Inconsistent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unlived Life

I’ve been thinking about this Joshua Rothman essay about our “unlived lives” ever since Alan Jacobs linked to it. Part of that probably has to do with the fact that I’m now a couple years deep into my 30s, and the 30s feel (so far) as if they are the quintessential “what if” decade. I am far enough now from adolescence and the open road of the college years to see what could have gone differently. I was talking to a dear friend just last night, whose post-seminary life has not at all followed the script he thought it would. He’s faithful and happy, but I could hear in his voice—not regret, exactly, but perhaps sobriety, a lingering, ambient wonderment at the difference between the road he thought he’d been on and the one he ended up traveling.

I don’t know if Christians enjoy talking about this. I wonder if there is a subtle guilt for believers in probing our unlived lives, as if the realization that they exist are an expression of ingratitude to God or discontent with his care. Obviously those feelings are possible, and we all know one or two people who fell into the pit self-oriented bitterness and never really got out. That’s real, and dangerous. But might it also be dangerous to assume that God’s sovereign goodness over our lives is never to be looked at any angle other than the present? God’s providence does not mean that our choices add up to zero or that there is no good use in contemplating the paths we took when more options were before us.

In fact, it’s not exactly a secret that being unable to come to terms with one’s life in a meaningful way tends to open the door for some destructive aftermath. I’m reminded of a very helpful observation from Russell Moore, coming from his years of pastoral and counseling experience:

A common theme I have found in adulterous affairs is that the one cheating is almost always seeking to recapture the feeling of adolescence or young adulthood. For a short period of time, the person is swept up in the drama of “I love you; do you love me” romance, without all the burdens of who is picking up Chloe from school or what day to put the recycling bin out at the curb or how to budget for the mortgage. The secret lover seems to make the married person feel young or “alive” again, until everything comes crashing down. The person is usually not looking for a sexual experience but for an alternative universe, one in which he or she made different choices.

I felt the truth of this observation a few months ago when Carl Lentz, former pastor of Hillsong Church in New York, was fired for adultery. Illicit sex, even among ministers, is sadly unremarkable. What stood out more about the whole story was that Lentz almost immediately connected the affair to his “burnout” and exhaustion in his ministry, as if the adultery were more about rewriting the script of his life than sexual pleasure. Remember that story a few years ago about the extramarital hookup app Ashely Madison? The tagline of the website (which was hacked and its clients, including “family values” activists, exposed) was, “Life is short…have an affair.” Those who seek to profit from adultery know that the short, often dissatisfying nature of daily life is the spark a wildfire needs.

But it’s not just extramarital affairs. Our unlived lives can manifest themselves in all sorts of replacement-level habits and experiences. I’m beginning to suspect that in my own life my use of social media, especially Twitter, has much to do with a sense of compensation for a lack of meaningful, challenging interpersonal relationships. I go to Twitter to experience a digital version of the conversations that I don’t have offline. I think about Lewis and Tolkien and the Inklings, a group of likeminded peers who cultivated over many years a warm intimacy that stretched them spiritually and intellectually. Life if the 21st century seems to be set up to make such a gathering of men my age almost impossible; even churches typically think of men’s gatherings as primarily opportunities to be taught and/or rebuked (this is why, in many church cultures, men receive accountability while women receive encouragement and support).

When the values of society are set up to prioritize nonstop efficiency and “productivity,” and then afterwards ruthlessly curated and isolating forms of entertainment, a concept ike Twitter—where people gather to merely talk—feels almost quaint. Social media, at least in its better moments, feels like a paean to that “unlived life” of close knit relationship. We know in our hearts that social media is not true community, which is why we’ve spent a year of pandemic lockdown dangerously depressed and anxious. How many people are on social media obsessively not because they’ve never experienced actual community, but because they have, and because the older they got, the more the people and places disappeared, leaving a hole that only social media apps even pretended to fill?

