Modernizing

The Washington Football Team has discontinued its cheerleader program after more than 50 years, replacing it with a coed dance squad as part of its rebranding effort.

The team had announced last month that the cheerleader program was paused while it decided what direction the rebranding would take. Petra Pope, hired by the team as a senior adviser focused on creating game-day entertainment, said the goal is to create a “more modern franchise.”

ESPN

Had the Washington NFL franchise refused to create a cheerleading program 50 years ago, it would have been accused of living in the Stone Age like a bunch of Puritans. Now, getting rid of the program is what you do when you’re trying to “create a more modern franchise.”

This is a perfect example why “right side of history” discourse is ridiculous and no serious person should entertain it. It’s like Screwtape said to Wormwood:

Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false,’ but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical,’ ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary,’ ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless…’ Don’t waste time trying to make him think materialism is true! Make him think it is strong, or stark, or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.

The post-COVID malaise

If I had to guess one of the most pressing problems facing Christians in the aftermath of this accursed pandemic, I would guess that it won’t be an active dismissiveness or “I don’t need that” attitude about the local church. Instead, the struggle is likely to be the exhaustion and sense of futility from fighting the digitalization of all of life. It’s not, I think, that scores of evangelicals will suddenly think they don’t need the church because of YouTube livestreams. It will be that scores of evangelicals feel like their efforts to be “tech-wise,” to swim against the tide of life-by-internet and prioritize analog and physical experiences, have been mostly pointless. We were trying to live more in the embodied moment, and then a virus happened and we saw just how necessary the protection a screen creates really is. Even if we want to overcome that, how could we?

In other words, I think we’re going to be facing a post-COVID malaise rather than a post-COVID revolution. This malaise has already been given extra strength by the inexplicable determination of certain health officials and journalists to talk the vaccines down—a determination that has almost certainly slowed the national recovery and created vaccine hesitancy unnecessarily. I know beyond a doubt there will be millions of Americans listening to that and reasoning that their days of going to church are over—not because they don’t want to, and not necessarily because they’re afraid, but because they don’t see the point. If the dangers hover over you the second you leave your house, no matter what you or your neighbor does, there’s only so much you can endure that emotional and cognitive burden. If a coworker knows you went to church, would they be upset with you for “creating risk” (what a slippery way to use words!)? Besides, you can probably listen to the sermon more attentively at home.

The post-COVID malaise may sound like a test of what we really believe about local congregations. But I actually think this is somewhat misleading. The malaise will be more of a test of what we really believe life is supposed to feel like. Fighting through this kind of malaise is going to feel, at many different times, like you’re doing life wrong. Fighting the omnipresence of screens, the immediate answers they offer and the stress they seem to offload, is going to feel like strenuous exercise when you know you’ll be dead of cancer in a week. The nagging feeling that you’re not supposed to feel this low level anxiety and self-doubt about everything will translate to, “So why do you choose to feel it?”

And this is where we have to remind ourselves of something very important: This world is broken and fallen, and living and become the way our Creator meant for us to live and become often feels difficult in a broken and fallen world. Becoming “tech-wise” isn’t about impressing Christian neighbors or appearing like sophisticated parents. If it is about that, it’s not worth the kind of trouble that the post-COVID malaise will bring us. But it’s not. It’s really about living as image-bearers in proximity with other image-bearers. It’s really about keeping our souls open to knowing and being known, over and against the anonymity and digital obfuscation of screens. It’s about putting social anxiety, insecurity, and even shame before the gentle and lowly Jesus who heals. It’s about fighting the good fight of faith.

So how do help ourselves and each other fight the post-COVID malaise? Right off the top of my head:

  • Don’t assume that those fearful or slow to come back to church just “don’t get it.”
  • Get vaccinated when you can.
  • Invite people to your home
  • Protect relationships, not time.
  • Delete social media apps and set defined parameters of use.
  • Watch movies with family and friends, not YouTube by yourself.
  • Try something like what Brett McCracken calls the wisdom challenge.
  • Sleep.

