Cuties and Cognitive Dissonance

I could be misreading something, but it sure seems to me that a majority of defenses of Netflix’s indefensible Cuties are coming in from the same groups of folks who cheer the age of the “trigger warning” on university campuses. I’m not sure how one arrives intellectually at the conclusion that Rudyard Kipling and Huck Finn are nuclear, but a movie that would land its creator in prison had it been filmed with a camcorder instead of a film crew is not.

Actually, I take that back. I do know how one arrives at that conclusion: one decides to be for whatever the people one despises are against.

For my money, this is the single most urgent epistemological crisis in American culture. Everywhere I look I see evidence of people whose deepest moral intuitions are negative. They don’t know what they believe, but they definitely know who their enemy is. They don’t have a vision of human flourishing, but they can label the people who will enslave us all. This is deeper and worse than polarization. People can be polarized because they have strongly competing worldview. But what I’m describing doesn’t require any worldview at all. It only requires that you manufacture cultural resentments as efficiently as possible. And then what happens when a particular tribe achieves a political or social victory? I have no idea. Maybe something consistent with worldview X. But maybe something consistent with worldview Y. Who knows? That’s the point. You don’t have believe in anything in order to “win.” You just have to keep the other tribe away from power at all costs.

Against this context, “cognitive dissonance” simply stops being a thing. Cuties is the definition of low-hanging fruit for #MeToo activists; the distinction its defenders have made between depiction and endorsement did not help Salma Hayek when Harvey Weinstein insisted she perform a lewd scene in a Miramax film. If the #MeToo reckoning in the entertainment industry has shown anything at all, it’s shown that the indemnity filmmakers and artists build around their work is disingenuous.

Why then are some of those closest to the cause defending the film? The answer is that the Wrong Kind of People are criticizing it. This is moral formation in the age of the comments section: skip the article, see what Your Kind of People are saying about it, and then join the chorus.

I’ll be honest. I’m increasingly of the mind that the most relevant distinctions in American society are not between Left and Right, but between people with ideas and people with just enemies. The conservative and progressive mindsets may be irreconcilable on many points, but the differences between consciences formed by ideas and those formed by enemies are arguably bigger, deeper, and much harder to control. This may be why both political tribes tend to save their fiercest wrath for those inside the tribe who don’t join every charge against the Enemy. This is painfully obvious within progressive culture, but it happens inside conservatism too (if you doubt me, check Tim Keller’s Twitter mentions).

But this isn’t the worst part. When you exchange ideas for enemies, you open the door for things like Cuties. There are always perverted and unjust opportunists waiting to take advantage of a society too fractured to stop them. It’s how Harvey Weinstein got away with it for years. It’s how QAnon is getting away with it now. The people who can see it for what it is have no voice. The people who could see it if they wanted to refuse to look.

Metaxas, Profanity, and Dignity

Eric Metaxas has been criticized after video was published online of his encounter with a protester in Washington, D.C. In the video, a man on a bicycle loudly chants, “F*** Trump, f*** you” in the direction of a line of people coming from Donald Trump’s speech for the Republican National Convention, a line that included Metaxas and his wife. The angle is somewhat obscured, but in the background of the frame Metaxas appears to hit the protester (though not hard enough to knock him to the ground).

The overwhelming consensus on Twitter, including among most of the evangelicals I follow, is that Metaxas took a cowardly cheap shot and is perhaps even guilty of assault. I’m not particularly moved by this argument. I don’t think Metaxas should have hit the guy. But moral indignation toward Metaxas seems to implicitly let the protestor off the hook for a behavior that, while increasingly common, is still hateful and destructive at its core.

Profanity has always been a fact of life, but what hasn’t is the cultural acceptance of profanity in general public spaces. Elite journalistic institutions, such as The Atlantic, now regularly print the unobscured F word, despite being the kind of resources assigned to school-aged children. Doubtless the editors would defend this practice as essential to accurately quoting sources. But that’s just the point: the idea that everything should be fully reproduced in a public space seems to me a serious error.

The profanity the protestor screamed at Metaxas and those around him was hateful and degrading. That its targets have probably heard such language frequently does not mitigate its nastiness, any more than, as Lewis once pointed out, the passage of time does not make sins of selfishness or deceit less wrong. The F-word has made a stunningly quick journey from cultural stigma to cultural mainstay, but that does not change its meaning or the imagery it is intended to conjure up. Until very recently anyone who shouted such a thing at a mixed group would have been publicly shamed at a minimum, and likely physically confronted.