Even given the dangers, I think Christians ought to be thoughtful about unlived lives. To know that our lives could have been different, that other choices  could have been made and other paths taken, can evoke something better than nostalgia. There’s a serious gratitude that wells up in the corners of one’s heart when you consider how the people, places, and tasks that you now love were given to you through a series of events over which you exercised only the most minuscule forms of control. If my pastor father had taken a different church when I was 14, or if we had not moved that year at all, it’s almost certain I never would have met my wife. Who else would I have met or fallen in love with? Who knows, but the point is, those unlived lives  apart from Emily are not the sweet, tender, rich reality I have now. To ask whether a different life would have been better is to impose my current definition of “better” onto the past. But I only know what words like “better” mean to me because of the life I actually lived.

To meditate on our unlived lives—to meditate well—is to understand just how un-shaped we are without the elements of life that we don’t necessarily choose. And what is true of our past is equally true of the present and future. Where we are right now and with whom we are right now are molding and shaping us, and all at the mercy of a God who promises only a fate of good for those who love him.

Russell Moore Was Right

There is so much that can and must be said about today’s surreal events in Washington. I am not up to the task for most of them. But there is one thing I want to say, briefly, but forcefully.

Russell Moore was right about Donald Trump. The events of the last several weeks, and the last few days in particular, make this unquestionable. He was right when he said that evangelicals were making a Devil’s bargain by excusing or baptizing Trump’s debauched persona and wicked rhetoric. He was right when he said that character matters. He was right when he said that a leader like Trump is fundamentally untrustworthy and that this lack of honor cannot be papered over by self-reported political ideas.

Moore was also right when he said that Christians who championed Trump’s candidacy were putting themselves into a position to own his sins and lose moral legitimacy in the eyes of a world that hadn’t forgotten their “values” during the Clinton years. Moore was right, and the numerous images flooding in of people holding “Jesus Saves” signs while they cheer the storming of the Capitol prove that he was right. Just as sober minded conservatives are recognizing that their ideological movement owns this terrifying display of anarchy, any sober minded American Christian must recognize that the church in the US now owns it too. I’m not saying this is fair or logical. I’m saying it’s reality. And I’m saying we knew it was going to happen.

But for saying all this, Moore was not only debated and criticized, he was threatened, punished, and bullied. The infrastructure of the Southern Baptist Convention failed to defend one of its most respected entity heads and kowtowed to the voices of churches and leaders who should have been led, not deferred to. Moore was not the only evangelical Baptist who warned us about Donald Trump, but he was frequently the most consistent, most visible, and most Bible and gospel-centered voice. He didn’t just talk about the politics. He talked about the church. It was the church that Moore feared would buckle under the moral sludge of an unqualified President. But it was the church that attributed the most outrageously false motives to Moore. It was the church that told itself Moore was a closet liberal. It was the church that found more trustworthiness in an unrepentant, twice-divorced Playboy billionaire than in one of its own pastors.

And now, tonight, family members text me that people in their churches were at the protests, bragging about how the “capitol was ours now.” Church members. Not professional protesters, not QAnon cultists. ChristiansChristians with Bibles, and Sunday school classes. Christians storming the halls of Congress on behalf of a lie, peddled by a lover of lies. 

And I’m sitting here, reading these texts and seeing these Bible verse placards, and thinking, “Moore was right.” And somebody needs to say so.

Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned tonight, it’s that not saying something can carry a higher cost than you ever thought. 

48 Hours

I’ve decided to put into practice a habit I’ve dabbled in on my only social media membership, but never committed to until now. Going forward I’m going to delete anything I tweet after about 48 hours or so, with the exception of links. I’ve seen others commit to the practice of periodically deleting their older Tweets. You may be able to guess the reasons people would do this if you know much about online culture. My own reasons are intuitive in this way, but with an added concern that pertains especially to me.

Here’s why I’m deleting my tweets every 48 hours or so:

1) The big reason is that nobody who is regularly active on Twitter is wise to let old Tweets exist publicly for an indefinite amount of time. A disproportionate percentage of people who get viciously torn apart by an online mob do so on the basis of something they posted in the past, and the overwhelming majority of these victims did not get any criticism or flak at the time they posted it. In some cases they should have been criticized. But in many cases the reason the victim of the rage mob gets attacked now but not then is that the anger of the Internet is downstream from its temporal neuroses. The reason that joke X was inoffensive in 2015 but morally unacceptable in 2020 has nothing to do with the joke, but everything to do with the audience. The words didn’t change, the audience did. And because social media is literally designed to make anger and addiction easier and self-awareness harder, nobody stops to consider this, and the result is a deep dishonesty masquerading as righteousness.

