5 Questions with Jake Meador

Five questions with the editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy.

I’m continuing a new series I initially started via newsletter. I’m bringing it over to the blog for now. Today I’m asking Jake Meador, editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy and author of In Search of the Common Good, five questions about writing, ideas, and life.

1. How would you explain Mere Orthodoxy’s platform to someone who had never heard of it?

The cheeky way is to say that we have been defending word counts and nuance on the internet since 2005.

The more serious and longer way is something like this: We’re a Christian review of ideas focused especially on politics, theology, and culture working from a mostly Protestant perspective, though we do publish Catholic and Orthodox writers as well. Why do we publish? I think this is my best short answer: Christian discipleship is, partly, learning to see the world as God sees it—and God says the world is good, something he loves. This world is worth knowing, but knowing it truly is difficult. Mere O exists to model Christian habits of thought that reflect the complexity, seriousness, and humor of the world. We also want to present a consistently and pervasively Christian account of theology, politics, and culture to a broad audience. If we can operate as a mostly Protestant outlet generally adjacent to First Things or Commonweal, I’ll be pleased.

2. In 1 or 2 sentences, can you express the main idea of your first book, In Search of the Common Good?

We live in a fracturing society defined by loneliness, anxiety, and listlessness. Living in such a society creates enormous challenges for Christians, but also presents us with a unique opportunity to model a still better way to our neighbors, if only we would have the courage and commitment to truth to embrace a life of ordinary Christian discipleship.

3. Who are your 4 most important influences when it comes to theology + society? (aside from Scriptural authors)

Wendell Berry is obvious for anyone whose read my work. Berry taught me about natural law, conservation, and the goodness of creation. I could tack C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien on here, but I think what really happened is that Berry gave me the broad framework that I needed to actually see what Lewis and Tolkien are up to. So many of us grow up with Tolkien and Lewis that I think they often appear to us in this very familiar, pre-defined shape that basically just conforms with all my priors that I have brought out of childhood and into adulthood because their books are just baked into my life and thought. After reading Berry as an adult and coming back to Lewis and Tolkien I was amazed at how much I missed in both of them—their radical conservationism (I’m loathe to say ‘environmentalism’ because it’s an anachronism, but at minimum both of them would be hardcore crunchy cons if alive today), their traditionalism around sexuality, and the centrality of humility and ordinary faithfulness in their imaginations. The Scouring of the Shire is a radically anti-industrial chapter in Tolkien’s work, for example. And in The Last Battle one of the first things we see in Shift that tells us about his badness is that he wants to import foods that don’t naturally grow in his home place and he wants to chop down a bunch of trees. Those themes were always there with both of them, obviously. But Berry gave me the eyes to see it. So I’m just saying Berry for this point and assuming Lewis and Tolkien within the broader influence of Berry.

Martin Bucer is next. He was a mentor to Calvin in Strasbourg in the late 1530s and early 1540s and especially had a large impact on Calvin’s approach to the work of pastoring. He was also a great preacher and theologian in his own right and was particularly strong at trying to foreground love of neighbor as being central to the reformed cause in Europe at the time. The arguments for reform for Bucer did not necessarily hinge on justification or sola Scriptura, although he obviously affirmed both of those things, but rather on the call God gives his people to take up the yoke of Christian discipline in service to God and neighbor. The Reformation cause for Bucer gets filtered through this concern with simple Christian piety and Christian love. There’s a letter he wrote to a friend he wrote immediately after hearing Luther for the first time and he says something to the effect of “I’ve heard the man whose theology completes Erasmus’s work.” So Bucer rejected the Rome of his day because he saw it as failing in its call to Christian love. So he has a very different route into the broad set of ideas we associate with the reformation relative to Luther. Bucer also saw the work of creating Christian society as being an essential and inevitable outworking of Christian love, which is another way in which he has influenced me, I think. I was a pretty convinced Hauerwasian until I picked up Bucer. Bucer was the first one to knock some cracks into that foundation for me.

Bucer and Berry are the two that have probably shaped my mind the most and for the longest time. These other two are more recent influences, but they’re the ones I’m thinking about the most right now, I think.

