There Are No Extraordinary Means

We all want extraordinary fixes to our problems. God’s given us ordinary ones instead.

I’m suspicious that one reason older generations of Christians tended to be skeptical toward ambition—even calling it a sin on occasion—is that they were able to see something more clearly than we moderns can. Life in the 21st century West is by definition fast, mobile, and wandering. If you want to do something else, you can. If you want to be something else, you can. For most people alive right now there’s never been another reality except this one. Like the fish in David Foster Wallace’s famous illustration, we don’t really see this, we simply live within it.

Older saints, on the other hand, were more likely to see freedom and upward mobility as a singular thing, something that stood out when someone you knew claimed it surrounded by family and friends and community that were more or less resigned to their lot in life. For moderns ambition is ambient, but for them it was a condition with a definable list of attributes and consequences.

My point is this: When you’re removed from something in this way, removed enough to recognize it as something other and not just swim in it, you probably have a better angle of vision on it than others. And I think one thing that these older Christians saw within ambition was a rule of diminishing return with spiritual side effects. It’s what I’m learning right now in my own life and thinking:

There’s always something else.

The problem with most species of ambition is not that they seek good change or more success or greater mastery. The problem is that most species of ambition are self-referential. Ambitious people don’t generally say they want to make a million dollars or start 3 companies or earn 2 doctorates. They don’t put numbers to their ambition. They simply say, “I’m ambitious,” by which they mean, “I’m always moving.” The constancy and restlessness shift from the means to the end. Spiritually speaking, continual dissatisfaction—a resilient inability to say, “Ok, I’m good now”—has almost always been flagged as dangerous.

But it’s not just material ambition. What about spiritual ambition? Recently in my reading I came across this sentence from a theologian and it stopped me in my tracks: “There are no extraordinary means of grace in the Christian life.” I lingered over that line for a while as it delivered a broadside to most of my Christian walk. How many years have I spent as a believer earnestly, diligently, even tirelessly, seeking an extraordinary means by which I would finally feel the intimacy with Christ I desire and the temptations that beset me just fall off like sawdust? The matter-of-factness of that sentence pummeled me. That one book, that one sermon, that one conference or that one conversation I’m looking for to put all the jagged parts of my spiritual life into an incandescent whole…it does not exist. There’s always something else to do, but there are no extraordinary means of grace.

Extraordinary means are what most people want: in their spiritual lives, in their careers, and even in politics. Most political discourse, at least in the US, can be reduced to the following formula:

My unique solution + my unique implementation – the obnoxious, interchangeable input of others = the outcome you want.

This is one reason why politicians always contrast, and almost never compare, the current moment with history. You never hear things like, “This is exactly the kind of problem we were facing in 1930, and here’s what we learned then.” What you hear is some variation of, “We are at a utterly unique moment in our history and this is the most important election of our lifetime.” Nobody even cares that most adults can remember when the same politicians said the same words about the election four years ago. We just expect potential leaders to say this, possibly because we want it to be true.

Extraordinary means are sold everywhere. I love how Scott Alexander summarizes therapy lit:

All therapy books start with a claim that their form of therapy will change everything. Previous forms of therapy have required years or even decades to produce ambiguous results. Our form of therapy can produce total transformation in five to ten sessions! Previous forms of therapy have only helped ameliorate the stress of symptoms. Our form of therapy destroys symptoms at the root.

What we want are extraordinary fixes to ordinary problems. In this desire we miss the reality that there’s always something else to fix, there’s always something else to do, and there’s always something we’ll miss. Looking for extraordinary means is a roadmap to variously intense levels of personal frustration.

Ordinary means of grace are sufficient because our problems are ordinary. This is one of the things that becomes gloriously clear when you read books older than your parents, or heck, even when you just talk to your parents. The market of extraordinary means thrives in direct proportion to how little we are aware of the past, of the lives of others, or even the nature of objective reality. When you become hermetically sealed in the present, ordinary becomes a synonym for “ineffective.” The gnawing craving for a spectacular new solution becomes like water to a fish: all we know.

Consider the case of someone trying to break a pornography habit. I know from experience that the temptation here to look for an extraordinary means of grace—the one book, the one article—is overwhelming. This is why I’m almost to the point where I wish evangelicals would write a little bit less about porn. It’s become the topic du jure for Christian living content pieces (particularly those trying to get the attention of male readers), but I wonder if the sheer amount of words about overcoming pornography actually betray the most reliable sources of grace–namely, the church, the Word, and the ordinances. None of these things automatically destroy a guy’s porn habit. But what if God knows that, and still intends them to be the primary conduits of transformation? What if God values the kind of change that these ordinary means offer more than he values the speed which books and sermons implicitly offer?

