A Falling Out for Christians and Public Schools

Rod Dreher reprints a correspondence between one of his readers and their child’s school principal, regarding a teacher’s lesson on transgenderism and sexual orientation. As the emails indicate, the parents had requested advance notice if their child’s classrooms were going to teach on the topic, so as to officially request an exemption. When that didn’t happen, and the child received a day’s worth of ideological training on gender, the frustrated parents reached out to the principal.

After initially not responding, the principal replied:

As a mother and school leader, I can empathize with the challenge of keeping up with what our children are exposed to and wanting to be their first teacher on so many issues.

I also think well of [the teacher]. She has shown herself to be a proficient teacher and student advocate.

I do not recall a conversation about how we would handle conversations about transgender issues, but I cannot imagine agreeing either to censure such material or inform you in advance. I am sorry if [the teacher] or I led you to believe such a request would be honored.

The book used is one that is a respected text in honoring the diversity of our children. It is a text that explains a real situation that many children face in self-acceptance, acceptance by others and being true to themselves. We feel the classroom is the appropriate place to share such messages.

We would not request that these themes require permission, or clearance with families. (Different than courses on sexual education, for which we do require permission.) Quite the contrary, families have asked that we enhance our curriculum to be more inclusive of all the different groups our children and families represent, and we feel that this book achieves this purpose.

Here’s what frightens me about this. I cannot imagine a reason that the parents would lie about having talked to the principal previously. There’s nothing to gain from a lie like that (especially since the reader who showed this exchange to Dreher does not reveal the name of the school/principal/teacher). There is, however, quite a bit to gain for a school in misleading parents to feel more in the know about sexual diversity training (which is what this is, not education) than they actually will be. Of course, I don’t know that this principal lied to the parents, so it would be irresponsible to say absolutely that she did. And that’s kind of the point–the alleged conversation was off the record, so the parents can’t prove that anything was agreed to or that their trust has been betrayed. If this were a whistleblowing case involving a CEO and an employee, I think I know where initial public empathy would lie.

Up to this point I’ve resisted the idea that Christian parents have a positive moral obligation to withdraw their children from public school. I still think laying a burden where Scripture does not should be avoided at nearly all costs, and I know these issues affect lower income families in a much different way than they do upper-middle class ones. To that end, if I were a pastor, I wouldn’t (I think) say from the pulpit that parents shouldn’t enroll their children in public schools.

But I have to admit that the exchange Dreher reprints is terrifying to me. It’s terrifying because it’s a naked assertion of authority that is beyond accountability. It’s terrifying because I cannot conceive what the parents could have done differently while assuming the school and its administrators were acting in good faith. It’s terrifying because the lack of nuance, the lack of sympathy, and condescending tone of the principal in these emails suggest that there is no space in her moral imagination for people who have the concerns of these parents. They simply don’t appear on the school’s radar. They don’t count. What matters is pleasing those who want compulsory transgender training in the school, even if it means being duplicitous with parents who have religious or moral scruples.

It feels more and more like the arc of history is bent in the shape of a bow, and its arrow is pointed squarely at people like me and my family.

My honest advice to orthodox Christian families right now would be to do everything possible–financially, logistically, even geographically–to have your young, school-age children spend their days at traditional institutions, or at home. And my urgent request to Christian churches would be for local congregations to quickly move to help families with this burden by organizing part time school opportunities as much as possible. If churches have to wait on that new gym in order to pay some volunteer instructors to teach 2 or 3 days per week, why not? If local churches have a strong group of stay at home moms, or dads with flexible schedules, why not engage these members to be proactive in Christian education? In thinking about public mercy ministries that churches can invest in, I can hardly think of a mercy ministry that would make a larger kingdom imprint than a part time day school. The moment and the opportunity is right there.

Oh, and as a postscript: How do progressive evangelicals who rebuke conservative Christian families for not supporting public schools reckon with all this? If you can look at this episode and come away still thinking that the real problem are moms and dads who want to do a “white flight” out of public schools, I’m afraid you’ve reached Sean Spicer-levels of objectivity. This isn’t a group of privileged Benedict Option religious fanatics who want their elementary and middle schools to teach the 10 Commandments on Thursdays. We’re talking about families whose only request is that their children not be forced to learn a destructive, secular liturgy. And that request is increasingly beyond the pale for public schools. Who is fleeing whom here?

