Why Facebook Failed

During the summer before my freshman year of college I registered for a Facebook account. Since I wasn’t yet a student at any of the schools whose “network” Facebook required all users to join, I had to pick a regional network, in my case Louisville, Kentucky. I immediately added friends from high school, church, summer camp, etc. Almost overnight the friendships that were ordinarily built around structured, shared times—like college classes—grew into 24/7 connectedness. I learned about my friends through posts and photos, and most exciting of all, relationship status updates. When I think back to the first couple years of Facebook I invariably think of the same ten or so people who made it rewarding for me. Facebook brought me further up and further into a community I desired. At times it felt unreal, but most other times it felt like it made the real times more real.

This past spring, roughly 12 years after registering for Facebook, I decided there wasn’t any point to it anymore. I deleted my profile and haven’t looked back. Though it took me until now to do it, deactivating was surprisingly easy, even routine. There just wasn’t a sense of loss. The thrill was gone.

In the early days Facebook was charming and rewarding. I logged in with a naively hopeful expectation of seeing something happy. Something close to the opposite is true now. Facebook has become a slog, a digital membership I kept for years not out of delight or even usefulness but out of serfdom to Mark Zuckerberg’s reign over the writer’s economy. For me, it’s not even ultimately about the obnoxious polarization or “fake news.” Sure, those are ills, as is Facebook’s appalling use of data. But I confess I could probably live with all those things. Facebook’s sins don’t alienate me nearly as much as its nature. There was something about the experience of social media ten years ago that was almost beautiful in its own way. Now it feels hollow beyond redemption.

Many younger Facebook users have no possible way of understanding how different the site was around 2008-2010. It’s common nowadays to refer to Facebook as part of someone’s “platform,” and that word helpfully reveals the transformation I’m talking about. Once upon a time the experience of Facebook was very much the experience of a “network,” ie, a place where people were put into contact with one another and the point of the site was to facilitate some kind of mutuality. This was evidenced by Facebook’s requirement in the beginning that new users join a preexisting college group as part of their registration. This process mapped Facebook users into a specific location and helped the website facilitate something genuinely local. Flawed? Misleading? Certainly. But still, it was a kind of community, something that at least vaguely resembled or at least supported offline friendship.

Now, Facebook is a platform, not a network. As Michael Brendan Doughtery points out, what Facebook most resembles is a multimedia publishing company, except one not bound by the same laws as actual publishing companies. It’s a tool for individuals to bolster themselves in a digital economy. This can be literal, as in the cases of people who use Facebook professionally and flood the newsfeeds of those who “Like” their page; or it can be metaphorical, as in the case of normal Facebook users who nonetheless use the page almost exclusively to initiate some sort of self-serving interaction with others (I confess that for at least the past 2 or 3 years, this is basically how I was using the site). In the not too distant past you could scroll endlessly through your Facebook “feed without any clicking—or even seeing—any external links. Multi-level marketing, bloggers, and sensational “fake news” headlines have obliterated this experience beyond recall.

The question is why. Is it because people have changed in the past ten years and this is what they are genuinely after nowadays? Or is it that Facebook has steadily configured its website to reward people who use it a platform and punish people who want to use it as a network?

Facebook’s recent ad campaign in response to controversy over its use of data and political content is a clever acknowledgement that the site isn’t what it used to be. But fake news and political overload are symptoms, not causes. They’re symptoms of Facebook’s overall structural evolution, from a site designed to put you in close proximity with people in your life to a site that replaces you with itself.

The best example of this is Facebook’s notification system. In a previous life, a notification from Facebook was almost always to let you know that something meaningful had happened on your page: Someone asked to be your friend, someone wrote on your “wall” (an appealingly spatial term that has been replaced with ephemeral Big Data jargon, “timeline”), someone tagged you in a photo, or invited you to an event (that wasn’t a sales pitch). Again, depending on when you started using Facebook, you may have zero idea the kind of site I’m describing.

Somewhere along the road Facebook decided it would use its notification system to drive us insane—or, more accurately, to drive our attention and our money into the waiting arms of third party developers. We started getting notifications when someone we didn’t know commented on a photograph 3 days after we did, or when a “friend” we barely spoke to needed to send invites in order to get fake tokens for the game they were playing, or (my personal un-favorite) whenever someone was merely “interested” in attending some event within 100 miles of you. In 2008 a notification on Facebook meant something happened that merited a response from you. In 2019, a notification means that Facebook thinks you should spend more time on the site.

Lifting its signature “network” requirement was a crucial first step that signaled the trade-offs that would happen as a social network became a ridiculously lucrative media platform. The reason Facebook thrived even in the years when it required a preexisting network membership was that such a requirement made Facebook a valuable social commodity. People want to belong, and they wanted to belong to Facebook only because the real people with whom they already wanted to belong also belonged to it. In this way Facebook was actually a remarkably intuitive technology: An online gateway to offline membership.

Almost every major technological or aesthetic decision Facebook has made since has severed the connection between online and offline. Consider the site’s decision to combine its messaging feature and its inline chat feature. When Facebook introduced Chat around 2009, it was an obvious idea that made sense given the value of instant messaging. For several years there was a difference between receiving a chat and receiving a message. A chat was like a text message. An inbox message was more like an email—more personalized, thought-out, and less spontaneous.

