Should We Blame the Pro-Life Movement?

There is a strain of thinking among some evangelicals that I cannot get my head around. Here it is: The Republican Party’s collapse of virtue and embrace of sub-moral strongmen can be attributed, at least in part, to the well-intentioned but naive single-mindedness of the pro-life movement.

James K.A. Smith’s brief Tweet thread seems to repeat this point, albeit with some slippery and vague language. His complaint is seems to be that pro-lifers who wish they had a friend in the Democratic party are refusing to let go of their mistaken assumptions about the proper relationship of pro-life advocacy to a holistic political engagement. Smith declines to articulate precisely what they should do instead, which makes his analysis difficult to parse. But it’s an idea that has been repeated with more clarity enough times to make me confident of where the argument is going.

Of course, the main problem here is that the absence of concrete correctives means how one interprets this messaging largely depends on your preexisting beliefs. If you think abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, Smith’s tweet-storm should make a lot of sense to you. On the other hand, if you think abortion should be illegal in just about every circumstance, then the suggestion that you “untether” yourself from what the GOP “taught” you about abortion is less clear.

What does “untethering” oneself from the pro-life pedagogy of the Republican party look like for a person who genuinely believes that aborted unborn bodies are human persons? What is the proper response for a person who wants to be a responsible agent of human flourishing in all areas of life, yet watches doctors legally skim through hands, feet, eyes, and brain matter with the indifference of a junkyard dealer?

Put it another way. Why, in this way of thinking, is the burden of proof on the person protesting the legal dismemberment of human beings, instead of the people not protesting it? Why is it up to the pro-life advocate to be less single-minded about one issue, instead of it being up to our political parties and their leaders to not exploit their bases through ideology?

It’s extraordinary to me that in the situation Dr. Smith imagines of a pro-life voter being drawn to the Democratic Party, it’s the pro-life voter’s fault for not embracing a more pragmatic strategy for public policy. The Democratic Party’s ruthless campaign to exile anything that resembles pro-life sentiment from their ranks is not even worth mentioning apparently. For some unthinkable reason, the dysfunction and polarization of American politics becomes attributable not to politicians who cling on to pseudoscience and judicial fiat to enforce a violent ideology, but to those poor souls who actually think this issue might be the most important, the most pressing one of the times.

It’s possible that what Smith and others are saying is that we oughtn’t be ham fisted, single-issue voters. If that’s the case, then the proper way to make this argument would be to appeal to pro-lifers that the best means to end abortion is to embrace a wider political strategy, one that can build coalitions and pass laws and galvanize communities toward pro-life law without using it as a wedge issue. That’s a fair take, and voters who would identify as single-issue voters when it comes to who they won’t vote for would do well to ask themselves whether their practice of political engagement is one that is likely to build pro-life alliances, or likely to reinforce existing polarizations. Let’s have that conversation!

The problem is, sadly, that this is not actually what Smith says. What he actually says is that pro-life voters must recalibrate their entire philosophy of civic engagement when it comes to abortion.

Pro-life voters, Smith says, are “demanding purity” and “naively” neglecting “political reality.” In a final parenthetical, Smith even suggests that abortion should not be considered an especially egregious injustice, and that it might fit suitably alongside “lots of injustices” from which our two-party system has thus far not offered an escape.

There’s no way for me to read this line of thinking without believing that it ends in “safe, legal, and rare.” Whether “single-issue voters” are being taken advantage of by a corrosive Republican party is a much different question than whether pro-life voters are simply wrong to make this issue a test of political acceptability. It’s not clear to me at all that there would even be a viable pro-life witness in American public life if it weren’t for the willingness of some brave advocates, politicians, and citizens to insist that as for them and their house, they will protect unborn bodies. Should the shooting of unarmed black men be sorted neatly alongside “lots of injustices” that we must live with, or is there something to be said for insisting that civic servants acknowledge the inherent value of human life and demonstrate their willingness and competency to defend it in those situations?

