Power and the Blood

The Mirror and the Light is a magnificent novel that finishes a magnificent series. I tend to struggle with contemporary fiction, but Hilary Mantel’s trilogy on Thomas Cromwell is so rich, so elegantly written that I couldn’t stop at any point. The depth of what Mantel has achieved is simply stunning, nothing less than a Tolstoy-esque artistic accomplishment. It’s a work of genius that I expect to reread for years to come.

What’s most interesting to me is the character of Cromwell himself, and how Mantel portrays the effect that power can have on someone unable to overcome their private sense of powerlessness. Mantel’s Cromwell used proximity to Henry VIII to further the cause of Protestantism in England, and in that he becomes much like Thomas More. But Cromwell also leveraged his authority to prop himself over against the slurs aimed at him because of his low birth. In this he becomes like Anne Boleyn: threatened into treason, manipulating the world around them to stave off fate and walking into it unawares. The three books in the series each end with beheadings: Thomas More, Anne Boleyn, then Cromwell. Mantel’s insight seems clear: these three lives are really one life, absorbed by the black hole that is power.

Can you do the Lord’s work in Henry VIII’s way? Mantel mostly steers away from explicit theological reflections on marrying the throne and altar, but her narrative brilliantly shows how the latter is almost always at the mercy of the former. One of Mirror’s best scenes is Henry’s “debate” with a Protestant “gospeller,” Robert Barnes, who denies transubstantiation. Cromwell supports Barnes; they both know the bread and wine are that and no more. Henry, though he has named himself Supreme Head of the church and executed those who object, still holds Roman sacramenentalism. Because Henry believes it, it is treason to deny it. Cromwell knows he could lend his support during Barnes’s trial, but he stays silent. When Cromwell is locked in the Tower on (questionable) allegations of treason, his fellow Protestant Thomas Cranmer has the opportunity to support, but likewise wilts. The halls of earthly power require self-preservation at the same junctures which the gospel calls for self-loss.

What’s unsettling about Mantel’s Cromwell is how ordinary he is. Some readers have objected to her sympathetic portrayal of a “hatchet man,” but I think that’s the point. We assume that only certain kinds of people can be twisted by the powers of their office. We assume politicians and judges are just born more prone to corruption than the rest of us. But lesson of the Wolf Hall trilogy is that people with humane, even evangelical aspirations can be seduced by the throne, a seduction that is fundamentally about survival (as Cromwell’s thoughts frequently betray). Cromwell, the abused son of a blacksmith, is an incredibly loyal person, but eventually that loyalty is leveraged in self-service so often that it cracks.

I’m not fond of simplistic takes about Christians and politics. It’s too easy to dismiss political power as irredeemably corrupting and insist that no true believer have anything to do with it. But this ignores both history and justice. On the other hand, Mantel’s journey through the rise and fall of Cromwell is a compelling parable about what usually happens to the human spirit when it is pressed by the demands and luxuries of authority. The world of the Tudors is of course a world in which “religious liberty” does not exist. The English-speaking world was Catholic and then it was Protestant, on the word of a capricious, power and sex-crazed sovereign. Contrast this with the founding of America. For all their (and our) moral failure, the founding fathers knew they were a group of potential Henrys, governing a society of would-be Cromwells. The beheading scaffold ends where the First Amendment begins. When theology sits on a throne, it almost always drops the gospel to pick up a sword.

Yet we are left at the end of The Mirror and the Light with a paradox. Many have been executed, but William Tyndale’s New Testament has gone forth. The king of England presumes to rule the church, but justification by faith is preached on the streets. Behold the mysterious sovereignty of God, who raises up kings and cuts them down, but whose church withstands the gates of hell.