Facebook eliminated this distinction from their system several years ago. A chat is now automatically archived as an inbox message, and an inbox message appears (if the recipient hasn’t turned off the chat feature) as a chat. This may seem insignificant at first, but it’s actually a very revealing feature. Facebook’s developers decided that it wasn’t in the site’s best interest to assume that people might use an instant messaging feature differently than they use an inbox. Why not? Because such a distinction assumes that Facebook can be used differently for different purposes. That’s not what Facebook’s developers want to happen. They want a Facebook that is creating and dictating the user experience, not serving it. Collapsing the distinction between an IM and an email is a good way to encourage people to always be reachable on the platform.

Facebook is thus mostly about itself, not about the people on the other side of the screen. There’s a reason Facebook is now overrun with people trying to sell stuff: that’s what this kind of technology is actually good for. Facebook’s design is now a naked attempt to cultivate addiction, and addiction and marketing have always gone hand-in-hand (“A man with an addiction is a man with very little sales-resistance,” wrote C.S. Lewis). In the absence of being truly connected with friends and family, tech users look for emotional fulfillment in buying and selling, in political diatribes and personal brand building. Meanwhile, the clicks just keep coming.

Nostalgia for Facebook’s more sanguine days reminds me of the conversation many Christians are having about classical liberalism. Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed, Rod Dreher’s bestseller The Benedict Option, Jake Meador’s new In Search of the Common Good, and other books and articles all describe a cultural transformation similar in spirit to the transformation of Facebook. These writers describe the deterioration of solid institutions and meaningful civil life in favor of a “liquid modernity,” an absolute autonomous freedom that is self-evidently ultimate. Affluence, libertine individualism, and social mobility quickly eroded and replaced it with the atomized, therapeutic self-determination that dominates our contemporary society.

I’m wondering if Facebook’s slow burn from a social network into a multi billion-dollar media platform might be some kind of symbol or symptom for this much larger (and of course, more important) cultural shift. Why did my experience of Facebook downgrade like it did? The first answer is that Facebook changed. Chasing profits and clicks, it fell into an all-too-familiar, all-too-American pattern of trying to create customers who served the product rather than a product that served its customers. This is, in a crude way, the failure of liberalism (or, if you prefer Deneen’s explanation, its success). Liberalism begins on the premise that it is meeting inalienable human needs of liberty, and it ends by creating people who are permanently indentured to morally empty social order. Facebook’s algorithms favor people who choose to manipulate them through outrage and compulsion. Liberalism’s anticulture, its own kind of algorithm, likewise favors those who can most efficiently exploit the freedoms of others.

Perhaps Facebook, in its own way, typifies the critique of classical liberalism. It’s become an engorged technology that feasts on the shortened attention spans and withered credulity of its users. Yet the site itself is succeeding marvelously, because its algorithms do with astonishing efficiency precisely what they’re designed to do: Minimize the personal and the beautiful while maximizing the perceived value of the site. Meanwhile, the only thing that can puncture Facebook’s PR is high profile scandal, like the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, much like the only serious reconsideration of American cultural mores usually comes through economic disaster or something like the #MeToo epidemic. Facebook’s response to scandal is to produce sympathetic ads while trying to get banks to fork over their clients’ personal info. Our sociopolitical response to scandal is not much better: More diversity seminars, more HR training, more outsourcing of our moral and intellectual work to corporations and pop culture—while we remain as indifferent to our inherent dysfunctions as Facebook is toward their algorithms. Our mobile society is lonely and fragmented, and ironically, all you have to do is spend a couple hours “connecting” on Facebook to experience it.

Will Facebook will ever become a substantially better experience than it is right now? That’s hard to say. Stacking the odds against it are Facebook’s gargantuan profitability and domineering of the news economy. It’s rare to see a corporation that monetizes its worst tendencies this effectively backtrack. The reason it’s difficult to imagine a better Facebook is the same reason many critics of contemporary liberalism cannot imagine a genuine renewal of our public life; repentance is always hard, but its doubly so when you have to repent from something you’re really good at.

And yet, unlike Facebook, the public square is still salted by the gospel and its army of churches, filled with the refugees of a disenchanted age. On Facebook there is only the power to curate. In the world outside we must confront un-curated reality, and come to terms with a bloody world that demands a bloody salvation. The best Facebook can offer is to help us meet up with our fellow man. The best Christ can offer is to come to us himself. Any critique of classical liberalism that doesn’t explicitly locate the remedy in the person, work, and community of Jesus, fails.

Years ago, my friends and I would laugh as we thought about what it would be like to still be on Facebook as adults with children. We were so busy laughing at the idea that we hardly noticed when it actually happened. I want more for my two-year-old son than the empty promises of going viral, accumulating “Likes” and being sucked in an endless algorithm. Yet I have to confess that the thought of his going off to college and not having a Facebook for me to keep up with is a sad thought. I can’t say definitively what his experience of the digital world will be like. But I’m pretty sure it will be a mixed bag that requires him to constantly reassess his heart, weigh his time, and choose the true, good, and beautiful above all. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s really what we should be doing all the time—especially when logged in.

The Empathy Trap

Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle.

A few days ago my friend and brilliant writer Joe Rigney published a piece at Desiring God titled “The Enticing Sin of Empathy.” Provocative? Yes, and to be honest, my first response when I saw the title was, “Uh, no.” I balked at the suggestion that what we should be talking about in an age of intense polarization, shame storms, and racial and ideological violence is the sin of empathy. Obviously this was a case of someone trying too hard, no?

