Growing Up with (and Past) Mr. Rogers

There are greater things ahead than the children’s TV wisdom that we (should) leave behind.

When Jesus announces that his hearers must become like little children in order to enter the kingdom of God, it’s safe to assume that his audience found this comment remarkable. After all, it’s silly to tell adults to act less like adults. Here’s a question I’ve been pondering, though: Has the force of those words has been almost totally lost to contemporary Americans?  It’s hard for me to imagine that this notion does in us what it did in its original hearers because I don’t think the lines between childhood and adulthood are drawn as starkly in our own age.

One reason is that children are increasingly treated like adults. That was one of my more eye-opening takeaways from Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book The Coddling of the American Mind, which I recently reviewed. Haidt and Lukianoff present a significant amount of psychological and sociological research that shows that children, especially preteens and teens, are under enormous pressure of academic performance and vigorously monitored activity. Ironically, the upshot of this is that iGen is growing up much more slowly than previous generations because their meritocratic rhythms of life prevent them from free play and other experiences that help develop intellectual and emotional maturity. In other words, kids are basically preparing for college and career so fast that they fail to prepare for growing up.

If it’s true that American children are often viewed/treated beyond their age, I think it’s reasonable to wonder if American grown ups are likewise failing to flourish.

In a recent piece at The Atlantic, Ian Bogost criticized the prevalence of an internet meme in the aftermath of the Squirrel Hill synagogue massacre. The meme is a quote from the beloved Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood host Fred Rogers, a classic children’s TV show that has conspicuously enjoyed a resurgence of attention and affection from social media in recent years. The quote, in which Rogers recommends that whenever something bad happens we ought always “look for the helpers,”  has been widely circulated after numerous national tragedies/atrocities. It’s clear that many people, especially millennials, find Mr. Rogers and this quote deeply comforting. The problem, Bogost writes, is that the quote was never meant to comfort adults but children, and the reliance of so many adults on these sentiments may signal an unwillingness to engage hard realities with appropriate maturity:

Once a television comfort for preschoolers, “Look for the helpers” has become a consolation meme for tragedy. That’s disturbing enough; it feels as though we are one step shy of a rack of drug-store mass-murder sympathy cards. Worse, Fred Rogers’s original message has been contorted and inflated into something it was never meant to be, for an audience it was never meant to serve, in a political era very different from where it began. Fred Rogers is a national treasure, but it’s time to stop offering this particular advice.

Whether or not one agrees with Bogost about this particular issue will probably depend on how seriously one takes internet memes (I doubt that most of the people who Retweeted it consciously did so in lieu of activism or donating). But I think Bogost is on to something when he flags the feverish popularity of Mr. Rogers-style aphorisms in our current culture. Why is there such an intense interest among American millennials in Mr. Rogers after all? Nostalgia is likely part of it, but as Bogost points out, social media users share (and re-share) clips and quotes from Fred Rogers especially when there is something horrific in the news cycle. It looks more like an emotional catharsis that transcends 80s nostalgia.

As someone who was raised on the show and has been introducing my young son to it, I’ve been confused by the intensity of the appreciation. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was/is a brilliant program, and Fred Rogers possessed an obvious talent for connecting with and helping children. Multiple recent documentaries on Rogers, and numerous first-person pieces about the show’s legacy, demonstrate his gift. But the show is quite plainly directed at young children, and every facet—from Rogers’ slow, simple speech, to the colorful set of his home, to the simplistic aphorisms—is very much childlike. It’s not a profound or devotional show, nor should it be. It’s precisely the kind of thing a very young child, still discovering emotional self-awareness and her own fragility, loves to see and hear. Even the most pointed moments are little more than wistful conversation between a loving grandfatherly figure and a wide-eyed child. If Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood were a church, it would be a church that adults would be thrilled to drop off their kids at, but certainly not one they would willingly attend for themselves.

So why do American millennials not only like Mr. Rogers, but consult him? I’ll offer two brief guesses on this.

First, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is a showcase for a strong, sympathetic masculinity that fills an important (and contested) void in modern American culture. Choked between the sexual thuggishness of Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly and the deconstructionism of gender theory, many Americans do not know what it means to be, or see, a man. For the millions of millennials who did not know a present, loving father in their childhood, the grandfatherly way of Fred Rogers is not just a balm, it’s a revelation of the way things should be.

