Modernizing

The Washington Football Team has discontinued its cheerleader program after more than 50 years, replacing it with a coed dance squad as part of its rebranding effort.

The team had announced last month that the cheerleader program was paused while it decided what direction the rebranding would take. Petra Pope, hired by the team as a senior adviser focused on creating game-day entertainment, said the goal is to create a “more modern franchise.”

ESPN

Had the Washington NFL franchise refused to create a cheerleading program 50 years ago, it would have been accused of living in the Stone Age like a bunch of Puritans. Now, getting rid of the program is what you do when you’re trying to “create a more modern franchise.”

This is a perfect example why “right side of history” discourse is ridiculous and no serious person should entertain it. It’s like Screwtape said to Wormwood:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless…’ Don’t waste time trying to make him think materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

Country club deconstruction

Deconstructing the Christian faith in which you were raised due to suffering or intellectual/existential crisis is a move that deserves a careful and nuanced response. Deconstructing your faith because you’ve grown up and discovered cooler people than the folks in your youth group deserves something different. 

I know there are plenty of people in the first category. But to be honest, I’m starting to suspect that the deconstruction content industry is funded and operated mostly by people in the second category. There are too many common schticks, stories, and even experiences among the ex-Christian books and podcasts. Some similarities among people who were raised in conservative religious circles is completely expected. But when just about every de-converting personality says “There were never good answers to my questions,” any reasonable person might begin wondering if there’s some note-sharing going on. 

Christians want to understand why people leave the faith, and our evangelistic beliefs mean that we instinctively make it our responsibility when a person who was in church for several years ends up disavowing everything they once believed. I don’t think this is a bad thing. But I also think, in a time when #content is king and everyone’s perspective is potentially for sale, it’s an easily exploitable thing. If you want big, rich publishers to pay attention to someone who was raised in a mostly white, conservative Christian environment, tell that person to come out of the gates swinging against it. If you want highly-followed accounts on Twitter to link to you and say things like, “Really important thread,” insist that you were brainwashed by your youth pastor. 

Of course, merely pointing this out can feel like a callous disregard for the way bad theology or bad church cultures can shipwreck people’s faith. They absolutely can do that. That’s one reason why the flavors of novelty and detachment from history and tradition in American evangelicalism are so destructive. We’ve certainly already seen how much Christian spirituality in America cashes out to spiritual jargon + conservative political beliefs. When you storm the US Capitol building with a placard that says “Jesus Saves,” you’ve jumped the shark. 

But in the halls of influence and affluence in American society, pointing this out is easy. It’s nearly a form of social currency. Which is why the popularity of the deconstruction story is something a little bit other than a rebuke of the spiritual formation practices of backward conservative evangelicals. Plenty of “deconstruction” stories are predictably American: someone grows up in a small, conservative community; moves away to college or career; and discovers that bars and sex and Left politics don’t immediately vaporize them the way they thought. What’s worse, this story is often soaked in ex-Christian shibboleths, like the one mentioned above about never getting answers to questions—as if the questions didn’t have answers. There were questions I had growing up in Christianity that didn’t get good answers from my youth pastor or Sunday school class. But it turns out those answers exist and functional, college-educated adults can find them: if they want to. 

I guess the point of this post is to say: maybe lots of people who’ve abandoned the Christianity of their youth are suffering in ways they don’t realize. Maybe their deconstruction is just another part of their life that they have built around getting the approval of people who will be glad to join a social media cancel mob against them if the wrong post ever gets dug up. Maybe, more than being assured that their childhood Christianity was malformation, they need to be inspired to care about whether things are true or untrue, rather than whether they get attention. 

God thought…and thought…and thought

When I was growing up my mother used to tell me regularly:

“God thought, and thought, and thought, and thought—and he made you a boy.”

As a kid I thought this was encouraging, if a little obvious. As a teen I thought this was a silly thing to say. As a Bible college student I was worried that describing God as thinking this much was overly anthropological. As a father to two young children—a boy and a girl who are beautiful in so many ways, including ways that pertain to their gender—and as a father who sees the world that is being narrated to children right now, I think it’s probably one of the most important things I can tell them. 