But as I read the satirical demonic letter  (in the spirit of The Screwtape Letters), the scales began to fall. Here’s how Rigney’s Screwtape describes the difference between empathy and compassion:

Think of it this way: the Enemy’s virtue of compassion attempts to suffer with the hurting while maintaining an allegiance to the Enemy. In fact, it suffers with the hurting precisely because of this allegiance. In doing so, the Christians are to follow the example of their pathetic and repulsive Master. Just as the Enemy joined the humans in their misery in that detestable act of incarnation, so also his followers are to join those who are hurting in their misery.

However, just as the Enemy became like them in every way but sin, so also his followers are not permitted to sin in their attempts to comfort the afflicted. Thus, his compassion always reserves the right not to blaspheme. It seeks the sufferer’s good and subordinates itself to the Enemy’s abominable standard of Truth.

Our alternative, empathy, shifts the focus from the sufferer’s good to the sufferer’s feelings, making them the measure of whether a person is truly “loved.” We teach the humans that unless they subordinate their feelings entirely to the misery, pain, sorrow, and even sin and unbelief of the afflicted, they are not loving them.

In other words, compassion multiplies sufferers, but empathy consumes all fellowship into the feelings of one. In the economy of empathy there is no currency except the sufferer’s own interpretation of their suffering; any other alm offered up is illegitimate. Compassion grabs hold (in one of Rigney’s metaphors) of sinking sufferers while keeping a firm grasp on that which is immovable, so that the sinking sufferer can be pulled up onto something. Empathy dives headlong in the quicksand. The point is not finding life after suffering. There is no point, except the experience of the moment. What we’re talking about is simply the abdication of pursuing the right and true in deference to feelings and experiences.

Now, even typing that previous sentence feels strange. It feels strange because for a while now the idea that feelings and experiences do not dictate what we should believe or do is an idea that has been lumped—lumped in with bombastic right-wing pundits (“Facts don’t care about your feelings”), scowling John Wayne boomers, and careless theologians. This is one of the essential difficulties of thinking in a polarized, culture war age: It’s impossible to believe anything that isn’t somehow trademarked by an obnoxious tribe.

But the difficulty of thinking is not an excuse for failing to try, and if we’re willing to listen, I think Joe is making a crucially important point about the empathy trap and the power it wields over many.

This empathy trap was on display in evangelical social media this week. On Sunday, president Donald Trump appeared onstage at McLean Bible Church, and pastor David Platt prayed with and for him. Joe Carter has a helpful summary of the background of the event, as well as a full transcript of Platt’s prayer. Nearly everyone seems to agree that Platt’s prayer was excellent. It was steadfastly non-partisan and unequivocal about the gospel. But did Platt make a serious error of judgment in allowing Trump to come onstage, in praying for him, and (perhaps most of all) in not forcefully shaming and rebuking him for his politics?  Since the moment resulted in some not-negative PR for Trump, and since Platt did not use the opportunity to challenge the president, a very vocal, very passionate group has reasoned that this obviously caused trauma and offense to many members of Platt’s church (and others).

It is, of course, entirely coherent to hold that a pastor must never allow a politician to be onstage at church. I’m actually sympathetic to that view and imagine that, all variables being equal, such a policy would probably solve a lot of problems at once. But nobody appears to be arguing from absolute principle that Platt was wrong to pray with Trump onstage. Instead, because it was Trump, it was wrong. The argument expressed so far has to do with the felt offense of members of Platt’s church at watching their pastor pray for a president they abhor.

The Platt drama reveals two of the biggest dangers of unchecked empathy. First, empathy is by definition selective (empathize with NeverTrump, or his supporters in the church?); thus it’s uniquely vulnerable to being held captive by passing fads, trends, and mobs. Much of the fiercest criticism of Platt seems to be deeply self-congratulatory, reverberating with Retweets and Likes in echo chambers that consistently take the ungenerous interpretation of a white evangelical pastor’s stage time with Donald Trump. Nary a thought is offered for the complexities of being a pastor of a politically diverse congregation, and the wisdom in refraining from partisan language and simply pointing the church and the president to the gospel.

Second, this kind of empathetic absolutism runs serious risk of becoming a ruthlessly utilitarian way of doing life and theology. Matthew Vines built an entire case for Christian LGBT affirmation on the basis of the hurt and alienation of gay Christians from traditional churches. “Bad trees bear bad fruit,” he wrote, an analogy that fails logically but succeeds emotionally. It’s not hard to see how a one-note emphasis on the feelings of others can become a mechanism for controlling revelation, particularly in the hyper-democratic and hyper-individualistic superstructure of online life.

The alternative, as Joe writes, is compassion. There should be much compassion for those who fall into the empathy trap, since, where compassion is lacking, unchecked empathy often rushes to fill the void. There is a true dearth of compassion in both secular and Christian culture—tribalism when there should be honesty, shaming when there should be help, and politics when there should be prayer. The inability to even mention these dynamics without seeing conservative backs stiffen is why the empathy trap is hard to resist. Yet resist it we should, in the name of wisdom and eternity. Empathizing without thinking is easy, like diving headlong into quicksand. Compassion with conviction requires muscle, to hold a hand on one end and keep a grip on solid ground with the other.

The best I can tell, David Platt was put into a demanding position and asked to make a potentially explosive decision. In the end, he shared the stage with a seriously morally problematic leader and did nothing else but echo the exhortations of the Caesar-submissive Paul. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a political leader and feeling offense at his views or conduct, but there’s everything wrong with imputing that offense to the gospel itself and demanding that churches only obey 1 Timothy 2:2 through gritted teeth and scorn. Bible-trumping partisanship crouches at both GOP and Democratic doors, and it’s not less of a tragedy for it to master one tribe over another.

