It feels wrong to think about anything else (that’s why we must)

This is probably the most captivated the collective American imagination has been since 9/11. COVID-19 dominates the news and reminds us of its existence every day (and will continue doing so). The stakes are as high as life and death. It feels pointless to try to think about anything else. In fact, it feels wrong. How can we peel our soul away from awareness, prayer, acts of kindness, and watchfulness to indulge in things like literature or film? Isn’t that trying to flee from stress into the arms of indifference?

I’m reminded of a passage in The Return of the King. After the captains of the West decide to sacrifice themselves in a sure-to-be-crushed march on Sauron’s black gate, Imrahil, the Steward of Gondor, reminds them that they must leave an army behind to guard what’s left of the kingdom.

To prudence some heed must still be given. For we must prepare against all chances, good as well as evil. Now, it may that we shall triumph, and while there is any hope of this, Gondor must be protected. I would not have us return with victory to a City in ruins and a land ravaged behind us.

Imrahil is the only one of the Captains who considers that they might emerge victorious. The whole point of the march is to invite the full weight of Sauron’s army onto them, distracting attention away from Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mount Doom. Gandalf counsels that they have “little hope for ourselves.”

But then it works! Frodo and Sam reach Mount Doom and the ring is destroyed. The lone voice that showed concern for defending what is left rather than throwing everything at the imminent threat is proven wise.

Here’s the point. To be supremely urgent is not to be exclusively important. This isn’t a sneaky way to argue against lockdown measures. Yes, the economy matters, and unemployment kills people too, but triage exists for a reason. My point is not political, it’s spiritual. Our temptation now is to abandon any thought or attention toward non-pandemic things, because those things are not supremely urgent. Our temptation is to turn absolutely everything into a parable for getting through coronavirus. But in so doing, we risk leaving the soul unguarded.

Worship of politics, a long-term problem in American culture and especially in evangelicalism, will intensify in the aftermath of COVID-19. This pandemic will fill the minds of many so completely that the things of heaven will grow strangely dim. That’s part of what makes global tragedy so tragic. This virus will kill people, economies, and it will try to kill minds and hearts. We have limited power over those first two. The third, however, is a willing surrender. We can resist it by actively cultivating a love and pursuit of truth and beauty that transcends utility.

As difficult as it seems, we must try to redirect our gaze away from this pandemic. Even as I write those words I hear the inner critic saying, “Come on. Is this what you would say to someone holding a hand in a hospital bed, or someone who can’t even bury their loved one?” No, that’s not what I would say to them right now. But it is what I would say eventually. The generational wreckage, the elevation of political conscientiousness as the highest moral state and activism as the most pious sacrament, is not going to happen because bereaved people grieve their loss. It’s going to happen because people who didn’t lose nearly as much will write and Tweet and preach in such a way to justify the idolatry that existed long before the coronavirus.

The city must be left manned. Why? Because of victory. The possibility of preserving life means preserving the things that give life meaning. While there is any hope, the eternal things must be defended. Today it feels wrong to think about anything other than a pandemic. That’s precisely the reason we must try.

 

Looking for Self Help (But Finding Wisdom)

I have a new article today at Desiring God, titled “How to Survive a Life Like Yours: Why Self-Help Is Only Some Help.” Here’s an excerpt:

Rather than, on one hand, mocking readers eager for self-improvement or, on the other, conceding the arena of truth to secular soothsayers, we can turn elsewhere for an inexhaustible fountain of real-life insight, whole-person help, and ever-present grace: biblical wisdom literature.

Unfortunately, many evangelicals would likely struggle to even identify which books of the Bible classify as “wisdom.” The scope and significance of biblical wisdom is often lost on us. We may mine Proverbs for Tweetable nuggets. We mutter at Job’s sufferings something about God’s being absolutely sovereign. We avoid Ecclesiastes altogether! No wonder secular gurus flood the cavity left by our missing the richness of the Creator’s wisdom.

Biblical wisdom literature is more than punchy insights into trusting God or poetic flourishes on the meaning (or lack thereof) in life. It’s also more than a hurdle for preachers to leap over in their beeline to the gospel. Rather, biblical wisdom is a coherent and illuminated rule of life that reveals the true nature of everything: God, humans, the universe itself.

Read the whole thing here.

Close the Churches

A response to R.R. Reno.

R.R. Reno writes from a Roman Catholic perspective when he bemoans the closure of churches and suspension of Mass during coronavirus, but I’ve seen enough similar sentiment from Protestants to know he’s not alone. HIs argument however is both rife with logical fallacy and lacking in thorough biblical reflection.

First, the either/or fallacy pops up quite a bit in the piece. Consider this line:

Whatever our judgments about public policy, church leaders need to resist the temptation to imitate the (for them correct) worldliness of those who work for public health. The Church’s concern should be to sustain the spiritual health of those entrusted to her care.