Consider someone who is unsure about their future or calling. She’s stuck in what sure looks like a dead-end job, or a fruitless ministry, or an exhausting care-taking role. There’s a good chance she’ll attend the Christian conference looking for that one plenary message that will illuminate and inspire and create lasting satisfaction and contentment. What if the plenary messages all took the opportunity to say, “Actually, what you’re going through is normal, God is doing something good through it, and he’s given you a community of believers, his word, the ministry of prayer, and the Lord’s Supper to sustain you in this season?” That’s not going to sell many books. But it’s true.

I’ve been both of these people at different times of my life. I’m finally coming to the realization that there’s always something else; an extraordinary means will just run out of gas and leave two more issues for every one it seemed to fix. This is why ordinary means are so much better. They’re not for sale and they don’t expire. The URL won’t break and the guru won’t commit a moral failing. They’re wonderfully, gloriously, there, have been there, and will be there. Just like our troubles, and just like his grace.

Safe, Legal, and Rare

A conversation between three friends.

The following is a lightly edited transcript of a conference call.

Legal: Good evening, friends. Thanks for joining this conversation

Safe and Rare: [together] Thank you as well. Glad to be here.

Legal: I hope both of you are OK with my emceeing this thing. It’s mainly for the sake of convenience. Besides, it’s kinda logical, right? Legal is kind of what brings us together in this.

Safe: Absolutely. No worries here.

Rare: I agree it’s logical. I’m fine with it, but I do hope our conversation will be about more than keeping abortion legal.

Legal: Oh, I agree. There are multiple layers to this issue, but my point was that the bottom layer, the thing that keeps our ideas together, is legality.  If abortion is illegal there’s no point in talking about how safe or rare it is.

Safe: Hold on right there. Can you clarify what you mean by that last sentence?

Rare: Yes, I’d like to hear more too.

Legal: Well, I’m not sure how much clearer that can be. Do we really have a disagreement over the importance of legality?

Rare: I’m not disputing that keeping abortion legal is important. But I think…

Safe: [interjecting] Right, I wanted though to ask about how you worded that sentence. You said if it abortion is illegal “there’s no point” in talking about safety. To me, though, that plays into the pro-life rhetoric. Our entire point is that keeping abortion legal will keep it regulated and therefore more safe. So in a way, I’d actually say the opposite of what you said. If abortion can’t be safe, who would want to keep it legal?

Legal: Well…

Rare [interjecting] Hold on. Safe, what did you mean by that just now?

Safe: Which part?

Rare: You said if abortion isn’t safe, why wouldn’t it automatically be rare?

Safe: Yes.

Rare: That’s not the point, though. Most abortions done by licensed professionals ARE safe. Seeking to make abortions safer is important but we need to think about how to make them less of a necessity. If you focus entirely on keeping it legal or safe, you haven’t addressed the underlying issue of why abortions happen.

Legal: Rare, I don’t think that’s the right way to look at it. I think it’s fine if abortions end up less common, but making that a point of emphasis sends the wrong message. It seems to imply that abortion is a necessary evil. That kind of rhetoric won’t keep abortion an option for women very long. If something is a necessary evil, people will start asking why it is necessary.  But that’s not our message. Abortion access is absolutely necessary and it’s a human rights issue to make sure women have that option.

Safe: [interjecting] Real quick, I just want to add that SAFE abortion access is a human right. Can’t forget that word.

Legal: Certainly. Safe abortion access is a huge issue. But I wouldn’t qualify what I said. Abortion should always be a shame-free option for every woman…

Safe: Wait one second. Why are you hesitant to qualify what you said? What’s wrong with trying to keep abortion safe?

Legal: Nothing at all. But I do think it’s possible that talking so much about how to make abortion safer or better timed or whatever can obscure our point about its role in culture. Abortion is a perfectly legitimate expression of reproductive health. You can unintentionally communicate otherwise…

Safe: How?

Legal: Well, two good exmaples are parental notification laws and ultrasound requirements. The vast majority of our advocates oppose those measures, for good reason. They place illegitimate barriers between women and reproductive health. But that’s an example how emphasizing “safety” can actually encroach on abortion rights.

Rare: I’m glad you mention those two laws. I understand your concerns about them but it seems to me that if we’re concerned with making abortion less common, those kinds of measures could help with that. There are some practical benefits, I think….

Safe: Agreed, Rare. There’s some value in making sure that people aren’t being coerced or manipulated into abortion, right Legal?

Legal: Sure, but none of that changes my point. Abortion needs to be legal because it is a moral right, not mainly because it can be administered responsibly. Even if it’s not done in a moral way, abortion is still a good thing for society.  That’s why laws that obstruct it….

Rare: Wait one moment. Isn’t Kermit Gosnell an example of what happens when you empower abortion beyond the margins of safety and public good?

Safe: Yes.

