Evangelicals and the (Complex) Persecution Complex

Conversations about American Christians and religious liberty are dysfunctional to the core.

Bonnie Kristian surely writes for almost all in the journalist class when she ridicules Mike Pence’s comments about Christians and religious freedom. “This is the evangelical persecution complex in action,” she writes, and “suggests an embarrassing ignorance of history and the teachings of Christ alike, and to those outside the church it unquestionably reads more as whining than witness.” I’m not sure whether by “those outside the church” Kristian means everyone who isn’t an evangelical Christian, or everyone who is sympathetic to progressive politics whenever they collide with Christian conviction. If she means the second, she’s definitely right. If she means the first, she might be surprised at the religious non-Christians who also feel threatened.

Anyway, Kristian’s argument is a familiar one. She says that 1) Christians have historically been persecuted (and are currently persecuted around the world), so Pence’s implicit nostalgia is misleading; 2) the gospel promises opposition to genuine faith, so Pence’s call to political culture war is at odds with Jesus’ teachings; and 3) Christians actually enjoy power and privilege in the United Sates, so Pence is simply lying in suggesting to young believers they are being actively discriminated against. She concludes, “For Christians here in the United States, this sort of rhetoric has a “boy who cried wolf” effect where religious liberty issues are concerned.”

With regard to Pence’s comments, I think Kristian is understandably cynical, but her argument has problems. First, from the manuscript, it looks to me as if Pence was careful to avoid saying that American Christians are persecuted in the same sense that Christians across the globe are. Rather, he said that while the church global is often persecuted, American evangelicals face intolerance and social pressure to capitulate—something that feels self-evidently true in the post-Obergefell era. Second, she seems to imply that political influence and economic privilege rule out any kind of meaningful prejudice. But how does that square with her reminder that Christ promised that his followers would regularly experience enmity? If any political capital rules out any form of persecution, is the conclusion that Barronnelle Stutzman and Jack Phillips must not be genuine believers?

The problem, though, is not really Kristian’s argument, nor Pence’s. The problem is that the entire conversation about religious persecution is dysfunctional to the core.  If there’s a better contemporary example of the genetic fallacy and the age of lumping than the issue of religious liberty, I can’t think of it. It’s absolutely soaked in out-grouping and gainsaying those whom your tribe dislikes, no matter what they’re saying.

My suspicion is that there are many fair-minded people who know that Christian universities are facing authentic forms of political pressure, but can’t bring themselves to endorse this idea publicly because of how it would lump them in with the GOP or religious right. It’s true that American Christians are often quick to find conspiracy when really only the market and a rapidly diversifying culture exist. But it’s also true that evangelical educators and business owners have been in court quite a bit lately, and that even the “victories” appear to leave the door open to a radical new understanding of what is and isn’t a permissible exercise of religion in the public square. The issue isn’t that evangelical political persecution never happens, the issue is that evangelicals and everyone to the left of them fundamentally disagree about whether it’s “persecution” or “the price of citizenship.” If you think that same-sex marriage and transgenderism are fundamental human rights, and that anyone doing any business in public should be required to recognize and accommodate those rights, then by definition you are going to see through 90% of religious liberty cases as simply whining.

As in a lot of things, the question “does group X experience Y” is really proxy question for, “What is group X and what should their experience be like?” This is the same way that debates about racial injustice in policing or politics get stuck. That there is no systemic injustice against ethnic minorities can never be disproved if it comes from the prior belief that systemic injustice is impossible because we’re all Americans. Likewise, what’s underneath a lot of the ridicule of the “evangelical persecution complex” is a steadfast belief that certain traditional elements of Christian theology are illegitimate in a civil culture. Isn’t it impossible to persecute persecution, to be intolerant toward intolerance? Stuck in between all this are, again, fair-minded folks who sense something is off when nuns are sued over contraception or adoption agencies are shut down, but refuse to be mapped onto Twitter alongside Donald Trump or Pat Robertson.

Worst of all, “Are evangelicals persecuted” is often asked completely devoid of geographic or socioeconomic context. Without qualifiers, the question really reads, “Are the evangelicals you see on TV and read about in magazines persecuted by people like you?” This fails utterly to take into account how pocketed American life has become, how diverse yet intensely concentrated.  What it means to be a traditionalist Christian in Marietta, Georgia means something very different than what it means to be one in San Francisco. For all our obsession over federal politics and national headlines, it’s worth remembering that people don’t risk their jobs or their relationship with their neighbors on a national level, but a local one. And it’s often true that small things punch deep holes in grand narratives.