It feels like that final sentence is missing an ending. It sounds like Reno means to imply this concluding clause: “Instead of the physical health of those entrusted to her care.” I think I’m on solid ground in supposing that hidden finish, because in the next paragraph Reno writes: “In this environment the faithful need spiritual truths from their church leaders, not recapitulations of public health bulletins and exhortations to wash their hands.” The pitting of spiritual nourishment against physical care is a false dilemma that is explicitly rejected by the apostle James, and has been rejected throughout Christian history by the scores of believers who have served as evangelistic doctors, nurses, caretakers, not to mention the Christians that established such global relief organizations as the Red Cross and Salvation Army. To suggest that churches need to ignore the risks of serious illness for believers (the most serious risks being for the elderly and already infirm) so they can “sustain spiritual health” is by extension to claim that individual believers should likewise ignore the risks, and that is a bewildering claim.

I think it’s better, both biblically and ecclesiologically, to say that the gospel is an intact gospel. An intact gospel is one not divided against itself, as if there were “good news” for your soul but bad news or no news at all for your body. Indeed, Scripture relentlessly portrays the Lord as a healer (Psalm 103). The promise of Christ’s resurrection is that he will one day give life to our mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11). God loves the human body and expects us to share that love. In a season of pandemic, love of the body means taking a virus seriously, at least seriously enough to not present others with a choice between faithfulness to the Lord and protecting communities from a potentially fatal disease.

It’s quite likely that not every church in the US need cancel services right now, but there are many that do need to. This is not kowtowing to fear or the supposed preeminence of the magistrate. For churches in communities that have been visited by coronavirus, canceling physical gatherings is by far the most effective way of protecting both congregants and non-congregants from the illness. This isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. Perhaps protecting people from sickness at the cost of the worship service sounds like elevating the physical above the spiritual, but it’s not, not anymore than a man rescuing a trapped animal on the Sabbath was elevating the economic over the spiritual.

It would be an inappropriate elevation of the physical if churches were to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and say, “Actually, this whole livestream thing is just so much easier and safer and cost-effective. We’ll be going all-online now!” All those adjectives are true, yet the church exists to be physically gathered together in a way believers cannot neglect (Heb. 10:25). But suspending physical gatherings while the world withstands a brutal but temporary viral epidemic can, and I think must, acknowledge that something truly has been lost, even with a livestream. In this way the church can testify to the already-but-not-yet: in sitting under the preaching of the word online even as we yearn for the day we can come together again without members under threat of pandemic, and yearn even more for the day that death is dead forever and every tear is wiped away.

I understand the discomfort with doing church online. I think there should be some discomfort with it. But the coronavirus crisis need not be a referendum on the goodness of technology. It can instead be a referendum on the absolute goodness of our embodied selves and our embodied churches: of physical people, with faces and moods and hungers and stories and burdens. In a sense both Reno and the e-church enthusiast are making the same mistake. They are failing to properly value the humanity of Christ’s body, one through preference for technology and the other for neglect of care. Sometimes the best way to honor complementary truths is to not have a perfectly clean solution.

To this end, I would commend to you the letter that my former pastor, Greg Gilbert, wrote to the members of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, right before the suspended service last weekend. Here are two paragraphs that will encourage you:

Brothers and sisters, Christians should never be motivated by fear, not when we serve the Sovereign Lord of the Universe. But there’s a crucial difference between fear and prudence, and in this case love for our neighbors compels us to join our nation’s extraordinary efforts to minimize contact between people in order to slow the spread of this virus and “flatten the curve” of the pandemic.  We are not cancelling our services because we ourselves, as Christians, are afraid to get sick or even afraid to die.  God forbid!  “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.”  Rather, we are cancelling because we believe it is imperative for us to be a part of our society’s response to this virus that, at best, will be serious for the most vulnerable, and, at worst, could put even more people at risk by creating a severe and sudden spike in demand on our health care system.  So don’t be afraid or fearful, brothers and sisters.  Read God’s Word, remember God’s promises, help those who are needy, and trust in God.  He is sovereign over all, and he loves you dearly.

Brothers and sisters, thank you again for your help and understanding in these matters.  These are not easy decisions, but we think they are the best way for us to love our neighbor in a critical time.  And again, just like we’ve said before, don’t be fearful about this.  Be prudent and wise, but not afraid; there’s a profound difference between the two.  The fact is, this fallen world has always been a dangerous place.  We as Christians know this, we have always known this, the Bible teaches us to expect this, and there is a wonderful fear-smashing confidence in knowing that our God is sovereign over it all.  So let’s live our lives, let’s be wise and careful, and at the same time, let’s rest in the hands of our sovereign Lord, who is working all things together for the good of those who love him.

This is Probably What We Needed

Will a pandemic tie us closer to social digital technology, or expose it as empty?

As we continue to try to wrap our minds around the surreal events of COVID-19, one thought has been recurring for many:

This will destroy the last motivations in our society to actually interact with other human beings.