We must still master it. To that end, I don’t think we could do much better than to pray alongside David Platt: “Please, O God, help us to look to you, help us to trust in your Word, help us to seek your wisdom, and live in ways that reflect your love and your grace, your righteousness and your justice.”

Evangelicals and the (Complex) Persecution Complex

Conversations about American Christians and religious liberty are dysfunctional to the core.

Bonnie Kristian surely writes for almost all in the journalist class when she ridicules Mike Pence’s comments about Christians and religious freedom. “This is the evangelical persecution complex in action,” she writes, and “suggests an embarrassing ignorance of history and the teachings of Christ alike, and to those outside the church it unquestionably reads more as whining than witness.” I’m not sure whether by “those outside the church” Kristian means everyone who isn’t an evangelical Christian, or everyone who is sympathetic to progressive politics whenever they collide with Christian conviction. If she means the second, she’s definitely right. If she means the first, she might be surprised at the religious non-Christians who also feel threatened.

Anyway, Kristian’s argument is a familiar one. She says that 1) Christians have historically been persecuted (and are currently persecuted around the world), so Pence’s implicit nostalgia is misleading; 2) the gospel promises opposition to genuine faith, so Pence’s call to political culture war is at odds with Jesus’ teachings; and 3) Christians actually enjoy power and privilege in the United Sates, so Pence is simply lying in suggesting to young believers they are being actively discriminated against. She concludes, “For Christians here in the United States, this sort of rhetoric has a “boy who cried wolf” effect where religious liberty issues are concerned.”

With regard to Pence’s comments, I think Kristian is understandably cynical, but her argument has problems. First, from the manuscript, it looks to me as if Pence was careful to avoid saying that American Christians are persecuted in the same sense that Christians across the globe are. Rather, he said that while the church global is often persecuted, American evangelicals face intolerance and social pressure to capitulate—something that feels self-evidently true in the post-Obergefell era. Second, she seems to imply that political influence and economic privilege rule out any kind of meaningful prejudice. But how does that square with her reminder that Christ promised that his followers would regularly experience enmity? If any political capital rules out any form of persecution, is the conclusion that Barronnelle Stutzman and Jack Phillips must not be genuine believers?

The problem, though, is not really Kristian’s argument, nor Pence’s. The problem is that the entire conversation about religious persecution is dysfunctional to the core.  If there’s a better contemporary example of the genetic fallacy and the age of lumping than the issue of religious liberty, I can’t think of it. It’s absolutely soaked in out-grouping and gainsaying those whom your tribe dislikes, no matter what they’re saying.

My suspicion is that there are many fair-minded people who know that Christian universities are facing authentic forms of political pressure, but can’t bring themselves to endorse this idea publicly because of how it would lump them in with the GOP or religious right. It’s true that American Christians are often quick to find conspiracy when really only the market and a rapidly diversifying culture exist. But it’s also true that evangelical educators and business owners have been in court quite a bit lately, and that even the “victories” appear to leave the door open to a radical new understanding of what is and isn’t a permissible exercise of religion in the public square. The issue isn’t that evangelical political persecution never happens, the issue is that evangelicals and everyone to the left of them fundamentally disagree about whether it’s “persecution” or “the price of citizenship.” If you think that same-sex marriage and transgenderism are fundamental human rights, and that anyone doing any business in public should be required to recognize and accommodate those rights, then by definition you are going to see through 90% of religious liberty cases as simply whining.

As in a lot of things, the question “does group X experience Y” is really proxy question for, “What is group X and what should their experience be like?” This is the same way that debates about racial injustice in policing or politics get stuck. That there is no systemic injustice against ethnic minorities can never be disproved if it comes from the prior belief that systemic injustice is impossible because we’re all Americans. Likewise, what’s underneath a lot of the ridicule of the “evangelical persecution complex” is a steadfast belief that certain traditional elements of Christian theology are illegitimate in a civil culture. Isn’t it impossible to persecute persecution, to be intolerant toward intolerance? Stuck in between all this are, again, fair-minded folks who sense something is off when nuns are sued over contraception or adoption agencies are shut down, but refuse to be mapped onto Twitter alongside Donald Trump or Pat Robertson.

Worst of all, “Are evangelicals persecuted” is often asked completely devoid of geographic or socioeconomic context. Without qualifiers, the question really reads, “Are the evangelicals you see on TV and read about in magazines persecuted by people like you?” This fails utterly to take into account how pocketed American life has become, how diverse yet intensely concentrated.  What it means to be a traditionalist Christian in Marietta, Georgia means something very different than what it means to be one in San Francisco. For all our obsession over federal politics and national headlines, it’s worth remembering that people don’t risk their jobs or their relationship with their neighbors on a national level, but a local one. And it’s often true that small things punch deep holes in grand narratives.

All this is why I don’t use the phrase “persecution complex” to describe evangelicals. To me the phrase comes more from (warranted) frustration with evangelical political engagement than a fair consideration of the facts. And I don’t think it helps those outside the Christian tribe who may be experiencing prejudice and threats to constantly talk religious liberty concerns down.

But I also think it’s fair to also be skeptical of commencement addresses that sound like pre-battle hype speeches. Bonnie Kristian is right to suggest that a steady diet of this rhetoric undermines thankfulness and orients hearts toward victimhood and resentment rather than mission.  After all, the reason so many want so badly an answer to the question “Are evangelicals persecuted” is so they can know how to treat them or how to demand to be treated. Ours is a society in which far too much of our experience depends on whether we are sorted in a pitiable class. I can only take you seriously and care about you if you’re being run down by the outgroup. Forget neighborliness. Advocacy is where it’s at.