These kinds of analogies are helpful not because abortion and racial justice are identical issues, but because they force us to acknowledge our tendency to relegate abortion to the “culture war” and then demonstrate how far above we are such skirmishes. The fundamental problem of abortion law is always, “Is this a human person?” No pragmatism, no “shaping of our political imagination” that does not explicitly give this question somewhere to land, can be remotely considered pro-life.

Planned Parenthood’s human factories are not going to close themselves when people finally start realizing that tax policy matters to poor people, too. The Democratic Party is not going to acknowledge the humanness of the fetus until it is politically forced to, and that political force is going to come, first and foremost, from voters—voters who are willing to be scorned, but not willing to be fooled.

(photo credit)

Advertisements

Orthodoxy, Sexuality, and the Local Church

James K.A. Smith’s post about orthodoxy, Christian creeds, and sexuality has provoked much commentary, most of it far more thoughtful than anything I could write here. I agree with Smith’s critics that his case against labeling revisionist sexual theology as “heresy” is weak and relies on a reductionistic appreciation of doctrinal formulations. I don’t necessarily agree with some who say Smith obviously is bowling to knock down the traditionalist pin. We must read others as we would like to be read. Prying into hidden motivations is always tempting when we encounter something we feel strongly is wrong, but it’s a temptation we should resist.

Since most of the commentators in this exchange are far more learned on the historic Christian theology than I am, I’m not going to pretend to add anything revelatory to the discussion. But I want to make one quick point, one that everyone in this exchange, from Alan Jacobs to Alastair Roberts, probably agrees on, but one that gets easily lost in theological disputes online.

There is an inextricably pastoral purpose to defining orthodoxy and declaring what’s outside it to be anathema. Smith is right that being wrong is not necessarily the same as being heretical. One major reason this is true is that the assembled congregation, the covenanted local church that is guided by overseers and whose members exercise the keys to the kingdom, must respond to the wayward member(s) in a particular way, according to the error. Church discipline does not exist to make every member agree on every theological dispute. But it does exist to enforce the boundaries that demarcate the embodied faith of the church. And it also exists to do practical spiritual warfare on behalf of the wayward member.

When Paul calls on the Corinthians to expel the man who is sleeping with his step mother, he is calling the church to protect its boundaries by executing its one appointed means of disenfranchisement. In doing this, the church also wages spiritual warfare that is intended for the man’s ultimate redemption and restoration. By throwing the member outside the camp, the Corinthian church was to assert its identity, its authority, and also its mission.

The proper end of heresy is excommunication. When the Christian faith is betrayed, the body of Christ must respond the same way that the Corinthian church, threatened by a member’s unrepentant immorality, did. The relationship between orthodoxy and ethics is more tight than we might assume, particularly if the local church is to protect both its confession and its purity by exercising the same power–the power of church discipline.

What does this mean for this particular debate? Three suggestions:

  1. The idea that we can infer from silence in historic Christian creeds what doesn’t rise to the level of “heresy” is a nonstarter, because the responsibility of the local church, as explained by Paul to the Corinthians, does not end merely at examining members’ personal doctrinal statements. The man whom the Corinthians excommunicated may not have failed a test of the Apostles’ Creed, but by being thrown out of membership on account of his unrepentant immorality, he was subjected to the same key-wielding power that governs his confession. The practical responsibility of the church with regards to heresy is the exact same as it is to unrepentant sin.
  2. Therefore, it follows that the real question is not whether homosexual sex is a violation of Christian creeds. The question is whether or not it is sin. Because the embodied community of God has the same obligation toward the heretical member as it does toward the unrepentant member, dividing orthopraxy from orthodoxy is simply kicking the theological can down the rhetorical road. For the covenanted people of God who wield the embodied authority of Jesus, heresy is sin, and sin is heresy, and the practical response to both depends not on sophisticated distinctions between belief and behavior, but on the question of doctrine itself.
  3. The reason this is important is not only that we can have an orthodox confession, but also so that we make practical distinctions between churches that have irreconcilable differences. Smith’s proposition is so attractive partially because it appears to relieve the hostility between churches that are “LGBT affirming” and churches that are not. If we can simply agree that this is a theological disputation, but not a fault line in basic Christian confession, we can, perhaps, start bridging personal and institutional gaps. But I submit an alternative thesis. I believe one reason there is so much heat and rancor in the Christianity and LGBT debate is because too many people, on both sides, are trying to behave as if this is a family skirmish amongst people who really do belong in the same pew. It is not. This is a fundamental question of what it means to be human. There is no reconciliation possible between churches that teach disparately about this, because there is no reconciliation possible between a church and a non-church. Embracing this, and quitting once and for all the delusion that this is a matter of some brothers and sisters being mean to other brothers and sisters, might actually relieve some of the anger and bitterness.