Anxieties will come. Insecurities will come. Sin will come. But no matter what anyone else tells you, my child, remember: 

God thought

…and thought…

…and thought…

…and thought…

And he made you exactly who you are. 

The post-COVID malaise

If I had to guess one of the most pressing problems facing Christians in the aftermath of this accursed pandemic, I would guess that it won’t be an active dismissiveness or “I don’t need that” attitude about the local church. Instead, the struggle is likely to be the exhaustion and sense of futility from fighting the digitalization of all of life. It’s not, I think, that scores of evangelicals will suddenly think they don’t need the church because of YouTube livestreams. It will be that scores of evangelicals feel like their efforts to be “tech-wise,” to swim against the tide of life-by-internet and prioritize analog and physical experiences, have been mostly pointless. We were trying to live more in the embodied moment, and then a virus happened and we saw just how necessary the protection a screen creates really is. Even if we want to overcome that, how could we?

In other words, I think we’re going to be facing a post-COVID malaise rather than a post-COVID revolution. This malaise has already been given extra strength by the inexplicable determination of certain health officials and journalists to talk the vaccines down—a determination that has almost certainly slowed the national recovery and created vaccine hesitancy unnecessarily. I know beyond a doubt there will be millions of Americans listening to that and reasoning that their days of going to church are over—not because they don’t want to, and not necessarily because they’re afraid, but because they don’t see the point. If the dangers hover over you the second you leave your house, no matter what you or your neighbor does, there’s only so much you can endure that emotional and cognitive burden. If a coworker knows you went to church, would they be upset with you for “creating risk” (what a slippery way to use words!)? Besides, you can probably listen to the sermon more attentively at home.

The post-COVID malaise may sound like a test of what we really believe about local congregations. But I actually think this is somewhat misleading. The malaise will be more of a test of what we really believe life is supposed to feel like. Fighting through this kind of malaise is going to feel, at many different times, like you’re doing life wrong. Fighting the omnipresence of screens, the immediate answers they offer and the stress they seem to offload, is going to feel like strenuous exercise when you know you’ll be dead of cancer in a week. The nagging feeling that you’re not supposed to feel this low level anxiety and self-doubt about everything will translate to, “So why do you choose to feel it?”

And this is where we have to remind ourselves of something very important: This world is broken and fallen, and living and become the way our Creator meant for us to live and become often feels difficult in a broken and fallen world. Becoming “tech-wise” isn’t about impressing Christian neighbors or appearing like sophisticated parents. If it is about that, it’s not worth the kind of trouble that the post-COVID malaise will bring us. But it’s not. It’s really about living as image-bearers in proximity with other image-bearers. It’s really about keeping our souls open to knowing and being known, over and against the anonymity and digital obfuscation of screens. It’s about putting social anxiety, insecurity, and even shame before the gentle and lowly Jesus who heals. It’s about fighting the good fight of faith.

So how do help ourselves and each other fight the post-COVID malaise? Right off the top of my head:

  • Don’t assume that those fearful or slow to come back to church just “don’t get it.”
  • Get vaccinated when you can.
  • Invite people to your home
  • Protect relationships, not time.
  • Delete social media apps and set defined parameters of use.
  • Watch movies with family and friends, not YouTube by yourself.
  • Try something like what Brett McCracken calls the wisdom challenge.
  • Sleep.

You need realistic expectations about online writing

All variables being equal, the time to use blogging or social media to build a large following is over. That window closed at some point in Obama’s second term. There are probably a few reasons for this, but the main one is that the space is simply too full. The folks who were on Twitter and Facebook plugging their theology and culture blog back in 2009 are the ones who have 10,000+ followers now, but the vast majority of that growth happened between 2008-2014. By the mid 2010s the secret connection between online writing and offline platform building was out, and everybody wanted to see what their “voice” could get for them. Today Twitter has over 260 million global users, but the most important part of that is 90% of a day’s worth of Tweets are written by the top 10% of users. Social media has arguably always been an ocean of noise, but the difference now is that the loudest voices have microphones and speakers and the rest of us have soapboxes. 