I understand this fear. It’s reasonable. As the jokes and memes attest, social distancing was happening well before it was mandated. Loneliness has been pandemic a lot longer than coronavirus. It’s logical to imagine that a society voluntarily isolating itself to death would interpret mass quarantine as a validation of the wisdom of living online. I think this fear is probably what kept many churches in the US from closing their doors this past Sunday. People already ask what’s the point of waking up to go to church if I can find a world-class preacher on the Podcast store. If we start asking them to say home, it’s over. Right?

Maybe. But maybe not. There’s another version of this whole story that keeps playing out in my head and I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t shake the feeling that an oppressive pandemic might actually be the one thing that disrupts the unthinking embrace of virtual social behaviors. When the toxic dust settles, I’m wondering if we’ll find that the punishment fit the crime, and that the anxiety of not knowing when we will see the people we love in real life is sadder than getting a new “Like” is fun.

I’ve written previously in this space about Facebook, and how over the past decade Facebook has made a series of design and functional choices that drop even the pretense of trying to connect people to each other. I’ve been without an account for almost a year now, and even I’m surprised how little I’ve missed it. When I’m looking at wife’s personal feed, here’s what I see: influencer post, influencer post, meme, link to an article, influencer post, somebody trying to sell something, etc., ad infinitum. In other words, Facebook has shifted from a tool to facilitate contact among friends, to a platform by which individuals can communicate with the masses, preferably to help turn a profit. The friendship ethos is totally gone.

People know this, which is why just about everyone you know under the age of 30 has either deactivated their account or gone to Instagram. That’s why predictions that places like Facebook or Twitter  will just become more and more omnipresent until they’ve essentially totally  replaced communities have never been compelling to me. A lot of us are addicted, yes, but that doesn’t mean we cannot tell when the grass is greener somewhere else. Twitter has the advantage of monopolizing the journalist class and therefore being the substance of choice for  “informed” people. But people leave Twitter too, and the odds are good that if Jack Dorsey keeps it up, they’ll keep leaving Twitter. Eventually the same will happen to Instagram.

Before COVID-19, most of us held the assumption that when these companies decline, it’ll be because their users find some other platform. But that’s what I wonder about.

If people in the West will be, as is expected, confined for several months to an absolute minimum of social contact, holed up within their homes and cut off from classmates, church members, concerts, and sporting events, then I think it’s more than possible that social media will fail the cultural test that is given to it. In the coming months social media will be asked to fill a void that is fundamental to who human beings are. Count me among the number who believe that it will fail that test because it cannot do otherwise.

It’s not difficult for digital technology to replace human contact. It is impossible. Silicon Valley advances not just tools for harnessing human nature, but an alternative belief system about what human nature is. That belief system is sort of like the prosperity gospel—it works as long as it doesn’t have to work. When the infrastructure of normal life crumbles, when suffering and sea billows roll, the check always bounces. I understand the fear that people will emerge from their quarantine wondering why they ever left their living room in the first place. But I see another question coming: “Why did we ever bury ourselves with our machines in the first place?”

The logic of tech addiction has been so powerful in part because it almost never feels like we’re losing control. We’re so agile, so upwardly mobile as a society that literally limitless options available to us make retreating into our screens feel like a necessary act of self-care. The infinity potentialities of self-expression in offline life make online life feel accessory rather than replacement. What COVID-19 is about to strip away is the illusion of options, the illusion of total control over what our tech does to us. We are faced with several months of having little else aside from our screens. There’s a gut check coming. And a lot of us will decide we don’t want to live that way.

Maybe this is what we needed. I’m not talking about death, obviously. The deaths of thousands from coronavirus don’t serve the “higher” purpose of rehabbing a culture off technological delusion. I’m talking specifically about those who survive, and go on after this crisis is over to live relatively normal lives. For us, maybe this is the only thing that could really trigger change. I’m optimistic that it will. Once upon a time meditating on death was a spiritual discipline that wise believers said would fortify against complacent worldliness. Hardly anyone remembers their death until they have to. That’s human nature. Human nature.

Why Panic Won’t Save Us

A response to Peggy Noonan

“Sometimes paranoia is just good sense.”

So writes Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal. Her point is well-made. Everyone should take the COVID-19 virus seriously, listen to experts and make choices that take into account the well-being of others. These are high-stakes times. Churches and schools are shuttering for weeks; hospitals sit on the brink of being overrun. There are moments when wisdom and compassion look like overreaction, and right now is one of those moments.

Still, I wish I could tell Peggy Noonan that panic won’t save us. It never does.

The Bible has much to say about fear, and nearly all of it is either a promise or a warning. On the one hand, God’s people have boatloads of promises from our sovereign king that he is with us and fights for us. Fear, even fear of death, melts in the beams of eternal love and security.  On the other hand, God’s people also have many warnings about misdirecting our fear. Jesus warned us that we ought not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul, and the context implies that misdirected fear can be a sign that our souls are not as safe as we think.

