Hugh Hefner’s Legacy is a Locked Room

C.S. Lewis wrote that “a man with an addiction is a man with very little sales-resistance.” The fortune and fame of Hugh Hefner (1926-2017) is evidence that Lewis was right. To be fair, Hefner did not invent pornography, and what his media empire did promulgate is probably considered mild compared to what the internet now offers. But therein lies the tragedy of his legacy. Hefner made it all normal. He put a veneer of classy on onanism, fantasy, and addiction. It’s well-known that casinos do not make their enormous profits off touristy “social” gamblers. No, it’s the people who come back week after lonely week, hooked, who grease the financial engines. The same is true of what Hugh Hefner built. The facade is glitz and Hollywood glamour. The brick and mortar that holds it all together is the despondency of those trapped in a locked room without windows.

That’s what Hefner’s legacy is. It’s ironic that a man memorialized as a “ladies’ man” institutionalized a habit that keeps men and women away from each other. Men who chase the Hefner dream wake up in their 30s and 40s shocked to realize that the years passed them by, while they were hibernating in make-believe fantasies. And that is to say nothing of the men whose marriages, careers, and fatherhoods fall apart when the depth of their compulsion is made public (as it almost always is).

Hugh Hefner became what he did in large part because a man who sins sexually sins against his own body, and the wages of such sin are neurological, powerful, and mysterious. The Mansion is a myth. The basement is the reality.

Could Jeff Hood Be Your Elder?

This is one of the most bizarre interviews you’ll read this year. It took me a couple readings to determine whether it was satire. The Amazon book attributed to the interviewee is real enough, so there goes that theory.

Now, one thing I’d like to gently rebuke my fellow evangelicals for is the tendency we have to grab low-hanging fruit and brag about it. Jeff Hood is obviously not orthodox by any stretch of the imagination. He’s not a Christian. What he articulates is (at best!) a mystical fertility religion that co-opts Christian jargon to express a pagan ontology. No reasonable person could read this interview and think that Jeff Hood is representative of any serious stream of American Christianity. He’s bonkers. So it would be a mistake to grab onto this interview as “evidence” of where liberal Protestantism ends up. That’s not true, for one thing, and secondly, it’s a cheap straw-man.

BUT. I do have a simple question for writers like Matthew Vines and Rachel Held Evans.

If he were otherwise qualified, would you vote for Jeff Hood to be an elder at your church?

If the answer is “no” (as I suspect it is), then I think we can have an unexpectedly intriguing conversation about where progressive evangelicalism draws its confessional boundaries. That’s a conversation worth having, because I think the tendency for progressive evangelicalism thus far has been to default to reactionary measures against conservative evangelicalism. There’s a lack of doctrinal cohesiveness to the movement, and some of that is, I suspect, by design. But Jeff Hood is not a hypothetical scenario. He’s a real guy with real theological convictions. And it would behoove those who argue, like Evans, Vines, and others do, for a radically more inclusive church orthodoxy, to explain why someone with Jeff Hood’s views wouldn’t be able to lead a local church.

Of course, if the answer is “yes,” then the takeaway is much less interesting. There’s low-hanging fruit, and then there’s fruit that’s just lying on the ground. Trampled fruit doesn’t necessarily need to be pointed out and screamed at. Just don’t be upset when Lifeway won’t sell it.

3 Kinds of Patriotism

A quick taxonomy:

  1. The patriotism of duty is the patriotism that involves material acts of fidelity to one’s country. This is the patriotism of military service and other varieties of selfless sacrifice. This is where patriotism becomes embodied, and its ideals take on specific actions worthy of praise.
  2. The patriotism of affection is the patriotism of the heart. It concerns one’s inner desire for the well-being of his country. The patriotism of affection can be seen in the patriotism of duty, but it does not necessarily result in it; one can genuinely love his country and yet be a coward, just like one could theoretically perform a patriotic duty and yet feel apathetic about the welfare of the country.
  3. The patriotism of manners is the patriotism of customs, written and unwritten. Placing one’s hand over the heart during the national anthem is the patriotism of manners. It can be done by anyone without requiring real patriotism of affection or of duty. Whereas the above forms of patriotism reveal, at least partially, a person’s true beliefs and hopes, the patriotism of manners is mostly establishing a set of protocols.