What does this mean for somebody aspiring to write and publish? 

-It means you’re almost certainly not going to blog yourself into a publishing contract. But this isn’t an argument against blogging. Blogging is the least economically valuable that it’s ever been, but it might be more epistemologically valuable than ever before. Good blogs are islands in the ocean of digital noise. Forming and expressing thoughts in a direct format—with readers who are able to track with you over the long haul—is a good writing habit, for which there are no real substitutes. 

-What you need are realistic expectations about the online content landscape. You’re not going to be able to quit your day job once you get your first YouTube subscriber or Twitter follower. If you’re looking for the internet content industry to give you an off-ramp from 9-to-5 life, your best bet is not to be a careful and thoughtful writer, but to be a social media leech who will say or do anything for clicks. Alas, man does not live by bread alone, and poorly gained wealth is not reliable (Prov. 13:11). If you’re looking to become the kind of writer worth reading, realize this: writing good stuff online still offers the opportunity to gain a niche audience, and a niche audience is the one that’s valuable right now. This is partly why newsletters are surging; people who care about their content AND being read are tired of flailing in the ocean of noise. They want to find a quiet pond. 

-A good niche offers better and more meaningful opportunities than a below-average generalism. Chasing the headlines and weighing in on every single thing Vox and the Atlantic’s Slack channels think you should be talking about is no longer a ticket to recognition…because everyone’s doing that. What’s much better is finding a space that you can fill, that readers respond to, and then taking the invitations to expand that niche when they come. If you want to write and are willing to cultivate that desire without instant gratification or short-term rewards, the spots are out there.

Dabbling

A particularly brilliant paragraph in Helen Andrews’s book Boomers:

Like Wilde, [Camile] Paglia has dabbled in decadence as if it were a game. The pithy paradoxes, the valorization of glamour, the celebration of sexual daring, have to her been a way of striking a pose, a way to annoy all the academic frumps and feminist scolds…Paglia’s tragedy, like that of her fin de siecle forebears, is that she toyed with forces that were much more dangerous than she imagined them to be, and they turned on her in the end.

This describes such a huge portion of the ideas peddled in American culture. In fact, it describes entire genres of books. How much writing by “exvangelicals” exists for little reason other than the desire to stick a finger in the eyes of parents and youth pastors? How much theology is now taken very seriously that originated as little more than a way to annoy all the gatekeeping old people who “just don’t get it”? 

Here’s a reliable principle: when your ideas come from a part of you that is more sure of which people you dislike than of which things are true, those ideas are likely 90% false, and the 10% you might get right will be absorbed irredeemably into the falsity. Because ideas are dangerous things, and mistaking them for social currency is a very dangerous mistake. 

Ill of the Dead

Rush Limbaugh died today. I have zero intention of saying anything good, bad, or otherwise in this post. In fact I would not be writing this article at all except that, as news of Limbaughs’s death broke on social media, I saw someone make an interesting comment. It went something like: “If you are lamenting Rush’s death but cheered when Rachel Held Evans died, you’re the problem.” Rachel Held Evans died nearly two years ago. She was a young wife, mother, and arguably the most influential progressive Christian blogger on the internet. Her death was sudden and shocking and distressed even those who didn’t agree with her theology. The point seemed to be that Rush Limbaugh is a much worse person than Rachel Held Evans, and if anyone out there in theological social media world feels more bereaved by the loss of Limbaugh than of Evans, something is wrong with you.

I kinda understand what this person was trying to say. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Tweet that exemplified better the dysfunctional and odious effects of social media on the human experience. There is no emotional or psychological state that would inspire someone to compare the responses of strangers to a recent death, and try to extract some kind of tribal vindication from that comparison, other than the state of being online. Before social media, if you read that a celebrity you disliked had passed away, how long did you linger over that news? Did you call your friends and compare emotional responses to know which of the people in your circle were “the problem”? Or did the news simply wash over you and you went on with your day?