My second guess is a little more cynical: Lots of American twenty and thirtysomethings need to be talked to as if they are children because that’s how they feel inside. The architecture of American life in the 21st century is relentlessly adolescent. Consider how closely social media tends to resemble the in-groups of public school, or how an overwhelming percentage of our literary and cinematic heroes are either kids or adults becoming more like kids. Has it ever been easier in American society to resist the pull of adulthood? Everything from technology to education to parenting undersells growing up.

In a fragmented, entertainment-soaked public life, rites of passage into adulthood are notoriously fuzzy, if they exist at all. The school-to-college-to-career pipeline is, for many of us, a monochromatic experience that fails to satisfy. Nowadays it is rarely clear when our childhood games ended and test-prep began, or when wide-eyed-wonder at the world gave way to building our identity and resume. Might it be that Mr. Rogers’ gentle, childlike wisdom seems profound to us right now because we never actually learned it in the first place?

It’s probably not for nothing that almost every episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood begins and ends in a home. As I was watching a portion of the episode I turned on for my son, I marveled at how such a small set (a single tracking shot showed all of Mr. Rogers’ house in about 4 seconds) could feel so comfortable and permanent on the show. My fear is that the resurgence of popularity for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is really about a generation’s turning toward a home in the absence of other options, and mistaking the sounds of welcome for profundity.

Don’t get me wrong: Mr. Rogers is a great show, and I’m glad that God put Fred Rogers on this earth to make it. But I think there’s always something amiss when grown ups continually return to the snack-sized wisdom and comfort of a TV show. I think Bogost is correct that taking what is meant to calm a confused, immature soul as normative way of calibrating our emotional response to the world is a way of failing to think and feel truthfully. This is why Christ calls us to come to him for rest as well as truth. There are greater things ahead than what we leave behind—including the neighborhood.

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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.

Pandering to Millennials

My friend and Mere Orthodoxy editor Jake Meador linked to this blog post on Twitter, and the following couple of paragraphs are too good to not share:

The other day I read another of those articles that irritate me. The ones about how the church is failing millenials (sic) by being terribly outdated, and how it needs to modify it’s message to appeal to the younger, hipper crowd…

Look, I am a millenial, albeit on the side of that demographic in danger of being too old to count as the current “it” age group. And I can tell you exactly how to get millenials in your pews. You tell them that their moms and dads were horribly wrong and misguided, and that they are actually much better informed and more correct than their parents. Just like they’ve always suspected. And then you explain that, actually, Christianity is exactly what all the cool people they want to like them say it should be. And they will come, because that is a brand that sells. Who doesn’t want their youthful arrogance stroked and the social cost of their faith removed?

This is incredibly important. The author isn’t lobbing grenades at millennials, by the way; he’s criticizing instead the people who’ve industrialized a superiority complex, the same one that attends every generation, in order to gain members. Millennials are not the only young adults in history to want to hear how much smarter they are than their parents. But they very well may be the first generation to actually be pandered to in this way by institutional Christianity.

It’s true when we’re talking about church, and it’s doubly true when we’re talking about Christian culture. How much blog content in the evangelical world falls under the category of, “Personal Narrative of How I Realized That My Parents/Church/Mentors Were Wrong About _______”? Of course, many of these stories are true and helpful. But quite a few of them read as if the entire point of having these kind of discoveries isn’t to find truth, but to relish the joy of finding out the old fogies were in error.

When I think about my generation of Christians, the biggest concern I have is not that we will wholesale abandon orthodoxy or the local church. Jesus will build his body and not even the gates of social media can overcome that. No, my biggest concern is that the we millennials will construct the idea that ours is a “chosen generation,” that the saints who came before us are obstacles to be hurdled and those who come us after will look pretty much like we do. My fear is that even in all the gospel-centered gospel-centeredness, the impulse within American evangelicalism to pander to the generation that currently defines cool will relapse us into a cultural captivity, one that may not be as obvious as fundamentalism but may be deeper and darker.