Everything Is Awful (But Only On Twitter)

I’m headed to the mountains for vacation tomorrow, and will be signing out of all social media for the duration of my holiday. Unplugging from social media and taking vacation seem to go hand in hand, for a lot of us. But have you wondered why this is? I have a feeling James K.A. Smith got close to the point here:

I am endlessly perplexed by people who say–and there are many who do–that social media and the internet “community” are the best measures of What’s Really Happening in the world today. These folks will point us to Twitter if we want to know what’s really making an impact in our culture, the things people are really talking about. There’s an entire journalism industry, in fact, being formed around the idea that the internet has a personality, and that this personality is every bit as consequential to your experience of the world as the 10PM news. Thus, you get stories in your news feed like, “Celebrity XYZ Recently Said This, and the Internet is NOT Happy About It.”

If you spend most of your day scanning social media sites and blogs, you will probably come away with a very specific idea of what American culture is like. The latest hashtags will probably convey some sense of despair or outrage; the latest viral videos will either do the same, or else distract. But here’s the thing: Because of the effect of digital media on human attention, the internet is designed to be totally absorbing and supremely now. If you’re riding the bus and two people behind you are quarreling, you probably won’t get off the bus and feel a palpable sense of depression for the rest of the day at how selfish human beings can be. On the other hand, if you’re reading Twitter hashtags and following back-and-forths between really angry users and the target of their outrage, you will almost certainly turn off your phone and feel consumed by it. That’s not because the outrage you just watched is more real (actually the opposite is probably true), it’s because your brain absorbed it in a qualitatively different way than it absorbed the bus ride (for more on this topic, I recommend this outstanding book)

This is exactly why a dive into social media will lead you to believe that the world is probably a terrible place to live right now. Everything, from the littlest of impolite slights to the most difficult issues of human justice, is magnified with unending intensity on the screen. If you turn off your phone and head down to the library or the coffee shop, though, it kinda seems the people you’re sitting next to don’t have any idea that they should be packing their bags for the bomb shelter. They talk normally, seem relatively calm, maybe even kind. It’s almost as if you’re experiencing two distinct cultures: One a perpetually moving but never anchored sea of consciousness, bent every which way by advertising and technology; and the other, a culture of place, permanence, and sunshine.

I know people currently going through incredibly trying times right now. Unemployment, illness, loneliness, family disintegration–you name it. There is a lot of suffering in this world. Almost always however, the most miserable people I run into are not these people. The most miserable people are the ones who don’t suffer, but merely hover–attached to the world by ether, spending their time and emotions on a diet of pixels.

The best antidote I know of for this is just to turn stuff off. Which is what I shall do, starting now.

A Last Word About “13 Reasons Why”

Since registering my deep concerns with the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why,” I’ve been pleased to see more thoughts from others, like Russell Moore and Trevin Wax. Non-Christian therapy and counseling professionals are likewise alarmed, and apparently there’s been enough of a backlash that Netflix has pledged to put more “trigger warnings” into the show. I think the worried response to the series is completely justified, and while it’s probably not realistic to expect Netflix to take more drastic action toward what is undoubtedly a popular and profit-driving product, I don’t think you can spend too much time talking about the dangers of such an empathetic story about a teenage suicide.

