It’s Time to Move On

Donald Trump has occupied the evangelical imagination for long enough. Both those who did nothing else but #Resist and those who turned him into an avatar of Christian politics contributed to an imaginative captivity that has succeeded in doing nothing but creating new enmities and churning up old ones. For four years the preeminent sorting within evangelicalism was not about the gospel or how we live it out, but Pro Trump vs Never Trump. I can’t help but wonder if that is what will reverberate to ill effect longer than 99% of Trump’s policies or rhetoric: that we who believe the dead come to life were enthralled by the most pitiful exhibition of American polarization. Did we really have nothing better to do?

I’m not really sympathetic to the response, “Politics is about love of neighbor, that’s why we fight!” Yes, politics is about love of neighbor, but blasting your pastor on Facebook or trying to get people fired from their jobs on Twitter is not politics. I’m also not too sympathetic to the idea that evangelicals and conservatives were writing their own death warrant by criticizing a president who wasn’t afraid to tell the woke enforcers to get lost. There are other ways to engage with enemies of free speech, and we know this because (ta-da!) the gospel came to a people who were not “free” to advance a new religion. The First Amendment wasn’t conceived by reality TV stars who “told it like it is.” The Trump moment in American history was, and is, and always will be, about Trump.

That’s precisely why it’s such a tragedy that so many evangelicals have been unable to see beyond it. The odds were always very good that America would get a new president in 2020. Why didn’t that reality tame our tongues and discipline our time? Why was there so little “temporal bandwidth,” so little effort to imagine an imminent American culture where the person we were most willing to torch our institutions and our friendships over simply was not in power anymore? It’s as if in a moment of acute amnesia we forgot that 2012 was also the “most important election of our lifetime,” as was 2008, 2004, 2000….

Now he’s been voted out. Who knows what role in our clicks-and-ratings media jungle Trump will play? Probably one we can’t predict. My question is, “Why should we care?” I hear a lot about “the media” in regards to why Christians should be very concerned with how our 45th president was treated. The same media that ridicules religious believers as unscientific rubes while cheerleading the emasculation of children for the sake of ideology is the same media that relentlessly criticized and undermined Donald Trump’s presidency. I take the point. But if the last four years prove anything at all, they prove that the obsession many conservatives and evangelicals have with the media is not one rooted in reality. Even those analysts many loathe at CNN do not determine elections (they didn’t in 2016….right?). Even those New York Times columnists who despise you and your family and everything you believe cannot actually do anything about it. They are the biggest fish in the bowl, nothing more.

I talk a lot nowadays about Christians engaging culture from ahead rather than behind. The Trump moment In evangelicalism is the proof we need of how bad it can get when we engage culture strictly from behind. Not only do we let elite media institutions dictate our agenda, we allow right-wing opportunists to co-opt it. A Christian cultural engagement cannot simply be slapping theological vocabulary onto our hottest takes that own the libs. Aside from decidedly not being what the Bible says, such an approach is doomed from the start. It will cycle out every 4 years, a slave to electoral maps and exit polls, frozen forever in the tyrannical “now” of digital news. 

It’s time to move on. Not just from pro-Trump vs Never Trump, but from this worn out effort to feel actualized as Christians by the winds of power. Let’s not be taken in like this again. We don’t grieve as those without hope, so why should we live like them? 

Abstaining

I will not be casting a vote for president this year. I would not be surprised if I’m the only one among my family and friends to abstain. Every—and I mean every—four years we are told “This election is the most important of our lifetime.” It could be true this time, but I doubt it, for the same reason I doubt my four year old son when he says that this toy is the one he really wants and he will not ask for anything for Christmas if I buy it right now.