The problem with modern American conservatism is that it has reversed the order of this taxonomy. Whereas the patriotism of duty is the highest and noblest form of patriotism, American conservatism, intellectually crippled by talk radio and mass media, constantly fixates on the patriotism of manners, and makes it the true test of one’s “Americanness.” This is why most cable-news watching conservatives are vastly more offended at NFL players who kneel during the national anthem than they are at a sports league that routinely takes advantage of taxpayers in building enormous stadiums. The latter may be unfortunate, but it’s just politics as usual in the Real World. Kneeling during the national anthem? Traitors.

The fixation on the patriotism of manners is symptomatic of a conservatism for whom patriotism is constantly detached from reality. David Barton’s success among evangelical conservatives owes almost entirely to the fact that his revisionism is “patriotic.” It promulgates the “God and country” narrative of the American founding. Never mind that calling Thomas Jefferson a true Christian is an aggressive insult to Christian doctrine. That’s not what matters. It’s patriotic to think so. That’s what matters.

A friend told me yesterday that President Trump’s insult to NFL players would likely work in his favor politically, by eliciting hysterical reactions from the progressive media. Maybe. For my money, though, the most hysterical reactions I’ve seen to Trump’s comments have come from conservatives cheering him on. This is where we are right now.

They Were Right About Us

It’s been astonishing to watch fellow conservatives redefine everything–and I mean everything–they say they believe in order to defend President Trump. I’m now hearing from some that the President’s vulgar and hostile remarks about NFL athletes’ kneeling during the national anthem are not a gross attack on free speech. Why not? “It’s a private corporation! Trump isn’t passing a law! He’s just expressing his opinion!” My oh my. How far we’ve gone from the intellectual defenses of people like Brendan Eich and James Damore, to arguing that the President of the United States can publicly call for private citizens to be fired because of their political opinions.

I have never, ever seen a politician who could corrupt the values of his supporters like Donald Trump. When it comes to this President, the mainstream Right is willing to jettison any and all ideas in order to defend his stupid, crass, belligerent worldview.

Liberals were right about us all along.

A Literary Reading List for Theology Students

One of my regrets from my college years is that I didn’t receive a more literary education. By God’s design I attended a Bible college that at the time had only theological or ministerial degrees (now, they offer a Humanities degree, a Philosophy-Politics-Economics honors program, and more options). So I spent the vast majority of my reading time in college reading nonfiction, usually works of systematic theology or biblical exegesis. I don’t think that time was wasted, but I have often wished I’d cultivated a love of literature during the season of life where I was most able to and most connected with friends who might share my joy in it.

Perhaps some reading this can empathize with my plight. If so, here are a few book recommendations for theology students who want to read more literature. Of course, booklists are subjective, imperfect, and you probably shouldn’t structure all your reading around them. “Read at whim” is crucially important advice for getting the most out of reading. Nevertheless, I can remember feeling like I wanted to read great literature but was swimming in an ocean of propositional theology instead, and had no idea where to go. If you’re nodding along, this list is for you:

  • The Pleasures of Reading In an Age of Distraction (Alan Jacobs). If you feel like you need to read a book on reading, don’t even consider alternatives. Read this one. It will not only help you read better, it will inflame your desire and free you from ridiculous literary legalism.
  • The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro). This short novel is one of the most completely entrancing books I’ve read, and its themes are rich for Christian interaction. If you enjoy history, too, you’ll delight in the 20th century geopolitical subtexts throughout this work.
  • The End of the Affair/The Heart of the Matter (Graham Greene). Graham Greene is an author any Christian reader needs to know. Even if his meditative prose challenges your patience, the spiritual turmoil of his characters, and the deeply humane way in which he describes them, are almost devotional in insight.
  • Til We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis). Recommending Lewis for theology students is practically a cliche, but this is one of his lesser known works. It might be the most purely literary thing Lewis ever did.
  • The Jeeves & Wooster novels (P.G. Wodehouse). These books are funnier than anything on Netflix.
  • Inferno (Dante). The Divine Comedy as a whole is a masterpiece of literary history, but if you’re looking to dip in the waters first, Inferno is widely considered the most compelling of the books. Don’t get tripped up wondering whether Dante’s descriptions of hell are literally theologically accurate. They weren’t intended to be.
  • Collected Essays (James Baldwin). This isn’t fiction obviously, but it is perhaps one of the finest collections of writing ever assembled. Not everything that Baldwin says or argues is true. Nonetheless, particularly for white evangelicals, encountering Baldwin’s rhetorical power is a shaping experience. When you’re knee deep in academic theology it’s important to remind yourself that writing is a craft. Baldwin will remind you.
  • The Harry Potter series (J.K Rowling). You might have grown up with these books, in which case, good for you. But many evangelical college students waited till adolescence or even adulthood before the scent of homeschool chain emails dissipated from their conscience. I envy any first time-reader of these books. You are in for an indescribable treat. If teenage wizard fiction isn’t your thing, give the first two books a try anyway.
  • Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe). I don’t think I’ve ever seen this book assigned in a Christian “Great Books” course, but it belongs there. Christian students in particular should wrestle with the book’s depiction of European missionaries and questions of cultural integration and colonialism.
  • Night (Ellie Wiesel). A book you’ll want to run from. Don’t. Let history and memory hit you with the force that it hit the biblical prophets.
  • Silence (Shusaku Endo). Sooner or later every obedient Christian will have to ask themselves the questions at the heart of this book. This is a story you won’t forget anytime soon. Don’t resist the impulse to pray after reading this. I hardly think you can really understand it otherwise.
  • Great Expectations (Charles Dickens). At the end of the day, the chief end of literature is to enjoy it. Slink into this novel and drink a little bit of its world every evening. Of all the books on this list, this one might rehabilitate a crippled love of reading the most.

Capitalism and the Cleveland Browns

Stakeholders in the NFL cannot lose—at least not under the league’s current structure. Owners split money from the league’s massive TV deals and other media revenue streams. That stream is so dependable, so huge, and so guaranteed that it’s done what large, intractable pools of cash have done since the invention of markets. It has altered and distorted the very thing that created it, and broken the basic exchange between consumer and seller that made the NFL successful in the first place…

That approach towards maximizing your dollar with the bare minimum of effort became more sophisticated over time. As the league’s revenues boomed, they became something less like points of civic pride run as passion projects by the locally wealthy, and something more like attractive investment properties with a promising rate of return for billionaires — particularly those billionaires who entered the NFL as strangers to the league, but as intimate familiars of a corporate culture dependent on squeezing every profitable dollar, and trimming every wasteful one from the budget.

For instance: The legend of [Washington Redskins owner] Dan Snyder tells a story of someone who was “passionate” about the Washington franchise on a personal level. It sometimes leaves out his ruthless economizing of the franchise, a focus on the bottom line interrupted periodically by splashing free agent signings to keep fans semi-interested in the team. That he keeps them in the worst stadium in the league, charges for everything short of oxygen, and rolls out a consistently mediocre product doesn’t matter: His great gift as an NFL owner, after nearly 20 years, has turned out to be a deep understanding of knowing exactly how little actual quality he could slip into the product without breaking the customer’s dependence completely.

This is, I think, a good example of why some younger Christians are questioning capitalism right now. In the standard conservative Christian political pedagogy, competition is the most important factor in mitigating the greed and avarice of wealthy corporations. But the stagnation of the NFL illustrates the problem with this idea. What if corporations can still get filthy rich without having to compete? What if the rules are actually drawn up so that a bad product, bad services, and bad faith don’t cost you anything?