Gentle and Lowly

I’ve had more conversations with friends about Dane Ortlund’s book Gentle and Lowly than I’ve had about any other book in the last several years. (Full disclosure: Gentle and Lowly is a Crossway title and I am an acquisitions editor for Crossway. I did not have any editorial, creative, or other role in that project.) Most of the conversations are identical: one of us expresses appreciation for the book, then superlatives spill out, and then we quote our favorite sections and tear up talking about our pasts and why the message of the book felt “new” even to people like us, raised in evangelical Christianity. I’ve seen very few books have this kind of emotional impact on readers.

And here’s the thing: There’s absolutely nothing new in the book! Dane is a wonderful writer and his style is indeed beautiful and comforting, but you will search its pages in vain for a bombshell principle or a groundbreaking framework. The book is page after page after page of quoting Scriptural passages that tell us how much Jesus Christ loves his children. A book like this should feel simple, repetitive, and predictable. The fact that it is flying off the shelves and ripping open so many heart wounds means something.

I’ve been telling people that I think it means something about the evangelical church right now. When I first read the manuscript for the book, months before it published, I knew its message was not something I had grown up regularly hearing. Again, it’s not a new message or even a new interpretation, but the emphasis of Gentle and Lowly—the idea that the heart of Jesus is irreparably bent toward and not away from his always-failing people—hit my soul as a radical message. I told a friend the other day that the unblushing way Dane describes the affection of Christ for Christians felt almost like covert liberalism the first time I read it. How ridiculous! And as I went on through the book, I realized that this feeling of being fed covert liberalism was a result of having never authentically tasted the love of Christ. It sounded wrong not because it sounded unbiblical or unorthodox, but because it sounded new. Why did it sound new? WIth all my decades of cultivating knowledge of the Bible through Sunday school, preaching, Bible drills, Bible college, and a lifetime spent in evangelical culture, I never once gained a comfort or familiarity with the ideas of this book. I think that’s probably worth thinking about.

Dane’s book argues that the dominant emphasis of a Christian’s life and thought should be on the way Christ feels about us. By contrast, the dominant emphasis in the evangelicalism I know is on our duties, in light of what Christ has done for us. A theology of sanctification premised on the latter sees the former as a threat, because taking the emphasis away from Christian obligation and giving it to Jesus’ love seems to denigrate the motivation to live a godly life. Everything in my Christian education pointed away from this kind of deep reflection on the heart of Christ. Rather than immersing myself in the promises that Jesus gives to me, my “method” of growing in Christ has been to identity each day my various obligations and try to keep them so as to keep my heart aligned with His. Most of the friends I’ve talked to about the book say this describes their life in evangelicalism as well. Yes, we know what grace is. Yes, we know Jesus loves us. But those aren’t the point. They are nice to have, but the point is what we do about it.

You don’t realize how exhausted and defeated and discouraged you are by this mentality until you get exposed to an alternative.

One last point. My friends and I have been wondering why the message in this book escaped us in our years spent in conservative Christianity. You could probably write another book just on that, but one answer I’ve confronted is that the performance-centered sanctification of much evangelicalism is very effective at giving a sense of control over other people. If we whole-heartedly accept the premise of Gentle and Lowly, it would transform the way we see other people, but in so doing it would rob us of comparison, legalism, and anger. If you’re like me, when you hear someone talk about the problems of judging and legalism, your guard automatically goes up! “Liberalism alert!” But that’s my point. Something in our theology and practice has conditioned us to resist what the Bible really says about how we treat others, the same way they’ve conditioned us to miss what the Bible says about Jesus. We sense heterodoxy here where there is none, not because the Bible is wrong but because our education was wrong and our intuitions are ill-formed. When we’re constantly on guard against people undermining the Bible’s moral commands (and that’s a real problem we ought to confront), we relegate other truths to irrelevance or toss them aside entirely. I don’t know if a culture warrior posture is incompatible with drinking deeply of the heart of Christ. I think for me, at least, the one has excluded the other.

The message of Gentle and Lowly is not just meant for individual relationships to Christ. Logically, it completely repaints how we see each other in our struggles, sins, and shortcomings. If the Jesus of this book is the real Jesus, then he’s the real Jesus for everyone, not just me. I think a church that really, authentically embraced this would look very strange, and probably threatening, to our religious eyes.

