. Older generations seem to have more or less accepted the borders of their lives. Moderns have grown up on technology that promised a way of escape from the givenness of things. We’re upwardly mobile and connected. We can ditch town any time and become celebrities without leaving our living room. We don’t have to be here, we can be anywhere. A little life is thus all the more loathsome to us because it is all the more avoidable. Anonymity can be cheated with a smartphone and a free app. Insecurity can be mollified with the right filter. There’s no modern reason we have to stare down our fear of the “same old thing.”
The problem comes when I try to reconcile my grandmother’s life with my obsession to escape a small life. How much blessing did she infuse into my life through merely her presence? How much was I shaped by the meals, the open doors, the simple “How are you doing” calls? She was not anywhere; she was here. She was here, in a small obscure life, for my Dad. He was here for me. Where would I have ended up if it had not been this way? Suddenly I wonder if the problem is that I want to be on the receiving end of a little life, rather than the giving end. Let me dine on the fruits of obscure love and kindness while I use everything in my power to become famous or significant.
I pray that as I contemplate my grandmother’s glorious, little life, my heart will begin to release its craving for stature and instead look with love at the people and places my Creator has put right in front of me. To see a little life as beautiful instead of punishment is an act of love: Love for others and love for Jesus, who makes the least to be greatest in his kingdom. Obscurity is not failure and simplicity is not tragic when they reflect the worth of the world to come. The corners of the universe are invisible now, but they won’t stay that way. They’ll be glorious in our new eyes soon enough.
I have respect for the ministry of Plugged In and how they serve Christian families by flagging objectionable content in film. I think there’s a place for this kind of thing and have availed myself of the site frequently over several years.
But in my experience, evangelicals frequently place too much trust in services like Plugged In. Instead of using them as helpful meters to determine age-appropriate moviegoing, many Christians use content and worldview metrics to shape their entire approach to consuming culture. The problem with this reductionistic approach is not only that it frequently fails to accurately represent the nature and purpose of art, but that it relies heavily on the idiosyncratic blind spots of a religious subculture.
Here is a great example of what I’m talking about. Plugged In wrote a mostly positive, if somewhat dismissive review of the kids movie Show Dogs. After noting some bathroom humor in the content flagging portion of their review, here’s what they said in the conclusion:
Show Dogs is a kids’ movie through and through. If you consider its story and presentation on a graduated scale—say, one that ranges from whine and scratch on the low end all the way up to a family pleasing tail-wag peak—this pic probably qualifies as a Saturday-matinee chew toy that lands on the less-enthusiastic, flea-bitten side of the scale. It feels like a talking-dog version of Miss Congeniality: a canine caper the youngsters will giggle at even as parents roll their eyes wearily.
On the plus side, it actually has plenty of action and less doggy doo-doo humor than I expected. And in the negative column, there are some extended dog-private-parts-inspection moments and a couple uses of the word “d–n” that really should have been left on the cutting room floor.
Your kids will likely think it’s silly and fun. But whatever you do, I’d suggest you leave your family dog at home. ‘Cause he’d never forgive you.
For those familiar with Plugged In’s style and language, this most certainly constitutes a positive review. Show Dogs, according to this reviewer, is fine for your kids, if a little trivial. They’ll enjoy it, you probably won’t, but it’s harmless fun.
Today—and to their credit—Plugged In ran a blog post that discusses some of the controversy that’s been growing around the film. You can read the viral review one mother wrote here, but the short summary is that many parents and sexual abuse victim advocates are extremely concerned that the way Show Dogs handles a particular subplot sends a seriously disturbing message to kids about their bodies and private parts.
Apparently, Plugged In’s positive review of Show Dogs caused some concern among their readers, concern which they wanted to address via the blog post. Here’s how they address it:
One thing we try not to do at Plugged In is infer motive, because that’s a game with no real end. Our objective at Plugged In is always to tell you what’s in a film as accurately as we can and let you, the reader, draw your own conclusions and make your own decisions. When I saw this sequence, it translated as simply as an over-long potty joke that wasn’t particularly funny in a silly movie that wasn’t particularly good.