I don’t have any grand apologetic for abstaining. I don’t think it’s inherently noble. I know my abstention will not send anyone a “message.” No one important will know and nobody with power will care. My choice comes not from heroic vision or holy ambition for the country, but out of my own sense of futility. At this point in American history, for a variety of reasons unlikely to change anytime soon, only a candidate from the two major parties can win, and neither of the current major party candidates are people I want in power. I’ve come very close to convincing myself that one option is at least less undesirable than the other, and that moral triage justifies my support of a candidate whom on the balance I dread and dislike. I’ve come very close, but can’t close the deal. The country has been given two paths. In the mysterious providence of God and the authority of the Constitution it must choose one of them, but my conscience will not let me join a chorus of persuasion. I may only sit down and lament.

I don’t know what to say except, like Frodo, “I wish none of this had happened.” I wish abortion were outlawed in this country. I wish the poor and immigrant were treated more humanely. I wish Roe v Wade and Jim Crow had never stained history. More than that, I wish the American evangelical church, of which I am a member and, Lord wiling, will be for the rest of my life, were a cross-shaped shelter from the cruelties, outrage, and dehumanization of our sacrilegious technocracy. I wish Donald Trump had been born to a father who loved his wife, children, and God more than money, and had put into his son the same love. I wish Joe Biden were an orthodox Roman Catholic who believed with all his heart that the church’s teaching on the personhood of unborn children was true and worth defending. I wish this country were not beholden to two parties. I wish, I wish, I wish.

And now I hear the voice of Gandalf saying, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to you.”

The time that is given to me. I cannot decide what to do with the time given to someone else, much less what’s given to an entire citizenry. That is not for me to decide. All I can do is make a choice with the time that the risen Christ has given to me. And this time is, I believe, a time to lament, to grieve, to pray. The sabbath was God’s reminder to his people that as valuable as human activity is, it is not the most valuable thing. God makes the universe run, and one day out of 7 he called his children to rest in his power instead of labor in their own. That’s how I’m interpreting this abstention in my own heart. I did not choose these circumstances. I did not choose this day. But I can only rest in his power, not mine.

I’m writing this for two reasons, neither of which is to recruit people to imitate me or shame those who don’t. First, I needed to talk myself through this moment. I’ve got more clarity now than I did when I sat down to write. Second, I do suspect that there are some who feel in their heart this is what they should do, but they can’t silence the talk-radio voices in their head. Maybe this will help. Maybe not.

Most who read this will probably disagree. God bless each and every one of you. You may very well may be right. I don’t know. We can’t always pick what we don’t know, but we can pick what we are comfortable knowing or not knowing. Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my end be like theirs (Num. 23:10).

The Case for Civility

Today I have an essay at The Gospel Coalition, laying out why I believe civility is essential to meaningful community.

Here’s an excerpt:

While my father was pastoring his second church, he experienced a slow but profound transformation in his personal philosophy of ministry. This transformation made him attempt to lead the church in particular areas of change and growth. Some of these changes were welcomed, but many were resisted. These were hard seasons for Dad. There were times when I felt he was lying down, not insisting on what he knew was right and biblical, and allowing certain people too much freedom to criticize and oppose him.

My dad understood something that I didn’t: the thicker and deeper the community, the more important and more difficult meaningful change becomes. The dominant spirit of much public activism is like me, at 17 years old, wondering why my dad didn’t just name and shame those in the church who were consistently standing in the way of what I thought was obviously correct. Human nature in its immaturity assumes that all good change must happen quickly, and that those who stand in its way can be bulldozed for the sake of the cause. What such revolutionaries desire is a more perfect reality; what they get in destroying norms of civil discourse—such as listening, making good-faith arguments, and finding wisdom in others—is a broken, dysfunctional public square.

I hope you’ll read the whole thing.

On Conservative Flattery

Aaron Renn is a sharp thinker and unusually clear and engaging writer. That’s why I was surprised by the recent edition of his Masculinist newsletter, titled “Flattery will get you everywhere.” In it, the normally insightful Renn stumbles over a variety of tropes and fallacies en route to making a bewilderingly bad-faith argument about American conservatism.