There’s no reliable way to outsmart this, but there are ways to make the threat to yourself much worse, and one of those ways is to Tweet thousands of times across several changing years and just hope something you said when the context was self-evident is not seen by someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t like you today.

2) But on the other hand, this isn’t wholly the fault of bloodthirsty snipers who quote-tweet those they dislike into oblivion. Part of the problem is the way Twitter works. Twitter (and social media in general, but I’ll focus on Twitter) is epistemologically gaseous; its contents are momentary in the most extreme sense of the word. For all practical purposes Twitter is a cast and crew commentary, not on a piece of art or even life but on the minutia of current events, ideas, fads, etc. Even that may be going too far. Twitter is really a commentary on commentary, a second-by-second content machine that creates cultures and “moments” out of the ether. I’ve seen people refer to what happens on Twitter as a “conversation,” but no mentally healthy person would tolerate a real-life conversation that moved at the speed, the randomness, or shallowness of Twitter.

Aside from links to outside websites, every single Tweet is a creation of the moment, and every Tweet’s legibility depends utterly on how much users are absorbing the ambient moment. When the moment passes, so does the truthfulness, the helpfulness, the coherence of the Tweet (quotations, such as from Scripture, resist this somewhat, but even then the felt applicability of a quote depends on the moment. And there are plenty of Bible verses that will never and can never be put on a Twitter meme). While I’m sleeping, my Tweets lose the context that made them (at least in my view) accurate and reasonable.

Deleting Tweets is thus a recognition of the limits of real-time commentary. It treats the discourse of the internet more like the dry-erase board that it really is, instead of the printing press that it is not.

3) [Here I’m going to talk entirely to myself.] A strong desire to “go viral” is much like a craving for pornography: it is overwhelmingly strong in the moment, but it leads to very bad places and it never, ever satisfies. The single most alluring thing about Twitter is when a Tweet gets a lot of Retweets and Likes, and the notifications keep coming. This dopamine hit is so powerful it is the single biggest reason that Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and a lot of other men are billionaires.

But going viral is perhaps the single most destructive desire in our cultural discourse right now. Until recently I had never asked myself what the difference was between a conspiracy hocking news site that twisted truth for clicks, and my own carefully worded Twitter dunks that I hoped would get a lot of attention. I’m not making stuff….but then again Alex Jones wasn’t always making stuff up either. Almost every media personality who has become wealthy by saying stuff that isn’t true started off trying to say things they thought were true. The truth didn’t stop being compelling, it just stopped being as rewarded.

I want to go viral. I want a million followers. I want the neural and career rewards of being a “thought leader.” I want that so much that I cannot be confident in myself as to what I would not be willing to do to get them. Already I see the cracks. A tweet that lives for only 48 hours is my best defense. If it resonates with a lot of people in that time, great. But I can’t afford to be willing to chase it.

The Unlost Year

You don’t need somebody to tell you that 2020 has been, by most standards, pretty awful. But instead of rehearsing all the global suffering that went on this year, I want to say a quick word to a specific group of people: those who feel as if, between lockdowns and closed churches and insane politics, they “lost” this year.

I suspect some might be feeling this way because I am. As in every year there is much for me to be thankful for in 2020. I’ve received much good. But my feeling of lostness is that I don’t feel as if I’ve done much good. My Bible reading plan lasted no time at all. Church closures, and then a move, scuttled many heartfelt ambitions I had for getting more involved. I meant to read and write more in 2020—I certainly had the time—but ended up logging more hours of news and Twitter than I wanted. I’ve seen spiritual growth in my life but not as much as I need and/or planned on. I’ve not been as creative or forward thinking in my parenting as I wanted; my kids have spent most of this year indoors, just getting through the day.

