Why wisdom is so difficult

From where I sit, one of the most urgent needs for everyday people, especially believers, is wisdom. Actively cultivating wisdom is difficult even when such a pursuit is universally acknowledged to be worthwhile. How hard is it when almost everything in a society is encouraging the abandonment of wisdom, the suspension of careful thinking, and outsourcing virtuous belief to political tribes? I fear losing wisdom is a loss that compounds interest. The less of it you have, the less of it you can recognize.

Why has wisdom become more difficult to cultivate? Here are three main stumbling blocks I see:

1) The spiritual problem

By this I mean more than unbelief and the noetic effects of sin. Yes, those are real and devastating. But they’re also evergreen; they’re never not problems. The spiritual problem I have in mind here is the loss of common spirituality and community virtue. Call it polarization, call it identity politics, call it what you want: it’s a fundamental loss of shared religious and moral commitments. I’m not pining for “civic religion,” but it does seem to me that the alternative to Christ-less public spirituality ought not to be social disintegration.

The reason cultivating wisdom is threatened by social fragmentation is that wisdom assumes its own possibility. To be wise is to look at disparate things in life and understand them coherently. In an age of expressive individualism, we despair of the possibility of understanding. It’s why we stop thinking and start asserting our own right to self-definition. A friend of mine recently sent me this passage from Charles Taylor:

That is what is self-defeating in modes of contemporary culture that concentrate on self-fulfillment in opposition to the demand of society, or nature, which shut out history and the bonds of solidarity. These self-centered ‘narcissistic’ forms are indeed shallow and trivialized; they are ‘flattened and narrowed,’ as Bloom says. But this is not because they belong to the culture of authenticity. Rather it is because they fly in the face of its requirements. To shut out demands emanating beyond the self is precisely to suppress the conditions of significance, and hence to court trivialization.

2) The technological problem

On this issue Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows has been a revelation for me. We simply do not talk enough about technology’s potential to radically alter public epistemology. One of the points Carr makes in the book is that the printed reading and internet reading position reader much differently. Printed reading, especially after Gutenberg, centered the individual reader and asked him to come to terms with ideas and arguments that could be presented in a linear structure. Internet reading, however, de-centers the reader and centers the disparate elements of digital text: hyperlinks, comments, etc. Internet reading blurs the lines between receiving meaning and giving back interpretation, which is one reason why trolling is effective at altering people’s perceptions of an idea.

As daily reading shifts almost entirely online, linear thought is threatened by “loaded” digital forms. An embedded link can transform the context of an argument. A “related article” or algorithm can imply logical connections subliminally but illegitimately. Comments, tweets, and “Likes” manipulate our intuitive response to written words. This is all noise—noise that handicaps the authentic pursuit of wisdom. Instead of becoming wise we are often becoming marketers. Minutia dominates our emotions. We see enemies where algorithms tell us to enemies. We lose wisdom in the weeds of the online jungle.

3) The tribal problem

Our response to the above problems leads to the third wisdom roadblock: hyper-tribalism. In the absence of thick communities of shared value, the internet atomizes and manipulations our thought, making judgments simultaneously more difficult and more instant. The only logical thing to do is to preserve our energy by letting political categories think for us. We “sort, lump, and dismiss” ideas instead of engaging with them. We lose the ability to communicate as words become hijacked by movements. Everything is ideology, ideology is everything.

Biblical wisdom is about perceiving the way God designed the world and patterning our thought and life accordingly. Wisdom is living in reality: the reality of divine providence, grace, judgment, mercy, and design. All three of these roadblocks to wisdom plunge us into unreality. We are left adrift by fragmentation, tricked by technology, and rendered passive by tribalism. I’ll say more later about this. For now I’m trying to look more soberly into my own intellectual and spiritual habits to see traces of these problems. I know they’re there. They don’t have to be.

Impotent Rage

Here’s Freddie Deboer with a point he has made many times before, but perhaps never so eloquently:

I would say at a glance that the contemporary left is defined fundamentally by both a lack of meaningful power and a corresponding tightening of the grip on the meaningless power it does have. The more we cannot get reparations, the more we rename buildings; no end to mass incarceration, but recasting of cartoons; no seats in the Senate, but oh, how we make the Poetry Foundation shake…. And the question that we’re left with is, if we never stop tightening our shaking grip, will our reach ever exceed our grasp? Do we have short arms, or are they only bent from the strain of grasping in such impotent rage?