I want to say one more word about the show, and more to the point, about why so much fuss is warranted about a stupid television program. For a lot of Christians, a movie or TV show’s worthiness is measured simply in terms of number of cuss words spoken or presence/frequency of sex scenes. If a film or program is loaded with blue language, it’s a bad film or program. If it depicts sexuality, it’s a bad program (I think there’s a nuanced case to make for this, but I digress). If the violence is bloody, it’s a bad program. This is the way most evangelicals, in my experience, consume pop culture: they grind it to its constituent parts and then the parts get evaluated on a scale. If the scale tips over, we’re not consuming it.

I don’t think this is the best and most helpful way to engage art, and, interestingly, “13 Reasons” is an excellent example why. Now, a lot of parents who watch an episode or two of the show will immediately call it out of bounds. The language is explicit and harsh, and there are sexual themes and scenes. I have no issue with disqualifying a show based on those grounds, especially a show clearly marketed to teenagers. No problem then, right?

Hold on. The problem with tackling “13 Reasons” on this kind of level is that this is not the biggest problem with the show. The biggest problem with the show is not the words characters use (some may reason their children hear such harsh language in real life school) or the hookups they have (those can be fast forwarded, after all). The biggest problem with the show is that it is art that shapes its audience at a subconscious level to feel understanding and empathy with taking one’s own life. The power of art is not usually in its constituent elements, but in its whole. Teens who watch “13 Reasons Why” may come away without using those words or hopping into bed with someone, but they may still come away with a grossly distorted view of what suicide is and what happens in its wake. And you can’t mute or fast forward past this.

This is why it’s important to understanding what art is and why it affects us. Art, to use James K.A. Smith’s terminology, is a “pedagogy of desire,” a vehicle not just of entertainment but of emotional, moral, and spiritual formation. Movies and TV shows engage audiences at multiple levels, utilizing dialogue, music, visual cues, and symbols to inspire first and foremost an emotional response, not an intellectual one. The power of movies to dazzle and delight, above and beyond the parameters of rational response, is the most important way that films shape our moral imaginations.

This means that the art we consume not only can be an instrument of personal and social transformation, but that it simply is, even if the transformation does not seem immediately practical.

“13 Reasons Why” is a jarring reminder to us as evangelical Christians that misunderstanding the power of art–approaching it shallowly, comprehending it incompletely, and talking about it reductively–is a serious mistake. It’s a mistake because our stories shape us above and beyond the level of bad words and bad scenes. If evangelicals don’t try to understand culture on a deeper level, we will allow ourselves to be shaped by stories without even knowing it, and those stories may be PG-rated, but still spiritually destructive.

Regardless where you draw your boundaries, make the effort to engage culture at a deeper level. Ask what story is being told, why is it being told, to whom is it being told, and how is it being told. Probe movies, television, books, and other pop culture artifacts for their meaning, because it is meaning that molds us deeper than the things we can skip with a remote.

Keep Teenagers Weird

A couple years ago, Jan Hoffman wrote a piece for The New York Times on the disparity in quality of life between adults who were “cool kids” in middle and high school, and the adults who spent those same years in obscurity or unpopularity. “Cool at 13, Adrift at 23” cited a study which reported on a group of American kids from age 13 all the way to age 23. Among other things, the study discovered that the kids who enjoyed popularity and social ease in their early teens were significantly more troubled and at risk by the time they reached early adulthood than their less admired peers.

An excerpt from Hoffman:

A constellation of three popularity-seeking behaviors characterized pseudomaturity, Dr. Allen and his colleagues found. These young teenagers sought out friends who were physically attractive; their romances were more numerous, emotionally intense and sexually exploring than those of their peers; and they dabbled in minor delinquency — skipping school, sneaking into movies, vandalism.

As they turned 23, the study found that when compared to their socially slower-moving middle-school peers, they had a 45 percent greater rate of problems resulting from alcohol and marijuana use and a 40 percent higher level of actual use of those substances. They also had a 22 percent greater rate of adult criminal behavior, from theft to assaults.