I just don’t think we are conscious enough of how internet life has created illegitimate categories of thought that are not just illogical, but emotionally destructive. Let me say that again: it is emotionally destructive to cultivate the kind of habits that go into keeping track of who is mourning which dead person on Twitter. It doesn’t feel destructive in the moment because online culture is by definition suffocating and insular, and the only reason any of us use these technologies at all is that while we use them we forget that anything else exists. But other things do exist. And for most of us there will come a day when, either by choice, incapacity, or unavailability, we won’t be able to use Twitter as a broadcast for our resentments. But to the degree that we cultivated them, day by day, tweet by tweet, those resentments will be overpowering, and will spill out in offline relationships and thought life in ways we just never imagined.

OK, sermon over. Now I’ll just make a quick comment about “speaking ill of the dead” when the dead were, at least in your view, bad, dishonest, or harmful people.

I don’t think being more conscious of either justice or orthodox theology is a good reason to celebrate or make glib comments when someone who was bad at either of those things dies. For one thing, the vast majority of human beings on earth are not tyrants or mass murderers whose death is objectively just and good for the rest of humanity. The death of wicked and oppressive rulers naturally causes a degree of joy to those whose suffered under them, but this does not describe 99% of cases. In 99% of cases a person’s legacy is more complicated, cherished by some but not by others. This does not mean that objective moral judgments about a person are impossible. It does mean that they are often difficult, and treating something that’s difficult as if it were easy is a sign of a fool. Death, in most cases, is a reminder of the insufficiency of human wisdom and the mysteriousness of God’s final judgment. We embrace the reality of God’s judgment and the necessity of it, but we cannot try to over-immanentize a personal eschaton. Saying what we know is true about a person is one thing. Translating that into a comprehensive evaluation of their state before God is something else.

Any conservative evangelical who logged on the week of Rachel Held Evans’ death to gloat or “own” her—“Now she knows how wrong she was,” etc.—showed an extraordinary lack of character. Evans’ death was a tragedy and tragedies merit grief or silence (the assault on silence is one of social media’s worst crimes). This doesn’t mean that nobody can ever talk critically about Evans’ legacy. The best I can tell, Evans was deeply wrong about many important theological questions, and even worse, she seemed to have pioneered the #exvangelical moment that has convinced many people that rejecting the claims of Jesus is fine because they’ve met some bad Christians. That is a horrific legacy. But the time to point that out was not in the rawness of her passing.

And here’s the thing: almost every normal person would know this intuitively if it were not for the internet. If you were in a room of different kinds of people and somebody announced a death, you would never (unless there was something very wrong with you) immediately respond by sizing up the deceased. Why wouldn’t you? Because in the physical, embodied presence of other humans something inside us responds to death with the heaviness death deserves. It is when we are separated from our bodies, sliced up into digital text and avatars, that we begin to form inhuman intuitions.

Death is silence. That’s why silence is the right response. Let God speak, and log off.

Sometimes what you really need is to see greatness

Look, I’ve spent most of my football life loathing Tom Brady. He robbed my team of a Super Bowl twice. He is arrogant and has often been unlikable. He has benefited from astonishingly fawning officiating and the NFL’s general unwillingness to really punish rule breakers.

But I’ve decided to throw that out tonight. Because Tom Brady is 43, he is starting quarterback for a team in the Super Bowl, and because he has now played in 19% of the NFL’s total Super Bowls. I don’t think seeing those words on a screen can do justice to how absurd those facts are. Brady is the greatest football player of all time, and by a margin that I’m not entirely sure is comparable to any other in sports. Jordan will always be talked about along LeBron. Pele will always be compared against Maradonn and Messi. What peer does Tom Brady have? Nobody.

None of these automatically means that I need to enjoy another Brady Super Bowl victory. But to be honest, I think I need it. I think there’s something in my spirit that needs to see unfathomable greatness continue, to rejoice in it amidst seemingly endless displays of incompetence and indifference in all walks of American life. Brady is truly great, and true greatness is good for the soul to lose itself in every now and again without needling qualifiers and the self-actualizing rituals of an expressive individualistic age.

