Christian Repentance in a Callout Culture

The online shame culture is an opportunity for Christians to hold forth the gracious and healing practice of Christian repentance

Our culture is increasingly a shame culture. “Callout” refers to the common practice of using one’s social media account to name and shame, often with the intended goal of inspiring those who follow your posts to likewise pile-on the other party. As many are discovering, these kinds of shaming campaigns can have real power, especially if the offending party is supported by a corporate brand which fears the effect of such negative publicity.

This shame culture has interesting depth. For one thing, it seems to serve a very ancient function that has been lost to liberal society for a long time—namely, community-driven enforcement of moral norms. Writers such as Wendell Berry and Roger Scruton have long commented on the displacement of community by the political state as the chief arbiter of public moral behavior. When a person is shamed online, it’s not hard to conceive that, at least in one sense, what’s happening to them is an expression of cultural nostalgia for a time in which human beings were not (as they are now) totally isolated, atomized, and mobile.

The flip side of this, however, is that social media is not a community. This may sound strange or even offensive to some, but social media cannot be a community because it requires depersonalization in order to function. Human beings must be reduced to accounts. Beliefs must be reduced to words. Behavior must be reduced to what’s published on a commercial platform. If this is a community, it’s a community in the same way that the characters on a scripted TV sitcom are a “community.” They do not exist independent of our watching them.

Because social media is not a real community, the fact that it seeks to behave as if it were a community leads to a host of complications, and perhaps none of those is so complicated as the Christian practice of repentance.

Repentance in our Western culture is already complicated by the fact that our sense of bondedness is incredibly liquid and loose. We are a fanatically voluntaristic society, and most Americans demand that virtually experience in their daily life be voluntaristic to the core. Contemporary society cherishes breakable bonds. Few words are more attractive to the modern consumer than “no-contract,” and this attitude has spilled into our social fabric. Alan Jacobs considered this dynamic in a 2016 essay for The American Conservative titled “The Trade-In Culture.” Jacobs observes the tendency in American culture to blow up whatever aspects of life aren’t working the way we’d like them to at the moment. Instead of laying anchor and remaining committed to improving a bad situation, it’s become common for us to “trade-in” jobs, relationships, and affiliations as soon as they become hard. “We are becoming habituated to making the nuclear option the first option, or very close to the first option, when we can,” Jacobs writes. “Trying to come to terms with a difficult person, or a difficult situation, is an endeavor fraught with uncertainty: it might work, but it might not, and even if it does work, I could end up paying a big emotional price. Why not just bail out and start over.”

The trade-in culture is a spectre hovering over all of liberal society’s institutions and relationships. Everyone goes to the altar knowing what divorce is. Everyone joins a church knowing they could switch for any reason. Everyone knows they have a choice between parenting and alimony. And everyone feels shame knowing the easier and more political thing to do would be to disappear instead of repent, to reconcile with obscurity rather than with the sinned against. In the liquid, shame-ridden trade-in culture, the relationship between sinner and sin is political rather than personal. The best thing a person being targeted by a social media campaign can do is stop posting [i.e., disappear]. This “call” for “repentance” is entirely about removing the blight from the online experience of the community, just as no-fault divorce is entirely about removing the difficult marriage or church-hopping is entirely about removing the awkwardness of corporate worship.

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So what does this have to do with repentance? For one thing, the Christian practice of repentance is not political. It is not an act that seeks to mitigate harm to the brand or satisfy all the desires of those who might be persuaded to support the penitent one day. The Christian practice of repentance carries with two biblical commands that are equally devastating to our contemporary mindset: “Confess your sins one to another” and “If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.” These are not mantras of the trade-in society. They are not handy slogans for political morality. On the one hand, we are commanded to confess our sins, to relinquish the fantasy of autonomy over our lives and to invite shame rather than flee it. On the other hand, we are commanded to forgive the offenses of others; commanded, even, on the basis that failure to do so might jeopardize our own standing before God. In contemporary society, the motivations for forgiveness are almost always therapeutic; even a popular pastor once remarked that failing to forgive others was bad because it allowed the offender to live “rent-free in your head.”