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.

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.

Why C.S. Lewis Was So Persuasive

A new book lays out why Lewis was such an effective communicator.

In the new book Seasoned Speech: Rhetoric in the Life of the Church, James Beitler III looks at C.S. Lewis’s rhetorical strategy to reflect on what made him so successful at rhetoric. Beitler ascribes to Lewis a rhetoric of goodwill, and fleshes this out in three different categories. Lewis was a powerful and effective communicator because he

1) Defined his audience and addressed them specifically

Beitler writes that Lewis was not afraid to be explicit about the kind of people whom he was addressing in a given context. By deciding who it was that he was most trying to reach, Lewis was able to craft his logical approach in a way that was specifically effective for that audience. This meant, among other things, deciding what particular angle his particular audience needed most, and then putting his ideas where that audience could best access them. Beitler writes, “Lewis’s observations speak to the necessity of learning about one’s audience members before addressing them, and his willingness to do such legwork is an important aspect of his rhetoric of goodwill.”

2) Asserted objective truth humbly.

Beitler points readers to Lewis’s writings on hell—especially The Great Divorce—as exemplifying Lewis’s attitude that truth mattered, and that he (Lewis) needed the truth spoken most of all. Lewis doesn’t divide the world into those who get it and those who should; rather, he preaches intellectual and spiritual repentance to everyone, and to himself most of all. Granting that Lewis could be arrogant (in a footnote, Beitler cites scholarship testifying as much), Beitler finds in Lewis a persistent unwillingness to see himself as better than the ones to whom he was writing.

3) “Cultivated communities of goodwill.”

Lewis practiced the art of friendship. His intellectual work was not created in a vacuum but emerged from relationships in which Lewis practiced the virtues and mercies of grace. Lewis sought out the presence and advice of others, was generous with his critics, and showed kindness and tenderness to his students. On at least one occasion Lewis declined a publisher’s financial offer because he didn’t want to write the scathing review they sought. In other words, Lewis was not simply made of pure logic, but a Christian who lived out the beauty of Christianity and made its claims appeal to the imaginations of those who knew him.

Beitler’s essay on Lewis’s rhetoric is outstanding, and I’m enjoying the rest of the book. By laying out Lewis’s rhetorical effectiveness so plainly, Beitler offers the church at large a model to aspire to. Lewis was indeed brilliant, but that’s not why God used him.


photo credit: CS Lewis sculpture, Belfast (3)
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Albert Bridgegeograph.org.uk/p/2826954

Rules of Love

Review of “The Common Rule” by Justin Whitmel Earley

Justin Whitmel Earley. The Common Rule: Habits of a Purpose for an Age of Distraction. IVP Books, 199 pages, $18.00.

The Common Rule is the kind of book that, if its prescription is taken seriously, can probably save lives. I mean that literally. A passing awareness of the news is enough to know about the surge in depression, anxiety, and suicide among millennials, particularly professional, college-educated ones. Without any sweeping claims or controversial analysis, The Common Rule meekly presents a powerful, life-saving antidote to a restless culture that’s choking on minutia and starving for meaning. One’s only quibble would be that this is more a potent dose than a full supply.

Near the beginning of his book, Justin Earley recounts the story of a severe nervous breakdown. While an ambitious career was beginning in law school, Earley intentionally structured his life around being as available, as “connected,” and as active as possible. Convictionally, he was a Christian who believed in the worship of Jesus, but habitually, he became a worshiper of doing. “I now see that my body had finally become converted to the anxiety and busyness I’d worshiped through my habits and routine. All the years of a schedule built on going nonstop to try to earn my place in the world had finally rubbed off on my heart.” This insight is crucial to the logic of The Common Rule: We are being formed not only in the image of what we believe but what we practice. Our habits don’t just reveal our beliefs, they shape them. A more theologically profound book on this topic is James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You Love, but where Smith is most concerned about changing our understanding of and attitude toward habit, Earley offers an impressively thorough, and helpfully actionable, set of practices.