I mean, in pro football, “competition” is literally the core value, the chief good. But that hasn’t stopped franchises like the Redskins, Browns, Jaguars, and Rams (sniff) from trotting out bad products year after year, while their owners still profit enormously. These teams don’t just become bad. They stay bad, year after year, then decade after decade. And why not? If someone told you you could make $50 million by being excellent at your job, $45 million by being OK, and $40 million by being lousy, how motivated are you going to be to be consistently excellent?

The NFL is a case study in the skepticism toward capitalism. Capitalism’s conceit is that the way to create a quality and equitable market is to let consumers reward excellence and shun non-excellence. But in the NFL, the guys making the rules (eg, Roger Goodell) are answerable only to the guys looking to make the money (the owners). The rules favor the owners, not the consumers. And that dynamic persists year in, year out, because the money is locked up in a closed system. Is it really that far fetched to think this is basically how it all works in America, not just pro sports?

Hate Watching

I didn’t watch the Emmys last night (in fact, I didn’t know they were on). But the morning after Hollywood award shows is always an interesting time on Christian social media. One of the most reliable tropes in evangelical “cultural engagement” is the blog or Facebook post about how godless showbiz is, and how the torturous experience of watching its self-congratulatory, often suggestive award shows confirms how out of touch the elite are with the “real” people in this country.

Here’s my plea to Christians who enjoy this yearly routine:

Please stop.

Your intentions may be noble (though you’d do well to confirm that). But the only honest takeaway from your “worldview analysis” is that you should stop watching these shows. There’s no such thing as “hate watching,” for the same reason there’s no such thing as a “hate click.” Your tuning in may be morally neutral, but it is not economically neutral. You are supporting the industry by watching. If that bothers you, you have a moral obligation to not watch, and to not blog. You won’t be a lesser person for having missed the opportunity to get retweets engage culture. Just let it go.

One of the worst trends in evangelical culture is a tendency we have to watch or listen or attend something, because we actually sorta kinda like it (or maybe we wished we liked it), but then we feel bad for liking it, and so we unleash a payload of anathemas on blogs and social media as a way of doing penance. That’s not cultural engagement. It’s not even being a good writer. It’s just being dishonest to everyone, including yourself.

If you’re going to be in the audience, respond like someone who was in the audience, not someone who is morbidly offended at the existence of the audience. If you are morbidly offended, obey Paul and follow your conscience’s leading, and don’t watch. If you watch and feel guilty, repent privately, but don’t think your online outrage turns what was a personal lapse into a valuable moment of prophetic analysis. Watch football instead. Or go to bed.

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Tim Kaine Stumbles Over the Stumbling Block

Senator and Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine believes that both conservative and liberal Christians should be able to find common ground on healthcare. In an op-ed for Christianity Today, Senator Kaine writes that Christ’s commands to care for the “least of these” should galvanize Bible-believers on both sides of the political aisle to find compassionate solutions to the healthcare crisis. “Our disagreements do not lie in whether to care for them, but how,” the senator writes. “Following the failure of the most recent attempt to repeal the ACA, our focus should turn toward how we can develop simple solutions that improve care for all people.” His piece is short on practical policy suggestions but long on references to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, particular the apostle’s reminder that Christians are each indispensable parts of the same body. Senator Kaine concludes: “If we unite ourselves in the same purpose of taking care of our brothers and sisters, we can do what is right and rejoice together in our success.”