Ill of the Dead

Rush Limbaugh died today. I have zero intention of saying anything good, bad, or otherwise in this post. In fact I would not be writing this article at all except that, as news of Limbaughs’s death broke on social media, I saw someone make an interesting comment. It went something like: “If you are lamenting Rush’s death but cheered when Rachel Held Evans died, you’re the problem.” Rachel Held Evans died nearly two years ago. She was a young wife, mother, and arguably the most influential progressive Christian blogger on the internet. Her death was sudden and shocking and distressed even those who didn’t agree with her theology. The point seemed to be that Rush Limbaugh is a much worse person than Rachel Held Evans, and if anyone out there in theological social media world feels more bereaved by the loss of Limbaugh than of Evans, something is wrong with you.

I kinda understand what this person was trying to say. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Tweet that exemplified better the dysfunctional and odious effects of social media on the human experience. There is no emotional or psychological state that would inspire someone to compare the responses of strangers to a recent death, and try to extract some kind of tribal vindication from that comparison, other than the state of being online. Before social media, if you read that a celebrity you disliked had passed away, how long did you linger over that news? Did you call your friends and compare emotional responses to know which of the people in your circle were “the problem”? Or did the news simply wash over you and you went on with your day?

I just don’t think we are conscious enough of how internet life has created illegitimate categories of thought that are not just illogical, but emotionally destructive. Let me say that again: it is emotionally destructive to cultivate the kind of habits that go into keeping track of who is mourning which dead person on Twitter. It doesn’t feel destructive in the moment because online culture is by definition suffocating and insular, and the only reason any of us use these technologies at all is that while we use them we forget that anything else exists. But other things do exist. And for most of us there will come a day when, either by choice, incapacity, or unavailability, we won’t be able to use Twitter as a broadcast for our resentments. But to the degree that we cultivated them, day by day, tweet by tweet, those resentments will be overpowering, and will spill out in offline relationships and thought life in ways we just never imagined.

OK, sermon over. Now I’ll just make a quick comment about “speaking ill of the dead” when the dead were, at least in your view, bad, dishonest, or harmful people.

I don’t think being more conscious of either justice or orthodox theology is a good reason to celebrate or make glib comments when someone who was bad at either of those things dies. For one thing, the vast majority of human beings on earth are not tyrants or mass murderers whose death is objectively just and good for the rest of humanity. The death of wicked and oppressive rulers naturally causes a degree of joy to those whose suffered under them, but this does not describe 99% of cases. In 99% of cases a person’s legacy is more complicated, cherished by some but not by others. This does not mean that objective moral judgments about a person are impossible. It does mean that they are often difficult, and treating something that’s difficult as if it were easy is a sign of a fool. Death, in most cases, is a reminder of the insufficiency of human wisdom and the mysteriousness of God’s final judgment. We embrace the reality of God’s judgment and the necessity of it, but we cannot try to over-immanentize a personal eschaton. Saying what we know is true about a person is one thing. Translating that into a comprehensive evaluation of their state before God is something else.

Any conservative evangelical who logged on the week of Rachel Held Evans’ death to gloat or “own” her—“Now she knows how wrong she was,” etc.—showed an extraordinary lack of character. Evans’ death was a tragedy and tragedies merit grief or silence (the assault on silence is one of social media’s worst crimes). This doesn’t mean that nobody can ever talk critically about Evans’ legacy. The best I can tell, Evans was deeply wrong about many important theological questions, and even worse, she seemed to have pioneered the #exvangelical moment that has convinced many people that rejecting the claims of Jesus is fine because they’ve met some bad Christians. That is a horrific legacy. But the time to point that out was not in the rawness of her passing.

And here’s the thing: almost every normal person would know this intuitively if it were not for the internet. If you were in a room of different kinds of people and somebody announced a death, you would never (unless there was something very wrong with you) immediately respond by sizing up the deceased. Why wouldn’t you? Because in the physical, embodied presence of other humans something inside us responds to death with the heaviness death deserves. It is when we are separated from our bodies, sliced up into digital text and avatars, that we begin to form inhuman intuitions.

Death is silence. That’s why silence is the right response. Let God speak, and log off.

“I’m beginning to think I’ve been duped.”

A post-Christian culture cannot own up to mistakes. It can only blame-shift to survive.