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God Is & God Does

I’ve been reading Joe Rigney’s The Things of Earth: Treasuring God By Enjoying His Gifts, and cannot recommend it too highly. For me Joe’s contemplations have been like cold spring water on a thick August afternoon. For years I have felt like something was missing in my understanding of how to love the things God gives in the context of loving God himself supremely. Well, actually, it would be more accurate to say I’ve felt like everything was missing in my understanding! It’s one thing to hear John Piper say that God himself is the best thing, not his gifts, and to affirm it because of course. But it’s another thing entirely to then turn from that truth and look with love and joy and thankfulness at the universe, rather than with contempt or paralyzing anxiety. Joe’s book is about how to do that.

One thing Joe’s work has illuminated for me is a carelessness in evangelical talk. Growing up I frequently heard Bible teachers say something like the following: “Worship is adoring God for who he is, while praise is adoring God for what he does.” This makes all sorts of sense as long as you don’t go digging in the Bible to find it. It makes sense because it’s our nature to separate who God is from what God does. Part of that I imagine is due to a good desire to avoid idolatry. God gives us the universe but God himself is not one with it. Of course that’s true.

But I suspect something else is going in this way of speaking, and it’s precisely what Joe has in his crosshairs in this book. Separating who God is from what God does can be a lazy way of admitting that we don’t know how the two actually relate to another. It can mask a serious misunderstanding of the things of earth. It’s much easier to say “God is holy and loving” than it is to say, “God has created a physical universe and human beings whose very existence tell us that He is holy and loving.” The first sentence exists in the attic, away from the messy problems of evil and suffering and decay. The second sentence invites uncomfortable further inquiry.

But what if it’s actually not good–what if it’s actually sub-Christian–to think of God’s nature abstracted wholly from the things he has made? What if, as Jonathan Edwards said, God’s “supreme excellencies” are known through His works? What if the things of earth do not, in fact, grow strangely dim in light of his glory and grace? What if they ARE the light of his glory and grace?

Of course none of this means that God IS the Milky Way. In fact, it would be silly to talk about glory and grace if all we mean is pantheism. The universe has no grace. The universe has no begotten Son to send into the world. It has no cross to bear. The important point here is that Jesus of Nazareth was very man of very man, and very God of very God. His incarnated deity is what John calls the “exact representation” of the Father. There is no understanding God that is abstracted from flesh and blood, because whoever denies that God has come in the flesh is the anti-Christ (1 John 4). God’s works are not cordoned off from his glory. God’s glory shines in His works.

Putting Down My Inner Polemicist

I’m not a pastor, but this post by Kevin DeYoung hit me where it hurts. For the sake of clarity, “polemics” in the sense that DeYoung is using here refer to a particular mode of engaging ideas critically, with a goal of correcting bad ideas. While polemics qua polemics are inherently valuable, the word is often associated with a genre of writing that is attitudinally aggressive, critical, and negative. If you find a “polemics blog” you won’t likely find much “dialogue” or even nuance; you’ll see writers naming names and naming blasphemies.

DeYoung’s exhortations convicted me because, even though I don’t think my writing is really polemical in the above sense, it’s become clear to me that my disposition and my instincts are more polemical than I want them to be. And the biggest evidence for that is in my social media use.

Not long ago I perused my own Twitter timeline, and a frightening thought occurred to me: I probably would not follow myself. Way, way too much of what I tweeted was cynical, snarky, pedantic, and more than a bit self-important. I don’t remember, but my guess is that I probably only noticed this because I was having similar impressions of someone else’s feed (remember C.S. Lewis’s point about how prideful people are extra-sensitive to the pride of others?). I was astonished, in a very bad way, at how much time I spent thinking and saying reactive, defensive things. If my wife or a friend ever told me this is how I talked to others in non-digital life, I would be embarrassed.