The “common rule” that the title refers to is a set of four daily habits and four weekly habits. Together, the eight habits form a concise, systematic rule of life for maintaining spiritual, relational, moral, and physical health. The greatest strength of the Common Rule, its specificity, is also its greatest weakness. Many of the practices of the Common Rule depend on a certain middle-class, information-economy lifestyle that many but not all Christians share. For example, the weekly rule “Curate media to four hours” is perhaps too rife with an American, upwardly mobile subtext to really mean something to especially poor or especially non-Western believers. Similarly, much of the book’s effectiveness will depend on how much readers feel distracted by digital devices or burnt out by an oppressive daily rhythm.

But of course, many American Christians do feel that way, and for them too many books about intellectual health in an omni-connected era are little more than data points mixed with self-evident truisms. Even the good books tend to try too hard to be “revolutionary” and end up offering a binary choice between technology and flourishing. A helpful, recently released general market book on this topic, Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, is persuasive and insightful, but several of Newport’s recommended practices are extreme and likely unfeasible for the very readers who most need their benefits.

Earley’s approach is far more about creating habits than erasing them. For example, Earley rightly extols interpersonal relationship in pushing back against the disembodied communication of the internet. The Common Rule thus commends one daily meal with others and one weekly, hour-long conversation with a friend. These may sound like minor, even trivial, guidelines. But that’s exactly the point. Ours is a technological time in which even the most trivial human interactions are being annihilated. Just as how we never stop needing basic theology and spiritual disciplines, we never stop needing just an hour’s worth of conversation with a being who can look us in the eye, not in the avatar. In refusing to make The Common Rule a revolutionary manifesto, Earley has made it into something more personal, more practical, and more helpful.

Earley understands that the “distraction” at the heart of 21st century life is actually a deep confusion about what a person is. An exclusive diet of digital relationships and trivial mass media frustrates and grieves us because human beings are image-bearers created for glory, not efficiency machines. The first practice of The Common Rule is a kneeling prayer three times per day, a habit that physically reminds us of the dust from where we come and of the Creator to whom we must speak and from whom we must hear. Earley’s chapter on prayer convicted me deeply of my own indifference toward the presence and word of God throughout my day. Something is going to frame my morning, afternoon, and evening. If that is not time with the Lord, what will it be?

My only critique is the somewhat low-shelf theological reflection. There are some really good sections about identity formation and beholding the world (“We become what or who we reflect…We can’t become ourselves by ourselves. The way we discover ourselves is by staring at someone else.”), but the book’s heavily practical focus leaves some important issues unsolved. I would have loved to see a chapter that weaved the 8 Common Rule practices into a thread of worship. Habits always coexist beside loves, and the Christian life defines flourishing in terms of worshiping the One who is worthy of worship, and patterning our lives worshipfully. One hopes for a future expansion of The Common Rule along these lines.

For a long time I believed that spontaneity was a synonym for happiness. As I’ve gotten a little bit older, I’m come to realize the truth at the heart of The Common Rule: My heart needs people, places, and practices that sink deeply into the ground of my life and stay there. For desperate believers who are tired of spiritual lingo peppering life that’s really devoted to becoming more like a machine, The Common Rule offers a badly needed alternative. Here’s hoping this conversation continues and does not stop anytime soon.

Christian Wisdom Amid the Gurus

Looking for Christian wisdom in the bestsellers.