To me the entire story of America and COVID-19 is such a densely fogged event that I honestly don’t know how we’ll ever learn anything from it. I’m not sure how you extract meaningful lessons from a disaster about which there is almost no uniformed agreement: whether regarding causes, or Who Was to Blame, or how to respond, or even what the accursed virus even is! I am, however, coming around to one conclusion. I’m starting to believe that at some point in this whole saga at least 50% of the information that politicians, pundits, and even health officials were operating on was incorrect. As the virus and its suffocating political and cultural effects linger far longer than most of us ever thought we or the nation could endure, it’s becoming clearer that important people with their hands on important levers have been getting important questions wrong. 

This should not be a particularly scandalous thing to say. People get stuff wrong all the time, and important people with official channels are not less human than the rest. I don’t even think it’s particularly important or relevant that, say, the CDC was wrong about masks, or that WHO was wrong about the nature of the epidemic. Yes, those blunders had consequences. But what relevance do those mistakes have now? No amount of recriminations can undo loss of life or livelihood. Excepting those who may have intentionally misled the world for some kind of gain, I don’t see the point of making COVID “about” the people or institutions or governments that got stuff wrong. 

But I’m starting to realize that increasingly few people agree with me. To say, “I don’t think it matters that [group X] got this wrong” is to be met immediately with incredulity, perhaps even suspicions of malice. It seems to me that we’re losing, as a culture, the category of error, and we are replacing it by greatly expanding the category of malevolence. In the political and social context of today, nobody is just wrong. To be wrong is “actually” to be ignorant, or naive, or untrustworthy, or unqualified, or just plain wicked. It seems like just about everyone is operating under the assumption that meaningful errors are too implausible to be honest, and people who make them are too smart/elite to have made them sincerely.

This is one of the fundamental assumptions behind social media’s cancel culture. Every misstep on social media, even a thoughtless joke, is transposed into a situation of “speaking truth to power,” and hardly anyone bothers to spell out what kind of “power” the object of the outrage mob actually possesses. Regardless, the impossibility of restoration for someone who’s been canceled online is integral to to the nature and function of online mobs, because the most important element in a cancel culture is the shared belief that nobody except genuinely bad people could ever do something that would garner a mob in the first place. There are no “mistakes,” there are only disqualifying sins…because nobody who was worth keeping around would/could say/do that

***

In one of my favorite journalism movies, Shattered Glass, there’s a key moment where Stephen Glass (a reporter for The New Republic) is on a conference call with another magazine’s editors, who are bit-by-bit destroying the claims Glass made in a piece. Glass fabricated the piece almost entirely, but nobody knows this yet.  The story of Glass’s downfall is true and the dialogue in this scene is allegedly almost word-for-word lifted from a real conference call. Watch to the very end:

As Glass realizes that his story is combusting, he makes an amazing pivot: 

“I’m beginning to think I’ve been duped.” 

To appreciate the magnitude of this sentence, you have to understand that nobody in that conference call assumed that Glass made it all up. They assumed instead that he had used a shady source for the story and had reprinted the source’s descriptions without actually verifying them or doing actual journalism. For a reporter to be exposed like this would be almost career-killing. Almost. Just at the moment Glass seems on the verge of a confession (of some sort), he despairingly admits to having been fooled. That’s a journalistic sin, but it’s not the journalistic sin. 

Glass knows that if he confesses to making anything up, he is done. He’ll be fired and unlikely to have a career in journalism again (in fact, that’s what ends up happening). So instead of owning the discrepancies, he owns the naïveté. He’s been duped by a malicious source, and his mistake was trusting, not lying. 

The gambit ends up working, at least temporarily (only later does Glass’s editor realize that the story has no legs at all, and that even the details Glass swears to are phony). Glass knew the meeting would end only one way: with nobody believing the story he had written was legitimate. The question was why would they believe that. There was only one “why” that would let him keep his career, his job, his reputation. If he confessed to that, he might survive. 

Bad input. Wrong information. “I’m beginning to think I’ve been duped.”

***

Of course, Glass’s problem was that he was always lying. But not everybody gets their work or their views destroyed for the same reasons. Some people lie, but a lot of people just miscalculate. They misconstrue what they see, or they impose a presupposition onto the evidence, or they just miss facts. The question is not how to respond to somebody who is clearly lying—almost everyone would respond the same way—but how to respond to someone who is clearly, yet honestly, wrong. 