Here’s an idea. For every article you read this week on why the older generation of evangelicals was totally wrong about X, read 3 things written 100+ years ago. For every TED Talk you listen to, listen to 2 more sermons by a preacher who probably doesn’t own a smartphone. Preach to yourself that what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” must be avoided at all costs. Immerse yourself in the timeless and be moderate with the contemporary.

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.

The Hyper-Examined Life Isn’t Worth Living

As we approach the end of 2015 and the beginning of the New Year, many of us in American culture will begin to reflect, even if briefly, on our lives and loved ones in the past year. For some, that will mean reliving warm and cherished moments, and for others, feeling anew grief and pain. In either case, there can be no doubt that American culture, as distracted and unfocused as it often is, encourages a kind of serious introspection this time of year.

Self-reflection is a good thing. It’s a habit that can produce the kind of humility, modesty, and moral awareness that characterize the people we tend to admire. It’s a practice rooted in a biblical command to examine ourselves, to take heed of our spiritual condition so as to not be deceived, either by sin or by each other. Done in the right spirit, introspection can remind us of our need for a Savior, and renew a genuine thankfulness and desire for Christ.

As is true of all things, however, self-reflection can be corrupted. If the unexamined life is not worth living, the hyper-examined life isn’t either.

The hyper-examined life is what happens when a legitimate desire to be self-aware becomes an unhealthy preoccupation with our own emotional lives.  Hyper-introspection can make us watch our thoughts and feelings with an obsessive hawkishness, making us perpetually unable to enjoy moments of self-forgetfulness. This can be particularly debilitating in relationships, when every relationship and encounter is constantly subjected to inward scrutiny.

At first, it may sound like the hyper-examined life is really a personality bug, a flaw in some introverted temperaments that really only affects a few people. But a quick look at social media, the dominant interpersonal medium of our generation, reveals quite a bit about how unaware we can be that we are living a hyper-examined life.

Because social media is essentially a faceless, competitive marketplace for digital personas, it tends to encourage habits of thought and feeling that tend toward a hyper-examined life. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all have their respective “reward” systems for participation: Likes, Retweets, etc. The key to getting the most out of these mediums is to constantly orient your own personality toward whatever is popular (or controversial) at a given moment, and post accordingly. This habit can easily spill over into offline life; for example, choosing a book whose picture will get plenty of attention on Instagram, or posting clever zingers on Twitter and being unable to remember anything substantial about what you watched.

The effect here is that we fail to cultivate genuine moments of life that don’t have to rebound back to us in the form of digital approval. And that, in turn, can affect how we live offline too. Many writers and teachers have observed that my generation struggles with decision-making. Millennials often seem paralyzed by fear of failure, desiring complete assurance that the next step will be easy and rewarding. Thus, many young people unwittingly hurt their chances of lasting marriages, stable careers, and fruitful relationships by trying to constantly make the “right” decision, when simply making a decision would, in fact, be the right move.

An obsessive preoccupation with what others will think and a paralyzing fear of failure go hand in hand, and both are symptoms of a hyper-examined life. Many who are living a hyper-examined will flit and float from job to job, from friend to friend, from place to place. This may seem adventurous at first but often what is behind this rootlessness is a compulsive need for satisfaction in every season of life. Instead of losing themselves in the joys of the mundane, the regular, and the everyday, these wandering souls constantly search their own emotional state for happiness, not realizing that this kind of preoccupation with self is exactly what tends to kill happiness in the first place.

The hyper-examined life is exhausting. Life, including the Christian life, isn’t meant to be lived by way of non-stop self-appraising and people pleasing. A day in, day out regiment of the hyper-examined life leads inevitably to burnout, frustration, and a nagging sense of unfulfilled desire not based in reality.

By contrast, the well-examined life is not driven by fear or compulsive self-searching but by a humble desire for grace. Personal failures are not meant to be endlessly agonized over but repented of, with the confidence in God’s provision for forgiveness and transformation (2 Cor. 7:10). Confidence in the mercies of God disarms paralyzing fear, if we live life knowing that poorly made or even sinful decisions do not exist outside the scope of God’s plans and promises for us (Rom. 8:38-39).