We made it through 2020 by the grace of the Lord. We are healthy and blessed. But I could have done more. So much of my time this year feels like it is sunk cost. I’m wrestling with the sensation of having lived a lost year.

As I was thinking about this, I remembered something I’ve noticed before in Scripture: the way the passage of time is described. Or, more accurately, the way the passage of time is not described. Have you seen this? In the narrative of Scripture hundreds of years are passed with the turn of a page. An adult’s lifetime is described in one sentence that contains their birth and death. Even in Jesus’ life, we are told as an 11 or 12 year old he was in the temple talking to the teachers, and then the next paragraph catches up with him beside John in the Jordan river in his 30s. Those hundreds, even thousands of “skipped” years were not merely frozen to the people who lived them. They were as long as our years, as filled with life, death, love, pain, and redemption.

No one would conclude from this that God doesn’t care about the lives and centuries that weren’t documented in the Bible. The Psalmist says that all his days are in God’s book. God sees and God knows those anonymous years. So why do we have them? Why is there so much time in the Bible that is not captured for us, so many people and places and events that were life changing in their time but lost to us moderns forever?

Here’s one possibility: In the record of redemptive history God has given us, he shows us that he doesn’t think of time the way we think of it. God is immanent and transcendent. He is in the present with us, but he is not locked in. We live and move and have our being in our allotted days, but God sees our present in the sweep of eternity. We can learn in our daily life that God is with us, but we must be taught that our life is not the only life, that God sees not only what we are but what we shall become, sees not only our now but also our later and even our no more.

I think this is encouraging to me on a couple fronts. My fear of a “lost” year is a fear rooted in my own standards. But what if those standards are questionable? What if the my goals of Bible reading and productivity look different through the filter of heaven? What if all the frustration and sadness and disappointment of this year does not add up to “lost,” but to something else? If the message of the Bible is anything at all, it’s that God doesn’t see us the way we see ourselves. The things we prioritize are not necessarily the goals of Christ. The feelings of failure are not the judgments of the gospel. What is “lost” to us is not lost to him.

It’s not uncommon to hear people say that COVID-19 stole a year. But stealing requires ownership. Who owns 2020? Surely it is the same God who, in unsearchable (and often unknowable) sovereign wisdom allowed this virus to ravage the earth. The hand of the Lord cannot steal what belongs to him. Since the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether, perhaps the lesson of 2020 is not abut a virus at all, but at about human frailty, the smallness of our supposed greatness, and the way eternity bends not toward our fulfilled goals and resolutions but toward the bended knee, the empty hand, and the desperate plea for God.

I did not choose to learn this lesson in 2020. It was forced upon me when I would have learned other things. But I am glad to learn it.

Happy New Year, friends.

Is America Marching Toward Totalitarianism?

Today Christianity Today has published my review of Rod Dreher’s newest book, Live Not By Lies. It’s a complicated book, so I tried to write a complicated review. Fun, right? 

Here’s an excerpt: 

Dreher’s point seems hard to argue in a world where card-carrying liberals such as J. K. Rowling can face enormous backlash merely for believing that a man cannot be a woman; where Mozilla executive Brendan Eich can lose his job for having the same view of same-sex marriage that Barack Obama had in 2008; or where the editor of The New York Times op-ed section can be forced from his role simply for publishing an essay—Republican Senator Tom Cotton’s brief for deploying federal troops to quiet this summer’s domestic unrest—that some progressive Times staffers found objectionable. Dreher has good reason to suspect that American progressivism has embraced ideological purity tests in a manner that recalls the abuses of Marxist regimes, and doubters should confront the growing chorus of concern from people well outside stereotypically conservative camps.

If this were the extent of Dreher’s vision, Live Not by Lies would be an accurate if unremarkable book. But the book’s message is not simply that progressives have become intolerant, but that this intolerance—coupled with widespread cultural decadence and the ascendancy of surveillance capitalism—is openly threatening the lives and livelihoods of traditional Christians. Dreher compares the “location services” novelties from Silicon Valley to the Communist Chinese system of “social credit,” warning that survivors of murderous regimes recognize the face of their foes in the emerging American society.