The allure of polemics is the thrill. There’s an actual adrenaline kick when you’re breezily dismantling (at least in your own head) other people’s wrongness. There’s a feeling of control, of power, and, especially if this is a kind of Christianized sort, of doing God’s work. Being given a chance to feel smarter than someone else in the name of Jesus is an offer many of us can’t refuse. That’s why self-awareness is so difficult, at least for me. To stop and think, “Is this really the best use of my time and brain” is to interrupt the thrill and the superiority. And when nothing stands between your thoughts and your public words except a button smaller than your thumb that says “Tweet,” the incentives for delayed gratification are few and far between.

Now of course, engaging ideas is what I do. It’s why I write. I love thinking and writing and talking about important things, and you’re not going to think and write and talk about important things long before you’re doing to advocate for X instead of Y. That’s part of being made in the image of a truthful God and believing in a narrative of human history that says truth is knowable and real and matters.

The problem with cynical polemics, the kind that comes so easy to me, is not that they’re unnecessarily obsessed with “truth.” It’s that they actually aren’t really about truth at all. It’s about “my truth.” At the end of the day, the cranky polemicist makes everyone around him certain of only one truth: himself. A defensive posture toward everyone and everything is a posture of self-actualization. I need to ruthlessly tear down this Wrong Idea because its existence is a challenge to my existence. My opinions become my identity. And when that happens, your opinion is not just incorrect, it is incompatible with me as a person.

This is why rational discourse has become so difficult in the internet age. It’s why commenting sections degenerate so quickly into acid-throwing endurance events. And it’s why confirmation bias and declining attention spans have combined to give us a culture that equates nuance with compromise and carefulness with cowardice.

So I want to put down my inner polemicist. I want to think more and Tweet less. And I don’t want to look at the conversations of the public square as little more than a ripe opportunity to assert my own cleverness. Dear reader, for those times, either in this space or another, that I have failed this ideal, I apologize, and hope you will forgive me, and bear with me as I try to keep truth, love, and beauty in harmony.

Purpose-Driven Premodernism

I’ve finished reading Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option.” In my view, it’s a fine book, one that articulates a theologically faithful response to the West’s cultural moment. I’ll have more thoughts on it later (and a brief review in a forthcoming issue of the ERLC’s Light Magazine) , but for now I want to share a couple quick thoughts about what I found most surprising about the book.

When I started reading, I expected this book to be mostly about how Christians can outsmart the Left. And while Rod does employ some of that culture war language, I was pleased to be proven wrong. The Benedict Option is not, at least in how Rod has laid it out in the book, primarily between Christians and secularists. It is between Christians and Christ. What surprised me about the book was how overwhelmingly concerned Rod is with Christian sanctification. This is not really a battle plan to be used against progressives. It’s an instruction manual in basic Christian faithfulness. What refreshed me about “The Benedict Option” was not how much of it seemed innovative and timely, but how much of it felt familiar and old.

At one point while reading, I wrote this in the margins: “Purpose-driven premodernism.” Here’s what I mean. Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven-Life” was a massive bestseller when it was released more than 10 years ago. Now, regardless whether you think “The Purpose-Driven Life” was mostly good, mostly bad, or a mixed bag, one thing remains true: The PDL was a book that assumed the life of a Christian was structured around spiritual habits. Warren argued that a life with purpose was one that is built around faithful spiritual practices, not a life that merely tolerated them.

That’s precisely what Rod is getting at in the Benedict Option. For all the intense debate surrounding the book, its core thesis seems absurdly simple to me: An obedient, meaningful Christian life is structured around truths and practices of the faith. Trying to remain a faithful, committed, orthodox Christian while living life outside this orbit is, for Rod, a fool’s game. It’s not going to happen. The Christianity that will survive the West’s emerging secular authoritarianism is going to be a Christianity embodied in habits of mind and heart that don’t flex for the demands of modern life.

That’s why I call the Benedict Option “purpose-driven premodernism.” The main difference, I think, between Rod’s book and Warren’s book is that while the PDL assumes that a life structured around Christian disciplines is possible without conscious retreat from culture, the BenOp assumes it’s impossible. In that, I think, Rod’s book has the benefit of hindsight. Will faithfulness to the gospel require not just a collection of spiritual disciplines but an actual physical reorientation of our lives and communities? Perhaps. And if so, I think purpose-driven premodernism might be what we need.