The first is Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus. What I find so compelling about him is the deep way in which he ties together our commitment to truth and commitment to neighbor. One of his encyclicals is called “Caritas in Veritate,” which means Love in Truth. I think so much contemporary Christian writing is fueled largely by sentiment. You get this in a lot of progressive evangelical writing, of course, but often the progressives are simply mimicking what they learned from more conservative evangelicals from the megachurch movement. I think you can draw a pretty straight line between 90s era seeker sensitive evangelicalism and something like Jen Hatmaker’s exvangelicalism today in that both are driven by a set of concerns we often associate with marketing and advertising–it’s image, branding, and so on.

What I love about Benedict is that he doesn’t care about any of that. He’s a relentlessly serious thinker who focuses all his seriousness on God and God’s creation. And so he wants desperately to know God and to love neighbor in light of what he knows of God. So there’s a studiousness to Benedict’s writing that is compelling to me. There’s also a breadth to it—Benedict was actually called “the green pope” long before Pope Francis ever received that moniker because Benedict spoke so extensively on the Christian call to environmental stewardship. And I think, perhaps because Benedict is simply much older there is also a serenity to his work. His work has the feel of having been written from a posture of prayerfulness and careful attentiveness to God rather than man that has been sustained for a very long time. And all of that makes the experience of reading him quite distinctive.

Finally, the last name–and he’s my newest and the one I’ve read the least of so far but who I find (so far) irresistible as a thinker–is John Webster, the great English theologian who died a few years ago at age 60. Webster does all the same things for me that Benedict does. He’s so captured by what he has beheld in his own walk with God that this astonishment radiates out in his theology. Reading Webster is one of the most intoxicating things I can think of and it’s not because of his style. It’s because when you read Webster you are always aware that you’re reading a man who has mediated deeply on the deep things of God.

I think part of the reason I’m drawn to people like them (and Oliver O’Donovan has a similar appeal to me) is that when I look around in the US right now, I see so much bad faith, so much politicking, so much lust for power. And it’s all so very ugly and the dissonance between all of that and what I find in Webster and Benedict is jarring. And there’s a certain sense in which I think that dissonance has been there in my mind for five years now and I’ve spent this whole time trying to work it out. But it’s been framed this way–the gap between the minority of people who seem to take truth seriously and the vast majority–basically since late 2015.

In December of 2015 when Trump was becoming clearly established as the GOP front runner, my dad spent three weeks in the ICU due to a brain injury. He’s now living at home with my mom, though he is fairly limited in what he can do. And the juxtaposition of those two experiences has conditioned my mind in certain ways, I think. You would not believe the number of visitors my dad had. Actually, I’m not sure dad would believe it either because he was in a coma the whole time and has no memory of them. But it was so striking to see how many people wanted to come by the hospital to see him, to talk with mom and I, and to tell stories about him. The gift that both my parents gave me was daily proof that nothing mattered in this life other than the truth—and the truth is that we are made to know and love God and, as an act of love for God, to also love our neighbor. They gave me that single-mindedness.

As I was watching the GOP (and many prominent evangelicals with them) begin its slide into relativism and hypocrisy, I also was seeing the fruit of a single-minded love for God that willingly paid whatever price such fidelity might demand. My parents’ faith cost them in all kinds of ways. Yet it would have been unthinkable in our home growing up to suggest that we betray principles for convenience or to advance ourselves. I saw my parents take unpopular stands to defend abuse victims and homeless people, amongst many other things I saw them do because of their faith. And I saw the fruit of their fidelity over the course of my dad’s injury and rehabilitation.

So as I look around right now and try to just orient myself personally as well as lead my family and lead this online media institution I run, I’m desperate to find writers to read who have that same single-mindedness, that fixation on God that so overwhelms all other considerations such that compromise would be as unfathomable to them as it was and is to my parents. I find that in Webster. Watch him give his papers on the doctrine of creation. This is a man doing Christian theology while constantly aware that he is talking about God before the face of God. It lends such a weightiness and reality to his work. I want to read people who have that kind of engagement with the good, the true, and the beautiful. And I know with both Benedict and Webster that that is what I will always find.

4. You’re an editor, a full time employee, an author, and a husband and father of children. What’s a personal discipline or productivity practice that’s been helpful for you?

Being able to function reasonably well on six hours of sleep and having a wife who is understanding of what I’m doing? I don’t know. There aren’t tricks. I’m trying to become more regimented these days because Mere O is busier than it’s ever been, my family is busier because we have four kids now, and I’m writing a book. So I’ve set up a note taking app called Bear that I use to track daily work. I use Trello to organize everything I do at Mere O. But the tools only get you so far. I think the bigger need is availing oneself of the ordinary means of Christian discipleship and trying to draw those resources into your work, which is something I struggle with constantly because I am a very independent person and am still young enough that I can often feel fairly invincible and as if I can do anything.