Read the entire review here. My gratitude goes to Matt Reynolds at CT for inviting the review. 

Stop Saying “Toxic”

Every week on social media I seem to see something new described as “toxic.” Toxic has become the word of choice, it seems, to describe something that you feel is bad but seems to resist more precise condemnation. This word is everywhere. I’ve used it myself. Everyone seems to know what “toxic” means even though the word is applied to a staggeringly diverse group of maladies. Here’s a sampling just from my own reading:

  • Evangelical culture is toxic
  • YouTube comments are toxic
  • Jordan Peterson is toxic
  • Political discourse is toxic
  • The New York Times is toxic
  • Pornhub is toxic
  • John Piper is toxic

I know exactly what each of these statements is supposed to make me feel: loathing, disgust, avoidance, etc. The problem here is that “toxic” seems to be a stand-in for other words, other descriptions, and those other words probably won’t mean the same thing if you applied them to everything else on the list. John Piper may be toxic in your view, but nobody would say he’s toxic just like Pornhub is toxic. The New York Times may be, according to you, a toxic institution, but it cannot be toxic for the same reasons that YouTube or my church are toxic. So that leaves us with the impression that toxic just really means bad.

So…why is toxic so much better/cooler/woker to say than “bad”? Where are the essays about bad masculinity? What does “toxic” reveal that bad doesn’t?

A couple theories:

1) We seem to be at a point, at least in online discourse, where the more imprecise a moral judgment is, the better. The obvious example is how loaded conversations about identity are with words like “oppress” or “bigot” or “right side of history.” If you say something like, “Bigots are on the wrong side of history,” everyone knows what you’re saying is true, even if you decline to define the words “bigot,” “wrong side,” or “history.” The word toxic is a nice shorthand because it carries with it the necessary negative connotation but does not contain in itself the object of moral scorn. If you say that such-and-such pastor is misogynistic, that’s an equally loaded term, but now you’ve advanced a claim that can be evaluated based on the meaning of words. But if you say that such-and-such pastor is toxic, you can mean that the pastor is misogynistic (and the right audience will know this) while not risking a potentially defeating response from someone who evaluates your claim.

This benefits the speaker, obviously. But it also benefits the audience by allowing feelings of disgust and icky outgroup-ness to be shared among people who may not have any idea why they’re supposed to feel this way. “Trust me, this person is toxic” is very freeing to hear to folks with particular kinds of ambition and tribal sensibilities.

2) The word “toxic” does not technically describe anything’s nature. It describes an effect. Polluted air is toxic if you breathe it. Rat poison is toxic if you ingest it. This leads me to wonder if a lot of people describe something as toxic as a way of signaling how it makes them feel, or how they believe it makes other people feel. Obviously very few people see the word toxic and make this instant connection, so the word is used as though it does describe something’s nature—e.g., something that’s immoral, prejudicial, oppressive, etc.

Thus, you get think pieces like, “Let’s Talk About Netflix’s Toxic New Show,” or, “The Oscars Have Hired an Unbelievably Toxic Host.” More substantively, you might get something like, “Conservative Evangelicals Embrace Toxic Theology.” In each example the upshot of the article is clear from the headline: Netflix needs to dump the show, the Oscars need a new host, and conservative evangelicals need to believe something different. But if these things are toxic, why does anyone support them, either a Netflix producer or the Oscars or evangelical theologians? Clicking through to the article will likely explain that toxic things are done by toxic people, and that the reason one needs to be sure to keep up with all the new emerging toxicity is so you can avoid toxic people at all costs. Kick them out of your life before they intoxicate you.

You’ve probably heard someone say they got out of a “toxic relationship.” In many cases what they mean is that the other person was mean, rude, selfish, possibly abusive. I’m not sure why describing a relationship as “toxic” is actually better than saying the reasons for it. It seems to me that if someone is truly cruel or manipulative, that moral character is worth describing truthfully, and calling them “toxic” is letting them off the hook. Perhaps the flip side is true too: perhaps some people say “toxic” when they really mean, “I didn’t enjoy this and it wasn’t what I wanted.” In that instance it’s pretty clear that describing another person as toxic lets you off the hook.