This is such a good question…and not just to progressive leftists. What do you think would happen if we swapped out certain words in that paragraph and turned into a question for, say, Christian conservatism? It might look something like this:

I would say at a glance that the contemporary religious right is defined fundamentally by both a lack of meaningful power and a corresponding tightening of the grip on the meaningless power it does have. The more we cannot get Roe reversed, the more we call out media hypocrisy; waning evangelism and theological education, but protesting COVID-19 masks; no institutions creating Christian culture-makers, but oh, how we can trigger the libs …. And the question that we’re left with is, if we never stop tightening our shaking grip, will our reach ever exceed our grasp? Do we have short arms, or are they only bent from the strain of grasping in such impotent rage?

Hits close to home, right? The more I reflect on it the more I can’t stop suspecting that a large swath of conservative evangelicals are in a similar position as the leftists Freddie describes. Genuine cultural influence, meaningful institutional power (not just the power to appoint judges—an unreliable perk, as we’ve seen this month)—these things elude us. Baptisms keep declining. For every healthy, biblically literate church there are 4 more where Father’s Day is the least attended day of the year. Christian media, such as music, is often aggressively banal. Our cultural engagement is reactive, caught at opposite polarities of either total appropriation of secular culture (to own the fundies) or heavy-handed worldview exercises (to own the libs). The closest Christians come to a rigorous, relevant expression of principle that commands the attention of the public square is a Jungian psychologist.

Here’s what I think might be going on. Similarly to how Freddie’s fellow leftists feel politically impotent, many conservative evangelicals despair of their prophetic power. The Left processes their failure by redirecting energy to symbolic causes, trying to gain in the arena of words and names and celebrities what they feel they keep losing in the arena of policy. Likewise for religious conservatives: the Trump era represents not an attempt to re-Christianize America as much as an acceptance that we’ve lost the first battle we wanted to win (a regenerate public square). Despairing of the church’s power, religious conservatism has, like the Left, turned its attention toward victories that seem more doable: owning the libs, triggering the media, preserving 20th century cultural inflections, and having “Merry Christmas” printed on Starbucks cups. In this understanding, evangelical outrage over meaningless minutia is not arrogance, but defeatism.

This is why I don’t anticipate the recent Supreme Court losses to inspire much reevaluation of things. If the above thoughts are close, the Courts are not downstream from evangelical strategy. Rather, the current state of the church reflects acceptance of the Courts. The most pressing issues facing the church, such as racial reconciliation/justice, require spiritual revival, and it is spiritual revival that we’ve already punted on. Thus, the current status quo will continue until there’s a radical un-acceptance, a rejection of defeatism and a new conviction that the fix isn’t in, the game hasn’t already been decided, and the kingdom really doesn’t depend on the things we thought it depended on for so long.

Somewhere along the way we stopped believing gospel-shaped people really could change the world, so we stopped worrying about making gospel-shaped people. Maybe we ought to stop looking at The Washington Post and New York Times’s scoreboards because they were always showing the score of the wrong game. Impotent rage is an equal opportunity employer.

The Only Topic More Controversial Than Religion or Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is Probably What We Needed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hot Potato

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Magic of Secularism

Contemporary paganism meets modern individualism.

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

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

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

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

Or are we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeering the Devil

I have a new piece up at The Gospel Coalition today on the power of sanctified laughter. With the help of Peter Hitchens and a very bad novel, I make the case that some sin deserves mockery rather than hand-wringing solemnity.

Here’s an excerpt:

I get why the suggestion that sometimes we ought to laugh at sin sounds errant, perhaps even mildly heretical. Shouldn’t we be killing sin? Isn’t laughing at sin what millions of Americans do during primetime TV sitcom hours? There is, however, a tradition in Christian thought that goes like this: all sin is ultimately absurd, and there are occasions when the absurdity of sin is disguised as seriousness, and on these occasions one of the best things steadfast believers can do is rip off the disguise.

Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal as they uselessly called out to their false god. Commenting on this passage, Matthew Henry writes, “The worship of idols is a most ridiculous thing, and it is but justice to represent it so and expose it to scorn.” The only biblical reference to God’s laughter occurs in Psalm 2, in which rebellion against the Lord and his anointed is met with a ridiculing mirth. Solemnity is occasionally an insufficient response to what is sinful and destructive. Sometimes the best response is to point out sin’s ridiculousness.

Read the whole thing here.

Kobe, Worship, and Us

Admiration that is misdirected is still better than a callous on the soul.

It didn’t take long in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death, and the outpouring of eulogies and sorrow that quickly followed, for me to hear what has become a popular refrain among conservative evangelical Christians. “Can you believe this amount of sadness for an athlete? This just goes to show what an idolatrous culture we live in. People worship Kobe. They should be worshiping God!”

Yes, it’s all true. The level of society-wide grief for the death of an athlete does point in some degree to how sports is its own quasi-religion. We’ve seen already how the floodgates of disordered love can obscure a person’s full, fallen humanity, and result in hagiography that may or may not punish those this person sinned against. And yes, what you’re seeing is indeed a form of worship. There is only One who’s worthy of it, and we ought never be embarrassed to say so.

Yes. But…

Listening to some evangelicals respond this way makes me wonder whether we fully appreciate our cultural moment, and whether we understand what’s really happening in a public spectacle such as Kobe’s death. As overwhelming as the media coverage and hashtags were, I came away not primarily irked at American idolatry of sports heroes but instead conscious of something I think is important. Our era of Western life is an era in which not just worship of the true God is scarce, but the idea of worship is implicitly and explicitly ridiculed. The mechanisms of life in our modern, mobile, digitized, secular age work against the very elements of worship, including admiration. Just as Lewis wrote that nature did not teach him that God was glorious but instead gave the word “glory” meaning for him, admiration—of created things, including fallen people—trains human beings to be able to respond in worship to what is actually worthy of it.

Admiration, the emotional response hardwired into the soul when it encounters something that moves it, is undermined often nowadays. Consider the transformation the smartphone has brought to the art gallery, as visitors stand in the presence of true greatness, snap a quick pic or selfie, and then quickly move on to the next exceptional piece. Anyone who has visited a national landmark in the last 10 years can attest to how modern people now “consume” awe-inspiring landscapes or architecture via their phones, rather than sit in silent admiration of them.

Admiration is the seed of worship because it teaches a responsive attention. To admire a sheer, deluging waterfall is to stand in its presence and know that not only is it beautiful, but that its beauty is good for me. Is the modern culture we see before us one that helps us to admire in this way? Or is it one that rapidly evaluates how well a particular beauty can help us get Likes, or make us “cultured,” or affirms our own self-esteem?

It’s often said that Americans worship celebrities. That’s undoubtedly true. But as cancel culture now demonstrates, even the most dazzling stars now fit in the palms of our hands or laptop screens. Admiration for actors, artists, performers, and even politicians is subject to how well they remain in the public favor, how well they say the right things at the right times and never run afoul of the “rules.” Besides, human admiration fades parallel to memory. Records are broken. Beautiful people get old. This too is the conditional admiration, the worship that ultimately depends on how much the worshipers can get out of the ceremony.

That’s why I found the cultural lament for Kobe Bryant somewhat hopeful. Where some evangelicals see idolatry, I see a flickering ember of something that looks like true admiration, the responsive attention to greatness that must exist in every heart that would feel this toward its Maker. That even people who never wore his jersey or cheered his team would feel sadness and a sense of “there’s-something-wrong-with-this-world” at his death is a sign that our technology and our politics have not fully extinguished our souls’ ability to stand in the presence of something and say, “This is good.” I suppose my thinking is that even love that is misdirected is better than love that is never directed anywhere at all. A room with a poor view still reminds us that there’s such a thing as outside; a hall of mirrors cannot do that.

It’s been reported that the morning of the crash, Bryant and his daughter Gianna went to Mass. I very much hope that’s the case, and I very much hope that they were at Mass for this very reason: to sit in the presence of who is truly worthy of worship, to receive his beauty and grace and truth, and to say, “Yes, this is good, and good for me.” We should all pray that the morning of our deaths would find us like that—and our lives, too.