Anyway, I think if you are disciplined, focused, and serious (and I am only one of those three things consistently, to my regret) then I think you can get a great deal done. Cal Newport’s work is probably worth mentioning here. Deep Work is good, but Digital Minimalism is great. Oh, and on that note: I also use the Freedom app to lock myself out of social media whenever I’m really needing some focused time to get work done. So I guess my tools for work are some combination of Scrivener (book writing), Bear (short-form writing and note taking), Trello (task management), WordPress (publishing Mere O), Google Docs (editing), and Freedom (focus aid). But the tools are mostly indifferent, in my opinion. They’re a means to an end. The bigger struggle for me is trying to cultivate the discipline and love that is required to sustain a serious work load and to also express those virtues in my life offline, which is often the more difficult task.

4b. Could you give a brief window into the book you’re writing right now?

Yeah. So if In Search of the Common Good is about the call to Christian neighborliness during a time of breakdown, the next book is about what the long-term outworking of Christian neighborliness ought to be. If a group of Christians are faithful together for a long time, how does society change? What kind of society should those Christians be working to promote and sustain? So this book is trying to paint a picture of what Christian fidelity looks like when realized on a social level rather than an individual level.

5. What’s the Lord teaching you right now?

Discipline, patience, and trusting God to work, I think. I’m an impulsive, fairly aggressive person in many ways and there are good things that come from that, but also a lot of bad. Marriage and parenting force you to slow down and be patient, which is something I struggle with. Carrying the workload I’m carrying right now forces you to be disciplined or else you simply cannot get all the things done that need to get done. So I’m trying to be more strict about my time management and am also trying to create some more defined and structured routines that govern my day to day work.

Sentences and Movements

Explaining what you mean is a virtue.

“Black Lives Matter” is a sentence. It is also a movement, and Al Mohler’s exhortation for conservative evangelicals to endorse the sentence without supporting the movement makes intuitive sense. But in a way, I think the fact that this has to be pointed out at all is a sign of how dire the status of public discourse has become. We gloss over it because we are far more interested in seeing where a person lands on a predetermined theological-political grid, but I would love to hear more honest talk about how in the world we got to a place  where a sentence can mean a movement: thus, a spectacle whereby saying a sentence marries a person to a set of ideas and hesitating over the ideas means it would be better if a person didn’t say the sentence. This seems disastrous to me. It suggests the impossibility of basic ideals and the blurring of all fundamental observations into activism.

Every Christian ought to joyfully, aggressively assert that black lives matter. Every American to whom the Declaration of Independence is more than prop ought to joyfully and aggressively celebrate the fulfillment of its ideals in the unfolding of justice toward African-Americans. I’m sure there’s a distressing number of American Christians who cannot reconcile themselves to either of these very basic statements. Racism is real and it is an heirloom. To those people we can issue an invitation to repentance, and until such repentance we must work and pray that their presence and influence in churches and government will be proactively marginalized.

I am also sure that there is a large number of American Christians (I think it’s larger than the aforementioned group, though I could be wrong) who endorse those basic sentences but cannot reconcile themselves to the lump of political and theological commitments they think those sentences conceal. It’s this group that I’m interested in, because they are indeed in a tough spot. They’re not in a tough spot because the importance of black lives or of police justice is hopelessly complex—they’re not—but because the extreme polarization of language in our society makes even knowing what all you’re saying very difficult.

Take the issue of defunding police departments. It turns out that “defund” actually may or not mean defund. So if I say I don’t agree with defunding police departments, what I could be telling you is that I don’t agree with abolishing local police BUT I DO think police unions ought to be busted up and qualified immunity scrapped. Or maybe I’m telling you I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the current status quo. The point is this: There’s absolutely no way for you to know what I mean by “I don’t agree with defunding the police” until you ask me what I mean, but there’s no motivation for you to ask me what I mean if there’s an ambient cultural sense that sentences mean movements. “Don’t defund the police” turns into “black lives don’t matter” in the same way that “black lives matter” turns into “defund the police.” If principles are being asked to provide cover for practices, people leery of the practices will appear leery of the principles.

The catastrophic consequences of this for talking about race are obvious. But there are other versions, too.