Imprecise moral judgments are valuable because they cast a wide net. Precise moral judgments can be pushed back upon by people who would seem qualified to do so. For example, if you accuse a person or group of being racist, a member of a different race could theoretically complicate your accusation by disagreeing with you. The way around this is to ascribe a moral but fluid negative characteristic to the group, so that people who are inclined to agree with you can do so and those not inclined are in danger of walking into your description by failing a standard they don’t know.

“Toxic” then seems to be the perfect word to describe the sin of not being the Right Kind of Person. It’s a conversation ender, a debate finisher, a slammed door. The only way to not be toxic is to not be toxic. The racist could repent, the misogynist could change, the slanderer could make a U-turn. But a toxic person cannot de-toxify. They don’t even know where to start.

A resolution for 2021: Don’t say “toxic” when you mean something else. Say what you mean, so that what you mean will be worth saying.

In Praise of Slow Reading

I always love seeing the December end-of-year reading lists from friends. One of social media’s few unambiguous benefits is how easy it is to get good recommendations for reading, watching, listening, etc. But I have to confess that every year around this time I get a little embarrassed when I see friends post 15 or more books on their end of year list (and I have a lot of friends who do this). I always click the links, but while scanning for their recs I’m usually distracted by the guilt and frustration I feel for not having read that many books.

Aside from any work-required reading, I almost never read more than 6-8 books in a given year. If that makes you think less of me, I don’t blame you. I’ve come to realize that most people in my line of work and in my social circle read at least twice that many, and many read more than that. I have two excuses, one of which is boring and the other of which is more interesting. The boring excuse is that my job requires me to read a lot. Not only does work reading take up many hours per week that might otherwise have been given to pleasure reading, the truth is that after a long day of going through manuscripts and proposals and edits, I’m usually done with reading. I’d rather watch football or The Crown. Whether that’s good or bad I don’t know, but it’s just where I am.

The slightly more interesting excuse is that I’m a genuinely slow reader. Books that I love are almost never completed in less than two weeks. Books that are ho-hum take significantly longer (unless I’m under a review deadline). Over the years I’ve realized that my slow reading requires two responses. First, I have to be very selective in what I choose to read off of work hours, and even more selective in what I choose to finish, since finishing will require more time. Second, I have to be OK with this. I have to accept that my slow reading is not a character deficit or an intellectual handicap but simply the way I read. And being OK with this means not trying to artificially get around it by excessive speed-reading (which is almost always only for the sake of being able to say I read something) or by trying to read 4 books at the same time (which I find very difficult and frustrating).

Slow reading isn’t fun in December, when your small pile of books looks even smaller compared to others. But there are some benefits to slow reading I’ve discovered. The first benefit is that being able to linger in a work long enough to absorb not just the words but the spirit of a book. I’ve found this matters quite a bit to me. It’s one thing to remember the overall thesis or claim of a book, but it’s another to have connected with it closely enough to know what kind of book it is. In my writing life I’ve often found that responding to a book’s contribution in a particular genre is often not ultimately about what the book said but how it said it, the posture the author took, the strategy she employed and the spiritual or emotional response the author was trying to elicit. These responses stay with me more closely than the exact phraseology of the book, and in my own life they’ve been key in helping me know what books to return to in which seasons.

Another benefit I’ve gotten from slow reading is the selectivity. We often think of selectivity as only exclusive, i.e, I’m selective so that I can exclude certain books. That’s definitely part of it—I’m always amazed how many people tell me about the bad, long books they finished—but selectivity is also about trying to incorporate as meany meaningful, likely-to-be-remembered works into my reading life as possible. Time is non-transferrable, and the time I might have spent reading a book for no better reason than I wanted people to see that I’d read it would be much better spent reading a book that could plausibly turn into a valuable experience or resource for me. Careful that you don’t hear me arguing against reading widely. On the contrary, the intellectually dulling effects of only ever reading the kinds of book you’d like to write are everywhere in my corner of evangelicalism. Reading fiction doesn’t require that you read all kinds of fiction, if most kinds of fiction bore or numb you. Interestingly, I’ve discovered that being selective within fiction or within nonfiction actually lets me read more of both. It’s very freeing to not chase down books you really don’t want.