Who Framed Christopher Hitchens?

One of my favorite books from 2016 was Larry Taunton’s The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, which I reviewed for Mere-O. I found it to be a gripping spiritual biography of an atheist. No, the words “spiritual biography of an atheist” are not self-contradictory. Atheists have spiritual lives, whether they cop to the fact or not. That’s a big part of what made Taunton’s book meaningful for me; it depicted the spiritual life of a brilliant man who, to all available evidence, died rejecting God, but who did so in a complex and conflicted way. It’s an enthralling and deeply compassionate book.

Unfortunately, many reviewers and pundits seem completely incapable of grasping the concept of an atheist with questions. Taunton’s book was repeatedly and egregiously misrepresented in the press, with critics–the vast majority of whom are atheists–blasting Taunton for claiming a “deathbed conversion” for Hitch. Taunton did nothing of the sort, but such factual trivia seemed not to matter to many who dismissed and ridiculed him.

Taunton tells his side of the story in an essay for the new issue of First Things. Access to the piece requires a subscription, which you really should do anyway. But I want to highlight one specific passage because it exemplifies the common and seriously troubling divide between media elites and the people they cover, or don’t cover.

Here’s Taunton:

After the publication of the book, Religion News Service tweeted this misleading headline: “A controversial new book claims a dying Christopher Hitchens accepted God.” RNS subsequently retracted the headline, but it was too late. Christopher Hitchens’s agent, Steve Wasserman, vociferously denounced the book. “But I really think it is a shabby business,” he said of the book that he acknowledged he had not read. Predictably, the atheist mafia crashed the book’s Amazon page—one commenter called the book “morally reprehensible”; another review bore the heading “I am ashamed to have given my money to this obvious money-grab”—and began venting their hatred there and on social media for its author and for any who had endorsed The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.

The angry response that Taunton documents–including Michael Shermer’s cowardly rescinding of his endorsement–was not directed at what Taunton had actually written. It could not have been, because Taunton never claimed what the social media team at Religion News Service said he claimed. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is explicit in disowning any idea that Hitchens converted to theism or Christianity. But that didn’t matter, because RNS, a journalism outlet, reported falsely to thousands of followers. The fact that the misleading tweet was deleted is almost irrelevant; the real question is, how could a journalism outlet manage to report that a book claims the exact opposite of what it actually says? And if this error was unintentional, that raises another question: Did the people behind the tweet and the reporting actually read the book or Taunton’s comments about it? If not, isn’t this a serious journalistic failure?

In the essay, Taunton argues that the main culprit behind this misrepresentation of his work is a  widespread presumption of atheistic immutability. I think there’s some truth to that. But I also think there’s an important story here about the (quite common) collision between media culture and the truth, between the all-powerful, all-justifying “Narrative” and the complicated details of reality, especially the reality of religion and religious people. The Narrative says that atheists are who they are because they are committed to the truth, and that religious folks are who they are because they need comfort, validation, or promise of cosmic comeuppance. The Narrative says that the road from faith to skepticism is one way, and that education and “real world” experience tend toward secularism, while ignorance and tribalism incubate faith.

For those who deny that such a Narrative drives media coverage, Taunton’s experience with his book is difficult to explain. After all, it is not a work of punditry or philosophizing. It is a memoir, written in first person, documenting not arguments and reasons but conversations and letters. In an age in which the only propositional truth statements that can’t be ignored are the ones beginning with “I feel,” the hostile and dogmatic response to Taunton’s portrait of his friend is notable.

There has been much talk lately about bridging the gap between the “two Americas,” bursting our ideological and existential bubbles, and straining toward genuine empathy. This is a worthwhile goal. But if it’s going to happen, then those who make a living telling others the news have to reckon with the mistrust they face from many people, and acknowledge that at least some of it is deserved. Until such a time as journalists and their employers feel genuine embarrassment at misleading millions of readers when it comes to people of faith, that mistrust isn’t going anywhere, and I’m not sure it should.

InterVarsity

In reflecting on InterVarsity’s recent decision, two things occur to me.