Take gender and the church. What do you think is being said when you hear something like, “Evangelicalism needs to repent of its treatment of women”? Your answer to that question will almost certainly depend on which movement you think is represented by the statement. If you put aside movements and just deal with the sentence, there could be a lot of truth in that basic statement. We could say pastors ought not cavort together in Facebook groups to demean female authors they dislike. We could say that evangelical men ought not look at pornography and corrupt their ability to love and respect and learn from their sisters in Christ. Those are examples that could generate a lot of unity around a statement like that. But as you probably know, “Evangelicalism needs to repent of its treatment of women” could represent a huge variety of meta-propositional ideas. It could mean evangelicals need to start ordaining women to be pastors. Blurring a sentence into a movement could mean that disagreeing with female ordination cashes out as resentment of any suggestion that women could be mistreated in an evangelical culture.

Is it any wonder that the art of persuasion feels impossible right now? People can be plain ole’ disagreeable, but there’s simply no way to carry productive dialogue when sentences don’t mean themselves. It creates disunity before people even talk to each other. It tilts the balance of social power toward those with the loudest voices instead of the clearest. It gives cover to racists and sexists and heretics, because it’s always the enemies who benefit the most from low-visibility.

And of course, all this is going on in a technological age in which basic reading is compromised by constant distraction, attention to communal responses (e.g., what’s my tribe saying about this?), and a crippling level of self-marketing and brand consciousness. Asking people what they mean takes up valuable characters and is not SEO-savvy.

Clear thinking is possible. But you have to want it more than other things: clout, self-affirmation, expediency, confirmation bias, etc. That’s how it often goes with virtue. There are lots of chances to cultivate it. The biggest hurdle is deciding you want to.

Further up, further in

In April I gave a small PSA that I was stepping away from the blog for a while. Well, I’ve decided “a while” means up to now. Truth be told, I miss blogging, and I really don’t like only having Twitter as a regular outlet. I’m still prioritizing longer, more substantive writing than the 600 word blog post, but I think I’m motivated to try to strike that balance now.

More to come!

The Only Topic More Controversial Than Religion or Politics

Bridging divides and healing the commons is going to be much harder and much rarer than we want to think

In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff make a compelling case that callout culture—the punitive spirit of shutting down people’s lives and institution over their allegedly bad political views—is primarily a parenting issue. Viewing people who disagree with you as your existential enemies is, they argue, an unintended but real consequence of systematically being shielded from things you don’t like, and this dynamic begins very early. Modern parents believe their children are fragile, so they intervene early and often in their kids’ lives in order to ensure not just genuine safety but feelings of safety. But this has blowback because, as Haidt and Lukianoff argue, humans are not fragile, they are anti-fragile: confronting challenges makes human will and courage stronger, and avoiding those uncomfortable moments makes us worse, not better.

When I reviewed the book back in 2018 I chose this theme as the angle of my review. I’m glad I did that. Not everything in The Coddling has aged equally well, but the idea that parenting is at the root of much of our political and cultural dysfunction is more convincing than ever. As long as I’ve tried to understand callout culture in terms of politics or worldview, I’ve run into the same logical conundrum: How can people who believe their opponents should be destroyed not see how this belief could equally apply to them?

But what I’ve realized is that this question is based on a false premise. It assumes callout culture comes from conviction and belief, but it doesn’t. It comes from fear, and people who are controlled by fear don’t care about future ramifications. They only care about eliminating the threat. A child who hits another child for touching his toy doesn’t naturally think,”If I do this, I might want to touch his toy and he might hit me back.” That’s mature, future-oriented thinking. A child thinks, “He’s going to take my toy, that’s my toy!” Nothing else exists except the threat and the need to get rid of it.

We are all dependent on parenting to wean us off of immature thinking. The world we are looking at right now, however, is in large degree a reflection of a major shift in parenting. Recently I saw an Instagram post published by a mother who was upset at a well-known children’s book. The main character fell of his bike and said, “But I was brave and didn’t cry.” The Instagram mom objected to this dialogue and took a permanent marker to the page, where she crossed it out and wrote instead: “So I cried because I was sad.” Her point, as she explained in the post, was that children must be told their emotions are valid and expressing them honestly is always right.

Even if I couldn’t articulate it, I knew when I read that post that this was a different kind of parenting than I had experienced. Not crying even after getting hurt would have been seen in my home as admirable (though crying was certainly allowed and cared for). Emotional authenticity had its place, but it was not a virtue to be aspired to in lieu of, say, being brave or holding your temper. From this mom’s tone of prophetic righteousness I could tell this was not merely a different method but a different value system. She crossed out the book’s original dialogue because it was morally wrong to her.    For her, guarding her children from the suggestion that sometimes it is best to not express what you’re feeling is guarding them from harm.