And here’s where the cultural dynamics of making repentance impossible matter. To the extent that people feel that owning up to their mistakes will only result in being destroyed without mercy, they will almost always try to frame themselves as victims. If you dangle people’s jobs and reputations on a string in front of them, they’ll get the message. There are only two options: either they are bad, or they are victimized; depraved, or duped. And that’s what we’re seeing at work in a lot of contemporary culture and politics. Everyone can either be perfect, or else deceived. 

This ecosystem makes it extremely unlikely that any valuable lesson will be learned from things like COVID, or the storming of the Capitol, or QAnon. You see some exceptions, like this wonderful and refreshing piece by Hunter Baker. Yet the fact that Baker’s piece is remarkable is evidence of what I’m talking about. What possible lessons will there be from the aftermath of an online conspiracy cult whose claims have been coddled by people trying to own the libs, if those people think that confessing their moral misjudgments will send them into exile? What are they going to do? The less courageous ones will keep their heads down and persist and hope the political weather changes. The more courageous ones will look for somebody who told them something wrong. “I was duped!” That kind of posturing is worthless beyond description. Imagine the healing and restoration that would be possible if more of us took Hunter Baker’s approach and said, “Yes, I was wrong to ascribe bad motivations to those I disagreed with. That was my moral failure and for it I am sorry.” 

I’ve got a strong feeling that in the coming months and years we’re going to learn that a lot of powerful people made a lot of miscalculations and misjudgments about COVID-19. We know some of them already. If all you’re looking for are the missteps that confirm your priors, you’ll find them! But I’m assuming that people who believe the gospel have different motivations. I’m assuming that those who are forgiven can look at others with forgiveness. I’m assuming those who sing that their worth is not in their righteous deeds can ascribe to their political opponents worth and value that doesn’t bottom out with a mistake. 

We must bear witness to this. American society is fraying and public trust is evaporating. I’m convinced that a major reason for this is that post-Christian culture jettisons the concepts of atonement and forgiveness and consequently has nothing constructive to do with the realities of moral guilt and responsibility. Sometimes evangelicals only talk about the sexual libertinism of post-Christian society, but the reality is that, at its core, post-Christian society is ruthlessly legalistic and punitive. A punitive spirit does not elicit honest confession and restoration of trust. It elicits blame-shifting in the name of survival, and doing victory-laps when the walls close in on your enemies. A culture defined by this is not going to learn from the horrors of 2020. Neither will a church. 

Freedom vs Choice

I’m reading Trevin Wax’s new book Rethink Yourself. Here’s a paragraph that stood out:

How do you come to understand what you really want out of life? People often think that looking into your heart to figure out your desires is the easy part; it’s the pursuit of happiness—of fulfilling your deepest desires—that takes so much energy. But that’s simply not the case. The truth is, you don’t know what will make you happy.

That’s very true and also a very important part of where I think we are in Western culture. The “post-liberal” condition we’re experiencing is, I think, closely tied to the choice dilemma. In other words, when human beings experience maximal self-determining liberty AND a virtually limitless set of options, more often than not the result will be frustration, not happiness. Why? Because, as Trevin says, “defining yourself” is a very difficult thing to do. Parameters, finite choices, limits of potentials—these things paradoxically can create the happiness we often assume they stifle, because they relieve the existential burden of total self-awareness.

The example du jour is Netflix. Everyone who’s ever subscribed to Netflix can attest to many times when you fire up the app and simply have no idea what you want to watch. There are lots of options, and on a free Saturday night with nowhere to go, there are no limits on how much you can watch. Despite what we’d expect, these two conditions don’t create pleasurable consumption. More often than not, they freeze, confuse, and frustrate. There’s a reason Netflix’s most popular option is a show that aired its last episode years ago. Novelty can become ruthless, and when it does, familiarity is a comfort.

Given much self-determining ability, happiness probably lies in having fewer, more controlled options. Similarly, given limitless options, a person is probably going to be more happy when they have more limits on their ability. Few options and little liberty is essentially poverty or life under authoritarianism. On the other hand, limitless options and maximal liberty makes us miserable and depressed. I’m not suggesting a hackneyed life philosophy of “balance,” but I am suspicious that choices and liberty produce more peace and assurance when they’re held in tension rather than than combination.