Dave Ramsey, Jordan Peterson, and Rachel Hollis are, each in their own way, three of our modern gurus. They’re a diverse group that reflects particular personalities of modern culture. Peterson is the philosophical academic, Hollis the Instagram celebrity, and Ramsey the folksy, financial counseling version of Dr. Phil. Their books don’t just sell; they live atop the bestsellers lists for years at a time. Hollis’s last two books are both currently in Amazon’s top 5. Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life has sold 10 million copies since late 2017. You have scroll a bit further to find Ramsey’s manifesto The Total Money Makeover (and its various spin-offs), but then again, Ramsey’s radio show has been reaching millions of listeners since the George W. Bush administration. Continue reading “Christian Wisdom Amid the Gurus”

Get On My Lawn

The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness.

In chapter five of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport recites a familiar but enlightening distinction. Drawing from Sherry Turkle, Newport pits Connection against Conversation. Connection is digital interaction; it’s a category of social experience that is low-grade, easy, fast, and mostly impersonal (e.g., it avoids things like facial expressions and vocal cues). Conversation is human-with-human time, an exchange of physical identities and characteristics in the course of talking. A conversation is what you have when a friend drops by for a visit, and connection is what you have when you Like or comment on that friend’s photo. Newport’s essential argument throughout Digital Minimalism is that, for the modern tech user, balancing these experiences is almost impossible, because each one requires time, and time spent on one is time taken away from the other.

I’ll have more to say about the book in the weeks ahead. But I was intrigued by the intense contrast Newport draws between connection and conversation, and the way this contrast reveals how important place is to his entire digital minimalist project. There’s no separating conversation from place, because conversation depends on the people near you, in this moment, wherever you are physically. There is no such thing as place-less conversation, and there’s no such thing as local digital connection, because the digital medium necessarily dislocates users.

If you know a little something about the history of Facebook, this point is very important. Facebook was originally structured to be a platform within specific places, called Networks. In the early days of Facebook Networks were everything; you couldn’t even join the site unless you applied for membership in a Network. The original Networks were colleges, then cities. When I joined Facebook in the summer of 2007, the site required me to indicate I was in Louisville, Kentucky’s network. In addition to curating a list of “People You May Know” from mutual networks, the network requirement—at least in its own way—tethered the experience of Facebook to place. It gave place something of an honorary role as gatekeeper for social experience. Nominally, you could not experience Facebook without belonging to a particular place.

Facebook dropped the Network requirement shortly after I registered my account. Without the Network requirement, anyone could join Facebook, and Facebook was now its own “community” instead of a digital tool for experiencing your community. The point of Facebook became one’s relationship to the site, not one’s relationship to specific people in particular places. Almost every major ill that Facebook has spilled into the public square is downstream of this change. The loss of Networks was representative of the transformation of Facebook from a site that facilitated social interaction to a one that encouraged isolation, advertising, and artificial relationships. The truest, most natural experience of Facebook now is not achieved out in the offline world, meeting friends whom you can “connect” with later. The authentic Facebook experience now is being constantly logged in, attending to one’s own digital ID and trying to master Facebook’s ever-shifting algorithms that create the impression of “good content.” We are left with connection for connection’s sake, which is to say, we are left with a platform instead of a network.

By “overcoming” place, Facebook thrust users into nowhere. The same ways that place constricts our relational bandwidth are the ways in which it richly rewards it. You cannot have the humane joys of place without also experiencing its power to locate you here instead of there, with these people rather than those people. The alternative to place is not omnipresence and omni-connectedness. It is nowhereness: ephemeral “connection” that demands addiction to self-consciousness in exchange for minute sensations of digital belonging.

Look Up, Child

The next Josh Harris should grow up in an evangelical culture that values consistent faithfulness rather than momentary coolness.

In a post today about Joshua Harris’s new documentary I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye, Tim Challies makes a very helpful observation about the mid-1990s evangelical pandemonium that made Harris and his most famous book into a “weird” moment for conservative American Protestants:

I think I was just a little too old and just a little too far outside the evangelical mainstream to be significantly impacted by I Kissed Dating Goodbye…But I do remember thinking this: Who on earth lets a twenty-one-year-old write the book on dating and courtship? Who allows someone that young to be an authority on something so important? Though I always had problems with the book, I never had a beef with Josh. I had a beef with the masses of Christians who would blindly accept it and with the Christian celebrity machine that elevated someone so young to a position of such authority. No, authority does not come through experience. But even Harris admits that he was a young man who believed far too much in his own abilities, just like every other twenty-one-year-old out there. In the film he says that when he was that age he was sure he had all the answers. But now, in his early forties, he knows that he didn’t then and still doesn’t today.