Legal: Not really. Gosnell, as monstrous as he was, was almost himself a victim. He and his patients suffered under abortion’s social stigma. Without it he probably wouldn’t have been able to do what he did even if he had wanted to.

Safe: Even if you’re right…

Rare: Well I reject that completely. Kermit Gosnell was not a victim. He’s a psychopath. And…

Safe: [interjecting] That explanation doesn’t do much for his victims, or prevent future ones.

Rare: …the reason he got away with it for so long is that we don’t have a culture that encourages alternatives to abortion. We don’t have anything that meets these young girls where they are and gives guidance…

Legal: [interjecting] Ok, now you sound like a pro-lifer.

[laughter]

Legal: Seriously, Safe, explain that to me. How do you recommend preventing those kinds of atrocities.

Safe: Whenever you find someone like Gosnell you’ve found a crack that somebody slipped through. I don’t at all challenge your premise that abortion needs to be available. But the reason for that goes beyond your explanation. Abortion needs to be legal because if it’s not then a black market filled with Gosnells will flood our communities. I trust that’s something we can all agree would be a disaster.

Rare: Yes.

Legal: I agree. But how do you avoid saying that abortion should be regulated the way pro-lifers say it should be if your main goal is to keep it “safe”? If the problem with illegalizing abortion is that people will get hurt by the abortions they get, how do you consistently oppose things like ultrasound laws?

Safe: Well…

Rare: Are we absolutely sure we’re against those laws?

Legal: I certainly hope so.

Safe: If your goal is to make something safe, then I think you should assume the safer it gets, the more people can and will utilize it. I think that gets to where, Legal, you and I agree.

Legal: OK, but can you answer my question?

Safe: Listen: Keeping abortion legal and keeping it safe don’t contradict each other. We can do both. But we actually have to try. If we can’t keep legal abortion safe, we shouldn’t have it legal either.

Rare: Agreed!

Legal: See? That’s the attitude I thought I was hearing. It’s almost an apathy towards legality. If it’s a choice between taking a step down a dangerous road and risking imperfect scenarios, we should choose the latter.

Rare: Ok, one thing about this conversation worries me. Up to this point both of you have assumed that if it were possible to make as many abortions possible as safe as possible, we should do that. I don’t feel that way.

Legal: Why?

Rare: Because we need to keep abortion rare. Women shouldn’t be forced into a corner.

Legal: Abortion isn’t a corner. It’s legitimate birth control.

Safe: Correct.

Rare: Wait a minute. So you don’t see anything tragic at all about an unplanned pregnancy? An unwanted child?

Legal: Those are tragic. Abortion is a solution to those tragedies. It’s not itself tragic. Let me put it this way. How can we say with a straight face that abortion is both a tragedy and a human right? Are there tragic human rights?

Safe: There are human rights that can turn into tragedies. Freedom of the press is a human right but if done wrong it can ruin lives.

Rare: I don’t understand. I was under the impression we can be both against abortion and for its legality.

Legal: That’s what politicians need to be saying, yes. But everyone knows when it comes to writing policy, you have to prioritize legality. This is why we are for requiring companies to subsidize abortafacient contraceptives in their insurance. If companies didn’t have to do that, we would probably make aborted pregnancies less common, but we would be sending the wrong message.

Rare: But can’t we be honest about the emotional stakes involved with abortion? Shouldn’t we try to prevent the circumstance in the first place? Honestly the “wrong message” stuff sounds silly.

Legal: It sounds silly only because you are playing by pro-life’s rules. If you think abortion is mainly a sad, regrettable thing, then by all means, talk it down and legislate it until it eventually disappears. How safe do you think abortions will be after that happens?

Safe: Not safe. But that doesn’t mean we should regulate its practice.

Rare: You’re making a big logical error, Legal. You seem the think the choice is between infinity abortions and zero abortions. You still haven’t explained why this can’t be both a sad and legal thing?

Legal: Just a question, Rare. Why is abortion sad?

Safe: It’s risky and invasive for one.

Rare: And it’s the loss of something.

Legal: No, you’re wrong. It’s not the loss of anything. We can’t drive within 100 yards of personhood. The minute we do that, we might as well give up.

Safe: I agree with that.

Rare: Me too. But, women do report being affected emotionally by their abortions. It’s not like getting a wart removed.

Legal: Only because we still have a culture that shames reproductive freedom. And our rhetoric has to change that. For every 1 time we say abortion should be rare, we should be saying 5 times that its a perfectly moral option for women. Period.

Rare: That’s a fair point.

Safe: Agreed.

Legal: Listen, the options are simple: Either people can make their own choices and have control of their own bodies, or, be pro-life. It’s one or the other. That’s why I said at the beginning keeping abortion legal is the central point. And I suppose I assumed there was more agreement about that than there actually is.

Safe: It needs to be legal so it can be safe. Legal harm is still harm.

Rare: It may need to be legal so it can be safe, but it needs to be a small part of our culture.