But look. The bottom line is that slow reading, while at times socially inconvenient, is very enjoyable. It’s fun to not hurry. It’s fun to listen to a book closely rather skimming for highlights you can tweet or blog about. Reading should be pleasurable, and slow reading is, for me anyway, the way I get the most pleasure from it. My end of year list would be small, but it’s certainly memorable.

Why cinemas are worth saving

It is a truth universally acknowledged that movie theaters will soon be a relic of the past. In fact, the prediction has been held by cultural observers for so long that it has become a self-fulfilling punchline, like Yogi Berra’s quip that nobody goes to a restaurant that’s too crowded. Everyone with a brain knows cinemas are dead. And yet, every summer for the past decade Hollywood’s hitmakers have set new records for weekend box office receipts. Nobody goes because it’s too crowded.

But predictions of the movie theater’s demise feel more likely right now. COVID-19 has ravaged the movie industry: taking some of its largest multiplex chains down, wrecking havoc on the Hollywood production year, and causing even enthusiasts to wonder what the future might hold. This fall, Disney—without a doubt the most important entertainment company in the world—announced that going forward their film division would concentrate on streaming and limit the amount of resources given to theatrical releases.

The significance of this announcement is hard to overstate. Disney is arguably the only studio in Hollywood whose pivot away from cinema and toward streaming could single-handedly affect the survival of the moviegoing industry, an industry almost cripplingly dependent on the company’s tentpole franchises such as Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars. Theatrical releases won’t disappear overnight, of course, but it’s clear that the executives sitting at the controls of the entertainment world believe the future is apps and monthly fees rather than concessions and reclining seats.

Obviously a lot will depend on how the pandemic behaves in 2021. What I know is this: If cinemas do indeed close by the thousands next year, this will be a cause for mourning, and for asking why a Western world so adept at creating billionaires did not try harder to save a truly valuable cultural artifact.

***

Contrary to what the utopian technocrats of Silicon Valley would have us believe, the ability to consume something without leaving the bed is not, in fact, a self-evidently desirable ability. History is written by victors, and the history of the 21st century will certainly extol the virtues of watching film and television on handheld devices, powered by invisible satellite signals that require no tethers to either place or persons. For most experiences of the internet, this seems obviously preferable. The whole point of the ruthlessly immediate nature of social media is to access it in real-time, so that everything from the breakfast on one’s table to the view from one’s desk can be shared and authenticated by the online world.

Movies, however, are different. Films are compacted narratives that we exerience only by entering into them at an intense and emotional level. Unlike the viral TikTok video or the Instagram post, movies insist on our attention and do not co-exist peacefully with simultaneous rivals. Films resist our attempts at multi-tasking, and anyone who likes watching movies at all knows enjoyment is directly proportional to attentiveness.

This is why, for example, movie theaters are darkened, so that the light coming from the story itself is the sole source of illumination, the only viable candidate for an audience’s gaze. This is also why almost every cinema—with varying levels of enforcement—bans the use of cell phones during screenings. When moviegoers talk about such distractions “breaking the spell,” they do not mean that a ringtone or a small blue glow remind us that our world is real and the world on the screen is fiction (as if we forget that). The spell is not the myth itself but our emotional investment in it. The spell is attention.

It’s important to understand just how rare physical spaces that cultivate serious focus and attentiveness are becoming. The smartphone has invaded American cultural imagination so effectively that no public event, even a funeral or tour of Nazi extermination camp, can exist above it. The idea of merely gazing at or listening to or being present at something, without immediately reaching for the iPhone to record, capture, or just chase away the silence, is rapidly becoming quaint. Distraction no longer competes with the experience, it completes it.