All this is why I don’t use the phrase “persecution complex” to describe evangelicals. To me the phrase comes more from (warranted) frustration with evangelical political engagement than a fair consideration of the facts. And I don’t think it helps those outside the Christian tribe who may be experiencing prejudice and threats to constantly talk religious liberty concerns down.

But I also think it’s fair to also be skeptical of commencement addresses that sound like pre-battle hype speeches. Bonnie Kristian is right to suggest that a steady diet of this rhetoric undermines thankfulness and orients hearts toward victimhood and resentment rather than mission.  After all, the reason so many want so badly an answer to the question “Are evangelicals persecuted” is so they can know how to treat them or how to demand to be treated. Ours is a society in which far too much of our experience depends on whether we are sorted in a pitiable class. I can only take you seriously and care about you if you’re being run down by the outgroup. Forget neighborliness. Advocacy is where it’s at.

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The Besetting Sin of Christian Worldview Education

Why do many evangelicals fail to recognize the genetic fallacy?

The besetting sin of Christian worldview education is the genetic fallacy, defined as an irrational error made by appealing to something’s origin (or “temporal order”) to explain away its truth-claims (or “logical order”). Here’s an example of how someone using the genetic fallacy (GF) might respond to various arguments:

A: “Politics is downstream from culture.”

GF: “Andrew Breitbart said that, and he was a right-wing troll, so you’re obviously wrong.”

B: “The unanimous testimony of Scripture is that homosexual acts are sinful.”

GF: “That’s exactly what Westboro Baptist Church says. Do we really want to be like them?”

C: “How well or poorly policies and systems treat minorities matters to God.”

GF: “Progressive Democrats talk about systemic injustice all the time. This is just code for abortion/socialism.”

Notice that in each example of the genetic fallacy, the retort is factually true. Andrew Breitbart DID say that politics was downstream from culture, and he DID popularize a belligerent style of journalism. Westboro Baptist Church DOES preach against homosexuality, and they ARE a horribly cruel cult. Progressives DO talk a lot about systemic injustice, and they often DO mean abortion and socialism as part of the solution. The retorts are true, or at least believable.

So if the retorts are true, why are these answers fallacious? Because they do not answer the actual question. Statements A, B, C make independent  claims that stand alone. By invoking a suspect source and then critiquing it, the responses are actually responding to a claim—about the worthiness of the source—that’s not being made. In other words, the retorts don’t actually tell us anything about the validity of the claim, only the validity of people who make similar claims. But since truthful statements and human credibility are not the same thing, the retorts miss the argument entirely. It would be little different, logically, if you told someone you believe it would rain later and her response was, “I don’t think so, because you need to clean your car. ” Ridiculous, right?

And yet the genetic fallacy is, in my experience, one of the logical errors least likely to be recognized in conversation. Each of the examples above are actual statements and retorts I have seen in prestigious magazines or from well-educated speakers. Evangelicals rarely rise above contemporary culture on this, too. This week Joe Carter was accused by some readers of this TGC column of smuggling in language from secular, disreputable sources. Without even dipping a toe in the debate over whether Joe’s piece makes a valid argument (I think it does, for the record), shouldn’t there be a little bit more incredulity that some professionally trained theologians sincerely believe “This term was coined by a Marxist” is an actual counter-argument?

My working theory is that much Christian worldview pedagogy, with its one-note emphasis on coherent systematization of religion, has habituated a lot of us to care more about identifying the ideological “root” of a claim than the claim itself. If you believe that the ultimate marker of Christian belief is how it contrasts in every aspect to non-Christian systems, then it makes sense to evaluate truth claims by whether they originate from the right system or not. If they don’t—in particular, if they’re a widely held belief among non-Christians—then those claims are de facto inconsistent with Christianity, because they fail the ideological paternity test.