It is of course ironic that such abusive language could cause no great stir from the masses on social media, in an age in which conversation is policed with such vehemence and strictness for other things. In five minutes of looking you can find thousands of words about the evils of using words or phrases like “handicapped” or “committed suicide” or “overweight.” No cultural offense is more universally understood than the racial epithet. It’s not that most people don’t understand the power of what they say to each other. We are not at all lacking for moral strictness in our speech.

So why do abusive expletives cause nary a twitch? The easy answer is that pop culture has made these words more common and watered down our innate response to them. That’s probably true. But I also think it’s probably true that the anti-neighborliness expressed in public profanity is embedded further than we realize into our social fabric. We police speech when it comes to race or disability out of an ethereal deference to “humanity,” but we unload crassness because we don’t actually care about the people next to us.

I love the way Trevin Wax put it in a recent article:

Having read much of G. K. Chesterton, I now look askance at anyone who seems to speak primarily in the abstract: “fixing the economy,” or “changing the culture,” or “loving humankind.” Why? Because it’s easy to succumb to self-righteousness when you pursue utopian visions in regard to great and massive things. It’s when you are faced with the smaller things and the people nearest you where you begin to spot your own flaws and diagnose your lovelessness.

The prevalence of public profanity might be a better measure of a community’s compassion than their repetition of egalitarian or inclusive vocabulary, because the latter may carry performative rewards while the former just spills out. Reciting a commitment to equality while using (or not caring when someone uses) sexualized expletives to attack and humiliate those we disagree with is transparent hypocrisy. The fact that we struggle to even recognize or respond when the latter is happening raises serious questions about whether our inclusive language really is virtuous, just like a president’s hateful and divisive rhetoric raises serious questions about demonstrations of “patriotism.”

Should you punch the next person who shouts the F-word at you? No. But there’s something to be said for doing something that expresses the dignity of human beings. There’s something to be said for getting angry when something that should cause anger happens.

I once watched a documentary about the famous TV encounter between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal. I noticed that all of the talking heads in the documentary assumed that Buckely was grossly immoral for threatening to punch Vidal. Not one of them, however, expressed any outrage about Vidal’s calling Buckley a Nazi. I’ve always wondered: Maybe Buckley threatened to hit Vidal because he really was listening to him and taking him seriously. Maybe the rest of us think Buckley was crazy, because we really aren’t doing that.

Which Enemy? Which Doorstep?

It’s impossible to read this piece by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and not think that anti-racist activism is in serious trouble of going wildly off the rails. I would encourage any reader who feels invested in advocating for racial justice to read Friedersdorf’s long retelling of a complete meltdown inside a very progressive New York school board meeting. It’s an astonishing narrative that gets more disheartening the longer it goes on.

On the other hand, it’s also impossible to listen or read to the testimonies of many pastors across the US, especially the South, and not think that American churches are in serious trouble of fomenting a deep and deeply spiritual racism. That’s disorienting. Which narrative should I buy: the narrative about elite progressive institutions slouching toward a woke form of segregation? Or the narrative about a conservative evangelical culture that appears unwilling to preach the Bible at its own culture of white supremacy and Neo-Confederate ancestral worship? Which is the real problem?

It depends on where you are.

A media age upends many things, but one of the first is place. If TV and radio dislodged political awareness from its local roots and biased it toward “the nation,” the internet burned the root entirely. In the world shaped by the internet all eyes are trained on that which is national and global. Narratives are useful to the degree they paint in broad strokes and give a sense of omnipresent problems. What most of us mean by “culture” is huge. We mean millions of people, saying and making and doing something on a massive scale. Our heightened consciousness of this kind of large-scale culture is almost totally engineered by media technologies.

And in that heightened consciousness, we tend to confuse what is most depicted with what is most real. Our concern is disproportionately directed toward things that loom large in the media hive, because that’s where our awareness of The World comes from. This is what I mean when I say that many evangelicals often engage culture reactively, from behind. Here’s the way I put it last year:

 [E]ngaging culture by centering one’s intellectual orbit around what comes out of elite journalism can lead Christians to perpetually express the public implications of our faith in the direction of people least likely to heed our message, and on current events least likely to be urgent in actual churches. In other words, if your idea of culture is dictated to you by The Atlantic, you might think the most important thing you can talk about as a Christian is why polyamory is sinful, or why Drag Queen Story Hour is a moral outrage. Assuming, though, that your local church is unexceptional, the odds are incredibly good that suicide, depression, smartphone addiction, and sexless marriages are much bigger issues for you than those. If however the agenda for Christian thinking is being set by elite media, concentrated in affluent coastal bastions of progressivism, the witness of evangelicalism is always from behind—reactive—and never from ahead.