A Cancel Culture Nightmare

While the vast majority of social media was lamenting the shocking death of Kobe Bryant, something very different was happening to Washington Post reported Felicia Sonmez. I’m writing about it only because how it illustrates the radical effect that online culture has on our perception of everything, even an untimely death of an athlete.

A couple hours after Bryant and his daughter Gianna were confirmed dead in a helicopter crash in California, Sonmez posted an article, not written by her, about the 2003 sexual assault allegations against Bryant. This appears to be the first thing Sonmez posted on Twitter related to Bryant’s death (an important point that I’ll explain in a moment). Within minutes of having posted the link to the article—titled “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: the DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession”—Sonmez was besieged with hundreds of angry replies, criticizing her for bringing the allegations up while everyone was reeling from the news. The replies kept coming and escalated in tone and viciousness, and Sonmez was quickly at the bottom of a social media pile-on. Clearly taken aback by the reaction, Sonmez doubled down, explaining why it was legitimate to talk about the rape accusation, and shaming her online critics by sharing a screenshot of her email inbox, which was filled with some pretty vile sentiments.

The next morning news broke that the Post had suspended Sonmez. Reputedly the suspension is due to her posting a screenshot of her inbox, which revealed the full names of some of her critics. I’ve got no idea if that’s really why she was suspended. It seems more likely to me that the Post did what a lot of employers have done in the social media age: Panic in response to a mob.

But here’s what I’ve taken from all this. This episode is one of the most thorough and illuminating examples I’ve ever seen of just how dysfunctional discourse is when it’s conditioned by technology like Twitter. Every single player in this story looks bad.

First, there’s Sonmez. Of course Sonmez has every right to link to a piece about Bryant’s rape allegations. And those allegations are important and remain important even in the aftermath of tragedy. But Sonmez knew exactly what she was doing by posting the article when she did. Everyone who knows the culture of social media at all knows why someone who had been absolutely silent about a celebrity’s stunning death to that point would post an article like that: in order to reshape the narrative. In the world of Twitter, not even news of someone’s death exists as an objective, actual thing. In the world of Twitter, something only matters to the degree that it participates in the story you want to tell. You know that this is a conditioning effect of social media by imagining someone marching to the middle of a vigil for Kobe Bryant, standing on a soapbox, and yelling about his rape allegations. Such an action would be considered unspeakably crude and unfeeling, not to mention stunningly foolish. Yet this kind of thing is common on social media (not to mention applauded). That’s how disorienting the digital timeline is.

Second, there’s the mob that came after her. Sonmez was unquestionably the target of horrific attacks. These sorts of shame storms tend to only get worse as time goes on and the angry crowd pivots from expressing outrage to trying to accomplish something with it (a firing, a doxxing, etc). How ironic is it that the vox populi of the internet sends death threats and slurs in defense of a celebrity’s reputation? But that’s the moral logic of the online jungle. It’s the same for conservatives and liberals alike, men and women alike, articulate and otherwise. There’s a gravitational pull to online nastiness that seems to cut through every kind of inhibition we have. It’s not enough to disagree. We must destroy. This sure sounds like the recipe for some kind of civilization collapse.

Finally, there’s the Washington Post. The decision to suspend Sonmez is ridiculous. Sonmez was insensitive and unwise, but at the end of the day the only transgression the Post really cared about was her being the target of an outrage campaign. Her suspension, like many other online-reactive disciplinary actions before it, does two lamentable things. First, and most importantly, it sends encouragement and affirmation to online bullies, especially ones that know how to effectively troll. Second, it now gives Sonmez a credible victim narrative and distorts the extent to which her ordeal was merely a twist of fate for someone who in a moment of volatile emotions tried to cancel and ended up getting canceled herself. Nothing excuses the harassment that Sonmez experienced. Nonetheless, there’s a valuable parable in the spectacle of a journalist miscalculating her ability to reshape a public narrative. But that lesson is lost in the aftermath of another bad decision to threaten someone’s livelihood over an unwise social media moment.

This is the state of journalism and of public discourse in 2020. This is the state of our culture’s ability to grieve the loss of life. God help us.

Label Me!

Personality profiling is a way for moderns to receive an identity, rather than craft one.