There is a kind of “fear” that gives birth to prudence. Washing your hands many more times than usual because of a viral contagion in your community is prudent, and it comes from an awareness that failing to wash could endanger you or someone else. To some extent that is fear, but it is healthy.  But we should clearly distinguish fear from panic. Noonan writes

“Don’t panic” is what nervous, defensive people say when someone warns of coming trouble. They don’t want to hear it, so their message is “Don’t worry like a coward, be blithely unconcerned like a brave person.”

Noonan is a brilliant columnist, but I think she’s wrong here. For Christians especially, courting panic is not rooted in realism, it is rooted in the opposite. A heart captivated by crippling, all-consuming panic is living in a fantasy world, in which there is no God, no divine power over pathogens or nations, and no promise of forever good to all those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Panic says, “This fearful thing is ultimate, thus it is worthy of my fullest dread.” That’s not realism because it’s not true. Coronavirus is not in charge because God is.

That’s not a false dichotomy, it is a crucial one. Contrary to the scoffers who sneer at those who offer “thoughts and prayers” in moments of cultural unrest, remembering God and his power are part of what it means to respond rightly to real threats. In an essay in her volume The Givenness of Things, Maryilnne Robinson points out that one of the most noticeable characteristics of a secular age is its widespread fearfulness. Commenting on Leviticus 26:37, Robinson writes, “Those who forget God, the single assurance of our safety…can be recognized in the fact that they make irrational responses to irrational fears.”

Of course, coronavirus is not an irrational fear. But the power of panic is in turning normal concerns into abnormal ones. One of the clearest signs we have surrendered our emotional lives to the reign of fear is that we swap putting our real daily burdens on the Lord for trying to mentally stomach all kinds of imaginary trials. In The Screwtape Letters, the demon Screwtape counsels his underling to spiritually attack a human by redirecting his attention away from what’s actually happening and toward what could happen.

Your patient will, of course, have picked up the notion that he must submit with patience to the Enemy’s [=God’s] will. What the Enemy means by this is primarily that he should accept with patience the tribulation which has actually been dealt out to him—the present anxiety and suspense. It is about this that he is to say ‘Thy will be done,’ and for the daily task of bearing this that the daily bread will be provided.

It is your business to see that the patient never thinks of the present fear as his appointed cross, but only of the things he is afraid of. Let him regard them as his crosses: let him forget that, since they are incompatible, they cannot all happen to him, and let him try to practice fortitude and patience to them all in advance. For real resignation, at the same moment, to a dozen different and hypothetical fates, is almost impossible, and the Enemy does not greatly assist those who are trying to attain it.

God’s promises that he will always be with us, that he will strengthen and establish us, and that nothing will ever separate us from his love in Christ are so precious precisely because they are calibrated for the exact suffering we are facing. The voice of panic tells us that unless we fantasize sufficiently about every possible kind of suffering we may face, we will be unprepared, out of control, and ultimately left alone. But faith is honest and clear-eyed. It sees the trial right in front of it, but it also looks above and sees the One who tells it to cast all cares on him, because he cares for you.

While giving in to panic may feel like “realism” in the moment, it actually hinders our ability to serve others well. Several years ago it was revealed that the icebergs that decimated the HMS Titanic were spotted with more than enough time for the ship to turn and avoid them. But the  second officer panicked after seeing the icebergs and turned the ship the wrong way, leading the Titanic directly into harm.

This isn’t just about theological correctness. Wise actions, the kind of wise actions that preserve life, almost never happen in a context of utter panic. Emotional fortitude is realism minus impulsiveness. That’s why we’re supposed to let the fog of anger response pass before speaking (Psalm 4:4). It’s why wisdom is found in a multitude of counselors (Prov. 15:22). Panic tends to turn inwardly on itself, rejecting patience as foolish and outside review as pointless. That the overwhelming portrait of the Christian life in Scripture is one of calm and humble submission to wisdom tells us how much God values a heart freed from panic.

Panic won’t save us. Instead of panic, let there be wisdom. Wisdom can heal the flesh and refresh the bones (Prov. 3:8), and it actually starts with fear—not of a pandemic, but of the Lord (Prov. 1:7).

photo credit: Gage Skidmore

On the Theological Backchannel

We’re not the same people offline as we are online. That’s why we’re online in the first place.

If you’ve never read Freddie DeBoer’s essay “Of Course, There’s the Backchannel,” read it right now. Particularly if you’re somewhat interested in the disorienting culture of social media, the essay is a fascinating reflection on the lengths that modern people go to, especially politically conscious people, to craft an online identity that may be totally at odds with who they are offline. If you’ve never experienced this in yourself or in someone else, you probably will before too long. Read the essay all the way to the amazing ending.

I’ve thought about Freddie’s story quite a bit since reading the essay a couple years ago. I don’t know that we fully appreciate just how powerfully life on the internet affects how we feel and think about everything. Because it is largely self-contained and requires no physicality or length of time to mediate it, online conversation often becomes its “own” thing. I don’t know that anyone who uses words online regularly is exactly the same person online as offline; there are probably deeply rooted psychological and epistemological reasons why the technology itself splits personalities. But I do know that some people’s online/offline personas are more different than others, and similarly, there are topics of theology, or ethics, life issues, etc., that seem to yield a lot of this kind of digital double-takes.