For every constant, oppressive reminder of how stagnant and fragmented American culture is, a display of greatness like that of Brady is a hopeful reminder of what’s possible. Count me in. Come on, 12.

“I’m beginning to think I’ve been duped.”

A post-Christian culture cannot own up to mistakes. It can only blame-shift to survive.

To me the entire story of America and COVID-19 is such a densely fogged event that I honestly don’t know how we’ll ever learn anything from it. I’m not sure how you extract meaningful lessons from a disaster about which there is almost no uniformed agreement: whether regarding causes, or Who Was to Blame, or how to respond, or even what the accursed virus even is! I am, however, coming around to one conclusion. I’m starting to believe that at some point in this whole saga at least 50% of the information that politicians, pundits, and even health officials were operating on was incorrect. As the virus and its suffocating political and cultural effects linger far longer than most of us ever thought we or the nation could endure, it’s becoming clearer that important people with their hands on important levers have been getting important questions wrong. 

This should not be a particularly scandalous thing to say. People get stuff wrong all the time, and important people with official channels are not less human than the rest. I don’t even think it’s particularly important or relevant that, say, the CDC was wrong about masks, or that WHO was wrong about the nature of the epidemic. Yes, those blunders had consequences. But what relevance do those mistakes have now? No amount of recriminations can undo loss of life or livelihood. Excepting those who may have intentionally misled the world for some kind of gain, I don’t see the point of making COVID “about” the people or institutions or governments that got stuff wrong. 

But I’m starting to realize that increasingly few people agree with me. To say, “I don’t think it matters that [group X] got this wrong” is to be met immediately with incredulity, perhaps even suspicions of malice. It seems to me that we’re losing, as a culture, the category of error, and we are replacing it by greatly expanding the category of malevolence. In the political and social context of today, nobody is just wrong. To be wrong is “actually” to be ignorant, or naive, or untrustworthy, or unqualified, or just plain wicked. It seems like just about everyone is operating under the assumption that meaningful errors are too implausible to be honest, and people who make them are too smart/elite to have made them sincerely.

This is one of the fundamental assumptions behind social media’s cancel culture. Every misstep on social media, even a thoughtless joke, is transposed into a situation of “speaking truth to power,” and hardly anyone bothers to spell out what kind of “power” the object of the outrage mob actually possesses. Regardless, the impossibility of restoration for someone who’s been canceled online is integral to to the nature and function of online mobs, because the most important element in a cancel culture is the shared belief that nobody except genuinely bad people could ever do something that would garner a mob in the first place. There are no “mistakes,” there are only disqualifying sins…because nobody who was worth keeping around would/could say/do that

***

In one of my favorite journalism movies, Shattered Glass, there’s a key moment where Stephen Glass (a reporter for The New Republic) is on a conference call with another magazine’s editors, who are bit-by-bit destroying the claims Glass made in a piece. Glass fabricated the piece almost entirely, but nobody knows this yet.  The story of Glass’s downfall is true and the dialogue in this scene is allegedly almost word-for-word lifted from a real conference call. Watch to the very end:

As Glass realizes that his story is combusting, he makes an amazing pivot: 

“I’m beginning to think I’ve been duped.” 

To appreciate the magnitude of this sentence, you have to understand that nobody in that conference call assumed that Glass made it all up. They assumed instead that he had used a shady source for the story and had reprinted the source’s descriptions without actually verifying them or doing actual journalism. For a reporter to be exposed like this would be almost career-killing. Almost. Just at the moment Glass seems on the verge of a confession (of some sort), he despairingly admits to having been fooled. That’s a journalistic sin, but it’s not the journalistic sin. 

Glass knows that if he confesses to making anything up, he is done. He’ll be fired and unlikely to have a career in journalism again (in fact, that’s what ends up happening). So instead of owning the discrepancies, he owns the naïveté. He’s been duped by a malicious source, and his mistake was trusting, not lying. 