Everyone who knows anything at all knows you must never attribute someone’s character or behavior to their identity. It is universally agreed in polite society that no person is ever good or bad at something because of their gender, or their race, their family, sexuality, etc. To indulge in this reasoning is at best a crude stereotype, at worst an expression of flagrant bigotry. A president of Harvard University was once forced to resign simply for observing that male students displayed more consistent interest in and aptitude for mathematics and science than female students (an observation which was backed up by all the relevant data, and still is). The unwritten law is clear: A person’s ethnic, genetic, or sexual identity must never explain anything about them.

This makes the cultural fascination with personality profiling all the more intriguing to me. To listen to people talk to one another about their Enneagram numbers is to listen to urbane, educated, and socially conscious people insist on being labeled. It’s not simply that the Enneagram is fun in the same way that all self-knowledge tools are fun. There will always be a market for figuring out the “secrets” about oneself. But the Enneagram fandom I’ve seen takes it quite a bit further. Your Enneagram number is not simply descriptive, it is explanatory and authoritative. Listen closely to enthusiasts talk about their experience with the test, and you will hear explicit appeals to one’s profile as an explanation for even the most trivial facts or behaviors. Their conversation is peppered with phrases like, “I’m such a 7,” or, “Yeah, that’s a very 4 thing to say.”

The same thing happens with in introvert/extrovert conversation. Depending on which you are, certain kinds of habits or tendencies can be expected from you, and it’s a matter of social decorum for others to recognize this. Introverts get nervous at invitations to gatherings; they’d rather watch Netflix at home. Thus, relating well to the introvert in your life means (among other things) not taking offense when they don’t show up. You should also learn how to work with introverts, date them, and recognize the dozens of signs you’re probably one of them.

It took me a long time to realize just how odd this kind of pathological self-categorization really is. For one thing, I’ve always believed myself to be an introvert, and I’ve claimed the label throughout most of my adult life whenever I was uncomfortable or wanted to protect my time. For me, introversion has often been permission: permission to not be like those around me, to make choices others didn’t understand, and to be my own person.

But then I started realizing that it no other aspect of life was I as ready to sort myself into a prefabricated category. Why did I so readily accept the logic of personality profiling when that same logic, if applied to my skin color, my childhood, or anything else about me, would likely deeply offend? More to the point, why did so many people around me — people who rejected all species of stereotypes and determinism — make an exception for their personality?

Here’s one guess: Personality profiling is the last politically-acceptable way of receiving an identity, rather than crafting one. And many people today are weary of crafting their own custom identity and would very much like to belong to something instead.

It’s not been that long since the most fundamental fact about you was considered to be your family. For most of human history an individual’s life was conditioned by their parents. You lived where your parents lived (likely until death). You worked at what your parents worked. Your marriage was in large part downstream from your parents’ relationships and community. You were born into a religion, you were born into a value system, and you would born into a social fabric.

When most of us hear this description of the past we drop down on our knees and thank God that unlike our pre-liberal ancestors, we are not consigned to a pre-written fate. Every Disney film ever made is at some point a story about a person remaking themselves into their own image, getting out from under the restrictive and unfeeling expectations of their family. That’s the kind of story that resonates with Western people who feel their individuality keenly.

You won’t find me arguing that upward mobility is a bad thing, or that people should have no option to improve their life. But something is definitely lost to our humanity when the only identity available to us is one we have to tirelessly craft. There’s something in most of us that tells us that to belong and to be received is better than self-determination. It’s not an accident that The Rise of Skywalker, in its pursuit of fan satisfaction, essentially re-wrote the story of Rey to give her a family name after all. After spending two films arguing that Rey’s anonymity was immaterial and that she could build her own identity through her actions, the filmmakers end the ill-fated trilogy with a scene in which Rey assumes the last name Skywalker. To belong is better than to self-determine.

I wonder then if personality profiling is a kind of refuge for those of us who’ve been catechized in hyper-individuality. A finite amount of Enneagram numbers means that you really can belong to a group. Who you are is not opaque, it is discoverable. Maybe there’s something deep within Western people that craves the kind of self-knowledge that comes from outside rather than inside. Weary of curating our own sense of self, sometimes we just need to be assigned a number and know who we are.