We might even go so far as to suggest that callout culture and the ruthless personal shaming of social media is a response to our civilization’s hollowing out of sin and shame. It is fascinating to observe how much online shaming utilizes the language of political oppression. It’s as if the soul of modern liberalism cries out for a justice—an atonement—that it doesn’t believe in and cannot bring itself to conceive, and in this absence, “re-stories” the world as a black and white narrative of oppressor and oppressed, of bias and biased against. In a stunning essay titled “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” Wilifred McClay summarizes the trauma of an age which refuses to come to terms with moral guilt and substitutes political guilt in its place:

The presence of vast amounts of unacknowledged sin in a culture, a culture full to the brim with its own hubristic sense of world-conquering power and agency but lacking any effectual means of achieving redemption for all the unacknowledged sin that accompanies such power: This is surely a moral crisis in the making—a kind of moral-transactional analogue to the debt crisis that threatens the world’s fiscal and monetary health. The rituals of scapegoating, of public humiliation and shaming, of multiplying morally impermissible utterances and sentiments and punishing them with disproportionate severity, are visibly on the increase in our public life. They are not merely signs of intolerance or incivility, but of a deeper moral disorder, an Unbehagen that cannot be willed away by the psychoanalytic trick of pretending that it does not exist.

In other words, in the absence of a truly moral sense of sin and guilt, modern people simulate these fundamental human senses through rituals. This fact alone should make recovering and inhabiting the Christian practice of repentance a priority for believers. The worldly liturgy is simultaneously apathetic and merciless, loving the sin and hating the sinner. A major part of being the church in the days ahead will be ministering to those who have been catechized both to make peace with their inner sense of moral guilt and to feel worthless and abandoned because of their sin. This is part of what Russell Moore calls the “sexual revolution’s refugee crisis:” A generation of people fleeing from the broken promises of secularism but unsure where to go. The Christian church must be ready for them.

Christian repentance is a balm to the wounded soul of sinners. In 1 Samuel 12, the prophet demonstrates the counter-intuitive nature of grace in responding to his nation’s sin in asking for a king. They realize they have rejected God and cry out to Samuel to intercede for them. Samuel’s astonishing next two words could be the anthem of the church to a callout culture: “Do not be afraid. You have done all this evil.” In other words, yes, your shame is valid, and yes, your failure is real. But do not be afraid. Come to Jesus. He will take your failure upon himself. Repent to a loving Savior, not a bloodthirsty mob. He is waiting…but so are they.

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Gender Equality and Gender War

I have a piece up at First Things today on the sexual revolution, #MeToo, and why women are always the biggest losers in a sexually autonomous society. Here’s an excerpt:

The two most consequential gains of the sexual revolution in my lifetime have been birth control and pornography, both of which have radically shaped the public square in the image of male desire. Both oral contraceptives and abortion have been cast as victories for female liberation, and to the degree that “liberation” means the weaponizing of our bodies against nature, this is true. But it is the men who have reaped the richest rewards (sex without children), without any of the tradeoff. Men, after all, need not concern themselves with the physiological effects of the pill, or with the surgeon’s knife, or with the risks of darkness and depression. It is the liberated women, not the men, who are asked to sacrifice their bodies for equality.

You can read the whole thing here.

Interestingly, and purely coincidentally, my friend Alastair Roberts has a new post about “weak men” and the gender wars. He riffs on a recent interview of social psychologist Jordan Peterson, in which Peterson appears to offend his interviewer by suggesting that men who perpetually defer to women in their life are ironically frustrating the ladies they’re trying to placate. Instead of being constantly admonished to support strong women, Alastair argues, men should be encouraged to shed immature weakness of their own and assert virtuous control over their lives and responsibilities.

Alastair:

Women, Peterson argues, deeply desire competent and powerful men as partners, because they can contend with and rely upon such men. Such power is not seen in tyrannical control—in the puerile husband who live action role-plays as a micro-managing patriarch—but in competence, confidence, strength, resolve, courage, honour, self-mastery, and other such manly virtues. Many women will settle for weak men, because weak men allow them to dominate them, but such relationships are almost always unhappy and frustrating for both parties in the long run.

Just how threatening the development of powerful men is to our society and how invested our society has become in stifling men and discouraging their strength is illuminating, and the responses to Peterson are often telling here—both the instinctive resistance of many women to the prospect of more powerful men and the immense hunger of young men for a maturity they feel they lack.