So in a conversation about, say, conservatism and white nationalism, an evangelical who thinks strictly in terms of worldview systems comes into the conversation with much different goals than someone who doesn’t think like that. The worldview-shaped evangelical is constantly pulled in the direction of Sort, Contrast, Dismiss: Sort truth claims (“White nationalism influences some parts of conservative politics”) into appropriate “Teams” based on where this claim is most likely to come from. Here, the answer is obvious: Secular liberals and progressives. Having sorted, the worldview-shaped evangelical can now Contrast, but here’s a twist: He doesn’t have to contrast the claim itself, he only has to contrast the team into which he has sorted the claim, against the “team” he identifies with. So he contrasts secular progressivism with conservative Christianity…and now it’s all over but the yelling. He can safely Dismiss the claim that “white nationalism influences some parts of conservative politics” on the basis that this statement embodies the antithesis of his religious worldview—all without actually examining the factual basis of the claim.

The only way to break this cycle would be to convince our worldview-shaped friend that a secular progressive can be wrong about Christianity and abortion but right about white nationalism. But it’s likely that this just isn’t how he was educated. To grant that a secular progressive could be right is to open the door, to teeter on the slippery slope, to the claim that the progressive is right about everything: God, the unborn, religious liberty, etc. To grant that a secular progressive might be right is to grant a measure of legitimacy to his intellectual system. If the underlying presupposition of the worldview-shaped evangelical is that only one truth system can have any legitimacy, then this is unthinkable.

It’s unthinkable partly because it’s difficult to hold such a notion in one’s head. But it’s also difficult because, in a culture war society, the capacity of our beliefs to generate enemies and weapons against those enemies is actually a measure we use of truthfulness. The more enemies you have, the more oppressed you are, and the more oppressed you are, the more there must be a reason for that oppression. And everyone thinks the reason is that they’re right.

Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square

In our era, what’s truly Christian or conservative is not always easy to discern.

A few years ago, Bill Maher appeared on the (now shuttered) Charlie Rose Show. Maher is one of the smugger, less sufferable “New atheist” types, and has more or less made a lucrative career out of representing conservatives and religious people, especially Christians, as idiots at best and theocrats at worst. So it was a bit surprising to see a clip from his interview with Charlie Rose getting passed around with enthusiasm amongst many conservative (and Christian) politicos. Continue reading “Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square”

The Present and Future of Christian Blogging

Interacting with Tim Challies on the future of Christian blogging

A few days ago Tim Challies published a helpful article that described three different kinds of blogging. The upshot of his piece was that Christian blogging, especially the evangelical kind, has to a great extent been reduced to one variety: The large, multi-authored “ministry blog.” Tim’s observation is that, whereas a decade ago there were lots of individual bloggers publishing regularly on their own platforms, today most of those bloggers have given up writing in their own space and are instead pitching and being published by the large ministry blogs. Interestingly, Tim then makes a case that this trend actually constitutes a decline of blogging and the ascent of something (resembling a traditional journalism industry) to replace it:

What is essential to those ministry sites (the ability to solicit, accept, reject, and edit articles) contradicts an essential element of a blog (the ability to write without editorial control). Where blogging is a medium by and for amateurs, ministry blogs have a paradigm that is far more professional. Again, they have their place but, while they may displace blogs, they don’t quite replace them.

Tim’s concern is that the decline of personal blogging signals the loss of what blogging empowers among writers: The ability to freely and quickly exchange ideas without editors or publications’s “filtering” the work. So then, the displacement of personal blogging spaces by large ministry blogs brings us full circle back to the days of traditional periodicals, where editors and Boards of Directors and a handful of professional people dictate the writing agenda, select and edit pieces, and condemn most voices to obscurity.

Let me submit a qualified agreement with Tim’s concern. I think Tim’s right to believe that what made blogging useful in its heyday is precisely what’s being undermined by the proliferation of larger, edited blogs. If we think of the Christian blogosphere like an industry, with individual, personal blogs as small businesses, then the ministry blogs are the Wal-Marts and Speedways and shopping malls; they exist, in a sense, to get as big as possible and (in the process) put the other guys out of business.

Further, in the ascendancy of Wal-Marts and shopping malls individuals lose something more than a feeling of smallish intimacy and familiarity—we lose a significant amount of control over the industry itself. Thus, ten years ago, if you wanted to get people in your slice of conservative evangelicalism to talk about something, you could write a blog about it. Nowadays, the best way to get someone to talk about it is to convince an editor at TGC or Desiring God or Christianity Today to publish your 1,000 word article—something that most Christians (even articulate ones) won’t do and many can’t do. Tim’s point, if I’m reading him correctly, is that having a small number of paid editors basically regulate what the online evangelical world is saying is both an intellectual and literary downgrade from the days when blogs were a rule unto themselves.