But movies, even the most straightforward of movies, are incredibly complex things. It’s not just the moviemaker’s story that’s at play here: It’s our own stories, too. We all bring our own experiences and sensitivities and baggage to every movie we see. And so, in many respects, even when we watch the very same movie, the messages it gives can be very different. Unique.
I have no idea why the editors at Plugged In noted the controversy surrounding Show Dogs and decided to double down on their positive review of the film in response. Why not simply let the controversy pass you by, noting that you diligently catalogued the movie’s profanity and potty humor and adding no further comment? No clue. But what actually frustrates me about Plugged In’s post here is that it’s not really the truth. When Plugged In writes that they don’t try to infer motive or tell readers what decision to make about a movie, they’re either using definitions of those words I’ve never heard of, or they’re not being totally honest here. Plugged In infers filmmaker’s motives all the time. Plugged In tells readers to stay away from certain movies because of their messaging all the time. This kind of exhortation is intrinsic to the discernment ministry that Plugged In operates. For them to claim that they do anything less is profoundly confusing, because it’s demonstrably untrue.
I don’t fault Plugged In for missing a troubling interpretive angle of a film. Anybody can do that. What I do fault is the impulse within evangelicalism to make Christian discernment and worldview ministries the sole proprietors of virtue and vice in pop culture. There could be an important reason why a major evangelical pop culture review completely missed overtones of sexual abuse in a movie: Namely, because much of evangelicalism, including our churches and parachurch ministries, has a blind spot when it comes to sexual abuse. We fail to see what we aren’t looking for, and we fail to look for what we don’t think about enough.
Maybe Plugged In doesn’t want to publicly consider this possibility. Maybe it hasn’t crossed their minds. Either possibility doesn’t really matter in the end, just like the motives of a filmmaker who puts graphic nudity or 200 F-bombs into his film don’t really matter for a Plugged In review. What’s there is there. The question is seeing it.
This isn’t an indictment of Plugged In or a call to burn down evangelical reviews of movies. Instead, it’s a call for humility in how Christians engage culture, and a reminder that holistic approaches to art are superior to worldview litmus tests and curse word-counters. There is a place for the latter, but it shouldn’t be in front and on top of the former.
It’s been astonishing to watch fellow conservatives redefine everything–and I mean everything–they say they believe in order to defend President Trump. I’m now hearing from some that the President’s vulgar and hostile remarks about NFL athletes’ kneeling during the national anthem are not a gross attack on free speech. Why not? “It’s a private corporation! Trump isn’t passing a law! He’s just expressing his opinion!” My oh my. How far we’ve gone from the intellectual defenses of people like Brendan Eich and James Damore, to arguing that the President of the United States can publicly call for private citizens to be fired because of their political opinions.
I have never, ever seen a politician who could corrupt the values of his supporters like Donald Trump. When it comes to this President, the mainstream Right is willing to jettison any and all ideas in order to defend his stupid, crass, belligerent worldview.
More times than I can count I’ve been asked how to subscribe to this blog via email. Until today I didn’t have a way to do that. I do now.
If you go to this link and fill out your name and email, you will receive new posts here when they publish. I wish I could insert a signup form into this post, but alas, it’s not possible. Just click the link, enter your information, and you will receive everything I post here via email.
I’ve come to fervently believe that, especially as it pertains to the digital age, you get what you pay for. Many of us millennials, reaping the harvest of the emergence of the Internet, have been raised to expect much for free. The democratization of information that led to the “online writing economy” generated an ocean of free content, and free content has played and will continue to play an indelible part in the economic, social, and even intellectual transformation wrought by the Internet.
But, contrary to illusion, nothing is quite free. Advertising funds the overwhelming majority of the “free” internet. And as technology progresses, the competition to get more clicks on more ads and make more revenue starts to dictate online experience. Advertisements start to play automatically, filling the entire screen. “Clickbait,” genetically engineered to pique interest and offer as little as possible once the necessary click has been acquired, begins to dominate web channels. Sagging attention spans need reasons to keep clicking, so headlines are written to deliberately mislead. Mindlessness is the name of the game.
