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culture education Featured politics

Millennials, Free Speech, and Analog Learning

I think it’s past time to admit that the hostility we see from college students toward speech and ideas they dislike is a generational issue. I know this sounds like I’m encouraging stereotypes of millennials, and reasonable people are not supposed to talk about any group in that kind of systemic language (well, almost any group). But denying the generational character of anti-free speech attitudes puts us at a serious risk, I think, of failing to understand why so many millennials feel this way in the first place.

Millennials are the first generation to grow up in an internet age. Note the wording carefully, because millennials are not the first generation to come of age with the internet (Gen-X). They are, however, the first Americans to have had their childhood shaped by the rhythms and cultures of online life. This is enormously important, because it means that millions of millennials grew up having their worldview and (more importantly) their relational identity calibrated by technology that is ephemeral. Because many millennials were online at formative intellectual and emotional times of their life, their expectations of what life is really like are shaped by digital technology…which means, among many other things, that many millennials have, since their early childhood, practiced a semi-autonomous sort of mastery over their world. The delete, cancel, log off, and block buttons have always been right by them. And for many of these millennials, adolescence meant the mobilization of this technology. Whether it’s the family PC or their own iPhone, millennials have, for what is functionally their entire existence, related to the “other” through digital medium.

To me, this suggests that what anti-free speech millennials misunderstand is not “free” but “speech.” The idea that words and ideas can exist outside their personal power to mediate them is a confusing idea, because that’s simply not how they learned about the world. When Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro or Ross Douthat write or say something that aggrieves their presuppositions, the millennial brain responds by insisting that not only are those words wrong (which is a legitimate response), but the fact that they had to hear them is a moral negative (which is not). If ideas are nothing more than words, and if words are nothing more than customizable strokes on an interface, then it does not make any moral sense that anyone should have to read or hear anything they dislike. Such a concept runs afoul of the techno-epistemological system that millennials raised on the digital age were shaped by. The entire premise of the internet is that you get what you want, and nothing more.

Analog learning, by contrast, impresses upon our minds the objective reality of words. Nothing you can do can make the words in that book go away. You can throw it out, tear out the pages, burn it if you wish (you wouldn’t be the first!), but the words are there, the book is there, and the meeting of ink with paper has produced, however small, a moment of cognitive everlastingness that can only be ignored, not erased.

Human nature craves absolutism and uniformity, not dissent and debate. Learning from books does not by itself stem this craving. Wisdom is not merely about form. But in analog learning, the relationship between me and the other is given definite shape and texture. The words will always be there, and it is my choice how to respond to them. By contrast, the internet temporalizes and commodifies thinking, so as to make the consumer as intellectually plastic and capable of more consumption as possible. This might mean, then, that shouting at millennials on Twitter to be more accepting of free speech is a loser’s cause. Recommending that they log off and read some books, however, might be a start.

Categories
culture pop culture Theology

In Defense (Somewhat) of Self-Help

When I was in Bible college, few things received scorn as unanimously and frequently as the self-help genre. The corner of your local bookstore dominated by big, bright covers and names like Oprah and Tony Robbins was, almost all of us young, restless, Reformed pre-seminarians agreed, poison. We understood that the self-help genre was a gospel-less, Jesus-less, church-less, and worst of all, theology-less morass of pop psychotherapy and New Agey gobbledygook. The enormous sales numbers of such books was an implicit challenge to my generation of Christian leaders: Whatever the cost, get these books out of your church members’ homes, and get them reading the Bible instead.

To this day, I still feel a twinge of guilt whenever I am listening to a “motivational speaker,” the same kind of twinge I got as a 15 year old sneaking down to the basement to listen to Top 40 radio. Though I can’t hear any bad words, I know this “sound” is not something I, as a Christian, should enjoy. The sound of someone telling me to focus more, to identify my purpose, to take more charge of my days and to understand my limits and my potential and my calling—well, that’s the sound of non-gospel. Right? Right?

Here’s what I’m having a hard time with nowadays. For all my theological education, I tend to have only the foggiest, most vague ideas about my life. I know that the whole universe exists for God’s glory. That fact, alas, did not translate into a workable budget for me last year. I know that God works all things to the purposes of His will, and that no one can thwart him. But not one person in my church or seminary life has ever explained to me that the reason I feel behind at the end of most weeks is that I haven’t identified what was most important to me at a personal level. A few weeks ago, I randomly stumbled across a YouTube video of a motivational speaker who warned his audience against failing to set priorities. If you don’t identify what matters, he said, your days and then weeks would bleed into a directionless, reactionary existence. Whoops.

For all my Christian culture’s scorn of self-help, couldn’t we at least have talked about actually living life in a non-theoretical, non-gospelly cliche way?

One of the things I am having to slowly unlearn is the idea that having good theology is the most important thing in life. I cringe even as I write that sentence, because for years to even think a sentence like that indicated, I believed, a willingness to embrace bad theology. The only people who talked about moderating the importance of theology, I was convinced, were people who wanted me to believe the wrong thing. It turns out I was wrong on both counts. It turns out, on the contrary, that while those whose professional lives rest comfortably at the intersection of study and theoretics (which describes a huge percentage of the “thought leaders” in my corner of Reformed evangelicalism) can afford to say “theology” when they mean “all wisdom everywhere,” many of us cannot afford to do the same.

Sometimes it was supposed in Bible college that the real reason people read self-help books is that they don’t want to be confronted with the moral demands of the Bible. I actually think that’s incorrect. I think most people read self-help lit because they know they need insight, motivation, and perspective from outside themselves. What’s more, I think many Christians read secular self-help lit because they have tried and failed to resize their life to fit a 20 minute per-day devotional box. They read books on becoming a better them because they believe, rightly, that Jesus calls them to be something greater than what they naturally are, but so much of their “gospel-driven” books seem to think that their problems will go away if they know more about divine sovereignty and human agency. In the absence of a relatable explanation of what following Jesus means for being an authentic human being, most people will assume that what they need to know about being an authentic human being and what they need to know about following Jesus are two separate issues.

In my experience, Reformed evangelicals are often so eager to engage in polemics against culture that we often create a conflict that isn’t actually there. And in this case, we tend to create a conflict between common sense and faith. Self-discipline, forward-thinking, intentionality, awareness of one’s own weaknesses and strengths—how is any of this inherently frictional with Christian confession? If it’s not, then another question: Where is the theologically orthodox and accessibly literary body of Christian self-help literature? Perhaps we balk at the phrase “self-help.” Fine. What ideas do we have for alternatives? Is there a space for Christians writing about motivation and inspiration and discipline in a way that is decidedly spiritual but not decidedly reducing life to propositional theology?

I hope all will understand that my point is not that our reading or thinking should be less Christian. My point is that there’s something to be said for not setting up false antitheses, and for articulating a Christian vision of human flourishing that actually meets felt needs, not just intellectual ones. If we sigh at pop culture’s flocking to the latest TED Talk for spiritual guidance—and there’s much to sigh about there—perhaps we should ask ourselves what our seminaries and churches are doing about it.

 

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