What I mean is that there are certain issues, certain “conversations” that go a lot differently in the world of digital publishing, social media, blogging, etc, than they do while you’re, say, talking to people in small group or at work or over coffee. It’s as if the ecosystem of online writing rewards a particular way of talking about things that people pick up on, yet often don’t fully (or at all) translate into personal terms. If you ask a question on Twitter or in a column, you’ll get one answer. If you ask in your living room, you’ll get a different answer.. from the same people!

Again, this is all personal observation. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting what’s going on here. I’m not throwing down a #take about any particular person and/or group. It’s just something I’ve noticed. Let me offer a couple examples:

Example #1: Singleness

If your primary exposure to the thoughts of single-but-wanting-marriage 20 and 30somethings is online magazines, blogs, podcasts, and social media posts, you probably think that most single people in evangelical churches today really want married people to stop trying to pair them up; to not see them as “single” people, i.e., people with a “need” that should be met; and to give them more responsibility and ministry opportunities. In other words, the evangelical online perspective is, “Stop looking at my singleness, and start thinking of me and acting toward me like I don’t have a personal gap that needs to be filled.”

What I’ve noticed though is that almost all of the single 20 and 30somethings that I’ve talked to in the past few years, the same time frame in which I’ve seen the above narrative really catch fire in magazines and blogs, are quite upfront about their desire to be married. In community groups they talk about the struggle of seeing friends married off through the years. They admit loneliness and seem to perk up when someone says, “Hey I might know somebody.” They’re active in ministry. They do resist the bias against single people that can creep into evangelical churches, but they don’t resent the leadership of the church being overwhelmingly married folks. That’s what they want for themselves. It’s not that they’re deficient people, it’s that they have a desire that is unmet; they’re OK with people they trust and love knowing this, and praying and encouraging accordingly.

Example #2: Masculinity

If you make the mistake of Googling the phrase “biblical masculinity,” there’s no telling when your loved ones will discover your corpse, with forehead gashed through blunt force trauma of hitting yourself with your computer monitor. Consider two common, competing #takes in the Christian online world about masculinity. The first take is the “alpha male” crowd, the guys who say you’re not a real man if you don’t spit craft beer at the libs. They’re all about how “Big Eva” has emasculated Christian men. There’s a weird compulsion in this crowd to make everything about being a man, as if one could forget he’s a man and in that moment would cease to be one. The second take is the sophisticated, urbane, literary take on masculinity, which is that it basically doesn’t exist and that any guy who is concerned about becoming a Christian man is furthering the patriarchy and is probably just cosplaying John Wayne on his way to vote for Trump.

These two groups dominate online conversation about manhood. Yet are they actually representative of the guys who come to your church on Sunday morning? Of course not. And what you find out is that the lives and marriages and parenting of some of the guys who have the “edgiest” things to say about masculinity online are not all that edgy. The wife of the dude who chirps about the emasculation of evangelicalism from his blog works two jobs so that he can do his Masters degree full-time. The “masculinity is a construct of the patriarchy” guy soon acknowledges that he needs more resources about parenting boys. I’ve seen first-hand this disconnect between what tribes people sort themselves into and the actual lives they lead. Don’t hear me saying that gender roles are an unimportant issue. What I am saying is that the real-life dynamics of love, marriage, sex, parenting, and friendship are not very Tweetable.

Online Identity

The above are examples of the theological backchannel. They are genres of evangelical writing where the most prominent kinds of perspectives seem weirdly at odds with what you see offline. In DeBoer’s original piece, he uses the political/journalistic backchannel mainly as evidence that people are scared of sharing what they truly believe, since their membership in certain in-groups (which may be a lucrative membership career-wise) depends on their having the right opinions. I’ve seen a similar thing at work in the theological backchannel, particularly with how often and gleefully the genetic fallacy is deployed to show why person in tribe X is wrong about issue Y, because people in tribe X are always wrong. In the world of ideas the universe is partitioned neatly between people who are right and people who are wrong, and often the writing that follows simply seeks to establish more “turf” for all the players.

But there is an identity aspect to it as well. I think we’re just now beginning to realize that for the emerging adult generation, the internet is not simply an activity, it’s a mode of existence. That’s why we’re getting so exhausted by it. There’s no hobby that drains you like online life because online life isn’t a hobby, it’s an ecosystem in which everyone is actively trying to construct a new habitus. We’re not the same people offline that we are online. That’s the whole reason we’re online in the first place. The question then is not “Why is there a backchannel?” The question is, as time and connectivity and epistemology continue to transform, which one is actually the backchannel—online or off?

The Hot Potato

Invoking relativism has never been more performative and less genuine in culture than it is right now. So why do we keep doing it?