A lot of people struggle with this kind of analysis. It comes off as generational snobbery, attacking those entitled millennials or clueless Gen Z’ers. I agree that it often sounds that way, and I also agree that generational stereotypes, even ones that seem legitimate, hurt and obscure far more than they help and illuminate. But for the life of me I can’t figure out how to make these observations, which seem really important, without sounding like a scold.

Worse, I think the role that parenting plays in the shaping of public discourse means bridging divides and healing the commons is going to be much harder and much rarer than we want to think. Polarization is a problem, yes. Sensationalistic, partisan media is a problem, for sure. But the reason these conversations bottom out is that what’s really being exposed are deeply personal intuitions that we protect because of what—or who— criticism of them implicates. If our definition of “justice” is actually ill-formed, if our treatment of those who disagree is actually cruel and regressive—then we have to confront some deeply uncomfortable possibilities about how we and our children are being oriented to the world around us. Parenting is perhaps the only topic in the world more heated than religion and politics. If you doubt that, go read Facebook. You’ll see.

Homeschooling Is Not a Public Threat

Friends, I’m really humbled to have an opinion essay in today’s Wall Street Journal. I respond to a very disturbing feature in Harvard Magazine that uses tired and untrue tropes about homeschooling families to make a broad case for outlawing it. My response draws both on my experience of being homeschooled and the facts of homeschooling in the US. I hope this essay serves in a small way to help people think more carefully about a hugely important issue.

You can find the article here. My apologies if it is paywalled…though the Journal is running a special 1 month digital subscription for $1!

A Bit of Housekeeping, etc.

Hey friends,

I wanted to let you know about a couple things going on around here. If you’ve been reading this blog more than a week you’ll have noticed a pretty radical design change that I implemented a few days ago. Whether you love it or hate it—and I would understand both reactions!—I should say a little bit more about it, because the redesign is actually part of a greater redirection for the blog.

I’ve been blogging at this space consistently—at least 1,000 words every single month, and in the vast majority of cases many times that per month—for about five years now. Before that I was writing equally consistently at Patheos. Long story short, I’ve been writing thousands of words every month for the better part of 7 years. It’s been extremely gratifying.

But I have to be honest. I’ve gotten tired.

Blogging is difficult. It takes a regular application of thought and discipline. It wears you out. The rewards are rich, but they’re not always proportionate. For me, the rewards of blogging have slowly but noticeably been lagging behind the costs. My traffic has been down notably this year, and I think part of the reason is that newsletters and other email-based publishing have made blogs like mine less attractive and less intuitive. Traffic is not the only reason to blog, of course. But just to be honest, 3-4,000 words per month is a lot of work to do while you’re watching the stats nosedive.

But that’s not what I’ve become so tired. There are many other rewards to blogging. However, many of the rewards depend on what a writer wants to accomplish. For a while now I’ve had a slow burning feeling that I’ve accomplished basically all that I want to with my blog. The only direction for me from here, that I see, is to continue to churn out content while unceasingly investing in social media and trying to grow my platform through marketing. That direction is neither appealing nor plausible for me right now. So, all that to say, I need to make some changes.

The main change is that I will not be blogging for a while. Instead, for the foreseeable future I’m going to pursue writing fewer but more substantive articles for outside publications. Letter & Liturgy will stay exactly where it is, and I’ll pop in from time to time with links and updates, but the regular grind is stopping. The redesign serves this change.

I’m really excited about this. I think stepping away from the compulsion to post thousands of words of generalism every month will be good for my focus. To be transparent, I really need to stop prioritizing retweets and small spikes in blog traffic, and start prioritizing thinking slowly and deeply about (fewer) meaningful issues. As much as anything, this change is about cultivating a greater love in myself for writing and thinking, and choking out the love of constant publicity.

I’m so very thankful for the many encouraging comments I’ve received here and for the people I’ve been connected to through Letter & Liturgy. There’s no greater honor for a writer than to hear back from people who’ve benefited from his words. My contact info is now on the home page of this site and I sincerely hope you will keep in touch.

Looking forward to seeing you around!

Does Art Matter in a Pandemic?

The only way out of COVID-19 is toward the place where all the beauty comes from.