Interestingly, this argument is not unlike what Alan Jacobs has written in defense of personal websites over and against social media accounts. Jacobs has privacy and ownership in mind moreso than the free flow of discourse, but it’s not difficult to see how his and Tim’s points might converge. In both cases, the impulse is against what we might call digital landlords and for a kind of cultivation of online space in ways that are personal and, thus, more responsible.

I said above I was going to offer a “qualified” agreement with Tim. In short, I agree with him that the decline of personal blogging is a net loss for Christian writers, and that there are problems to inherit with the rise and growth of larger ministry sites. Here’s my qualification: I think the proliferation of large, professionally edited sites, while a net loss for bloggers, is probably a net gain for readers.

As I see it, Tim is right in articulating the problems that come when evangelical online writing is heavily filtered toward these large sites. But I think we could add  that there are problems to deal with when it is not filtered, and that these problems are, for most Christian readers (not writers), trickier to deal with than the other kind. I’ll mention 3 of them:

i) The problem of theological authority. Tish Harrison Warren got right to the heart of the matter a while back ago when she asked, “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” As personal online platforms grow and grow, and as those platforms become a de facto source of authority in other people’s lives (most of these platforms call it being an “influencer” rather than an authority, but it’s really the same), a serious question emerges: How do we navigate the competing claims of dozens of bloggers whose voices are both equally present and equally ephemeral through the internet?

The proliferation of large ministry blogs is, I think, a partial answer to that question. You might think TGC publishes the wrong perspective on a given topic, but the point is that TGC publishes such a perspective only after a leadership group that coheres theologically (to a great extent) decides to publish it. This is part of what gives TGC’s platform a kind of spiritual authority to many people. It’s certainly an imperfect spiritual authority, as any earthly spiritual authority will be and any online spiritual authority will doubly be. But readers can locate these imperfections much more specifically and cogently because of TGC’s centralization than they could in the wild west of individual blogs.

ii) The problem of social media and online “presence.” I think it’s Tim himself who has pointed out that in the evangelical blogosphere’s golden days, the blog served the same role as Twitter now does.  Today, the only way to thrive as a blogger is to maintain an online presence through social media. For better or worse, social media is to blogging what a WiFi connection is to browsing the web: You don’t strictly have to have it, but you’re not going anywhere fast without it. Social media is by far the #1 driver of traffic to individual blogs.

Now of course, the same is probably true for the large ministry sites. But the consolidation of the evangelical blogosphere into professionally edited publications ameliorates this dynamic, especially for readers who want to become writers. One of the biggest reasons I don’t encourage more people to blog is that I know that doing so is encouraging them to cultivate a heavier presence on social media—which, I’m convinced, is something we all should be doing less of. Large ministry sites that review unsolicited pitches are a bulwark against this. You don’t have to have a bazillion Instagram followers and a gnawing sense of FOMO and despair in order to be taken seriously in your pitch.

iii) The problem of literary excellence. Near the end of his article, Tim writes that “we will develop better writing and writers when we can write substantially and freely.” I wonder if he has perhaps confused writing with blogging. While I absolutely agree that the best way to cultivate a healthy evangelical writing world is to encourage more of it, I think Tim’s formulation leaves out the integral role that editing plays in the development of literary excellence.

Blogging has always had a catch-22: It promotes writing growth through constant access to the craft, but such access is purchased by eliminating some of the things that most help develop writers. Editing, both at the conceptual and copy level, grows writers. To the degree that bloggers learn how to write underneath the process and principles of editing, you will almost certainly see writing habits that express emotivism and logical fallacies. I would argue that in the some of the darker corners of both the conservative and progressive Christian blogosphere, you can see stark examples of bloggers who have rarely, if ever, surrendered their work to someone who could evaluate their approach. I think professional editors are a welcome antidote to this. Their growing presence in the evangelical writing world has borne good fruit.

As I said above, I think these three problems with an expansive Christian blogosphere are different problems for writers than they are for readers. Writers will always want more space to write. Writers can devote chunks of time to thinking through issues and shaping their ideas. Most readers, though, are at the mercy of social media and the level of theological confidence that online writers can project onto their own personal platforms. To the degree that large “ministry blogs” have pushed Christian bloggers to the margins, we should lament. But to the degree that they have reached more Christian readers with trustworthy content that takes form and message equally seriously, we ought to celebrate.