At the risk of being trite, might I observe that this seems pretty compatible with the biblical vision of the Christian life? Christian liberty is controlled by a finite number of faithful options. You see this tension throughout the Scriptures and Christian teaching. For example, Christians only have two options in regards to sexuality: marriage or abstinence. On the other hand, these limited options are accompanied with broad freedom. Abstinent Christians can discern how God wants them to use their singleness in any variety of ways (missions, mercy, labor, etc). Likewise, Christians have many options for their vocations, but within those vocations there are defined limits to freedom; they cannot sacrifice family or the gathering of the church for greater profit, for example.

Our post-liberal moment is essentially a reckoning with the dilemma of freedom vs choice. We’ve discovered that expansive ability to express ourselves online has made us angrier and more insecure. We’ve discovered that limitless choices of where to live, study, work, and worship has made us friendless and rootless. And now the crucial question becomes, “Why?” And I think Trevin gets very close to it here: Because we don’t actually know what will make us happy.

The political seminary

I’ve seen this kind of zero-sum mentality before in seminary. One thing that all seminarians agree on, regardless of denomination, is that “Jesus unites, theology divides” is a terrible thing to say. And, of course, they’re right. Theology matters immensely, and as countless others have pointed out, dismissing theology is actually a form of doing theology. In the sense that theology is what we believe about God, everyone does theology. Everyone is a theologian. The only question is whether you’re doing it well or poorly.

But sometimes seminarians will smuggle something into the statement “everyone’s a theologian” that doesn’t really belong there. Sometimes, when they say that everyone does theology, what they actually mean is that everyone should think and talk about theology the way that they do. This is very different from saying that what people believe about God is theology. In this sense, “everyone’s a theologian” is actually quite misleading, because it suggests that “theologian” is simply a mindset that everyone can turn on and off at any moment, rather than a focused occupation that requires someone to take years away from something else and give it to the study of biblical and dogmatic content.

Yes, everybody does theology in a sense. But not everybody does theology in the sense that seminarians think theology ought to be done.

Everything I just said can be reverse engineered to apply to the tweet above. If you’re tracking with the politics-as-new-religion argument that I’ve been making for a while now, then think of social media activism as the modern political seminary. The lady who tweeted this wants to shame people who aren’t as politically engaged as she is, and she wants to shame them by drawing an equivalence between lack of activism and lack of concern for other people. She likely believes that everyone is political, in the sense that everyone is either campaigning for the status quo or something new. The idea that some people may not think about politics in the same way that she does is either totally foreign to her, or else she thinks it’s a bald faced lie.

Yes, everyone does politics in the sense that everyone participates in a civic system. Yes, everyone is political in the sense that everyone makes decisions and lives under laws that affect them and their neighbors. But everyone is not political and everyone does not do politics in the same way that activists believe people ought to be and do. Not everyone has an opinion on issues that you feel are urgently important. Not everyone is going to vote. Not everyone feels that things are as good or bad as you do—just like not everyone who has beliefs about God will actually read the theology books and have the theology conversations you might think they ought to have.

Not to mention the fact that one problem with logging onto social media to shame people for being “apolitical” is that your social media post is of less political consequence than when those “apolitical” people pay their taxes and chat at McDonald’s. Not only are today’s evangelists for the new political religion wrong about their message, they are not that good at evangelizing.

Unequally Woked

Matthew Schmitz asks a compelling question: How do opponents of progressive fundamentalism thwart its assaults on free speech and common sense? He suggests the best hope is for opponents to unite across religious and philosophical lines. Conservative evangelicals, for example, can join common cause with atheistic professors who likewise reject transgender ideology. While religious and irreligious cannot reconcile their supernatural beliefs, they can form political and cultural alliances based on common enemies within “woke” orthodoxy. Matthew writes:

Despite their differences, an alliance could form between “trads” and the true “nones” who reject religion but may well see it as less of a threat than the growth of woke government power. Trads have all-encompassing beliefs that offend liberal and secular sensibilities. But they affirm the reality of biological differences between the sexes. They believe that your deeds and beliefs are more important than your race. Even when they reject the political formulations of liberalism, most still believe in the virtue of liberality and tolerance. Because they believe in the fallenness of man, they uphold the possibility of forgiveness. Like the “nones,” most “trads” are not utopians. Unlike the woke, they can tolerate those with fundamentally different beliefs. Trads and nones will never agree, but they can ally.