What stands out about Senator Kaine’s piece is not what’s there, but rather what’s missing. It is astonishing that a Christian politician could write a full opinion piece on caring for the least of these in the pages of an evangelical publication, without mentioning abortion once. In fairness, the senator may have strategic purpose for such an omission. Last year Mr. Kaine explicitly laid aside his Roman Catholic views on abortion in order to be a faithful running mate for Hillary Clinton on the Democratic ticket. He even did an awkward about-face on the Hyde Amendment, supporting it before he (like the Democratic Party) vowed to remove it. Given all that, perhaps we ought not be too shocked that Mr. Kaine doesn’t feel it important to talk about what most religious people in the country believe is the single most pressing “healthcare” issue of our time.

The problem is that the senator’s editorial embodies the logical errors and moral hollowness that many progressive Christians display when it comes to politics. On issues like universal healthcare and immigration, young, left-of-center evangelicals especially often invoke Scripture and Christian theology in expressing support for progressive policies. For these Christians, Mr. Kaine’s piece is the reddest of meat, a quasi-homily on political theology that draws strict, straight lines from the teachings of Jesus to a pet issue. Just like the senator’s editorial, many of these progressive Christians likewise fall silent or become fidgety when we ask “What would Jesus do” of abortion. Apparently, the theonomistic laws given to Israel about the stranger and sojourner have crystal clear political application in the United States, but the sixth commandment and the psalmist’s rejoicing in the personhood of the unborn body are hopelessly murky and complex.

There’s also more than a little bit of willful blindness here about healthcare law and abortion politics. Though Kaine’s editorial urges bipartisan cooperation on healthcare, the overwhelming majority of policymakers and commentators on the Left believe that government funding of Planned Parenthood and soft (or no) restrictions on abortion access are non-negotiable elements of good healthcare law. What does “bipartisan cooperation” look like between those who believe that unborn children are human persons made in the image of God, and those who believe they are nonentities and biological property? Some evangelicals have suggested that cooperation between pro-choice and pro-life camps focus on reducing the number of abortions, rather than outlawing them. But this suggestion avoids the ethical heart of the matter. If abortion is immoral because it is the killing of a human person, then we ought to use the power, and the teaching function of the law, in order to eliminate it, just as our ancestors ought to have used the power and teaching function of the law to eliminate slavery. If abortion is morally relative or, as some of its important theorists maintain, a positive moral good, then what gives us the right to believe that abortions should be reduced?

It’s understandable that some, like Tim Kaine, would want to avoid the culture war divisiveness of abortion and instead call both Republican and Democratic Christians to mutual concern for the poor and ill. On one level, such mutuality is possible, and some conservatives have been making eloquent, and theologically informed, cases for questioning the GOP’s dogmatism on issues like healthcare, family leave policy, and more. But no amount of earnestness or good faith can change the fact that abortion is a major stumbling block in the national conversation about healthcare. To argue that we embrace abortion choice may be morally repugnant, but it is at least an honest response. Pretending as if the stumbling block doesn’t exist is not honest, and it’s not a pathway toward partnership.

Calling Christians to care for the “least of these” entails calling them to account for millions of tiny humans who are utterly innocent, utterly defenseless, and utterly at our mercy. Behind gospel-driven compassion lies the idea that we ought to have compassion on human beings in the first place. It’s precisely that foundational moral sensibility that Planned Parenthood, and the cult of death for which it storefronts, vivisects on a daily basis.


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Racism and the Reformed Church

I would urge you this weekend to find, or make, 50 minutes to listen to Duke Kwon’s address on racism and the Christian church. Andrew Wilson flagged it on his blog and called it the best message he’s heard all year. That’s not hyperbole. This is a powerful, uncomfortable, thoroughly Christian sermon on the history of racism within the evangelical Reformed community, and what true repentance requires.

At one point in the message, pastor Kwon makes a point about the racial legacy of the evangelical church that I’m ashamed to say has never before occurred to me. Making the point that biblical restitution requires us to be honest about how sin has injured others, Kwon argues that the cumulative effect of complicity in racism excluded–for centuries–black Christians from the life of the church, and has thus resulted in a liturgy and ecclesiastical life that looks radically different because of such exclusion than it might otherwise look. Kwon focuses his comments on the PCA, his denominational home, but everything he says could easily–in fact, more easily–be applied to the Southern Baptist Convention, my home (which was literally created for the preservation of racism).