And:

Contemporary feminism is a cause doomed to frustration in key respects because the healthy strength and commitment that women so desire in their partners is something that they are invested in systemically stifling elsewhere and because their natural sexual power over men has been traded off for advantages in the realm of economic participation. There is a strong connection between the weakening of men and the progression of feminism, yet the result isn’t satisfying to either sex.

Had I read Alastair’s piece before writing my own, I would have connected our two points explicitly. While the economic dynamics of modern life are tilted to favor women, the sexual dynamics are perhaps more male-biased than ever. That’s because, as Alastair and Jordan Peterson point out, contemporary culture encourages women to lay aside their natural leverage over men and embrace a homogenous sexual ethos, one that is eventually reduced to competition, resentment, and consumerism. These attitudes erode trust and communal accountability. All that’s left is litigation and the will to power, which, unsurprisingly, plays right into the hands of amoral men.

Gender equality, unmoored from a transcendent moral vision of the sexes, culminates in gender war. If we are to push back against the tide of sexual violence and exploitation, we have to push back all the way, all the way against the sexual nihilism that convinced us first of all that we could be and do whatever we want.

7 Thoughts From the News Cycle

I will probably elaborate on some of these points in future posts. For now, I offer 7 stray observations on the last few weeks of American culture:

1) American manhood is in crisis. Men in our society lack religious affiliation, communal bonds, and healthy role models. As far as I can tell, sports, mass media, and pornography are the most important influences on most American men.

2) Evangelicalism is wholly unprepared to speak to the sexual abuse epidemic. This is not mainly because of complementarianism or lack of prophetic voice on sexual ethics. It’s mainly because evangelical culture tends to ape American political culture.

3) American conservatism is probably unfixable. Once you’ve defended Roy Moore but excoriated Bill Clinton, you’ve crossed the Rubicon of integrity. Pro-life, religious public thought will have to come from a newer movement.

4) Social media’s echo chambers, outrage cycle, and shame mechanisms will have severe psychological consequences for millennials in the years to come.

5) What Russell Moore called the “Sexual revolution’s refugee crisis” is real, and it is filled with an astonishing number of broken, victimized women.

6) It turns out both Hollywood and the Bible Belt participate in the same moral hypocrisy. It’s almost as if the mere presence of church buildings does not bestow honor.

7) Politics is a god who demands the bloodiest sacrifices for the shortest, cheapest blessings.

Some Thoughts on “Hillbilly Elegy”

Brief reflections on a compelling and hopeful book.

I bought J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy just days before my son came into the world, so it’s taken longer than typical for me to finish the book. But the effort was richly rewarded. “Elegy” is an unusually absorbing memoir, particularly when you consider that its author writes nothing more spectacular about his life than getting accepted into Yale Law school. What makes “Elegy” a poignant read is, I believe, the fact that so much of Vance’s childhood and teenage life is an experience of America that is buried beyond recall for most people in this country. It’s not just that most Americans have no conception of the poverty, cultural dissipation, or disenchantment of rural whites; it’s that, as Vance shows without arguing, this ritual of life on the fringe is left almost entirely untouched by politicians or cultural critics. These people are literally invisible to the American consciousness.

Much of that invisibility is self-inflicted, of course. That is part of the central tension of Vance’s book: How do you legislate help for the kind of person who absolutely would not help himself? There are two heroes of the book, Mamaw and the Marines, and without them Vance freely admits that his life likely would have become another stagnant existence, riddled with substance abuse and apathy. But my takeaway from Vance’s story is that the gap that both Mamaw and the Marines filled in his life was not a gap that an anti-poverty agenda can fill, nor even one that access to better education, lower taxes, or more upwardly mobile jobs could.

What Mamaw and the Marines did for Vance, I think, was give him parents. An aloof biological father, a drug-addicted mother, and a revolving door of variably disinterested stepdads meant that Vance’s life was anchored into jello; there was no constance or pattern of consistent love and protection that solidified a sense of hope or duty in a young boy.