This is, I think, a reality about Harris’s book that is seriously under-discussed. Using I Kissed Dating Goodbye and its influence as a shorthand for the harmful legacy of purity culture is a more click-worthy approach, and there is some truth in it (promising more satisfying intimacy as a reward for chastity is, erm, not in the Bible), but where is the broader discussion about why a 23 year old would even have the opportunity to create such a formative moment for so many evangelicals? This isn’t to imply that 23 year olds have nothing good to say and should never be given publishing contracts, conference engagements, or public platforms. It is to imply that for an unmarried 23 year old man to write a manifesto on dating and sex is, in a very real way, an indictment on those churches and parachurch organizations that encouraged (and financed) such a radical reversal of generational discipleship.

Mainstream culture craves the leadership of children. It’s why the arc of digital history now bends toward 13 year old viral celebrities whose parents haven’t a clue. It’s why kids frequently get co-opted in culture war, by both the Sexual Revolutionary Left and the Values Voter Right. There is a lot of money and a lot of influence to be had by atomizing family life into non-overlapping categories of experience; kids have their “kid stuff,” teens have their “teen stuff,” adults have everything the kids and teens don’t want. This intensely commercialized structure creates an enormous opportunity—find a child or teen who talks or acts like an adult, and you have an amazingly lucrative spectacle on your hands, since teens who use grown up words and ideas to describe their own experiences are doubly valuable as influencers of both other teens and adults who want to understand teens.

This is par for the course in late capitalism. Unfortunately, it’s also common in evangelicalism. When the eventual publisher of Harris’s book was considering his pitch, I’m almost positive the argument that won the day was that a book against dating, by a twentysomething in the prime of his dating years, was going to make a huge splash because it was so counter-intuitive for both peers and parents. Did anyone in the chain of decision making consider the theological wisdom of letting such a young author (who was neither married nor a parent, the two most formative experiences possible in these questions) draw such deep lines in the sand? They may have, but I do wonder whether there was so much attention given to the wave-making potential of a child preacher that such concern rang hollow.

What Harris is saying today, via an apology tour, a documentary, and a pretty thick social media campaign, is that he spoke too soon. He’s not the same person he was twenty years ago, and he doesn’t believe the things he believed then. Should this really be an unsettling thing to hear? Is it even possible to go from 23 to 43 without radically refining our worldview, especially on those things that are so deeply intertwined with lived experience (dating, marriage, sex, parenting)?

Of course it’s not possible. God has not designed life that way. Instead, he has designed life and faith to require what Alan Jacobs calls “temporal bandwidth,” a humble awareness of the inadequacies of our own wisdom and the conscious consultation of older generations for perspective and guidance. This is the path of wisdom, a wisdom embedded into our own anatomy, since our bodies are designed to reproduce only after several years of growth. Generational depth is our Creator’s wise intention, and to the degree that we flout this design through commercialization of discipleship and demographic greed, we sacrifice the well being of ourselves and our neighbors.

Of course, by now you are probably hoping I’ll throw some numbers out there and argue for some sort of “age of prophetic-ness.” But I can’t do that. Hard and fast rules are sometimes what we need, and other times what we need is to be brought back to the complexity of life and the need for wise posture rather than rigid position.

So here’s a possibly wise posture: Evangelical churches, ministries, publishers, websites, conferences, et al, should not value what the outside world values. They should not dice up life into demographic points. They should, rather, follow the pattern in the New Testament and let seasoned saints teach younger ones, more experienced believers lead the way, and value consistency over coolness. The flavor of evangelical discipleship should be aged rather than hip. Of course there will be valuable young voices, teens and twentysomethings who should not be looked down on account of their youth, but allowed to be an example for the church. But this ought not be the fuel that drives our engines. The next Josh Harris should be told to look up, before looking out.