What Matthew says should happen is something I have already seen happening over the last four years within my slice of evangelicalism. Last year I wrote an essay for The Gospel Coalition on the secular backlash to progressive liberalism, and I spoke sympathetically of writers such as Andrew Sullivan, Camile Paglia, and Jonathan Haidt. None of them identify as Christians, and two identify as LGBT, but all have criticized transgender ideology and radical political correctness. Ten years ago Andrew Sullivan was waging a rhetorical war on evangelicals, coining the term “Christianist” (a portmanteau of Christian and Islamist) to describe any and all believers who opposed same-sex marriage. Today Sullivan arguably has more fans within conservative Christianity than in mainstream journalism. As Schmitz says, this speaks to the perception shared between religious conservatives and secular liberals that progressive ideology is a kind of false civic religion.

I think this perception is mostly right. Growing up adjacent to Christian fundamentalism has proven valuable in this regard, as I’ve recognized many of the same cultural practices within progressivism that I saw in performative, legalistic churches. Secular folks are no more enchanted with the fundamentalism of progressive identity politics than they are with the religious kind. And of course, conservative evangelicals see clear problems with woke ideology’s mafia-like enforcement of sexual nihilism. It makes sense that the two groups would find common cause against feeling forced to obey an illegitimate moral regime.

But there are some questions that nag me about the idea of some kind of alliance between the non-woke religious and irreligious.

1) What kind of alliance is possible between secularists and believers, and to what end?

Co-belligerency is certainly possible between people of different worldviews, but co-belligerency is not intransitive. It requires a mutual object. Catholics and evangelicals can fight against abortion together with the endgame being a reversal of Roe v Wade and new laws that protect the unborn. But progressive fundamentalism is more slippery than that. Secularists and Christians can agree about the importance of free speech with regard to gender identity, but many of the “trads,” including Schmitz himself, would advocate broad bans on pornography. It’s not clear to me that free speech is corporeal enough to be a point of alliance between people whose view of human flourishing is grounded in absolute moral norms, and those who are fundamentally libertarian. Both groups can agree to oppose woke ideology, but eventually you have to answer the question, “Ok, so what instead?”

Schmitz rightly notes that defending free speech alone isn’t a viable alternative to the transcendent claims of progressivism. He’s correct that “resisting a crusading creed like wokeism will require more than insisting on freedom of thought and speech. It will require defending a different and sounder set of ideas, a social consensus that is non-utopian.” That truth is itself a reason why I’m skeptical about a viable alliance between believers and secularists. The alliance Schmitz is interested in would have to carefully avoid the foundational conflicts between worldviews of revelation and those of libertarian free-thinking. I’m not convinced such avoidance is possible, much less desirable. An alliance that doesn’t cash out to a positive cultural and political vision does not seem like an alliance that can build in the places it tears down.

2) Do Christians and secularists really agree about the problem? 

I doubt this very much. Schmitz writes, “Liberals who stress the provisional nature of knowledge, resist all-encompassing political claims, and seek space for public error and disagreement, have grounds for agreement with Jews, Christians, and others who believe that men are sinful and fallen.” This is true, but incomplete. All men are indeed sinful and fallen, but a Reformed Protestantism holds that this fallenness has noetic and social effects. For Christians with traditional Protestant theology, the main problem with wokeism is not that it it makes sweeping moral judgments that implicate us, but that its judgments are incorrect and its implications fail. 

Schmitz is right to note that the most radical proponents of progressivism seem to deny any real possibility of forgiveness or humility. Here’s a very strong example of where historic Christianity can engage culture from ahead. In the years ahead believers have a chance to teach and model a good news that the secular world actively disowns: the reconciliation of humanity to God and to one another. It’s not at all apparent to me that atheists and agnostics can herald this kind of good news. More likely, the metaphysical and eschatological commitments of secularism likewise deny the possibility of atonement and new life. Presentism is the besetting sin of wokeism and secularism alike.

3) Should believers feel more solidarity with the unbelieving anti-woke than they do inside a diverse church? 