Don’t Punish the Unborn with Your Vote

Christian, vote angry, but do not punish the unborn in your anger.

This week a lot of Americans, including Christians, will be voting angry. Much of that anger will be righteous and just. There is much to mourn about our national politics, much injustice to grieve, and much moral disqualification to disgust us. For that reason, I’ve seen some friends of mine post how eager they will be to get to the polls and throw a vote in the direction opposite of the White House. I get it. They’re fed up and tired.

Here’s a plea, though: Don’t punish the unborn with your angry vote. Don’t punish them by forgetting them in your zeal to see the current administration checked and the ruling party disarmed. Don’t give the abortion industry what it craves: The erstwhile support of those who know better but feel pinched into the craven dichotomies of American politics.

I’m torn about being “a single issue voter.” On the one hand, abortion is not the only injustice that matters, and we’ve seen for the past 3 years how an opportunistic political movement can manipulate pro-life convictions. Pitting the lives of unborn children against, say, the lives of unarmed black men or the lives of the unemployed poor is a depraved dualism. To the degree that single-issue pro-life politics has reinforced this dualism, it should be ashamed of itself.

On the other hand, is there a more tired, more dishonest note in our political discourse than tone-policing the pro-life movement? I fear that some well-meaning pro-lifers have inadvertently sold out their convictions by accepting the moral equivalency pushed on them by both the pro-choice left and the economic right. We are supposed to take for granted that Trump’s election has de-legitimized the pro-life movement. We are not supposed to ask the unborn children rescued at crisis pregnancy centers if they agree.

Cutting through the fog, we see two obvious truths. One, the pro-life movement has been appropriated by politicians and activists who do not share its core convictions and who are happy to use the post-Roe divisions in American society for their own ethno-nationalist gains. Two, we still have in the United States a major political party that is devoted, hand over heart, to the easy and unchecked killing of tiny people for virtually any reason whatsoever. I can’t see any way for pro-life Christians to change these truths in 2018. We are dealt a loathsome hand. But that doesn’t mean there is no wisdom to apply.

Two years ago, many evangelicals said that they were unable to vote for either major party presidential candidate. I don’t see anything that’s happened in the past two years to change this logic, at least at a party level. There may be a pro-life argument for voting for a radically pro-choice party in a given election, but I’m not sure what that argument is. Some will say that voting along abortion lines is a non-starter since neither national party is authentically pro-life. This may very well be true (in fact, I suspect it is), but it’s a little bit like saying there’s no point in being a racial justice voter since neither party is sufficiently invested in equity and reconciliation. If you think the latter logic fails while the former logic works, you should ask yourself why you think that.

In my personal view, the Christians who are able to stand on the most consistent, most cohesive political theology are the ones who refrained from picking the lesser of two evils in 2016 and will continue to decline doing so in 2018. Unborn children will almost certainly still be at the mercy of Roe v. Wade long after the White House has been flipped.

There will be a day very, very soon when the resilient American republic will repudiate (at least for a moment) what’s happened to its national politics and some semblance of sanity will return. But until an immoral judicial fiat from 1973 is reversed, there will be millions of little, defenseless, utterly vulnerable Americans who reap no benefit from that. And there will remain an entire political machine that actively works to keep it that way. How effective that political machine’s work will be depends, in part, on how many Trump-weary Christians sigh, concede the point, and elect that machine’s favored candidates. My hope is that Christians would reject this dilemma entirely, and assert the radical un-sortableness of their kingdom citizenship.

Perhaps Gandalf said it best:

“Other evils there are that may come, for Sauron is himself but a servant or emissary. Yet it is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.”

 

My Trouble with Interactive Bible Teaching (on Sunday)

Three reasons to save those questions and comments until after the class.

Here’s a thought I’ve been sitting on for several years and haven’t been able to get rid of—Sunday morning Bible teaching should not allow for mid-sermon or mid-lesson comments from the congregation/class. This may sound weird because most evangelical churches don’t welcome comments from the congregation in the middle of the sermon, though I have seen that. On the other hand, very many Sunday school lectures, classroom Bible studies, and other church teaching times do allow for members to interject their own thoughts in the flow of the class time. I think this is a mistake that (usually) doesn’t serve the purpose people assume it does.