Instead of meandering from one thing to the next in search of the emotional fulfillment that always feels out of reach, living the well-examined life frees us to drop self-preoccupation and learn the virtues of gratitude and contentment. The reality is that, many times, the most spiritual thing we can do is stop trying to think such spiritual thoughts and simply stop thinking about ourselves at all.

As you near the New Year, be encouraged to reflect well on 2015, to look for evidences of God’s grace in your life and take stock of how you can trust Christ more in thought, word, and deed. Then close your journal and go outside (and take no pictures!), or call an old friend, or take a coworker out for lunch. Don’t be afraid of the awkward moment or the failed attempt. Live life confident in the heavenly Father who spared nothing from you, not even his own Son. Think on that, and look at yourself through your Father’s eyes.

I Miss Blockbuster

I miss Blockbuster.

Hopefully you know what I’m talking about: The video rental megachain that for years was the first place you’d check if you wanted to watch a movie on a slow Friday night. Not long ago a movie was either playing in the cinema, renting out at Blockbuster, or was (for the moment anyway) unwatchable. For years, Blockbuster was the only way to watch a particular movie at home without shelling out for the full cost of the video/DVD (remember when that distinction was a HUGE deal?). If you wanted to watch a movie you didn’t have, you went to Blockbuster.

Oh sure, Blockbuster had competition, in the same way that Wal-Mart has “competition.” Its rival stores would boast either more selection, better pricing, or longer rental times. It didn’t matter, really. Blockbuster was a cultural fixture, an institution as much as a company. If you were renting a movie, you “went to the Blockbuster,” even if technically the words on the building said something else– just like most of the country asks for a Coke even when they just mean soda.

I remember the Blockbuster on Bardstown Road, just 2 minutes from the house I grew up in here in Louisville. I remember Dad and I walking inside trying to find new movies that looked interesting but that we had missed in theaters. I remember the manager of that store mainly because he was a younger looking man who stayed at that same Blockbuster for over 8 years (even as our Blockbuster runs became more sporadic over the years, the manager remained familiar to us, and eventually I just asked him). Eight years at a Blockbuster?

Nowadays, the wooden rows of new hits and old favorites have been replaced by invisible “My List” queues on Netflix and pixelated “Stream Now” buttons on iTunes and Amazon. Blockbuster went out of business a few years ago, squeezed between the emerging technology of instant streaming and the $0 overhead of Redbox. Of course, that’s how business and history go. Instant streaming is too convenient to fire up the car for a Blockbuster run. Redbox is too cheap to justify a 4 dollar, 4 night rental, that required a second trip back to the store. Innovation and technology booted the old ways. That’s how things go.

But there is something to lament here. There is something to lament about the end of a ritual, one that required actually going and being somewhere. To rent a movie once meant going to a store, and seeing other people, possibly someone you knew. It once meant actually leaving the house and seeing people and things and places that reminded you that you weren’t the only person in your city that wanted to watch a movie–or maybe even that particular movie–that night.

Do you think it’s possible we’ve lost that in the Netflix Age? I think so. It seems every cultural recreation has been reduced to its most basic mechanics. “Watching a movie” becomes “streaming a movie,” and in that vocabularly shift we have the loss of things like video stores and the people inside them. “Listening to music” becomes “downloading music” and in that we see the disappearance of things like record stores, and the people inside of those. You see what has happened? Technology has freed us from hassle and expense mainly by freeing us from others.

Maybe that’s why I got nostalgic for Blockbuster. You see, with Netflix, there’s no Bardstown Road store, with a manager of 8 years who probably has some interesting stories. With Spotify, there’s no “Book and Music Exchange,” where I might see that one album from my childhood that I had completely forgotten about but that the mere sight of has brought me back to a particular time in my life. All of that has now been replaced with something called a “Search” form, a one way road to getting exactly what I want without having to deal with anything that might pull my attention elsewhere.

I miss Blockbuster. Of course, if I have a hankering for a kind of Blockbuster experience, I have options. A local “family video” store offers less stock for less price. And of course there’s always Redbox, where a little self-discipline and memory can give me and Emily a $1 movie night. I’m not hurting for choices, and I’m not complaining. I suppose I’m just remembering a ritual from years gone by, a ritual that probably seemed inconvenient and expensive and crowded at the time. Now, it just seems fun.