Here’s the thing: You very well may be in a cultural context in which something like Drag Queen Story Hour is the most pressing moral issue on the docket. You might, for example, be an employee of public library that is considering hosting such an event. You might be the parent of a child who unexpectedly attended one. You might be a pastor of a church in a very progressive city where members are being asked for their opinions on it. But my suspicion is that Christians who talk most voluminously about DQSH are not in any of these scenarios. The actual life context they’re in is one dominated by anxious and depressed teens, porn addicts, dysfunctional marriages, 14 year olds being pressured to send naked pictures of themselves…and racism.

I’m guess I’m mostly talking to myself here, because when I read Friedersdorf’s piece I come away convinced that much anti-racist activism is going to create enemies out of allies and drill resentments and mistrust deeper into American culture. But when I talk on the phone with a friend who was fired by his church for saying that George Floyd should not have been killed, I don’t feel this way. I think evangelicals have failed on the topic of race so spectacularly that their failure has soaked through the fabric of society to the point of tearing. So which thought is true? Are the excesses of woke-ism going to tear us apart, or will the failure to address racism?

Well, both. Both theses have evidence to support them, and both are compatible. My point is that two things can be true at the same time, but in different places and because of different things. When a New York school system meeting finds members outraged that a white man can hold a black infant, that tells us something important about that meeting, what dynamics were present, and what that outrage may mean for other people close to those dynamics. It’s completely legitimate to infer that something in that meeting was broken: either, as Friedersdorf argues, the interpersonal laws of charity and goodwill, or, as someone like John McWhorter would argue, the actual beliefs about race and justice. We can come away from reading about this meeting dutifully concerned that a harmful ideology reigns among some New York school boards.

But that truth doesn’t cancel out others. We can also come away from watching Republican primaries dutifully concerned that a major political party appears to have surrendered wholly to racist conspiracy mongering. We can come away from watching American evangelicalism horrified at the vacuum of prophetic leadership on racism and public justice. From where I write, this is the pressing issue for most Bible-preaching ministers. The majority of pastors reading this blog have churches that are probably not reading White Fragility and How to Be Antiracist. Those congregations, especially the men, are more likely reading Breitbart and hateful email newsletter blasts from “Christian Youth Brigade.” The enemy of the doorstep is not the same enemy as the one that sits on a New York school board. We fail to see this only because we look with one eye closed.

Do You Trust Your Doctor?

Between the absolute insanity of American politics and the catastrophic toll of COVID-19, it seems fair to think that public trust in experts is bottoming out. The political sphere is little else but weaponized polarization. Elected officials as public servants is a quaint idea; now they are tribal figureheads in America’s increasingly unwinnable culture wars. Coronavirus, meanwhile, has exposed the depth to which partisan commitments shape our cultural spirit. No one is exempt: not the conspiracy theory-embracing right, not the scornful and elitist left, and certainly not a compromised media class. Years of education and grooming for leadership or journalism are being wasted in the service of the cheapest imaginable political brownie points. We could say, with some justice, that America is currently without any morally qualified leadership.

But if the unraveling of public trust is a compelling analysis, it’s also more complicated than that. A few months ago Alan Jacobs wrote an excellent blog post on Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Anthony Fauci. It’s important to keep in mind that this post was written in March, right when most states were scrambling to form a response, public fear and anxiety were peaking, and the threat of mass death was real and urgent. This was, obviously, not the correct time for Limbaugh to play his part in what Tim Nichols dubbed “the death of expertise,” and Alan took him to task fairly and astutely.

I sent Alan an email about his post and he ended up publishing what I sent him. I’m reposting it because it alludes to a theme that I think bears more fleshing out:

You know what the most interesting thing is about Limbaugh’s COVID commentary? The fact that he was recently diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. It stands to reason, does it not, that a man who desperately needs the best experts and credentialed information in this season of his (possibly fading) life would see the value of expert testimony? But in my experience, this actually has little effect on people. My family tree is full of people who practically live in the hospital and eat prescriptions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but who are confident that Sean Hannity knows more about anything than any scientist, lawyer, or even theologian. The death of expertise is so nefarious precisely because it’s resistant to cognitive dissonance.