Renn makes his main point clear enough: some conservatives are content to feed their readers lies, because they are well-paid to do so. Other conservatives try to feed their readers the unvarnished truth, and, well, the best these writers can hope for is to pay the bills. The first type of conservative (the type that feeds lies) is exemplified by Jonah Goldberg, who in Renn’s view stands in for the “conservative establishment class.” Goldberg, Renn asserts, appears to be wealthy, in-demand, and propped up.

On the other side is The American Conservative columnist and author Rod Dreher. Despite a huge online audience, well-received books, and a powerful message, Renn says that Dreher is not nearly living as comfortably or as popularly as Goldberg. Why not? Renn answers:

…Dreher is putting out a message that religious and politically conservative leaders don’t want to hear. Pope Francis himself appears to not like the Benedict Option. Most of the Evangelical commentariat seemed to puke on it too. Both the political and religious conservative donor class don’t want to hear it either, other than those few backing TAC…

[Rod] seems to be cut off from the kinds of institutional support that would give his ideas traction in the real world and cause Christians to start mobilizing to respond to the situation in which we find ourselves. Much more than money, I suspect this is what frustrates Rod – that ideas like the Benedict Option end up institutionally marginalized and largely unimplemented.

Concluding, Renn brings the lesson home for his readers:

So, if you read a book or blog post, or listen to a sermon or podcast, and think that the argument it’s making is full of more holes than Swiss cheese, before writing a multi-part detailed refutation of it, ask yourself a couple of questions: 1. Whose position is flattering the intended audience or telling them what they want to hear, his or mine? 2. Whose position best aligns with significant institutional and financial interests, his or mine? If the other person’s work is strongly telling the audience what it wants to hear and/or serving powerful institutional and financial interests, then any factual or logical refutation is likely to be ineffective against it.

As the kids say nowadays, there’s a lot going on here. It’s worth thinking through the different claims specifically. But before I do that, I think it’s only fair to ask: Would Renn want someone like me to evaluate his arguments by the standard he advocates here? If I did that, what I would probably say is that Renn is himself compromised by the opportunities and rewards this kind of argument brings him. After all, shortly after this newsletter went live, Dreher himself featured it on his blog, something that—by Renn’s own admission—will drive thousands of readers to Renn’s newsletter, likely resulting in hundreds of new subscribers, followers, and supporters.

Renn has over 20,000 followers on Twitter. I have a little over 3,000. Renn has thousands of people who read him regularly, including influential folks like Rod. I have a very small cabal of readers, and a typical week for my blog is a few hundred hits. I doubt Rod Dreher knows who I am.

Is it reasonable, then, for me to conclude that Renn is offering this assessment of conservatism simply to curry favor with influential friends like Rod? Is it epistemologically just for me to infer that the reason Rod links to Renn instead of, say, me, is that Renn flatters him and I do not? Of course not. For me to think and especially argue this would not only be ridiculous, it would be a cynical intellectual move. It would be an especially petty kind of Bulverism. So in the end, Renn’s counsel about how to engage someone you disagree with fails obviously and immediately if you apply it back at him.

But what about his larger observations about conservatism and truth-telling? First, I think Renn is right about the difference between a conservative establishment and writers like Rod. I suspect Rod’s arguments in The Benedict Option and Live Not By Lies resonate more with audiences who bring deeply religious sentiment, and big ticket Republican conservatism has largely stopped pretending to listen to religious conservatives.

On the other hand, Renn, like most other writers I’ve seen in the past few years, seems to be confusing what floats to the top of the conservative media lake with what is truly powerful and influential in right-of-center life. Dreher may indeed be toward the margins of the professional conservative media class, but on the other hand, Donald Trump is president of the United States, and the President achieved his power in some part by parlaying a narrative about American Christianity that is far more Dreher than Goldberg.