Character and Courage

I saw the new Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies last weekend. My wife and I enjoyed it. It’s an engrossing, well-acted movie, beautifully shot by legendary cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List). Fair warning: This is a Cold War movie in more than subject matter; if you’re looking for explosions and gunfights, head elsewhere. Bridge of Spies is a movie for people who enjoy listening to other people talk.

Tom Hanks portrays James B. Donovan, the real-life insurance lawyer at the height of the Cold War who was asked to defend a suspect Soviet spy in court. I’ll leave enough unsaid to give those of you who (like me) don’t know the history a cause to see the film, but I’ll summarize it thusly: Donovan risked his professional and personal life in representing Rudolf Abel, and then did it all again–at the further behest of his country–by entering East Germany to negotiate a crucial prisoner exchange with the Germans and Russians.

Donovan was a man of remarkable courage. He cut across the passions of the country by insisting that Abel be represented fairly, even to the Supreme Court. He presciently warned the civil judge who sentenced Abel that a death penalty would ruin any chance to use him as leverage in case the Soviets captured an American. And he stood his ground with Soviet negotiators, insisting on favorable terms even when threatened. One of the characters in the film gives Donovan the nickname “Standing Man.” It suits him.

Resolute character in the face of intense opposition is a favorite theme of Spielberg. He seems to relish the stories of those kind of men, whether real (Abraham Lincoln, Oskar Schindler) or imaginary (Capt. John Miller). Courageous people are obviously of evergreen interest to novelists and filmmakers, but one thing that sets Spielberg’s heroes apart is the courage of their self-mastery. Spielberg’s courageous characters are not merely brave in the culturally convenient senses of the word. They are not brave in their self-actualization; they are brave in their self-sacrifice. There is a tremendous difference.

If you were to ask most people today to list the 3 most important virtues, do you think courage would be on the list? Perhaps, but I doubt it. I don’t think that’s because we fail to see the necessity of courage. Rather, my guess is that, in a culture of pure self-actualization and assertion of “my story,” all of us simply believe that we are courageous by default. A generation’s worth of agonized psychological health campaigns and “self-esteem” parenting literature have made all of us deeply suspicious that we are being very courageous and very brave merely by getting out of the bed in the morning.

Consider the lyrics of Katy Perry’s “Roar,” one of the most popular songs of the last year. What is “Roar” if not a celebratory anthem for crowning oneself courageous for the achievement of existence?

I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sit quietly, agree politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything

What does “agree politely” and “past the breaking point” mean here? I guess it’s hypothetically possible that Perry has recorded an upbeat, catchy mainstream pop tune about domestic violence, but I doubt it. Perry gives us a clue what she means elsewhere in the song:

Now I’m floating like a butterfly
Stinging like a bee I earned my stripes
I went from zero, to my own hero

The key phrase there is “my own hero.” Not YOUR hero. Not THEIR hero. MY own hero. Perry’s song is about freeing oneself from the life of what Ayn Rand called “second-handers,” people whose sense of identity consists in being approved and admired so much so that they forget to love anything else. That is indeed a noble goal, and one that can point towards heaven, as Screwtape warned Wormwood.

But does being “my own hero” also mean, as the chorus sings, “I am a champion”? Is asserting oneself as an individual really the deepest and most genuine form of courage? If it is, then I’m afraid men like James Donovan and Abraham Lincoln were deeply self-deceived. Those men believed the way they could courageous was not by asserting their own personal championhood, or becoming “their own hero” to the frustrated designs of those around them. Rather, people like Lincoln and Donovan were willing to lay down their lives for the cause of something outside them, for something that had lasted and would last well beyond their lives and their fortunes. Rather than asserting their inherent awesomeness, these men became servants. They chose to say “Here I am” rather than “Hear me roar.”

When Christ said that whoever keeps his life will lose it, he wasn’t merely being poetic. Claiming an autonomous self-dictation over our lives may bring with it the sensations of thrill and adventure, but ultimately, by losing our courage and our character, we become absorbed in the elementary systems of the world. It’s true that we should follow what is truth and right regardless of how many voices invite us elsewhere. But it’s just as true that truth and right are not determined by the dictates of our hearts. It’s not that we shouldn’t live for ourselves, it’s that we can’t. We were made to give ourselves up. That’s who we really are, and only in doing that can we become more like our true selves, more like what–or, indeed, like Who–we were meant to be.