Why is this? Why do the “cool kids” of middle and high school struggle once they leave their social circles? The sociologists responsible for the study suggest an intriguing answer: the superfluousness of popularity prevents these teens from developing actual relational skills and inner maturity. They’re so busy trying to be liked that they don’t cultivate a self-identity or the ability to be at ease by themselves. By 17 or 18, the relationships and cliques that made them admired have evaporated, and, no longer able to define themselves in that way, they can only persist in the “pseudomature” behaviors that eventually become habit.

Shortly after reading Hoffman’s piece, I told my wife Emily about it.  Several of Emily’s popular classmates in middle and high school have borne children out of wedlock. Others have struggled with unemployment, substance abuse and even suicide.  Of course, everyone will have personal struggles, regardless of what the teenage years bring; but my wife has noticed that, like the study demonstrates, those friends who had lower profiles in school have tended to fare much better in life outside school.

The pressure in adolescence to be liked is often all-consuming. I’m constantly reminded of Jake Halpern’s “fame survey,” part of the research he did for his 2007 book Fame Junkies. Halpern polled over 600 American teenagers with questions that measured desire for popularity and fame against other life ambitions. The results of Halpern’s study are sobering: Teenage girls were more likely to choose fame over intelligence and both boys and girls said they would rather be a personal assistant to a celebrity than a university president, a Senator, or a major CEO. Of course, it doesn’t come as a shock that teenagers want to be admired. But if Hoffman’s study is reliable, then we have a better idea of how crippling that desire can become for many teens.

In thinking about this from the perspective of the church,  one thing seems clear: It is a fatal mistake to shape ministry to youths that looks like popular culture. An extremely helpful guide in this for me has been professor James K.A. Smith’s work on Christian education and personal formation. The problem, according to Dr. Smith, is that an overriding emphasis on forming a Christian worldview is actually built on a non-Christian assumption, namely, that humans are primarily cognitive and rational beings as opposed to primarily desiring and emotive ones. Rather than focus on instilling the right kinds of information in Christian students, Dr. Smith says that Christian education should be concerned with the kind of people that emerge from it, concerned with having the right desires and emotions.

 Why do youth ministers often struggle to get the students in their care to understand how the promises of the Gospel override the fleeting pleasures of fame and popularity in this world? How is it that students with impressive knowledge of the Bible and even faithful attendance to the church’s programming are nonetheless more deeply moved at the images and (to borrow Dr. Smith’s terminology) liturgy of popular culture than they are at Christian life and discipleship?

Perhaps one answer is that the desire to be loved by strangers is ultimately stronger than the desire to get the answers right at Bible study group. In fact, the loudness and busyness of most evangelical student ministry programming might actually be reinforcing the very worldly liturgies its trying to contest. Listen to what Hoffman writes near the end of her piece:

Dr. Allen suggested that while they were chasing popularity, they were missing a critical developmental period. At the same time, other young teenagers were learning about soldering same-gender friendships while engaged in drama-free activities like watching a movie at home together on a Friday night, eating ice cream. Parents should support that behavior and not fret that their young teenagers aren’t “popular,” he said.

“To be truly mature as an early adolescent means you’re able to be a good, loyal friend, supportive, hardworking and responsible,” Dr. Allen said. “But that doesn’t get a lot of airplay on Monday morning in a ninth-grade homeroom.”

In other words, it is the formation of quiet virtues and the cultivation of meaning that create a mature person. How many of our Christian student ministries are built on personal formation rather than membership in a Christianized clique?

Perhaps our evangelical student ministries can reach more deeply in the souls of students by promising more than the right answers with the right people. Perhaps the formation of teens in our churches should start out by reassuring them that God made everybody weird and that is OK. Perhaps rather than promising a great summer retreat or a fun filled calendar of programming, youth ministers could promise relationships and covenant bonds that don’t wilt as the years go by. Perhaps we could offer community rooted in the gospel as a retreat from the cruel meritocracy of pop culture.