It’s not at all obvious to me that Dreher’s Christ-against-culture messaging is ignored by conservative elites because it is too uncomfortably correct. For one thing, there is no more powerful conservative institution in the US than Fox News, and Fox is quite obviously more interested in stuff like the war on Christmas than foreign policy. It’s more likely that writers like Goldberg and David French (who has likewise been a target for criticism from Trump-sympathetic social conservatives) simply do not believe Dreher’s approach is the most helpful or more realistic one. I’m very sympathetic to the Benedict Option and to Rod’s concerns about public schools, but there are times when Rod simply loses me: as when, for example, he gives far more attention to the inner workings of woke media institutions than to issues like police brutality.

These are all topics that conservatives should be discussing and debating freely. That’s why it’s disheartening to see someone like Renn posturing as if this is a black-and-white issue, made complicated not by facts but by mercenary people. Renn is right that flattery can be a powerful intellectual aphrodisiac, but he’s wrong to suggest that only certain people are vulnerable. Donald Trump’s successful capture of a huge swath of “character matters” evangelicalism is proof positive that political adultery is not merely National Review’s besetting sin. And if suggesting otherwise gets your newsletter linked by one of the most highly trafficked blogs in the US, I think that just goes to prove the point.

Freedom vs Choice

I’m reading Trevin Wax’s new book Rethink Yourself. Here’s a paragraph that stood out:

How do you come to understand what you really want out of life? People often think that looking into your heart to figure out your desires is the easy part; it’s the pursuit of happiness—of fulfilling your deepest desires—that takes so much energy. But that’s simply not the case. The truth is, you don’t know what will make you happy.

That’s very true and also a very important part of where I think we are in Western culture. The “post-liberal” condition we’re experiencing is, I think, closely tied to the choice dilemma. In other words, when human beings experience maximal self-determining liberty AND a virtually limitless set of options, more often than not the result will be frustration, not happiness. Why? Because, as Trevin says, “defining yourself” is a very difficult thing to do. Parameters, finite choices, limits of potentials—these things paradoxically can create the happiness we often assume they stifle, because they relieve the existential burden of total self-awareness.

The example du jour is Netflix. Everyone who’s ever subscribed to Netflix can attest to many times when you fire up the app and simply have no idea what you want to watch. There are lots of options, and on a free Saturday night with nowhere to go, there are no limits on how much you can watch. Despite what we’d expect, these two conditions don’t create pleasurable consumption. More often than not, they freeze, confuse, and frustrate. There’s a reason Netflix’s most popular option is a show that aired its last episode years ago. Novelty can become ruthless, and when it does, familiarity is a comfort.

Given much self-determining ability, happiness probably lies in having fewer, more controlled options. Similarly, given limitless options, a person is probably going to be more happy when they have more limits on their ability. Few options and little liberty is essentially poverty or life under authoritarianism. On the other hand, limitless options and maximal liberty makes us miserable and depressed. I’m not suggesting a hackneyed life philosophy of “balance,” but I am suspicious that choices and liberty produce more peace and assurance when they’re held in tension rather than than combination.

At the risk of being trite, might I observe that this seems pretty compatible with the biblical vision of the Christian life? Christian liberty is controlled by a finite number of faithful options. You see this tension throughout the Scriptures and Christian teaching. For example, Christians only have two options in regards to sexuality: marriage or abstinence. On the other hand, these limited options are accompanied with broad freedom. Abstinent Christians can discern how God wants them to use their singleness in any variety of ways (missions, mercy, labor, etc). Likewise, Christians have many options for their vocations, but within those vocations there are defined limits to freedom; they cannot sacrifice family or the gathering of the church for greater profit, for example.

Our post-liberal moment is essentially a reckoning with the dilemma of freedom vs choice. We’ve discovered that expansive ability to express ourselves online has made us angrier and more insecure. We’ve discovered that limitless choices of where to live, study, work, and worship has made us friendless and rootless. And now the crucial question becomes, “Why?” And I think Trevin gets very close to it here: Because we don’t actually know what will make us happy.