I still think what I told Alan is true and a fair observation. But I’ve started suspecting that I drew the wrong conclusion from it. The fact that QAnon readers go to their checkups and take prescriptions may not mean that the death of expertise is hypocritical, it might mean that the loss of public trust is a different kind of loss than I supposed at first. None of my family or friends who think COVID-19 is entirely or mostly a hoax refuse to see doctors. None of them refuse to get prescriptions, or receive exams, or obtain insurance. If their physician says, “Let’s get your blood pressure under control,” they don’t say, “That’s not what Sean Hannity says.” But that’s because it’s their doctor. If a Biden-appointed chairman of the FDA were to tell them to get their blood pressure under control, they might (and probably would) suspect Big Brother is at it again. But their doctor is different. Their doctor is for them.

I think it’s very significant that COVID-19 has been covered in American journalism almost exclusively with a political angle. One of our church friends is a nurse in the Chicago area, and for the last 6 months she has kept us updated on her work with families infected by coronavirus. She has seen brutal, heartbreaking cases. But she has also seen entire families get infected with mild or even no symptoms. She knows the names of many people who’ve died alone in an ICU, but she also knows the names of children for whom missing school poses a greater threat than the virus ever did. Lindsay interprets what she sees medically, not politically, and her perspective is not easily leveraged in support of any narrative. The mutual church friends we have who lean toward the “hoax” thesis listen to her carefully and I’ve watched their views change as they did so. Why? Because they trust her. They may not trust the medical establishment, and they certainly may not trust journalists, but they do trust their nurse friend.

I think this means that the “loss of public trust” needs to be understood in a specific way. Something real is being lost, but it might be that what is being lost was not entirely well-kept in the first place. To the extent that public trust and the “death of expertise” describe real phenomenons (and they do!), it seems like they mostly describe phenomenons that were only possible in the recent past, and that came to us downstream from technological and sociological transformations that marginalized the role of place and asked for a generic, detached kind of civic life. In other words, I’m not sure anymore that people are supposed to greatly esteem expert cultures. Perhaps trust is a more precious commodity than that, which costs the price of knowledge, proximity, maybe even something like friendship.

And perhaps when public trust is demanded for people and institutions that grow more and more remote, and more and more beholden to invisible stakeholders, that kind of trust is far more fragile and prone to manipulation. Yes, by the rules of strict logic, you need trust in universities and medical boards and licensing laws in order to trust your physician that tells you to take better care of yourself. But those universities and boards and laws are not your doctor. They will not take your call and they will not look at your pain. And sometimes, that’s all it takes.

Power and the Blood

The Mirror and the Light is a magnificent novel that finishes a magnificent series. I tend to struggle with contemporary fiction, but Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell is so rich, so elegantly written that I couldn’t stop at any point. The depth of what Mantel has achieved is simply stunning, nothing less than a Tolstoy-esque artistic accomplishment. It’s a work of genius that I expect to reread for years to come.

What’s most interesting to me is the character of Cromwell himself, and how Mantel portrays the effect that power can have on someone unable to overcome their private sense of powerlessness. Mantel’s Cromwell used proximity to Henry VIII to further the cause of Protestantism in England, and in that he becomes much like Thomas More. But Cromwell also leveraged his authority to prop himself over against the slurs aimed at him because of his low birth. In this he becomes like Anne Boleyn: threatened into treason, manipulating the world around them to stave off fate and walking into it unawares. The three books in the series each end with beheadings: Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, then Cromwell. Mantel’s insight seems clear: these three lives are really one life, absorbed by the black hole that is power.

Can you do the Lord’s work in Henry VIII’s way? Mantel mostly steers away from explicit theological reflections on marrying the throne and altar, but her narrative brilliantly shows how the latter is almost always at the mercy of the former. One of Mirror’s best scenes is Henry’s “debate” with a Protestant “gospeller,” Robert Barnes, who denies transubstantiation. Cromwell supports Barnes; they both know the bread and wine are that and no more. Henry, though he has named himself Supreme Head of the church and executed those who object, still holds Roman sacramenentalism. Because Henry believes it, it is treason to deny it. Cromwell knows he could lend his support during Barnes’s trial, but he stays silent. When Cromwell is locked in the Tower on (questionable) allegations of treason, his fellow Protestant Thomas Cranmer has the opportunity to support, but likewise wilts. The halls of earthly power require self-preservation at the same junctures which the gospel calls for self-loss.