Rather than being told to follow our heart, what my generation needs is to be told to lay down our lives for something great and true and beautiful and timeless. So much of what is mistaken for courage these days is merely the shriveling of the person back into itself. We should heed the example of James Donovan and be willing to give ourselves to others, to great causes, even to (that dreaded word!) institutions and places. Even if no movie is ever made about our courage, we have a Father in heaven who promises that if we lose our life, we will, in the end, find it.

The Sexual Revolution Still Hates Women

Rebecca Traister, writing in New York Magazine, says that when it comes to sex, women are in a permanent position of disadvantage and injustice in our culture. All sex–even consensual sex–is dominated by a “power imbalance” that favors men and prioritizes male desires. Sex used to be feminist, Traister argues, but then looming specter of patriarchy intervened, and now women can’t even win for losing:

It’s rigged in ways that go well beyond consent. Students I spoke to talked about “male sexual entitlement,” the expectation that male sexual needs take priority, with men presumed to take sex and women presumed to give it to them. They spoke of how men set the terms, host the parties, provide the alcohol, exert the influence. Male attention and approval remain the validating metric of female worth, and women are still (perhaps increasingly) expected to look [like] porn stars…

[T]hen there are the double standards that continue to redound negatively to women: A woman in pursuit is loose or hard up; a man in pursuit is healthy and horny. A woman who says no is a prude… a man who says no is rejecting the woman in question.

Traister bemoans these “sexual judgements” and the way they position women to either leave unsatisfied or shamed. Even if consent and safety are present, women in today’s sexual marketplace too frequently disappear into the desires and dictates of men, leading to what one writer that Traister cites calls “Sex where we don’t matter.”

To which I say: Yes! Traister is exactly correct. The Sexual Revolution’s marketplace is indeed brazenly anti-women. When sex is a public commodity, women and children always have the worst, least valuable shares. This isn’t a wrinkle of sexual revolutionism; it’s a feature.

But Traister doesn’t want to challenge the reigning sexual nihilism of her time. In fact, she wants to make clear to anyone who might misinterpret her that casual sex and hookup culture are by all means beautiful and good. “This is not pearl-clutching over the moral or emotional hazards of “hookup culture,” she quickly clarifies. “This is not an objection to promiscuity or to the casual nature of some sexual encounters…Having humiliating sex with a man who treats you terribly at a frat party is bad but not inherently worse than being publicly shunned for having had sex with him, or being unable to obtain an abortion after getting pregnant by him, or being doomed to have disappointing sex with him for the next 50 years.”

If that isn’t a perfect summary of the self-deluded state of the modern secular self, I don’t know what is. You can see Traister’s thought process working towards the obvious truth: That maybe a culture of casual and irrelevant sex lends itself to an erotic Darwinism where the powerful and energetic will subdue others. You can hear the beginnings of a profound dissatisfaction with the terms of the Sexual Revolution. But in the end it is all stamped out by the glitz of modern accessories to our individual autonomy. Having humiliating sex becomes better than not having enough sex. Being taken advantage of is not as bad as carrying a child. Evil is bad, but at least it’s not boring.

But Traister’s honesty betrays her worldview. Her observations of the inequalities of casual sex are more durable than her rote progressivism. Traister begins the piece, after all, quoting a fellow feminist’s story about a drunken, unsatisfying sexual experience she once had with a group of frat boys. The fellow writer consented and everything happened seemingly according to the rules. The problems start when she wakes up. “But in the morning, she wrote, ‘I feel weird about what went down.'” There you go. When the alcohol stops coursing and the bodies stop moving, all that’s left is the throbbing of the soul, even if through cultural re-education and indulgence all that the mind can muster is, “That was weird.”

Rebecca Traister writes from the front lines of the Sexual Revolution’s civil war. It’s a civil war between nature and rhetoric. The rhetoric says, “We’re all equal and entitled!” The nature says, “I am stronger and more important than you.” Sex in which women “don’t matter” isn’t a rotting leftover from the Puritans; it’s the fresh du jour of the Darwinian world outside the world of transcendence, meaning, love, beauty, devotion, and God.  The chains of marriage and monogamy are loathed by the same culture that excels in sex trafficking, campus rape, and human consumerism.