The first is that critics of the decision need to realize that, even though fealty to IV’s evangelical doctrinal heritage was clearly the decisive factor here, it wasn’t conservative evangelicalism that forced this kind of move. Rather, the political and cultural pressure has been coming from Obergefell champions and theological revisionists. Consider that a couple years ago the organization was “de-recognized” by the California State University system, because of its policy requiring members to hold to a New Testament ethic of sexuality. Progressive columnists praised California for enforcing its ideology and mocked evangelical concern that such a move represented a hostile posture toward historic Christian doctrine. Fast forward to this past summer’s showdown between the Golden State and Biola University, and the reality is unmissable: Organizations and institutions, no matter how much they serve students and taxpayers, are subject to sexual revolutionary tests.

What this means is that InterVarsity was given a choice, not by evangelical subculture, but by the cultural headwinds: Either you can curry favor with states like California by adopting doctrines on marriage and gender that run afoul of your history, your heritage, and your mission, or you can risk alienating some students, staff, and the right side of history, for the sake of the right side of the faith. That was a choice given to them by one side, not the other, and not both.

Second, it seems pretty clear to me that InterVarsity didn’t make this decision because they wanted to “win.” If you were a person in charge of making sure that IV had political protection, sufficient funding, and great PR in the next few decades, would you have advised them to adopt this policy? Of course not. And this is important because it gets to the heart of what many progressive evangelicals accuse traditionalists of–namely, exploiting the culture war for gain. For years, mainline Protestants and others have argued time and time again that conservative evangelical institutions thrive when they play culture war. Thus, it is reasoned, we have an obsession over issues like homosexuality and abortion, rather than mercy and justice, because the former are politically profitable and the latter are not.

But can anyone with a shred of intellectual responsibility look at the cultural and political landscape that InterVarsity finds itself in, and argue that they are engorging themselves on wedge issues? One point that needs to be said repeatedly is that by adopting a formal policy, InterVarsity is showing its LGBT and affirming students and staff that it has no interest in profiting from their confusion. I’m sure this is a difficult time for some who love InterVarsity, but by playing both ends against the middle, never saying anything certain but always nodding a head in both directions–is that really a better culture for InterVarsity to build for those on opposite sides of this theological divide?

You may disagree vehemently with InterVarsity. But what everyone, regardless of conviction, should agree on is that we have here an example of people who are selling out to principle. Right or wrong, truth or fiction–that’s worthy of respect, and also worthy of a moment of grief for a society that so often encourages the opposite.

Atheism Is Not Endearing

While looking for something else, I stumbled across this quote from the actor/atheist Hugh Laurie.

I find my atheism is becoming more marked with each passing year. I once prided myself on a relaxed and respectful attitude to other people’s beliefs, but I’m finding it harder to keep that up. I might find myself taking a tougher line with people about certain beliefs that are so painfully nonsensical. Because nonsense is not endearing or eccentric anymore – it’s causing death, destruction, and endless torment for millions of people around the world.

What’s funny to me about this is that it describes perfectly my own attitude toward atheism. When I was an undergraduate I thought atheists were generally intellectual powerhouses who had serious and meaningful challenges to the existence of God. Or, perhaps they were deep thinkers who had endured such awful tragedy in their personal life, that no other narrative except unbelief could offer a reassuring explanation of their suffering. For a long time this was the idea that I had about the “skeptics” and the teachers they so enthusiastically emulated.

But over the last couple of years, I too have experienced a shift  from a “relaxed and respectful attitude,” and exactly for the reasons that Laurie mentions: The stakes are too high and the effects of this worldview are too toxic. Contrary to what my undergraduate self imagined, I have discovered that more than a few self-described “skeptics” remain skeptics chiefly because they have taken exhaustive efforts to never be challenged in this regard. The number of atheists I’ve met and corresponded with who will admit to not knowing one historic argument for the existence of God, or not having one acquaintance with a believer who can seriously argue his case, is astonishing.

Beyond this, I’ve seen that the intellectual case for atheism, which I had believed to be so formidable, is not just irreparably deformed from a logical perspective, but also from a humane one as well. To read the latest and most popular volumes of skepticism from people like Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins is to confront an intellectual system that is nakedly bankrupt in moral and aesthetic value. The efforts of “scientism” to explain away the transcendent phenomenon of beauty, and the personal experience of the numinous, is nothing less than a project to sweep the legs out from under hope and human freedom. The fruits of such a belief system are evident, too: Atheism is the undisputed ruler of the internet, but it reigns alongside the most twisted forms of pornography and human degradation imaginable. There is a reason that Reddit and 4Chan are bastions of sophomore skepticism on one wing, and factories of sexual nihilism and abuse in the other.