This last point is perhaps the most urgent one. I am absolutely convinced that American Christians are destroying the power and witness of their testimony through their sociopolitical intuitions. Many evangelicals in particular talk, write, and preach as if they have more meaningful things in common with politically conservative non-Christians than with, for example, black Christians who vote differently. When black Protestants testify by the hundreds about their frightening encounters with police, too many evangelicals weigh this testimony against the punditry of people like Ben Shapiro. But with whom do white evangelicals actually have more in common? With whom will they spend eternity? With whom are they brothers and sisters? 

The New Testament does not pretend that all true Christians agree about everything. But if the gospel means anything at all, it means that people united to Christ by faith are united to each other in a way that they are not united to anyone outside of Christ. The weightlessness of this truth in much Christian culture is a sign of weakness and error, not strength and orthodoxy. 

Here’s a simple plea. Before we Christians form alliances with secularists who confirm our politics, let’s build our churches around the historic creeds and confessions. Let’s weigh the doctrines of Scripture properly. When believers who have different approaches to the city of man can experience and feel a deep sense of unity around Christ and his kingdom, and when this unity so shapes us that we cannot but prefer one another, then we can and ought to think about joining cause with unbelievers against destructive and utopian civic religion. 

Cuties and Cognitive Dissonance

I could be misreading something, but it sure seems to me that a majority of defenses of Netflix’s indefensible Cuties are coming in from the same groups of folks who cheer the age of the “trigger warning” on university campuses. I’m not sure how one arrives intellectually at the conclusion that Rudyard Kipling and Huck Finn are nuclear, but a movie that would land its creator in prison had it been filmed with a camcorder instead of a film crew is not.

Actually, I take that back. I do know how one arrives at that conclusion: one decides to be for whatever the people one despises are against.

For my money, this is the single most urgent epistemological crisis in American culture. Everywhere I look I see evidence of people whose deepest moral intuitions are negative. They don’t know what they believe, but they definitely know who their enemy is. They don’t have a vision of human flourishing, but they can label the people who will enslave us all. This is deeper and worse than polarization. People can be polarized because they have strongly competing worldview. But what I’m describing doesn’t require any worldview at all. It only requires that you manufacture cultural resentments as efficiently as possible. And then what happens when a particular tribe achieves a political or social victory? I have no idea. Maybe something consistent with worldview X. But maybe something consistent with worldview Y. Who knows? That’s the point. You don’t have believe in anything in order to “win.” You just have to keep the other tribe away from power at all costs.

Against this context, “cognitive dissonance” simply stops being a thing. Cuties is the definition of low-hanging fruit for #MeToo activists; the distinction its defenders have made between depiction and endorsement did not help Salma Hayek when Harvey Weinstein insisted she perform a lewd scene in a Miramax film. If the #MeToo reckoning in the entertainment industry has shown anything at all, it’s shown that the indemnity filmmakers and artists build around their work is disingenuous.

Why then are some of those closest to the cause defending the film? The answer is that the Wrong Kind of People are criticizing it. This is moral formation in the age of the comments section: skip the article, see what Your Kind of People are saying about it, and then join the chorus.

I’ll be honest. I’m increasingly of the mind that the most relevant distinctions in American society are not between Left and Right, but between people with ideas and people with just enemies. The conservative and progressive mindsets may be irreconcilable on many points, but the differences between consciences formed by ideas and those formed by enemies are arguably bigger, deeper, and much harder to control. This may be why both political tribes tend to save their fiercest wrath for those inside the tribe who don’t join every charge against the Enemy. This is painfully obvious within progressive culture, but it happens inside conservatism too (if you doubt me, check Tim Keller’s Twitter mentions).

But this isn’t the worst part. When you exchange ideas for enemies, you open the door for things like Cuties. There are always perverted and unjust opportunists waiting to take advantage of a society too fractured to stop them. It’s how Harvey Weinstein got away with it for years. It’s how QAnon is getting away with it now. The people who can see it for what it is have no voice. The people who could see it if they wanted to refuse to look.

Do You Trust Your Doctor?