A little bit behind the scenes

I very rarely publish posts like this on the blog, but I’m going to this time for a couple reasons. First, as providence would have it the blog has gained some readers in the past couple of weeks, thanks to one post that set the all-time record for single day traffic. Second, it occurred to me that it’s been 2 years since I launched this site (though the previous 4-5 years worth of content were brought over from a different blog), and there’s probably a lot of people reading who have no idea who I am or what I do.

So, a little bit about me, and then a little bit about what goes on here.

I’m an acquisitions editor for an evangelical Christian book publisher. I have no particular “expertise” other than education in theology and several years working in editorial for evangelical institutions. My academic background is philosophy. I’m a “pastor’s kid” who grew up in the Southern Baptist convention. For the the vast majority of my life I’ve lived in Louisville, Kentucky, where I have just recently returned after three years in suburban Chicago. I was raised in a conservative evangelical household, but when I was 21 I  realized (through coming to grips with an addiction and its wrecking of my life) that I did not actually know the gospel and did not belong to Christ. During a moment of suicidal ideation, I heard God tell me clearly that he had died for me so I wouldn’t have to. At that point I believe I truly became a Christian.

God has abundantly restored what my own sin and selfishness destroyed. I have the greatest wife in the world, Emily, and we are blessed with two children, Charlie Lewis and Ruth Caroline. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places, indeed.

Now, what’s this blog all about?

I’ve been writing regularly for most of my life, and blogging consistently for about 7 years now. For me, writing is a way to work out what I think. Only rarely do I write knowing exactly what I want to say; most of the time I think as I write, and the clarity I find through the process is very satisfying. I’ve been blessed to write for several outside publications, but I love the blog format for its ease, direct access to readers, and broad topics.

Most of my attention is given to the intersection of Christianity, cultural movements (not excluding politics but not emphasizing it either), and technology, especially social media. I’m a ‘generalist’ and I actually regret this most of the time. I don’t think the literary world needs more generalists, but alas, I don’t see this part of me changing any time soon.

What I most want to accomplish with this blog is to think through tough, knotty, emotionally fraught topics with clarity and humility. The title “Letter and liturgy” reflects an orientation toward the written word and the spiritual practice. For me the discipline of thinking well and saying beautifully is a spiritual activity.  I want to love God and love others through the written word. This isn’t a devotional or inspirational blog, but those are not the only kinds of writing that can love God and others. Sometimes the best way to fulfill the great commandment is to think well.

I hope nobody reading this blog thinks of me as a “teacher” in the ecclesiological sense. What you read here are the imperfect, incomplete musings of an observer. There is no substitute for the kind of authoritative biblical teaching that you get in thick membership with a local church. This may seem obvious, but in the digital age it must be said.

I try to write weekly, simply because that’s about all I can manage at this point!

Lastly: I’m very, very thankful for your reading. All of you. Seriously. It means a lot!

-SDJ

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The political seminary

I’ve seen this kind of zero-sum mentality before in seminary. One thing that all seminarians agree on, regardless of denomination, is that “Jesus unites, theology divides” is a terrible thing to say. And, of course, they’re right. Theology matters immensely, and as countless others have pointed out, dismissing theology is actually a form of doing theology. In the sense that theology is what we believe about God, everyone does theology. Everyone is a theologian. The only question is whether you’re doing it well or poorly.

But sometimes seminarians will smuggle something into the statement “everyone’s a theologian” that doesn’t really belong there. Sometimes, when they say that everyone does theology, what they actually mean is that everyone should think and talk about theology the way that they do. This is very different from saying that what people believe about God is theology. In this sense, “everyone’s a theologian” is actually quite misleading, because it suggests that “theologian” is simply a mindset that everyone can turn on and off at any moment, rather than a focused occupation that requires someone to take years away from something else and give it to the study of biblical and dogmatic content.