One of the ideas that Douglas Murray comes back to time and again in The Madness of Crowds is the backward relationship within contemporary progressivism between confidence and evidence. When it comes to identity politics, Murray points out that lack of scientific or biological or mathematical data is not a problem for many activists. They simply ignore it; or, they pit experience and felt needs against cold, inhumane information, and ask audiences which of these is more likely to keep people oppressed. In the emerging social justice culture the level of certainty always exceeds the amount of rational justification. This is why people can lose their livelihoods or even be criminally prosecuted for believing in something that no serious consensus disputes—the categories of male and female, for example.

Certainty is a strange thing. In a religiously postmodern era it is fashionable to cast certainty as the enemy. Aren’t all we just giving our best guess? Yet as postmodernism gives way to the kind of New Morality that Murray documents in his book, one wonders whether the death of certainty hasn’t been greatly exaggerated. From where I’m sitting it doesn’t look people are capable of living without it. Even the most irreligious groups need an unshakeable framework that imputes meaning into their lives and beliefs. For many who’ve been shaped by western higher education, that framework is social justice.

Yet even the critics of social justice mania cannot cleanly critique certainty. For one thing, almost every opponent of outrage mobs and shout down chants believes with certainty that free speech is an absolute good. At the very least they believe with certainty that people ought to be able to hold unpopular ideas and a job at the same time. Now those open-minded philosophers who extol doubt and portray the life well lived as one of never knowing what’s above are in a real pickle: If certainty is the enemy, then we can’t be certain that those who wield certainty to suppress their opponents are certainly wrong.

I thought about this after listening to a “deconversion” narrative by podcasting duo Rhett and Link. Alisa Childers also listened to it and she put the issue well:

After poking holes in Christianity, Rhett offered no plausible alternative to explain reality. When he jumped the Christian ship, he didn’t jump into another boat, but into a “sea of uncertainty.” His Christianity has been replaced with what he calls “openness and curiosity.” He describes how liberating it’s been to let go of the “appetite for certainty.” To the careful observer, it’s evident that Rhett has traded in one worldview for another: Christianity for postmodernity, with all its skepticism, denial of absolutes, and relativism.

Except it’s not actually relativism, right? As Rhett rattles off the list of scientific discoveries he made that his childhood Christianity could not explain, he didn’t sound very relativist. He didn’t sound like a true patron of uncertainty. The scientific research he had read was not vulnerable in the presence of “openness.” Despite the plaintive word picture of a person exchanging rigid dogma for a peaceful, relaxing float on the river of discovery, what’s actually happened is that Rhett is certain of something he wasn’t certain of before: That Christianity isn’t true. The buzzwords of openness and curiosity obscure the reality of a door slamming shut.

What’s most interesting to me is not how often people decide that the religion they were raised in is not true. It’s how often people sand over their definitive religious or ideological transformations with language about “openness” and “curiosity.” It reminds me very much of transgender activists on a college campus, screaming “Who are you to judge” while they campaign to get an administrator fired and harass his or her family. The nod to relativism has never been more performative and less genuine in culture than it is right now. So why do we keep offering it?

My only theory is that in the current intellectual climate, the best way to bring someone over to your side is not to try to convince them they’re wrong, but convince them they’re irrelevant. “Look, I’m not saying I’m right, I’m just saying I’m open and curious and you’re not.” Who wants to hear that? Ours is the era not of debates and arguments but of epistemological hot potato: whoever carries the baggage of certainty for too long loses. Here’s how you win: Say you’re not sure, then act as if you are. You’ll avoid the existential crisis of having no center, and best of all, you’ll seal yourself off from almost any critique. Define yourself as open, and everybody else gets closed automatically.

The Magic of Secularism

Contemporary paganism meets modern individualism.

Alan Jacobs recently linked to a concise summary by Charles Taylor of “buffered selves” vs “porous selves.” The dichotomy is crucial to Taylor’s thesis in A Secular Age. Taylor argues that the essence of secular modernism is the transition from an enchanted world—which creates porous selves—to a disenchanted one, which creates buffered selves. Here’s how Jacobs puts it:

The porous self is open to a wide range of forces, from the divine to the demonic; the buffered self is protected from those forces, understands them as definitively outside of it. The attraction of the porous self is that it offers a rich, multidimensional cosmos that’s full of life and saturated in meaning; but that cosmos also feels dangerous. One’s very being can become a site of contestation among powerful animate forces. The buffered self provides bulwarks against all that: it denies the existence of those forces or demotes them to delusions that can be eradicated through therapy or medication. But the world of the buffered self can feel lonely, empty, flat. “Is that all there is?”

Sometimes this contrast is referred to as the difference between paganism and modernism. Paganism is a magical worldview, where spirits roam the cosmos, elixirs heal body and mind, and the self is open to the influences and effects of a whole spectrum of metaphysical forces. Modernism is the age of science, logic, and rational belief. Spirits do not roam, bacteria and viruses do. The world is disenchanted in the sense that it can be explained without reference to things beyond the material.