I realize that saying that a Bible lesson should not stop for contributions from those in the class sounds to some incredibly elitist and anti-democratic, maybe even sub-Protestant! But my thinking here is not that regular church members are incapable of shedding light on theology or spiritual wisdom. Far from it. Rather, it’s that the actual practice almost always, at least in my experience, benefits the person speaking far more than it benefits the others in the class. In other words, interactive Bible times that muddle the distinction between a teacher’s teaching and members’ teaching tend to obscure helpful truth for everyone.

Let me offer three brief arguments from this: one argument from Scripture, and two from experience/reason.

The Scriptural argument is that in the New Testament, “teaching” is not just something that incidentally happens in the church. It is a spiritual gift that invokes both authority and competency (2 Tim. 2:22). This is why the Holy Spirit intentionally gives teachers to the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11). The kind of teaching that God uses doesn’t happen spontaneously by aggregating the insights of the whole congregation. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there is some divinely engineered IQ or temperament that makes some people teachers and others people not. Any kind of person can teach (though there’s good reason for restricting a congregation-wide teaching role to men). But the one who teaches must be competent to teach, and that competency can be recognized specifically rather than generically.

When a person stands up, for example, in Sunday school to offer their two cents on the topic, they are, in a real sense, briefly assuming the role of teacher. There are contexts where I think this kind of contribution is totally good and valuable–midweek Bible study groups for example. But those groups differ than the Sunday morning class time in two important respects. First, those Bible study groups are groups rather than classes, and most people (in my experience) can intuit the difference between facilitator of group discussion and a teacher. Second, a Sunday morning class time is created and facilitated by the church itself, which means that the church leadership implicitly endorses the teaching competency of the class leader. A person who stands to offer a lengthy riposte or addition to the teacher is, likely unwittingly, functioning as an un-vetted, unaccountable teacher—something that I sincerely don’t believe the New Testament recognizes.

Finally, a couple arguments from experience. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a mid-lesson comment from a congregant during a Sunday school lecture or class that was genuinely helpful. I could be wrong. But I also don’t believe that I’ve ever given a mid-lesson comment that was actually helpful. In fact, as I look into my own heart, I can see that the vast majority of times that I’ve felt the need to interject in those times I have done so because I wanted the other people in the class to think I was insightful. Not only is this unhelpful for the other people in the room (who don’t care how smart I am), but it’s actually spiritually counterproductive for me—since motives matter and desiring the praise of other people is a snare (John 5:44). My guess is that this is a common motivation in these kinds of incidents. Wouldn’t it be helpful for the spiritual health of people like me if classes simply set aside enough time after the end of the lesson to ask questions and give feedback?

Second, I think one service the church should be offering Christians is a deeply counter-cultural reordering of our epistemology. What I mean is that the age of the internet has ruthlessly democratized information so much that a lot of people struggle to cultivate and apply wisdom merely because there are so many voices in their head (social media, Google, cable news, etc). A church teaching time that doesn’t make a sufficient distinction between the person with the competency and gifting to engage with Scripture and communicate truth clearly to the Body, and the people who stand to benefit from the Spirit’s gift in that person, is a time that reinforces the death of expertise and the myth of crowdsourced wisdom. Hierarchy is not a swear word, and there’s a lot that evangelicals can do to be salt and light in a wisdom-starved age.

Movie Reviews and Evangelical Blind Spots

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.

A Brief Postscript On Abuse, Church, and At-All-Costs Evangelism

An unbelieving husband’s body in a church pew is not worth more than his abused and vulnerable wife.

Evangelicals sometimes will reduce the Christian life to one thing. Sometimes that thing will be faithful church attendance. When this happens, the way these Christians speak of what it means to be a believer becomes radically attendance-centered, and often seems comfortable with a trade-off between going to church and acts of mercy, personal holiness, etc. You can often detect this attitude in churches that are filled with very superficial relationships. No one really has the knowledge or the will to get involved in the life of someone else. All that matters is that everyone’s there on Sunday.