The Besetting Sin of Christian Worldview Education

Why do many evangelicals fail to recognize the genetic fallacy?

The besetting sin of Christian worldview education is the genetic fallacy, defined as an irrational error made by appealing to something’s origin (or “temporal order”) to explain away its truth-claims (or “logical order”). Here’s an example of how someone using the genetic fallacy (GF) might respond to various arguments:

A: “Politics is downstream from culture.”

GF: “Andrew Breitbart said that, and he was a right-wing troll, so you’re obviously wrong.”

B: “The unanimous testimony of Scripture is that homosexual acts are sinful.”

GF: “That’s exactly what Westboro Baptist Church says. Do we really want to be like them?”

C: “How well or poorly policies and systems treat minorities matters to God.”

GF: “Progressive Democrats talk about systemic injustice all the time. This is just code for abortion/socialism.”

Notice that in each example of the genetic fallacy, the retort is factually true. Andrew Breitbart DID say that politics was downstream from culture, and he DID popularize a belligerent style of journalism. Westboro Baptist Church DOES preach against homosexuality, and they ARE a horribly cruel cult. Progressives DO talk a lot about systemic injustice, and they often DO mean abortion and socialism as part of the solution. The retorts are true, or at least believable.

So if the retorts are true, why are these answers fallacious? Because they do not answer the actual question. Statements A, B, C make independent  claims that stand alone. By invoking a suspect source and then critiquing it, the responses are actually responding to a claim—about the worthiness of the source—that’s not being made. In other words, the retorts don’t actually tell us anything about the validity of the claim, only the validity of people who make similar claims. But since truthful statements and human credibility are not the same thing, the retorts miss the argument entirely. It would be little different, logically, if you told someone you believe it would rain later and her response was, “I don’t think so, because you need to clean your car. ” Ridiculous, right?

And yet the genetic fallacy is, in my experience, one of the logical errors least likely to be recognized in conversation. Each of the examples above are actual statements and retorts I have seen in prestigious magazines or from well-educated speakers. Evangelicals rarely rise above contemporary culture on this, too. This week Joe Carter was accused by some readers of this TGC column of smuggling in language from secular, disreputable sources. Without even dipping a toe in the debate over whether Joe’s piece makes a valid argument (I think it does, for the record), shouldn’t there be a little bit more incredulity that some professionally trained theologians sincerely believe “This term was coined by a Marxist” is an actual counter-argument?

My working theory is that much Christian worldview pedagogy, with its one-note emphasis on coherent systematization of religion, has habituated a lot of us to care more about identifying the ideological “root” of a claim than the claim itself. If you believe that the ultimate marker of Christian belief is how it contrasts in every aspect to non-Christian systems, then it makes sense to evaluate truth claims by whether they originate from the right system or not. If they don’t—in particular, if they’re a widely held belief among non-Christians—then those claims are de facto inconsistent with Christianity, because they fail the ideological paternity test.

So in a conversation about, say, conservatism and white nationalism, an evangelical who thinks strictly in terms of worldview systems comes into the conversation with much different goals than someone who doesn’t think like that. The worldview-shaped evangelical is constantly pulled in the direction of Sort, Contrast, Dismiss: Sort truth claims (“White nationalism influences some parts of conservative politics”) into appropriate “Teams” based on where this claim is most likely to come from. Here, the answer is obvious: Secular liberals and progressives. Having sorted, the worldview-shaped evangelical can now Contrast, but here’s a twist: He doesn’t have to contrast the claim itself, he only has to contrast the team into which he has sorted the claim, against the “team” he identifies with. So he contrasts secular progressivism with conservative Christianity…and now it’s all over but the yelling. He can safely Dismiss the claim that “white nationalism influences some parts of conservative politics” on the basis that this statement embodies the antithesis of his religious worldview—all without actually examining the factual basis of the claim.

The only way to break this cycle would be to convince our worldview-shaped friend that a secular progressive can be wrong about Christianity and abortion but right about white nationalism. But it’s likely that this just isn’t how he was educated. To grant that a secular progressive could be right is to open the door, to teeter on the slippery slope, to the claim that the progressive is right about everything: God, the unborn, religious liberty, etc. To grant that a secular progressive might be right is to grant a measure of legitimacy to his intellectual system. If the underlying presupposition of the worldview-shaped evangelical is that only one truth system can have any legitimacy, then this is unthinkable.

It’s unthinkable partly because it’s difficult to hold such a notion in one’s head. But it’s also difficult because, in a culture war society, the capacity of our beliefs to generate enemies and weapons against those enemies is actually a measure we use of truthfulness. The more enemies you have, the more oppressed you are, and the more oppressed you are, the more there must be a reason for that oppression. And everyone thinks the reason is that they’re right.

Blood Calls to Blood

Why I am a Christian

This is embarrassing to admit, but here goes. If I were not a Christian, I’m pretty sure I would be a Unitarian Universalist, or something like one.

I’ve known the answer to the “What religion would you be if not Christianity” question for a long time. It’s not that I’m impressed with UU from an intellectual or even moral point of view. On the contrary, it seems vapid and incoherent in the extreme. No, the reason I’d be a Universalist is Charles Dickens,”What a Wonderful World,” and Coke commercials. I’d be a Universalist because of Star Wars, art museums, and the New York Times. If you were to take most of my favorite things about American culture and wring them like a rag, universalism would pour out—not so much the idea of it, but the mood. My day to day happiness would multiply if I could go about my middle class American life and sincerely believe that everyone who walked into my favorite coffee shop on a Saturday morning was gonna be OK, or that all my favorite pop songs and blockbuster films were different hymns of the same church.