Safe: I think the one thing we agree on is this: A woman’s body is her body. A woman’s pregnancy is her pregnancy. The question is, how do we honor this autonomy?

Rare: We make abortion rare.

Safe: We make abortion safe.

Legal: We keep abortion legal.

All: Glad we agree.

Death of a Critic

On Scorsese, cinema, and parenting.

There was a time not very long ago at all that I would have enthusiastically agreed with Martin Scorsese’s comments about Marvel movies. For a handful of my early 20s I was in love with what Scorsese calls “cinema,” enraptured by artistry and moral ambiguity and disgusted by anything that smelled of kitsch. I once registered a blog domain called “The Astute Film Critic,” and let me assure you it was every bit as pretentious as it sounds. Even now, reading Scorsese’s comments pokes at a tender spot in my heart that conjures up joyful memories of discovery, optimism, and a feeling of genuinely falling in love with film.

And then last spring I attended a screening of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. As the end credits began flickering I knew beyond any doubt that the film buff I had aspired to become in those years was gone beyond recall. I left the theater feeling little else but contempt and scorn for what I still believe is an utterly confused movie. Yet I knew I was supposed to love it. Critics, including several whose work I still respect, tripped over themselves to declare First Reformed a brooding masterpiece. There was absolutely no square inch of my soul that concurred or even comprehended that judgment. I hated that film. And I knew immediately what that fact meant: it wasn’t meant for people like me.

First Reformed was the climax, not the beginning, of my exit from cultured cinema. By the time I was parking the car in the Yorktown AMC for the movie, I had been sensing a transformation. Cinema had lost its charm. I was bored by the same critically lauded, morally ambiguous films I had devoured in a previous life. Whilst critics lost their minds over Three Billboard Outside Ebbing Missouri, I stopped watching after 90 minutes. I’m told by multiple columnists that The King’s Speech is one of the worst Best Picture-winners ever. I really like it. See what I mean? There’s only so often you can be out of step with an aesthetic culture before you realize the differences are irreconcilable.

For the last few years my movie tastes have become what the cultured despisers call normie. I like Avengers and still love Spielberg. Noah Baumbach bores me to tears. Wes Anderson annoys me. Christopher Nolan thrills me. Don’t get me wrong, I like good movies (Phantom Thread was much better than I expected). But I agree with Scorsese…cinema is its own thing, and it’s not for me anymore.

As best I can tell, what happened to me is that I started having kids. I don’t even know why, but as soon as my inner film critic met my son, he hit the road. It’s not a logistic thing, like, “I can’t watch movies for grown ups anymore.” Nothing prevents me from streaming cinema after the kids’ bedtimes. I would just rather re-watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. It wasn’t always like this, but it’s definitely been this way since I became a dad. Is it simply nostalgia or sentimentality? Probably somewhat! But I’ve got two other theories.

1) I think becoming a father had a transformative effect on why I put myself in the way of stories. My “astute film critic” days were mostly about being an astute critic, not the film. In other words, I think for me the operative desire was not to delight and learn from and be shaped by story but to be the kind of person people thought of as intelligent, while using movies to get that desire.

The more I reflect on this, the more I think bastions of “elite” opinion are pretty much all designed toward this end. It’s inner rings all the way down. Yes, if all you read is Harry Potter your imagination and your moral intuitions will be stilted, but all this means is that the Potter books are finite and limited. It doesn’t mean that the antidote is to subscribe to the New York Review of Books and farm out your soul to the coastal literati. Why not? Because—surprise!—if you do that, your imagination and your moral intuitions will likewise be stilted.

What did becoming a dad have to do with this? I’m not entirely sure, but it may be that children have a way of disabusing one’s delusions of grandeur. Want to be The Atlantic’s film critic? First, change this diaper. I wonder if even more than student loan debt, this is what keeps millennials from having kids. You can do anything in the world, until you have to do one thing.

2) When my son was born, my heart was flooded with the desire that he grow up to be a certain kind of person: Strong, courageous, compassionate, confident, etc. When I looked at the kind of movies that Scorsese dislikes, I saw, imperfect and idealistic, characters like this. When I looked at “cinema” I saw characters who were supposed to be “the real world.” The more closely I looked, though, I realized that the “real world” was actually not a real world at all, but a world created by people like Harvey Weinstein. Was this sex scene or that ideology really a reflection of the authentic world, or was it simply put in there to placate a powerful suit?

I don’t know. Not knowing is part of life, of course. And there’s something to be said for art that is personal instead of market researched. But more than anything, becoming a father has made me want to unite truth, goodness, and beauty, to keep them all together and to resist selling out to the expert opinions of people who know how to win Oscars but apparently not how to spot a hero. I just think that’s a poor trade-off.


image credit: By hashi photo – hashi photo, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9976941