What’s unsettling about Mantel’s Cromwell is how ordinary he is. Some readers have objected to her sympathetic portrayal of a “hatchet man,” but I think that’s the point. We assume that only certain kinds of people can be twisted by the powers of their office. We assume politicians and judges are just born more prone to corruption than the rest of us. But lesson of the Wolf Hall trilogy is that people with humane, even evangelical aspirations can be seduced by the throne, a seduction that is fundamentally about survival (as Cromwell’s thoughts frequently betray). Cromwell, the abused son of a blacksmith, is an incredibly loyal person, but eventually that loyalty is leveraged in self-service so often that it cracks.

I’m not fond of simplistic takes about Christians and politics. It’s too easy to dismiss political power as irredeemably corrupting and insist that no true believer have anything to do with it. But this ignores both history and justice. On the other hand, Mantel’s journey through the rise and fall of Cromwell is a compelling parable about what usually happens to the human spirit when it is pressed by the demands and luxuries of authority. The world of the Tudors is of course a world in which “religious liberty” does not exist. The English-speaking world was Catholic and then it was Protestant, on the word of a capricious, power and sex-crazed sovereign. Contrast this with the founding of America. For all their (and our) moral failure, the founding fathers knew they were a group of potential Henrys, governing a society of would-be Cromwells. The beheading scaffold ends where the First Amendment begins. When theology sits on a throne, it almost always drops the gospel to pick up a sword.

Yet we are left at the end of The Mirror and the Light with a paradox. Many have been executed, but William Tyndale’s New Testament has gone forth. The king of England presumes to rule the church, but justification by faith is preached on the streets. Behold the mysterious sovereignty of God, who raises up kings and cuts them down, but whose church withstands the gates of hell.

Experience, then Ambience

The story of Western society’s relationship to the Internet so far is this: experience, and then ambience. For a couple of decades the internet was an experience a person had to seek out through physical parameters. You needed to be at a computer. That computer needed a connection. For most people these two parameters terminated in place: a specific place to use your computer, and a specific place for that computer to connect online—at phone modems first, and then broadband cables. In other words, for most of the last 20 years access to the internet has been filtered through technological and geographical barriers. If you didn’t have a computer, you didn’t have internet. If you had a computer but you didn’t have an available connection (or better yet, if someone else was chatting on the phone during the days of dial-up!), you didn’t have internet.

Those barriers were part of what made the internet an experience. You went online. Remember those commercials that used to run? “Hey kids, grab a parent before going online.” There it is: the verb going suggests a contained experience, one that could be anticipated, realized, missed, etc. You were either online or you weren’t. You were watching a movie, working, going to school, eating lunch…and then after that experience, maybe you would find time to go online.  And then after you logged off you would do something else, until the next time you went online.

Thus the internet was an experience that was enjoyed, even depended on, yet also contained. But now the internet is no longer an experience. It is an ambience. The internet has few parameters to mediate it. It is instead the default mode on which most of us operate. The idea of “going” online is absurd. We are online. The internet is not so much something we go do as it is something we are. We are on Instagram. We are streaming music. We are reading the news. And we are doing it everywhere and anywhere, with no geographic parameters and only one physical mediation (a phone signal). Thus, the internet has invaded every conceivable social setting, every space and slice of time. The internet is ambient in the car, ambient in the airplane, ambient in waiting room, ambient in the office, etc. Ambience, not an experience.

This seems pretty significant to me. If technology forms and shapes us, then logically it follows that the more access technology has to us, the greater its formative effects. Technology that is mediated through place and time has formative effects that are more controllable or manipulatable: i.e., in the experience-age of the Internet, moving the family PC into the living room instead of someone’s bedroom undermines addiction and secrecy, but it also undermines the idea that I should have constant access. It undermines that nervous tick we are developing where if we read something good or see something funny we instinctively reach for our phones. The internet is perceived to be more important to our lives, not because it actually is but simply because it is more present.

Ambient-age Internet, however, does the opposite. It generates a low hum of anxiety and boredom as brains become dependent on the web’s neurological matrix of change and feedback. It recalibrate how we think, tangling thoughts into sub-literate knots. And it gives the impression of the greatness of minutia, as fringe ideas and people take advantage of our lowered epistemological barriers and turn themselves into memes. The experience-age of the Internet was not without problems, but while it lasted we at least remembered that this technology was finite and fickle. Walking away from the PC was a dose of reality. In the ambient-age, there is no walking away, and the doses of reality much harder to get—or want.