The gambit ends up working, at least temporarily (only later does Glass’s editor realize that the story has no legs at all, and that even the details Glass swears to are phony). Glass knew the meeting would end only one way: with nobody believing the story he had written was legitimate. The question was why would they believe that. There was only one “why” that would let him keep his career, his job, his reputation. If he confessed to that, he might survive. 

Bad input. Wrong information. “I’m beginning to think I’ve been duped.”

***

Of course, Glass’s problem was that he was always lying. But not everybody gets their work or their views destroyed for the same reasons. Some people lie, but a lot of people just miscalculate. They misconstrue what they see, or they impose a presupposition onto the evidence, or they just miss facts. The question is not how to respond to somebody who is clearly lying—almost everyone would respond the same way—but how to respond to someone who is clearly, yet honestly, wrong. 

And here’s where the cultural dynamics of making repentance impossible matter. To the extent that people feel that owning up to their mistakes will only result in being destroyed without mercy, they will almost always try to frame themselves as victims. If you dangle people’s jobs and reputations on a string in front of them, they’ll get the message. There are only two options: either they are bad, or they are victimized; depraved, or duped. And that’s what we’re seeing at work in a lot of contemporary culture and politics. Everyone can either be perfect, or else deceived. 

This ecosystem makes it extremely unlikely that any valuable lesson will be learned from things like COVID, or the storming of the Capitol, or QAnon. You see some exceptions, like this wonderful and refreshing piece by Hunter Baker. Yet the fact that Baker’s piece is remarkable is evidence of what I’m talking about. What possible lessons will there be from the aftermath of an online conspiracy cult whose claims have been coddled by people trying to own the libs, if those people think that confessing their moral misjudgments will send them into exile? What are they going to do? The less courageous ones will keep their heads down and persist and hope the political weather changes. The more courageous ones will look for somebody who told them something wrong. “I was duped!” That kind of posturing is worthless beyond description. Imagine the healing and restoration that would be possible if more of us took Hunter Baker’s approach and said, “Yes, I was wrong to ascribe bad motivations to those I disagreed with. That was my moral failure and for it I am sorry.” 

I’ve got a strong feeling that in the coming months and years we’re going to learn that a lot of powerful people made a lot of miscalculations and misjudgments about COVID-19. We know some of them already. If all you’re looking for are the missteps that confirm your priors, you’ll find them! But I’m assuming that people who believe the gospel have different motivations. I’m assuming that those who are forgiven can look at others with forgiveness. I’m assuming those who sing that their worth is not in their righteous deeds can ascribe to their political opponents worth and value that doesn’t bottom out with a mistake. 

We must bear witness to this. American society is fraying and public trust is evaporating. I’m convinced that a major reason for this is that post-Christian culture jettisons the concepts of atonement and forgiveness and consequently has nothing constructive to do with the realities of moral guilt and responsibility. Sometimes evangelicals only talk about the sexual libertinism of post-Christian society, but the reality is that, at its core, post-Christian society is ruthlessly legalistic and punitive. A punitive spirit does not elicit honest confession and restoration of trust. It elicits blame-shifting in the name of survival, and doing victory-laps when the walls close in on your enemies. A culture defined by this is not going to learn from the horrors of 2020. Neither will a church. 

Inconsistent

Inconsistency abounds more than ever, but people’s reaction to it has all but extinguished.

I’ve noticed something lately. Pointing out that someone is being inconsistent in their logic, or is applying a standard to X that they don’t apply to Y, has become a pointless observation. I could have dreamt it, but I seem to remember a time not too long ago when a demonstration of inconsistency was considered a compelling rhetorical move, one that shifted the burden onto the inconsistent party to explain how their beliefs could be taken seriously if they weren’t consistent. It’s different now. Inconsistency abounds more than ever, but people’s reaction to it has all but extinguished.