Almost everyone would say that we live in a rationalistic age. We are buffered against the superstitions of our pre-modern ancestors through modern science, medicine, philosophy—the heritage of developed Western thought.

Or are we?

Consider a thought exercise. Ask yourself this: Is the individualistic, self-determining, self-expressive ethos of modern society a porous worldview, or a buffered one? In other words, is “follow your heart” the logical sum of rationalism or is it closer to a mystical mantra? If you’ve read many books on this topic, especially books about identity, you probably got a good dose of “From Descartes to Nietzsche” history of ideas. These books argue that Western rationalism created the modern self. I think that’s probably true and as reliable a narrative of how-we-got-here as we’re going to get.

But here’s where it gets interesting. There is a cultural rise right now for actual paganism (witchcraft). In this Atlantic piece, the author and her interviewees frame the contemporary pagan self in explicitly fashionable terms. It seems there’s a seamless continuity between being a witch and “telling your truth.” Stay for the final sentence:

Now 38 years old, Diaz remembers that when she was growing up, her family’s spellwork felt taboo. But over the past few years, witchcraft, long viewed with suspicion and even hostility, has transmuted into a mainstream phenomenon. The coven is the new squad: There are sea witches, city witches, cottage witches, kitchen witches, and influencer witches, who share recipes for moon water or dreamy photos of altars bathed in candlelight. There are witches living in Winnipeg and Indiana, San Francisco and Dubai; hosting moon rituals in Manhattan’s public parks and selling $11.99 hangover cures that “adjust the vibration of alcohol so that it doesn’t add extra density and energetic ‘weight’ to your aura.”

…To Diaz, a witch is “an embodiment of her truth in all its power”; among other magic practitioners, witch might embody a religious affiliation, political act, wellness regimen, “hot new lewk,” or some combination of the above. “I’m doing magic when I march in the streets for causes I believe in,” Pam Grossman, a witch and an author, wrote in a New York Times op-ed.

“I’m doing magic when I march in the streets” is about a clean a summary of the post-Christian West as you could ever read. The porous theology of Wicca is transposed onto politics-as-religion, and the essence of telling one’s pagan truth is to become an activist. The only question is whether it’s the secular, political identity that is masquerading as a witch, or if the paganism is putting on an activist front. I think somebody committed to the Cartesian theory of self-expressionism would say the former. But what if it’s the latter? What if modern witches reach for political self-actualization precisely because the Modern Self is not a rationalistic creature but a mystical one?

There are clues that point me toward that theory. For one thing, the liturgical and creedal nature of social media culture strongly suggests that many in the contemporary West are becoming less shy acting on impulses and habits that are religious in shape. For another thing, the ecclesiastical personality of spaces like university campuses—featuring excommunication, defenses of orthodoxy, etc—reveal not so much a secularized public square but a religiously redirected one. Yes, in one sense formal religious affiliation is thinning, but in another sense, religious practices have arguably never been more mainstream.

I’m reminded of a great blog post a few years ago in which Ross Douthat flagged a feature essay in Elle magazine about a woman’s experience with mediums. Pointing out that irreligious Americans tend to show interest in things like spiritualism and astrology, Douthat argued that the best way to understand modern secularization is not as a negation of the numinous, but as an ambivalence toward it. I think that’s a compelling theory, and it stands as a challenge to Christian observers of culture to get too sucked into a “transition” narrative—from porous to buffered, from pre-modern to secular—without accounting for the ways in which human nature falls back into contradiction in order to meets its felt needs. As tidy and seamless as the line from Descartes to Disney may seem, there are complications along the way.

And one of those complications is the impure alchemy of many modern worldviews. If the dogma of modern paganism is to be “an embodiment of your truth in all its power,” then we should ask whether the porous selves of the witch coven are plagiarizing expressive individualism, or whether the whole time expressive individualism was actually plagiarizing the porous Self. It could very well be that the arc of post-Christian history doesn’t finally point toward the scientific laboratory or transhuman technology, but toward Amazon, Oprah, and activist witchcraft.

Religion Is Inevitable

Today I have a new essay up at National Review discussing why American progressives can no longer refer to themselves as “the party of science.” If the last few years have revealed anything, it’s that our ideological battles are inescapably religious.

Here’s an excerpt:

The inconvenient truth is that there is no “party of science,” just as there is no “right side of history.” All ideological tribes use scientific research when the result supports their priors and downplay it when it doesn’t.

There is a meaningful difference, though, between cultural conservatives and progressives. Conservatives, at least historically, have been willing to take their ideas above the rim of materialism, to argue against scientism and emphasize the transcendent and spiritual. For almost a century, arguably dating back to the Scopes trial, progressives have taken the opposite approach, forming an unwritten alliance with irreligious partisans of higher ed and instinctively deferring to science when it collides with faith or tradition. It’s not that one party believes in science and one party disbelieves it. It’s that only one party claims that’s the case.

Read the entire piece here. Thanks to the kind folks at National Review for the opportunity.