Evangelical Christianity and the Teen Depression Epidemic

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have written an important new book titled The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. It’s a lucid, eye-opening and (in my opinion) convincing work. I’ll have more to say about it in a future post. But I wanted to highlight a particular chapter that left me absolutely gobsmacked—and very worried about how evangelical churches are(n’t) responding to it.

One of Haidt and Lukianoff’s premises is that iGen, the generation that came of age in the late 2000s and accounts for most undergraduate students today, is exhibiting extraordinary levels of anxiety and depression. iGen’s mental and emotional struggles are a key component of the “coddling” ethos of the modern US college campus, the ethos that promotes “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and administrative over-protection of students. In the authors’ view, because iGen students are entering college with these struggles, they expect and receive a disproportionate amount of deference from college administrators. This deference, though, is misguided, and it feeds the students’ perception that they are fragile and that the world outside them is threatening and must be held at bay—which in turn increases anxiety and emotional suffering.

Put aside for a moment whether you track with that argument (I do, but that’s for a later post). What Haidt and Lukianoff suggest is that there is a serious mental health crisis with young Americans, so serious that it has substantially transformed the philosophy and administration of centuries-old colleges and universities. If they are right, then I would submit that the anxiety and depression of a whole generation of Americans merits the focused attention of Christians and churches no less than their sociopolitical views or churchgoing habits.

Using data from the CDC, the authors put together a chart on adolescent depression rates that floored me:

According to the data, in 2011 about 11% of adolescent girls reported having had a “major depressive episode in the past year.” By 2016, that number had reached 19%. In other words, the depression rate for adolescent girls nearly doubled in just five years. For adolescent boys, the depression rate did not spike this dramatically, but it has risen. In fact, the suicide rate for adolescent boys has spiked:

From 1999 to 2007, the suicide rate for adolescent boys went on a fairly consistent trajectory downwards. Around 2008, however, the story is flipped: A consistent upward trajectory that results in an almost 20-year high suicide rate in 2016.

I’ve been trying to get my mind around these statistics, and there’s something I can’t stop thinking about. Having been raised in evangelical church culture my entire life, and having quite a bit of experience in youth ministry and outreach, I don’t believe I ever, once, read or watched any treatise on discipling teens that emphasized anxiety and depression. I saw a lot on virginity, drugs, peer pressure, and the like, but never anything substantial about pointing the gospel directly and explicitly at these emotional and mental struggles. If the church hasn’t been helping here, who has?

Answer: Schools. I’m starting to believe that in the absence of serious attention to anxiety and depression within evangelical approaches to ministry, students have found their best resource in the guidance counselors and administrators of their schools. This has handed public education institutions a singular crisis that these administrators are unable to handle with anything more meaningful or life-giving than the creation of safe spaces. Conservative evangelicals like myself who rigorously criticize contemporary campus culture must awaken to the reality that this culture was created because spiritual and emotional problems went unaddressed by the people and places most in a position to offer help—not to mention the people and places that literally receive money to help!

Is there any serious movement afoot within evangelicalism to address anxiety and depression? If not, how can we blast the coddling of the American mind on college campuses, a coddling that very well may have roots in the silence of our culture’s Christian ministers on what amounts to an epidemic in our society? My thinking here is straightforward. Pastors and church leaders: think of anxiety and depression as just as real, just as serious, and just as worthy of your preaching, counseling, and attention as pornography, abortion, transgenderism, and divorce. Youth leaders: If you’re assuming that your students need help in overcoming temptation to sexual immorality, you should also assume that they need help in overcoming depression and emotional distress. We need within churches a culture of help, not of ignorance. The evidence is staring right at us.