Yes, everybody does theology in a sense. But not everybody does theology in the sense that seminarians think theology ought to be done.

Everything I just said can be reverse engineered to apply to the tweet above. If you’re tracking with the politics-as-new-religion argument that I’ve been making for a while now, then think of social media activism as the modern political seminary. The lady who tweeted this wants to shame people who aren’t as politically engaged as she is, and she wants to shame them by drawing an equivalence between lack of activism and lack of concern for other people. She likely believes that everyone is political, in the sense that everyone is either campaigning for the status quo or something new. The idea that some people may not think about politics in the same way that she does is either totally foreign to her, or else she thinks it’s a bald faced lie.

Yes, everyone does politics in the sense that everyone participates in a civic system. Yes, everyone is political in the sense that everyone makes decisions and lives under laws that affect them and their neighbors. But everyone is not political and everyone does not do politics in the same way that activists believe people ought to be and do. Not everyone has an opinion on issues that you feel are urgently important. Not everyone is going to vote. Not everyone feels that things are as good or bad as you do—just like not everyone who has beliefs about God will actually read the theology books and have the theology conversations you might think they ought to have.

Not to mention the fact that one problem with logging onto social media to shame people for being “apolitical” is that your social media post is of less political consequence than when those “apolitical” people pay their taxes and chat at McDonald’s. Not only are today’s evangelists for the new political religion wrong about their message, they are not that good at evangelizing.

Unequally Woked

Matthew Schmitz asks a compelling question: How do opponents of progressive fundamentalism thwart its assaults on free speech and common sense? He suggests the best hope is for opponents to unite across religious and philosophical lines. Conservative evangelicals, for example, can join common cause with atheistic professors who likewise reject transgender ideology. While religious and irreligious cannot reconcile their supernatural beliefs, they can form political and cultural alliances based on common enemies within “woke” orthodoxy. Matthew writes:

Despite their differences, an alliance could form between “trads” and the true “nones” who reject religion but may well see it as less of a threat than the growth of woke government power. Trads have all-encompassing beliefs that offend liberal and secular sensibilities. But they affirm the reality of biological differences between the sexes. They believe that your deeds and beliefs are more important than your race. Even when they reject the political formulations of liberalism, most still believe in the virtue of liberality and tolerance. Because they believe in the fallenness of man, they uphold the possibility of forgiveness. Like the “nones,” most “trads” are not utopians. Unlike the woke, they can tolerate those with fundamentally different beliefs. Trads and nones will never agree, but they can ally.

What Matthew says should happen is something I have already seen happening over the last four years within my slice of evangelicalism. Last year I wrote an essay for The Gospel Coalition on the secular backlash to progressive liberalism, and I spoke sympathetically of writers such as Andrew Sullivan, Camile Paglia, and Jonathan Haidt. None of them identify as Christians, and two identify as LGBT, but all have criticized transgender ideology and radical political correctness. Ten years ago Andrew Sullivan was waging a rhetorical war on evangelicals, coining the term “Christianist” (a portmanteau of Christian and Islamist) to describe any and all believers who opposed same-sex marriage. Today Sullivan arguably has more fans within conservative Christianity than in mainstream journalism. As Schmitz says, this speaks to the perception shared between religious conservatives and secular liberals that progressive ideology is a kind of false civic religion.

I think this perception is mostly right. Growing up adjacent to Christian fundamentalism has proven valuable in this regard, as I’ve recognized many of the same cultural practices within progressivism that I saw in performative, legalistic churches. Secular folks are no more enchanted with the fundamentalism of progressive identity politics than they are with the religious kind. And of course, conservative evangelicals see clear problems with woke ideology’s mafia-like enforcement of sexual nihilism. It makes sense that the two groups would find common cause against feeling forced to obey an illegitimate moral regime.

But there are some questions that nag me about the idea of some kind of alliance between the non-woke religious and irreligious.