You can point out to a certain kind of Republican-voting evangelical that their political worldview makes a big deal out of the ethical character of some politicians, but not others. I’ve been doing this in various capacities for the better part of four years. You know what I have to show for it? Zero. The inconsistency is there, and it’s irrefutable—often displayed vividly by exact quotes uttered just minutes apart. But the charge of inconsistency never lands. It’s met with a shrug, or a protest of “So you’re OK when the other side does this, but not ours?” The same thing happens when you show a left-leaning evangelical that their politics of abortion—”a tragic reality we cannot fix by legislating morality”—don’t square with their politics of healthcare or immigration. It’s not that they can’t see the inconsistency. It’s that they don’t see why they should care

In my everyday life most of the times I see the death of inconsistency, the stakes are arguably low: political discourse, tribal language, the stuff of which takes are made. But I’m currently reading Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, and the inconsistency she documents is not only egregious, but (quite literally) violent. One of the common sentiments among trans-affirming psychologists and physicians whom Shrier interviews is that a teen’s self-reported feelings of gender dysphoria *must* be accepted as true, regardless of outside evidence. Shrier, along with the dissident medical professionals she writes about, points out that this “whatever the patient says about herself is true” mentality cannot lead anywhere good in medicine. Just as the opioid crisis was empowered by easy access to drugs via over-deferential prescriptions, the teen transgender craze depends on medical professionals who refuse to dig deeper than a patient’s expressed desires and intuitions. 

As Shrier reports, however, there’s no use in pointing this out to the counselors and therapists who shepherd teen girls toward puberty blockers and surgery. It’s not that they don’t see the problem; Shrier gets one trans-affirming doctor to admit that teens don’t really know what they want or who they are.  This doctor would not be compelled by his trans-affirming worldview to prescribe Vicodin to a hungry-eyed 14 year old who insisted, between sniggers, that he was clinically depressed because of a mid-life crisis. The doctor recognize what was going on. So why doesn’t he try to stop teen girls from binding down their breasts and chemically sterilizing themselves?

The answer is that, well, he just doesn’t. Inconsistency is not the moral and philosophical alarm that it once was. The “values voter” storms the Capitol. Why? He just does. The humane cosmopolitan laughs at the poverty and disease of those whose politics he abhors. Why? He just does. And if no amount of pointing this out can move the conscience, we must infer that the problem is not lack of awareness, but a settled reconciliation. The inconsistency is not invisible. It’s just been made at home.

Maybe we can learn something from this. To the degree that we expect revealing inconsistency to be a catalyst for repentance or change, perhaps we have been working under a deficient anthropology. As I’ve said repeatedly, traditional evangelical “worldview” education has its place and many strengths, but one of its massive problems is its effort to philosophically systematize human nature. When you are taught that people can not live differently than their religious or philosophical beliefs dictate, you simply have no possible response when you find out that, actually, those people DO live differently than their beliefs. They live beneath them—the Christian theologian commits adultery or fraud—and over them—the materialist recognizes injustice. 

Pointing out inconsistency would be sufficiently effective if people’s ideas and behavior were neatly packaged together in self-evidently mappable forms. But that’s not how human nature works. The theologian did not commit adultery because of his deficient understanding of sex or marriage, he committed it because he wanted to, and his desires did not consult his intellectual commitments for permission, because desires do not do that. 

Our emerging public square is an arena of competing desires. As bad as fake news and tribalism are, they are symptoms rather than causes. Tests of intellectual coherence and consistency are valuable but they are no match for visions of the good life that are shaped by dysfunctional or inordinate desires. Confronting the spirituality of expressive individualism with intellectual gotchas, keeping a chart of secular society’s hypocrisies and special pleading—we can do it all day to the same negligible effect.

Perhaps the gospel needs to permeate our intellectual discourse more than it has. Instead of holding up inconsistency as a worldview defeater, then writing blog posts about how hypocritical the media is, perhaps the more constructive way is to constantly interrogate American society: “What do you want here? Why does this matter to you? If what you believe in didn’t keep its promises, what would you do?” Perhaps we should engage culture as if ideas come from desires moreso than syllogisms.