A quick piece of writing advice

Writers, at least in my experience, tend to overestimate their ability to write but underestimate their ability to observe. Literary skill is a precious jewel, but it is not as valuable to the reader as a drawing his attention to something he has missed. 

The generalist model of blogging is the dominant one in evangelical circles. “Let’s engage culture with the gospel,” it goes, and “culture” often means whatever the Twitter hive or coastal media is chatting about. And usually the folks who get in on this kind of writing are focused on their vocabulary, organization, and speed with which they get content up.This is unfortunate, for two reasons. First, it results in a lot of writers who sound exactly alike. Second, it encourages writers to ignore their immediate surroundings—to ignore that which they have the greatest ability to actually see and think about—and focus on what they think will get them noticed. 

Now some writers will sense this and interpret it as a call to memoir. That’s…not what I mean. A lot of memoir gets written out of the mistaken assumption that a person’s life experiences explain the world. I’m actually talking about something close to the opposite. The most powerful writing I come across is writing that sees something I ignore or forget about, and, with beauty and clarity, opens my eyes so that not only can I see it as I’m reading, I can see it long after I’m done. This can be anything: a theological truth, a place, a person, an idea. The question is not, “Is this a topic we Need to Discuss?” The question is, “What do you see in this, why does it matter that you see it, and how can everyone else see it too?” 

Aspiring writers should receive this as really good news. You don’t have to try so hard to get respect from your writing. Just stop that; it wouldn’t give you what you want even if you thought it had. Don’t write to get noticed; you won’t be good enough most of the time, and even when you are, you’ll be forgotten as quickly. But the people who are worth reading are usually people who have an ear to something few others are listening to. You don’t have to be a genius to make something truly good. You mostly just have to pay attention. 

Why wisdom is so difficult

From where I sit, one of the most urgent needs for everyday people, especially believers, is wisdom. Actively cultivating wisdom is difficult even when such a pursuit is universally acknowledged to be worthwhile. How hard is it when almost everything in a society is encouraging the abandonment of wisdom, the suspension of careful thinking, and outsourcing virtuous belief to political tribes? I fear losing wisdom is a loss that compounds interest. The less of it you have, the less of it you can recognize.

Why has wisdom become more difficult to cultivate? Here are three main stumbling blocks I see:

1) The spiritual problem

By this I mean more than unbelief and the noetic effects of sin. Yes, those are real and devastating. But they’re also evergreen; they’re never not problems. The spiritual problem I have in mind here is the loss of common spirituality and community virtue. Call it polarization, call it identity politics, call it what you want: it’s a fundamental loss of shared religious and moral commitments. I’m not pining for “civic religion,” but it does seem to me that the alternative to Christ-less public spirituality ought not to be social disintegration.

The reason cultivating wisdom is threatened by social fragmentation is that wisdom assumes its own possibility. To be wise is to look at disparate things in life and understand them coherently. In an age of expressive individualism, we despair of the possibility of understanding. It’s why we stop thinking and start asserting our own right to self-definition. A friend of mine recently sent me this passage from Charles Taylor:

That is what is self-defeating in modes of contemporary culture that concentrate on self-fulfillment in opposition to the demand of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity. These self-centered ‘narcissistic’ forms are indeed shallow and trivialized; they are ‘flattened and narrowed,’ as Bloom says. But this is not because they belong to the culture of authenticity. Rather it is because they fly in the face of its requirements. To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance, and hence to court trivialization.

2) The technological problem

On this issue Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows has been a revelation for me. We simply do not talk enough about technology’s potential to radically alter public epistemology. One of the points Carr makes in the book is that the printed reading and internet reading position reader much differently. Printed reading, especially after Gutenberg, centered the individual reader and asked him to come to terms with ideas and arguments that could be presented in a linear structure. Internet reading, however, de-centers the reader and centers the disparate elements of digital text: hyperlinks, comments, etc. Internet reading blurs the lines between receiving meaning and giving back interpretation, which is one reason why trolling is effective at altering people’s perceptions of an idea.

As daily reading shifts almost entirely online, linear thought is threatened by “loaded” digital forms. An embedded link can transform the context of an argument. A “related article” or algorithm can imply logical connections subliminally but illegitimately. Comments, tweets, and “Likes” manipulate our intuitive response to written words. This is all noise—noise that handicaps the authentic pursuit of wisdom. Instead of becoming wise we are often becoming marketers. Minutia dominates our emotions. We see enemies where algorithms tell us to enemies. We lose wisdom in the weeds of the online jungle.