1) What kind of alliance is possible between secularists and believers, and to what end?

Co-belligerency is certainly possible between people of different worldviews, but co-belligerency is not intransitive. It requires a mutual object. Catholics and evangelicals can fight against abortion together with the endgame being a reversal of Roe v Wade and new laws that protect the unborn. But progressive fundamentalism is more slippery than that. Secularists and Christians can agree about the importance of free speech with regard to gender identity, but many of the “trads,” including Schmitz himself, would advocate broad bans on pornography. It’s not clear to me that free speech is corporeal enough to be a point of alliance between people whose view of human flourishing is grounded in absolute moral norms, and those who are fundamentally libertarian. Both groups can agree to oppose woke ideology, but eventually you have to answer the question, “Ok, so what instead?”

Schmitz rightly notes that defending free speech alone isn’t a viable alternative to the transcendent claims of progressivism. He’s correct that “resisting a crusading creed like wokeism will require more than insisting on freedom of thought and speech. It will require defending a different and sounder set of ideas, a social consensus that is non-utopian.” That truth is itself a reason why I’m skeptical about a viable alliance between believers and secularists. The alliance Schmitz is interested in would have to carefully avoid the foundational conflicts between worldviews of revelation and those of libertarian free-thinking. I’m not convinced such avoidance is possible, much less desirable. An alliance that doesn’t cash out to a positive cultural and political vision does not seem like an alliance that can build in the places it tears down.

2) Do Christians and secularists really agree about the problem? 

I doubt this very much. Schmitz writes, “Liberals who stress the provisional nature of knowledge, resist all-encompassing political claims, and seek space for public error and disagreement, have grounds for agreement with Jews, Christians, and others who believe that men are sinful and fallen.” This is true, but incomplete. All men are indeed sinful and fallen, but a Reformed Protestantism holds that this fallenness has noetic and social effects. For Christians with traditional Protestant theology, the main problem with wokeism is not that it it makes sweeping moral judgments that implicate us, but that its judgments are incorrect and its implications fail. 

Schmitz is right to note that the most radical proponents of progressivism seem to deny any real possibility of forgiveness or humility. Here’s a very strong example of where historic Christianity can engage culture from ahead. In the years ahead believers have a chance to teach and model a good news that the secular world actively disowns: the reconciliation of humanity to God and to one another. It’s not at all apparent to me that atheists and agnostics can herald this kind of good news. More likely, the metaphysical and eschatological commitments of secularism likewise deny the possibility of atonement and new life. Presentism is the besetting sin of wokeism and secularism alike.

3) Should believers feel more solidarity with the unbelieving anti-woke than they do inside a diverse church? 

This last point is perhaps the most urgent one. I am absolutely convinced that American Christians are destroying the power and witness of their testimony through their sociopolitical intuitions. Many evangelicals in particular talk, write, and preach as if they have more meaningful things in common with politically conservative non-Christians than with, for example, black Christians who vote differently. When black Protestants testify by the hundreds about their frightening encounters with police, too many evangelicals weigh this testimony against the punditry of people like Ben Shapiro. But with whom do white evangelicals actually have more in common? With whom will they spend eternity? With whom are they brothers and sisters? 

The New Testament does not pretend that all true Christians agree about everything. But if the gospel means anything at all, it means that people united to Christ by faith are united to each other in a way that they are not united to anyone outside of Christ. The weightlessness of this truth in much Christian culture is a sign of weakness and error, not strength and orthodoxy. 

Here’s a simple plea. Before we Christians form alliances with secularists who confirm our politics, let’s build our churches around the historic creeds and confessions. Let’s weigh the doctrines of Scripture properly. When believers who have different approaches to the city of man can experience and feel a deep sense of unity around Christ and his kingdom, and when this unity so shapes us that we cannot but prefer one another, then we can and ought to think about joining cause with unbelievers against destructive and utopian civic religion. 

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.