I’ve lost my patience with atheism, but I hope I haven’t lost my patience with atheists. I still enjoy very much talking about these things with the unconvinced. And, of course, as a Christian, I have an eschatological motivation in those conversations. But as Laurie succinctly said, I don’t find the whole thing endearing anymore. There’s just too much, and too many, to be saved from it.

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Millennials and their stories

Not all generational critiques are made equal. To say that baby boomers were like this or that Generation Y’ers acted like that carries with it inherent risks of overgeneralization, ad hominem, and just pure nonsense. And of course, all observation is done by an observer, and observers need to be observed too. When it comes to commenting on generational characteristics/flaws, one can never be too mindful of the proverbial plank and the proverbial speck.

But let’s put that aside for a moment and consider millennials. I am a millennial. My wife is a millennial. My closest friends are millennials, and a fair amount of my reading and personal formation has come via millennials. Millennials are many good things. They tend to be energetic, generally polite, and creative in ways that make them stand out from the averages of their parents and grandparents. But I’m afraid that one characteristic that is defining many millennials is one with very serious and troubling implications: Millennials are all about “my story.”

Millennials tend to think of the world as a movie in which they are the star. That’s not just a verbose way of saying that millennials are vain; rather, that’s how millennials relate to their world. They tend to understand the facts, events, and realities around them either in relationally immediate or relationally nonexistent categories. Either something is crucial to their well being and their life, or it’s totally irrelevant. Thus, many younger millennials are totally apathetic about politics, but the ones who care often care in a possessive, personal way. A millennial who doesn’t feel that politics is part of their “movie” often comes across as lazy and uncaring about the world, when in reality they just can’t comprehend why emotional capital should be spent on something that doesn’t involve them.

On the other hand, a millennial who cares about politics will often display an inordinate amount of passion and sensitivity about politics; to cross their views is to cross them personally. And here is where this characteristic of millennials becomes most troublesome. Because millennials view their lives as individual narratives in which the rest of the world plays a supporting role, they tend to be fiercely protective of their identities. The key part of a millennial’s identity is not (often unlike their parents) their religion, their ethnicity, or their family name. Rather, a millennial’s identity rests chiefly in their story. A millennial’s story is the fundamental part of who they are, the most important thing about the most important part of their “movie.” And it’s often the one thing that must never be challenged or questioned.

For a millennial, a story isn’t just a mark of identification, it’s a holy source of authority. I say holy with all seriousness. Even millennials with deeply held religious beliefs often talk about those beliefs not as universal realities that concern billions of people and with trans-historic importance, but as a part of their individual story. To disagree with someone’s religion is, for a millennial, not so much a challenge to an objective set of truth claims as it is a personal challenge to someone’s identity, worth, and value. To question my religion is to question me, and to question me is to try to invade my “movie” to create your own.

Now, when it comes to religion, that characteristic has been true of many people, not just millennials. But in millennials, we often see this tendency exhibited in most subjects, not just religion. This is precisely why The Atlantic ran a recent cover story on the “coddling of the American mind,” a movement within American higher education that seeks to cater to millennials’ emotional mores through academic suppression. It’s important to remember that the young adults who are asking for administrative (and sometimes legal) intervention to prevent being confronted with offensive content are not faking it. They are not putting on airs. They are genuinely unable to process the stress and the epistemological labor of learning and being in a context that is not immediately friendly to their stories. They can’t go forward until they are reassured that who they are is who they are supposed to be, and that nothing and no one can ever legitimately challenge that.