3) The tribal problem

Our response to the above problems leads to the third wisdom roadblock: hyper-tribalism. In the absence of thick communities of shared value, the internet atomizes and manipulates our thought, making judgments simultaneously more difficult and more instant. The only logical thing to do is to preserve our energy by letting political categories think for us. We “sort, lump, and dismiss” ideas instead of engaging with them. We lose the ability to communicate as words become hijacked by movements. Everything is ideology, ideology is everything.

Biblical wisdom is about perceiving the way God designed the world and patterning our thought and life accordingly. Wisdom is living in reality: the reality of divine providence, grace, judgment, mercy, and design. All three of these roadblocks to wisdom plunge us into unreality. We are left adrift by fragmentation, tricked by technology, and rendered passive by tribalism. I’ll say more later about this. For now I’m trying to look more soberly into my own intellectual and spiritual habits to see traces of these problems. I know they’re there. They don’t have to be.

Gentle and Lowly

I’ve had more conversations with friends about Dane Ortlund’s book Gentle and Lowly than I’ve had about any other book in the last several years. (Full disclosure: Gentle and Lowly is a Crossway title and I am an acquisitions editor for Crossway. I did not have any editorial, creative, or other role in that project.) Most of the conversations are identical: one of us expresses appreciation for the book, then superlatives spill out, and then we quote our favorite sections and tear up talking about our pasts and why the message of the book felt “new” even to people like us, raised in evangelical Christianity. I’ve seen very few books have this kind of emotional impact on readers.

And here’s the thing: There’s absolutely nothing new in the book! Dane is a wonderful writer and his style is indeed beautiful and comforting, but you will search its pages in vain for a bombshell principle or a groundbreaking framework. The book is page after page after page of quoting Scriptural passages that tell us how much Jesus Christ loves his children. A book like this should feel simple, repetitive, and predictable. The fact that it is flying off the shelves and ripping open so many heart wounds means something.

I’ve been telling people that I think it means something about the evangelical church right now. When I first read the manuscript for the book, months before it published, I knew its message was not something I had grown up regularly hearing. Again, it’s not a new message or even a new interpretation, but the emphasis of Gentle and Lowly—the idea that the heart of Jesus is irreparably bent toward and not away from his always-failing people—hit my soul as a radical message. I told a friend the other day that the unblushing way Dane describes the affection of Christ for Christians felt almost like covert liberalism the first time I read it. How ridiculous! And as I went on through the book, I realized that this feeling of being fed covert liberalism was a result of having never authentically tasted the love of Christ. It sounded wrong not because it sounded unbiblical or unorthodox, but because it sounded new. Why did it sound new? WIth all my decades of cultivating knowledge of the Bible through Sunday school, preaching, Bible drills, Bible college, and a lifetime spent in evangelical culture, I never once gained a comfort or familiarity with the ideas of this book. I think that’s probably worth thinking about.

Dane’s book argues that the dominant emphasis of a Christian’s life and thought should be on the way Christ feels about us. By contrast, the dominant emphasis in the evangelicalism I know is on our duties, in light of what Christ has done for us. A theology of sanctification premised on the latter sees the former as a threat, because taking the emphasis away from Christian obligation and giving it to Jesus’ love seems to denigrate the motivation to live a godly life. Everything in my Christian education pointed away from this kind of deep reflection on the heart of Christ. Rather than immersing myself in the promises that Jesus gives to me, my “method” of growing in Christ has been to identity each day my various obligations and try to keep them so as to keep my heart aligned with His. Most of the friends I’ve talked to about the book say this describes their life in evangelicalism as well. Yes, we know what grace is. Yes, we know Jesus loves us. But those aren’t the point. They are nice to have, but the point is what we do about it.

You don’t realize how exhausted and defeated and discouraged you are by this mentality until you get exposed to an alternative.

One last point. My friends and I have been wondering why the message in this book escaped us in our years spent in conservative Christianity. You could probably write another book just on that, but one answer I’ve confronted is that the performance-centered sanctification of much evangelicalism is very effective at giving a sense of control over other people. If we whole-heartedly accept the premise of Gentle and Lowly, it would transform the way we see other people, but in so doing it would rob us of comparison, legalism, and anger. If you’re like me, when you hear someone talk about the problems of judging and legalism, your guard automatically goes up! “Liberalism alert!” But that’s my point. Something in our theology and practice has conditioned us to resist what the Bible really says about how we treat others, the same way they’ve conditioned us to miss what the Bible says about Jesus. We sense heterodoxy here where there is none, not because the Bible is wrong but because our education was wrong and our intuitions are ill-formed. When we’re constantly on guard against people undermining the Bible’s moral commands (and that’s a real problem we ought to confront), we relegate other truths to irrelevance or toss them aside entirely. I don’t know if a culture warrior posture is incompatible with drinking deeply of the heart of Christ. I think for me, at least, the one has excluded the other.