For me, this exercise is hypothetical. For a lot of people, it’s where they actually are. A whopping 72% of Americans believe in heaven; 58% believe in hell. That 14-point gap is one of the most seductive places I can imagine. Who wouldn’t sell all they had to live in a world of just heaven, no hell? Who could measure the psychological relief that many would experience if the red and green lights of Christmas signified only the spirit of giving, carols only the sentimentalism of the past, and church bells merely the brotherhood of all living things? Life would be so very simpler if it were a metaphor rather than a babe in that manger.

My inner desire for a world such as this has been my version of a “crisis of faith.” I’ve never actually seriously contemplated rejecting Christianity for universalism. Then again, the universalist in me doesn’t play by the rules of  serious contemplation. C.S. Lewis made famous the “apologetic from desire,” the argument toward the God of Christianity starting from our need to make sense of our deepest human longings. What I’m describing is an argument from desire, too, an apologetic for rejecting everything that obscures a romantic view of the universe.

In his first letter, Screwtape advises his apprentice to interrupt a human’s journey to Christianity by showing him the minutia of a typical day—”a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past”—and gently suggesting that this is real life. The genius of this demonic strategy is that it’s all happening underneath reason and argument. The point is not whether ignoring the evidences for a personal God and the truth of Scripture is a logical or illogical thing to do. The point is that, given the choice between Christianity and unbelief, there is only choice that will let you look at the universe, whether the Milky Way or Main Street, and accept that that’s all there is to it. That’s what I find romantic about universalism: “This is the world, this is reality, and you don’t have to think or do a thing about it except eat, pray, and love.”

***

I decided several months before my oldest child was born that I was going to watch the whole birth. I wanted to do this partially to support my wife, partially out of curiosity, but also because I’d heard countless testimonies of how seeing the “miracle of life” and then holding the miracle in your arms annihilated any doubt of the existence of God. Not that I doubted God’s existence, really; I just wanted the sensation of doubt being annihilated.

When we checked into the hospital I brought in all sorts of romantic ideas about watching a life come into the world. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now know that most of these ideas were sterile, almost offenisvely so. I expected to see a beautiful infant glide effortlessly into the room. I expected to hear cries as soft as whispers break my mental rendition of Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open.” I looked forward to the moment of my son’s birth as a moment that I knew would transform me in its greatness, exorcise my demons and balm the proud callouses of my soul. I was going to be a different person just for having seen this, I thought.

What really happened was blood. What really happened was searing pain in a trembling wife. What really happened was gore and viscera, as a grey-purple mass of human anatomy slowly came out covered in its own fecal matter. My son’s cries were almost entirely muted as he struggled to cough his own waste out of his lungs. Instead of a moment of enlightenment and transformation, there was confusion as nurses swept him away from our arms and took him to the NICU to help him not asphyxiate. Instead of the soundtrack-backed beauty penetrating my soul, my wife, in-laws and I cried and prayed that our son would be able to cough the waste out of his body and breathe.

Thus was my sterile, romantic view of this slice of existence shattered. The real world, it turns out, is not one of perfect-pink babies who melt your heart at first glance, but of blood and meconium-soaked infants who (might) need technology just to live. Yes, there are precious newborn pictures to take and sweet “Happy birthday” celebrations to come, but these don’t exist apart from trauma, stitches, the risk of hemorrhaging, heartbeats that can bottom out, and lungs that can flail. My son only lives because his mother endured violence to her body. He could have not lived. There was nothing in the book of Science! that said his lungs had to successfully eject his own body’s poison. Infants die every day. Infants die.

This isn’t just being “realistic.” It’s one thing to not live in a happy-go-lucky fairy tale like so many literary creations. It’s another thing to suffer. It’s yet another thing to know, to feel, that the very universe is “red in tooth and claw.”

As I write these words, my grandmother is only a few days removed from suffering a severe, life-threatening stroke. Whether she will ever regain her speech is unknown. When I opened my Facebook feed this morning, one of the first things I saw was a friend’s heartbreaking image of his little boy hooked up to hospital IVs. Just now I saw someone else on social media talk about his wife’s days in the ICU. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t hear about cancer, disease, or death.

Red in tooth and claw.

***

The sterilized metaphysics of Western spirituality, the liturgies of eat-pray-love, are sieves when it comes to the bloodiness of reality. I could, if I chose, close my eyes and insist on believing in the inherent goodness of man, the brotherhood of all, and the common destiny of all but the worst people. But I could not close my eyes hard enough to un-see the blood of vaginal delivery. The blood does not merely sit there. It calls out, just as the blood of Abel cried “out from the ground.”  It calls out for reckoning. Almost every secular person agrees that children are the closest thing we have to divine love. What does it then mean that the existence of children is brought about not by ephemeral well-wishing but by the tearing of flesh? What does it mean for the millions of modern people who long for heaven and laugh at hell that heaven has hell clutching at its heels?

Christianity is about blood. It is a blood-stained narrative about a blood-stained universe. The Garden teems with spectacular creations of life, and blood courses through the veins of animals and image-bearers alike. When God gives Adam and Eve skins to cover themselves with after they plunge the cosmos headlong into darkness, the unspoken realization is that somewhere, a creature’s blood was shed so that this man and woman could be clothed, protected, and unashamed.