Here’s the full quote:

In 1969 the National Committee of Black Churchmen asserted that, historically, the Christian church has served as the ‘moral cement’ of the structure of racism in this nation, and that therefore, the church should share accountability for the problem of racism in America. And they were not wrong. Two hundred and fifty years of providing the moral grounds for slavery, 90 years of complicity with Jim Crow, 60 years of blessing separate-but-equal, even in her pews, the church bears more responsibility for the racist heritage of the United States than we would want to believe.

For now, however, my attention is focused on the church’s responsibility, not out there [in secular society] more broadly–that is an important conversation that we must have–but for the church’s responsibility for providing and repairing marginalizing and racist structures within the church.

Have you noticed that in the evangelical and Reformed church, we tend to act as if the dearth of African-Americans from our communion is a morally neutral, sociological phenomenon? In fact, much of the absence of black members can be traced back to the active and passive participation in anti black racism by white Christians. What I mean is this. Evangelical and especially Reformed worship traditions aren’t alienating to black Christians and other Christians of color only because of mere differences or preferences of cultural perspective; they are alienating, in part, because of the racist legacy that not only kept them out of the pews, but also excluded them from the generation after generation development of liturgical life, community life, and confessional theology. The Presbyterian church is weak in addressing the core concerns of the black community because the Presbyterian church literally WAS one of the core concerns of the black community.

Let me say this again. The weekly discomfort that many of you feel, the weekly discomfort that an African-American feels in a mostly white PCA church, is not only the product of present cultural differences. That discomfort is also the byproduct of past immoral exercises of social and ecclesiastical power. We need to reckon with that.

Let this quote sink into your soul. And then, ask yourself: What would a Christian, confessional church culture that was never complicit in racism and hatred look like today? It’s difficult to even visualize, isn’t it?

That, friends, should make us weep with repentance.

Why I Gave Up Being a Movie Critic

At one time in my life I had very serious aspirations to sit for hours at a time in a movie theater, watch films, write about them, and make money (or at least, break even!). I no longer have those desires. I still love movies, and am rarely happier than in a cinema. And I will still write about film on occasion. But those desires–to see dozens, maybe even hundreds of films, and to swim in the narrative world and craft of movies–have all but evaporated.

Reading Kyle Smith’s commentary on the Jennifer Lawrence horror pic Mother reminded me of this. I’m not saying reading one critic’s take on a film is always sufficient to form an opinion, nor am I sure I’d have the same takeaways that Kyle had. But here’s the thing: Even if Kyle’s column is mostly true…actually, even if its partially true, I don’t want any part of Mother. I don’t want to watch it and I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want its story and its form to be part of my life. And I wouldn’t want that even if someone were offering me money to watch it and critique it.

I find myself feeling this way about a lot of movies nowadays. There are lots of good movies out there, more than most people realize. But there is also a lot to wade through to get to them. A critic’s job is to wade. I no longer believe I can or would even want to do that. A truly trustworthy critic must often stifle his strongest reactions to a movie in order to become a fair observer. He must also be willing to encounter films like Mother. Whether because of parenthood, or because of my own emotional fragility, or because I find myself desperate nowadays for any semblance of hope from pop culture, I just can’t do that anymore.

I don’t want what Kyle describes in his review to become “normal” for me. I don’t want to lose my gag reflex over films just because, having seen so many, my categories have all been defined down. I’m glad Kyle is a critic and I’m glad he wrote what he wrote. Who knows? He may have saved me a couple hours of my life I would have been desperate to have back. I’m thankful for him. But I know that for me, I cannot imagine ever delighting in a medium enough to be glad I stayed and watched a film like Mother. Critics should be able do that. I’m not. That’s why I’m not a critic, and why I’ll probably never be.