What’s fascinating is that while the stories of millennials are often invulnerable to critique (because they are not an arguable set of facts but an extension of personal identity and experience), they are, ironically, often applied in an authoritative way towards others. For a millennial, an anecdote isn’t just an argument, it’s the best argument. A personal story in which someone is wounded or hurt by a particular law or politician is in fact far more effective and persuasive to a millennial than a complex series of logical arguments. This effect is compounded greatly by the fact that, in the age of the internet, information and knowledge are accessible to the same millions of people within seconds. Everyone is now an expert, and the best experts are not the ones who can string together the best facts and the best logic but the people who can tell the best story. That’s why anti-vaccine blogs flourish despite sharing the very medium that offers anyone without a medical degree some level of knowledge about inoculation. The anti-vaccination movement thrives not on strong logic but on strong stories (some of which are undoubtedly true).

Because millennials see their stories as authoritative, they are often as surprised to hear their narratives challenged or questioned as would be a 14 year old fundamentalist hearing the Bible questioned his first day of public high school. To say that a young twentysomething’s testimony of self-empowerment from the porn industry is incorrect and foolish is the height of arrogance to a millennial. To insist that abortion be illegal in the face of a personal story about a life seemingly saved from poverty by the termination of a pregnancy sounds not just callous and cold but breathtakingly ignorant to a millennial. That’s because what is being challenged is not merely philosophy or ideology but–in a very real sense–a sense of self.

What’s needed from the church in ministry to millennials is a presentation of Christian truth that is invasive. The gospel invades not only our intellectual presuppositions but also our baseline sense of identity and autonomy. The movie of our life in which we are stars is not, in fact, our movie, but the creative work of a Writer and Director whose authoritative control is both good and good for us. If we try as Christians to reach unbelieving millennials by appealing to their felt needs (“You should really feel the peace that Jesus gives,” “I’m so happy because of Christ”), we may unwittingly affirm their most un-Christian convictions.

There’s nothing but freedom in realizing that not even my story is ultimately about me. There’s nothing but peace and real lasting joy in losing ourselves for the sake of another, and for the sake of each other. To be invaded is a wonderful thing. There is a story better than my story, and it goes on and on, forever.

___________________

Image Credit: “Teens sharing a song” by SCA Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons

How “God’s Not Dead” fails Christian students

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I took the plunge that I had been studiously avoiding and turned on God’s Not Dead, the evangelical blockbuster movie from last year that has thus far raked in cash, awards, and even designation as the “best Christian movie of the year.” I had seen beforehand its 17% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and read thoughtfully critical takes on the movie. I was more or less prepared to watch a bad film, and indeed that’s what I got.

The failures of “God’s Not Dead” are particularly frustrating when you consider how easily they could have been avoided. There’s nothing wrong with God’s Not Dead that couldn’t be fixed by handing the script to a writer who isn’t eager to portray non-Christians in the worst light possible. The film feels less like a dramatic narrative and more like a propaganda reel, highlighting The Enemy in all their inglorious abominations.

It would be one thing for the movie to caricature non-evangelicals if it had no aspirations to realism in the beginning. I actually would be curious to watch a well-done diatribe against the secularist monopoly on higher education; the potential to learn something in that context seems high. But the medium of dramatic narrative is a higher medium than a lecture. It engages the imagination and moves the spirit in a more significant way. That’s why God’s Not Dead’s animosity towards its non-Christian characters is dangerous; if Christians come away thinking unbelievers in real life are like the unbelievers of God’s Not Dead (and that is clearly the message of the script), they will be carrying a spiteful fantasy into their relationships and evangelism that will be fatal to Gospel conversations.

Fairly representing those who disagree is not something that Christians should be bad at doing. Telling the truth about what people believe and engaging them like honest people isn’t a spiritual gift or an acquired skill. It’s basic honesty. How can I criticize the anathematizing of people like Brendan Eich and Ryan Anderson if after hours I myself enjoy caricatures of those who disagree with me?

I understand why people enjoy “God’s Not Dead.” It’s a brief moment of cinematic glory for Christians who, for good reason, often feel lampooned and marginalized in pop culture. But it’s a moment that comes at the expense of a helpful or even realistic perspective on the dialogues between faith and unbelief. The vast majority of atheists that Christian students will meet in college are nothing like the professor from God’s Not Dead. If these students go into school expecting the contrary, the cognitive dissonance that will result from seeing a reality that contradicts their assumptions will have a worse effect on their faith than a few hours of talking with a unbeliever could ever have.