Sometimes we’ll reduce the Christian life to individual Bible reading and prayer. When this happens, presence at church is usually one of the first things to be sacrificed. In the off chance you do spend time with this person, they will often say something theologically suspect, and you’ll realize that this weird, untrue idea would not last very long in the company of more seasoned believers. But of course, one has to be in such company first.

And then sometimes evangelicals, especially those on my own branch of the tree, will reduce the Christian life to evangelism. These brothers and sisters talk of the church as if it’s a gas station on the world’s highway; you’ll need to stop occasionally to get refueled, but then you’re back on the road again. When evangelism becomes the end all, be all of Christian faithfulness, everything takes a back seat to reaching out, sharing, witnessing, etc. Anything that could possibly prevent a non-Christian from coming in or staying in the presence of other believers is immediately opposed and discarded. If it doesn’t result in people coming to church and making decisions for Christ, it’s not worth keeping—whatever “it” is.

I thought about this dynamic when I was reflecting on Paige Patterson’s controversial story about pastoral counsel he gave to a wife who was being abused by her husband. Patterson has since apologized for the offense taken at his words, and I don’t want to litigate the controversy right now. What struck me as I thought further about his comments was that the counsel he gave this woman fits a pattern I’ve seen so many times growing up in conservative evangelicalism. No, I’ve never heard a pastor say he was “glad” a woman came in with two bruised eyes (and that’s why I do think the outrage over the comments is fair and just), but what I have heard, literally thousands of times, is that we cannot say or do anything to an unbeliever that would cause them to flee from us. If a non-Christian is willing to sit in church, our rejoicing at their presence should outweigh any other consideration…because isn’t that why we’re here?

To express joy at an unbelieving husband’s presence at church while his abused wife stands in front of you is a severe case of Christian reductionism. Why does her battered, vulnerable body not matter as much as her husband’s rear end in the pew? There’s certainly nothing biblical about the idea that the presence of an unbeliever in church hearing the gospel is the supreme good of Christian ministry that cannot be topped. In fact, the biblical teaching of church discipline makes the opposite argument: That it is worth it to remove from fellowship a person whom you think might not be genuinely born again if doing so models the discipline of Christ and preserves the integrity of the church. Excommunication would not make sense, and would not have been commanded by the Spirit through Paul, if an unbeliever needed to be “plugged in” more than anything else.

Similarly, some evangelical churches have abandoned or ignored orthodoxy out of concern that it drives unbelievers from the church. This is the same mistake, though more palatable for many of us. A fear to confront sexual sin that leads to shifting beliefs or inconsistent praxis is the same crippling reductionism that ultimately harms both Christians and unbelievers. I wonder how many evangelicals who nod and cheer when this standard is applied against crusty Southern Baptists and domestic abuse would hedge and squirm when the topic turns to sexuality and gender. The Bible punches both left and right.

Patterson’s story reminded me how severe the consequences of this reductionism can be. When the Christian life becomes about only one thing, we become willing to move other facets of faithfulness out of the way to have a clearer shot at the one thing. The hardest part is that evangelism, out of all the things we can reduce to the Christian life to, does not feel reductionistic. It does not feel like slighting the other parts of Scripture. It feels like maximal obedience. That’s why we often don’t stop ourselves until some intensely ugly sin shows itself.

I wish the woman in Patterson’s story would have experienced a more full, a more holistically faithful vision of the Christian life, instead of being told that her husband’s sin was no big deal as long as he showed himself in church. I wish many of the churches that I know from childhood would have recovered a more balanced obedience, instead of having cookout after cookout until the body finally shriveled and died (or going door-to-door with the Romans road while having not the foggiest clue what the Bible says).

We can do better.

Why “I’m Not a Fundamentalist” Isn’t Enough

We can either really learn the lessons of the Religious Right, or we can repeat the errors of the past on a different side.

Let me briefly describe a trend I see in the post-Trump evangelical world.

Having been liberated from the Boomer delusion that Christianity equals right-wing politics, many of us younger evangelicals are trying to right the ship when it comes what we believe really matters to God. We sense that our parents often answered this question in a moralistic, nationalistic, individualistic, and materialistic way. Naturally, we want to fix this in our own lives. So we start to question our theological, political, and social assumptions, and carefully examine them for any trace of these toxins.