The 4 Books You Probably Shouldn’t Write

What a writer refrains from doing is not a criticism of them. What a writer agrees to do, but does poorly, is another matter.

One of the hardest pills to swallow in this life is humility. Note that wanting to be humble is not a hard pill to swallow, nor is agreeing that humility is a positive trait. It’s actual humility that’s difficult, because actual humility is what puts me and you in so many situations of sacrifice, honesty, wounded pride, and generally looking very small compared to how we want to appear. And one of the truest things that can be said of humility as it relates to the kingdom of God is this: If you belong to Christ, you will be humble. The question is, are you going to humble yourself, or be humbled?

For Christian writers this couldn’t be more salient. The most common temptation away from humility in Christian writing and publishing is the temptation to write on topics that you are objectively not qualified to write on, but that you know would make money/look good/present you as a guru. Within Christian publishing there are a few “money topics” that are always selling well or going viral and, thus, always alluring to ambitious Christian writers to put two cents that they really haven’t earned. When writing comes from a place of literary thoughtfulness AND lived experience, it has a certain potency that writing that is merely thoughtful and theoretical doesn’t have. Writers, though, are often not the best judges of their own expertise, especially in an online writing economy that prioritizes speed and volume.

In the spirit of offering us all a dose of preventative humility, I’d like to offer four books that you probably shouldn’t write. Note three important words in that sentence: “You,” “Probably,” and “shouldn’t.” You probably shouldn’t write them. That doesn’t mean nobody else should. That’s the biting part of humility in the writing life: recognizing our limitations relative to others. You probably shouldn’t do it, although it’s possible you are indeed at the right place to do so helpfully. If that’s you, go for it. You probably shouldn’t write these books, not: you probably can’t write these books. If you have an ego like mine, you hear a statement like “you probably shouldn’t write this” as a dare or a motivational reverse psychology. But no, this is about should, not can’t. What a writer refrains from doing is not a criticism of them. What a writer agrees to do but does poorly is a criticism.

So, here are the four books you probably shouldn’t write:

1) Parenting

Parenting is hard. Really hard. It’s hard to do in the abstract, i.e., coming up with principles and strategies that make sense to a broad spectrum of people. It’s way harder to do in reality. The fruits of parenting take a lifetime to see. What seems like it’s working in one season will look imploded in another. This is simply one of the most intense, spiritually fraught, and difficult topics to be a reliable guide on, because the vast majority of us are still figuring so much out. You probably shouldn’t write this book. Who should? Someone who is on the far end of this journey, whose children rise up and call them blessed, and who demonstrates an ability to confess what didn’t work for them and where they needed help.

2) Why Group XYZ Is The Way They Are

This is a very popular genre of writing that addresses a particular group of people and does a deep dive into their psychology, motivations, beliefs, etc. Recently I was sent (unsolicited) a book like this by a publisher. The book compares conservative evangelicals to John Wayne and attributes their political and theological views to toxic masculinity, American nationalism, and fear and loathing of minorities. Sounds great, right? Literally the first time I skimmed the book I found multiple sweeping claims that were unverified, assertions offered without evidence, and, predictably, almost no member of this group interviewed or meaningfully interacted with. That’s par for the course with this genre. It exists to make non-members of group XYZ feel better about themselves. Don’t write this book. Who should? Proabably nobody, but if you’re a PhD in group XYZ-ology, have spent years listening to these people and trying to understand them, and can write dispassionately….actually, forget it. Don’t write it.

3) Marriage & Sex

You probably shouldn’t write a book on marriage and/or sex. First, see the above entry on “Parenting.” Second, what’s probably going to happen is that you’ll write with the assumption that your readers need exactly what you need(ed). You’ll be tempted to normalize your experiences in such a way that the book will be great for people just like you and basically no one else. Third, in order to compensate for your limited vantage point, you’ll be tempted turn this into a book of ideology. You’ll lean into the Facebook fights and Twitter outrage machines and forget to actually talk about these topics, because you’ll be so busy talking about talking about them. Who should write this book? Someone with a seasoned marriage and seasoned ministry, who’s talked to hundreds of couples and counseled in hundreds of different situations. And someone who is reasonably removed from the social media drama.

4) What’s Wrong with the Church Today

First, a caveat. There is some sense in which every Christian book worth reading is about something that’s wrong in church culture today. To the degree that a book is able to name its target and speak with expertise and care into a specific issue, that’s great. The book you probably shouldn’t write is a book that makes really broad claims from a really narrow perspective. What I’ve found is that Christian writers want to make their pet topics feel meaningful to everyone else, so they pepper their writing with grandiose claims. The problem with this type of book is precisely its appeal: It can be written by literally anyone and addressed to literally everyone. It is a toothless kind of writing. It takes years to discern whether what you think is “the problem with church today” is in fact “the” problem, or whether it’s a problem you’ve experienced in a particular way. Some of the most valuable books are also the least sweeping. Who should write this book? Somebody with a rich combination of letters following their name, and somebody with an ability to think specifically.