I hope to expand these thoughts in an upcoming essay. For now, let me just remark on a few things that Hillbilly Elegy reinforced for me:

  1. The cost of the sexual revolution’s disintegration of the family will always be higher for the poor.
  2. Addiction–to heroin, prescription medication, or even pornography and TV for that matter–is a cultural epidemic that far too few are willing to look in the eye– partially, I suspect, because of the politically palatable rhetoric of disease and victimhood that surrounds it.
  3. Place matters. Upward mobility means little if people displace themselves from relational networks that can support and care for them.
  4. National politics, either of Left or Right, mean very little to a large group of Americans in this country. Very large.
  5. It’s quite possible that evangelicalism’s focus on renewing the urban city has come at the expense of rural Christians and non-Christians, many of whom are left with either a vacuous Bible-belt religion or else open unbelief. There are more atheists in Owsley County, Kentucky, than we think.
  6. There is no way to replicate the parent-child relationship. Saving graces can intervene (see what I said above), but any desire of cultural elites to go “post-parent” is foolhardy.

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(image credit)

What’s Your Conscience Worth?

Bruce Springsteen says he won’t perform for North Carolina, as long as the state upholds its recently passed law regarding gender and public restrooms. Springsteen is doing what millions of Americans are taught, in classrooms and in culture, to do: Standing up for his conscience, and drawing lines accordingly. But in our era, the question becomes: If this is counted to Springsteen as righteousness, why is it counted as sin to North Carolina?

That’s the kind of morally confused age we live in. In the 1980s, Allan Bloom could write in The Closing of the American Mind that nearly all American college students had one thing in common: A (professed, at least) belief in relativism. Bloom was prophetic and prescient in his time. But is his observation still true today?

There’s reason to doubt it. There’s reason to believe, as several commentators are now saying, that relativism has been weighed in the balance by the millennials and found wanting. Postmodernism’s tantalizing promise of the end of metanarrative and ethical absolutes has tripped over the foot of “academic justice,” Obergefell vs Hodges, and transgender restrooms. What we see in American culture today is not the reign of “Just do you,” but “Just go along with it.” Following your heart is old and busted; being on the right side of history is the new hotness.

G.K. Chesterton observed the difference between two kinds of worldview. The first worldview places great confidence in truth but is skeptical of oneself. Belief in transcendent realities is solid, but humanity’s inherent ability, or even desire, to seek them out is suspect. The second worldview does precisely the opposite: It places great confidence in human abilities, but is wary and suspicious of anything claiming to be truth.

On the surface, it looks like our contemporary culture is the embodiment of the second option. But I actually think that the spirit of our current age is less pure than that. What the Springsteen/North Carolina example shows us is that our culture is actually trying to escape the spiritual and intellectual emptiness of worldview #2 by combining it, in a sort of hideous moral alchemy, with worldview #1. The result is what you might call a secular religion, an indefatigable belief in absolutes that are in turn defined wholly in terms of human instincts and cravings. Those who violate the religion–those who question the inerrancy of human autonomy and progress–are the heretics, who must be quarantined and kept at bay.

The idea in question has been called “New Morality,” and I think that’s a helpful way of understanding the seemingly contradictory cultural trends at work now. The sexual revolution was never amoral; many of its fruits are immoral, of course, but at its core was always a moral center as rigid as that of the religionists it appeared to so deftly defy. By saying that it couldn’t define “person” in Roe v Wade, for example, the Supreme Court was actually defining it, the same way that separate-but-equal did in fact define personhood and citizenship by not defining it. Thus, “safe, legal, and rare” has lost its usefulness for the abortion lobby, which now prefers to talk about the “absolute good” of abortion and the sinister “anitchoice tactic” of humanizing the fetus. You can see the pattern: The language of choice and freedom has morphed into the language of obligation and necessity.

So the language of the culture has changed. Francis Schaeffer was right when he said that all Christians are missionaries to foreign-speaking lands, and so must learn to understand the language of culture in order to speak truth to it. What’s important for Christians to learn now is that the question of relativistic postmodernism was, “What does your conscience look like?” But the question of New Morality is, “What’s your conscience worth?”

The last generation had to insist that the neutering of absolute truth–the “gagging of God,” as D.A. Carson put it–was at odds with the Christian gospel. We had to articulate our religious DNA to a culture that was being taught at every turn that every god came from the same family tree. But now the conversation is changed. Our task now is to show that our un-gagged God cannot be bought off with promises of the “right side of history” and the approbation of our descendants. We must show our beliefs in more than theological argument but in practical acts of rebellion against the cultural consensus.