Atonement is not mere ritual, it is a reckoning with the world as it really is. Everyone offers a blood sacrifice for something: a creature’s blood for my food, a stranger’s blood for my survival, my own blood for the life of my child. Try to believe for one minute that this world is not fallen, not broken, not longing for a redemption denied it hence, and you won’t take three steps before you see blood. Blood is the stuff of life, as well as its price.

What the Easter story gives us is Jesus’ blood for our life. Blood is the price of life, and we have forfeited life with our bloodletting sin (sin’s first fatality was that Edenic animal). Jesus sheds his blood for our sin, pays the price of life, and gives the rewards of that payment to us. Some insist that the idea of “sin” is psychologically damaging and repressive. But what other word is there for a perpetually bleeding existence? The world is red and tooth in claw. No philosophical or religious system that fails to reckon with this speaks truthfully. The sanitized inward journeys of Eastern contemplative religions do not explain the blood. Moralistic therapeutic deism doesn’t receive the blood. Atheism and scientism choose to drown in the blood. At the center of Christianity is a man with shredded flesh and pouring veins, a bloody overlay on top of a bloody universe. Look away in disgust if you will, ignore if you can, but every step of your daily, embodied existence reminds you of blood. This is the world as it really is, not as how gurus want it to be. You don’t get a choice whether it’s true. Your very birth shed blood.

The world we find ourselves in has blood at the center of it. You can scrub away at it all your life and it will not come up. Holy Week is about blood calling out to blood. His blood exchanged for mine. The blood of a violent, sinful, dying world transfused for the blood that spoke the stars into existence and washes whiter than snow. A bloody world must receive a bloody Savior.

That’s why I’m a Christian.

Arms nailed down

Are you telling me something?

Eyes turned out

Are you looking for someone?

This is the one thing

The one thing that I know.

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”

Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square

In our era, what’s truly Christian or conservative is not always easy to discern.

A few years ago, Bill Maher appeared on the (now shuttered) Charlie Rose Show. Maher is one of the smugger, less sufferable “New atheist” types, and has more or less made a lucrative career out of representing conservatives and religious people, especially Christians, as idiots at best and theocrats at worst. So it was a bit surprising to see a clip from his interview with Charlie Rose getting passed around with enthusiasm amongst many conservative (and Christian) politicos. Continue reading “Free Speech, Sex Recession, and Our Strange New Public Square”

Excerpts from my sent folder: Michael Gerson and evangelicalism

In Gerson’s revisited 20th century evangelicalism, the mercenary character of the Religious Right disappears because conservative Christians embrace evolution. He’s wrong, not only, as you point out, about the uncontested truthfulness of Darwinian biology, but also about the connection between causes and effects. Gerson seems to think that accepting evolution would have kept evangelical Christianity’s respectability and allowed conservative theological emphases to flourish with the broader culture. He ignores the fact that mainline Protestantism did exactly what he recommends—embrace evolution and higher criticism—and has been unraveling ever since, bleeding members while slouching toward the sexual revolution. His wistfulness for an evangelicalism that doesn’t alienate the elite universities is a day late and a denomination short.

 

New blog category blatantly stolen from Alan Jacobs.

On Bothsidesism

A gnat and a camel are both bad ideas to swallow, but swallowing the camel is a much worse idea.

American political culture has a nasty way of inspiring all of us to take something that is true and use or apply it in a way that makes it false. “All lives matter” is a great example. The sentence is 100% true; it is invoked almost exclusively for the purpose of rebuking someone who just said that a specific kind of life (black, immigrant, unborn, etc.) matters. Another good example is Whataboutism: The act of immediately responding to any fair critique with an example of how your opponent, or his tribe, have also failed in this category. Example: “It’s absolutely wrong for a President to talk about women or the disabled in such a derogatory way.” “What about Bill Clinton?!?!”

Bothsidesism is another example. It bears a close relationship to Whataboutism but is its own species. Bothsidesism is what you do when someone points out that a particular party or tribe is guilty of something. Rather than pushing back against the accusation, you simply remind the person making the observation that “Both sides do this,” and present an example of comparable sin committed by either a) the party/tribe generally thought to be the polar opposite of the party/tribe being accused, or b) the party/tribe that you think the person making the observation represents.

This sounds a lot like Whataboutism, but there’s an important difference. Whataboutism is an accusation of moral hypocrisy that implies the original observation is meaningless or the first speaker is inauthentic. Bothsidesism, on the other hand, is not a direct charge of hypocrisy, but rather an attempt to change the subject. “Both sides do this” is often code for, “Now instead of talking about each other, let’s talk about how awful everything is.” Whereas Whataboutism challenges the moral authority of the original point, Bothsidesism challenges whether there’s any moral authority to be had at all.

Complicating all this is the fact that neither Whatboutism nor Bothsidesism are really fallacies. It does matter, for example, that the same media institutions bemoaning toxic masculinity stood up for Bill Clinton and shamed his accusers. It does matter that, while the Democratic Party sanctions the killing of the unborn, the Republican Party has also adopted language and policies about minorities, immigrants, and others that dehumanizes and obscures the sanctity of life. These are fair points, and they have to be reckoned with if our understanding of culture is going to rise above the level of AM radio.

Last night I tweeted (I know, I know):

Isn’t it weird how abortion on demand at 30+ weeks is “complex,” “intimate,” and “hard to talk about without dividing people,” while single-payer healthcare and a wall are “matters of justice” and “the Jesus way”?