In an essay for a 2016 issue of First Things, writer Marc Barnes recounts witnessing the crowd at an art exhibit almost uniformly point and click their camera phones at paintings without actually spending any time physically lingering before them. He writes:

One could hardly argue that these pictures were taken for the sake of memory. There was no activity within the fifteen-second rite to be remembered—nothing outside of the picture-taking itself. It would be equally unconvincing to argue that this kind of photography is an act of record-keeping, as if my generation enters museums with a mind to making digital backups. There are always better versions online, and besides, any digital copy can only be a reference to the work itself. Who would want a reference to an object only looked at for a few seconds? I could only conclude that it is not for the sake of a picture that the picture is taken, but for the sake of the taking. The desire is not for a captured picture but for capture.

The smartphone technology we almost involuntarily reach for puts itself in between us and the experience we think we are preserving. As Barnes observes, truly contemplating what we try to capture could unsettle us, as all great art tends to do. “A click, and the thing has been dealt with,” Barnes writes, “as if by snapping a shot the painting has been contained and stored, no longer shaming the heart for its hardness or threatening us with an experience that would topple our control.”

***

Of course, not everything at the cinema is actually great art. But the fact remains that the cinema is one of our society’s last remaining attention habitats. The darkness not only draws our eyes forward but makes us loathe the appearance of a blue glowing screen in our periphery. A dimmed theater makes the addictive nothingness of the smartphone look as obnoxious as it actually is. If someone down near the front persists in using their phone, you can complain to staff, who will (in most cases) enforce the rules. Why? Because in a world where mental overload and constant distraction are accepted as given and even promoted as “productive,” the cinema stands almost alone as an institution of resistance, an assembly where people are taught early and often that it can be a virtue to not know everything that’s “going on” outside and to lose oneself in something transcendent.

Why is this so valuable? It’s not only that resisting distractions enables us to enjoy things like movies more. By virtue of internet-free physical environments that foster focus and make centralized attention natural, cinemas offer a chance to contemplate art more deeply and even more accurately. In his stunning 2010 book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr presents a compelling argument that the internet has fundamentally changed reading—not just where and what we read, but how we read, how we receive information and emerge from the literary experience. Whereas the printing press empowered Western people to read individually, putting comprehended meaning through a solitary rational process, the internet conditions readers’ minds to “juggle,” until the sentence, the hyperlink, the comment, and the next tab all bleed into one sub-rational impression.

The result is not just that the Internet-shaped reader struggles to remember what she reads, but that she struggles to think rationally about it, to experience it singularly. What’s true of books is at least equally true of film, and almost certainly more so. Again, not all films are worthy of deep contemplation, but the point is that deep contemplation is the most meaningful way we can encounter literature or movies, and perhaps the single greatest obstacle to deep contemplation is the one sitting in our pockets. The library is the closest thing we have to a physical habitat structured to protect the reading process. Yet almost every library in the US has free Wi-Fi, and laptops and phones are now as common on library desks as books. The cinema is thus not only unusual in its imaginatively insular liturgy, it is radically unique. Even most church services are not as hostile to digital distraction as the cinema.

***

A future without cinemas is almost certainly a future with movies that are written, produced, and edited with the influence of digital distraction. As the center of the movie watching experience relocates from the theater to the tablet or smartphone, filmmakers will have no choice but to assume the inevitable: that audiences will be watching these films with one eye, as they scroll social media, peruse Amazon, or check their email with the other. As the line between television and film blurs further, and as the movie industry realizes its dire need to replace the lost revenue from cinemas, advertisements will likely begin to colonize feature films, and studios will ensure the movies’ runtime will accommodate commercials.

If the human mind and heart are nothing more than advanced computers, whose parameters can and should be expanded by an escalating level of input, then this future is not worth worrying about. The convenience of screening movies at home is too compelling. Who’s really worse off who can live-Tweet seeing the latest superhero film, or catch up on work emails while taking in a flick? If movies are merely one more medium among dozens to amuse us for a few seconds in between others, there’s no argument against a world without dark, confined, crowded rooms.

On the other hand, if the stories of movies are formative experiences for us that can give us courage, sympathy, or faith; if those backlit narratives can remind us how to love well and fight hard, then it means something to have one place, just one kind of place, where we can hear these tales speak to us clearly without the tyrannical white noise of digital immediacy. This seems worth saving.

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?