Between the absolute insanity of American politics and the catastrophic toll of COVID-19, it seems fair to think that public trust in experts is bottoming out. The political sphere is little else but weaponized polarization. Elected officials as public servants is a quaint idea; now they are tribal figureheads in America’s increasingly unwinnable culture wars. Coronavirus, meanwhile, has exposed the depth to which partisan commitments shape our cultural spirit. No one is exempt: not the conspiracy theory-embracing right, not the scornful and elitist left, and certainly not a compromised media class. Years of education and grooming for leadership or journalism are being wasted in the service of the cheapest imaginable political brownie points. We could say, with some justice, that America is currently without any morally qualified leadership.

But if the unraveling of public trust is a compelling analysis, it’s also more complicated than that. A few months ago Alan Jacobs wrote an excellent blog post on Rush Limbaugh’s attacks on Anthony Fauci. It’s important to keep in mind that this post was written in March, right when most states were scrambling to form a response, public fear and anxiety were peaking, and the threat of mass death was real and urgent. This was, obviously, not the correct time for Limbaugh to play his part in what Tim Nichols dubbed “the death of expertise,” and Alan took him to task fairly and astutely.

I sent Alan an email about his post and he ended up publishing what I sent him. I’m reposting it because it alludes to a theme that I think bears more fleshing out:

You know what the most interesting thing is about Limbaugh’s COVID commentary? The fact that he was recently diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. It stands to reason, does it not, that a man who desperately needs the best experts and credentialed information in this season of his (possibly fading) life would see the value of expert testimony? But in my experience, this actually has little effect on people. My family tree is full of people who practically live in the hospital and eat prescriptions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but who are confident that Sean Hannity knows more about anything than any scientist, lawyer, or even theologian. The death of expertise is so nefarious precisely because it’s resistant to cognitive dissonance.

I still think what I told Alan is true and a fair observation. But I’ve started suspecting that I drew the wrong conclusion from it. The fact that QAnon readers go to their checkups and take prescriptions may not mean that the death of expertise is hypocritical, it might mean that the loss of public trust is a different kind of loss than I supposed at first. None of my family or friends who think COVID-19 is entirely or mostly a hoax refuse to see doctors. None of them refuse to get prescriptions, or receive exams, or obtain insurance. If their physician says, “Let’s get your blood pressure under control,” they don’t say, “That’s not what Sean Hannity says.” But that’s because it’s their doctor. If a Biden-appointed chairman of the FDA were to tell them to get their blood pressure under control, they might (and probably would) suspect Big Brother is at it again. But their doctor is different. Their doctor is for them.

I think it’s very significant that COVID-19 has been covered in American journalism almost exclusively with a political angle. One of our church friends is a nurse in the Chicago area, and for the last 6 months she has kept us updated on her work with families infected by coronavirus. She has seen brutal, heartbreaking cases. But she has also seen entire families get infected with mild or even no symptoms. She knows the names of many people who’ve died alone in an ICU, but she also knows the names of children for whom missing school poses a greater threat than the virus ever did. Lindsay interprets what she sees medically, not politically, and her perspective is not easily leveraged in support of any narrative. The mutual church friends we have who lean toward the “hoax” thesis listen to her carefully and I’ve watched their views change as they did so. Why? Because they trust her. They may not trust the medical establishment, and they certainly may not trust journalists, but they do trust their nurse friend.

I think this means that the “loss of public trust” needs to be understood in a specific way. Something real is being lost, but it might be that what is being lost was not entirely well-kept in the first place. To the extent that public trust and the “death of expertise” describe real phenomenons (and they do!), it seems like they mostly describe phenomenons that were only possible in the recent past, and that came to us downstream from technological and sociological transformations that marginalized the role of place and asked for a generic, detached kind of civic life. In other words, I’m not sure anymore that people are supposed to greatly esteem expert cultures. Perhaps trust is a more precious commodity than that, which costs the price of knowledge, proximity, maybe even something like friendship.

And perhaps when public trust is demanded for people and institutions that grow more and more remote, and more and more beholden to invisible stakeholders, that kind of trust is far more fragile and prone to manipulation. Yes, by the rules of strict logic, you need trust in universities and medical boards and licensing laws in order to trust your physician that tells you to take better care of yourself. But those universities and boards and laws are not your doctor. They will not take your call and they will not look at your pain. And sometimes, that’s all it takes.

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.