I think most readers knew that my point was about left-leaning evangelicals, many of whose prolific Trump-era political tweeting has taken an intermission since the state of New York approved a ghoulish abortion law, and the governor of Virginia offered some similarly ghoulish thoughts about which born infants can be killed. It’s an observation I’ve made many times; there’s a weird overlap between the folks who go straight to the Old Testament to explain why a certain immigration policy is wrong and the folks who seem totally unable to articulate an argument against letting live-born infants die on a medical table. It’s an overlap that has the stench of identity politics and the “age of lumping” all over it.

A friend responded to this tweet by reminding me that “Both sides do this,” by which he meant that the Republican Party and the Trump administration have sanctioned the cruel separation of families and other odious, anti-Christian policies. He’s 100% correct. Both parties are, right now, imago Dei-denying, family-subverting parties. A pox on all our houses.

And yet: Both sides are manifestly not equally OK with infanticide. That’s the point. My tweet was not intended at all to flatter the GOP. It was intended to point out a lethal confusion in many evangelical writers, several of whom have rich book contracts, sold-out speaking engagements, and influential platforms. It’s the confusion that cannot see a moral urgency to the willful, state-sanctioned killing of a perfectly recognizable tiny human. It’s the confusion that looks at abortion and sees only a “divisive wedge issue” that Christians should “get beyond,” but looks at single payer healthcare and a border wall and sees a clear biblical mandate to care for the poor and welcome the stranger. It’s not that the latter conviction is wrong; it’s that the former conviction is so very very wrong that, yes, it colors everything that comes after it. A gnat and a camel are both bad ideas to swallow, but swallowing the camel is a much worse idea.

The problem with Bothsidesism is that it assumes a moral equivalency that doesn’t exist. What matters most is not that both tribes get equally dinged. What matters most is that human life, born or unborn, white or black or brown, healthy or disabled or young or old, is respected as the crowning jewel of a sovereign Creator’s work. However such life is disrespected, it is always a tragedy; but the authorized killing of innocent human life is the worst tragedy of all because it cannot be remedied. It is permanent, forever, and irreconcilable until the resurrection. Bothsidesism is correct to point out faults in both political ideologies, but it’s wrong when it’s invoked to obscure degrees of seriousness in our faults. Without being conscious of those degrees, we cannot hope to remedy injustice.

Bothsidesism feels good in the moment because it feels like taking a wider view of things. But a wider view isn’t always helpful if what you need to see is right in front of you. The bigger failure of evangelicals in the 19th and 20th centuries wasn’t that they didn’t have a fully realized, magisterial doctrine of human dignity and the political sphere. It was that they either supported or ignored lynching, slavery, and disenfranchisement. They ignored what was right in front of them.

As do we.

Jonathan Merritt on Bible Literacy Classes

Is religious literacy valuable for society?

A few very brief thoughts on this piece from Jonathan Merritt:

1) Merritt’s point about Christian parents probably not wanting a state-approved presentation of Christianity is valid. To the degree that Christians have to let lawmakers or anyone else comb through and filter the contents of our faith in order to gain a foothold somewhere, I think we’ve already lost a big part of our mission.

2) On the other hand, Merritt’s argument is disingenuous because it basically boils down to an assumption that the kind of evangelicals likely to back a Bible literacy bill are not the kind of evangelicals likely to see value in a comparative religion-style education on Scripture. Merritt pretty much assumes from the get-go that the real reason any evangelical would want a Bible literacy class is to catechize. Aside from being a rather bad faith assumption, is he really sure that evangelicals would be outraged to hear their children were taught the Bible was fully of mythical symbolism? I mean, isn’t that what they’re pretty much taught anyway?

3) I wonder why Merritt doesn’t mention comparing a high school Bible literacy class to a college equivalent, of which there are many examples.  Public universities study the Bible all the time, and the vast majority of those classes are taught from an unbelieving point of view. I don’t recall seeing many organized evangelical protests of those classes, which are also taxpayer funded.

4) Merritt writes, “While evangelicals are generally more politically conservative, teachers in public schools might choose to emphasize the Bible’s many teachings on caring for the poor, welcoming the immigrant, and the problems of material wealth.” Ah, my least favorite genre of writing: The I’m-Arguing-From-Your-Terrible-Point-of-View essay.

5) It seems Merritt pretty much ignores the crucial question, which is, “Is religious literacy valuable for American society at large?” Stephen Prothero wrote a well-reviewed book arguing that it is. Near the book’s conclusion, Prothero quotes no less than Charles Colson on why Christians need not fear public courses on the Bible that refuse to proselytize:

“Some critics fear that merely studying the Bible’s role in history, or as literature diminishes it,” writes Colson. But such a course, he argues, does not prevent Christians from taking the “next step” and trying to convert young people to Christianity. As Colson recognizes, however, spurring young people to take this “next step” cannot be the job of public schools. “Can people be good citizens,” Colson asks, “if they don’t know their own history?” The answer, of course, is no.

6) Of course, this entire discussion presupposes that it’s possible to educate about something without prescribing it to the people being educated. Given the rigorous calls for schools to stop teaching everything that requires mature, critical moral evaluation—everything from political history to Mark Twain—I think there’s a deep confusion in Western culture as to whether that is possible at all. Right now we seem awfully comfortable simply banning stuff in the name of justice rather than engaging with our past. Merritt doesn’t find time to ask whether this is a good thing. That’s a shame.