In the process of doing this, we adjust our intuitions at a very granular level. We don’t recoil from non-virgins. We don’t immediately fly into refutation mode when we find out our fellow church member is a registered Democrat. We don’t act like prudes when it comes to profanity. On the other hand, we do speak up when someone cracks a racist joke. We do register our concern when someone talks as if the Christian life can be reduced to a white wedding a nuclear family. We call out unkindness or stinginess.

All the while we are conscious of this shift between evangelical generations. We are trying to be more like Jesus and less like talk radio. We are trying to be Christians more than conservatives. We explain ourselves by pointing out that the gospel has been subject to cultural captivity, and that many in our theological family tree have been guilty of propping up ideas, institutions, and systems that looked more like political action committees or country clubs than like the church. We disown the “culture war” of previous generations and insist that the kingdom of Christ does not depend on whether you only see PG-13 movies. We are more hospitable and empathetic with non-Christians, we emphasize shared imago Dei far more than opposing worldviews, and we don’t let Christian subcultures or legalistic codes dictate who or how we love.

In this process, though, the pendulum swings all the way in the opposite direction. In our new consciousness, we tend to err on the side of deference when it comes to ethics that threaten to put us at odds with our neighbors. Open arms become shrugs. We become very quick to call out we think of as right-wing sin, like racism, and we convince ourselves that to do this effectively we need to take a break from talking about divorce. We start to find more in common with unbelievers who share our loathing of the Republican party than with other Christians who perhaps don’t. We identify ourselves mostly as “Not fundamentalists” rather than as Bible-believers. We agree to disagree about nudity and sex onscreen but join Twitter shame threads against people who don’t tip well.

I don’t think this is the balance Jesus would have us know.

I worry often that young, post-Trump evangelicals are not really learning the lessons of the Religious Right, but merely substituting one error for another. Can we really say that this dynamic offers a correction to the culture warrior mentality that we want so dearly to leave behind? Or is the threat now that we will simply accept the economy of culture war but switch sides, always punching Right and toward the local church as a way of apologizing for our tribe and making sure people know, in the words of Michael Corleone, “That’s my family. It’s not me.”

It’s not enough to say that the Bible transcends our politics and cultural divides. We have to believe it, and we have to believe that it applies just as equally for “authentic” 30 year olds working the Tinder scene in Brooklyn as it does for our grandparents who sit in front of Fox News every evening bemoaning the world. Becoming the opposite of a fundamentalist is a very low bar to clear for Christians. I know in our culture right now believers feel that not being a fundamentalist is the most important thing they can do if want more than the Religious Right for their church. But that’s not true. The trouble with pendulums is that anybody can reach up and grab them. They are not immovable, as Paul commanded the Corinthians to be. They are not like a tree planted by the water, as the Psalmist said of the one who meditated on the Word day and night. A pendulum does nothing but swing. Surely, beloved, that’s not what we are called to.

Aren’t we called to holiness? Aren’t we called to flee from both body-crushing racism and body-dishonoring immorality? Aren’t we called to guard our lips from both unkindness and vulgarity? Aren’t we called away from both legalism and antinomianism, from both fear of the world and love of the world?

I think so. I think what it takes is an open Bible and an open church. This year I have, by the grace of God, been more consistent in my yearly Bible reading plan than ever before. I have noticed so many things in Scripture that I hadn’t noticed in a lifetime of being raised in the church. Every time I think that a cultural sin of evangelicals might be chalked up to biblical silence on something, the Bible smacks me in the face with a verse or narrative that I just never gave time to in 30 years of living in evangelicalism. The problem is not a deficiency of Scripture but a deficiency of my reading it.

The whole Bible really does speak to the whole Christian life. Regaining the lost balance that I fear we’re losing takes the whole Bible, and it takes willingness to live spiritually alongside other believers who may be erring on the opposite side of us. Generational sins stay generational sins, I suspect, because generations don’t talk to each other, don’t repent to each other, and don’t worship together. I get nervous every time I walk into a church and it’s 90% people under 40 or 90% people over 40. Don’t we have much to learn from each other? Isn’t one of the most pernicious lies that Screwtape passed on to Wormwood the lie that no other time was as special and pressing as this one? How else are we going to disarm generational myths except generationally?

I hope and pray I’ll be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I believe Christ is happy to see the emerging generation of evangelicals refuse to fall into the same patterns of sin as what we saw before us. But there are patterns ahead of us too that beckon us to fall in just as our parents were beckoned. We don’t have to.

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.