I’ve seen more than one Christian theologian in the blogosphere sneering at the federal government’s decision to dole out grants to arts organizations, as part of the historic coronavirus stimulus bill. One pastor said the grants were evidence of conspiratorial hysteria, or “covidiocy.” In an otherwise superb piece, Carl Trueman writes: “‘Redeeming the arts’ doesn’t seem quite so urgent when your immediate problem is not that of obtaining tickets to the Met but of potentially dying before the box office reopens after the COVID-19 crisis.” From what I can gather, the point is not about the particular worthiness of the National Endowment for the Arts, but about the self-evidently unimportant nature of art in general, which is obscured in times of wealth and ease but exposed during  crisis.

There’s a point here, to be sure. We take entertainment far too seriously and spend too much money and time on it. And Trueman is right to say that our elite aesthetes trivialize life. All variables being equal, it probably would be better for our collective souls if a few film studios were allowed to go bust.

Yet I’m not sure that a deathly plague is the correct launch point for reflecting on the futility of art. Trueman is absolutely right that the church must take seriously its charge to prepare believers for death and eternity, but is such seriousness opposed to something like “redeeming the arts”? I don’t think so, for a few reasons.

First, as Trueman himself notes, bad art has conditioned many in our culture to feel flippancy toward their existence. Good art, on the other hand, awakens our spiritual senses and makes us feel the weight and givenness of everything. If glib depiction of things like suicide and sex numb our moral imagination, good, true, and beautiful depictions can also animate it.

A couple nights ago I re-watched 1917 and was moved again by its visceral depiction of courage [warning: spoilers in this paragraph]. For me, the most powerful moment in the film is when Schofield happens upon a young woman living underneath a town engulfed in flames. She is caring for someone’s infant—she doesn’t know who. He calms the uneasy child and offers it some of the milk he found on the farm that was the site of his friend’s slow, agonizing death. The scene is unspeakably beautiful, and we wish it could go on–that Schofield could somehow escape from the flames of the Nazis and find solace in this dimly lit room. Yet he pulls himself away:”I have to go,” and the words have to reveal the kind of spirit that builds and defends civilizations.

That is the moral power of art. It is one thing to know that soldiers are brave. It is another thing to somehow imaginatively participate in the moments of such bravery. This is the kind of art that can help us prepare for our own deaths.

God invented art and he intended it to have this kind of power. That is why the Scriptures are full of stories, poetry, music, and parables. Failing to nurture our God-given, creative nature can have devastating consequences when we come to the Bible. As Russell Moore has noted, evangelicalism is worse off when believers emphasize rote Bible memory to the exclusion of allowing ourselves to be shaped by the story of redemption.

Second, I think we should be leery of pitting good things against one another. It is good that General Motors can switch its machines around to make ventillators instead of transmission lines. It should do that! But the current desirability of ventillators over transmission lines is not actually a statement about the worth of cars. After this virus has abated, the future flourishing of many will depend on those machines making cars once again.

Like Imrahil urging the Captains to leave behind a defense for Minas Tirith, we ought to use our time and resources to preserve what we will need after this crisis is over. We can debate how many dollars such a goal is worth in a federal stimulus. But dismissing artistic reflection brings us perilously close to the utilitarian reasoning of many contemporary universities that shutter their philosophy programs at the first sign of financial stress. Such decisions do not result in the end of philosophy, they simply ensure that Silicon Valley technocrats will be the only ones teaching it. Likewise, Christians deciding that the gospel doesn’t speak to art will not make movies and music less distracting, but it will mean that more are distracted by flippancy and materialism instead of by truth and beauty.

Here we must admit that we need discernment between the American value of efficiency and the Christian virtues. If efficiency were a Christian virtue, there would be nothing to mourn and everything to celebrate about being forced to livestream a sermon. The time it takes for believers to wake up on Sunday morning, get dressed, and lasso children (in the home and the Sunday school class) merely for the sake of sitting on hard seats with people they wouldn’t otherwise befriend is what the smart people would call a sunk cost. Yet the Bible tells us that something mysterious happens in that physical gathering—that somehow that disparate group of sinners can be in the presence of the King of the universe, commune with him, and bear each other’s sorrows and joys.

The danger in forgetting art is not that we will forget to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” but that we might forget what “as it is in heaven” even means. Let’s say instead with Lewis that the only way out of COVID-19 is toward the place where all the beauty comes from.

 

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.