Whenever freedom of conscience is threatened by the ambient culture, two things inevitably happen. First, pressure will be applied to those who dissent to either recant or to accept their contagion and shrink back to the smallest corners of the public square. The second thing that happens is that sometimes, this pressure works. So we see memes like “Bake for Them Two,” an attempt to end-around, using religious jargon, the question of conscience and so be at peace once again with the spirit of the age. On the other hand, we also see angry, hand-wringing dissenters, for whom the pressures of the surrounding culture are causing them to forget who they are and where they are headed. Both options are capitulations, and both betray the value of our testimony.

Only a conscience worth something can point out when false gods fail to deliver the fire they promise. Only a conscience worth something can lose admission to Ph.D. programs but stand athwart culture yelling, “Stop!” And only a conscience worth something can carry a gospel that is the power of salvation to everyone who believes.

What’s your conscience worth?

 

Stop Calling It “Adult”

Labeling smut “adult” is deceptive, since it conveys the idea that voyeurism is a mature or grown up pastime. But pornography is anything but adult.

When you hear the phrase “adult entertainment,” you probably know it means: pornography. In our cultural lexicon, the use of “adult” as an adjective almost always signifies sexual explicitness or erotica: “Adult” books, “adult” films, “adult” events, etc, ad nauseum. Continue reading “Stop Calling It “Adult””

Gird Your Slander Like a Man

At the inglorious Slate.com, Mark Joseph Stern writes that Mets slugger Daniel Murphy cost his team the World Series–and that’s a good thing. You see, the problem with Murphy is that he’s a really, really bad person. Why? Because he still believes things that the Christian religion teaches! (Oh the humanity!)

You know where Stern is going with this already, don’t you? He decries Murphy as “perhaps the most explicitly and unabashedly anti-gay figure in major league sports today,” and here’s all the evidence you need for that claim:

Earlier this year, Murphy unloaded his thoughts about Billy Bean, an openly gay retired player and Major League Baseball’s Ambassador for Inclusion:

“I disagree with his lifestyle. I do disagree with the fact that Billy is a homosexual. That doesn’t mean I can’t still invest in him and get to know him. I don’t think the fact that someone is a homosexual should completely shut the door on investing in them in a relational aspect. Getting to know him. That, I would say, you can still accept them but I do disagree with the lifestyle, 100 percent.”

Let’s stop right here and clarify something important. If you think that quotation from Daniel Murphy is an example of hate speech, then, by the rules of logic, you believe that Christianity is inherently hateful. Full stop. If what Murphy said in that quotation is bigotry, then Christianity itself is an act of bigotry. There’s no way around this.

What Murphy said isn’t just representative of the 2,000+ year testimony of the religion that he claims, it is such a basic, such a non-incisive commentary that it could have been spoken by the overwhelming majority of all religious people around the world. That leaves me with a simple question for Stern: When you go on, as you do in the article, to blame Murphy’s beliefs for the suicides and abuse of LGBT teenagers, why don’t you take ownership of your belief that religion itself causes gay teenagers to die? What is stopping you from finishing that thought? Is there really honor in suggesting that such a simple statement of religious conviction about sexuality is violence-fomenting hate speech, but not actually attacking the source of the hate? I don’t think so.

What you have in this piece is a classic example of shoot-then-run journalism. Stern is more than willing to implicate Murphy and people like him in the deaths of LGBT youths, but he’s not willing to give an intellectually cogent explanation as to why they’re implicated. He asks his readers to embrace the idea that Murphy is a bigot who has merited the wrath of the Sexual Revolution’s gods, but without the courage to articulate why that is. He has an explanation, of course–Christianity (and most religion) is hatefulness incarnate–but articulating that explanation would merely expose his own prejudice. There’s an appalling unwillingness here to own one’s own beliefs, to pursue a meaningful case against the very people in whose disappointments and sadness you openly rejoice.

If you’re going to accuse someone of hate, but you can’t bring yourself to implicate the greater worldview realities at work, then you’re not an advocate for justice or a warrior for equality. You’re just a coward.