Listen to Allan Bloom:

In all this, the sexual revolution was precisely what it said it was–a liberation. But some of the harshness of nature asserted itself beneath the shattered conventions: the young were more apt to profit from the revolution than the old, the beautiful more than the ugly. The old veil of discretion had had the effect of making these raw and ill-distributed natural advantages less important in life and marriage.

But now there was little attempt to apply egalitarian justice in these matters…The undemocratic aspects of free sex were compensated for in our harmless and mildly ridiculous way: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was preached more vigorously than formerly; the cosmetics industry had a big boom; and education and therapy in the style of Masters and Johnson, promising great orgasms to every subscriber, became common…These were the days when pornography slipped its leash. (The Closing of the American Mind, p. 99)

Welcome to the Sexual Revolution, where the sex is free because the women foot the bill.

TED Talks: Sermons For a Secular Age

I was talking to a friend the other day about certain trends of the millennial generation. One of those trends that came up was my peers’ fascination with TED Talks. My friend was only vaguely familiar with the videos, so to help clarify what they were, I described them this way: “They’re essentially sermons for secular millennials.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that what we’re seeing in the “TED Talk” series is a secular manifestation of the sermon. If you’ve never watched a TED Talk before, I recommend you do so. That’s not necessarily because all of the videos are helpful (most aren’t, actually), but because it is utterly fascinating to watch a homiletical exercise that attracts large, young audiences, for good amounts of time (20+ minutes). I’m old enough to remember when a lot of evangelical literature urged pastors and church leaders to change their approach to preaching. “The younger generation can’t listen to a 30 minute speech,” the thinking went. “You can’t just talk to people anymore.”

It turns out you can.

Now of course, all TED Talks are different. Some are less like others. But in general, the TED Talks I’ve seen share at least two distinct similarities with traditional preaching.

First, TED Talks are very propositional. It’s true that a lot of TED Talks deal with personal stories and narratives. But what strikes me about the TED series is how proposition and information-driven it can be. There are many TED videos that consist mainly of the speaker passing on raw information or data to the audience. Some of the information can be quite techincal, such as cognitive research science or sociological data crunching.

Good Christian preaching is, of course, also quite propositional. There’s a lot of information that has to be transmitted between preacher and congregation for the meaning of the biblical text to be clear. And it’s remarkable to me that in an age where many Christian preachers are urged to eliminate as much as possible the “dry” transfer of propositional knowledge to their congregations, there are millions of people joyfully watching a lone speaker talk about statistics and research, eager to know how to apply that information to their lives.

Secondly, TED speakers are authoritative. Again, there are exceptions, but in a large number of cases the speaker in a TED Talk does not seek to have a “conversation” with the audience as much as she wants the audience to grasp how their presuppositions about something are incorrect and possibly inhibiting their lives. The TED series is filled with titles like, “Forget What You Thought You Knew About ____,” and “Why You Should Immediately Stop ____.”

In a typical TED setting, there is a clear demarcation between the knowledge that the speaker possesses and the knowledge that the audience possesses. Most TED speakers I’ve seen don’t fumble over their main points through endless reminders that “This may not apply to you” or “Your story may be different.” There is an expectation in the very essence of the TED Talk that the speaker has something which the audience needs and otherwise will probably be unable to grasp. This is authority.

Obviously, in this kind of secular setting, the speaker would not lay claim to any sort of meaningful moral authority over the audience. There’s nothing to resemble the kind of revelatory authority that evangelicals believe is invested in the faithful preaching of Scripture. But there is a kind of authority, an authority of medium that betrays our hyper-egalitarian cultural instincts. The people who come to a TED talk are not coming for a self-actualizing experience through a “conversation” with the speaker (though that word is a cultural shibboleth and is thus used to disguise the authoritative posture being taken). They’re coming to learn from someone who knows, and to walk away with something they didn’t have.

Absent a theological center, TED Talks are merely inspirational speeches from qualified teachers. But the specter of something more is obvious. We may not be as “over the whole church thing” as we think.

Millennials and their stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________

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