The message of Gentle and Lowly is not just meant for individual relationships to Christ. Logically, it completely repaints how we see each other in our struggles, sins, and shortcomings. If the Jesus of this book is the real Jesus, then he’s the real Jesus for everyone, not just me. I think a church that really, authentically embraced this would look very strange, and probably threatening, to our religious eyes.

Impotent Rage

Here’s Freddie Deboer with a point he has made many times before, but perhaps never so eloquently:

I would say at a glance that the contemporary left is defined fundamentally by both a lack of meaningful power and a corresponding tightening of the grip on the meaningless power it does have. The more we cannot get reparations, the more we rename buildings; no end to mass incarceration, but recasting of cartoons; no seats in the Senate, but oh, how we make the Poetry Foundation shake…. And the question that we’re left with is, if we never stop tightening our shaking grip, will our reach ever exceed our grasp? Do we have short arms, or are they only bent from the strain of grasping in such impotent rage?

This is such a good question…and not just to progressive leftists. What do you think would happen if we swapped out certain words in that paragraph and turned into a question for, say, Christian conservatism? It might look something like this:

I would say at a glance that the contemporary religious right is defined fundamentally by both a lack of meaningful power and a corresponding tightening of the grip on the meaningless power it does have. The more we cannot get Roe reversed, the more we call out media hypocrisy; waning evangelism and theological education, but protesting COVID-19 masks; no institutions creating Christian culture-makers, but oh, how we can trigger the libs …. And the question that we’re left with is, if we never stop tightening our shaking grip, will our reach ever exceed our grasp? Do we have short arms, or are they only bent from the strain of grasping in such impotent rage?

Hits close to home, right? The more I reflect on it the more I can’t stop suspecting that a large swath of conservative evangelicals are in a similar position as the leftists Freddie describes. Genuine cultural influence, meaningful institutional power (not just the power to appoint judges—an unreliable perk, as we’ve seen this month)—these things elude us. Baptisms keep declining. For every healthy, biblically literate church there are 4 more where Father’s Day is the least attended day of the year. Christian media, such as music, is often aggressively banal. Our cultural engagement is reactive, caught at opposite polarities of either total appropriation of secular culture (to own the fundies) or heavy-handed worldview exercises (to own the libs). The closest Christians come to a rigorous, relevant expression of principle that commands the attention of the public square is a Jungian psychologist.

Here’s what I think might be going on. Similarly to how Freddie’s fellow leftists feel politically impotent, many conservative evangelicals despair of their prophetic power. The Left processes their failure by redirecting energy to symbolic causes, trying to gain in the arena of words and names and celebrities what they feel they keep losing in the arena of policy. Likewise for religious conservatives: the Trump era represents not an attempt to re-Christianize America as much as an acceptance that we’ve lost the first battle we wanted to win (a regenerate public square). Despairing of the church’s power, religious conservatism has, like the Left, turned its attention toward victories that seem more doable: owning the libs, triggering the media, preserving 20th century cultural inflections, and having “Merry Christmas” printed on Starbucks cups. In this understanding, evangelical outrage over meaningless minutia is not arrogance, but defeatism.

This is why I don’t anticipate the recent Supreme Court losses to inspire much reevaluation of things. If the above thoughts are close, the Courts are not downstream from evangelical strategy. Rather, the current state of the church reflects acceptance of the Courts. The most pressing issues facing the church, such as racial reconciliation/justice, require spiritual revival, and it is spiritual revival that we’ve already punted on. Thus, the current status quo will continue until there’s a radical un-acceptance, a rejection of defeatism and a new conviction that the fix isn’t in, the game hasn’t already been decided, and the kingdom really doesn’t depend on the things we thought it depended on for so long.

Somewhere along the way we stopped believing gospel-shaped people really could change the world, so we stopped worrying about making gospel-shaped people. Maybe we ought to stop looking at The Washington Post and New York Times’s scoreboards because they were always showing the score of the wrong game. Impotent rage is an equal opportunity employer.