And why complain? After all–it’s free.
We live at a time when thoughtfulness is a premium good–one that costs much more than it generates. I believe that sincere intellectual and spiritual good is possible to foment via the internet, but I also believe that almost every digital trend of the last 10 years has made that task much harder. “Free” is constantly at odds with true, beautiful, and good. Whether we attribute that fact to the harsh realities of market economics, the greediness of capitalism, or sheer bad luck, the fact remains the same.
I love blogging. I love it because I love the intellectual labor that thinking, shaping, and saying demands, and because I love the way that blogging plugs me into the world of ideas in such a direct way. For the last few years I have tried to think deeply and seriously and Christianly about many different topics. I’m sure I’ve fallen short in one or all of those categories numerous times. But the practice is part of the pleasure. For all the dangers of blogging’s instantaneous demand for reaction, there’s also a virtue in the way it lets a writer return, again and again, to a question that demands renewed attention, fresh insight, and a better word.
But all this is work–real, time-consuming work. It’s not my source of income or my career. But it does require attention and detail and space and computers and internet connections and books and articles. And for the past year or so I’ve been thinking carefully about how the work inherent in my blogging should relate to my efforts to provide for a family, and to empower my future writing without the threats of intrusive ads or silly, click-begging content.
If you’re unsure what I mean by that, here’s the short story. Going forward, my Patreon account will allow readers who want to help support my work at this blog to do so with small, monthly donations. This is not a subscription and my blog is not being paywalled. As I explain on the page, there are indeed some exclusive perks to being a patron, but access to this blog is and will remain totally free.
I’m not looking to turn a major profit from my blogging or quit my day job (which I love!). As you’ll see, my suggested donation levels are very small. My only ambition is to connect directly with readers who find value in what I do here, and who are willing to spend $2 every month in helping me keep that value coming.
My Patreon offers 3 different tiers, each with a unique reward depending on how much is donated:
For $2 per month, you’ll get a new weekly email newsletter from me, with links to the week’s best writing, important stories in religion and culture, and some reflections on various topics that won’t be published here. You’ll also get access through Patreon to the member-only blog on the Patreon page, where I will be posting 1-2 times per week.
For $5 per month, you’ll get the newsletter and the access to the Patreon blog. Additionally, I’m offering some personal writing coaching. If you’re an aspiring writer who would like to talk about style, developing an argument, best practices, how to pitch to editors, etc, I would love to offer you a few weeks’ worth of help.
For $10 per month, you’ll get all the above. I’ve also offered a special perk aimed specifically at those who want to promote their own book or writing on my blog. If you think my readers would like to know about what you do or what you think, I’ll edit and publish a 500-word post by you at my blog.
Let me say again: This blog is not becoming subscriber-only. You can choose not to donate anything, and this blog will still be around for you.
But: If you’ve been helped by this space, if you’ve found value in the kind of things I think about and say on this blog, I hope you’ll consider partnering with me in this way. Beginning now, at the end of every post, and in the sidebar to your right, I’ll be posting a link that will take you to my Patreon page. I hope you won’t find this intrusive. It’s all in the interest of, well, making blogging great again.
A friendly reminder for those visiting this page that my main blogging has moved to Mere Orthodoxy.
My latest, just posted, is a reflection for those of us who struggle in the days after Christmas. Here’s an excerpt:
The realization that it’s possible to get exactly what you want and yet feel that hope has betrayed you is one of life’s milestones. We are all born believing that what really stands between us and joy is not getting what we want. We have to be taught otherwise, and many never are. We have to be taught that peace and satisfaction are not the same thing, and then we even have to be taught that sometimes the two are opposed to each other. None of this comes naturally, because natural human nature does not discern it.
To feel disappointed by Christmas is to plunge headfirst into the truth that we are made for something even greater than hope. For the Christian, the hope of Christmas is not formless and void. It has a shape, a color, and a name.